But first ye’ll let the black gae by,
And then ye’ll let the brown;
Then I’ll ride on a milk-white steed,
You’ll pull me to the ground.
—Tam Lin, Child Ballad version #39C
Donna Underwood had been back in Ironbridge for all of five minutes when the iron tattoos that curled around her hands and forearms began to ache.
Those tattoos—the magic that marked her as something more than human—were currently hidden beneath a slightly travel-worn pair of sapphire velvet gloves. She shivered and resisted the urge to take them off so she could make sure the iron was behaving itself and lying still against her flesh. Sometimes it moved, although that hadn’t happened in a while.
Donna scanned the small crowd going about their business at Ironbridge’s Central Bus Station. Surely there wasn’t anything fey she needed to watch out for—she’d just staggered off the bus after the ride from Boston’s Logan Airport, and there was way too much iron in the environment for anything to survive. Well, not without some serious power.
Her best friend, Navin Sharma, strolled over to rejoin her. His arms were full of snacks and water bottles and… a motorcycle magazine. Of course.
Donna raised her eyebrows. “Most people buy the provisions before the bus ride.”
“I’m an outlier,” Nav said, totally deadpan. “I’d rather spend two hours being bored and hungry, then stock up as soon as we get home.”
Home. Donna smiled at that thought. The town of Ironbridge had been home for a long time—for both of them—but the past two months had been spent traveling around Europe and acting the part of Normal Teenagers. It made a change, that was for sure. And Donna had figured she deserved some time out after saving the world.
Navin bumped her with his shoulder. “What are you grinning about, Underwood?”
“I guess I’m just happier to be home than I thought I would be.”
“Hmm… That wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain Wingless Wonder, would it?”
Donna shook her head and tried to look disapproving at her friend’s usual nickname for Xan—Alexander Grayson, the guy she’d maybe-sort-of-loved, before he returned to his birth father’s realm. Before she had decided that she needed some serious downtime to learn how to live her life, rather than simply just to survive it.
“No,” she said, realizing that Navin was actually waiting for a reply. “Xan’s not here anymore, remember?”
Their paths had taken them on different journeys, at least for now. Who knows what the future holds for either of us, Donna thought. Right? Of course, it would have been nice to have heard from him in all this time.
She sighed and massaged her left wrist, hoping that the magical iron had settled again.
Navin brushed his artfully messy black hair out of his face. “He was only visiting with Cathal. I didn’t think he’d made a decision about permanently moving to Faerie.”
“I guess not.”
“It’s a shame we can’t contact him,” Navin continued. “We could have invited him to your party.”
“I’m not having a party and you know it.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t care about any of that stuff.”
He reorganized some of his luggage and then hefted the heavy backpack into a more comfortable position. “You’ll change your mind. And I hate to point this out, but Nisha will probably change it for you.”
His wicked grin caused Donna to stick out her tongue in a very mature, almost-eighteen-year-old gesture. Nisha, Nav’s younger sister, apparently had grand designs on a career in executive party planning. Or something. Donna shuddered just thinking about it. Thankfully, Nisha was staying with friends for the weekend.
Navin put his arm round her, clearly undeterred. “Chin up, Don. You don’t turn eighteen every day.”
Donna shrugged out of his grasp. “You turned eighteen while we were in Prague.”
“Right,” he said, his tone easy. “And your mom took us out for an awesome dinner.”
“Right,” she replied. “And if I recall, you spent most of the night talking to a girl at the table next to ours.”
“Hey, now. I can’t help it if I’m irresistible.”
“Of course not, whatever was I thinking?”
“And I got her number,” Navin said, clearly pleased with himself. “The laydeez love me.”
“Did you even call her?” Donna knew perfectly well that he hadn’t. For all his big talk, Nav was super shy when it came to the laydeez.
Not giving him a chance to reply, Donna grabbed her bag and started making for the exit. She forced herself not to look back despite the tingling at the base of her spine. There was nothing to bother them here—not any more. A surprising truce was in place between the two major fey races, and Ironbridge had finally settled back into a more ordinary existence after centuries of being the focus of so much otherworldly activity. Even the alchemists were reorganizing and scaling back on their secret operations.
Winter had long since given way to Spring, and the crisp New England air brought another smile to Donna’s face. The wide expanse of sky was as blue as she had ever seen it. Everything was peaceful, beautiful.
She walked quickly, her sneakers crunching gravel underfoot as she glanced up at the tall buildings making jagged silhouettes against the sky.
Something was wrong, and the bone-deep ache in her wrists confirmed it. Something Other was causing ice to jab her palms; the familiar prickle of faery magic was like an electric current through her alchemist-forged tattoos.
Donna stopped beside a street sign and turned, slowly, to see who—or what—was following them.
There was nothing suspicious. Just regular people doing regular things, and Navin hurrying to catch up to her.
She frowned. If everything really was so wonderful, then why was she so damn jumpy?
That night, Donna awoke to a sharp tapping against glass.
The room was bathed in shadow, but she could still make out the familiar outlines of Navin’s furniture. For a moment she wondered if she had dreamt the sound, but then it came again—louder this time, cutting through the silence of the Sharma house. She was staying with Navin and his father for a couple of nights, just until her mother returned from Europe.
Donna jumped out of bed and ran to the window, almost falling backward with astonishment when she realized that a tiny figure was peering in at her.
It was a faery, but not the kind she was used to dealing with—not human sized and handsome and wearing armor. This creature was like something out of a Disney movie, and she didn’t look too happy about the fact that Donna still hadn’t opened the window.
The little female rapped at the glass again, and Donna realized that she was using a pebble, approximately the size of her tiny head, in order to generate enough sound. The faery had both hands wrapped around the stone, and her iridescent wings flapped furiously in an effort to stay balanced on the window ledge.
Donna forced herself to move, putting her surprise firmly to one side as she unlatched the window and ushered the creature inside.
“About time,” the faery said, in a voice that might have been more threatening if it wasn’t so high pitched. She dropped the pebble with a dramatic sigh, and it hit Donna’s bare foot.
“Ouch!” She glared at the tiny creature. “You did that on purpose.”
“Did not,” came the grumpy reply. “I couldn’t hold it any longer.”
Donna wasn’t convinced, but she took a moment to close the window securely while she regained her composure. Then she switched on Navin’s desk lamp in order to get a better look at her unexpected visitor.
The faery had a fiercely pretty face: nut brown skin, giant green eyes, and a sharply pointed nose. Her short hair was spiked, punk-rock style, and generously streaked with silver and purple. She looked more modern than anything Donna had seen in (or out of) Faerie. Donna was tempted to make a joke about her visitor having a ‘pixie cut,’ but judging by the expression of disapproval on the faery’s face, she thought better of it.
“You’re Donna Underwood?” she asked, looking Donna up and down like she was something particularly nasty.
Donna crossed her arms and stared back. “Yes.”
“The Iron Witch?”
“I hate that you people still call me that,” Donna sighed. “It’s stupid.”
“You’re stupid,” the faery shrilled. “Big and stupid, like all humans.”
Donna raised her eyebrows. “Don’t hold back, will you? What’s your name?”
“Call me Gull.” The colorful creature nodded, as though confirming the fact to herself. “Yes. Gull.”
“Gull,” Donna repeated, trying to make sense of her uninvited guest. “How are you even here? Doesn’t all the iron in town make you sick? Did someone send you?”
“You must come with me,” Gull said, waving away Donna’s questions. “Immediately!”
“Oh, really? Even though I’m big and stupid?”
“No time for this. No time, no time.” The creature chanted it, like a mantra. Like she had to hold onto the words to keep herself focused on what needed to be done.
“Where do you want to take me?” Donna figured she might as well play along. If this was a trap, it didn’t look like one pint-sized faery could do all that much to her in Navin’s house.
“Speak of the devil…” Donna muttered.
Nav burst through the door in a white t-shirt and baggy blue pajama pants. “Who are you talking to?” He stopped and stared at the tiny creature buzzing around Donna’s head.
“Oh,” he said.
“Don’t you knock?” Donna asked.
“It’s my room.”
“And I’m sleeping in it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You should be grateful. I have to sleep with Nisha’s One Direction posters staring down at me.” He shuddered. “It’s creepy.”
Gull flew toward him and hovered just short of his nose.
Navin went cross-eyed trying to focus on her. He gave up and gestured helplessly at Donna. “This is pretty creepy, too. Who is she?”
The faery buzzed a full circle around his head.
“Stop that!” He tried to bat her away with his hands.
Gull hissed, showing a surprising mouthful of tiny, shark-like teeth.
Nav recoiled, throwing a horrified look at Donna. “What’s going on? Who the heck is this?”
“Don’t be rude,” Gull snapped. “Humans are all so rude.”
Donna rolled her eyes. “Don’t start that again. Just tell us why you’re here. You said you wanted me to come with you… Where?”
Gull landed on top of Navin’s computer monitor and put her hands on her hips. Her forest-green bodysuit and shiny black boots made her look like a tiny soldier. “To Faerie, of course! Now, Donna Underwood. No time to lose—you must come now!”
Nav moved beside Donna. “She doesn’t have to do anything you say.”
“At least,” Donna said, “not until you tell me why.”
The little faery’s wings vibrated, making silvery patterns in the half light. Her shoulders drooped, as though the burden of her mission had suddenly become too much.
“Because Alexander Grayson is going to die,” she declared. “And you’re the only one who can save him.”
Shock, suspicion, worry… all these things coursed through Donna at a terrifying rate, but she did her best to hold back the flood of emotion.
“What are you talking about? Xan is with his father. Cathal would never let anything—”
“Cathal is the reason I am here,” shrilled the faery. She wrung her hands, and those disturbingly oversized eyes blinked rapidly in what Donna interpreted as genuine fear. “There is nothing he can do anymore. We need your help!”
“You have to give me more to go on, Gull.” Donna held up her hand to stop what she figured was about to be another stream of impatient pleas. “Just give me the short version.”
Gull sat on top of the computer monitor, swinging her legs in agitation as she spoke. “There is another race of faeries that you probably don’t know about—at least, not outside of legend. They have many names, but the most commonly used translates as ‘the Silver Fey’ in your tongue. Not many of them remain, but they are powerful and live a secluded life in the mountainous regions of Faerie.”
Donna sat on the edge of bed. Navin leaned against the door, arms folded, eyeing the faery with suspicion.
“Go on,” Donna prodded. “I thought you were in a hurry.”
Gull huffed, but didn’t argue. “Her Majesty, Isolde, will receive representatives of the Silver Fey in a ceremony that takes place tomorrow night, when the moon is at its highest. It is a very great honor—an occasion that the Queen has waited a long time for. There is talk of an alliance. I have even heard whispers of a marriage!”
Donna almost smiled at the excited expression that suddenly flashed across Gull’s face. It looked like faeries weren’t above a bit of juicy gossip.
“Who’s getting married?” Navin asked.
The tiny creature’s translucent wings buzzed, but she stayed seated. “Queen Isolde and the leader of the Silver Fey, of course. But it is just talk.” She shrugged, suddenly deflated. “None of that matters. The only important thing to know is that there will be a… an offering. A gift of some kind, to honor the coming of the Silver Fey.”
Donna leaned forward, her throat dry. “And that gift will be..?”
Gull’s wings stilled. “A life, Donna Underwood. Our Queen is bringing back the Tithe, and the sacrifice will be Alexander.”
“Why?” Donna hadn’t realized how tightly clenched her hands were until her nails dug into the palms hard enough to draw blood. “What possible reason could she have to hurt Xan?”
“It is… complicated.” The little face turned away, looking genuinely conflicted. “I am not at liberty to discuss that, but you will find answers if you come with me.”
Navin snorted. “That’s convenient.”
Donna briefly considered forcing answers out of the faery, but what would that achieve other than bad feeling and lost time?
“Will you come back with me, Donna Underwood?” Gull asked.
“Of course I will.” Xan was in danger. What other choice was there?
Gull watched Donna, but she didn’t say anything. Perhaps she hadn’t really believed that a daughter of the alchemists would actually help. Perhaps she was just figuring out their next move.
Navin showed no such restraint. He marched over to the bed.
“What are you doing?” he asked, fixing Donna with a fierce expression. “You know this is probably a trap! And anyway, we only just got back home. What happened to wanting a normal life?”
“I do want that,” she replied. “I want it more than anything.”
Navin spread his hands, his whole body language communicating: duh?!
Donna sighed. “Xan needs my help. I can’t just turn my back on him.”
“Sure,” Nav said, barely suppressed anger vibrating in his tone. “Because he didn’t turn his back on you.”
“Thanks a lot,” Donna said, glaring at him. She hadn’t heard from Xan in over two months, despite his promises that they would maintain contact while she went traveling—and while he spent time with Cathal. “I’m so glad you’re here to remind me of what I already know.”
He bit back a sharp reply, taking his time. “I’m sorry, Don. It’s just that… we’re talking about the fey, here. Since when do you suddenly jump whenever they call?”
Donna grabbed Navin’s hand in hers. “This is Xan we’re talking about, who just happens to be half-fey. And anyway, the faeries and the wood elves all helped us banish the demons—they came through for us when it counted. Doesn’t any of that mean anything to you?”
“I guess it should do,” he said, looking away. “But all I see is how badly they hurt you.”
She nodded, wondering if by ‘they’ he really meant ‘Xan.’ She didn’t want to hear it, not from Nav. Not when her relationship status, and how she dealt with it, was none of his business. “You’re right. The fey took almost everything from me and my family, but that doesn’t mean we just give up. And I won’t let them take anything—or anyone—else.”
Navin met his friend’s gaze again. “I’m just worried about you.”
Donna gave him a quick hug. “I know that, dumbass. That’s why I’m not beating the crap out of you.”
His smile was grim, but at least he hugged her back. “Just be careful.”
“I will.” She looked down at her pajamas. “Now get out, both of you, while I change. And don’t wake Dr. Sharma, or we might as well kiss this rescue mission goodbye.”
Within minutes she was dressed in jeans and sneakers, a jacket thrown over her arm and her chestnut hair tied into a rough ponytail. She briefly contemplated gloves, but decided against them. Where she was going, the last thing she needed was to hide her one true weapon against faeries.
As she left the house, Donna turned back one last time before following Gull out into the night.
Navin saluted her, a silent ghost on the doorstep. He was deeply unhappy at being left behind, but Gull’s borrowed magic could only transport one full-sized person.
“I’ll see you soon,” she called softly, hoping that he’d heard.
She sincerely hoped those words didn’t come back to haunt her.
Donna stepped through the door to Faerie, gritting her teeth against the brutal wave of nausea that threatened to knock her off her feet. Gull flew nervous circles around her head, not exactly helping the state of Donna’s stomach.
“No time to waste,” she trilled. “We can’t be found here.”
Donna winced. “Just give me a moment…”
Warm sunlight bathed her face, the first sign that she certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore. When they’d left Ironbridge, it had been full dark.
Donna straightened up and tried to take in her surroundings. Doors to Faerie were everywhere and nowhere, in the human world. It was one of those contradictions that made no sense, until you just let go of trying to understand it on any kind of human or logical level. She couldn’t open those gateways herself, not anymore—although she had once done so with help. Relying on someone seven-inches tall to convey her across realms hadn’t been the most reassuring experience, but they appeared to have made it in one piece. Well, apart from apparently leaving behind half her stomach.
“I have to take you to him now,” Gull said, her tiny body trembling with impatience. “Hurry!”
“To Xan?” Donna’s heart lifted.
“No,” the tiny faery replied, smiling grimly. “To his father.”
The prison was clean and spartan, and not remotely what Donna had expected. Not that she had really formed a clear image in mind, after Gull had coolly informed her of Cathal’s incarceration. Isolde, the Queen of Faerie, had imprisoned her newly appointed First Knight in a fit of uncharacteristic petulance. At least, that was the way Gull told it.
For a start, the ‘prison’ was mostly deserted. It was more like the idea of what a prison should be… only without the guards.
“Won’t anyone find us here?” Donna whispered to her tiny companion. “Surely Cathal is an important prisoner?”
Gull shook her head. “They don’t need to guard him. He is under enchantment not to try to escape. And,” she continued, with a disdainful look on her face, “even if he wasn’t held by the Queen’s power, he would most likely be foolish enough to stay. Cathal takes his oath of service seriously.”
There was no time for more information, because they had already reached Cathal’s holding cell. The tall faery was every bit as handsome as Donna remembered. ‘Handsome’ is most definitely an understatement, she thought with an internal smile. Cathal was Xan’s birth father, and yet he also seemed like something alien and exotic with his otherworldly features. He was golden skinned and green eyed, with honey-bright hair that flowed past his shoulders in a ridiculous display of beauty. The top part of that hair was secured away from his angular face with green twine, revealing pointed ears in true fairy-tale fashion. He wasn’t wearing his usual armor; just a simple black tunic over leggings.
“Donna,” he greeted her, bowing slightly. “Thank you for coming.”
“This is crazy,” she said, speaking through the narrow silver bars (bars she could very likely break, with a bit of effort). “You don’t deserve to be here at all. What is she thinking?”
“I believe she is not thinking,” Cathal said, drawing himself upright and still somehow managing to look noble despite his incarceration. “My Queen has not been herself since Taran’s passing.”
Donna processed that information, though perhaps it should not have been a surprise. Taran had been Queen Isolde’s previous First Knight—and, it later emerged, her favored consort. Donna couldn’t honestly imagine the saturnine faery knight loving anyone. He had exuded disapproval like a bad aftershave on the rare occasions she’d come into contact with him. Still, love was love. Even among faery nobility.
She dragged her attention back to Cathal. “It’s sad that she lost someone she cared about, but that doesn’t mean she can spend the rest of her time punishing everyone around her.”
Cathal shrugged. “Grief is a powerful emotion, even for those as long lived as the fey.”
“But she’s the Queen. Shouldn’t she be more responsible? She has all that power…”
“Wearing a crown limits just as much as it conveys power.”
“You sound so reasonable about it! Why aren’t you angry?” Donna couldn’t keep the accusation out of her voice. “She’s not only treating you like crap, she’s threatening your son.”
“You know nothing of my anger,” he snapped, eyes flashing familiar emerald fire. She thought of Xan and her heart ached.
He was worried, she knew that much. He must be going out of his mind, stuck in here while Xan’s life was endangered by the whims of a faery queen that nobody could truly know or understand.
“Perhaps I spoke… rashly,” she said, fixing Cathal with a steady gaze. “Forgive me.”
“No,” he replied. “It is you who must forgive me. Queen Isolde does not take kindly to being told ‘no,’ and it is Alexander who is being forced to pay for my… crime. My son is facing death and I can do nothing for him.”
He smashed his fist into the finely wrought bars of his cage. Sparks flew into the air and bright blood sprayed from his split knuckles.
Oookay… Donna took a step back. He was worried and angry. Furious, in fact. He was just good at hiding it.
“Hey,” she said softly. “I don’t honestly know what you’re talking about, but you have done something to help Xan. You sent Gull for me, and you know I’ll do anything I can to free him. I promise.”
Donna did not know how she would achieve such a thing, but she’d figure it out. That was what she did, right?
“Can you at least tell me where this so-called ritual will happen?”
Cathal shrugged. “It is a nameless place, but one that Gull should be able to direct you to.”
Donna glanced at the tiny faery on her shoulder. “You know this place, where the Silver Fey will be arriving? Where the Tithe used to happen?”
Gull nodded, fluttering her wings as though to add emphasis. “Yes. I can take you there, but only as far as the treeline. It is sacred ground—I cannot enter the grove itself. I am not high born enough.”
“Sacred to the fey,” Donna reminded her. “Not to me.”
“When you get there,” Cathal continued, “you will undergo a Test. I cannot say more. I am… restrained.”
He nodded, his face creased with pain.
Donna let out a frustrated breath. “Then how am I supposed to know what to do?”
“I can say this much: remember your folklore. You have a role to play.”
That wasn’t a whole lot of help, but she figured it was probably the best she was going to get. Would it be enough?
Cathal touched her hand through the bars. It surprised her, because Donna wasn’t wearing her gloves and she knew that the more pureblood the faery, the more painful her iron tattoos could be to them.
Cathal gripped her fingers tightly in his own, breathing in sharply as he did so. “You will save my son, Donna Underwood. If you do this, I will do whatever it takes to ensure your safe passage from Faerie.”
Donna swallowed, wondering whether to pull away from his almost painful grip. “How can you do that when you’re stuck in here?”
“Once Gull has taken you to the grove, she will return.” His eyes flicked toward the tiny figure. “Won’t you, Gull?”
She hovered in the air for a moment, then landed back on Donna’s shoulder. “How can I help you? I’m not big enough…”
“Perhaps not,” Cathal replied. “But big doesn’t automatically mean powerful. Size isn’t everything.”
Donna suppressed a smirk, wondering what Navin would have said had he been here. Clearly she was losing her mind to be thinking about that when Xan’s life was in danger, but stress tended to have that effect on her. Humor always helped.
Cathal was speaking low and urgent. “There’s a key in the guard room. You’re big enough to carry that.”
Gull nodded, delight flashing on her usually grumpy face. “I am! And I’m small enough to sneak in there to find it.”
“Good,” Donna said. “Now we have that figured out, I need to get out of here before the guards come back.”
Cathal laughed bitterly. “Oh, I can assure you that they are not worried about supervising me. I cannot act against my Queen—I am bound by magic that even the most powerful alchemist could not break.”
“Then how were you able to summon me?”
“Gull was the one who acted,” he said, with a glint in his eye. “The terms of my incarceration are, like most fey magic, quite literal.”
Donna smiled. “I’m glad you found a loophole.”
“So am I, young Donna. So am I.”
Donna slipped out of the ‘prison’ and hovered in the shadows cast by its gray walls. “Where next?” she whispered. “We need to find somewhere to hide until nightfall.”
Her companion had been hitching a ride on Donna’s shoulder, but all of a sudden the faery took flight with a loud clatter of wings.
“What’s wrong?” Donna swung around, but far too late.
Strong arms grabbed her from behind and threw her forward. A male voice grunted as they hit the ground together, and Donna managed to twist at the last moment so that they shared the force of the fall. She was suddenly glad of all the times Robert Lee had kicked her butt on the training mats in London last year.
She used her attacker’s momentum against him, completed the move and rolled so that she was on top. Pinning his wrists with the full strength in her arms, she straddled his athletic body and gazed into familiar eyes.
She looked down into the face of the person she’d just grappled with, and all the air whooshed out of her. He might as well have slammed her to the ground again.
“Xan,” she whispered.
They scrambled to their feet, and Donna put a little distance between them so she could catch her breath.
Seeing Xan for the first time in what felt like too long… Donna’s emotions were all over the place, even more so than she had expected. He smiled and she almost lost it. She wanted to kiss him so badly, it felt like someone had punched her in the chest. Then she remembered that she was angry with him, and decided that maybe she should just punch him in the chest.
His eyes seemed greener than ever, and his caramel hair had grown. She wanted to touch it, to see if it felt the same as she remembered. The fey sword and scabbard hanging from his belt were new, but they suited him. Considering what was gong on for him here—the danger he was in—he looked at ease in his skin. Maybe being in Faerie suited him. Well, apart from the whole about-to-be-sacrificed thing.
“Hey,” she said, tamping down on the urge to throw herself back into his arms.
“Hey,” he said. His smile disappeared as he sensed her reserve. “Sorry about that. I didn’t realize it was you. Are you okay?”
Donna rubbed her hip where she’d bruised it on the ground. She didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what to say, and anyway there was an inconvenient lump in her throat.
Xan took a step forward. “It’s good to see you, Donna.”
“Really? That’s nice. You seem pretty laid back for someone about to be murdered.” Apparently Donna had found her voice. It sounded uncharacteristically snarky, even to her.
He grimaced. “These are my oh-so-dramatic last hours of freedom—I was hoping to see Cathal, see if we could figure out a plan.”
“We already did that,” Donna said. “Well, as much as possible—considering the enchantment he’s under.”
Xan nodded. “Yeah, the Queen sure did a number on him.”
“And on you.”
He nodded again. “I know.”
Donna knew she should be focusing on helping him—she knew, deep down, that this wasn’t the time or place for an airing of grievances. But her heart just wouldn’t allow her to go on without saying something.
“What happened to you?” she asked. “Where have you been?”
Xan’s eyebrows raised, clearly taken off guard by her anger. “I’ve been right here. You knew that…”
“But you promised to stay in touch!”
He flashed an uncertain smile. “Faerie isn’t exactly set up for Skype sessions, and my phone doesn’t work here. But I was figuring it out. Cathal was going to help me—”
“It’s been two months.” She tried—and failed—to keep the reproach out of her voice.
Xan’s smile slid from his face. “What?”
“Actually, it’s been longer than that, Xan.” Donna took a step toward him, closing the distance again. “More than two months, and I haven’t heard a word. I sent emails and text messages. I didn’t know you weren’t getting any of them—how was I supposed to know that? I thought you’d cross back to our world to check in with me, if that’s what it took. I thought you cared! I thought—”
Xan grabbed her shoulders, gently but firmly. “Stop. Please, just wait a second.” His eyes were wide and he looked pale. “I’m still trying to get my head around two months. I’ve been here two weeks.”
“Not from where I was standing.”
“You went travelling with Sharma,” Xan said. His voice was low, urgent. “I figured you’d be set for a couple weeks at least, while you got used to that and just… enjoyed yourself. You deserved that, after everything you’d been through. I figured I’d have time to make arrangements for getting in touch. I never, for one minute, imagined that time was moving differently here.”
Donna felt sick to her stomach. Two months for her, two weeks for Xan. There was quite a difference. She believed that he hadn’t known, but she still felt annoyed that he hadn’t guessed. Was that unfair?
“But that can happen in Faerie, right?” she pressed him. “Maybe you should have taken that into account.”
“I swear to you, Donna. I missed you for every day of those two weeks. I don’t regret my decision to come here, because I knew I had to spend time with Cathal—I had to explore that part of my heritage. My… life. You know? But I can only imagine what you must have been thinking.” He shook his head. “Two months…”
“Well,” Donna said, trying to smile. “You don’t have to imagine, do you? I’m telling you now, and it’s not like I held back.”
He didn’t smile. Honestly, he looked pretty devastated.
Donna took hold of his hands, trying to adjust to this new reality. Xan hadn’t just ignored her, after all. “I wouldn’t put it past Isolde to have done this on purpose,” she said. “To get at us somehow. Or perhaps to get at your father through you. That’s her style, isn’t it?”
Xan frowned, but he didn’t say anything to deny it.
Donna blew out a breath. “But what have you been doing all this time?”
“Spending time with Cathal. Trying to figure out… where I belong.”
With me, Donna wanted to say. You belong with me. But she knew that was crazy talk because she’d missed him so much. Two months was still two months, and who knew where either of them really belonged.
She nodded, trying to remember why she was here: to help him. And it wasn’t like they’d made each other longterm promises. They were going to just wait and see—Donna had made a point of reminding Xan how young she was. How young they both were. She’d thought they had plenty of time.
Time, it turned out, that Queen Isolde could manipulate at will when it came to her own realm.
Xan’s face was as serious as she had ever seen it. “I should have thought about contacting you sooner, even in those first two weeks. I know that. It’s just that… when I’m here, in Faerie, everything feels so simple. So… peaceful.”
Donna put her hands on her hips. “Your dad’s in prison and you’re about to be sacrificed. How’s that peace working out for you?”
“Not so well,” Xan replied, looking at the ground.
“It’s not easy for me either,” he said in a tired voice. “I have a foot in each world.”
“And you think I don’t?”
“No, I know you do. But your worlds are different from mine.”
True enough. Donna could never claim to belong in Faerie—not when she had cold iron tattooed onto her hands and arms. Her touch burned pure-blood fey. She would never, ever, belong here. But did that mean she could never belong with Xan? Her touch didn’t hurt him, something she was always grateful for.
Donna gave him a quick smile. None of this was really his fault, she reminded herself. It was just… upsetting, having to process so much new information. She’d spent the last couple months feeling hurt, only to find out that Xan thought a matter of days had passed. Now it was time to focus on the real problem: the Tithe, and the coming of the Silver Fey.
“I’m going to speak to the Queen,” she said. “Where will I find her?”
Xan shook his head. “Just like that?”
“Yes. Why not? Isn’t that why I’m here?”
Gull chose that moment to fly down from her hiding place. “Cathal said to wait until tonight. The grove—”
“The grove can wait,” Donna snapped. “I can’t. And neither can Xan. His life depends on this, right? Well, what if I can stop it from happening at all? I’ve bargained with Isolde before, which means I can do it again.”
She didn’t feel half as certain as she sounded, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was taking action.
Xan tried to slow her down, but Donna wasn’t having any of it.
She continued ahead by herself, leaving him to his reunion with Gull. The tiny faery’s squeals were so loud Donna thought the entire realm must know they were here by now. She sighed. It didn’t really matter anymore, did it?
She could see the end of the pathway through the trees, but bright sunlight dazzled her too completely to allow her to make out what lay beyond.
She heard Xan jogging to catch up to her, but she wasn’t in the mood to deal with his concerns right now so she quickened her pace. The tunnel of trees opened into a meadow, reminding Donna of her first time in this realm. The grass was so green it looked painted from an impossible palette, and the warm afternoon sun bathed everything in golden light. In the distance, if she squinted hard enough, she could make out what looked like a fairy-tale palace on top of a hill.
“Really?” she said, turning to Xan. “That’s where Queen Isolde lives?”
“She likes the finer things,” he replied.
“Have you been there?”
“Once. Cathal presented me to the court, and they agreed that I could stay for a while. Her Majesty hardly spoke, but it’s not as though I’m anyone of importance to her. I’m just a half blood.”
A sudden breeze blew Donna’s hair back from her face. “So how do we get in?”
“First,” he said, “we need to deal with the welcoming committee.”
“What welcoming com—?”
Three fully-armed knights of Faerie materialized in front of them.
“Oh,” Donna said. “That welcoming committee.”