THE GOBLINS COME FOR US IN the early-morning hours, the heavy cloud cover blocking both moon and stars, rendering them all but invisible. The ertl warns us, its piercing chirp waking us instantly. Harrow and I, lying next to each other in bed, roll out and stand silently facing each other.
Goblins, again. At first it was a surprise; now it is business as usual. You would think we would be done with Goblin intrusions. We thought we had sent the last of them packing almost two years ago—just before the Human invasion led by my father. The invasion that my mother put an end to. Yet here they are, returned once more. Five times in two months.
It was frightening in my early days in Viridian Deep; now it is mostly an annoyance. We don’t even know what they are trying to do or what they want. It was me they wanted in the old days. They came for me twice then—sent once by my mother and once by my father. But that is the distant past. My birth parents are both dead, and there were no Goblin threats after.
Until now, when suddenly they’ve started up again.
But why? What is the point of coming after us now? Who is responsible for these most recent intrusions?
The front door creaks slightly as it opens—something Harrow engineered to give us warning after the first two nighttime visits. The ertl is a further safeguard, and a more reliable one. You can sleep through the creaking of a door, but you cannot sleep through the chirp of an ertl.
The ertl is a forest bird, but it can be domesticated and trained to perform simple functions. This, as it happens, is one of Harrow’s specialties. It took him less than two weeks to turn the ertl into an early warning system, and it has paid off. We now keep the bird caged in the house each night, and three times has it alerted us to these Goblin attacks—including tonight’s. Goblins have been enemies of the Sylvans since forever, and Harrow and I know them well.
Though perhaps I know them better, for I did spend five years in a Goblin prison.
We creep over to our closed bedroom door and stand waiting patiently. We have trained rigorously for moments like these. We know without any communication what we need to do. The front door closes and soft, cautious footsteps approach our hiding place. They must believe we are sleeping. You would think they might have learned better by now.
I look over at Harrow. His deep-green skin is striped with shadows, and the tiny leaves that grow in his hair are rumpled as if knocked about by a strong wind. Rats’ nest. I mouth the words so he can read them on my lips, remembering the term from my time in the Goblin prison. He touches his hair in response and then points to my head. I reach up to find my leafy locks as tousled as his. The momentary look he gives me is one of irritation. His patience with these invasions is at an end. I nod my understanding. Another day, another infestation of Goblins.
We considered moving to a different residence to discourage these incursions, but this has been my home since the first day Harrow found me in the wastelands—an almost twenty-year-old girl who had managed to survive for twelve days with almost no food or water. It was Harrow who first told me of the existence of the Fae and suggested that I might be one of them—even though I did not look it. It was Harrow who later took me back to the Human world and the city of Harbor’s End to find out the truth—a truth so horrendous that it nearly destroyed any hopes we harbored for a life together.
But love endures. We loved each other then and we do so now, and we remain committed to the promise we made when we partnered: that this would never change.
Still, so much of my past remains a mystery, so much of who I was before my time in the prisons a dark vacancy in my mind. No amount of effort to discover the truth has uncovered my past; the long stretch between what little I remember of my childhood and my incarceration is a deep empty hole in my life. I have promised myself I will find all that is missing from my memory, but to date I have discovered so little.
And that will not change today.
I focus on Harrow as the footsteps stop at our doorway, and he smiles in quick reassurance. We have been here before. We have survived worse.
The door bursts open, practically ripped from its hinges, and the Goblins surge in. The foremost pair carry nets with which to snare and bind us so we cannot use our weapons, should we have one or two close at hand. Five times they have come at us this way, and they still don’t get it. Regular weapons are unnecessary. We have our inish and we carry that inside us—always at the ready, always just a second’s thought away from surfacing. In this case it doesn’t take even that long, since we already hold it at our fingertips.
The two that follow the net bearers wield blades and axes. They are so certain of themselves, these Goblin intruders, that they exercise little caution. They look neither left nor right, but straight toward the empty bed before they realize the truth. And by then it is too late. Harrow and I have used our inish to propel the rear goblins violently ahead into their companions, so that all four are knocked off balance. By that time Harrow and I are out the bedroom door behind them and charging down the hallway. The front door stands open, and we rush through into the open air.
Here, atop the second level of the tree lane on which our cottage sits—not much more than fifty feet from Ancrow’s house where Ronden now lives with her sisters Ramey and Char—we turn to fight.
It is a deliberate choice, made shortly after the last bunch of Goblins tried to catch us off guard. Why wreck our bedroom when we can deal with the matter outside? Plus, there is more space to maneuver out here, with less chance of being cornered by cottage walls. Not to mention the possibility of someone from the nearby houses coming to our aid. Not that we can’t handle four Goblins easily enough, but with hand-to-hand combat, there is always the risk of something going wrong.
Not that it seems likely to now. The furious Goblins burst back out through the front door and come for us, a disorganized melee armed with nets and blades, but they never get close. Using a combined web of inish we have practiced assembling and casting, Harrow and I scoop the Goblins up and throw them screaming off the elevated walkway. They continue to scream as they tumble away. It is almost a hundred feet to the ground below. When they land, the screams stop.
Maybe I should care about the damage I’ve inflicted—maybe I should feel remorse or regret—but I don’t. I am sick and tired of being hunted, and of the Goblins, both.
But when I turn to Harrow, I find his attention fixed on something else, and I regret my earlier confidence.
Not a dozen feet away stands an armored giant.
This is no exaggeration. The giant is eight feet tall and broad across the shoulders and chest, with huge arms and tree-trunk legs. It is encased in metal—and I’m not talking just armor plating. No, what covers this beast is more on the order of a second skin— a formfitting, flexible coating that I can tell would shimmer and reflect in the light. I have never seen anything like it. If this being has a face, I cannot tell. A helmet encases its head, hiding its features entirely. Black light flickers from behind an opaque faceplate, as if something liquid is contained within.
Strangely, it carries no weapons. Its arms hang loose; its hands are empty. There are no blades strapped to its body. But its size alone is intimidating, so I suppose that makes some sense. What does something this large need with weapons?
Harrow and I exchange a look. The giant has squared off with him, meaning Harrow is the one it thinks the more dangerous. Little does it know. If we have to fight, I will change its mind quickly enough.
We wait for its attack, but it just stands there. Where did it come from? I don’t remember seeing it when we rushed from the cottage. Is it allied with the Goblins? I think it must be, yet it seems not to know what it should do next.
I watch its head move slightly as its gaze travels from Harrow to me, and now I can sense it looking at me more closely. As it does, something odd happens. Almost as if it is startled, it takes a step back. I read all this from one small movement, and yet I am certain I am not mistaken.
“What do we do now?” I ask Harrow quietly.
He shakes his head, then takes a step away from me. As he does, the giant moves with him—a clear indication it will not allow us to get past. Well, at least we know one reason it is standing there. I take a step in the other direction, but the giant doesn’t respond. It has indeed chosen to focus on Harrow rather than me. I should be grateful—and I am. But I am also oddly irritated to be seen as less of a threat.
A burst of activity from Ancrow’s house catches our attention. The front door flies open and Char appears, rushing to the rescue once more. Her thick mane of leafy hair is flying out behind her as she pelts toward us with a stout cudgel in hand. I admire my little sister’s pluck, but despair at her lack of caution. Once before, when I first came to Viridian Deep, she charged to my rescue in a foolish display of bravado and love. That time I was able to save her. This time I don’t know if I will be.
When she sees the giant, she skids to a stop at once, the cudgel lowering as she realizes what confronts us. Then, “You get away!” she shouts, raising the cudgel once more, demonstrating her determination to take action. “Get away right now!”
Where in the world, I wonder, are Ronden and Ramey? How are they managing to sleep through all this? As I glance about, I wonder the same about all the residents bedded down in the darkened homes surrounding the square. No one has appeared. Are they all such sound sleepers? Or do they simply think it unwise to interfere?
“Char,” Harrow says in his calm, measured way, “go back inside, please. Let us handle this.”
The giant seems content to let that happen. It has barely glanced at Char since her emergence and doesn’t bother to do so now as she slowly backs away toward her house. I glance again at the other houses for some indication of help but find nothing. It seems that Harrow and I will need to manage this threat alone.
If there even is a threat. Thus far, the giant hasn’t approached us; it just seems intent on blocking our path. I take a moment to consider why. The elevated tree lane continues to wind through the old growth toward the west end of the city, past a scattering of houses that sit mostly to one side.
One of which is Ancrow’s, into which Char has just disappeared.
Suddenly I realize what is happening.
“Char!” I scream, and rush forward.
Harrow is a step behind me, and it is he that the giant continues to evaluate, ignoring me completely. My inish is already gathered, so I send every bit of power I can summon hammering into the giant, but the creature barely reacts, as if my strike were no more than a bothersome breeze. I scream at Harrow to run, to find help, but he ignores me and advances on the giant. When the two collide, the sound is audible. Harrow gives his best, but the giant is too much for him, breaking his grip and shoving him aside. Then it comes for me. For something this huge, it is amazingly quick. It is on me before I can reach Ancrow’s house, its huge arms drawing me into its grasp. But Ronden’s lessons on overpowering a stronger foe have stayed with me and I use my inish to spray the planking in a wide slick that takes the giant’s feet out from under it the moment it touches me. It topples and skids away in a thrashing heap—though it does not follow the first Goblins off the tree lane.
Still, this gives me enough time to reach Ancrow’s house and rush inside. Ronden lies unconscious in the hallway and Ramey pounds on the closet door from inside. Goblins have hold of Char and are hauling her toward the doorway in which I stand. I am debating how to stop them when huge hands grab me from behind and lift me off the floor. The giant has me, and the Goblins rush past us with Char in their grip. I see the fear in her eyes.
Then all three are out the door and gone.
I try to use my inish to break free, but the giant has been paying attention. One hand holds both of mine locked together while the other covers my mouth. It looks into my eyes, studying me. No, not just studying me. Identifying me.
This creature knows me!
I stare back. “Who are you?” I snap.
But the giant simply sets me aside—almost gently—and goes out the door after the Goblins, swiftly disappearing over the side of the tree lane. I scramble up and rush after it, almost colliding with Harrow as he arrives in the door. Without speaking he points to where the giant leapt off the pathway, and we charge over to look down. We catch just a glimpse of it disappearing into the darkness, accelerating so quickly it is gone almost instantly.
“Char!” I scream and start in the direction I think the Goblins have taken. Harrow starts to follow, but I shout over my shoulder, “No! Go back! Ronden needs you! Don’t worry about me!”
He hesitates, but then turns around and I tear down the nearest stairs after Char’s captors. The giant must have been with them; there is no other explanation for its behavior. It will follow them, so I must go after it. I do this without stopping to consider what I am risking. How can I not? This is Char we are talking about. Char, for whom I would do anything.
Once at ground level, I turn into the darkness where the giant disappeared. It is so quick; I am not sure I can catch it. But if it is with the Goblins, it will have to slow down. Goblins are strong but slow moving. What I will do once I catch them remains to be seen, but I will have to come up with something—especially if the giant is with them.
As I run, I remember how the creature looked at me as if it knew me. But I have never encountered anything like it—or at least, not that I recall. Which might be the crux of the issue. Though I have learned a lot about myself in the past two years, I still don’t recall more than fragments of my past before I entered the Goblin prison. Still, it doesn’t look to be Fae and it is certainly not Human. I can think of no one and nothing I have encountered that might fit the description.
Yet it seems to know me. It doesn’t make sense.
I push on through the network of buildings and shops that is Viridian Deep, farther into darkness until no artificial lights are visible and the only illumination that guides me comes from the moon and stars, now revealed as the cloud cover lifts. I have not yet caught sight of those I track, but my instincts—which I have come to trust implicitly—tell me they are not far ahead. I skirt a series of small ponds and head toward a broad stretch of heavily wooded hills. There are Goblin settlements north of where the Sylvan territory ends, but all of them are miles off, and I doubt that Char’s kidnappers intend to travel all night. More likely, they will stop to rest a little farther on—perhaps no more than another few miles.
It grows more isolated and lonelier, and I find myself wishing Harrow had accompanied me after all. But I couldn’t let him leave an unconscious Ronden behind, with Ramey locked in a closet.
I reflect briefly on my family, and how close we have all become. We were kindred spirits from the start—even before we knew we were related by blood or adoption. Ronden and I are half sisters and the only blood children of Ancrow, while the younger girls are adopted—and Harrow, too, although he didn’t know it until my arrival turned his world upside down. But even in the midst of that chaos, Harrow was my rock, and the girls were my champions. When Ancrow died, we bonded even more tightly. Ronden moved home to stay with Ramey and Char while Harrow and I, now partnered, remained in the cottage down the lane.
But still, there was one thing that kept me separated from them, and that was my physical appearance—for I looked completely Human. Or I did, until right after Harrow and I pledged at Promise Falls. Then my hair, sleek and dark, began to take on a greenish tint, little leaves blossomed among the strands, and my feeling of alienation lessened. Since then, I have begun to assume further Sylvan characteristics. Now my skin is changing from Human olive to Sylvan pine. My hair has begun to sprout more of those soft tiny leaves that always make me want to run my fingers through Harrow’s locks, and the undersides of my arms and the insides of my legs have exhibited a steady growth of short fringe from shoulders to wrists and thighs to feet.
I am not entirely altered; further change will take more time. Or maybe I am already as Sylvan as my body will allow—whether that be from my half-Human heritage, or because of whatever my adoptive father’s medicines might have messed with, in his efforts to keep me looking Human and safe in a world hostile to the Fae.
One day, I tell myself, I will know. One day I will know everything.
I have reached the boundary of the city, and I pause to see if there is any indication of where to go next, but I have lost the trail. I stand rooted in place as the darkness looms ahead, trying to figure out what to do next. I should go back. I should find Harrow and return in daylight to track the Goblins and the giant when I can see evidence of their passing. But I dislike the idea of giving up.
Just a little farther, I think. Char is depending on me. I will walk another mile and then turn back and begin again when the night fades.
I set out once more, searching out anything that will confirm I am on the right track. I work my way deeper into the trees, catching a glimpse of an owl as it flies past and listening to the distant sounds of night birds hunting. But I can see no traces of the Goblin trail. Either I have missed a sign or I have misinterpreted what my instincts told me earlier. I have to give up for tonight. I have to turn back.
Yet when I attempt to do so, I find myself face-to-face with the giant.
It blocks my way like a wall, staring down at me. My heart is in my throat. How did it manage to get so close without me knowing?
I consider running but know I won’t make it past the first two steps. And as I hesitate, the giant picks me up like a toy and holds me in front of its concealed face.
Again, I am being studied, examined in a way that suggests familiarity. Its head cocks one way and then the other, and it moves me close to its faceplate. I cannot see inside, but I can feel its eyes on me.
A deep rumbling rises up from within. “Auris?”
I stare in shock. It does recognize me. It knows me.
“Auris?” it asks again.
And suddenly, I know that voice. Something about it . . . Something is familiar . . .
But it can’t be.
Daughter of Darkness, the sequel to Child of Light, will publish October 4th. Pre-order your copy now!