Chapter 1 – Across the Wall
When I reached the wall, I wondered if maybe—probably—this was a terrible idea. I squeezed the knife tucked into my belt. It wasn’t a dagger—it was far too crude for that‚ but it was iron.
In a country where iron was illegal, and for a woman about to cross the wall into faerie, it was worth more than all the gold in the kingdom.
The wall itself didn’t look like much, just craggy hewn rock some seven feet tall, grey and blotched with yellow and white lichen. The stories Ari’s papa used to tell us said it was infused with iron to keep the fae from crossing over.
It hadn’t stopped that fae lord from coming and taking her, had it?
Last night, as he’d stood over us, ready to take her, she’d looked up at me tears in her eyes together with desperation.
I knew she saw tall, strong Rose, her protector and friend. But I couldn’t save her. All I’d had were words. I only hoped they weren’t empty ones.
“I’ll find you.” I’d whispered it to her, and now I said it out loud.
This time the wall was the only audience to my promise.
I had the iron knife, a steel dagger, and food. On a whim, I’d grabbed a small sack of flour. Stories spoke of invisible creatures beyond the wall, and I figured a handful of flour would reveal any such beasts. I’d managed to scrounge an old tent from one of the market-sellers, and I’d pulled out the little pouch of coins that I was saving towards a second dagger.
Saving Ari was more important.
She had no one else. She needed me.
That thought circling, I squared my shoulders and placed my hands on the wall.
Cold. Hard. Rough grain under my fingers. It felt like any other stone wall. I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d been expecting—a magical barrier pushing me back perhaps—but not normality.
This adventure was getting off to a good start.
Grinning, I dug my fingers into craggy handholds and climbed up. The wall was so old and the stones so rough with no mortar in between, I scaled it in moments and lifted my head for my first glimpse of faerie.
The sky over Alba—or Elfhame as the fae called it—continued clear and blue, the sun edging towards noon. Scrubby grassland rolled away across the hills, and dark woodland pooled in a valley ahead, creeping up the slope beyond.
It didn’t look so different from Albion. Maybe the stories were all exaggeration.
Admittedly, the fae lord who’d taken Ari had made her disappear in a puff of darkness, and I’d never heard of a human doing such a thing.
But I had iron.
I got the blade from the wise woman who lived on the edge of Briarbridge, the one whose house we always ran past as kids. I went to her at first light, and she understood why I wanted protection from the fae and didn’t want to leave my friend at their mercy. She pulled up a wonky old floorboard and gave me the blade with the words, “Iron cuts through flesh. Iron cuts through fae. Iron cuts through lies.”
Good luck to the fae who came between me and Ari.
Iron was hard, but my determination was harder. I wouldn’t give up until she was safe.
Left and right, I cracked my neck, then patted the iron blade. “Here goes.” I swung my leg over the top of the wall and jumped down.
I landed in Elfhame.
Sun overhead. Grass and mud underfoot. It didn’t feel any different to home.
As I adjusted my pack and started north, no vines tried to grab my feet, no fae monsters leapt out to attack; there was only me and the spring day.
With each step, clouds gathered overhead. By twenty yards, snow began to fall, thick and white.
I pulled my cloak closer, fingering the oak leaves embroidered down the front. Ari had sewn it, whispering magic into the stitches. And as I walked on, huge flakes of snow flecking the green wool and melting in my strawberry blond hair, I didn’t feel the cold. She’d spelled it with warmth.
“Bad luck, Elfhame. You’re going to have to do better than a bit of snow to keep me out.”
Honestly? I wasn’t sure anything could keep me away. Not when Ari needed me.
I pulled up my hood, smiled into the breeze, and pretended the white dusting on the ground was flour, just like at home.
Ma and Pa would’ve realised I was gone hours ago, when I didn’t show up to help finish the morning’s loaves and cakes and open the shop. They’d struggle wrangling my twelve brothers and sisters without me; it left a bitter taste in my mouth as I crunched through the fresh snow.
But I’d let that fae bastard take Ari, and that was a far, far worse flavour on my tongue. Sour and acidic like bile, burning even when I took a sip of water from my canteen.
I was the strong one: I looked after her. But at the stone circle, she’d looked up at me, and I’d been the one crying while she’d held back, jaw tight as her eyes gleamed with unshed tears. She’d protected me, even as she’d been stolen from us.
And I’d let her down.
I squared my shoulders and lengthened my stride.
“I’m coming for you, Ari. Just hold on.”
* * *
I hummed and sang little songs to myself as the afternoon sun passed overhead. Truth be told, Elfhame didn’t seem as frightening as the stories made out. Great trees stretched high above, and I used the moss on them to keep myself on track, always aiming north. No paths or roads cut through the land, so I was grateful for nature pointing the way.
Admittedly, “the way” suggested a more concrete plan than the one I actually had.
And maybe “plan” was overstating it.
Quickest would be finding Ari and the fae lord who’d taken her. He’d magicked her away, but for all I knew, he’d only taken her just the other side of the wall. But I hadn’t found any tracks in the snow. Though the fresh fall would’ve covered any tracks anyway. Great.
Which left plan B. If I could find a town, I’d be able to ask the locals. There couldn’t be that many humans in Elfhame nor fae lords who were bound to take the Tithe from one of our towns. Even if they didn’t know, they’d be able to point me to their capital city somewhere in the north. The fae had said he’d come by order of the Night Queen, so they would know of him there.
Not much of a plan, but it was the only one I had.
Sunset splayed across the sky in such a glorious display of gold and pink, I almost forgot what it meant.
Although Elfhame in the daytime seemed pleasant enough, I wasn’t fool enough to think it would be safe at night. Even the woods around Briarbridge were off limits after dark, with wolves and bears and, on the new moon, the Wild Hunt haunting the game trails.
I also wasn’t fool enough to think a tent and fire would keep me safe from whatever dangers came out here after sunset. Most likely a fire would attract more attention that it scared off. So, I climbed a tree and fastened the tent between its branches to keep off any rain that might come in the night—or more snow. Nestled at an intersection of several boughs, I found a cosy spot and tied myself in place using one of the tent’s lines. On the edge of a copse, my tree’s position at the top of a hill gave me a view down into the valley, but its leaves shielded me from sight.
That was when I heard the howls.
Three, long and low and eerie against the rising moon and evening blackbird song.
Every hair on my body stood on end as goosebumps crept across my skin.
Although wolves never ventured into Briarbridge, they roamed the land around. When I was five, a little girl had been helping her ma and pa round up sheep, and she’d disappeared. The wolves had taken her. That night, Ari’s pa had told us the story of Little Red Riding Hood.
What big teeth you have.
I shivered and pulled my cloak closer.
I was safe up here and warm. It would all be fine.
In fact, this warmth? It was that gorgeous carpenter who travelled through town each spring and always found his way to the tavern and to my table. I closed my eyes and hugged myself. These were his arms around me. I would say something funny and throw him a grin and a wink. We always found somewhere quiet for a bit of fun.
The cold trickling through me was nothing to do with the weather. It wasn’t the kind of cold this cloak could save me from.
Fuck. That sound.
It was like nothing in Briarbridge or the woods. It didn’t sound human or animal. It was…
I screwed my eyes shut. They had sprung open at the noise without any instruction from me. I was up a tree: no animal could reach me. For anything less mundane, I had cold iron.
I squeezed the worn leather hilt.
But another shrill cry pierced the night, different from the earlier shriek. This one was sharp and brief. Not close, but still…
My heart pounded, and as much as I tried to keep my breaths quiet, they came that bit too fast and much too ragged, steaming before my face in the moonlight.
I abandoned all ideas of sleep.
A low keening drifted up from the valley. It was a sad sound that made my eyes sting.
Or maybe it was a realisation that made my eyes prickle. A stupid, useless realisation to have up a tree, but here I was.
For all the stories I’d heard from Ari’s pa, I knew nothing about Elfhame and its dangers. All I had was an iron dagger and a pack full of supplies.
And it was not enough.
Chapter 2 – Into the Forest
I must’ve eventually fallen asleep, because I woke with a start to dawn sun flooding the sky. No howls. No prowling shapes in the valley or the copse below. Only birdsong, trees, and the snowy hillside.
I huffed a sigh that I felt down to my bones and descended the gnarled oak. Considering I’d slept in a tree, I wasn’t too stiff. That had to be thanks to my morning runs.
They were the only times I had quiet. No Peony demanding to be picked up or Rory complaining he was hungry. No child on my hip while I fed another. I loved my brothers and sisters dearly, all twelve of them, but they were a whirlwind of chaos and endless work.
Running was my only break, even if it brought a twinge of guilt. Between that and dagger training, I only needed a quick stretch before I felt ready for another day of walking. I’d known the exercise would come in handy, even if they would never let me join the town guard.
Stupid old men and their stupid ideas about what women could do.
With a hmpf, I dug the loaf from my bag. It was two days old now, so it took some effort to tear off a hunk, but it was edible.
Checking the moss on the trees, I started north again and ate as I went. What had looked like a copse of oaks huddled on the top of this hill actually trailed down the far side, joining the woods crowding a rocky valley.
Where was Ari now? Was she in the wilds or had that fae taken her to a town? Were there even towns like—?
A low howl crept through the trees to my left.
The iron knife was in my hand before I even thought about it. My breaths stilled as I searched from tree to tree, shadow to shadow. No movement. Or was that—?
Another ghostly howl, this time from the right.
I spun, breaths starting again, quick now where they’d been steady before.
Craggy brown bark. Green ferns. The occasional patch of snow that had broken through the canopy.
More howls came, this time joined by yips and something that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.
Blade before me, hand shaking, I turned. My eyes strained, my ears, too, but my thundering heart was so loud, I’d be lucky to hear any soft noises over it.
A silent shadow split from the shade of a thick tree trunk. Over six feet tall, it walked on two legs, but it was not human—not with that long, shaggy head, the large ears, the bent, clawed fingers. It had arms, yes, but they were coated in dark fur. It didn’t even bother to hide as it drew closer, yellow eyes on me all the while.
My lungs twitched as I backed away. I worked my tongue around my mouth, longing to tell the creature to fuck off, but the stories Ari’s papa had told us were clear: don’t offend the fae. If there was one thing they loved more than a bargain, it was a rule, and if there was one set of rules they loved most of all, it was good manners.
“Good… good morning.” I tried to smile. “I don’t mean you any harm.” My smile threatened to turn into a hysterical laugh. My little knife, the blade no more than six inches long, against this beast with a muzzle full of sharp teeth. Sure, he was really scared I might hurt him.
Tittering laughter and yips echoed from all sides. Clearly they found it just as ridiculous.
“Is that why you bring iron into our forest?” Behind me.
I gasped, whirled, and found a man less than two yards away, though there had been no rustle of leaves or crunch of twig.
Yellow eyes, a toothy smile, more claws. He didn’t have the first one’s wolf head, but his fingers were long and bent. Brown fur tipped his pointed ears, and more fur peeked over the collar of his shirt and darkened his bare forearms.
Beyond him, three more shapes slipped from the shadows. Bent and shaggy, they ranged from wolf to man and all the twisted forms between.
Throat tight, I blinked and it was as though that brief, blank moment let my brain catch up with reality and serve up the word.
As clever as people; as strong and vicious as beasts. I’d never found the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood that frightening—not when wolves were very much out there, beyond Briarbridge, while people could walk our streets and taverns and be far more cruel to each other.
But these wolfmen?
They had my heart in my throat, cold sweat trickling down my neck, stomach churning around the couple of mouthfuls of bread I’d eaten. At five foot ten, I was tall for a woman, but they were all over six foot and thick with muscle.
My mind coughed up another detail from the stories: they could only be hurt by poison, silver, or iron.
I kept my blade between myself and the one who’d spoken.
He’d asked a question, hadn’t he? And I was only gaping in response.
Backing off a step, I swallowed down the tightness in my throat. “It’s for defence, not attack.”
His smile widened to a grin that showed off long, sharp canines. “You’re going to need it, girl.”
He took a step closer, but I was already gone, bolting into the trees.
“We only want to play,” they called after me.
But I crashed through the undergrowth, bread forgotten somewhere in my flight, one hand shoving away branches, the other gripped around the iron knife.
My legs pumped. My lungs heaved like the bellows I used to stoke the fire for baking. My heart roared.
Not a single footstep sounded behind me, but their yipping laughs and snarls said they followed, some much too close.
From somewhere behind and to my right: “We need a new plaything, pretty girl.”
“Girl touched by fire.” A whisper so close, it made my hair stand on end.
Movement, even closer, then snapping jaws, inches from my right arm.
Squeal lodged in my throat, I slashed and darted left, around a huge old tree, fingertips grazing its rough bark. My blade only found thin air, but it was enough to make the beast back off.
No sooner had I huffed my relief than long fingers reached from the undergrowth. As I twisted away, claws scraped my arm.
Wherever I turned, another appeared. They leered and grinned and laughed like this was all a game.
Despite Ari’s magic in my cloak, a cold weight dragged on my chest.
They were toying with me. This was easy for them.
Meanwhile, my legs burned as I sprinted as fast as I possibly could—so fast, I barely had time to register the ground until it was a step away.
Mud, snow, an iced puddle. Ferns whose tips swayed overhead. Fallen logs and crooked branches.
I passed between the ferns, trying not to shake their leaves. If I could just get out of sight and take a winding path, I might lose them.
Then, a step away, there was no ground.
I leapt, barely. For a second there was only air and a brook burbling below, cutting through the soil, winding around roots.
Then, with a jolt, I landed, half-stumbled, and dropped into a roll. My body knew what to do. It was like fighting, and I’d practised for that. A moment later, I swept to my feet and resumed my pounding sprint.
The howls and laughs came from behind and either side, almost level with me. Still on my tail. Shit.
Breaths sawing through my chest, I turned downhill and used gravity to lend me speed. I jumped as much as I ran—over logs and down banks.
But their calls overtook me. They were too fast. My stomach was a solid ball, weighing me down even as my muscles burned with adrenaline.
Somewhere ahead and to the left, a howl broke into a sharp yelp, then an ear-splitting squeal. My blood ran cold—that sound was pure pain. I veered away. Had one of them fallen and injured themselves? Or…?
I kept up my breakneck speed, chest about ready to explode.
A rustle in the bushes, a whine, and one of the beasts stumbled from the undergrowth, blocking my path. I skidded to a stop, barely two yards away, fighting for breath.
My eyes burned as I stared at it for long seconds before truly registering what I was seeing. It clutched its arm. Or the bloody remains of one—there wasn’t much attached to its shoulder other than torn flesh.
What the hells had done that?
Despite being so close, the wolfman barely gave me a glance. Its wide, yellow eyes flicked in all direction as crimson blood spilled between its bent fingers.
From the undergrowth came a low snarl.
With a yelp, it turned. Behind it, the ferns shook and I caught a glimpse of a dark shape.
What was bigger than a werewolf and bad enough to frighten one?
Did I even want to know?
My legs knew the answer before my head and sent me hurtling off to the right, downhill.
Another squealing shriek pierced the air.
What the fuck was that thing? Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes as I sprinted, pushing, pushing, pushing. Moments later, there was another yelp, answered by uncertain whines. But their pursuit continued.
Ahead, through the brown trees and green ferns, a different texture snagged my gaze—large, grey, worn smooth by time. Boulders and huge stones—maybe an old rockfall. They turned the valley’s bottom into a maze, and I charged into its winding pathways.
No greenery here, only dirt and shade. Yipping cries bounced off the rock, sounding like they were coming from everywhere at once, but this place would also echo my steps and heaving breaths, making me harder to track. It was my best chance.
If these monsters killed me, Ari really would be on her own.
There were no more yelps of pain. Maybe that shape had just been a bigger member of the pack and it was all part of their brutal game to tear each other apart in order to be the first to reach me.
“Come play with us.” The call echoed from all directions. “We promise not to be gentle.”
Fuck you. Left, right, ahead, I moved as quickly as I could through the tight passages. Gods knew if I was heading north, south, east, or west—even the narrow glimpse of cloud-veiled sky above was no help.
It didn’t matter what way I went, as long as I got away from—
Something clamped over my mouth.