1 ISLE OF LLYR
As the waves lapped against their tiny boat, carrying it further out to the sea, Kayla clutched her stomach with one hand and the railing with the other. She squeezed her eyes shut as the boat rose with the waves.
Kayla hadn’t known she could get seasick. It hadn’t once crossed her mind when she lived in the mortal world, but ever since she had come to the faerie realm, she had learned a lot about herself—things to which she had never wanted answers.
When she opened her eyes again, her stomach did a different kind of somersault at the sight of Fay, now much closer to her than before.
“Are you unwell?” Fay asked. A gust swept across the sea, tousling her blond locks. She tucked an errant strand behind her ear, which was slightly less pointed than that of other faeries. Her eyes, deep green like the forest after the rain, rested on Kayla as she repeated her previous question.
Not trusting herself to keep her breakfast down if she spoke, Kayla nodded and leaned toward Fay, who immediately wrapped her arms around Kayla.
“It’s not much further now,” Fay said.
Kayla followed her gaze to the horizon, where she could just make out the faint shape of an island—the Isle of Llyr.
But it wasn’t the distance that worried Kayla; it was the clouds gathering in the sky and the first drops of rain drizzling down on them. It was the look on Nooa’s face, now the color of a green Faery Light. Even Maeve looked pale as she plunged the paddle into the water, pushing them forward.
“I hate the sea,” Maeve grumbled.
“And I still don’t get why,” Fay said. She pressed a quick kiss to Kayla’s brow before returning to her own paddle. “You can swim faster and dive deeper than any of us. If we go overboard, you have the best chances of making it to the coast.”
“I cannot die out here!” Nooa cried. He was glued to the opposite railing, and Kayla tried to offer him an encouraging smile that turned into a grimace.
Another wind gust howled across the sea, tossing their boat left and right. Maeve stabbed her paddle into the water as though it were a sword and the sea a roiling beast. “No one’s going overboard. We’ll be fine!”
For a moment, Kayla considered the possibility that they might, in fact, die out here. If they did, Kayla would never find her birth parents or return to Chicago to be with her mortal mother and brother again. No one would save her best friend Abby from the banshee’s curse. And maybe no one could stop the Unseelie Queen from ruling this world. What would become of Tír na nÓg then?
A light tap against her throat brought her attention to her necklace. The flower locked inside its pendant was the reason they were in this mess. It was the reason they couldn’t afford to die like this.
Kayla remembered the day she received the necklace. After the faerie cat, Dahlia, revealed Kayla’s true parentage, she had given her that necklace. At first, Kayla believed it was just a pretty trinket that her birth mother had wanted her to have. It didn’t take long for Kayla to realize that this purple blossom was so much more than that. Dahlia was convinced it would be the key to saving the kingdom.
Right now, it felt more like the necklace would be their doom. As the storm grew stronger, Kayla reached for the mysterious magic slumbering within that flower, desperate to draw out some of its strength. If only she knew—
Kayla yelped as a massive wave crashed against their boat, rocking it dangerously.
“Don’t let go!” Fay called over the roar of the waves.
Kayla tightened her grip on the railing. An even bigger wave hit their boat, and the force of it shoved Kayla aside. Her fingers slipped. Flailing her arms, Kayla struggled to get a hold on someone—or something—when another wave knocked into her.
The sea swallowed her whole.
When she glimpsed a bright speck in the distance, she started swimming toward it, but she barely moved an inch. She reached out for the necklace’s power again, begging it to unleash its magic. Right now, she didn’t care how it worked or what the price of using it was, as long as it saved her life.
A sudden jolt shot through her body, from her chest down her arms and legs, and suddenly she swam with impressive speed. Propelled forward by the necklace’s magic, she soon broke through the surface, sucking in air.
The sea still raged around her, hiding any sign of their boat, Fay, Nooa, or Maeve. What she could see from her position was a shore, and she struggled against the waves to reach it.
Once her feet were on solid ground again, her stomach gave a pleasant growl, and Kayla paused to look around. There wasn’t much to see. A sandy shore nestled into a bay, trees in the distance, and—
He was curled up in the sand a few feet away. Kayla hurried over and dropped beside him, gently shaking his shoulder. His dark locks were plastered to his face and his lips pulled into a pout. When he didn’t respond, Kayla shook him with more force.
His eyes snapped open, the same color as the cloudy sky. “Kayla?” he croaked.
“Are you hurt?” Kayla asked as she helped Nooa sit up. She held on to his hand a little longer.
“I am fine,” he said, patting the front of his shirt as though he needed to make sure he was in fact still alive. “Where are we?”
“We’re shipwrecked. I can’t see Fay or Maeve anywhere.”
“Shipwrecked?” His gaze wandered across the beach and to the sea. With a startled cry, he flinched, knocking his shoulder against Kayla’s. “Who is that?”
In front of them, in the frothing waves, lay a creature Kayla had never seen before. Her upper body was humanoid, while the lower part ended in the tail of a mermaid. Shimmering scales in all shades of green and blue covered her skin. Her long deep-red hair had seashells and pearls woven into the strands. A gash ran along her arm, and blood tinged the surrounding water.
“She needs help.” Nooa crawled toward the creature, leaning over her to inspect the wound.
Kayla joined him on the girl’s other side. She had never seen such a strange face, and she had seen her fair share of weird things in this realm. The girl’s nose was flat, almost like the snout of a snake. Even her face was covered by scales, and instead of ears, she had fins protruding from the side of her head.
Her eyes fluttered open. They were wholly black and gleamed like wet pearls. She didn’t seem surprised to see a stranger leaning over her, and she reached out a searching hand, closing it around Kayla’s wrist. The girl’s fingers were webbed, like Maeve’s. Like that of a merrow, Kayla realized.
“Hold her tight,” Nooa said. “I will apply a healing potion to the wound.” He didn’t look at the merrow girl as he dragged a bottle out of the folds of his travel cloak. Calm and composed, he removed the stopper, poured a clear liquid in his palm, and rubbed it onto the wound.
The merrow hissed, exposing her serrated teeth.
Nooa glanced at her for a second, then tore a strip of cloth from his cloak and wrapped it around the merrow’s arm. “This should stop the bleeding. For now.”
The merrow sat up, cradling her arm against her chest. She bowed her head, first at Kayla, then at Nooa. “You saved me,” she said in a singsong voice. It reminded Kayla of those wind chimes some people hung out on their porches.
“You should still see a healer.” Nooa rose to his feet again, frowning at the sea. The rain had subsided, but the waves continued their turmoil, and there was still no sign of their friends or their boat.
Kayla stood, wondering if merrows could actually walk on land, and thought about helping the girl stand. Before Kayla could make up her mind, the merrow pulled herself out of the water and her fishtail transformed into legs. Despite the scales that covered the girl’s body, Kayla blushed at the sight of her naked shape.
“My name is Mór,” the merrow said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kayla, and this is Nooa. We’re from the Seelie Court.”
Mór’s eyes widened into even larger pearls. “I have always wanted to go there. This island is my home, and I have never been anywhere else.” She glanced from Nooa to Kayla. “What brings you here? Did you come all by yourself?”
“We got separated from the rest of our group.”
“May I help?”
Kayla considered Mór’s arm. A stain was forming on the cloth, where the blood was seeping through.
“I cannot go back into the water myself,” Mór amended, “but if we go see my father, he can send help. After all, I am indebted to you.”
“We would truly appreciate that,” Nooa said, snapping out of his thoughts. He must have wiped at his face because there was now a streak of Mór’s blood across his left cheek. “Will you lead the way?”
Kayla supported a limping Nooa as they walked. His leg had been injured when he—along with Fay and Maeve—risked his life to save Kayla from the Unseelie Court. Ever since then, their friendship had been on shaky ground. Kayla had put Nooa in a lot of danger, and she feared she was leading him straight into more trouble.
Mór might have seemed like a kind person, with her bouncy stride and upbeat voice, but Kayla had seen Mór’s serrated teeth. Kayla kept a wary eye on Mór for the rest of their short trip.
After a while, they reached a narrow pond with some fish swimming in it.
“May I?” Mór shimmied between Kayla and Nooa, grabbing both at the elbow. “Follow my lead.” And with that, Mór hopped right into the pond, pulling Kayla and Nooa along with her.
Kayla closed her eyes as she prepared for the first splash and the feeling of cold water on her skin.
It never came. Instead, her feet knocked so hard onto packed ground that her knees trembled. She stumbled forward, catching her fall with her palms pressed against a wall slick with seaweed. Nooa landed with a bit more grace.
They had entered a tunnel that shone with an unusual blue-green shimmer. Kayla lifted her head and saw that the ceiling wasn’t made of stone. It rippled like the sea in a breeze.
“Pretty, right?” Mór said, grinning. “It’s this way.”
As they walked, a low hum of voices drew nearer. The tunnel eventually opened into a vast cave where the sound of dozens of merrows talking and laughing coalesced into a deafening cacophony. Some merrows sat on stones or walked around the cave on two legs. Others lounged in small pools, their mermaid tails casually poking through the surface.
A few merrows cast curious glances their way, but most didn’t seem to care about the presence of strangers. It gave Kayla an opportunity to scan the crowd more closely. The merrow women were all beautiful, with hair the color of seaweed or red ink, green-scaled skin, and black eyes. Compared to their beauty, the men were hideous, with bulbous noses, red eyes, and protruding teeth that spoiled their faces. Instead of hair, they had green spikes and gills.
Kayla shuddered and turned her attention to the center of the cave, where many merrows had gathered in a massive pool. One man wore a red cap in the shape of a plump jellyfish. His red eyes fastened on Mór as they approached.
“Child, you are hurt!” The merrow heaved himself out of the pool, his tail transforming into legs.
Kayla marveled at his height, at least two heads taller than she, and she tried to focus on his face rather than the rest of his body, which was just as naked as that of every other merrow.
“I am fine, Father,” Mór said. “These kind people took care of me.”
“How many times must I tell you to stay away from that coast? It is too dangerous. If you get caught in the current, you could die.” The merrow man ran his fingers over Mór’s makeshift bandage, then called out to one of the women in the pool behind him. “Get the healer. Quick!”
Mór lifted her chin defiantly. “You cannot take that from me too. If I have to stay on this island, I should at least get to go into the sea.”
Her father looked ready to argue, but when the healer appeared, he released his daughter from his grip. With that out of the way, his attention settled on Kayla and Nooa. “I am Muirín, commander of this school. And who might you be?”
Kayla performed an awkward curtsy. “We are Kayla and Nooa of the Seelie Court. We were shipwrecked on the way to your island and lost our friends during the storm.”
“And you wish us to aid you in return for your good deeds?” Muirín’s face twisted into a frown, and Kayla thought he might be raising an eyebrow if he had any. “What is it you seek on our island?”
She considered lying. It was no secret that faeries couldn’t lie without their tongues falling out, though some faeries could twist their words to conceal the truth anyway. Kayla had been able to lie all her life because of her human upbringing, and she had resorted to a few white lies more than once. But with each day that she spent in the faerie realm, the powerful Glamor that had been put on her to hide her in the mortal world was fading. She was slowly turning into a true faerie, and she had to wonder when she would lose the ability to lie altogether.
Either way, she wasn’t about to find out now, and she decided to speak the truth. “We are searching for the Elder Tree.”
Murmurs and gasps rippled through the crowd. Kayla noticed a commotion behind her, and some merrows came closer, leaning in to listen. Even Mór, who had been dragged away from the crowd by the healer, watched Kayla with concern.
“And why would you search for that tree?” Muirín asked. “Have you come to harm it?”
“No, not at all!”
Kayla looked at Nooa. How much of the truth should they reveal? Whatever answer she hoped to find, it wasn’t the stunned expression on Nooa’s face. He looked stupefied, like someone had pushed the pause button. If only Fay were here…
There was no doubt that Fay would choose honesty in this situation, and so Kayla did too. “I believe I have something that once was part of the Elder Tree,” she said as she tugged at the chain around her neck and pulled the pendant out of her shirt. “This blossom holds a magic that may help us fight—”
Several merrows growled, and Kayla added, “We need it to fight the Unseelie Queen.”
“So the rumors are true?” one merrow asked.
“Why didn’t we know?” another demanded.
“Silence!” Muirín’s voice echoed through the cave. Once the crowd went quiet, Muirín addressed Kayla again. “You may return to your court and tell the Seelie Queen that if the Unseelies have truly reemerged, it would have been her duty to inform us. To offer us protection. We owe you nothing.”
“We aren’t here on the Seelie Queen’s behalf,” Kayla said. “We fight for the safety of us all.” The necklace at her throat pulsed, and an electric shock coursed through her veins. It was an immense power she didn’t know how to control yet. She needed to get to the Elder Tree.
Muirín stared her down hard. “And why should I trust you so easily? Your kind has betrayed us before. How can I be sure you are who you claim to be? Of the Seelie Court, you say?” He sniffed, and his lips twisted into a snarl. “There is a different smell on you.”
Kayla flinched, and Nooa caught her by the elbow with a steady grip.
“Father, do not hurt them.”
Mór had freed herself from the healer’s care and stepped toward Kayla. “I am certain there is an explanation,” she said. Her eyes searched Kayla’s face, as though hoping to find the answer written plain on her forehead. It felt like Mór was prying into Kayla’s mind, and Kayla tried hard not to think about what had happened. What she had learned about herself…
“You are no Seelie faerie,” Mór whispered.
Kayla’s heart hammered like a drum in her chest, matching the fast beating of her pendant.
“What did she say?” one merrow demanded.
“The girl must be an Unseelie,” someone else cried, and the crowd around them tightened.
Mór spun around, arms spread wide to shield Kayla and Nooa. “No! She is not an Unseelie faerie either. I can sense… She feels a connection to both courts.” She turned to Kayla, cocking her head. “How is this possible? You cannot be both.”
“We cannot trust her!” a voice called. “If she shares blood with the Seelies and Unseelies, she is bound to neither.”
A wave of despair washed over Kayla. If only she understood how her powers worked. She could use another miracle about now.
“Silence!” Muirín cried again. He took a determined step toward his daughter, the jellyfish atop his head quivering with rage. “Mór, step aside.”
Mór did the opposite, moving so close to Kayla that her back pressed against Kayla’s chest. She was short enough for Kayla to peer over her head at Muirín.
His hand snapped forward, grabbing his daughter by the wrist.
He jerked hard, and Mór fell into him. She struggled against his grip, but he had her pinned to his side with one arm. The other beckoned toward his men. “Seize them!”
As half a dozen merrows drew closer, Kayla called upon the magic locked within her pendant. It came alive with a stutter, like an old engine, and Kayla thrust her palms forward, hoping for the best. Whatever feeble force she had summoned, it barely bent one merrow’s knees.
“Father, they do not deserve this! No!”
Mór’s pleas faded as the merrows circled Kayla and Nooa. Kayla searched for Nooa’s hand, brushing her fingers against his, before the merrows bound their wrists and tossed them at Muirín’s feet.
Fay blinked her eyes open. With a moan, she rolled onto her side, feeling damp sand under her fingers. Her chest ached as she coughed up water. After the tumultuous journey across the sea, her entire body felt raw and wounded. Now the sea was calm, and there was no sign of their boat or her friends.
“Kayla!” Fay cried, struggling to her shaky feet. “Nooa!”
“And what about me?” another voice snarled.
Fay spun around to find Maeve cowering in the sand. Her dark-green hair hung like seaweed over her face, but she looked otherwise unharmed, and Fay heaved a sigh of relief.
“Where are the others?” Fay asked as she helped Maeve to her feet. They both scanned the beach, which seemed to stretch in all directions. Fay glimpsed a copse of trees in the distance.
“Let’s find out,” Maeve said. They started to walk toward the trees, Maeve patting down her doublet. “Good news: I’ve still got my bow and blades. Bad news: I lost the food we had left.”
“We’ll worry about that later.” Every cell in Fay’s brain was occupied with fear for Kayla and Nooa. Fay hadn’t believed in God when she still lived in the mortal world, but now she prayed to the deities of the faerie realm to keep Kayla and her best friend safe.
“Do you hear that?” Maeve asked.
Music floated toward them—if one could even call it music. Fay recognized pipes and flutes and even singing, but the tunes were distorted, as though they were produced under water.
Fay drew the short dagger from her belt. “We should have a look.”
Maeve reached for her sword, whose tip was still crusted in blood from their visit to the Unseelie Court. They slipped into the trees’ shadows just as the music swelled to an awful crescendo. Goosebumps crawled up Fay’s arms. This was nothing like the infectious rhythm the bands at the Seelie Court played.
They tiptoed to the other side of the forest, then they both faltered in their steps. Before them rose a hill with caves carved into its side. Dozens of people filled each cave—merrows bathing in hot pools, laughing and dancing on two feet, or playing instruments Fay had never seen. She had never seen that many merrows either.
“I think this is Môrdina,” Maeve said. She lowered her sword, her eyes traveling up and down the caves.
Fay thought it must be strange for Maeve to see all those merrows. Because her mother was part merrow, Maeve had olive skin, webbed hands and feet, and deep-green hair. Yet she barely resembled the merrows in front of them.
Fay and Maeve whirled around. A male merrow, clothed in nothing other than his shimmering scales, approached them. His face looked less like that of a faerie and more like someone had smashed it with a hammer.
“Are you lost?” he asked. His voice sounded rough, reminding Fay of waves crashing against rock. Reminding her of their shipwreck.
“Yes, we are,” Fay said, earning a glare from Maeve. While Fay was capable of telling small lies thanks to her human father, it wouldn’t help them in this situation. “We were traveling to this island with two friends when the storm washed us ashore.”
“Well, what do your friends look like? Perhaps I can be of help.”
Fay noticed that he was wearing a belt around his hip, with a dagger strapped to it. She knew little about the merrows. Though they weren’t as hostile toward the Seelies as the pookas, they weren’t kind like the pixies either. Maeve had told her once that they liked to keep to themselves. They wouldn’t even welcome someone like Maeve into their territory, which worried Fay.
Maeve, as always, wasn’t scared. “One of them is a tall and handsome guy. And the other is a girl with long black hair.”
The merrow narrowed his eyes.
“Well, have you seen them?” Fay asked.
“No,” the merrow said, “but if they are on this island and someone has found them, I know where they will have brought your friends. I can lead you there.”
“Sure. We will follow you gladly,” Maeve cut in before Fay could decline the offer. Maeve gave the merrow a tight smile and sheathed her sword.
Fay fell into step behind Maeve and the merrow as he guided them through Môrdina. Maeve struck up a conversation with the merrow, and Fay wondered if Maeve was trying to keep him distracted so he wouldn’t think of backstabbing them or if she was truly interested. Maybe it was both. As far as Fay could tell, Maeve didn’t know much about the merrows either, even though they were her ancestors.
They left the shrieking music behind and went deeper into the forest, where insects buzzed and the air was almost too thick to breathe. This was not the Tír na nÓg Fay was used to. They waded along a muddy path until they reached a pond.
“Follow my lead,” the merrow said, and Fay watched in awe as he strode up to the pond and dove in. Strangely, the water didn’t splash or even ripple.
Fay turned a raised eyebrow at Maeve. “Do you trust him?”
“Of course not.” Something silver flashed in Maeve’s left palm. Her dagger, ready to strike. “But you know I’d do anything for Nooa.” And with that, she disappeared into the pond.
“Here goes nothing.” Fay braced herself for the cold, for the things she had seen floating underneath the surface, as she stumbled into nothingness.
There were stories about the underwater caves of Môrdina. Every child knew them, even a half-mortal like Fay. Those stories spoke of travelers who came in search of the merrows and wandered the caves until they collapsed of thirst and hunger.
Fay understood now why anyone would lose their bearings down here. A winding tunnel led them further into the caves. Water dripped down the moss-covered walls. Everything smelled damp, and even though their trip through the pond had been miraculously dry, Fay felt chilled to the bones.
The tunnel widened, and they entered a cave filled with more merrows, all gathered in a circle at the center. As the group of newcomers approached, the crowd parted to reveal a throne carved from stone and decorated with dried seaweed, faded shells, and what looked like the bones of dead fish. On it sat a male merrow with a red cap.
When Fay noticed Kayla and Nooa beside the throne, she let out a huge breath. But her relief was immediately crushed by another realization: Their arms were bound by heavy shackles. Kayla and Nooa looked at Fay, their smiles pulled into painful grimaces.
“Fay,” Kayla said hoarsely.
“What are you doing to them?” Fay cried. Maeve kept her from dashing forward, her fingers so tight on Fay’s arm they nearly cut off the circulation. The assembled merrows were all watching them, growling and rumbling.
Their merrow guide stepped forward. “Commander Muirín,” he said with a bow of his head. “I found the murderers wandering the streets of Môrdina.”
“Did he just call us ‘murderers’?” Fay whispered to Maeve.
Muirín considered the two for a moment. Then his upper lip pulled back into a sneer. “Put them into chains.”
“Wait! We are no murderers. I am Fay…” She hesitated before adding, “I am the heir to the Crown of Tír na nÓg.”
At once, everyone in the cave fell quiet, staring at Fay. The silence didn’t last long; it shattered as the first accusations rang out.
“Liar! Queen Ophira bore no children.”
“There is no heir!”
“You are a fraud!”
Fay’s heart sank. Her royal status might only be fake, but she needed them to see that they meant no harm. “While I may not be the Seelie Princess by blood,” she said, “I am loyal to the queen and this kingdom. We did not come here to seek trouble.”
“And yet you have allowed trouble into our midst.” Muirín’s face darkened, his red eyes glowing. “You and your friends show up here and we find one of ours dead. Drained of his life and blood. Would you call this a coincidence?”
“We had nothing to do with that,” Fay said. “It was Titania!”
The merrows erupted into angry shouts and hisses. Muirín omitted a guttural sound that reverberated off the stone walls, and silence returned.
“Why would Titania harm us?” Muirín asked. “We have no history with her.”
“I tried to tell them,” Kayla interjected, but she didn’t dare continue when one merrow approached with a knife in his hand.
“You have got to listen to us,” Maeve said, taking a step forward. “Titania has already taken two lives. A pixie in the Whispering Woods and a faoladh in the mortal world. No doubt she is responsible for this murder too.”
“Father, I can sense that they speak the truth,” said the merrow girl to Muirín’s right. She had red hair that tumbled down her shoulders all the way to her hips, with tiny shells woven into her locks. “They only came here for the Elder Tree, and we must allow them to keep searching for it.” She shifted closer to the throne, placing a hand on her father’s arm.
For a split second, his frown softened. Then he clamped a hand on Kayla’s shoulder and pulled her to her feet along with him. He spun her around, and Kayla yelped. “They are murderers, Mór. They do not deserve their freedom.”
His arm tightened around Kayla’s throat. Fay drew her sword, and Maeve nocked an arrow.
“I do not trust you,” Muirín said. “Nor do I trust Queen Ophira to bring us justice for the crime committed here. You will all pay the debt I am owed.” He nodded to his men, and several merrows charged toward Fay and Maeve.
Fay adjusted her stance and steadied her grip. Ready to fight them all, if she had to.
But moments before they reached her, an earsplitting sound cut through the cave. It seared through Fay’s skull, like a knife slicing her brain open. The merrows collapsed to their knees, palms pressed to their heads. Fay fought to stay strong.
Just beyond the fallen merrows, she could spot Mór. When she turned away from the crowd, the sound died.
After the assault on Fay’s ears, Mór’s voice sounded twice as loud as before.
“These people saved my life,” Mór said. “They came to this island in search for something that will help them protect us all from the Unseelies. Release them.” She stepped toward her father, who hadn’t let go of Kayla. “And release me too.”
Minutes seemed to pass, the tension in the cave rising again.
“I am wary of you,” Muirín said, looking straight at Fay. “Yet my daughter claims you speak the truth, and so I shall believe you too… for now. I will allow you all to leave and send my daughter with you on your quest to find the Elder Tree, in exchange for a favor I may ask of you one day.”
Fay stiffened. Bargains in this world were binding. If they agreed, they would have to do Muirín’s bidding, no matter what he asked of them. When Fay had come into this world, one of the first things Ophira had taught her was to never bargain with anyone.
And then Fay had witnessed the cruelty of a faerie bargain, when Ophira had tricked Kayla into staying at the Seelie Court with the false promise of finding Kayla’s human father.
Fay looked at Kayla. Despite the tight grip of a merrow around her neck, Kayla wore only a hint of panic on her face. It was nothing compared to the fear she had shown when a boar had attacked them. Or when Kayla had fallen prey to a Dryad. Or when she had learned the truth about her parents.
Kayla had suffered so much already, and some of that pain was Fay’s fault. She couldn’t change the past, but she would protect Kayla from any more harm—no matter the cost.
“I will take the deal,” Fay said. “If you release us, I will owe you one favor. You may ask that favor from me and me alone.”
Muirín pushed Kayla away, and Fay caught her, drawing her close.
“We are in agreement,” Muirín said. His gaze lingered on Mór. Then he waved his hand and the merrows dispersed.
As soon as they were out in the open, Nooa flung his arms around Fay, hugging her tight. “I am so glad you found us.”
Maeve acknowledged Kayla with a nod and a little smile on her face. It was more than anything Kayla had ever gotten from her, and Kayla returned the smile.
While Nooa drew Maeve in for a hug, Fay stepped closer to Kayla. “I was afraid I’d lost you,” she whispered.
“Me too.” Kayla stood on her tiptoes and kissed Fay’s cheek. This barest of touches lit a spark inside Kayla’s chest, and she wished to kiss Fay, to kiss her lips and face and neck and… lose herself in Fay’s embrace.
“If I may interrupt your reunion,” Mór said. “We should be on our way.”
“Hold on,” Kayla said, forcing herself to let go of Fay. “I have some questions. You knew I wasn’t a Seelie faerie, and you said you could sense we were telling the truth. How?”
“Well, I am an empath. I can sense when other people are sad or upset or worried. I can sense any emotions, sometimes even thoughts.”
“An empath,” Kayla echoed. “Are all merrows like that?” It was hard not to look at Maeve then. The idea that Maeve had been able to sense Kayla’s emotions all along was about as pleasant as their trip to the Isle of Llyr had been.
“No, it is quite a rare ability,” Mór said. “Now, we should get going…”
She was about to turn when Maeve held her back. Kayla remembered how foreign and strange Maeve had seemed the first time they met, with her webbed hands and green hair. Now Mór was the strange one.
“You caused that noise in our heads, didn’t you?” Maeve glared at Mór with her usual intimidating demeanor.
Mór shrugged her shoulder free. “Yes.”
“You better not do that again.”
“As long as you do not give me a reason to.” Mór returned Maeve’s glare.
Maeve’s arms trembled by her side. “How dare you—”
“Stop aggravating the people who are trying to help us, will you?” Nooa hooked his arm through Maeve’s and led her along the path.
“So you can read thoughts too?” Kayla asked Mór once Nooa and Maeve were out of earshot.
“Only if my connection with the other person is strong.” Mór narrowed her eyes on Kayla. “You worry I have read yours. I can sense you are hiding something, and based on what just happened, I would guess it is your connection to Titania.”
“You’re better off not knowing the truth,” Fay cut in. She grabbed Kayla’s hand, about to follow the others, when Mór blocked their way.
“Are you her daughter? I heard stories about Titania’s ravishing beauty. They said her hair is blacker than the night, like yours.”
Mór’s words made Kayla shiver. She remembered standing in front of Titania and seeing herself in the Unseelie Queen. Though Titania was only her aunt, they shared more traits than Kayla liked. If Mór saw that resemblance, it wouldn’t be long until others noticed it too.
“I understand that you might be reluctant to trust me after what happened with my father,” Mór said. “But you can count on my loyalty. After all, you and Nooa saved my life.”
“I do trust you. I think…” Kayla shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “It’s just not safe enough for you to know the truth.”
Mór nodded and smiled. “All right then. Time to find the Elder Tree.”
Maeve pouted. “I didn’t plan it, you know.”
“You held on to all your weapons. I guess your priorities lie with combat rather than surviving.”
“Combat is part of surviving.”
“You sound ridiculous. Food and water are part of surviving.”
“If someone’s being ridiculous, it’s—”
“There is a clearing up ahead,” Mór said. “We should split up and look for food. Nooa, will you come with me?” She flashed a smile at Nooa, who only blinked at her. “And the rest of you should try to find some firewood.”
“I’ll go with you,” Maeve said, challenging Mór with a glare. Mór didn’t contradict Maeve. No one ever dared to, not even Nooa on most days.
So they parted ways. Kayla and Fay weaved through the forest, which was more of a swamp with lots of muddy holes to navigate. As Kayla bent to examine a yellow blossom, the necklace buzzed against her chest, and she reached for the pendant.
“You can sense it?” Fay asked. “The necklace?”
Kayla straightened and faced Fay. In the dark shadows of the forest, Fay’s eyes shimmered like two Faery Lights about to lead Kayla astray. Kayla stepped closer.
“It has become like a second heartbeat,” she said. “Strange and familiar at the same time. It’s kind of funny because that’s how I feel about myself now too.”
“You are familiar to me.” Fay traced Kayla’s cheekbone with her fingers and tucked a strand of Kayla’s hair behind her ear. “Your ears may have sharpened, and the color of your eyes may have changed from deep-sea-blue to amethyst, but you are still the same person. You are still the girl I would ask for a dance in a dingy nightclub.”
“That’s not why you danced with me,” Kayla blurted before thinking. Anger flared up in her chest as she remembered that night in the Whispering Woods when Fay had told her why she had brought her to the faerie realm. When she had learned that Ophira was only interested in her because of a vision. And that Ophira’s empty promise to help search for Kayla’s human father had only been a means to keep Kayla close.
Fay grimaced as though someone had pinched her cheek. “No, I danced with you because I wanted to. Falling for you was never part of the plan.”
“And yet you lied to me.” Kayla regretted her words the second they left her lips. “I-I’m sorry… It’s just…”
“Just what? Tell me what’s on your mind.” Fay’s shoulders sagged, her hands clenched into fists by her sides, and she bowed her head to hide her eyes from Kayla. “I probably deserve it,” she mumbled.
Kayla’s own pain faded as she realized how much Fay was hurting. She took one of Fay’s fists, gently spreading her fingers. “I get why you lied. When you brought me into this world, we were strangers. And of course you chose to be loyal to Ophira rather than helping a girl you barely knew—”
“I hated lying to you even then. But I was scared… if I hadn’t done what Ophira told me to, she would have forced me to become the Seelie Princess. And that ceremony would have changed everything. I would have lost all my memories of my old life. Of my mother…”
“I get it, Fay,” Kayla said. “And I want to trust you again—I really do. There’s just so much to process right now, so please give me a bit more time.”
Finally, Fay’s frown softened. She wrapped her arms around Kayla, hugging her close. “You can have all the time in the worlds.”
After a while, Kayla and Fay joined the others in the clearing with the little firewood they had salvaged. Mór had caught some fish, which she now prepared for dinner. Nooa stood beside her, unable to hide his disgust as Mór gutted the animal. Fay helped Maeve set up a fire; it filled the clearing with warm light while the sun slipped behind the tree line.
As they settled around the fire, Kayla recalled sitting like that with her father on one of their camping trips—her adoptive father, she reminded herself. Alasdair had always been persistent in showing Kayla how to set up a tent, build a fire, or defend herself against small woodland creatures. He had taught her about the Fair Folk too. Every night, when Kayla was a child, he told her a different story of the faeries. Until that day when the Unseelie Queen captured him and tossed him in a cell to rot.
Kayla stared at the roasted fish Mór had handed her on a large leaf, but she had lost her appetite. The image of Titania murdering her father twisted her stomach. It had been stuck in her mind ever since she learned the truth about his death. In her dreams, she often tried to save her father from Titania. She was always too late.
“Everything all right?” Fay asked. “You haven’t eaten anything.”
“I’m fine.” Kayla set down her fish and rubbed her wrist where her father’s watch used to be. Because of the cold iron that had been worked into it, she had to take it off or else it would burn her skin.
It was an absent-minded gesture, but Fay still picked up on it. “It’s okay if you still miss him.”
“He wasn’t really my dad,” Kayla said with a shrug. “And I lost him when I was eight. All those memories I clung to for years are fading.”
Fay scooted closer, placing an arm around Kayla. “I know it feels like you’re forgetting who he was. It was the same for me too, after my mom died. At first, I even pushed away the memories because they were too painful. But now I cherish them, the good and the bad. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t your father by blood. What matters is his love for you.” Fay cradled Kayla’s hand in her own. “Try holding on to that.”
Deep down, Kayla knew Fay was right. She had to hold on to the good. But whenever she thought of Alasdair, her chest tightened, and her fingers turned icy. She couldn’t shake the memory of Alasdair bleeding to death in her arms. It might have only been a vision conjured up by Titania, but it was enough to haunt her in her sleep.
Sometimes, when she woke from her nightmares covered in sweat, she almost reached into her pouch to withdraw Alasdair’s letter. It was the only piece she had left of him that she could still touch. Yet she hadn’t looked at it since the first time she’d read it. She hadn’t looked at Amhrán’s letter, either. Seeing their words on paper would just be another reminder that they had once sat down to pen a letter to Kayla because they knew they’d never see her again—and Kayla was suffering from enough guilt already.
They spent the night on the damp forest ground, the fire dying to embers. Thanks to the shipwreck, they had lost most of the goods they had acquired on the mainland before they left for the Isle of Llyr. Now Kayla only owned the clothes she wore, her necklace, and the little pouch with her father’s watch, her old cell phone, and the two letters. At least she had held on to her traveling cloak, which she wrapped closer around her body as she slipped in and out of sleep, hunted by the Unseelies in her dreams.
When she woke, the sun grazed the top of the trees. Maeve was already up, sharpening her arrows with her dagger. She glanced Kayla’s way before returning to her arrows without a word. The fleeting moment of kindness they had shared the day before had passed. Now Maeve had reverted to treating her like a disease.
As Kayla rose, she made sure to hide the Unseelie Mark under her shirt. The mark had been a stain on her appearance ever since Titania had somehow forced it to reveal itself. As a half-blood, Kayla’s mark looked unfinished and was less stark against her pale skin. It was right beneath her left collarbone, and sometimes it peeked out of her collar. Kayla could always tell when that happened because Maeve would glare at it as if to burn it away with her eyes. If only that would work…
Fay beside her stirred awake. Rubbing her eyes, she staggered over to the campfire to get some leftover fish. Soon Mór and Nooa joined her. Kayla didn’t feel like having any breakfast. The necklace was hot against her skin, and she hoped that meant they were close to the tree.
They left the camp following Mór’s guidance. After making their way through the swamp for a while, they began climbing up a hill. Kayla dragged her weary body up the path. She might have the grace of a faerie now, but her body still got tired. And right now it was tired enough to sleep for a week, however long that was in a realm where time had no meaning.
“The tree is beyond that hill,” Mór announced, which gave them all some newfound energy. They raced up the hill, all the way to the top.
Kayla faltered in her steps. The land slanted down again, toward a hollow occupied by a massive tree. It was entirely bare, not a single leaf clinging to its branches, and the ground surrounding it was barren too. Dread chilled Kayla’s skin. Her necklace had grown cold.
“This isn’t the Elder Tree,” she said. “You misled us.”
“No, I have not.” Mór’s voice was heavy with a sadness that aggravated Kayla.
“That tree doesn’t look like people would tell myths about it. Or like it would have blossoms like mine.” The necklace beat a fast rhythm, further fueling Kayla’s frustration.
Maeve drew her dagger and pointed it at Mór. “Why don’t you explain to us what is going on here?”
A sharp wind rushed up the hill. It was the only sound around them. No insects, no birds, no other people. The perfect place for a trap.
“I did not mislead you,” Mór said, inching away from the group. “You have to understand, what people call the Elder Tree is not truly one specific tree. It is whatever tree the Elder Faerie chooses as her current home. As it seems, she no longer lives here.”
“You really expect us to believe that?” Maeve approached Mór with her blade but hesitated when Nooa moved to shield the merrow. “Don’t protect her!”
“I will not allow you to take out your anger on her,” Nooa said. “You know she is telling the truth. All the tales about the Elder Tree are about the difficulty of finding it. This explains it. How do you find a tree that has no fixed place in this world?”
The horrific truth froze them to the spot as the wind howled around them. Out at sea, another storm was brewing. Kayla had spent enough time in this world to understand that weather like this wasn’t normal.
“We have to find that tree,” Kayla said.
Mór nodded along. “And I can help you. Mother taught me all about the Elder Tree.”
Maeve exchanged a glance with Nooa and Fay, which bothered Kayla. She was the reason they were doing this. She was the one who might carry the power to unite the two courts, and yet Maeve didn’t care about what she thought.
“Where would you go first?” Kayla asked before anyone else could speak.
Mór’s eyes flitted between Maeve and Kayla. “Mother once mentioned that the Elder Faerie prefers trees that are near a large body of water to draw from, so Lake Tywyll is my first guess.”
“We can’t go to Blackpond,” Maeve said. “The pookas aren’t exactly our biggest fans. They won’t just allow us to have a look around—”
“Then we don’t ask for permission!” The words came out louder and sharper than Kayla had intended. Her mind was hazy with the frantic beating of her necklace. “If there’s even the slightest chance the tree is there, we have to take the risk. You know what Dahlia said.”
“You’re asking us to place all our hopes on a tree that doesn’t want to be found,” Maeve replied. Now she pointed her blade at Kayla. “We’re wasting our time. Titania could strike any minute, and we need to be at the Seelie Court when that happens.”
“Titania can’t enter the court.”
“She’ll find a way.”
“No, she won’t!”
“And what makes you so sure?” Maeve screamed over the sound of the wind.
As though the necklace were bursting, it shot searing heat through Kayla’s body. The force coalesced between Kayla’s shoulder blades, like a fist slamming into it. Her vision blurred with the pain. Then, a flash of Titania’s blue eyes and wicked smile.
The world returned at once as Kayla unleashed the magic built up inside of her.
Maeve yelped, leaping to the side, and stared at the spot where she had been standing. It was now occupied by a sharp, craggy boulder that had sprouted from the ground.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Maeve shrieked. “What in the name of Dôn is wrong with you?” Before she could lunge at Kayla, Nooa pulled her back, hugging her to his side.
She spun around at the sound of Fay’s voice, and when she saw the worry on Fay’s face, the heat inside of her evaporated. Her shoulders slumped, and she felt drained of energy. Fay seemed to notice and was right by her side to prop her up.
“If I don’t find the Elder Faerie…” Kayla said in a shaky voice. “I can never make Titania pay for what she did to my father. I’ll never find out what happened to my birth parents, and I’ll never return home to my human family. Without my powers, I can’t protect Abby from the banshee’s curse. I can’t… keep any of you safe.”
Fay drew Kayla even closer. “You do not have to protect us all. We can take care of ourselves.”
“You don’t understand. Titania wants you and Ophira dead.” Kayla winced as she remembered yet another image that hadn’t left her mind since her visit to the Unseelie Court. A vision of Fay’s dead body that Titania had forced her to see. “I can’t lose you too.”
Kayla buried her face in the crook of Fay’s neck, inhaling the scent of Fay’s hair. It smelled like pine needles and tickled Kayla’s nose.
“You won’t lose me,” Fay said. “We will find that tree.”
The last bit of frustration left Kayla’s body. Her necklace returned to the same steady rhythm. She took another deep breath before leaving the safety of Fay’s embrace and facing the others.
“I’ve put you all in a lot of danger, and I get that I’m asking you to risk your lives again. But I’m convinced that the tree is the answer to most of my questions. If you want to leave and return home now, I wouldn’t blame you.” Kayla looked directly at Maeve, who hid any emotion behind a mask of indifference. “I certainly wouldn’t mind going home, if I could.”
Without hesitation, Fay slipped her hand into Kayla’s. “Everything will work out as long as we stick together.”
“I agree,” Mór said. “I may have only met you, but I can sense your determination, and I will stay by your side for as long as you need me.”
“Me too,” Nooa said, which finally got a reaction from Maeve.
“You already got hurt once because of her—”
“And I will risk it again if it means restoring peace to this kingdom.”
Maeve’s lips parted, ready to argue, but then she pinched them shut again. With her arms crossed, she stared at a spot by her feet and said, “Guess I’ll come along too. You wouldn’t stand a chance without me, anyway.”
“Let us finally get off this island,” Mór said. At least that was something they could all agree on.