Holly Black’s Stolen Heir Elfhame Sequel

Fantasy author Holly Black returns to Elfhame, the world of The Stolen Heir, next year with The Prisoner’s Throne—exploring the popular character of Oak in the first novel written from his point of view. In io9’s exclusive excerpt, Oak’s stuck behind bars… and having some conflicted feelings about what to do next.

An imprisoned prince. A vengeful queen. And a battle that will determine the future of Elfhame.

Prince Oak is paying for his betrayal. Imprisoned in the icy north and bound to the will of a monstrous new queen, he must rely on charm and calculation to survive. With High King Cardan and High Queen Jude willing to use any means necessary to retrieve their stolen heir, Oak will have to decide whether to attempt regaining the trust of the girl he’s always loved or to remain loyal to Elfhame and hand over the means to end her reign—even if it means ending Wren, too. With a new war looming on the horizon and treachery lurking in every corner, neither Oak’s guile nor his wit will be enough to keep everyone he loves alive. It’s just a question of whom he will doom.

Here’s the full cover, which was previously revealed, followed by the excerpt.

Image for article titled A Captive Prince Plots Escape in Holly Black's Return to the World of The Stolen Heir

Image: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

The cold of the prisons eats at Oak’s bones, and the stink of iron scrapes his throat. The bridle presses against his cheeks, reminding him that he is shackled to an obedience that binds him more securely than any chains. But worst of all is the dread of what will happen next, a dread so great that he wishes it would just happen so he could stop dreading it.

On the morning after he was locked in his cell in the stone dungeons beneath the Ice Needle Citadel of the former Court of Teeth, a servant brought him a blanket lined in rabbit fur. A kindness he didn’t know how to interpret. No matter how tightly he wraps it around himself, though, he is seldom warm.

Twice each day he is brought food. Water, often with a rime of ice on the surface. Soup, hot enough to make him comfortable for a scant hour or so. As the days stretch on, he fears that, rather than putting his torment off, as one puts a particularly delicious morsel to the side of one’s plate to be saved for last, he has simply been forgotten.

Once, he thought he recognized Wren’s shadow, observing him from a distance. He called to her, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she’d never been there. The iron muddles his thoughts. Perhaps he only saw what he so desperately wanted to see.

She has not spoken with him since she sent him here. Not even to use the bridle to command him. Not even to gloat.

Sometimes he screams into the darkness, just to remind himself that he can.

These dungeons were built to swallow screams. No one comes.

Today, he screams himself hoarse and then slumps against a wall. He wishes he could tell himself a story, but he cannot convince himself that he is a brave prince suffering a setback on a daring quest, nor the tempestuous, star‑crossed lover he has played at so many times in the past. Not even the loyal brother and son he meant to be when he set out from Elfhame.

Whatever he is, he’s certainly no hero.

A guard stomps down the hall, driving Oak to his hooves. One of the falcons. Straun. The prince has overheard him at the gate before, complaining, not realizing his voice carries. He is ambitious, bored by the tediousness of guard duty, and eager to show off his skill in front of the new queen.

Wren, whose beauty Straun rhapsodizes over.

Oak hates Straun.

“You there,” the falcon says, drawing close. “Be quiet before I quiet you.”

Ah, Oak realizes. He’s so bored that he wants to make something happen.

“I am merely trying to give this dungeon an authentic atmosphere,” Oak says. “What’s a place like this without the cries of the tormented?”

“Traitor’s son, you think much of yourself, but you know nothing of torment,” Straun says, kicking the iron bars with the heel of his boot, making them ring. “Soon, though. Soon, you’ll learn. You should save your screams.”

Traitor’s son. Interesting. Not just bored, then, but resentful of Madoc.

Oak steps close enough to the bars that he can feel the heat of the iron. “Does Wren intend to punish me, then?”

Straun snorts. “Our queen has more important things to attend to than you. She’s gone to the Stone Forest to wake the troll kings.”

Oak stares at him, stunned.

The falcon grins. “Worry not, though. The storm hag is still here. Maybe she’ll send for you. Her punishments are legendary.” With that, he walks back toward the gate.

Oak sags to the cold floor, furious and despairing.

You have to break out. The thought strikes him forcefully. You must find a way.

Not easy, that. The iron bars burn. The lock is hard to pick, though he tried once with a fork. All he managed to do was snap off one of the tines and ensure that all subsequent food was sent only with spoons.

Not easy to escape. And besides, maybe, after everything, Wren still might visit him.

Oak wakes on the stone floor of his cell with his head ringing and his breath clouding in the air. He blinks in confusion, still half in dreams. He’s seldom able to sleep deeply with so much iron around him, but that’s not what woke him tonight.

A great cresting wave of magic washes over the Citadel, coursing from somewhere south, crashing down with unmistakable power. Then there is a tremble in the earth, as though something massive moved upon it.

It comes to him then that the Stone Forest is south of the Citadel. The trembling is not something moving upon the earth but something disgorged from it. Wren did it. She has released the troll kings from their bondage beneath the ground.

Broken an ancient curse, one so old that for Oak it seems woven into the fabric of the world, as implacable as the sea and sky.

He can almost hear the cracking sound of the rocks that imprisoned them. Fissures spiderwebbing out from two directions at once, from both boulders. Waves of magical force flowing from those twinned centers, intense enough that nearby trees would split apart, sending the ice‑crusted blue fruit to scatter on the snow.

He can almost see the two ancient troll kings, rising up from the earth, stretching for the first time in centuries. Tall as giants, shaking off all that had grown over them in their slumber. Dirt and grass, small trees, and rocks would all rain down from their shoulders.

Wren had done it.

And since that is supposed to be impossible, the prince has no idea what she might do next.

Since he’s unlikely to be able to sleep again, Oak goes through the exercises the Ghost taught him long ago so that he could still practice while stuck in the mortal world.

Imagine you have a weapon. They had been in Vivi’s second apartment, standing on a small metal balcony. Inside, Taryn and Vivi had been fussing over Leander, who was learning to crawl. The Ghost had asked about Oak’s training and been uninterested in the excuse that he was eleven, had to go to school, and couldn’t be swinging around a longsword in the common space of the lawn without neighbors getting worried.

Oh come on! Oak laughed, thinking the spy was being silly.

The Ghost conjured the illusion of a blade out of thin air, its hilt decorated with ivy. His glamour was so good that Oak had to look closely to see that it wasn’t real. Your turn, prince.

Oak had actually liked making his own sword. It was huge and black with a bright red hilt covered in demonish faces. It looked like the sword of someone in an anime he’d been watching, and he felt like a badass, holding it in his hands.

The sight of Oak’s blade had made the Ghost smile, but he didn’t laugh. Instead, he started moving through a series of exercises, urging Oak to follow. He told the prince should call him by his non‑spy name, Garrett, since they were friends.

You can do this, the Ghost—Garrett—told him. When you have nothing else.

Nothing else to practice with, he probably meant. Although right now, Oak has nothing else, full stop.

The exercises warm him just enough to be halfway comfortable when he wraps the blanket around his shoulders.

The prince has been imprisoned three weeks, according to the tallies he’s made in the dust beneath the lone bench. Long enough to dwell on every mistake he has made on his ill‑fated quest. Long enough to endlessly reconsider what he ought to have done in the swamp after the Thistlewitch turned to him and spoke in her raspy voice: Didn’t you know, prince of foxes, what you already had? What a fine jest, to look for Mellith’s heart when she walks beside you.

At the memory, Oak stands and paces the floor, his hooves clattering restlessly against the black stone. He should have told her the truth. Should have told her and accepted the consequences.

Instead, he convinced himself that keeping the secret of her origin protected her, but was that true? Or was it more true that he’d manipulated her, the way he manipulated everyone in his life? That was what he was good at, after all—tricks, games, insincerity.

His family must be in a panic right now. He trusts that Tiernan got Madoc to Elfhame safely, no matter what the redcap general wanted. But Jude would be furious with Tiernan for leaving Oak behind and even angrier with Madoc, if she guesses just how much of this is his fault.

Possibly Cardan would be relieved to be rid of Oak, but that wouldn’t stop Jude from making a plan to get him back. Jude has been ruthless on Oak’s behalf before, but this is the first time it’s scared him. Wren is dangerous. She is not someone to cross. Neither of them are.

He recalls the press of Wren’s sharp teeth against his shoulder. The nervous fumble of her kiss, the shine of her wet eyes, and how he repaid her reluctant trust with deception. Again and again in his mind, he sees the betrayal on her face when she realized what an enormous secret he’d kept.

It doesn’t matter if you deserve to be in her prisons, he tells himself. You still need to get out.

Sitting in the dark, he listens to the guards play dice games. They have opened a jug of a particularly strong juniper liquor in celebration of Wren’s accomplishment. Straun is the loudest and drunkest of the bunch, and the one losing the most coin.

Oak dozes off and wakes to the tread of soft footfalls. He surges to his hooves, moving as close to the iron bars as he dares.

A huldu woman comes into view, bearing a tray, her tail swishing behind her.

Disappointment is a pit in his stomach.

“Fernwaif,” he says, and her eyes go to his. He can see the wariness in them.

“You remember my name,” she says, as though it’s some kind of trick. As though princes have the attention spans of gnats.

“Most certainly I do.” He smiles, and after a moment, she visibly relaxes, her shoulders lowering.

He wouldn’t have noted that reaction before. After all, smiles were supposed to reassure people. Just maybe not quite so much as his smiles did.

Maybe you can’t help it. Maybe you do it without knowing. That’s what Wren had said when he claimed he didn’t use his honey‑mouthed charm, his gancanagh ability, anymore. He’d stuck to the rules Oriana had given him. Sure, he knew the right things to say to make someone like him, but he’d told himself that wasn’t the same as just giving himself over to the magic, not the same as enchanting them.

But sitting in the dark, he has reconsidered. What if the power leaches out of him like a miasma? Like a poison? Perhaps the seducing of conspirators he’d done wasn’t his being clever or companionable, it was his using a power they couldn’t fight against. What if he is a much worse person than he’s supposed?

And as though to prove it, he presses his advantage, magical or not.

He smiles more broadly at Fernwaif. “You’re far superior company to the guard who brought my food yesterday,” he tells her with utter sincerity, thinking of a troll who wouldn’t so much as meet his gaze. Who spilled half his water on the ground and then grinned at him, showing a set of cracked teeth.

Fernwaif snorts. “I don’t know if that’s much of a compliment.”

It wasn’t. “Shall I tell you instead that your hair is like spun gold, your eyes like sapphires?”

She giggles, and he can see her cheeks are pink as she pulls out the empty bowls near the slot at the bottom of the cell and replaces them with the new tray. “You best not.”

“I can do better,” he says. “And perhaps you might bring me a little gossip to cheer the chilly monotony of my days.”

“You’re very silly, Your Highness,” she says after a moment, biting her bottom lip a little.

His gaze travels, evaluating the pockets of her dress for the weight of keys. Her blush deepens.

“I am,” he agrees. “Silly enough to have gotten myself into this predicament. I wonder if you could take a message to Wr—to your new queen?”

She looks away. “I dare not,” she says, and he knows he ought to leave it at that.

He remembers Oriana’s warning to him when he was a child. A power like the one you have is dangerous, she said. You can know what other people most want to hear. Say those things, and they will not only want to listen to you. They will come to want you above all other things. The love that a gancanagh inspires—some may pine away for desire of it. Others will carve the gancanagh to pieces to be sure no one else has it.

He made a mistake when he first went to school in the mortal world. He felt alone at the mortal school, and so when he made a friend, he wanted to keep him. And he knew just how. It was easy; all he had to do was say the right things. He remembers the taste of the power on his tongue, supplying words he didn’t even understand. Soccer and Minecraft, praise for the boy’s drawings. Not lies, but nowhere near the truth, either. They had fun together, running around the playground, drenched in sweat, or playing video games in the boy’s basement. They had fun together until he found that when they were apart, even for a few hours, the boy wouldn’t speak. Wouldn’t eat. Would just wait until he saw Oak again.

With that memory in his mind, Oak stumbles on, forcing his mouth into a smile he hopes looks real. “You see, I wish to let your queen know that I await her pleasure. I am hers to command, and I hope she will come and do just that.”

“You don’t want to be saved?” Fernwaif smiles. She’s the one teasing him now. “Shall I inform my mistress that you are so tame she can let you out?”

“Tell her . . . ,” Oak says, keeping his astonishment at the news she’s returned to the Citadel off his face through sheer force of will. “Tell her that I am wasted in all this gloom.”

Fernwaif laughs, her eyes shining as though Oak is a romantic figure in a tale. “She asked me to come today,” the huldu girl confides in a whisper.

That seems hopeful. The first hopeful thing he’s heard in a while.

“Then I greatly desire your report of me to be a favorable one,” he says, and makes a bow.

Her cheeks are still pink with pleasure when she leaves, departing with light steps. He can see the swish of her tail beneath her skirts.

Oak watches her go before bending down and inspecting his tray—a mushroom pie, a ramekin of jam, an entire steaming teapot with a cup, a glass of melted snow water. Nicer food than usual. And yet he finds he has little appetite for it.

All he can think of is Wren, whom he has every reason to fear and desires anyway. Who may be his enemy and a danger to everyone else he loves.

Oak kicks his hoof against the stone wall of his cage. Then he goes to pour himself a cup of the pine needle tea before it cools. The warmth of the pot on his hands limbers his fingers enough that, had he another fork, he would try that lock again.

That night, he wakes to the sight of a snake crawling down the wall, its black metal body jeweled and glittering. A forked emerald tongue tastes the air at regular intervals, like a metronome.

It startles him badly enough for him to back up against the bars, the iron hot against his shoulders. He has seen creatures like it before, forged by the great smiths of Faerie. Valuable and dangerous.

The paranoid thought comes to him that poison would be one straightforward way to solve the problem of his being held by an enemy of Elfhame. If he were dead, there’d be no reason to pay a ransom.

He doesn’t think his sister would allow it, but there are those who might risk going around her. Grima Mog, the new grand general, would know exactly where to find the prince, having served the Court of Teeth herself. Grima Mog might look forward to the war it would start. And, of course, she answered to Cardan as much as Jude.

Not to mention there was always the possibility that Cardan convinced Jude that Oak was a danger to them both.

“Hello,” he whispers warily to the snake.

It yawns widely enough for him to see silver fangs. The links of its body move, and a ring comes up from its throat, clanging to the floor. He leans down and lifts it. A gold ring with a deep blue stone, scuffed with wear. His ring, a present from his mother on his thirteenth birthday and left behind on his dresser because it no longer fit his finger. Proof that this creature was sent from Elfhame. Proof that he was supposed to trust it.

“Prinss,” it says. “In three daysssss, you mussss be ready for resssss‑cue.”

“Rescue?” Not here to poison him, then.

The snake just stares with its cold, glittering eyes.

Many nights, he hoped someone would come for him. Even though he wanted it to be Wren, there were plenty of times he imagined the Bomb blowing a hole in the wall and getting him out.

But now that it’s a real possibility, he’s surprised by how he feels.

“Give me longer,” he says, no matter that it’s ridiculous to negotiate with a metal snake and even more ridiculous to negotiate for his own imprisonment, just in order to get a chance to speak with someone who refuses to see him. “Two more weeks perhaps. A month.”

If he could only talk to Wren, he could explain. Maybe she wouldn’t forgive him, but if she saw he wasn’t her enemy, that would be enough.

Even convincing her that she didn’t have to be an enemy to Elfhame would be something.

“Three dayssssss,” it says again. Its enchantment is either too simple to decode his protests or it has been told to ignore them. “Be rehhhhdy.”

Oak slides the ring onto his pinkie finger, watching the snake as it coils its way up the wall. Halfway to the ceiling, he realizes that just because it wasn’t sent to poison him doesn’t mean it wasn’t sent to poison someone.

He jumps onto the bench and grabs for it, catching the end of its tail. With a tug, it comes off the wall, falling against his body and coiling around his forearm.

“Prinsssss,” it hisses. As it opens its mouth to speak, he notes the tiny holes in the points of its silvery fangs.

When it does not strike, Oak pries the snake carefully from around his arm. Then, gripping the end of its tail firmly, he slams it down against the stone bench. Hears the cracking of its delicate mechanical parts. A gem flies off. So does a piece of metal. He whips it against the bench again.

A sound like the whistle of a teakettle comes from it, and its coils writhe. He brings its body down hard twice more, until it is broken and utterly still.

Oak feels relieved and awful at the same time. Perhaps it was no more alive than one of the ragwort steeds, but it had spoken. It had seemed alive.

He sinks to the floor. Inside the metal creature, he finds a glass vial, now cracked. The liquid inside is bloodred and clotted. Blusher mushroom. The one poison unlikely to harm him. Welcome proof that his sister doesn’t want him dead. Maybe Cardan doesn’t, either.

The snake is limp in his hands, the magic gone from it. He trembles to think of what could have happened had the creature been sent to visit Wren before finding him in the prisons. Or if his iron‑addled mind had only realized the danger too late.

Three days.

He can no longer dawdle. No longer dread. No longer scheme. He has to act, and fast.

Oak listens for the changing of the guard. Once he hears Straun’s voice, he bangs on the bars until the guard comes. It takes a long time, but not as long as it might have if Straun wasn’t in a foul mood from a night of drinking and losing money at dice.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” the falcon roars.

“You’re going to get me out of this cell,” Oak says.

Straun pauses, then sneers, but there’s a little wariness in it. “Have you run mad, princeling?”

Oak holds out his hand. A collection of gemstones rests in his scratched palm. He spent the better part of the night prying them out of the body of the snake. Each is worth ten times what Straun gambled away. The falcon snorts in disgust but cannot disguise his interest. “You intend to bribe me?”

“Will it work?” Oak asks, walking to the edge of his cell. He’s not sure if it’s his magic urging him on or not.

Almost against his will, Straun steps closer. Good. The prince can smell the sharpness of the juniper liquor on his breath. Perhaps he is still a little drunk. Even better.

Oak reaches his right hand halfway through the bars, lifting it so the gems catch the faint edge of torchlight. He slides his other hand through, too, lower.

Straun smacks Oak’s arm hard. His skin hits the iron bar on his cell, burning. The prince howls as the gems fall, most scattering across the corridor between the cells.

“Didn’t think I was half so clever as you, did you?” Straun laughs as he gathers up the stones, not having promised a single thing.

“I did not,” Oak admits.

Straun spits on the floor in front of the prince’s cage. “No amount of gold or gems will save you. If my winter queen wants you to rot here, you’re going to rot.”

Your winter queen?” Oak repeats, unable to stop himself. The falcon looks a little shamefaced and turns to go back to his post. He’s young, Oak realizes. Older than Oak, but not by so very much. Younger than Hyacinthe. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Wren made such an impression on him.

It shouldn’t bother Oak, shouldn’t fill him with a ferocious jealousy.

What the prince needs to concentrate on is the key in his left hand.

The one he grabbed from the loop at Straun’s belt when the falcon smacked his right arm. Straun, who was, thankfully, exactly as clever as Oak had supposed him to be. The key fits smoothly into the lock of Oak’s cell. It turns so soundlessly it might as well have been greased.

Not that Straun is likely to come back to check on him, no matter how loud he bangs on the bars. The guard will be feeling smug. Well, let him.

The prince lifts a piece of cloth he’s torn from his shirt and soaked in blusher mushroom liquid salvaged from the snake. Then he starts down the hall, his breath clouding in the cold air.

The Ghost taught him how to move stealthily, but he’s never been very good at it. He blames his hooves, heavy and hard. They clack at the worst possible times. But he makes an effort, sliding them against the floor to minimize noise.

Straun is grumbling to another guard about how the others are cheats, refusing to play any more dice games. Oak waits until one leaves to bring back more refreshments and listens hard to the retreating steps of boots.

After he’s sure there’s only one guard there, he tries the gate. It’s not even locked. He supposes there’s no reason for it to be when there’s only one prisoner, and he wears a bridle to keep him obedient.

Oak moves fast, jerking Straun backward and covering his nose and mouth with the cloth. The guard struggles, but inhaling blusher mushroom slows his movements. Oak presses him to the floor until he’s unconscious.

From there, it’s just a matter of arranging his body so that when the other guard returns, he might believe he’s dozed off. It’s hard for Oak to leave the guard’s sword at his hip, but its absence would almost certainly give him away. He does, however, snatch up the cloak he finds hanging on a hook beside the door.

The Prisoner’s Throne by Holly Black excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

The Prisoner’s Throne by Holly Black will be released March 5, 2024; you can pre-order a copy here.

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