Mutely, he accepted the bag and poured out a handful of peanuts and raisins. I gazed into the distance, where the looming black tower stabbed into the clouds. “How long do you think until we reach it?” I murmured, just to get him talking again.

Ash tossed the whole handful back, chewed, and swallowed without interest. “I’d guess a day at most,” he replied, setting down the bag. “Beyond that…” He sighed, and his eyes darkened. “I doubt I’d be of much use anymore.”

My stomach convulsed with dread. I couldn’t lose him now. I’d lost so much already; it seemed especially cruel that Ash might not reach the end of our adventure. I needed him as I’d never needed anyone before. I’ll protect you, I thought, surprising myself. You’ll get through this, I promise. Just don’t die on me, Ash.

Ash met my gaze, as if he could tell what I was thinking, his gray eyes solemn in the shadows of the pipe. I wondered if my emotions were giving away my thoughts, if Ash could read the glamour aura that surrounded me. For a moment, he hesitated, as if fighting a battle within himself. Then with a resigned sigh, he smiled faintly and held out his hand. I took it, and he pulled me close, settling me in front of him and wrapping his arms around my stomach. I leaned back against his chest and listened to his beating heart. With every thump, it told me that this was real, that Ash was here, and alive, and still with me.

The wind picked up, smelling of ozone and some other weird, chemical scent. A drop of rain hit the edge of the pipe, and a tiny wisp of smoke curled into the air. Except for his slow breathing, Ash was perfectly still, as if he feared that any sudden movement would scare me away. I reached down and traced idle patterns on his arm, marveling at the cool, smooth skin under my fingers, like living ice. I felt him shiver, heard his ragged intake of breath.

“Ash?”

“Hmm?”

I licked my lips. “Why did you vow to kill Puck?”

He jerked. I felt his eyes on the back of my neck and bit the inside of my cheek, wishing I could take it back, wondering what made me ask in the first place. “Never mind,” I told him, waving a hand. “Forget it. You don’t have to tell me. I was just wondering—”

Who you really are. What Puck has done to make you hate him. I want to understand. I feel I don’t know either of you.

A few more drops of rain hit the ground, hissing in the silence. I chewed my jerky strips and stared out into the rain, hyperaware of Ash’s body, of his arms around my waist. I heard him shift to a more comfortable position and sigh.

“It was a long time ago,” he murmured, his voice almost lost in the rising wind, “before you were even born. Winter and Summer had been at peace for several seasons. There were always minor skirmishes between the courts, but for the longest time in centuries, we actually left each other alone.

“Near the end of summer,” he went on, a bit of pain creeping into his voice, “things began to change. The fey don’t deal well with boredom, and some of the more impatient members started mischief with Summer again. I should’ve known there would be trouble, but that season, I wasn’t thinking of politics. The entire court was bored and restless, but I…” His voice broke, only for a moment, before continuing. “I was with my lady, Ariella Tularyn.”

I felt the breath sucked out of me. His lady. Ash had been involved, once. And, judging from the veiled hurt in his voice, he’d loved her a lot. I stiffened, suddenly too aware of my breath, of his arms around my waist. Ash didn’t seem to notice.

“We were hunting in the wyldwood,” he went on, resting his chin atop my head. “Following the rumor of a golden fox that had been seen in the area. There were three of us that day, hunting together. Ariella, myself, and…and Robin Goodfellow.”

“Puck?”

Ash shifted uncomfortably. Thunder growled in the distance, shooting threads of green lightning across the sky. “Yes,” he muttered, as if it pained him to say it. “Puck. Puck was…he was a friend, once. I wasn’t ashamed to call him that. Back then, the three of us would often meet one another in the wyldwood, away from the condemnation of the courts. We didn’t care about the rules. Back then, Puck and Ariella were my closest companions. I trusted them completely.”

“What happened?”

Ash’s voice was soft with memory as he continued. “We were hunting,” he explained again, “following our quarry into a territory none of us had seen. The wyldwood is huge, and some parts are constantly shifting, so it can be dangerous, even for us. We tracked the golden fox for three days, through unfamiliar woods and forest, making bets on whose arrow would finally take it down. Puck boasted that Winter would surely lose to Summer, and Ariella and I made the same boast in reverse. All the while, the forest around us grew dark and wild. Our horses were fey steeds whose hooves didn’t touch the ground, but they were growing increasingly nervous. We should have listened to them, but we didn’t, stubborn pride leading us on like fools.

“Finally, on the fourth day, we came to a rise that plunged down into a vast hollow. On the other side, trotting along the ridge, was the golden fox. The hollow separating us wasn’t deep, but it was wide and filled with tangled shadows and undergrowth, making it difficult to see what was down there.

“Ariella wanted to go around, even though it would take us longer. Puck disagreed, insisting we would lose our quarry unless we rode straight through. We argued. I sided with Ariella—though I didn’t see the reason for her apprehension, if she wasn’t willing to go forward, I wasn’t going to make her.

“Puck, however, had other ideas. As I turned my horse around, he let out a whoop, slapped Ariella’s horse on the rump, and kicked his own steed forward. They plunged over the edge, racing down the slope, with Puck yelling at me to catch up if I could. I had no choice but to follow.”

Ash fell silent, his eyes dark and haunted. He gazed off into the distance, until I couldn’t take it anymore. “What happened?” I whispered.

He gave a bitter laugh. “Ariella was right, of course. Puck had led us straight into a wyvern nest.”

I felt stupid for asking but…“What’s a wyvern?”

“It’s cousin to a dragon,” Ash replied. “Not as intelligent, but still extremely dangerous. And highly territorial. The thing rose up out of nowhere, all scales and teeth and wings, lashing at us with its poisoned stinger. It was enormous, an ancient drake, vicious and powerful. We fought our way free, the three of us, side by side. We’d been together so long we knew one another’s fighting styles, and used them to take down the enemy. It was Ariella who landed the killing blow. But, as it was dying, the wyvern whipped its tail out one last time, striking her in the chest. Wyvern poison is extremely potent, and we were miles from any healers. We…we tried to save her, but…”

He paused, taking a shaky breath. I squeezed his arm to console him.

“She died in my arms,” he finished, making an audible effort to compose himself. “She died with my name on her lips, begging me to save her. As I held her, watched the life fade from her eyes, I could only think one thing—that Puck had caused this. If it wasn’t for him, she would still be alive.”

“I’m so sorry, Ash.”

Ash nodded once. His voice turned steely. “I swore, on that day, to avenge Ariella’s death, to kill Robin Goodfellow, or die trying. We’ve clashed several times since, but Goodfellow always manages to slip away, or throw me some trick that ends our duels. I cannot rest while he lives. I promised Ariella that I would continue hunting Robin Goodfellow until one of us lies dead.”

“Puck told me it was a mistake. He didn’t mean for that to happen.” The words were sour in my mouth. It didn’t feel right, defending him. Ash had lost someone he loved because of Puck’s actions, a prank that finally went too far.

“It doesn’t matter.” Ash shifted away from me, his voice cold. “My vow is binding. I cannot rest until I’ve completed my oath.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I stared into the rain, miserable and torn in two. Ash and Puck, two enemies locked in a struggle that would end only when one of them killed the other. How could you stand between two people like that, knowing that one day, one of them would succeed? I knew faery oaths were binding, and Ash had good reason to hate Puck, but I still felt trapped. I couldn’t stop this, but I didn’t want either of them to die.

Ash sighed and leaned forward again, brushing my hand, tracing the skin with his fingertips. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. A shiver went up my arm. “I wish you didn’t have to be involved. There is no way to unmake a vow, once it has been spoken. But know this—were I aware then that I would meet you, perhaps my oath would not have been so hasty.”

My throat closed up. I wanted to say something, but at that moment, a sharp blast of wind blew a few drops of rain into the tube. Water splashed over my jeans, and I yelped as something burned my skin.

We examined my leg. Tiny holes marred my jeans where the drops had hit, the material seared away, the skin underneath red and burned. It throbbed as if I’d jabbed needles into my flesh.

“What the heck?” I muttered, glaring into the storm. It looked like ordinary rain—gray, misty, somewhat depressing. Almost compulsively, I stuck my hand toward the opening, where water dripped over the edge of the tube.

Ash grabbed my wrist, snatching it back. “Yes, it will burn your hand as well as your leg,” he said in a bland voice. “And here I thought you learned your lesson with the chains.”

Embarrassed, I dropped my hand and scooted farther into the tube, away from the rim and the acid rain dripping from it. “Guess I’m staying up all night,” I muttered, crossing my arms. “Wouldn’t want to doze off and find half my face melted off when I wake up.”

Ash pulled me back against him, brushing my hair from my neck. His mouth skimmed my shoulder, up my neck, sending butterflies swarming through my insides. “If you want to rest, then do so,” he murmured against my skin. “The rain will not touch you, I promise.”

“What about you?”

“I wasn’t planning to sleep.” He made a casual gesture at a trickle of rainwater seeping into the tube, and the water turned to ice. “I fear I wouldn’t be able to wake up.”

My worry spiked. “Ash—”

His lips brushed my ear. “Sleep, Meghan Chase,” he whispered, and suddenly I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Half my consciousness still struggled as darkness pulled me under and I sank into his waiting arms.

WHEN I AWOKE, THE RAIN HAD stopped and everything had dried, though the ground still steamed. There was no visible sun through the choking clouds, but the air still blistered with heat. I grabbed my backpack and crawled out of the pipe, looking around for Ash. He sat against the outside of the tube, head back, sword resting on his knees. Seeing him, I felt a rush of anger and fear. He’d enchanted me last night, spelled me to sleep without my consent. Which meant he’d probably used glamour, though his own body was getting weaker and weaker. Fuming and afraid, I stomped up to him and put my hands on his hips. Gray eyes cracked open and regarded me blearily.


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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