And there he was. I couldn’t physically see him, of course, but I could sense him, feel his presence in front of me, a bright spot of life against the heartwood. I felt the wood cradling his thin, lanky frame, protecting it, and heard the faintest thump-thump of a beating heart. Puck hovered limply, his chin on his chest and his eyes closed.
He seemed much smaller in sleep, fragile and ghostlike, as if a breath could blow him away.
I drifted closer, reaching out to touch him, brushing insubstantial fingers over his cheek, pushing back unruly red bangs. He didn’t stir. If I didn’t hear his heartbeat, vibrating faintly through the tree, I would’ve thought he was already dead.
“I’m so sorry, Puck,” I whispered, or maybe I just thought it, deep inside the giant oak. “I wish you were here with me now. I’m scared, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really need you to come back.” If he heard me, he didn’t show it. There was no flicker of eyelids, no twitch of his head, responding to my voice. Puck remained limp and motionless, his heartbeat calm and steady, echoing through the wood. My best friend was far from me, beyond my reach, and I couldn’t bring him back.
Depressed, feeling strangely sick, I pulled out of the tree, returning to my own body. As the sounds of the world returned, I found myself fighting back tears. So close. So close to Puck, and still so far away.
Ash’s expression was grave as I met his eyes; he knew what I’d done, and could guess the outcome.
“He’s still alive,” he told me. “That’s all you can hope for.” I sniffed, turning away, and Ash sighed. “Don’t worry too much about him, Meghan. Robin Goodfellow has always been extraordinarily difficult to kill.” His voice hovered between irritation and amusement, as if he spoke from experience. “I can almost guarantee Goodfellow will pop up one day when you least expect it, just be patient.”
“Patience,” said an amused voice somewhere over my head, “has never been the girl’s strong suit.” Startled, I looked up, into the branches of the oak. A pair of familiar golden eyes peered down at me, attached to nothing else, and my heart leaped.
The eyes blinked slowly, and the body of a large gray cat appeared, crouched on one of the lower branches. It was Grimalkin, the faery cat I met on my last journey to Faery. Grim had helped me out a few times in the past…but his help always came with a price. The cat loved collecting favors and did nothing for free, but I was still happy to see him, even if I still owed him a debt or two from our last adventure.
“What are you doing here, Grim?” I asked as the feline yawned and stretched, arching his fluffy tail over his back. True to form, Grimalkin finished stretching, sat down and gave his fur several licks before deigning to reply.
“I had business with the Elder Dryad,” he replied in a bored voice. “I needed to know if she’d heard anything about the whereabouts of a certain individual.” Grim scratched behind an ear, examined his back toes and gave them a lick. “Then I heard that you were on your way here, so I thought I would wait, to see if it was true. You have always proved most entertaining.”
“But…the Elder Dryad is asleep,” I said, frowning.
“They told me she’s too weak to even come out of her tree.”
“What is your point, human?”
“Never mind.” I shook my head. Grimalkin was exasperating and secretive, and I learned long ago he wouldn’t share anything until he was ready. “It’s still good to see you, Grim. Wish we could stay and talk awhile, but we’re in sort of a hurry right now.”
“Mmm, yes. Your ill-contrived deal with the Winter prince.” Grimalkin’s eyes shifted to Ash and back to me, blinking slowly. “Hasty and reckless, just like a human.” He sniffed, staring straight at Ash, now. “But…I would have thought that you knew better, Prince.” Before I could ask what he meant by that, I felt a hand on my arm and turned to meet Ash’s solemn gaze.
“We should go,” he murmured, and though his voice was firm, his expression was apologetic. “If something is chasing us, we should try to make it to Tir Na Nog as soon as we can. It won’t be able to follow us, then. And I can protect you better in my own territory than the wyldwood or the mortal realm.”
“One moment.” Grimalkin yawned and sidled down from the tree, landing noiselessly on the roots. “If you are leaving now, I believe I will come with you. At least part of the way.”
“Really?” I stared at him, surprised. “You’re going to Tir Na Nog? Why?”
“I told you before. I am looking for someone.”
“You ask a wearying amount of questions, human.” Grimalkin hopped down from the roots and trotted off, tail in the air. Several yards away, he glanced back over his shoulder, twitching an ear. “Well? Are you coming or not? If you say there is something after you, it would make sense not to be here when it comes to call, yes?” Ash and I shared a bemused look and trailed after him.
The Elder Gate loomed before us, tall and imposing even though the tree was dying. As we approached, the entire trunk suddenly shifted with a groan. A face pushed its way out of the bark, old and wrinkled, part of the tree come to life. The Elder Dryad opened her eyes, squinting as though it was difficult to focus, and her gaze fastened on me.
“Nooooooooo,” she breathed, barely a whisper in the darkness. “You must not go back this way. He waits for you on the other side. He will…” Her voice trailed off, and her face sank back into the wood, vanishing from sight. “Run,” was the last thing I heard.
I shivered all the way down to my toes. Ash immediately took my hand and drew me away, striding in the opposite direction, his body tense like a coiled wire.
Grimalkin slipped after us, a gray ghost in the shadows, the fur on his tail standing on end. It would’ve been funny if I didn’t feel eyes on the back of my neck, old, savage and patient, watching us flee into the night.
Ash paused beneath the limbs of another oak, put his fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle. Moments later, the fey horse trotted out of the shadows, snorting and tossing its head, skidding to a stop before us.
“Where are we going now?” I asked, as Ash helped me into the saddle.
“We can’t use the Elder Gate to get back,” the prince replied, swinging up behind me. “We’ll have to find another way into the Nevernever. And quickly.” He gathered the reins in one hand and snaked an arm around my waist. “I know of another trod that will take us close to Tir Na Nog, but it’s in a part of the city that’s…dangerous for Summer fey.”
“You are speaking of the Dungeon, are you not?” Grimalkin said, appearing suddenly in my lap, curled up like he belonged. I blinked in surprise. “Are you sure you want to take the girl there?”
“Not much choice, now.” Tightening his grip on my waist, Ash kicked the horse forward, and we galloped into the streets of New Orleans.
I’d forgotten what it was like to be a half faery in the real world, or at least in the company of a powerful, full-blooded fey. The horse trotted down brightly lit streets, weaving through cars and alleyways and people, and no one saw us. No one even glanced our way. Regular humans couldn’t see the faery world, though it was all around them. Like the two goblins sifting through a spilled Dumpster in an alley, gnawing on bones and other things I didn’t want to dwell on. Or the dragonfly-winged sylph perched atop a telephone pole, watching the streets with the intensity of an eagle observing her territory. We nearly ran into a group of dwarves leaving one of the many pubs on Bourbon Street. The short, bearded men shouted drunken curses as the horse swerved, barely missing them, and galloped away down the sidewalk.
We were deep in the French Quarter when Ash stopped in front of a wall of stone buildings, old black shutters and doors lining the sidewalk. A sign swinging above a thick black door read: Ye Olde Original Dungeon, and there was red paint spattered against the frame in what was supposed to be blood, I guessed. At least, I hoped it was paint. Ash pushed open the door, revealing a very long, narrow alleyway, and turned to me.
“This is Unseelie territory,” he murmured close to my ear. “There’s a rough crowd that frequents this place.
Don’t talk to anyone, and stay close to me.” I nodded and peered down the closed-in space, which was barely wide enough to walk through. “What about the horse?”
Ash removed the horse’s pack and pulled off its bridle, tossing it into the shadows. “It’ll find its own way home,” he murmured, swinging the pack over one shoulder. “Let’s go.”
We slipped down the narrow corridor, Ash in front, Grim trailing behind. The alley ended in a small courtyard, where a scraggly waterfall trickled into a moat at the front of the building. We crossed the footbridge, passed a bored-looking human bouncer who paid us no attention and entered a dark, red-tinged room.
From the shadows along the wall rose something huge and green, crimson eyes glaring out of the monstrous, toothy face of a female troll. I squeaked and took a step back.
“I smell me a Summer whelp,” she growled, blocking our way. Up close, she stood nearly eight feet, with swamp-green skin and long, taloned fingers. Beady red eyes glared at me from her impressive height. “You’re either really brave or really stupid, whelp. Lost a bet with a phouka or something? No Summer fey allowed in here, so get lost.”
“She’s with me,” Ash said, stepping up to block the troll’s line of sight. “And you’re going to step aside now.
We need to use the hidden trod.”
“Prince Ash.” The troll took a step back but didn’t move aside completely. Facing a prince of the Unseelie Court, she turned almost sniveling. “Your Highness, of course I would let you in, but…” She glanced over Ash’s shoulder at me. “The boss says absolutely no Summer blood in here unless we’re going to drink it.”
“We’re just passing through,” Ash replied, still in that same calm, cool voice. “We’ll be gone before anyone notices us.”
“Your Highness, I can’t,” the troll protested, sounding more and more unsure. She glanced back over her shoulder, lowering her voice. “I could lose my job if I let her through.”
Very casually, Ash dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword.
“You could lose your head if you don’t.” The troll’s nostril’s flared. She glanced at me again, then back at the Winter prince, claws flexing at her side.
Ash didn’t move, though the air around him grew colder, until the troll’s breath hung in the air before her face.
Sensing her dire predicament, the huge faery finally backed off. “Of course, Your Highness,” she muttered, and pointed at me with a curved black claw. “But if she gets stuffed into a bottle and served as the next drink special, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Ash, and led me into the Dungeon.