He lunged at Ash, his sword a jagged blur through the air. Ash brought his weapon up, and icy sparks flew as the blades screeched against each other. Snarling, Rowan cut viciously at his brother, advancing with a series of savage head strikes. Ash blocked, ducked, and suddenly lunged, stabbing at Rowan’s throat. But Rowan spun gracefully aside, his sword licking out and back again. Ash whirled with inhuman speed, and would’ve cut him in two if the older prince hadn’t leaped back.
Smiling, Rowan raised his weapon, and I gasped. The gleaming point was smeared with crimson. “First blood to me, little brother,” he taunted, as a trickle of red began to drip from Ash’s sword arm, speckling the floor. “There’s still time to stop this. Turn over the princess and beg for Mab’s mercy. And mine.”
“You have no mercy, Rowan,” Ash growled, and lunged at him again. This time, they both moved so quickly, twisting, jumping, spinning aside and slashing with their blades, it was hard to see it as anything but a beautifully timed dance. In fast-forward. Sparks flew, and the sound of blades clashing echoed off the walls. Blood appeared on both swords, and red splattered the floor around the combatants, but I couldn’t see who had the advantage.
Rowan suddenly knocked Ash’s blade aside, then thrust out his hand, sending a jagged spear of ice at his brother’s face. Ash threw himself backward to avoid it, hitting the floor and rolling to his knees. As Rowan brought his sword down at his kneeling opponent and I screamed in fear, Ash ducked aside, letting the blade miss him by centimeters. Grabbing Rowan’s arm, letting his brother’s momentum carry him forward, Ash spun and threw him to the floor. Rowan’s head struck the ice, and I heard the breath leave his body in a startled whoof. Quick as a snake, Rowan flipped over, sword in hand, but by that time, Ash had his blade at his throat.
Rowan glared at his brother, his face twisted into a mask of pain and hate. Both were panting, dripping blood from numerous wounds, yet Ash’s grip was steady as he pressed the blade against Rowan’s neck.
The older prince chuckled, raised his head and spit blood in Ash’s face. “Go on then, little brother,” he challenged, as Ash winced but didn’t shy away. “Do it. You’ve betrayed your queen, sided with the enemy, drawn a sword against your own brother…you might as well add slaughtering your family to the list as well. Then you can run off with the half-breed and live out your sordid fantasy. I wonder how Ariella would feel, if she knew how easily she’s been replaced.”
“Don’t talk about her!” Ash snarled, raising the hilt as if he really would thrust the sword through Rowan’s throat. “Ariella is gone. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, but she’s gone, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, the longing on his face plain to see. A lump caught in my throat, and I turned away, blinking back tears. No matter how much I loved this dark, beautiful prince, I could never match what he’d already lost.
Rowan sneered, narrowing his eyes. “Ariella was too good for you,” he hissed, raising himself up on his elbows. “You failed her. If you’d really loved her, she would still be here.”
Ash flinched, as if struck a physical blow, and Rowan pressed his advantage.
“You never saw what a good thing you had,” he continued, sitting up as Ash backed away a step. “She’s dead because of you, because you couldn’t protect her! And now you disgrace her memory with this half-breed abomination.”
Pale, Ash glanced at me, and I saw Rowan’s arm move a second too late.
“Ash!” I cried, as the older prince leaped up and lunged with frightening speed. “Look out!”
Ash was already moving, the honed reflexes of a fighter kicking in even when his mind was elsewhere. Leaping back, his sword came up as Rowan slashed at him with a dagger that appeared from nowhere, and Rowan’s lunge carried him right onto the point of Ash’s blade.
Both brothers froze, and I bit down a scream. For a moment, everything ground to an abrupt halt, frozen in time. Rowan blinked and looked down at the blade in his stomach, his eyes wide and confused. Ash was staring at his hand in horror. Then Rowan staggered back, dropping the knife and leaning against a wall, his arms around his gut. Blood streamed between his hands, staining the white fabric crimson.
“Congratulations…little brother.” His voice came out choked, though his eyes were clear as he nodded at Ash, still frozen in shock. “You finally…managed to kill me.”
Pounding footsteps echoed in the hall, and faint shouts carried into the throne room. I wrenched my eyes from Rowan’s bloody form and ran to Ash, who was still staring at his brother in a horrified daze.
“Ash!” I grabbed his arm, snapping him out of his trance. “Someone’s coming!”
“Yes, run away with…your half-breed, Ash.” Rowan coughed, a line of blood trickling from his mouth. “Before Mab comes in…and sees that her last son is dead to her. I don’t think you can do anything more…to betray your court.”
The voices were getting louder. Ash shot Rowan one last guilty, agonized look, then grabbed my wrist and ran for the door.
I don’t remember how we made it out. Ash pulled me along like a madman, running through hallways I didn’t recognize. It was a miracle we didn’t run into anyone, as footsteps and sounds of pursuit echoed all around us. Maybe it wasn’t coincidence at all, as Ash seemed to know exactly where he was going. Twice, he yanked me into a corner and pressed his body up against mine, whispering at me to be silent and not move. I froze as a gang of redcaps skittered past, snarling and waving knives at one another, but they didn’t notice us. The second time, a pale woman in a bloody dress floated by, and my heart thudded so loudly I was sure she would hear, but she drifted past without seeing.
We fled down a cold, empty corridor with icicles growing from the ceiling like chandeliers, flickering with a soft blue light. Ash finally pulled me through a door with the silhouette of a bone-white tree emblazoned on the front. The room beyond was rather small and sparsely decorated with a tall bookshelf, a dresser made of polished black wood, and an impressive knife collection on the far wall. A simple bed sat in the corner, the blankets pulled tight, looking as if it hadn’t been used in decades. Everything looked exceptionally clean, neat and Spartan, not like a prince’s bedroom at all.
Ash sighed and finally released me, leaning against the wall with his head back. Blood soaked his shirt, leaving dark stains against the black material, and my stomach turned.
“We should clean those,” I said. “Where do you keep the bandages?” Ash looked right through me, his eyes glassy and blank. The shock was taking a toll on him. I bit down my fear and faced him, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “Ash, do you have any rags or towels lying around? Something to stop the bleeding?”
He stared at me a moment, then shook himself and nodded to the corner.
“Dresser,” he muttered, sounding more weary than I’d ever heard him. “There’s a jar of salve in the top drawer. She kept it…for emergencies…”
I didn’t know what he meant by that, but I walked over to the dresser and yanked open the top drawer. It held an assortment of weird things: dead flowers, a blue silk ribbon, a glass dagger with an intricately carved bone handle. I rummaged around and found a jar of herb-scented cream, nearly empty, sitting on an old, bloodstained cloth. In the corner sat a roll of what looked like gauze made of spiderwebs.
As I pulled them out, a thin silver chain came with the gauze and slithered to the floor. Bending down to pick it up, I saw two rings attached to the links, one large and one small, and what Ash said finally sank in.
This—this drawer full of odds and ends—was Ariella’s, where Ash kept all his memories of her. The dagger was hers, the ribbon was hers. The rings, exquisitely designed with tiny leaves etched in silver and gold, were a matching set. I replaced the chain and shut the drawer, a cold knot settling in my stomach. If I ever needed proof that Ash still loved Ariella, here it was. My eyes stung, and I blinked them angrily. Now was not the time for a jealous tantrum. I turned and found Ash watching me, his eyes dull and bleak. I took a deep breath. “Um, I think you’ll have to take off your shirt,” I whispered. He complied, pushing himself away from the wall, leaving a smear of red. Removing his tattered shirt, he tossed it on the floor and turned back to me. I tried hard not to stare at the lean, muscular chest, though my mouth went dry and my face burned crimson.
“Should I sit?” he muttered, helping me along. Gratefully, I nodded. He moved to the bed, easing himself down on the mattress with his back to me. The wounds on his shoulder and ribs seeped crimson against his pale skin.
You can do this, Meghan. Carefully, I moved up behind him, shuddering at the long, jagged cuts across his flesh. There was so much blood. I dabbed at it gingerly, not wanting to hurt him, but he didn’t make a sound. When the blood was gone, I dipped two fingers in the salve and touched it lightly to the gash on his shoulder. He made a small noise, like an exhalation of breath, and slumped forward, head down and hair covering his eyes. “Don’t worry about hurting me,” he muttered without looking up. “I’m…fairly used to this.”
I nodded and applied more salve to the wound, liberally this time. He didn’t flinch, though his shoulders were taut and rigid beneath my fingertips; I could feel the tight coil of muscles beneath my hands. I wondered if Ariella used to do this for him, in this very bedroom, patching him up whenever he was hurt. Judging from the pale scars across his back, this wasn’t the first time he’d been wounded in a deadly fight. Had she felt the same as me, angry and terrified whenever Ash put himself in mortal danger?
My eyes grew blurry. I tried blinking, but it was no use. Retrieving the gauze, I wrapped it around his shoulder, biting my lip to keep silent as tears streamed down my face.
He hadn’t moved, and his voice was so soft I barely heard it, but I still almost dropped the gauze. Tying it off, I didn’t answer as I went to work on his ribs, winding the bandages around his waist. Ash sat perfectly still, barely breathing. A teardrop fell from my chin to land on his back, and he flinched.
“Why are you apologizing?” My voice came out shakier than I wanted it to, and I swallowed hard. “You already told me why you were being a bastard. You had to protect me from your family and the Winter Court. They were perfectly good reasons.” Not that I’m bitter or anything.
“I didn’t want to hurt you.” Ash’s voice was still soft, hesitant. “I thought that if I could make you hate me, it would be easier when you returned to your world.” He paused, and his next words were almost a whisper. “What I said in the courtyard…Rowan would have tormented you even more if he knew.”
I finished binding his ribs and pulled the wrappings tight around his waist. My eyes still streamed, but they were different tears now. I didn’t miss the subtle phrasing: when you return to your world. Not if. When. As though he knew I would go back someday, and we would never see each other again.