We stood in silence for a while, watching Ariella’s memory dance among the flowers, her gossamer hair floating on the breeze as bright motes swirled around her. I wondered if she really was that perfect, or if this was what Ash remembered her to be.
“I’m leaving,” Ash said quietly, as I knew he would. He finally turned to face me, solemn, beautiful, and as distant as the stars. “Have Goodfellow take you home. It isn’t safe here any longer.”
My throat felt tight; my eyes burned, and I took a shaky breath to free my voice. And even though I already knew the answer, even though my head was telling me to shut up, I whispered, “I won’t see you again, will I?”
He shook his head, once. “I wasn’t fair to you,” he murmured. “I knew the laws, better than anyone. I knew it would end…like this. I ignored my better judgment, and for that, I’m sorry.” His voice didn’t change. It was still calm and polite, but I felt an icy hand squeeze my heart as he continued. “But, after tonight, we’ll be enemies. Your father and my queen will be at war. If I see you again, I might kill you.” His eyes narrowed, and his voice turned cold. “For real this time, Meghan.”
He half turned, as if to leave. The glow of the flowers made a halo of light around him, only accenting his unearthly beauty. In the distance, Ariella danced and twirled, free from sorrow and pain and the trials of the living. “Go home, Princess,” murmured the Unseelie prince. “Go home, and forget. You don’t belong here.”
I couldn’t remember much of the night afterward, though I think it involved a lot of sobbing into my quilt. In the morning, I woke up to snow drifting in through the roof, coating the floor with heavy white powder. The flowers had faded, and Ash was already gone.
The evening following Ash’s departure, Puck and I hit the edge of the wyldwood.
“Not far now, Princess,” Puck said, giving me an encouraging grin. A few yards from where we stood, the snow and ice just…stopped. Beyond it, the wyldwood stretched before us, dark, tangled, trapped in perpetual twilight. “Just gotta cross the wyldwood to get you home. You’ll be back to your old boring life before you can say ‘summer school.’”
I tried smiling back, but couldn’t manage it. Even though my heart soared at the thought of home and family and even summer school, I felt I was leaving a part of me behind. Throughout our hike, I’d kept turning around, hoping to see Ash’s dark form striding through the snow after us, gruffly embarrassed and taciturn, but there. It didn’t happen. Tir Na Nog remained eerily empty and quiet as Puck and I continued our journey alone. And as the sun sank lower in the sky and the shadows lengthened around us, I slowly came to realize that Ash wasn’t coming back. He was truly gone.
I quivered on the verge of tears but held them back. I did not want to have to explain to Puck why I was crying. He already knew I was upset, and kept trying to distract me with jokes and a constant string of questions. What happened after we left him to confront Machina? How did we find the Iron Realm? What was it like? I answered as best I could, leaving out the parts between me and Ash, of course. Puck didn’t need yet another reason to hate the Winter prince, and hopefully he would never find out.
As we approached the colorless murk of the wyldwood, something moved in the shadows to our left. Puck spun with blinding speed, whipping out his dagger, as a spindly form stumbled through the trees and collapsed a few feet away. It was a girl, slender and graceful, with moss-green skin and hair like withered vines. A dryad. The tree woman shuddered and gasped, clawing herself upright. One long-fingered hand clutched her throat as if she were being strangled. “Help…me,” she gasped at Puck, her brown eyes wide with terror. “My tree…”
“What’s happened to it?” Puck said, and caught her as she fell. She sagged against him, her head lolling back on her shoulders. “Hey,” he said, shaking her a little. “Stay with me now. Where’s your tree? Did someone cut it down?”
The dryad gasped for air. “P-poisoned,” she whispered, before her eyes rolled up and her body turned to wood in his arms. With the sound of snapping twigs, the dryad curled in on herself until she resembled little more than a bundle of dry branches. I watched the faery’s life fade away, remembered what Ash had said about the fey and death, and felt terribly, terribly sad. That was it for her, then. She’d simply ceased to exist. Puck sighed, bowing his head, and gathered the lifeless dryad into his arms. She was thin and brittle now, fragile as spun glass, but not one twig snapped or broke off as he carried her away. With utmost care, he laid the body at the foot of a giant tree, murmured a few words and stepped back.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, huge roots unfurled from the ground, wrapping around the dryad to draw her down into the earth. In seconds, she had disappeared. We stood quietly for a moment, unwilling to break the somber mood. “What did she mean by poisoned?” I finally murmured.
Puck shook himself, giving me a humorless grin. “Let’s find out.”
WE DIDN’T HAVE to search far. Only a few minutes into the wyldwood, the trees curled away, and we stumbled onto a familiar patch of dead ground in the middle of the forest. An entire swath of forest was sickened and dying, trees twisted into strange metal parodies. Metal lampposts grew out of the ground, bent over and flickering erratically. Wires crawled over roots and trunks, choking trees and vegetation like red and black creeper vines. The air smelled of copper and decay.
“It’s spreading,” Puck muttered, holding his sleeve to his face as the metallic breeze ruffled my hair and clothes. “This wasn’t here a few months ago.” He turned to me. “I thought you said you killed the Iron King.”
“I did. I mean, yes, he’s dead.” I gazed out over the poisoned forest, shuddering. “But that doesn’t mean the Iron Realm is gone. Tertius told me he served a new Iron King.”
Puck’s eyes narrowed. “Another one? You sort of failed to mention that before, Princess.” Shaking his head, he scanned the wasted area and sighed. “Another Iron King. Dammit, how many of them are we going to have to kill? Are they going to keep popping up like rats?”
I squirmed at the thought of yet another killing. A sharp wind hissed over the wasteland, scraping the branches of the metal trees, making me shiver. Puck coughed and staggered away.
“Well, come on, Princess. We can’t do anything about it now. Let’s get you home.”
Home. I thought about my family, about my normal life, so tantalizingly close. I thought of the Nevernever, dying and fading away bit by bit. And I made my decision.
Puck blinked and looked back. “What?”
“I can’t go home yet, Puck.” I gazed around at the poisoned Nevernever, seeing echoes of Machina’s realm looming over everything. “Look at this. People are dying. I can’t close my eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.”
“Why not?” I blinked at him, stunned by his cavalier attitude. He just grinned. “You’ve done enough, Princess. I think you deserve to go home after everything you went through. Hell, you already took care of one Iron King. The Nevernever will be fine, trust me.”
“What about the scepter?” I persisted. “And the war? Oberon should know Mab is planning to attack him.”
Puck shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I was already planning on telling him, Princess, provided he doesn’t turn me into a rat as soon as he sees me. As for the scepter, the Ice prince is already looking for it. Not a lot we can do, there.” At my protest, he waved a hand airily. “The war is going to start with or without us, Princess. It’s nothing new. Winter and Summer have always been at odds. Not a century goes by that there isn’t some kind of fighting going on. This will pass, like it always does. Somehow, the scepter will be returned, and things will go back to normal.”
I frowned, remembering something Mab had said to Oberon at the ceremony.
“What about my world?” I demanded. “Mab said there would be a catastrophe if Summer held the scepter longer than it was supposed to. What will happen if the Iron King gets it? Things will get really screwed up, right?”
Puck scratched the back of his neck. “Erm…maybe.”
“Maybe, like how?”
“Ever wanted to go sledding in the Mojave Desert?”
I stared at him. “We can’t let that happen, Puck! What’s wrong with you? I can’t believe you’d think I’d just ignore this!” He shrugged, still infuriatingly nonchalant, and I went for the cheap shot. “You’re just afraid, aren’t you? You’re scared of the Iron fey and you don’t want to get involved. I didn’t think you’d be such a coward.”
“I’m trying to keep you safe!” Puck exploded, whirling on me. His eyes glowed feverishly, and I shrank back. “This isn’t a game, Meghan! The shit is about to hit the fan, and you’re right in the middle of it without knowing enough to duck!”
Righteous indignation flared; I was sick of being told what to do, that I should be afraid. “I’m not helpless, Puck!” I shot back. “I’m not some squealing cheerleader you have to babysit. I’ve got blood on my hands now, too. I killed the Iron King, and I still have nightmares about it. I killed something! And I’d do it again, if I had to!”
“I know that,” Puck snapped, throwing up his hands. “I know you’d risk everything to protect us, and that’s what worries me. You still don’t know enough about this world to be properly terrified. Things are going to get screwed eight ways from Sunday, and you’re making goo-goo eyes at the enemy! I heard what happened in Machina’s realm and yes, it scared the hell out of me. I love you, dammit. I’m not going to watch you get torn apart when everything goes bad.”
My stomach twisted, both from his confession, and what he’d said about me and Ash. “You…you knew?” I stammered.
He gave me a scornful look. “I’ve been around a long time, Princess. Give me a little credit. Even a blind man would see the way you looked at him. I’m guessing something happened in Machina’s realm, but once you came out, our boy remembered he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with Summer.” I blushed, and Puck shook his head. “I didn’t say anything because he’d already made up his mind to leave. You might not know the consequences, Princess, but Ash does. He did the right thing, much as I hate to speak well of him.”
My lip trembled. Puck snorted, but saw me teetering on the brink of tears. His expression softened. “Forget about him, Meghan,” he said gently. “Ash is bad news. Even if the law wasn’t an issue, I’ve fought him enough times to know he would break your heart.”
The tears finally spilled over. “I can’t,” I whispered, giving in to the despair that had followed me all morning. This wasn’t fair to Puck, after he’d finally confessed that he loved me, but I couldn’t seem to stop. My soul cried out for Ash, for his courage and determination; for the way his eyes thawed when he looked at me, as if I were the only person in the world; for that beautiful, wounded spirit I saw beneath the cold exterior he showed the world. “I can’t forget. I miss him. I know he’s the enemy, and we broke all kinds of rules, but I don’t care. I miss him so much, Puck.”