“Virus is still out there,” I continued, holding his gaze, “and now we have a real chance to get the scepter back. But we have to do it together this time. Deal?”
He regarded me solemnly. “Is this another contract?”
“No,” I whispered, appalled. “I wouldn’t do that to you again.” He remained silent, staring at me, and I reluctantly let him go, raw desperation tearing at my stomach. “Ash, if you really want to leave, I can’t stop you. But—”
I blinked at him. “Accept? What—?”
“The terms of our contract.” He bowed his head, his voice somber and grim.
“I will aid you until we get the scepter back and return it to the Winter Court. I will stay with you until these terms are fulfilled, this I promise.”
“Is that all it is to you? A bargain?”
“Meghan.” He glanced at me, eyes pleading. “Let me do this. It’s the only way I can think of to repay you.”
“So, are we done here?” Puck sauntered up beside me, putting an arm around my shoulders before I could stop him. Ash stiffened, drawing back, and his eyes went cold. Puck looked past him to the tatter-colt, standing in the trees, and raised an eyebrow. “I guess that’s our ride, then.”
The black horse pinned its ears and curled back its lips in a very unhorselike snarl, baring flat yellow teeth at us. Puck snickered. “Huh, I don’t think your friend likes me very much, Your Highness. Looks like you’ll be riding to the healer’s solo.”
“I’ll go with him,” I said quickly, stepping out of Puck’s casual embrace. He blinked at me and scowled as I pulled him aside. “Ash can barely keep his feet,” I whispered, matching his glare. “Someone has to stay with him. I just want to make sure he doesn’t go off on his own.”
He gave me that infuriating smirk. “Sure, Princess. Whatever you say.”
I resisted the urge to punch him. “Just get us to the healer, Puck.” He rolled his eyes and stalked off, glaring at Ash as he swept by. Ash watched him leave without comment, his expression strangely dead.
Turning away, he stumbled over to the tatter-colt, which bent its forelegs and knelt for him so that he could pull himself onto its back with a barely noticeable grimace. A little nervously, I approached the equine fey, which tossed its head and swished its ragged tail but thankfully didn’t lunge or bite. It didn’t kneel for me, however, and I had to scramble onto its back the hard way, settling behind Ash and wrapping my arms around his waist. For a moment, I closed my eyes and laid my cheek against his back, content just to hold him without fear. I heard his heartbeat quicken, and felt a little shiver go through him, but he remained tense in my arms, rigid and uncomfortable. A heaviness settled in my chest, and I swallowed the lump in my throat.
A harsh cry made me glance up. A huge raven swooped overhead, so close that I felt the wind from its passing ruffle my hair. It perched on a branch and looked back at us, eyes glowing green in the darkness, before barking another caw and flapping away into the trees. Ash gave a quiet word to follow, and the tatter-colt started after it, slipping into the woods as silently as a ghost. I turned and watched my house getting smaller and smaller through the branches, until the forest closed in and the trees obscured it completely.
We rode for a couple hours while the sky above us turned from pitch black to navy blue to the faintest tinge of pink. Puck kept well ahead of us, flitting from branch to branch until we caught up, then swooping away again. He led us deep into the swamps, through bogs where the tatter-colt sloshed through waist-deep pools of murky water, past huge, moss-covered trees dripping with vines. Ash said nothing as we traveled, but his head hung lower and lower the farther we went, until it was all I could do to hold him upright. Finally, as the last of the stars faded from the sky, the tatter-colt pushed its way through a cluster of vine-covered trees to find the raven perched atop a rustic-looking shack in the middle of the swamp.
Before the tatter-colt stopped moving, Ash was sliding off its back, crumpling to the misty ground. As soon as he was off, the tatter-colt began tossing its head and bucking, until I half slid, half fell off its back into the mud. Snorting, the colt trotted into the bushes with its head held high and disappeared.
I knelt by Ash, and my heart clenched at how pallid he looked, the abrasions on his face standing out angrily against his pale skin. I touched his cheek and he groaned, but he didn’t open his eyes.
Puck was there suddenly, dragging Ash to his feet, grimacing at the pain of his own wound. “Princess,” he gritted out, taking the prince’s weight, “go wake up the healer. Tell her we’ve got an iron-sickened prince on our hands. But be careful.” He grinned, his normal self once more. “She can be a little cranky before she’s had her coffee.”
I climbed the rickety wooden steps onto the porch, which creaked under my feet. A cluster of toadstools, growing right out of the wall near the door, pulsed with a soft orange light, and the shack itself was covered in various moss, lichens and mushrooms of different colors. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
No one answered right away, so I banged again, louder this time. “Hello?” I called, peering through a dusty, curtained window. My raw throat ached, bringing tears to my eyes, but I raised my voice and called out again. “Is anyone there? We need your help! Hello?”
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” yelled an irritable voice on the other side. “Do you people think healers don’t have to sleep, is that it?” Shuffling footsteps made their way to the door while the voice still continued to mutter. “Up all night with a sick catoblepas, but do I get any rest? Of course not, healers don’t need rest. They can just drink one of their special potions and stay up all night, for days on end, ready to jump at every emergency that comes banging on their door at five in the morning!” The door whooshed open, and I found myself staring at empty air.
“What?” snapped the voice near my feet. I looked down.
An ancient gnome stared up at me, her face wrinkled and shriveled like a walnut under a frayed clump of white hair. Barely two feet tall, dressed in a once-white robe with tiny gold glasses on the end of her nose, she glared at me like a furious midget bear, black eyes snapping with irritation.
I felt a stab of recognition. “Ms…. Ms. Stacy?” I blurted out, seeing, for just a moment, my old school nurse. The gnome blinked up at me, then pulled her glasses off and began cleaning them.
“Well now, Ms. Chase,” she said, cementing my hunch. “It has been a while. Last I saw you, you were hiding in my office after that cruel trick that boy played on you in the cafeteria.”
I winced at the memory. That had been the most embarrassing day of my life, and I didn’t want to think about it. “What are you doing here?” I asked, amazed. The nurse snorted and shoved her glasses back atop her nose.
“Your father, Lord Oberon, bade me keep an eye on you with Mr. Goodfellow,” she replied, looking up at me primly. “If you were hurt, I was supposed to heal you. If you saw anything strange, I was to help you forget. I provided Goodfellow with the necessary herbs and potions he needed to keep you from seeing us.” She sighed. “But then, you went traipsing off to the Nevernever to find your brother, and everything unraveled. Fortunately, Oberon allowed me to keep my job as school nurse, in case you ever came back.”
I felt a small prick of anger that this woman had blinded me for so long, but I couldn’t think about that now. “We need your help,” I said, turning so she could see Puck and Ash coming toward the porch. “My friend has been stabbed, but not only that, he’s iron-sick and getting weaker. Please, can you help him?”
“Iron-sick? Oh dear.” The gnome peered past me, staring at the two fey boys in the yard, and her eyes got wide behind her glasses. “That…is that…Prince Ash?” she gasped, as the blood drained from her face. “Mab’s son? You expect me to help a prince of Winter? Have you gone mad? I…no!” She backed through the door, shaking her head. “No, absolutely not!”
The door started to slam, but I stuck my foot in the frame, wincing as it banged my knee. “Please,” I begged, shouldering my way through the gap. The nurse glared at me, pursing her lips, as I crowded through the frame. “Please, he could be dying, and we have nowhere else to go.”
“I don’t make a habit of aiding the Unseelie, Ms. Chase.” The nurse sniffed and struggled to close the door, but I wasn’t budging. “Let his own take care of him. I’m sure the Winter Court has its share of healers.”
“We don’t have time!” Anger flared. Ash was getting weaker. He could be dying, and with every second, the scepter got farther away. I bashed my shoulder into the door, and it flew open. The nurse stumbled back, hand going to her chest, as I stepped into the room.
“I’m sorry,” I told her in my best firm voice, “but I’m not giving you a choice. You will help Ash, or things will get very unpleasant in a very short time.”
“I won’t be bullied by a half-human brat!”
I straightened and towered over her, my head just touching the ceiling.
“Oberon is my father, you said so yourself. Consider this an order from your princess.” When she scowled, her eyes nearly sinking into the creases of her face, I crossed my arms and glared imperiously. “Or, should I inform my father that you refused to help me? That I came to you for aid, and you turned me away? I don’t think he’d be too pleased about that.”
“All right, all right!” She raised her hands. “I’ll get no peace otherwise, I see that now. Bring in the Winter prince. But your father will hear of this, young lady.” She turned and shook a finger at me. “He will hear of this, and then we will see who will be the target of his ire.”
I felt a small pang of guilt that I had to pull the daddy card like some spoiled rich kid, but it faded as Puck dragged Ash up the stairs. The prince seemed more wraith than flesh now, his skin a sickly gray except for the angry red wounds on his face and arms, where the skin seemed to be peeling off the bones. I shuddered and my heart twisted with worry.
“Put him in here,” the nurse ordered, directing Puck to a small side room with a low-lying bed. Puck complied, laying Ash down on the sheets before collapsing into a chair that looked like an enormous mushroom.
The nurse sniffed. “I see the princess has you in on this, too, Robin.”
“Don’t look at me.” Puck smirked and wiped a hand across his face. “I did my best to kill the guy, but when the princess wants something, there’s no changing her mind.”
I scowled at him. He shrugged and offered a helpless grin, and I turned back to Ash.
“Ugh, he doesn’t just smell of iron, he reeks of it,” the nurse muttered, examining the wounds on his face and arms. “These burns aren’t normal—they’ve erupted from the inside out. It’s almost like he had something metal inside him.”