And with that cryptic message, he leaped off the box and wove gracefully through the scattered hordes of fey and metal bugs. Trotting behind a beam, he disappeared. I looked at the boys. “How will we get to Reaping Field?”
Ash held up the scepter. It throbbed with icy blue light, sparkling like it was made of crystal, as I’d first seen it back in Tir Na Nog. “I’ll use the scepter to open a trod,” he murmured, turning away. “Stand back.”
The scepter flared, filling the room with cold, making my breath steam. The air around us shimmered, as though a veil had been dropped over everything. A hazy circle opened up in front of Ash; beyond it, I saw trees and earth and the foggy twilight of the wyldwood.
“Go,” Ash told us, his voice slightly strained.
“Come on, Princess. This is our stop.” Puck gestured at the portal, waiting for me to go through. I turned and cast one final look at Ironhorse’s body, lying cold on the cement, and blinked back tears.
Thank you, I told him silently, and stepped through the circle.
The wyldwood was in chaos. Wind and hail whipped around me as I stumbled off the trod, screaming through the branches and pelting me with shards of ice. Green lightning streaked overhead, slashing through massive clouds that roiled and churned above us, shaking branches and stirring debris into violent whirlwinds. Gouts of snow intermingled with the rain, gathering in mounds and drifts and then scattered by the wind. A violet-skinned piskie went hurtling by, caught in a savage tailspin, until she vanished into the trees.
“Dammit.” Puck appeared behind me, crimson hair flying in all directions. He had to shout to be heard. “They started the war without us. I had an invitation, too.”
Ash stepped through the circle, and it closed behind him. “Reaping Field is close.” He raised his head to the wind, closing his eyes, and his brow furrowed. “The fighting is well underway. I can smell the blood. Follow me.”
We hurried through the forest, Ash in front leading the way, the scepter a bright blue glow against the dark of the wyldwood. Around us, the storm raged and howled, and thunder boomed overhead, shaking the ground. My shoes sank into the mud, and my gown snagged on a dozen thorns and branches that tore through the fabric and ripped what remained to shreds.
Finally, the trees fell away, leaving us staring over a vast, icy gulley flanked by rugged hills, their tops disappearing into the clouds. A frozen river snaked its way through the boulder-studded valley, coiling lazily around the ruins of an ancient castle in the center of the plains.
From here, the armies of Summer and Winter looked like swarming ants, a huge, chaotic blur of motion and color. Roars and screams filled the air, rising above the howl of the wind. Ranks of soldiers clashed against one another in a somewhat disciplined fashion, while other groups bounded across the field, ricocheting from one fight to the next, joyfully hurling themselves into the fray. Giant shapes lumbered through the masses, swinging and crushing, and swarms of flying creatures attacked from the air. It was a colossal, violent, crazy free-for-all that would be suicide to go through.
I gulped and looked to Ash and Puck. “We’re going through that, aren’t we?”
Ash nodded. “Look for Oberon or Mab,” he said grimly, scanning the battlefield. “They’ll likely be on opposite sides of the river. Try not to engage anything, Goodfellow. We don’t want a fight—we just want to get the scepter to the queen.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Prince.” Puck grinned and drew his daggers, pointing to Ash with the tip. “You’re a traitor, Meghan’s the Summer princess, and I’m Robin Goodfellow. I’m sure the ranks of Unseelie will just let us waltz right through.”
And then, a shadow fell over us, and a blast of wind nearly knocked me down. Ash shoved me away as a huge, winged lizard landed where I’d stood in an explosion of snow and rock. The creature hissed and shrieked, beating tattered wings and churning the ground with two clawed forelegs. Its scales were a dusty brown, its yellow eyes vicious and stupid. A long, muscular tail whipped the air behind it, a wicked, gleaming barb on the end. Hissing, it stepped between me, Ash and Puck, separating us with its body, coiling its tail over its back like a massive scorpion.
A rider sat between the creature’s shoulder blades, his white armor pristine and shining, not a drop of blood on him.
“Rowan!” I gasped.
“Well, well.” The older prince sneered at me from the back of his lizard mount. “Here you are again. The wayward princess and our traitor prince. Don’t move, Ash,”
he warned, shooting his brother a dark look. “One tiny move, and Thraxa will snap up your beloved half-breed faster than you can blink. You don’t want to lose another girl to wyvern poison, do you?”
Ash already had his sword out, but at Rowan’s threat he paled and shot me a haunted look. I saw the desperation in his eyes before he lowered his blade and stepped back.
“Good boy. This will be over soon, don’t worry.” Rowan raised his fist, and a dozen Thornguards emerged from the trees, weapons drawn, trapping us between them and Rowan. “It shouldn’t be long now,” the older prince smiled. “Once the courts are done tearing each other to pieces, the Iron King’s armies will sweep in, and everything will be over.
“But first,” he continued, turning to glare at Ash, “I’ll need that scepter. Hand it over, little brother.”
Ash tensed, but before he could do anything, Puck stepped between us, an evil grin stretching his face. “Come and get it,” he challenged. Rowan looked over and sneered.
“Robin Goodfellow,” he smiled. “I’ve heard so much about you. You’re the reason Ariella is dead, aren’t you?” Puck frowned, but Rowan went on without pause. “A pity Ash won’t ever take his revenge, but believe me when I say this will be a pleasure. Thraxa,” he ordered, sweeping his arm contemptuously toward Puck. “Kill.”
The wyvern hissed and snaked its head down, baring needle sharp fangs. It was frighteningly quick, like a viper, and its jaws snapped shut over Puck’s head. I gasped, but Puck exploded in a swirl of leaves, leaving the wyvern blinking and confused. As it drew back, huffing and scanning the ground for its victim, a huge black raven swooped out of the trees, aiming right for its face. With a screeching caw, the bird sank its talons into the side of the wyvern’s head and plunged its sharp beak into the slitted yellow eye.
The wyvern reared back with a scream, beating its wings and shaking its head, trying to dislodge the bird that clung to it. Rowan, nearly thrown from the saddle, cursed and yanked at the reins, trying to regain control, but the wyvern was panicked now, screeching and thrashing about in anguish. I ducked beneath the monster and ran to Ash, who caught me in an almost desperate hug, even as he kept his eyes on Rowan. I felt his heart racing beneath his coat.
The raven hung on, jabbing and clawing, until black ichor spattered the wyvern’s face and the eye was a popped, useless mess. With a caw of triumph, it broke away and swooped back to us, changing to Puck in an explosion of feathers. He was still laughing as he rose to his feet, drawing his weapons with a flourish.
“Kill them!” Rowan screamed, as his mount decided it had had enough, and leaped skyward. “Kill them all and get that scepter! Don’t let them ruin everything!”
“Stay back,” Ash told me as the Thornguards started forward, closing their deadly half circle. There were a lot of them, seeming to melt out of the trees and bramble, more than I first thought. My eyes fell on Ash, holding both the scepter and his sword in a doubleweapon stance. Could I just take the scepter and run? I shot a quick glance down the slope, into the valley, and my heart went cold with fear. No way. There was no way I’d get through that churning mass alive.
Lightning flickered, bright and eerie, and between one flash and the next, a white creature appeared at the edge of the slope. At first, I thought it was a horse. Only it was smaller and more graceful than any I’d seen before, more deer than equine, with a lion’s tail and cloven hooves that barely touched the ground. Its horn spiraled up between its ears, beautiful and terrible at the same time, destroying any preconceived notions I had of the word unicorn. It regarded me with eyes as ancient as the forest, and I felt a shiver of recognition, like a memory from a dream, but then it was gone.
Grimalkin sent me. The voice whispered in my head, soft as a feather’s passing. Hurry, Meghan Chase. With a toss of its head, the unicorn turned and vanished down the slope. In that moment, I knew what I had to do.
That whole encounter seemed to have taken place in an instant. When I turned back to the boys, they were still waiting for the Thornguards, who approached slowly, as if they knew we weren’t going anywhere. “Ash,” I murmured, placing a hand on his arm.
“Give me the scepter.”
He shot me a look over his shoulder. “What?”
“I’ll get it to Mab. Just hold them off until I can get across the field.” Ash stared at me, his expression torn. I closed my hand over the scepter, gritting my teeth as the cold burned like fire. “I can do this.”
“Hey, Prince,” Puck called over his shoulder, “uh, you can join in anytime, now. Whenever you’re ready.”
A shriek echoed over the valley, and a dark shape wheeled toward us on leathery wings. Rowan was coming back.
“Ash!” The Thornguards were almost upon us, and Ash still held the scepter tightly. Desperately, I met his eyes, saw the indecision there, the doubt, and the fear that he was sending me to my death. “Ash,” I whispered, and put my other hand over his, “you have to trust me.”
He shivered, nodded once, and released his grip. Clutching the scepter, I backed away, holding his worried gaze as the Thornguards got closer and the wail of the wyvern echoed over the trees. “Be careful,” he said, a storm of emotion in those two simple words. I nodded breathlessly.
“I won’t fail,” I promised.
The Thornguards charged with a roar. Ash spun toward them, blade flashing, as Puck gave a whooping battle cry and plunged into their midst. Feeling the scepter burn in my hands, I turned and fled down the slope.
The unicorn waited at the bottom of the hill, almost invisible in the mist, its horn more real than the rest of it. My heart pounded as I approached. Even though the unicorn stood perfectly still, watching me, it was akin to walking up to a tiger that was tame and friendly, but still a tiger. It could either kneel and lay its head in my lap, or explode into violence and skewer me with that glimmering horn. Thankfully it did neither, standing motionless as a statue as I walked up close enough to see my reflection in its dark eyes. What do I say? Do I have to ask permission to get on its back?
A piercing wail rent the air above us, and the shadow of the wyvern passed overhead. The unicorn jumped, flattening its ears, trembling with the effort not to bolt. Screw it, I don’t have time! As the wyvern’s howl rang out again, I heaved myself awkwardly onto the unicorn’s back and grabbed its mane.
As soon as I was settled, the unicorn made a fantastic leap over the rocks and landed at the edge of the icy field, making my stomach lodge in my throat. For a moment, it hesitated, looking this way and that, trying to find an easier way in. A red-eyed hound sprang at us with a snarl, tongue lolling. The unicorn leaped nimbly aside, lashing out with its hooves. I heard a crack and a yelp, and the hound fled into the mist on three legs.