“Go on,” I murmured.
He sighed, and very gently freed himself from my hand, turning to face me.
“There was a girl,” he said, choosing his words very carefully, “barely sixteen in mortal years, and as innocent as they came. Her favorite pastime was picking flowers and playing in the creek at the edge of the forest. I knew, because I watched her from the trees. She was always alone, carefree, so naive to the dangers in the woods.” A hint of bitterness crept into his voice, a dark loathing for the faery in the story. I felt cold as he continued in a soft, flat voice. “I lured her into the forest with pretty words and gifts and promises of affection. I made sure she fell in love with me, that no other human male would ever make her feel what I could, and then I took it all away. I told her that mortals were nothing to the fey, that she was nothing. I told her that it was a game, nothing more, and that the game was now over. I broke more than her heart; I broke her spirit, broke her. And I reveled in it.”
I had been waiting for it, but it still made me sick, the knowledge that Ash could be that heartless, just another capricious fey toying with human emotion. This girl, sixteen, lonely, eager for love, had been like me once. If I had been at the edge of the woods that day, instead of her, Ash would’ve done the same to me.
“What happened to her?” I asked when he fell silent again. Ash closed his eyes.
“She died,” he said simply. “She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t do anything but pine away, until her body grew so weak it simply gave out.”
“And you felt horribly guilty about it?” I guessed, trying to glean some sort of moral from this tale, a lesson learned or something like that. But Ash shook his head with a bitter smile.
“I didn’t think twice about her,” he said, dashing my hopes and making my gut twist. “Not having a soul frees us from any sort of conscience. She was only a human, and a foolish one at that, to fall in love with a faery. She wasn’t the first, nor would she be the last. But her grandmother, the high priestess of the girl’s clan, was not so foolish. She sought me out, and told me what I just told you—
she cursed me, promised that I would be destined to lose everyone I truly cared for, that it was the price for being soulless. Of course, I just laughed it off as the superstitions of a weakling mortal…until I fell in love with Ariella.” His voice grew even softer. “And now, with you.”
He turned away and gazed out over the edge again. “When Ariella was taken from me, I suddenly understood. We don’t have a conscience, but falling in love changes things. I understood what I had put that girl through, the pain she suffered because of me. I told myself I wouldn’t make the mistake of caring for someone again.” He gave a bitter chuckle and shook his head. “And then you came along and ruined all that.”
I couldn’t answer. I kept seeing that girl, and the dark, handsome stranger she fell for, died for. “Why are you telling me this?” I whispered.
“Because, I want you to understand what I am.” Ash looked down at me, solemn and grim. “I’m not a human with pointed ears, Meghan. I am and will always be Fey. Soulless. Immortal. Because of my actions that day, someone I loved died. And now, here we are, on the brink of war and—” He stopped and looked down, his voice dropping to a near whisper. “And I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll fail you like I did Ariella, that the crimes of my past will ruin any chance we have at a future. That you’ll realize who I really am, what I really am, and when I turn around you’ll be gone.”
He stopped, the wind whipping at his hair and clothes, swirling ashes into the silence. A glider on the wall turned its head and buzzed sleepily. Ash’s posture was stiff, his back and shoulders rigid, steeled for my reaction. Bracing himself to hear footsteps walking back down the stairs. I saw his shoulders tremble and caught the faint aura of fear before he could hide it.
I stepped close and slipped my arms around his waist, hearing his quiet intake of breath as I pulled him against me. “That was a long time ago,” I murmured, pressing my cheek to his back, listening to his thudding heart. “You’ve changed since then. That Ash wouldn’t protect a silly human girl with his life, or become her knight, or walk into exile with her. Every step of the way, you’ve always been there, right beside me. I’m not letting you go now.”
“I’m a coward.” Ash’s voice was subdued. “If I cared for you as much as I should, I would end my life and the curse along with it. My existence puts you in danger. If I were no longer here—”
“Don’t you dare, Ashallyn’darkmyr Tallyn.” I held him tighter, even as he flinched at the sound of his True Name. “Don’t you dare throw your life away for an unknown superstition. If you die—” My voice broke, and I swallowed thickly.
“I love you,” I whispered, fisting my hands against his stomach. “You can’t leave. You swore you wouldn’t.”
Ash’s hands came to rest over mine, twining our fingers together. “Even if the world stands against you,” he murmured, bowing his head. “I promise.”
WE STAYED ON THE BALCONY that night, sitting against the wall, watching the storm sweep over the outlying hills. We didn’t say much, content just to be near each other, lost in our own thoughts. When we did speak, it was of the war and the rebels and other, present-day things, staying far from the past…or the future. I dozed several times, waking with his arms around me and my head against his shoulder.
The next thing I knew, he was shaking me awake. The night had moved on, and a pinkish light glowed against the distant horizon.
“Meghan, wake up.”
“Hmm?” I yawned, rubbing my eyes. Sleeping in armor while leaning against a wall, I realized, was proving to be a bad idea, as my backside throbbed with pain. “Time to go already?”
“No.” Ash stepped to the edge of the balcony. “Come look at this. Hurry.”
I peered out over the edge. At first, I couldn’t see anything, but then the light gleamed off something shiny and metallic on the horizon. I squinted, shielding my eyes with my hand. Could that be the glint of metal armor? Or the shiny top of an iron beetle? My blood ran cold.
“They’re coming,” Ash muttered, and I stumbled back from the edge.
“We have to tell Glitch!”
I scrambled back from the landing, Ash close behind me. As we flew down the stairs, it quickly became clear that Glitch already knew. The camp was in chaos, rebels rushing back and forth, grabbing weapons and throwing on armor. Those who had been wounded the day before hurried out with freshly bandaged wounds, limping or carrying those who couldn’t walk.
“There you are!” Puck met us at the foot of the stairs, rolling his eyes as we came charging down. “Another army on the way and you two are playing kissyface on the balcony. Suit up. Looks like there’s going to be another fight.”
“Where’s Glitch?” I said as we hurried through the ruins, dodging rebels.
“What is he thinking? We can’t fight another army now! Too many are hurt, and another fight could crush them.”
“Doesn’t seem like we have much choice, princess,” Puck said as I spotted the rebel leader arguing with Diode under the limbs of the giant tree. Glitch’s face was strained, and the hacker elf’s eyes whirled and spun as he gestured frantically.
“Glitch!” I sprinted up to him, dodging a hound, which snarled as I barely avoided a collision. “Hey, I need to talk to you!” Glitch looked up and winced when he saw who it was.
“What do you want, your highness? I’m a little busy at the moment.”
“What are you doing?” I asked as I caught up, Diode scrambling aside. “You can’t make your people fight now! We’re about to join Summer and Winter and we need everyone we can get. If you fight now, so soon after the last battle, you could lose everyone!”
“I’m aware of that, your highness!” Glitch snapped in return, his spikes flaring angrily. “But we don’t have much of a choice, do we? We can’t run—
they’ll just hunt us down out there. We can’t hide—there’s really nowhere to go. All we can do is make our stand here. Thankfully, that’s not the false king’s full army, just a few attack squads. The real army is still on its way to the wyldwood, with the moving fortress I might add, and if we don’t take care of this little problem now, we won’t have a chance of joining Summer and Winter. Now, get out of my way. I should be at the front when the fighting starts.”
“Wait!” I grabbed his sleeve as he brushed past, and he whirled angrily.
“There is one more option. We came up through the packrat tunnels beneath the tower. We could escape that way.”
“The tunnels?” Glitch shook off my hand. “Those tunnels run for miles. It’s a gigantic maze down there. We could wander for days.”
“Not me.” I still didn’t know how I was so familiar with the tunnels, but once I said the words, I knew they were true. “I know the way. I can get everyone through safely.”
He looked disbelieving, and my temper flared. “It’s either that or lose everyone before the war even starts! Dammit, Glitch, you have to start trusting me!”
“Do it,” Ash said softly, locking gazes with the Iron faery. “You know she’s right.”
Glitch sighed noisily, stabbing his hands through his hair. “You sure you know the way?” he asked me.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”
“All right,” he said slowly. “Fine. We’ll put our lives in your hands once more, your highness. Diode, spread the word. Tell everyone to meet at the central chamber and be ready to march.”
“Yes, sir.” Diode shot me a relieved look and scampered off. Glitch watched him go, then turned to glare at me with narrowed violet eyes. “This better work. You’re a gigantic pain in the ass, you know that, your highness?”
“One who’s about to save yours,” I returned, earning an appreciative snort from Puck. Glitch rolled his eyes and stalked off, and we made our way to the center of the ruins.
NOT FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER, the entire rebel army was gathered beneath the branches of the great oak, armed and armored, ready to march. I was wondering how quickly we could get all the rebels down into the tunnels when Diode approached and informed us the trapdoor we came through wasn’t the only one, that there were several scattered throughout the tower, and one of them was in the center chamber, right below the tree. He was pointing out that it was buried and nearly hidden in the roots of the oak, when Glitch came in, his hair snapping wildly as he leaped onto the trunk.
“They’re almost to the tower. We need to go, now!”
Working together, Ash, Puck, and Glitch hauled up the trapdoor, letting it drop open with a ringing clang that echoed throughout the room. Straightening, Glitch looked to me and gestured to the gaping hole, leading down into darkness.