“No, wait,” I whispered, pulling back. “He knows about Ethan. I have to find my brother—”

Ash narrowed his eyes. “Hesitate now, and Goodfellow will die. Besides…” He reached out and took my hand again. “I’m not giving you a choice.”

Dazed, I followed the Winter prince along the wall of the cavern, too stunned to ask why he was helping me. Didn’t he want to kill me? Was this rescue just to get me alone to finish the job in peace? But that didn’t make any sense; he could have just killed me while Puck was distracted with Ironhorse.

“Hellooooooooo.” Puck’s voice echoed farther down the cavern. “Sorry, ugly, wrong me! Keep going, I’m sure you’ll get it right next time!”

Ironhorse looked up from stomping a fake Puck into the ground, crimson eyes blazing with hate. Seeing yet another Puck, it tensed iron muscles to charge, when one of the gremlins spotted us sneaking along the wall and gave a yelp of alarm.

Ironhorse whirled, eyes flaring as they settled on us. Ash muttered a curse. With a bellow and a blast of flame from its nostrils, it charged, bearing down on us like the steam engine it was named for. Ash drew his sword and flung a shower of ice shards at the monster. They shattered harmlessly on its armored hide, doing nothing but enraging it further. As the roaring, flaming bulk of metal descended, Ash shoved me out of the way and dove forward, the flailing hooves missing him by inches. Rolling to his feet behind the monster, he cut at its flank, but Ironhorse plunged its head down and kicked him in the ribs. There was a sickening crack, and Ash was hurled away, crumpling to the floor in a heap.

A screaming flock of ravens descended on Ironhorse before it could stomp Ash into the ground. They swirled around its head, pecking and clawing, and Ironhorse roared as it lashed out at the flock, blasting them to cindery bits. Ash staggered to his feet as Puck appeared beside us, grabbing my hand.

“Time to go,” he announced cheerfully. “Prince, either keep up or get left behind. We’re leaving.”

We ran through the caverns, slipping on ice and slush, the insane roars of Ironhorse and the hissing of the gremlins on our heels. I didn’t dare look back. The cavern shook, and icicles smashed to the ground all around us, spraying me with stinging shards, but we kept going.

A fuzzy gray shape bounded toward us, tail held high. “You found her,” Grimalkin said, stopping to glare at Puck. “Idiot. I told you not to fight the horse thing.”

“Can’t talk now, little busy at the moment!” Puck gasped as we tore past the feline, continuing down the tunnel. Grimalkin flattened his ears and joined us as the shrieks of the gremlins ricocheted off the walls. I could see the mouth of the cave, dripping with icicles, and put on a burst of speed.

Ironhorse bellowed, and an ice shard smashed down inches from my face.

“Collapse the cave!” Grimalkin shouted, bounding along beside us. “Bring the ceiling down on their heads! Do it!” He zipped away, through the cave entrance, and was gone.

We burst out of the cave moments later, gasping, stumbling in the snow. Looking back, I saw dozens of green eyes skittering forward, heard the pounding hooves of Ironhorse as he followed close behind.

“Keep going!” Ash cried, and whirled around. Closing his eyes, he brought a fist to his face and bowed his head. The gremlins swarmed toward him, and the red glow of Ironhorse appeared, flames streaming in the darkness.

Ash opened his eyes and flung out a hand.

A low rumble shook the ground, and the cave trembled. Huge clumps of icicles shivered, wobbling back and forth. As the gremlins reached the mouth of the cave, the entire ceiling collapsed with a roar and a sound like breaking glass. Gremlins shrieked as they were crushed under several tons of ice and rock, and the dismayed bellow of Ironhorse rose above the cacophony.

The noise died away, and silence fell. Ash, standing two feet from the solid wall of ice sealing the cave, collapsed into the snow.

Puck grabbed my arm as I rushed forward. “Whoa, whoa, princess,” he said as I tried yanking free. “What do you think you’re doing? In case you forgot, princeling there is the enemy. We don’t help the enemy.”

“He’s hurt.”

“All the more reason to leave now.”

“He just saved our lives!”

“Technically, he was saving his own life,” Puck replied, still not letting go. I shoved him, hard, and he finally released me. “Look, princess.” He sighed as I glared at him. “Do you think Ash will play nice now? The only reason he helped—the only reason he agreed to a truce—was so he could bring you to Mab. She wants you alive, to use as leverage against Oberon. That’s the only reason he came along. If he wasn’t hurt, he’d be trying to kill me now.”

I looked at Ash, lying motionless in the snow. Flakes speckled his body—soon they would hide him completely. “We can’t just leave him to die.”

“He’s a Winter prince, Meghan. He won’t freeze to death, trust me.”

I scowled at him. “You’re just as bad as they are.” He blinked, startled, and I turned away from him. “I’m going to see if he’s all right, at least. Either come along or get out of my way.”

Puck threw up his hands. “Fine, princess. I’ll help the son of Mab, eternal enemy of our court. Even though he’ll probably stick a sword in my back the second my guard is down.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Ash muttered, rising slowly to his feet. One hand gripped his sword; the other arm was wrapped around his ribs. He shook the snow from his hair and raised his weapon. “We can continue now, if you like.”

Grinning, Puck pulled his dagger. “I’d be thrilled,” he muttered, taking a step forward. “This won’t take long at all.”

I threw myself between them.

“Stop it!” I hissed, glaring at both in turn. “Stop it right now! Put your weapons up, both of you! Ash, you’re in no condition to fight, and, Puck, shame on you, agreeing to duel him when he’s obviously hurt. Sit down and shut up.”

They blinked at me, astounded, but slowly lowered their weapons. A sneezing laugh rang out in the branches of a tree, and Grimalkin peered down, swishing his tail in mirth.

“A daughter of Oberon after all,” he called, baring his teeth in a feline grin. “Queen Titania would be proud.”

Puck shrugged and flopped down on a log, crossing his arms and legs. Ash continued to stand, watching me with an unreadable expression. Ignoring Puck, I walked up to him. His eyes narrowed, and he tensed, raising his sword, but I wasn’t afraid. For the first time since I came here, I wasn’t afraid at all.

“Prince Ash,” I murmured, drawing closer, “I propose we make a deal.”

Surprise flickered across his face.

“We need your help,” I continued, gazing straight into his eyes. “I don’t know what those things were, but they called themselves iron fey. They also mentioned someone called Machina, the Iron King. Do you know who that is?”

“The Iron King?” Ash shook his head. “There is no one by that name in the courts. If this King Machina exists, he is a danger to all of us. Both courts will want to know about him and these…iron fey.”

“I need to find him,” I said, forcing as much determination into my voice as I could. “He’s got my brother. I need you to help us escape the Unseelie territory and find the court of the Iron King.”

Ash raised an eyebrow. “And why would I do that?” he asked softly. Not mocking, but dead serious.

I swallowed. “You’re injured,” I pointed out, holding his gaze. “You won’t be able to take me by force, not with Puck so eager to stick a knife in your ribs.” I glanced back at Puck, sulking on the log, and lowered my voice. “Here’s my bargain. If you help me find my brother and get him safely home, then I’ll go with you to the Unseelie Court. Without a fight, from me or Puck.”

Ash’s eyes gleamed. “He means that much to you? You would exchange your freedom for his safety?”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes.” The word hung in the air between us, and I hurried on before I could take it back. “So, do we have a deal?”

He inclined his head, as if still trying to puzzle me out. “No, Meghan Chase. We have a contract.”

“Good.” My legs trembled. I backed away from him, needing to sit before I fell over. “And no trying to kill Puck, either.”

“That wasn’t part of the bargain,” Ash said, before he grimaced and sank to his knees, arms around his middle. Dark blood trickled between his lips.

“Puck!” I called, turning to glare at the faery on the log. “Get over here and help.”

“Oh, we’re playing nice now?” Puck remained seated, looking anything but compliant. “Shall we have tea first? Brew up a nice pot of kiss-my-ass?”

“Puck!” I shouted in exasperation, but Ash raised his head and stared at his enemy.

“Truce, Goodfellow,” he grated out. “The Chillsorrow manor is a few miles east of here. Right now, the lady of the house is away at court, so we’ll be safe there. I suggest we postpone our duel until we arrive and the princess is out of the cold. Unless you’d like to kill me now.”

“No, no. We can kill each other later.” Puck hopped off the stump and padded up, shoving his dagger into his boot. Putting the prince’s arm over his shoulders, he jerked him to his feet. Ash grunted and pursed his lips but didn’t cry out. I glared at Puck. He ignored me.

“Off we go.” Puck sighed. “You coming, Grimalkin?”

“Oh, definitely.” Grimalkin landed with a soft thump in the snow. His golden eyes, bright with amusement, regarded me knowingly. “I would not miss this for the world.”


The Oracle

The Chillsorrow manor lived up to its name. The outside of the sprawling estate was blanketed in ice, the lawn was frozen, the numerous thorn trees were encased in crystallized water. Inside wasn’t much better. The stairways were slick, the floors resembled ice rinks, and my breath hung in the air as we made our way through the frigid, narrow halls. At least the servants were helpful, if extremely creepy; skeleton-thin gnomes with pure white skin and long, long fingers glided silently around the house, not saying a word. Their pupil-less black eyes seemed too big for their faces, and they had the unnerving habit of staring at you mournfully, as if you had a fatal disease and were not long for the world.

Still, they welcomed us into the house, bowing respectfully to Ash, making him comfortable in one of the rooms. The biting chill didn’t affect the Winter prince, though I was shaking, teeth chattering, until one of the servants offered me a heavy quilt and padded off without a word.

Clutching the quilt gratefully, I peeked into the room where Ash sat on a bed surrounded by ice gnomes. His shirt was off, showing his lean, muscular arms and chest. He was built more like a dancer or martial artist than a bodybuilder, the elegant frame hinting at a grace a human simply could not match. His tousled black hair fell into his eyes, and he absently raked it out of his face.

Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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