“Then what can we do?” I cried, on the verge of hysteria.
Grimalkin jumped up beside Ash again. “The park,” he said calmly. “We take him to the park. The dryads should be able to help him.”
“Should? What if they can’t?”
“Then, human, I would start praying for a miracle.”
ASH DIDN’T STOP AT THE EDGE of the park, but instead drove the carriage over the curb and into the grass beneath the trees. Worried for Puck, I didn’t notice we’d stopped until the prince knelt beside me, swung Puck onto a shoulder, and dropped down. Numbly, I followed.
We’d stopped under the boughs of two enormous oaks, their gnarled branches completely shutting out the night sky. Ash carried Puck beneath the twisted giants and eased him down to the grass.
And we waited.
Two figures stepped out of the tree trunks, materializing into view. They were both slender women, with moss-green hair and skin like polished mahogany. Beetle-black eyes peered out as the dryads stepped forward, the smell of fresh earth and bark thick in the air. Grimalkin and Ash nodded respectfully, but I was too worried to catch the movement in time.
“We know why you have come,” one dryad said, her voice the sigh of wind through the leaves. “The breeze carries whispers to us, news of faraway places. We know of your plight with the Iron King. We have been waiting for you, child of two worlds.”
“Please,” I asked, stepping forward, “can you help Puck? He was shot on the way here. I’ll bargain with you, give you anything you want, if you can save him.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ash shoot me a dark glare, but I ignored it.
“We will not bargain with you, child,” the second dryad murmured, and I felt a sinking despair. “It is not our way. We are not like the sidhe or the cait sith, seeking endless ways to empower themselves. We simply are.”
“As a favor, then,” I pleaded, refusing to give up. “Please, he’ll die if you don’t help him.”
“Death is a part of life.” The dryad regarded me with pitiless black eyes. “All things fade eventually, even one as long-lived as Puck. People will forget his stories, forget he ever was, and he will cease to be. It is the way of things.”
I fought the urge to scream. The dryads wouldn’t help; they’d just doomed Puck to die. Clenching my fists, I glared at the tree women, wanting to shake them, throttle them until they agreed to help. I felt a rush of…something…and the trees above me groaned and shook, showering us with leaves. Ash and Grimalkin took a step back, and the dryads exchanged glances.
“She is strong,” one whispered.
“Her power sleeps,” the other replied. “The trees hear her, the earth answers her call.”
“Perhaps it will be enough.”
They nodded again, and one of them lifted Puck around the waist, dragging him toward her tree. They both melted into the bark and disappeared. I jerked in alarm.
“What are you doing?”
“Do not worry,” the remaining dryad said, turning back to me. “We cannot heal him, but we can halt the damage. Puck will sleep until he is well enough to rejoin you. Whether that takes a night or several years will be entirely up to him.”
She tilted her head at me, shedding moss. “You and your companions may stay here tonight. It is safe. Within these boundaries, the iron fey will not venture. Our power over tree and land keeps them out. Rest, and we will call for you when it is time.”
With that, she melted back into the tree, leaving us alone, with one less companion than when we started out.
I WANTED TO SLEEP. I wanted to lie down and black out, and wake up to a world where best friends were never shot and little brothers never kidnapped. I wanted everything to be over and my life to go back to normal.
But, as exhausted as I was, I couldn’t sleep. I wandered the park in a daze, numb to everything. Ash was off speaking with the resident park fey, and Grimalkin had disappeared, so I was alone. In the scattered moonlight, faeries danced and sang and laughed, calling out to me from a distance. Satyrs whistled tunes on their pipes, piskies buzzed through the air on gossamer wings, and willowy dryads danced through the trees, their slender bodies waving like grass in the wind. I ignored them all.
At the edge of a pond, under the drooping limbs of another giant oak, I sank down, pulled my knees to my chest, and sobbed.
Mermaids broke the surface of the pond to stare at me, and a ring of piskies gathered round, tiny lights hovering in confusion. I barely saw them. The constant worry for Ethan, the fear of losing Puck, and the ill-fated promise to Ash were too much for me. I cried until I was gasping for breath, hiccuping so hard my lungs ached.
But, of course, the fey couldn’t let me be miserable in peace. As my tears slowed, I became aware I wasn’t alone. A herd of satyrs surrounded me, their eyes bright in the gloom.
“Pretty flower,” one of them said, stepping forward. He had a dark face, a goatee, and horns curling through his thick black hair. His voice was low and soft, and had a faint Creole accent. “Why so sad, lovely one? Come with me, and we will make you laugh again.”
I shivered and rose shakily to my feet. “No, thank y—No. I’m fine. I just want to be alone for a while.”
“Alone is a terrible thing to be,” the satyr said, moving closer. He smiled, charming and attractive. Glamour shimmered around him, and I saw his mortal guise for a split second: a handsome college boy, out walking with his friends. “Why don’t we get some coffee, and you can tell me all about it?”
He sounded so sincere, I almost believed him. Then I caught the glint of raw lust in his eyes, in the eyes of his friends, and my stomach contracted in fear.
“I really have to go,” I said, backing away. They followed me, their gazes hungry and intense. I smelled something strong in the air and realized it was musk. “Please, please leave me alone.”
“You’ll thank us afterward,” the satyr promised, and lunged.
The herd pursued me, whooping and shouting promises: that I would enjoy it, that I needed to loosen up a bit. They were much faster, and the lead goat grabbed me from behind, arms around my waist. I screamed as he lifted me off my feet, kicking and flailing. The other satyrs closed in, grabbing and pawing, tearing at my clothes.
A rush of power, the same I’d felt earlier, and suddenly the oak above us moved. With a deafening creak, a gnarled branch as thick as my waist swung down and struck the lead satyr in the head. He dropped me and staggered back, and the limb swung back to hit him again in the stomach, knocking him sprawling. The other satyrs backed away.
Goat-boy got his feet under him and stood, glaring at me. “I see you like it a little rough,” he wheezed, brushing himself off. Shaking his head, he ran a tongue over his lips and stepped forward. “That’s okay, we can do rough, right, boys?”
“So can I.” A dark shape glided out of the trees, a portion of shadow come to life. The satyrs blinked and hastily stepped back as Ash strode into the middle of the herd. Looming up behind me, he slid an arm around my shoulders and pulled me to his chest. My heart sped up, and my stomach did a backflip. “This one,” Ash growled, “is off-limits.”
“Prince Ash?” gasped the lead satyr, as the rest of the herd bowed their heads. He paled and held up his hands. “Sorry, Your Highness, I didn’t know she was yours. My apologies. No harm done, okay?”
“No one touches her,” Ash said, his voice coated with frost. “Touch her, and I’ll freeze your testicles and put them in a jar. Understand?”
The satyrs cringed. Stammering apologies to both Ash and me, they bowed and scurried away. Ash shot a glare at two piskies hovering nearby to watch, and they sped into the trees with high-pitched giggles. Silence fell, and we were alone.
“Are you all right?” Ash murmured, releasing me. “Did they hurt you?”
I was shaking. That exhilarating rush of power was gone; now I felt completely drained. “No,” I whispered, moving away. “I’m all right.” I might’ve cried, but I had no more tears left in me. My knees trembled and I stumbled, putting a hand against a tree to steady myself.
Ash moved closer. Catching my wrist, he gently pulled me to him and wrapped his arms around me, holding me tight. I was startled, but only for a moment. Sniffling, I closed my eyes and buried my face in his chest, letting all the fear and anger seep away under his touch. I heard his rapid heartbeat, and felt the chill prickling my skin through his shirt. Strangely, it wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
We stood like that for a long moment. Ash didn’t speak, didn’t ask questions, didn’t do anything but hold me. I sighed and relaxed into him, and for a little while, everything was okay. Ethan and Puck still lingered in the back of my mind, but for now, this was good. This was enough.
Then I made a stupid mistake and looked up at him.
His eyes met mine, and for a moment, his face was open and vulnerable in the moonlight. I caught a hint of wonder there as we stared at each other. Slowly, he leaned forward. I caught my breath, a tiny gasp escaping.
He stiffened, and his expression shuttered closed, eyes going hard and frosty.
Pushing me away, he stepped back, and my heart sank. Ash looked into the trees, the shadows, the pond, anywhere but at me. Wanting to reclaim that lost moment, I reached for him, but he slid away.
“This is getting old,” he said in a voice that matched his eyes. He crossed his arms and stepped away, putting even more distance between us. “I’m not here to play nursemaid, princess. Perhaps you shouldn’t go wandering about on your own. I wouldn’t want you damaged before you ever reached the Unseelie Court.”
My cheeks burned, and I clenched my fists. The memory of being humiliated in the cafeteria, so long ago, rose to my mind to taunt me. “That’s all I am to you, isn’t it?” I snarled at him. “Your chance to gain favor from your queen. That’s all you care about.”
“Yes,” he replied calmly, infuriating me even more. “I’ve never pretended anything else. You knew my motivations from the beginning.”
Angry tears stung my eyes. I thought I was all cried out, but I was wrong. “Bastard,” I hissed. “Puck was right about you.”
He smiled coldly. “Maybe you should ask Puck why I’ve vowed to kill him someday,” he said, eyes glinting. “See if he has the courage to tell you that bit of history between us.” He smirked and crossed his arms. “That is, if he ever wakes up.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but with a rustle of leaves, two dryads melted out of a nearby trunk. Ash faded into the darkness as they approached, leaving me with my angry words unsaid. I fisted my hands, wanting to smack the arrogance right off his perfect face. I turned and kicked a log instead.
The dryads bowed to me, unconcerned with my mild temper tantrum.
“Meghan Chase, the Elder will see you now.”
I FOLLOWED THEM TO THE BASE of a single oak tree, its branches so draped in moss, it looked like it was hung with moldy curtains. Ash and Grimalkin were already there, though Ash didn’t even look my way as I approached. I glared at him, but he continued to ignore me. With the cat on one side and the Winter prince flanking the other, I stepped beneath the boughs of the huge oak and waited.