“Foolish girl! What are you doing? I’m trying to help you!”
Shocked, I stared at him, panting. Still pinned beneath the Wolf, Ash tried to get up, but two giant paws held him down. “What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Let Ash up, if you say you’re helping me.” The beast shook his head. “I was sent to rescue you and kill this one,” he replied, shifting his weight to better lean on Ash, who gritted his teeth in pain. “You are a prisoner no more, Princess. Just let me finish him off and you can return to the Summer Court.”
“No!” I lunged forward as the Wolf turned back, opening his jaws. “Don’t kill him! I’m not a prisoner. We made a deal, a contract—I would go to the Winter Court in return for his help. He’s not keeping me here by force. I chose this.”
The Wolf blinked slowly. “You made a contract,” he repeated.
“A contract with this one.”
“Then…your father was mistaken.”
“Oberon?” I stared at him, aghast. “Oberon ordered you to do this?”
The Wolf snorted. “No one orders me,” he growled, baring his fangs. “The Summer Lord thought you had been captured. He asked me to find you, kill your captor and free you to return to the Summer Court. He thought the hunt might be difficult, so deep within Winter’s territory, and I could not pass up the challenge.” The Wolf paused, scrutinizing me with intense yellow eyes, a flicker of irritation crossing his face. “However, if you have made a deal with the Winter prince, that changes things.
The agreement with Oberon was to rescue you from your captor, and you do not have a captor. Therefore…” He snarled in annoyance and reluctantly stepped back, freeing Ash from beneath his paws. “I must honor the contract and let you go.”
He glared at us as he moved aside, the Hunter so close to his prey only to have it ripped from his jaws. I stepped between him and Ash, just in case the Wolf changed his mind, and helped the prince to his feet. Ash’s sword arm bleed freely, and the other was wrapped around his ribs, as if the Wolf’s weight had crushed them.
Sheathing his blade, he faced our pursuer and gave a slight bow.
The Wolf nodded. “You’re very lucky,” he told Ash.
“Today.” Backing off, he shook himself once more and glared at us with grudging respect. “It was a good chase.
Pray we do not meet again, for you will not even see me coming.”
Throwing back his head, the Wolf howled, wild and chilling, making the hairs on my neck stand up. Bounding into the trees, his huge dark form vanished instantly, swallowed up by snow and shadows, and we were alone.
I looked at Ash in concern. “Are you all right? Can you walk?”
He took a step and winced, sinking to one knee.
“Give me a moment.”
“Come on.” I slipped an arm under his shoulder and carefully eased him upright. The clearing looked like a war zone: trampled snow, crushed vegetation and blood everywhere. It could attract Unseelie predators, and though I was sure none were as scary as the Big Bad Wolf, Ash was in no shape to fight them off. “We’re going back to the cave.”
He didn’t argue, and together we limped across the clearing to the ice cave, ducking inside. The floor was a mess of shattered icicles, making passage difficult and treacherous, but we found a clear space near the back of the room. Ash sank down against the wall, and I tore a strip off the hem of my cloak.
He was silent as I wrapped the makeshift bandage around his arm, but I could feel his eyes on me as I tied it off. Releasing his arm, I looked up to meet his silvery gaze. Ash blinked slowly, giving me that look that meant he was trying to figure me out.
“Why didn’t you run?” he asked softly. “If you didn’t stop the Wolf, you wouldn’t have to come back to Tir Na Nog. You would have been free.” I scowled at him.
“I agreed to that contract, same as you,” I muttered, tying off the bandage with a jerk, but Ash didn’t even grunt. Angry now, I glared up at him, meeting his eyes.
“What, you think just because I’m human I would back out? I knew what I was getting into, and I am going to uphold my end of the bargain, no matter what happens.
And if you think I would leave you to that monster just so I wouldn’t have to meet Mab, then you don’t know me at all.”
“It’s because you’re human,” Ash continued in that same quiet voice, holding my gaze, “that you missed a tactical opportunity. A Winter fey in your position wouldn’t have saved me. They wouldn’t let their emotions get in the way. If you’re going to survive in the Unseelie Court, you have to start thinking like them.”
“Well, I’m not like them.” I rose and took a step back, trying to ignore the feelings of hurt and betrayal, the stupid angry tears pressing at the corners of my eyes. “I’m not a Winter faery—I’m human, with human feelings and emotions. And if you want me to apologize for that, you can forget it. I can’t just shut off my feelings like you can.
Though the next time you’re about to get eaten or killed, I guess I won’t bother saving your life.” I whirled to stalk away in a huff, but Ash rose with blinding speed and gripped my upper arms. I stiffened, locking my knees and keeping my back straight, but struggling with him would have been useless. Even wounded and bleeding as he was, he was much stronger me.
“I’m not ungrateful,” he murmured against my ear, making my stomach flutter despite itself. “I just want you to understand. The Winter Court preys on the weak. It’s their nature. They will try to tear you apart, physically and emotionally, and I won’t always be there to protect you.” I shivered, anger melting away as my own doubts and fears came rushing back. Ash sighed, and I felt his forehead touch the back of my hair, his breath fanning my neck. “I don’t want to do this,” he admitted in a low, anguished voice. “I don’t want to see what they’ll try to do to you. A Summer faery in the Winter Court doesn’t stand much of a chance. But I vowed that I would bring you back, and I’m bound to that promise.” He raised his head, squeezing my shoulders in an almost painful grip as his voice dropped a few octaves, turning grim and cold.
“So, you have to be stronger than they are. You can’t let down your guard, no matter what. They will lead you on, with games and pretty words, and they will take pleasure in your misery. Don’t let them get to you. And don’t trust anyone.” He paused, and his voice went even lower. “Not even me.”
“I’ll always trust you,” I whispered without thinking, and his hands tightened, turning me to face him almost savagely.
“No,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You won’t. I’m your enemy, Meghan. Never forget that. If Mab tells me to kill you in front of the entire court, it’s my duty to obey. If she orders Rowan or Sage to carve you up slowly, making sure you suffer every second of it, I’m expected to stand there and let them do it. Do you understand? My feelings for you don’t matter in the Winter Court.
Summer and Winter will always be on opposite sides, and nothing will change that.”
I knew I should be afraid of him. He was an Unseelie prince after all, and had basically admitted he would kill me if Mab ordered him to. But he also admitted to having feelings for me—feelings that didn’t matter, true, but it still made my stomach squirm when I heard it. And maybe I was being naive, but I couldn’t believe Ash would willingly hurt me, even in the Winter Court. Not with the way he was looking at me now, his silver eyes conflicted and angry.
He stared at me a moment longer, then sighed. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” he murmured, closing his eyes.
“I’m not afraid,” I told him, which was a lie; I was terrified of Mab and the Unseelie Court that waited at the end of this journey. But if Ash was there, I would be all right.
“You are infuriatingly stubborn,” Ash muttered, raking a hand through his hair. “I don’t know how I’m going to protect you when you have no concept of self-preservation.”
I stepped close to him, placing a hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat under his shirt. “I trust you,” I said, rising up so our faces were inches apart, trailing my fingers down his stomach. “I know you’ll find a way.” His breath hitched, and he regarded me hungrily.
“You’re playing with fire, you know that?”
“That’s weird, considering you’re an ice prin—” I didn’t get any further, as Ash leaned in and kissed me. I looped my arms around his neck as his snaked around my waist, and for a few moments, the cold couldn’t touch me.
We spent the night in the cave, both to give Ash a chance to heal from his wounds and to give us one more night of rest before entering Tir Na Nog. It didn’t take long for Ash to recover. The fey heal insanely fast, especially if they are within their own territories, and by the time darkness fell his bite wounds were almost gone. As the temperature dropped, he started a fire, solely for my benefit, and we sat around the flames sharing the last of the food, lost in our own thoughts.
Outside, the snow continued to fall, piling outside the entrance and in the center of the room through the holes in the ceiling. It sparkled in the icy moonlight, like flakes of diamonds drifting from the sky, tempting me to stand in the center of the light and catch them on my tongue.
Ash was silent through most of the evening. He’d broken the kiss earlier, pulling away with a guilty, agonized look, and mumbled something about making camp. Since then, he’d given me short, one-word answers whenever I tried talking to him, and avoided eye contact whenever possible.
He sat across from me now, chin on his hands, brooding into the fire. Part of me wanted to walk up to him and hug him from behind, and part of me wanted to hurl a snowball at his perfect face to get some kind of reaction.
I opted for a less suicidal route. “Hey,” I said, poking at the flames with a stick, making them cough sparks.
“Earth to Ash. What are you thinking about?” He didn’t move, and for a second I thought he would reply with his favorite one-word answer of the night: Nothing. But after a moment he sighed and his eyes flickered, very briefly, to mine.
“Home,” he said quietly. “I’m thinking of home. Of the court.”
“Do you miss it?”
Another pause, and he shook his head slowly. “No.”
“But it’s your home.”
“It’s the place I was born. That’s all.” He sighed and gazed into the fire. “I don’t go back often, and I rarely stay at court for any length of time.” I thought of Mom, and Ethan, and our tiny little farmhouse out in the bayou, and a lump rose to my throat.
“That must be lonely,” I murmured. “Don’t you get homesick once in a while?”
Ash regarded me across the flames, understanding and sympathy dawning in his gaze. “My family,” he said in a solemn voice, “is not like yours.” He rose gracefully, abruptly, as if the subject had become tiring. “Get some sleep,” he said, and the chill was back in his voice. “Tomorrow we reach the Winter Court. Queen Mab will be anxious to meet you.”