Ash didn’t eat anything. He remained wary and suspicious, and never truly relaxed the entire journey. The horse, too, was jumpy and restless, and it panicked at every shadow, every rustle or falling leaf. Something was following us; I felt it every time we stopped, a dark, shadowy presence drawing ever closer As we rode on through the night, the eternal twilight of the wyldwood finally dimmed and a pale yellow moon rose into the sky. Ash and the fey horse both had seemingly unlimited endurance, more so than me, anyway. Riding a horse for hours and hours is not easy, and the stress of being chased by an unknown enemy was taking its toll. I struggled to stay awake, dozing against the prince’s back, leaning dangerously off the sides until a jolt or sharp word from Ash snapped me upright.
I was dozing off once more, fighting to keep my eyes open, when Ash suddenly pulled the horse to a stop and dismounted. Blinking, I looked around dazedly, seeing nothing but trees and shadows. “Are we there yet?”
“No.” Ash glared at me in exasperation. “But you keep threatening to fall off the horse, and I can’t keep reaching back to make sure you’re still on.” He motioned to the front of the saddle. “We’re switching places. Move forward.”
I eased into the saddle and Ash swung up behind me, wrapping an arm securely around my waist, making my pulse beat faster in excitement.
“Hold on,” he murmured as the horse started forward again. “We’re almost to the trod. Once we’re in the mortal realm, you can rest. We should be safe there.”
“What’s following us?” I whispered, making the horse’s ears twitch back. Ash didn’t reply for several moments.
“I don’t know,” he muttered, sounding reluctant to admit it. “Whatever it is, it’s persistent. We’ve been keeping a pretty steady pace and haven’t lost it yet.”
“Why is it following us? What does it want?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Ash’s grip around my waist tightened. “If it wants you, it’ll have to get past me first.” My stomach prickled, and my heart did a weird little flop. In that moment, I felt safe. My prince wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Settling back against him, I closed my eyes and let myself drift.
I must have dozed off, for the next thing I knew Ash was shaking me gently. “Meghan, wake up,” he murmured, his cool breath fanning my neck. “We’re here.”
Yawning, I looked at the small glade ahead of us.
Without the cover of the trees, I could see the sky, dotted with stars. The glade was clear, except for one massive gnarled oak in the very center. Roots snaked out over the ground, huge thick things that prevented anything bigger than a fern to flourish. The trunk was wide and twisted, like three or four trees had been squashed together into one. But even with the oak’s size and dominating presence, I could see that it was dying. Its branches drooped, or had snapped off and were scattered about the base of the tree. Most of its broad, veined leaves were dead and brittle; the rest were a sickly yellow-brown. The glade, too, looked withered and sick, as if the tree was leeching life from the forest around it.
“It wasn’t like this before,” Ash murmured behind me. I gazed at the dying tree and felt an incomprehensible sadness, as if I were seeing an old friend about to die.
Shaking it off, I looked around for a doorway or gate, but the tree was the only thing here.
“Will it still work?” I wondered as he urged the horse into the clearing, toward the ancient tree. “The trod, I mean. Will it open?”
“We’ll see.” Ash dismounted and led the horse up to the trunk. When it stopped, I slid out of the saddle and joined him.
“So, how does the trod work?” I asked, peering at the trunk for a door of some kind. Doors in trees were not unusual in the Nevernever. In fact, during my first time to Faeryland, I’d spent the night in a wood sprite’s tree, somehow shrinking down to the size of a bug to fit through his door. “I don’t see a gate. How do you get it to open?”
“Easy,” Ash replied. “We just ask.” Ignoring my scowl, he faced the trunk and put a hand on the rough bark. “This is Ash,” he said clearly, “third son of the Unseelie Court, requesting passage to the mortal realm and the clearing of the Elder.”
“Please,” I added.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with a loud groaning and creaking, one of the massive roots snaked out of the ground, shedding dirt and twigs. Rising into the air, it formed an archway between itself and the ground, and the space between shimmered with magic.
“There’s your trod,” Ash murmured, as my heart beat faster in my chest. Puck was through that gateway. If he was still alive.
Clutching Ash’s hand, almost pulling him along in my impatience, I ducked through the arch.
I tripped over a root on the other side and stumbled forward, barely catching myself. Straightening, I gazed around the moonlit grove of New Orleans City Park, recognizing the huge mossy oaks from our last visit. The air was humid, warm and peaceful. Crickets buzzed, leaves rustled and moonlight shimmered off the nearby lake. Nothing had changed. It had been this peaceful the last time we were here, though my world had been falling apart.
Ash touched my arm and nodded at a tree, where a willowy girl with moss-green skin watched us from the shadow of an oak, her dark eyes wide and startled.
“Meghan Chase?” The dryad swayed toward us, moving like a wind-blown branch. “What are you doing here?” I blinked at the fear in her voice. “You must not stay!” she hissed as she drew close. “It is not safe. There is something dangerous following you.”
“We know,” Ash said beside me, calm and unflustered as always. The dryad blinked and shifted her gaze to him. “But we came through the Elder gate, so hopefully she won’t let whatever is hunting us into this world.”
Elder gate? I glanced behind me, and my stomach twisted so hard I felt nauseous.
It was the Elder Dryad’s tree, the great oak that once stood tall and proud, looming over the others. Now, like its twin in the clearing, it was dying. Its branches were bare of leaves, the shaggy moss that covered it brown and dead.
A lump rose to my throat. I remembered the Elder Dryad from our first visit here: an old, grandmotherly fey with a soft voice and kind eyes who had given the very heart of her tree to make sure I could rescue my brother.
And kill the faery who’d kidnapped him. The Elder had known she would die if she helped me. But she gave us the weapon we needed to take down the enemy fey and get Ethan back.
The dryad girl stepped beside me, gazing at the dying oak. “She lives still,” she murmured, her voice like the whisper of leaves. “Dying, yes. Too weak to leave her tree, she sleeps now, dreaming of her youth. But not gone, not yet. It will take a long time for her to fade completely.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
“No, Meghan Chase.” The dryad shook her head with a faint rustling sound, and a shiny beetle crawled across her face to burrow into her hair. “She knew. She knew all along what was going to happen. The wind tells us these things. Just as it tells us you are in terrible danger now.” She suddenly fixed me with piercing black eyes.
“You should not be here,” she said firmly. “It is very close. Why have you come?”
My skin prickled, but I shook off the feeling of trepidation and held her gaze. “I’m here for Puck. I need to see him.”
The dryad’s expression softened. “Ah. Yes, of course. I will take you to him, but I fear you will be disappointed.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I felt cold, even in the warm summer night. “I just want to see him.”
The dryad nodded and shuffled back, swaying in the breeze. “This way.”