“Tell no one you’ve seen us,” Ash said as the two hench-goblins shoved the boat back into the water.
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, Your Highness,” came a harsh, gravelly voice at the other end of the cave. We spun, Ash’s hand on his sword, as four Thornguards stepped into view, their boots crunching over the stones.
“Very intelligent, not going through the regular trods, Ash,” said one guard. His armor was thornier than the others’, the barbs on his shoulders bristling like giant porcupine quills. “Mab has them all well guarded, but you knew that, didn’t you? Unfortunately, Rowan already bribed every smuggler in the city by the time you found this one. Goblins are such disgusting opportunists, aren’t they?”
Furious, I glared back at Sweetfinger, but the boat was already well out of reach, Sweetfinger grinning at me from the bow.
“Sorry, Princess,” the goblin cackled. “Prince’s offer was good. Other prince’s offer was better. Nothing personal, yes?” He waved, and the boat drifted away into the dark. An icy stone settled in the pit of my stomach, and I turned back to the guards. As one, the Thornguards drew their weapons. Their swords were spiky and black, with long thorns running the length of the blade, looking as sharp as razors.
“Stand down, Edgebriar,” Ash commanded. He hadn’t drawn his sword yet, but his posture was tense. “I don’t want to fight you. You can walk away from this and Rowan would never know. We’re not returning to the city.”
“I’m afraid we weren’t ordered to return you to the city, or Mab,” Edgebriar said with the barest of smirks. “You see, Rowan knows you’re going after the scepter, and he can’t allow that. The new king wants the half-breed alive, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to kill you, Prince. Like Sweetfinger said, it’s nothing personal.”
For a second, I didn’t know who he was talking about. Then it hit me like a punch in the stomach. The new king. The new Iron King. They were working for the Iron Kingdom. Rowan must’ve let Tertius and the wiremen into the palace. He let them kill Sage and take the scepter, and convinced Mab that the Iron fey were not a threat!
Ash’s face went blank with shock. “No,” he said, as the blood drained from his face. “No, Rowan wouldn’t sell us out. Not to them. What have you done?”
“We can’t stop the Iron Kingdom,” Edgebriar continued, his voice earnest.
“The old ways have become obsolete. Mab can’t protect us any longer. It is time to ally ourselves with the stronger power, to become greater than we are. Rowan will lead us to a new era, one where we will fear nothing. Not the touch of iron, not the fading of human imagination, nothing! Let the oldbloods wallow in their ancient traditions. They will fall soon, and we will rise up to take their place.”
“Rowan will destroy us,” Ash said grimly. “This war only hastens our destruction. If Summer and Winter stood together, we could stop the Iron Kingdom.”
“For how long?” Edgebriar demanded, punctuating his words with a savage swing of his blade. “The humans dream their technology, their grand sweeping visions, and forget us. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can evolve to survive. I will show you what I mean.” He ripped off his gauntlet, holding up his bare hand. On his third finger, an iron ring gleamed in the light. The entire digit was blackened and shriveled, and my stomach turned as he shook his fist triumphantly. “Look!” he demanded. “Look at me! I do not fear the touch of iron, of progress. It burns me now, but soon I will be able to use it freely, like the humans. Soon, I will be like them.”
“You’re dying, Edgebriar.” Ash’s voice was full of horror and pity. “It’s killing you slowly, and you don’t even realize it.”
“No! After the war, when both sides are weak and open, the Iron fey will sweep in and destroy all traces of the old. There will be no more Summer or Winter. There will be no more courts. There will be only the Iron Kingdom, and those strong enough to stand with it.”
I stared at him. “Rowan let the Iron fey into the palace, didn’t he?” I whispered, and his fevered gaze turned on me. “He sent them to steal the scepter, and he let them kill his own brother. How can you work for such a bastard? Can’t you see he’s using you?”
“Be silent, half-breed.” Edgebriar glared at me. “Insult my prince again, and I will cut out your tongue and feed it to my hounds. Rowan is the only one who cares for the future of Tir Na Nog.”
Ash shook his head. “Rowan wants power, and would sacrifice his entire court to achieve it. You don’t have to be responsible for his insanity, Edgebriar. Let us pass. We can end this war, and if Summer stands with us, we can find a way to deal with the Iron Kingdom.”
Edgebriar’s face didn’t change. “We have our orders, Prince Ash. We will be taking the half-breed with us, but I’m afraid your journey ends here. Rowan made it quite clear that he did not want you returning to Mab, for any reason.” He gestured to the knights behind him, and they began to close in. “I apologize for the location. A prince’s tomb should be a grander affair.”
I backed away, knowing the violence that was coming next. For the millionth time, I tried desperately to do something with my glamour; pull up a root to trip the knights, throw a glowy ball of light to distract them, anything. It was like hitting a glass wall. I knew my power was on the other side, but I couldn’t access it.
Ash faced the approaching knights calmly, though I could sense muscles coiling beneath his skin. “Rowan doesn’t know me as well as he thinks,” he murmured, seemingly unconcerned with the jagged blades closing in on him, “otherwise he never would’ve made such a mistake.”
Edgebriar smiled, leering at Ash from behind the trio of knights, content to let his guards engage the Winter prince. “And what mistake would that be?”
“There’s only four of you.”
His arm whipped out, sending a flurry of ice shards at the oncoming Thornguards. The knights flinched, throwing up their arms to protect their faces, and Ash lunged into their midst.
The first one didn’t stand a chance. Ash’s blade sheared through his armor, and the faery crumpled before he could even raise his sword. Where he fell, his spiky armor seemed to unravel, flaring out into thick black briars, thorns curling into the air. In seconds, the faery’s body had turned into a giant thornbush, growing right out of the rocks. A metal band glinted on one of the branches.
The screech of blades focused me on the current battle. I couldn’t see Edgebriar, but the other two Thornguards had Ash pressed into a corner and were hounding him mercilessly. Ash parried and spun, blocking their attacks, his blade a blue-white streak through the air. I glanced around and picked up a fist-sized rock from the edge of the water. Maybe I couldn’t throw fireballs, but that couldn’t stop me from hurling other things. Please don’t hit Ash, I thought, winding back for the throw.
The first rock thumped off the back of a knight, doing nothing, but the second struck the side of his head, making him flinch for just a moment. It was enough. Ash’s blade whipped out, ripping through his chest. The knight crumpled without a sound, and brambles erupted from his armor, covering the body in a cocoon of thorns. I gave a shout of triumph, but a dark shape filled my vision. Edgebriar stepped out of invisibility and reached for me with taloned fingers. I tried to dodge, but the Thornguard latched on to my wrist and yanked me to him, twisting my arm behind my back. As I gasped in pain, his other arm came up to circle my throat. I squirmed and kicked at him, but only jabbed myself on his spiny armor as his arm tightened and cut off my air. An explosion of brambles signaled the end of the last knight, and Ash came striding through the hedge toward us, a cold, murderous gleam in his eye.
“Stay where you are, Prince,” Edgebriar spat, and pressed a cold black dagger against my cheek. “Not another step, or I will gouge out her pretty eyes. The Iron King doesn’t care if she’s a bit damaged when she comes to him.”
Ash stopped, lowering his blade, his eyes never leaving the knight. Edgebriar’s chokehold loosened just the tiniest bit, and I sucked in a much-needed breath, trying to be calm. This close, the knight smelled of sweat and leather, and something sharper, metallic. The ring on his hand glinted against his blackened finger as he held the knife point to my face.
“Now,” Edgebriar panted, locking gazes with Ash, “I want you to put down your sword and swear you will not follow us.” When Ash didn’t move, Edgebriar stabbed the point of the knife into my cheek, just enough to draw blood. I gasped at the sudden pain, and Ash tensed. “I won’t ask you again, Your Highness,” Edgebriar growled. “You’ve lost this battle. Put down your sword, and promise you will not follow us.”
“Edgebriar.” Ash’s voice was as cold as frozen steel. “Rowan has poisoned your mind, as surely as that iron is poisoning your insides. You can still walk away from this. Let me take the princess back to Arcadia, and then we can warn Mab about the Iron King and Rowan.”
“It’s too late.” Edgebriar shook his head wildly. “They’re already coming. You can’t stop them, Ash. No one can.” He chuckled, a note of madness coming to the surface, and tightened his stranglehold on my neck. “All the king’s army and all the king’s men,” he whispered, waving the knife in front of my eyes, “came to Faery on the day it would end.”
All right, enough was enough. Edgebriar had lost it; he had taken a long walk off the short end. I had to do something. But without a weapon or glamour, what could I do?
Blood was trickling down my face, oozing a path over my skin like a giant red tear. My cheek throbbed, and pain brought everything into sharp focus. In my mind, I saw the metal ring glowing white, pulsing with energy. I felt the glamour around it, but it was different from anything I’d felt before—cold and colorless. Was this…iron glamour? Could I use it as the fey used the wilder magic of dreams and emotion? The ring shimmered, fluid and alive, eager to be worked upon. To be shaped into something new.
Tighten, I thought, and the metal band responded instantly, biting into the skin. Edgebriar jerked, looking startled, and I squeezed harder, twisting the ring so that it cut into his flesh, drawing blood. It hissed where it touched, and Edgebriar howled, jerking his arm from my neck as if burned. I twisted from his grasp and shoved him away. Ash lunged for Edgebriar. The Thornguard saw him coming and at the last second went for his sword, too late. Ash stepped within his guard and plunged the blade through his chest, so hard that it erupted out the knight’s back. Edgebriar staggered and fell away, hitting the water with a loud splash. He stared at the blood on his chest, than gazed up at us, his eyes blank and confused. “You don’t…understand,” he gurgled, as Ash looked down on him sadly. “We were going to become…like them. Rowan…promised us. He promised…”
Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and thorny creepers slithered over his body, hiding him from view.