I shuddered, torn between throwing up and bursting into tears. Strange how all my time in the Winter Court still hadn’t desensitized me to blood and death. I felt Ash’s gaze on me, curious and wary, like a stranger’s.
“What did you do to him?”
I shook my head. The strange glamour was already fading, like it had never been. My body trembled from the aftermath of shock and adrenaline. “I don’t know.”
Ash glanced once more at the thornbush, at the iron ring dangling from a twig, and shuddered. “Come here,” he sighed, motioning me to a large rock. “Sit down. Let me see your face.”
The cut wasn’t deep, more of a puncture wound than a gash, though it still hurt like hell. Ash knelt and studied it, then tore a strip from his sleeve and dunked it in a nearby puddle. As he raised it to my cheek, I instinctively flinched and jerked away, grimacing. He shook his head, and a corner of his lip twitched.
“I haven’t even touched it yet. Now hold still.”
He lifted the rag, and our gazes met. Ash froze. I saw a dozen emotions cross his face before he took a quiet breath and very carefully pressed the cloth to my cheek. I was tempted to close my eyes, but kept them open, watching his face. To have him here, to have him this close, was worth the pain. I studied his eyes, his lips, the tiny silver stud in his ear, almost hidden by his dark hair. I memorized those little details, searing his image into my brain, wanting to remember this moment. Though his expression was closed and businesslike after that first glance, his fingers were gentle.
“Why are you staring at me?”
His voice made me jump. “What? I’m not.”
“Liar.” Ash took my hand and pressed it to the cloth, holding it to my cheek.
“Here. The bleeding’s stopped, but keep pressure on it for a bit just to be sure.” His hand lingered on mine, cool and smooth, though he wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m sorry, Meghan.”
“For Rowan. For all of this.” He rose and walked to where Edgebriar had fallen. Now only a black thorny bush marked the place where he had died, and Ash glared at it as if it might come back to life.
“Rowan,” I heard him mutter. “What are you thinking?”
Dropping the cloth, I walked up to him. “What now?”
He was quiet a moment, brooding. The shock of discovering that his brother was responsible for betraying all of Faery was still new, like a wound that wouldn’t close. I could tell he didn’t want to believe it. “Nothing’s changed,” he said at last, his voice cold and resolved. “The scepter is still out there, and if Rowan knows where it is, he isn’t going to tell us. When this is over, Mab will decide what to do with Rowan, but the scepter comes first.”
Very lightly, I touched his arm. “I’m sorry. He’s a jerk, but I’m sorry it had to be him.”
He nodded. “Let’s get out of here.”
Four horses stood waiting at the cave entrance; faery steeds with jet-black coats, lightning-colored manes, and glowing, white-blue eyes. Their slender hooves didn’t quite touch the ground as they stamped and shifted, regarding us with eerie intelligence. Ash helped me into one’s saddle, and the fey-horse swished its tail and rolled its eyes at me, as if sensing my unease. I gave it a warning glare.
“Don’t try anything, horse,” I muttered, and it pinned back its ears, which was not a good sign. Ash approached another mount and swung easily into the saddle, as if he’d done it a thousand times.
“Where are we going?” I asked, fumbling with the reins, which made the horse prance sideways. Dammit, I’d never get used to this. “We know Tertius stole the scepter, Rowan helped him into the palace, and they’re both working for a new Iron King.” I frowned as I thought of the implications. “Ash, do you think we’ll have to go back to the Iron Kingd—”
My horse suddenly let out a shrill whinny and half reared, nearly throwing me off. As I shrieked and grabbed its mane, the other mount tried to bolt, but Ash pulled one rein short, and the horse spun in frenzied circles until it calmed down. As our mounts quieted, still prancing and tossing their heads, we gazed around for the source of their fear. We didn’t have to look far.
Through the trees, silhouetted against the cloudy sky, a lone figure on horseback watched us atop a snowy rise. The single tree standing over it had curled its branches as far away from the figure as possible, its limbs twisted and warped, but the rider didn’t seem to care. As we stared at each other, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, glinting off its steel armor.
A faint metallic rustling drifted over the wind, like thousands of knives scraping together, making my blood run cold. As the Iron knight stood motionless on the hill, an enormous pack of spindly legged creatures appeared around him. Claws flashing, limbs jerking sporadically, the wire-fey crowded the hilltop like huge spiders, gleaming in the sun. Ash went pale, and my heart contracted in horror as the knight raised a hand toward us, sending the entire pack skittering down the hill.
The faery steeds ate up the ground as they charged through the forest, their hooves making almost no noise in the snow. The trees flew by at a terrifying speed as the horses plunged between trunks and over logs, reminding me of my first wild ride through Faery, when I had been running away from Ash, ironically. At least I had a saddle this time. I clung to the horse’s neck, unable to do anything else, steering or otherwise. Thankfully, Ash seemed to know where he was going, and my horse followed his as we flew over the ground. Behind us, the metallic skittering of the wire-fey echoed on the wind, never fading or falling behind.
The trees fell away, and a steep incline soared above us, jagged rocks covered in ice as smooth as glass. My stomach turned, imagining my horse slipping and rolling on top of me, but the hooves of the Winter-born faery steeds charged up the hill without hesitation. It felt like they were running up a wall, and I clung to my horse until my arms burned with liquid fire.
At the top of the rise, Ash pulled his mount to a halt, and my horse stopped as well, prancing in place. Arms shaking from the strain of keeping my seat, I straightened cautiously.
Ash was staring down the slope, eyes narrowed to slits. I followed his gaze, and my stomach lurched. The edge of the rise fell away into a dizzying vertical drop, jagged rocks jutting up like spines. I suddenly wished I knew how to steer my horse, just to move it away from the edge.
“They’re coming,” Ash muttered.
The wiremen fey flowed from the trees in a glittering swarm. Scuttling to the rise, they began to climb, digging their claws into the ice as they edged upward. Steel limbs flashing, they crawled up the icy slope like ants, barely slowing down.
“What are these things?” Ash whispered. He raised his arm, and the air around him sparkled as a glittering ice spear formed overhead. With a flick of his hand, he hurled it down the slope, into the ranks of oncoming fey.
The spear hit one directly in the face, punching through the wires and tearing it from the hill. It clattered down the slope, arms and legs flailing, but the other fey leaped over the body or skittered aside, and kept coming.
My horse snorted and backed away. I grabbed for its mane as Ash whirled his steed around, his face grim.
“We can’t outrun them,” he announced, and I caught the faintest hint of fear in his voice, which only made me more terrified. “They’re faster than us, and will overtake the horses long before we reach a trod. We have to make a stand.”
I looked down at the approaching swarm, and my voice squeaked with terror.
“Not here.” Ash shook his head and pointed down the other side of the slope.
“There’s an abandoned fort on the edge of the wyldwood. Ariella and I used it as a hunting lodge. If we can reach it, we might have a chance.”
The other side of the slope fell away into the same break-neck drop. Far, far in the distance, I saw where the snow-covered treetops met the writhing gray mist of the wyldwood.
A raven circled us, giving a harsh cry as it passed overhead as the first of the wire-fey clawed its way to the top. Ash kicked his steed into motion, and mine followed, charging for the edge of the rise. I screamed as my horse gathered its legs underneath it and leaped into empty space.
We fell for what seemed like an eternity. When we finally hit the ground, the horses landed with barely a jolt and immediately plunged into the forest. Behind us, the wiremen poured down the slope in a glittering flood. My body ached and my arms burned from clinging to the horse for so long. Every bump sent a lance of pain through my side, and my breath came in short, agonizing gasps. Finally, we burst through the trees into a snow-covered clearing. In the center of the grove, a crumbling tower rose skyward in a precarious upside down L, as if it might collapse any moment.
“Come on!” Ash leaped off his mount, ignoring it as it raced away into the trees. My horse tried to follow, but the prince grabbed its reins, yanking it up short. I half slid, half fell out of the saddle, and I barely took a gasping breath before Ash was dragging me through the snow.
We ran for the fort, hearing the scraping of claws behind us. I didn’t dare look back. Ahead, through the great wooden doors, I saw the darkened interior of the room. Sunlight slanted through holes in the roof, spilling over a strangely luminescent floor. As we drew closer, I gasped. The ground was completely carpeted in white, bell-like flowers, which glowed softly in the dim light. They grew on the walls and even covered the ancient furniture lying around the room: a wooden table, a cupboard, a few simple cots. Everything was also covered in snow and ice, as the roof was full of holes, but I supposed that hadn’t mattered to Ash and Ariella. Freezing temperatures never bothered the Winter fey. Ash pulled us through the opening, crushing flowers underfoot, and threw his weight against the doors. They groaned, reluctant to move. I joined him, and together, we strained at the stubborn gates. They closed slowly, creaking with age and time, and the wiremen were no more than twenty yards away when they finally banged shut. Ash threw down the bolt, then pressed both hands against it and sheathed the entire gate with ice. No sooner had he finished than the first blows rattled the wooden door, resounding through the chamber. The ice shivered and tiny cracks radiated through the surface as more blows shook the gate. It wouldn’t hold them for long.
Ash drew his sword. “Get back,” he told me as the door rattled again. More cracks shot through the ice. “Find a place to hide. There’s an alcove behind that statue against the wall—you should be able to fit.”
I shook my head frantically, seeing Sage surrounded by the hideous wire-fey, dying on the floor of the throne room. I couldn’t watch Ash be torn apart like that before my eyes. Ash glanced back at me and frowned.
“Meghan, there’s nothing you can do. Go! I’ll hold them as long as I can. Go, now!”
A great chunk fell out of the door as a curved wire claw tore it away. The hole widened, as metal talons ripped and clawed at the wood. Fear got the better of me. I ran to the crumbling statue of some forgotten hero, darting behind it as the first of the wiremen squeezed through the crack like a giant spider.