Claws flashing, it lunged at Ash, who was waiting for it. His sword arced through the air, shearing the spindly fey in half. Another skittered toward him, and he whipped his blade around to slice off a flailing arm. The wireman collapsed, twitching, in the flowers, shredding the delicate blooms like paper.
I bit my cheek, trying not to be sick. More fey poured through the opening as they tore the gate to shreds. Ash was forced back, giving ground to prevent the wiremen from flanking him. Finally, he stood against a broken pillar, his back to the stones, as the Iron faeries swarmed around him, slashing and clawing.
I heard a noise above us, and a shower of stones and ice tumbled to the ground. A metallic form suddenly crawled through a hole in the roof and crawled along the ceiling, making my blood run cold. “Ash, above you!” I yelled, as more fey slithered through the cracks. “They’re coming through the roof!”
The wiremen surrounded Ash in a chaotic blur. I could barely see him through the forest of slashing claws. Suddenly he leaped straight up, over the heads of the Iron fey, to land on the upright half of a broken pillar. His coat was in tatters, one side of his face was covered in crimson, and more blood dripped from numerous wounds to the flowers below. The wiremen resumed their attack, crawling up the pillar or dropping from the ceiling. Fear hammered against my chest. I tried reaching for that strange, cold glamour I’d felt earlier with Edgebriar, but came up with nothing. I tried drawing in regular glamour, but hit the glass wall again. I wanted to scream. What was wrong with me? I had once taken down the Iron King; where was that power now? Ash was going to die in front of me, and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Something big and black hurtled through the smashed door, diving toward the battle. It screeched as it slammed into a wireman, knocking it off the column, and the rest of the fey looked up, startled at this newest threat. It wheeled around to land on the pillar across from Ash—a giant black raven with emerald-green eyes. My heart leaped in my chest. With a harsh, laughing cry, the bird disintegrated, vanishing in a swirling black cloud. A new form rose up from the explosion, shaking feathers from his fiery red hair, a wide, familiar grin spreading across his face.
“Hey, Princess,” Puck called, brushing feathers from his clothes and gazing around at the carnage. “Looks like I got here just in time.”
The wire-fey paused just a moment, blinking up at this newcomer, than scuttled forward once more. Puck drew a furry ball from his pocket, winked at me, and tossed it into the ranks of Iron fey swarming below him. It hit the ground, bounced once, and erupted into a large black boar, which charged into the fey with a maddened squeal. Puck threw Ash a mocking smile. “You look like crap, Prince. Did you miss me?”
Ash frowned, stabbing a faery that was clawing at his feet. “What are you doing here, Goodfellow?” he asked coldly, which only caused Puck’s grin to widen.
“Rescuing the princess from the Winter Court, of course.” Puck looked down as the wire-fey piled on the squealing boar, ripping and slicing. It exploded into a pile of leaves, and they skittered back in confusion. “Though it appears I’m saving your sorry ass, as well.”
“I could’ve handled it.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Puck brandished a pair of curved daggers, the blades clear as glass. His grin turned predatory. “Well, then, shall we get on with it? Try to keep up, Your Highness.”
“Just stay out of my way.”
They leaped down from their pillars directly into the ranks of wiremen, who instantly swarmed around them. Back to back, Ash and Puck sliced into their opponents with renewed vigor, neither giving an inch now that the other was there. The mob of Iron fey thinned rapidly. Through the mass of writhing limbs, I caught glimpses of Ash’s face, taut with concentration, and Puck’s vicious smile.
Silently, the last few wiremen broke from the whirlwind of death in the middle of the floor. Without looking back, they scuttled up the walls, clawed their way through the holes in the roof and were gone.
Puck, his shirt now a tattered mess, sheathed his daggers and glanced around with a satisfied smirk. “Well, that was fun.” His gaze found me, still frozen behind the statue, and he shook his head. “Wow, icy reception here. And to think I came back from the dead for this.”
I squeezed from my hiding place, my heart pounding against my ribs, and ran to him. His arms opened, and I threw myself against his chest, hugging him fiercely. He was real. He was here, not dying in a tree somewhere, left behind and forgotten. “I missed you,” I whispered against his neck.
He held me tighter. “I’ll always come back for you,” he murmured, sounding so unlike himself that I pulled back and looked at him. For a moment, his green eyes were intense, and I caught my breath at the emotion smoldering within. Then he smirked, and the effect was ruined.
I was suddenly aware of Ash leaning against a pillar, watching us with an unreadable expression. Blood streaked his face, splattering the white flowers beneath him, and his sword dangled limply from his grasp.
Puck followed my gaze, and his grin grew wider. “Hey, Prince,” he greeted,
“word is you’re a traitor to the Winter Court. You’ve got the entire wyldwood in an uproar—they say you tried to kill Rowan after he caught you escaping with the princess. Clearly, I’ve missed a few things.”
“News travels fast,” Ash replied wearily. He started to rake a bloody hand through his hair, then thought better of it, dropping it to his side. “It’s been an interesting morning.”
“To say the least.” Puck gazed around at the bodies of the wiremen and wrinkled his nose. “What the hell are those things?”
“Iron fey,” I said. “I’ve seen them before. They were in the throne room with Tertius when he stole the scepter.”
“The Scepter of the Seasons?” Puck looked at me aghast. “Oh, man. So that’s where the war rumors are coming from. Winter really is going to attack Summer.” He glared at Ash. “So, we’re at war. Perfect. Shall we save time and kill each other now, or did you want to wait until later?”
“Don’t start, Goodfellow.” Ash matched Puck’s glare. “I didn’t want this. And I have no time for a fight.” He sighed, deliberately avoiding my gaze. “In fact, now that you’re here, you can do us both a favor. I want you to take Meghan back to the Summer Court.”
Partings and Memories
“That’s it?” Puck asked, as I stared at Ash, unable to believe what I’d just heard. He still wasn’t looking and me, and Puck rattled on without noticing. “Take her back to Court? That’s easy. I was going to do that anyway, whether you liked it or not. Comes with the whole rescue thing, you know—”
“What are you talking about?” I yelled, making Puck jump. “The hell with going back to Summer! We need to get the scepter back from the Iron fey! It’s the only way to stop the war.”
“I’m aware of that.” Ash finally met my eyes, and his gaze was cold. “But this is Winter’s problem. Retrieving the scepter is my responsibility. I want you to return to your own court, Meghan. You’ll be safer there. You can’t help me this time. Go home.”
Hurt and betrayal stabbed me in the chest. “You were going to dump me on Oberon all along, weren’t you?” I spit at him. “You liar. I thought we were going after the scepter together.”
“I never told you that.”
Puck glanced from me to Ash and back again, looking confused. “Erm, so you’re saying you don’t want to go back home?” he asked me. I glared at him, and he shrugged. “Wow, so that totally makes the whole rescue plan a wash. You wanna throw me a bone here, Princess? I feel somewhat out of the loop.”
“We have to go after the scepter,” I told Puck, hoping he would back me on this. “Ash can’t do it by himself. We can help—”
“No, you can’t,” Ash broke in. “Not this time. You’d be no use to me, Meghan, not with your magic sealed—” He caught himself, looking guilty, and Puck’s eyes narrowed.
“Sealed?” Puck stepped forward threateningly. “You put a binding on her?”
“I didn’t.” Ash stared him down, defiant. “Mab did. When she first came to Winter. Mab was afraid her power would be too great, so she sealed her magic to protect the Court.”
I remembered the wall I kept hitting whenever I tried using more than the simplest glamour, and my temper flared. How dare she! “And you knew,” I accused Ash. “You knew about the seal, and you didn’t bother telling me?”
Ash shrugged, unrepentant. “Mab ordered us not to. Besides, what difference would it make? I can’t do anything about it.”
I turned to Puck, who glowered at the prince as though he might attack him right then. “Can you break it?”
Puck shook his head. “Sorry, Princess. Only Mab, or someone of equal power, can remove a binding once it’s been placed. That makes your choices Oberon, or Mab herself.”
“All the more reason that you should return to Summer.” Ash pushed himself off the pillar, wincing. Behind him, the column was smeared with red.
“Where are you going?” I asked, suddenly afraid that he would walk out that door and not return.
He sheathed his sword without looking at me. “There’s a spring a few yards behind this tower,” he replied, walking slowly toward the door. I sensed he was trying hard not to limp. “Unless either of you object, I’m going to bathe.”
“But you’re coming back, right?”
He sighed. “I’m not going anywhere tonight,” he promised, and swept a hand toward a far wall. “There’s a trunk with blankets and supplies in that corner. Make yourselves comfortable. I think we’re all going to be spending the night here.”
The trunk held several quilts, a few canteens, a quiver of arrows, and a bottle of dark wine I didn’t recognize and immediately left alone. Puck went hunting for firewood and came back with an armful, plus a branch bearing strange blue fruits he swore were safe to eat. Together, we cleared away flowers to make the campfire, though I felt a stab of guilt every time I yanked one up. They were quite beautiful, the petals so thin and delicate they were almost transparent.
“You’re awfully quiet, Princess,” Puck said as he arranged the firewood into a tepee. His slanted green eyes shot me a knowing look. “In fact, you haven’t said a word since his royal iciness left. What’s wrong?”
“Oh.” I cast about for an excuse. No way was I telling Puck about my feelings for Ash. He’d probably challenge him to a duel the moment he walked through the door. “I…um…I’m just weirded out, you know, with all those wiremen bodies around. It’s kinda creepy, like they might come to life and attack us while we’re sleeping.”
He rolled his eyes. “You and your zombie obsession. I’ve never understood your fascination with horror movies, especially when they freak you out so much.”