Puck sighed, either in sympathy or aggravation, and pulled me close. I sobbed into his chest, releasing all the pent-up emotions that had been building since I first saw Ash in the throne room. Puck held me and stroked my hair like old times, saying nothing, until the tears finally slowed and I sniffled against his shirt.
“Better?” he murmured.
I nodded and broke away, wiping my eyes. The ache was still there, but it was bearable now. I knew it would be a long time before the hurt went away, if ever, but I knew in my heart that I had said my last goodbyes to Ash. Now, maybe I could let him go. Puck moved behind me and put his hands on my shoulders, leaning close. “I know it’s too soon right now,” he muttered into my hair, “but, just so you know, I’ll wait. When you’re ready, I’ll be right here. Don’t forget, Princess.”
I could only nod. Puck squeezed my shoulders and stepped back, waiting quietly while I composed myself. When I turned around again, he was back to being normal Puck, perpetual grin plastered to his face, leaning against a tree.
“Well,” he sighed, “I don’t suppose I’ll be changing that stubborn mind of yours, will I?”
“No, you won’t.”
“I was afraid of that.” He leaped onto an old stump, crossing his arms and cocking his head. “Well then, my scheming princess, what’s the plan?”
I wanted to smile at him, but something was wrong. My legs felt all tingly, and a strange pull tugged at my stomach. I felt restless, like ants crawled beneath my skin, and I couldn’t hold still if my life depended on it. Without meaning to, I began edging away from Puck, toward the forest.
“Princess?” Puck hopped down, frowning. “You all right? Got ants in your pants or something?”
I had just opened my mouth to reply when some invisible force nearly yanked me off my feet, and I shrieked instead. Puck reached for me, but I leaped away without meaning to. “What is this?” I cried, as the strange force yanked on me again, urging me into the trees. “I can’t…stop. What’s going on?”
Puck grabbed my arm, holding me back, and my stomach felt like it was being pulled in two. I screamed, and Puck let go, his face white with shock.
“It’s a Summoning,” he said, hurrying after me as I walked away. “Something is calling you. Did you make a bargain or give anything personal away recently? Hair? Blood?
A piece of clothing?”
“No!” I cried, grabbing a vine to stop myself. Pain shot up my arms, and I let go with a yelp. “I haven’t given anything away! How do I stop it?”
“You can’t.” Puck jogged at my side, his gaze intense and worried, but he made no move to touch me. “If something is Calling, you have to go. It only gets more painful if you resist. Don’t worry, though.” He attempted a cheerful grin. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“Don’t worry?” I tried to scowl at him over my shoulder. “This is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; of course I’m worried!” Once more, I tried latching on to a tree to stop my feet from waltzing away without my say-so. No use. My arms wouldn’t even obey me anymore. With a final glance at Puck, I gave in to the strange compulsion and let my body take me away.
I strode through the forest like I was on a mission, ignoring all but the greatest obstacles. I scrambled over rocks and fallen trees, charged headlong down gullies, and walked through brambles and briar patches, gasping as they tore at my skin and clothes. Puck followed close behind, his worried gaze at my back, but he didn’t stop me a second time. My legs burned, my breath came in short gasps, and my arms bled from dozens of cuts and scratches, but I could no sooner make myself stop than fly. And so we continued our mad rush through the forest, getting farther away from Tir Na Nog and deeper into unknown territory. Night was falling when the weird spell faded at last, and my feet stopped so abruptly that I fell, pitching forward and rolling in the dirt. Puck was beside me instantly, helping me up, asking whether I was okay. I couldn’t answer him at first. My legs burned, and all I could do was suck air into my starving lungs and feel relieved that my body was finally my own again.
“Where are we?” I gasped as soon as I was able.
It seemed we had stumbled onto some sort of village. Simple mud and thatch huts lay in a loose semicircle around a fire pit, which was empty and cold. Bones, animal skins, and half-eaten carcasses lay scattered about, buzzing with flies.
“Looks like an abandoned goblin village,” Puck muttered as I leaned against him, still gasping. He looked down at me, smirking. “Piss off any goblins lately, Princess?”
“What? No.” I wiped sweat from my eyes and stumbled over to a log, collapsing on it with a groan. “At least, I don’t think so.”
“There you are,” came a disembodied voice, from somewhere near the edge of the trees. I jumped up and looked around, but couldn’t see the speaker. “You are late. I was afraid you had gotten lost, or eaten. But, I suppose it is only human failing that is to blame for the loss of punctuality.”
My heart leaped. I knew that voice! I gazed around eagerly, but of course I couldn’t see anything until Puck grabbed my arm and pointed me toward the edge of the trees. An old log lay in the shadows just outside the village border, dappled by moonlight. One moment, it was empty. Then, I blinked, or the moonlight shifted, and a large gray cat sat there, bottlebrush tail curled around his legs, regarding me with lazy golden eyes.
Grimalkin blinked at me, looking much as he always did, long gray fur blending perfectly into the moonlight and shadows. He ignored me as I rushed up, completely absorbed in washing his front paw. I might have swooped him up and given him a squeeze, if I didn’t know his sharp claws would turn my face into hamburger and he would never forgive me.
Puck grinned. “Hey, cat,” he greeted with an airy wave. “Long time no see. I guess you’re the one responsible for our little Death March?”
The feline yawned. “That is the last time I put a Summoning on a human,” he mused, raising a hind leg to scratch his ear. “I could have taken a nap instead of waiting for you to finally show up. What took you so long, human? Did you walk?”
I finally remembered: Grimalkin had helped me in the search for my brother, and in return, we had agreed that he could call on me, once, at a time of his choosing, though I’d had no idea what that entailed at the time. That was our bargain. Seems he’d finally gotten around to calling it in.
“What are you doing here, Grim?” I asked, torn between delight and aggravation. I was happy to see him, of course, but I wasn’t thrilled about the forced march through goblin-infested woodlands, just to say hi. “This better be good, cat. Your stupid Summoning spell could’ve killed me. What is it you want?”
Grimalkin turned to groom his hindquarters. “I do not want anything from you, human,” he said between licks. “I brought you here as a favor for someone else. You will have to take your business up with him. And, if you would, remind him that he now owes me a boon, since I wasted a perfectly good Summoning on you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“HE MEANS ME, MEGHAN CHASE.” The thunderous voice shook the ground, and the smell of burning coal drifted over the breeze. “I ASKED HIM TO CALL YOU
Something stepped out from behind a hut, a monstrous horse of blackened iron, with burning red eyes and flames smoldering through the chinks in its belly. Steam billowed from its nostrils as it swung to face me, huge and imposing and terrifyingly familiar. Ironhorse.
Truth and Lies
“STOP!” Ironhorse bellowed as Puck immediately pulled out his dagger, shoving me behind him. “I DID NOT COME HERE TO FIGHT, ROBIN GOODFELLOW. PUT YOUR
WEAPON DOWN AND LISTEN TO ME.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Rusty,” Puck sneered, as we began backing toward the edge of the village. “I have a better idea. You stay there until we get to Oberon, who will rip you apart and bury your pieces so far apart you’ll never get put back together.”
My heart pounded, both from fear and a sudden fury. Ironhorse was one of Machina’s lieutenants, sent to capture me and bring me to the Iron King. We’d escaped him twice before, once in Tir Na Nog and once in the Iron Kingdom, but Ironhorse had a bad habit of popping up when we least expected it. I certainly hadn’t expected to run into him here.
“Dammit, Grim!” I raged, shooting the cat a furious glare as we backed up. He blinked at me calmly. “You sold us out to them? That’s low, even for you.”
Grimalkin sighed and gave Ironhorse a chiding look. “I thought you were to stay hidden until I could explain things,” he said with an exasperated flick of his tail. “I told you they would overreact.”
Ironhorse stamped a hoof, sending an explosion of dirt into the air. “TIME IS
PRESSING,” he boomed, tossing his head. “WE DO NOT HAVE THE LUXURY OF
WAITING MUCH LONGER. MEGHAN CHASE, I MUST SPEAK WITH YOU. WILL YOU
HEAR ME OUT?”
I hesitated. This was new. Normally, about this time, we’d be fighting for our lives. Ironhorse wasn’t usually polite. And Grimalkin still watched calmly from the log, gauging our reaction. Curiosity got the better of me. I put a hand on Puck’s arm to stop him from backing up farther.
“I want to talk to him,” I whispered, ignoring his frown. “He came here for a reason, and maybe he knows about the scepter. Keep an eye on him, will you?”
Puck glared at me, then shrugged. “Fine, Princess. But the second he makes a move, he’ll be upside down in a tree before he can blink.”
I squeezed his arm and stepped around him to face Ironhorse. The huge Iron fey loomed over me, steam writhing from his mouth and nostrils. “What do you want?”
I’d forgotten how big Ironhorse was. Not just tall, but massive. He shifted his weight, gears clanking and groaning, and I took a wary step back. He might not be attacking, but I trusted him about as far as I could throw him, which was not at all. I also hadn’t forgiven him for nearly killing Ash the last time we’d met.
Ironhorse lowered his head in what was almost a bow. “THANK YOU, MEGHAN CHASE. I CALLED YOU HERE BECAUSE WE HAVE A MUTUAL PROBLEM. YOU SEEK THE SCEPTER OF THE SEASONS, IS THAT NOT CORRECT?”
I crossed my arms. “What do you know about that?”
“I KNOW WHERE IT IS,” Ironhorse continued, swishing his tail with a clanking sound. “I CAN HELP YOU RETRIEVE IT.”
Puck laughed. “Sure you can,” he mocked, as Ironhorse snorted and pinned his ears. “And all we have to do is follow you like eager little puppy dogs, all the way into the trap. Sorry, tin can, we’re not that naive.”
Ironhorse snorted. “DO NOT MOCK ME, ROBIN GOODFELLOW,” he said
with a blast of flame from his nostrils. “MY OFFER IS GENUINE. I DO NOT SEEK TO
“Bull,” I snapped, crossing my arms. Ironhorse blinked at me, astonished.
“Tertius and a bunch of creepy metal assassins stole the scepter and killed Sage, knowing Mab would blame Oberon for it. The new Iron King designed this war. He plans to slaughter everyone when the courts are at their weakest. Why would you want to help us stop it?”