“Ask Rowan,” I shot back, and a mutter went through the ranks of surrounding fey. “He’s working with them.”
Mab went absolutely still. Goose bumps rose along my arms as ice began creeping over the ground, snapping and crinkling, spreading out from the feet of the Winter Queen. When she spoke, her voice was soft, almost a whisper, but it scared me more than when she was crazy and shouting. “What did you say, half-breed?”
I glanced at Oberon, but he looked disbelieving, as well. I could feel his patience and support wearing thin; if I was going to accuse a son of Mab’s of treason, I’d better be able to prove it. Else he wouldn’t be able to protect me much longer.
“Rowan is working with the Iron fey,” I repeated, as the ice spread around me, sparkling in the snow. “Him and the Thornguards. They…they want to become like them, immune to iron. They think—”
“Enough!” Mab’s shriek made everyone but Oberon flinch. “Where is your proof, half-breed? Do not expect me to accept these blasphemous claims without proof—you are a human and can lie so easily! You say my son has betrayed his court and kin, to side with these iron abominations that none have seen? Very well! Show me proof!” She pointed a finger at me, eyes narrowed in triumph. “If you have none, you are guilty of slandering the royal family, and I will punish you as I see fit!”
“I don’t—” But the sounds of a struggle interrupted us. The crowds shifted, looking around, then stepped out of the way as a trio of faeries came through. Ash and Puck, bleeding, grim faced and dirty, dragging the spiky frame of a Thornguard between them. Staggering into the circle, they threw the faery at Mab’s feet.
Panting, Puck straightened, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. “There’s your proof.”
Oberon raised an eyebrow. “Goodfellow,” he said, and that one word sent shivers down my spine and made Puck wince. “What is the meaning of this?”
Mab smiled. “Ash,” she purred, but it wasn’t a friendly greeting. “What a surprise to find you here, in the company of the Summer girl and Robin Goodfellow. Would you care to add anything more to your list of crimes?”
“My queen.” Ash stood before Mab, breathing heavily, his expression bleak and resigned. “The princess speaks the truth. Rowan is a traitor to us. He sent his elite guard to bolster the armies of the Iron fey, he allowed them access into the palace, and he is responsible for the death of Prince Sage. Were it not for Robin Goodfellow and the Summer princess, the scepter would be lost, and the armies of the Iron King would overwhelm us.” Mab narrowed her eyes, and Ash stepped back, nodding to the moaning Thornguard. “If you doubt my word, my queen, just ask him for the truth. I’m sure he would be happy to tell you everything.”
“Screw it,” Puck snapped, stalking past me. “Or you could just do this.”
He pounced on the guard, driving his knee into the faery’s armored chest. The Thornguard’s arms came up to protect himself, and Puck grabbed one of his gauntlets, ripping the glove away and holding up his wrist.
The sharp tang of metal filled the air, and the circle of curious onlookers leaped back with cries of horror. The Thornguard’s entire hand was blackened and shriveled, the skin flaking off like ash. And on his long, gnarled finger, the iron ring gleamed brightly against the withered flesh.
“There!” Puck snapped, throwing the arm down and stepping away. “That proof enough for you? Every one of these bastards has one of those rings on, and it’s not a fashion statement. If you want more proof, check the brambles at the top of the hill. We left this one alive to explain his little coup ambitions to his queen.”
Mab turned her cold, cold gaze on the Thornguard, who cringed and started babbling.
“My queen, I can explain. Rowan ordered us to. I was acting on his command. He said it was the only way to save us. Please, I never wanted to…please, no!”
Mab gestured. There was a flash of blue light, and ice covered the guard, encasing him in frozen crystal. He drew a breath for one last scream, but the ice closed over his face and smothered it. I shivered and looked away.
“He will tell me everything later.” Mab smiled coldly, speaking more to herself than to us. “Oh, yes. He will be begging to tell me.” She looked up, her eyes as terrible as her voice. “Where is Rowan?”
As the crowds began muttering and looking around, I glanced over at the dead wyvern lying several yards away, smoke still curling from its open mouth. I shivered and turned away, already knowing the answer. Rowan was gone. They wouldn’t find him in the Nevernever; he would flee to the Iron fey, continuing his quest to become like them. After a long moment, it became clear that Rowan was no longer on the field.
“Lady Mab,” Oberon said, drawing himself up. “In light of this newest revelation, I propose a temporary truce. If the Iron King does plan to attack us, I’d prefer to meet him with my forces strong and ready. We will speak on this later, but for now I will be taking my people back to Arcadia. Meghan, Goodfellow.” He nodded to us stiffly. “Come.”
I looked at Ash, and he gave me a faint smile. I saw the relief on his face. But Mab wasn’t about to let me go just yet. “Not so fast, my dear Oberon,” she purred, and the smug satisfaction in her voice made my skin crawl. “I believe you are for getting something. The laws of our people apply to your daughter, as well. She must answer for turning my son against me.” Mab pointed the scepter at me as angry murmurs went through the crowd. “She must be punished for tricking him into helping her escape Tir Na Nog.”
“That wasn’t Meghan’s decision.” Ash’s deep voice cut through the muttering. I looked at him sharply and shook my head, but he ignored me. “It was mine. I made the choice. She had nothing to do with it.”
Mab turned to him, and her gaze softened. Smiling, she crooked a finger, and he approached at once, never wavering, though his hands were clenched at his sides. “Ash,”
Mab crooned as he drew near. “My poor boy. Rowan told me what happened between the two of you, but I know you had your reasons. Why would you betray me?”
“I love her.”
Softly, and without hesitation, as if he’d already made up his mind. My heart turned over and I gasped, but it was lost in the ripple of horror and disbelief that went through the crowd. Whispers and muttering filled the air; some faeries snarled and hissed, baring their teeth, as if they wanted to mob Ash, but kept their distance from the queen. Mab didn’t look surprised, though the smile curling her lips was as cold and cruel as a blade. “You love her. The half-breed daughter of the Summer lord.”
I ached for him, my stomach twisting painfully. He looked so desolate standing there alone, facing a mad queen and several thousand angry fey. His voice was flat and resigned, as if he’d been pushed into a corner and had given up, not caring what happened next. I started to go to him, but Puck grabbed my arm, his green eyes solemn as he shook his head.
“Ash.” Mab placed a palm on his cheek. “You’re confused. I can see it in your eyes. You didn’t want this, did you? Not after Ariella.” Ash didn’t reply, and Mab drew back, regarding him intently. “You know what comes next, don’t you?”
Ash nodded once. “I swear an oath,” he whispered, “never to see her again, never to speak to her again, to sever all relationships and return to the Winter Court.”
“Yes,” Mab whispered back, and a sick despair tore at my heart. If Ash spoke those words, it would be over. A faery couldn’t break a promise, even if he wanted to. “Swear the oath,” Mab continued, “and all is forgiven. You can come back to Tir Na Nog. Return to the palace, and take your place as heir to the throne. Sage is gone, and Rowan is dead to me.”
Mab placed a kiss on Ash’s cheek and stepped back. “You are the last prince of Winter. It is time to come home.”
“I…” For the first time, Ash hesitated. His gaze met mine, bright and anguished, begging forgiveness. I choked on a sob and turned away, my throat aching with misery, not wanting to hear the words that would take him from me forever.
Silence fell over the field. Puck stiffened; I could feel his shock. Biting my lip, I turned back, hardly daring to believe. Ash faced Mab calmly, the queen staring at him with a terrible, blank expression on her face. “Forgive me,” Ash murmured, and I heard the faintest of tremors beneath his voice. “But I can’t…I won’t…give her up. Not now, when I’ve just found her.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. Breaking away from Puck, I started toward Ash. I couldn’t let him do this alone. But Oberon stepped in front of me, holding out his arm, as unmovable as a mountain. “Do not interfere, daughter,” Oberon said in a voice meant only for me. “This is between the Winter prince and his queen. Let the song play to its conclusion.”
Distraught, I looked back to Ash. Mab had gone very still, a beautiful, deadly statue, the ground beneath her coated with ice. Only her lips moved as she stared at her son, the air around them growing colder by the second. “You know what will happen, if you refuse.”
If Ash was afraid, he didn’t show it. “I know,” he said in a weary voice.
“Their world will eat at you,” Mab said. “Strip you away bit by bit. Cut off from the Nevernever, you will not survive. Whether it takes one mortal year or a thousand, you will gradually fade away, until you simply cease to exist.” Mab stepped closer, pointing at me with the scepter. “She will die, Ash. She is only human. She will grow old, wither and die, and her soul will flee to a place you cannot follow. And then, you will be left to wander the mortal world alone, until you yourself are only a memory. And after that—” the queen opened her empty fist “—nothing. Forever.”
Ash didn’t react, but I felt the queen’s words punch me in the stomach. Bile rose in my throat. How could I be so blind and stupid? Grimalkin had told me once that faeries banished from the Nevernever would die, that they would fade away until nothing was left. Tiaothin had told me that in the Winter palace, when I was trying to ignore her. I’d known all along, but refused to believe. Or perhaps I just hadn’t wanted to remember.
“This is your final chance, Prince.” Mab stepped back, her voice stiff and icy, like she was talking to a stranger. “Give me your solemn vow, or be damned to the mortal world forever. Make your choice.”
Ash looked at me. I saw pain in his eyes, and a little regret, but they shone with such emotion I felt breathless. “I already have.”
“So be it.” If Mab’s voice was cold before, it was in the sub-zero range now. She waved the scepter and, with a sharp crack, a rip appeared in the air. Like ink spreading over paper, it widened into a jagged archway. Beyond the arch, a flickering streetlamp glimmered, and rain pounded the road, hissing. The smell of tar and wet asphalt drifted through the opening. “From this day forth,” Mab boomed, her voice carrying over the field, “Prince Ash is considered a traitor and an exile. All trods will be closed to him, all safe holds are barred, and if he is seen anywhere within the Nevernever, he is to be hunted down and killed immediately.” She looked at Ash, fury and contempt curling her lips. “You are not my son. Get out of my sight.”