“I don’t know, Puck.” I shook my head. “I don’t exactly have a plan, yet. We have to somehow get around that huge army, sneak into the castle, find the false king, and take him out, all before he reaches the wyldwood.”
“Sounds pretty impossible to me,” Puck grinned. “When do we start?”
“Start what?” And Glitch came around the corner, eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I hope you’re not planning to start anything with the false king, because if you are, let me say again how stupid and impossible that is. Also, I’m not going to let you deliver yourself right into his hands, princess. You’ll have to get through me before you go off on any suicide missions. Just letting you know. So please…” He smiled at me, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Behave yourselves. For all our sakes.”
“What do you want, Glitch?” I asked, before Ash and Puck said anything that would get us thrown in rebel jail. Not that I didn’t doubt our ability to fight our way free, but I didn’t want needless bloodshed from those who were supposedly allies. Even though I knew it would probably come to that eventually. Neither of the boys did well in forced captivity, and we would have to go after the false king soon, planned or not. I couldn’t let him reach the wyldwood and destroy everything.
“Just wanted to let you know, if you haven’t guessed already, that there’s a gremlin running around the base. They’re not dangerous, usually, but they’ll make a nuisance of themselves by chewing on wires and short-circuiting any equipment we have. So if the lights flicker, or if something stops working abruptly, you can thank our little friend.”
Puck snickered. “It gives me all kinds of hope knowing your highly trained forces can’t track down one teensy little gremlin.”
“You think you can do better, you try finding the thing.” Glitch glared at Puck, and his spines bristled, before turning to me. “Anyway, here.” He handed me a bag. “Thought you might be hungry. Since you’re our guests, it would be impolite if we didn’t share our food with you. That’s your rations for the week. Try to make it last.” At my surprised look, he rolled his eyes. “Not all of us live on oil and electricity, you know.”
“What about Ash and Puck?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure eating our food won’t melt their insides to gooey paste. But you never know.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly.
The lights flickered again, and a voice yelled for Glitch somewhere overhead. Sighing, Glitch excused himself and hurried away, calling instructions. I wondered if I should be helping the rebels try to catch the gremlin, since it was my fault Razor was here, but then decided it was Glitch’s problem now. He wasn’t willing to help us or let us go, so he could deal with the trouble it caused. At the mention of food, I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, and my stomach grumbled. Opening the bag, I found several cans of processed meat, beans, fruit cocktail, a tube of squeezy-cheese with crackers, and a six-pack of diet soda. There was also a stack of paper bowls and a handful of plastic spoons.
Peering into the bag over my shoulder, Puck made a disgusted noise. “Of course, all their food would be wrapped in those stupid cans. What’s so great about preservatives, I ask you? Why can’t humans just be happy with an apple?”
I glanced over my shoulder and sighed. “I take it you’re not going to eat anything while we’re here?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well, stop griping then, and let’s find a place to eat.” Closing the bag, I started down the hallway, looking for some privacy. My room was the logical place, but I felt cramped and claustrophobic in that tiny space and wanted to see the open sky.
“Fine, princess.” Ash and Puck followed me up the stairs into the ruins above. “But if I get sick, I expect you to wait on me hand and foot.”
“If you get sick, I’ll just have Ash put you out of your misery.”
“I’m touched that you care.”
The tower was buzzing tonight as scores of rebels scurried back and forth, trying to repair the damage one lone gremlin had caused. I felt a nasty glow of satisfaction as I watched them, and a strange pride that I had caused this. Well, that my gremlin had caused this. What good were they, these rebels, if all they did was hide from the false king in the hopes that someone else cleaned up the mess?
And when did I start thinking of the gremlin as mine?
Despite the activity in the tower, the space around the great oak was quiet and still. I felt drawn to it, just as I was the first night we came here. Beneath the towering limbs, nestled in a circle of roots at the base of the trunk, I sat down and started pulling out rations.
Ash and Puck looked on warily until I waved a plastic spoon at them. “Sit,” I ordered, pointing to the roots. “I know this isn’t faery wine, but it’s all we’ve got and we have to eat something.” Dumping a can of fruit cocktail into a paper bowl, I passed it to Ash. He took it and perched gingerly on the edge of a root. Puck sat and gazed mournfully into the bowl I handed him. “Not an apple slice to be found,” he sighed, picking through the gooey mess with his fingers.
“How can mortals even pass this off as fruit? It’s like a peach farmer threw up in a bowl.”
Ash picked up the spoon, gazing at it like it was an alien life form. Dropping it back into his untouched food, he placed the bowl on the ground and stood.
“Ash.” I looked up from my cold beans. “What are you doing?”
“It’s watching us.” Very casually, his hand went to his sword hilt. “Very close this time. It feels—” he closed his eyes, and I saw a shimmer of glamour around him “—like it’s right above us.”
He whirled, blindingly quick. There was a flash of blue light as he hurled something at the tree, and a second later a high-pitched squeal rang out as something dropped from the branches, nearly landing in my lap. I jumped up. It was a big metal insect of some sort, shiny and wasplike, its wings still buzzing faintly as it died. Our mysterious stalker, finally brought into the open. An ice shard had gone clean through its body, ripping it apart, but its hooked legs clutched something long and slender. Bending down, avoiding the needlelike stinger on the end, I wrenched the object from the creature’s grasp. It was a stick, a branch with several leaves sprouting along the wood. The wood was still alive, though the leaves were flecked with iron, and shiny threads ran along the length. A note was wrapped around the stick, and as I pulled it off, Ash gently took the branch from me, narrowing his eyes.
“Do you know what this is?” he murmured.
Puck smirked. “Uh, yes, actually. In most circles, it’s called a stick. Used for starting fires, poking large insects, and playing fetch with your dog.”
Ash ignored him. “It’s the branch from a rowan tree,” he said, meeting my gaze. “And, given the circumstances, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. He knows we’re here. He sent this directly to you.”
My blood ran cold. “You think he’s out there?”
“I’m sure of it. Read the message.”
I unrolled the note, feeling my stomach clench as I scanned the words. The Iron King has a proposal for you. Find me.
Peering at the note upside down, Puck scowled. “Find him? Like we’re going to drop everything and tromp all over the Iron Realm looking for him? You’re not thinking of actually meeting him, are you, princess?”
“I think I should,” I said slowly, looking at Ash. “He might know of something that we can use against the false king. Or, maybe the false king is offering to end the war.”
“Or it could be a trap, and Rowan will betray us like he did all of Faery.”
Ash’s voice was cold.
“That might be, but I still think we should see what he wants. What he’s offering.” I looked around at the dozens of rebels moving about the ruins. “But first, we need to find a way out of here. You heard Glitch—he’s not going to let us walk out the front door.”
“Finally.” Puck grinned, rubbing his hands together. “I thought we were never going to get out of here. So what’s your pleasure? Diversion? Fight?
Sneaking out the back door?”
“Before we bring the entire camp down on our heads,” Ash said, handing me the branch, “perhaps we should figure out where Rowan is first.”
“Oh, right. That would make sense, wouldn’t it?” I stared at the note, wishing yet again that faeries would just say what they meant without making it into a riddle. “I wish Grim were here. He’d know where to find Rowan.” I felt a sudden stab of guilt for not thinking of the cat until now. “You think he’ll be all right?
Should we try to get him a message?”
“Too risky.” Ash shook his head. “We could draw suspicion to ourselves, and besides, no one but us knows the cait sith is here. That might prove useful later on, having an ally no one else is aware of.”
“Grim can take care of himself, princess,” Puck agreed, eager to get started.
“It’s what he’s best at, after all. So, the question is, how do we figure out where the stick came from?”
I looked around and saw a skinny hacker elf walking through the ruins, carrying an armful of keyboards and wires. “Easy. We just ask.”
“Excuse me!” I called, jogging up to the elf, who jumped and gave me a nervous look over the tangle of computer wires. His huge black eyes, with lines of green numbers scrolling across, whirled anxiously. “Diode, right? I was wondering if you could help me.”
The hacker blinked, shuffling his feet. “Glitch has informed us that we are not to engage you oldbloods in verbal communication,” he said in a nasal voice.
“I just have a question.” I smiled at him, hoping to make him less nervous. It only succeeded in making him squirm more. Sighing, I held up the rowan branch.
“I found this by the oak tree. Do you know what it is?”
Diode narrowed his eyes. “That is a sorbus aucuparia, more commonly known as a European mountain ash, or rowan tree. Yes, most of the natural flora and fauna has since been overtaken by ferrous influences, but there are a few places where you can find them still clinging to their natural state.”
I understood only half of what he was saying, but got the general idea.
“Where?” I asked, and Diode blinked again.
“The nearest stand of sorbus aucuparia is two point seven miles due west from the tower,” he said, nodding in the general direction. “Of course, you won’t be able to see it, being forbidden to leave the compound and all. Oh my!” He stepped back from me, and his eyes whirled. “You’re not planning to escape, are you? Glitch will find out, and the trail would lead back to me, and I’d be an accomplice to a crime. Please tell me you’re not planning an escape.”
“Relax, I’m not planning an escape.” Not entirely a lie, since he just told me to tell him that, rather than asking me if I was. But it must’ve worked, because he breathed a relieved sigh and relaxed.