“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think…now you’ll fade away because of me, because I asked you to take that vow.”
He pressed his face to my hair, closing his eyes. “If you are gone,” he whispered back, his voice shaking, “then I will welcome nonexistence. There will be nothing left for me to live for.” He pulled back, his silver eyes boring into me.
“There’s still time,” he murmured, standing easily with me in his arms. “We have to get you to a healer.”
Puck was suddenly there, intense and angry, his hair a stark contrast to his pale face. “Dammit, Meghan,” he snapped. “What the hell were you thinking?
We have to get you out of here, now!” He eyed the ring of knights and his eyes narrowed. “You think the bucket brigade will let us go, or should I carve a path through them?”
“No,” I whispered, clutching Ash’s shirt. They both looked at me in surprise.
“I can’t go to a healer. Take me…” I winced and fought a gasp as a bolt of pain clawed my stomach, and Ash’s grip tightened. “Take me to the tree,” I forced out.
“The ruins. I have to go back…to where it all began.”
He stared at me, expressionless, but a tremor went through him. “No,” he whispered, but it was more of a plea.
“Princess, there’s no time!” Puck stalked forward, desperate. “Don’t be stupid! If we don’t get you to a healer now, you’ll die!”
I ignored Puck, holding Ash’s gaze, steeling myself for what I had to do.
“Ash,” I whispered, tears flooding my eyes. “Please. I don’t have…much time left. This is my last request. I have to…get to that tree. Please.”
He closed his eyes, and a single tear crawled down his cheek. I knew I was asking him to do the impossible, and it was tearing me apart that Ash was suffering. But at least I would make it right in the end. I’d promise him that much.
“Don’t listen to her, prince.” Puck sounded almost frantic then, grabbing Ash by the shoulder. “She’s delirious. Get to a healer, dammit. Don’t tell me you’re going to listen to this insanity.”
“Puck,” I whispered, but suddenly noticed the empty silver chain, dangling from Ash’s chest. The amulet was gone. Where the crystal had once been, only a blackened shard remained. It must’ve finally shattered during the fight with Rowan. My stomach twisted. “Oh, God, Ash,” I breathed. “The amulet. You won’t be protected in the Iron Kingdom anymore. Have someone else take me back.”
He raised his head, his eyes bleak but determined, a look I’d seen before, when he had nothing left to lose.
“I’ll take you.”
“No, you won’t!” Puck stepped in front of us, and suddenly his dagger was pressed against Ash’s throat. Ash didn’t move, and Puck leaned in, his face savage. “You’ll take her to a healer, prince, or so help me I will cut out that piece of ice you call a heart and take her myself.”
“Puck,” I whispered again, “please.” He didn’t look at me, but tears brimmed at the corners of his eyes, and the hand holding the dagger trembled. “I have t-to do this,” I went on, as Ash and Puck continued their staredown, neither giving an inch. “This…is the only way to save everything. Please.”
He drew in a shaky breath. “How can you ask me to let you die?” he choked, still keeping the blade at the prince’s throat. A thread of blood formed under the knife, and ran down to Ash’s collar. “I’d do anything for you, Meghan. Just…not that. Not that.”
Gently, I reached up and closed my fingers around the knife hilt, easing it down and away from Ash’s neck. Puck resisted for a moment, then stepped back with a sob. The dagger fell from his grip and clanged to the floor.
“Are you sure this is what you want, princess?” His voice was strangled, his eyes begging me to change my mind.
“No,” I whispered, as my own tears spilled over, and the arms around me tightened. Of course it wasn’t. I wanted to live. I wanted to see my family and finish school and travel to distant places I’d only read about. I wanted to laugh with Puck and love with Ash, and do all those things that normal people took for granted. But I couldn’t. I was given this power, this responsibility. And I had to finish what I’d started, once and for all. “No, Puck, it isn’t. But, this is how it has to be.”
Puck took my hand, gripping it as if he could keep me here just by holding on. I looked into his green eyes, shining with emotion, and saw all his years as Fey, all his triumphs and failures, loves and losses. I saw him as Puck, the devilish, legendary troublemaker, and as Robin Goodfellow, a being as ancient as time, with his own scars and wounds gathered in his immortal life. Puck squeezed my hand, tears running unabashedly down his face, and shook his head.
“Wow,” he muttered, his voice choked with tears. “Here we are, the last night and all, and I can’t think of anything to say.”
I pressed my palm to his cheek, feeling the moisture beneath my fingers, and smiled at him. “How about ‘goodbye’?”
“Nah.” Puck shook his head. “I make a point of never saying goodbye, princess. Makes it sound like you’re never coming back.”
He bent and kissed me softly on the lips. Ash stiffened, arms tightening around me, but Puck slid out of reach before either of us could react. “Take care of her, ice-boy,” he said, smiling as he backed up several paces. “I guess I won’t be seeing you, either, will I? It was…fun, while it lasted.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to kill each other,” Ash said quietly. Puck chuckled and bent to retrieve his fallen dagger. “My one and only regret. Too bad, that would have been an epic fight.” Straightening, he gave us that old, stupid grin, raising a hand in farewell. “See you around, lovebirds.”
Glamour rippled through the air, and Puck disintegrated into a flock of screaming ravens, flapping wildly as they scattered to all corners of the room. The knights ducked as the birds swooped over their heads, cawing in their harsh, mocking voices. Then the birds vanished into the darkness, the sound of wings disappeared, and Puck was gone.
THE KNIGHTS LET US THROUGH without a fight, bowing their heads as we passed. Some of them even raised their swords, as if in salute, but I didn’t really notice much. Cradled gently in Ash’s arms, my body and mind numb to everything, I concentrated on not falling asleep, knowing if I did, I might never open my eyes. Soon I could rest, give in to the exhaustion claiming my body, lie back and forget it all, but I had one last thing to do. And then I could finally let it all go.
Soft flakes touched my cheek, and I looked up.
We were outside the fortress now, standing at the top of a flight of stairs, gazing down at the field. The sounds of battle had ceased, and silence hung over the field as every eye, be it Summer, Winter, or Iron, turned in my direction. Everyone was frozen, staring at me in shock, unsure of what to do. Ash never stopped, walking deliberately forward, his face unreadable, and the ranks of Summer, Winter, and Iron fey parted for him without a word. Faces passed by me, silent in the falling ash. Diode, his whirling eyes wide with alarm. Spikerail and his herd, lowering their heads as we walked by. Gremlins trailed us, hushed and grim, weaving their way through the crowd.
Mab and Oberon came into view, their eyes at once blank and sympathetic. Ash didn’t stop, even for Mab. He marched by the faery rulers without even a glance, continuing through the gray drifts, until we reached the edge of the field and the huge frost dragon waiting for us. The dragon shifted, settling back to stare at the Winter prince with ice-blue eyes.
“Take us into the Iron Realm.” Ash’s voice was soft, but several degrees below freezing, leaving no room for argument. “Now.”
The dragon blinked. Hissing softly, it turned and crouched low, stretching its long neck for Ash to get on. Without so much as a jolt, Ash stepped onto a scaly forearm and leaped up between the dragon’s shoulders, settling me in his lap. As the dragon rose up, spreading its wings to launch, Razor let out a buzzing cry, and the gremlins exploded into shrill, high-pitched wailing, leaping up and down and pulling at their ears. Though startled, no one moved to stop them, and their keening voices followed us into the air, until the wind swallowed them up. I DIDN’T REMEMBER FLYING. I didn’t remember landing. Just a soft thump as Ash slid off the dragon’s back onto solid ground again. Raising my head from his chest, I gazed around. The landscape was blurred and fuzzy, like a fading, out-of-focus camera, until I realized it was me and not the surroundings. Everything was gray and dark, but I could still make out the tree, the great iron oak, rising from the tower ruins to brush the sky.
Behind us, the dragon made a low rumble that sounded like a question. “Yes, go,” Ash murmured without turning around, and there was a blast of wind that signaled the dragon had fled, back to the Nevernever where it wouldn’t be poisoned. I noted, in my numb state of mind, that Ash didn’t tell it to wait for him.
Because he wasn’t planning to leave, either.
Ash’s step was firm as he carried me through the tower, drifting through the empty ruins, slipping through the shadows, until we reached the base of the tree. Only when we stepped into the central chamber and the branches loomed above us did he start to tremble. But his voice was steady, and his grip didn’t loosen as he approached the trunk and stopped, lowering his head to mine.
“We’re here,” he murmured. I closed my eyes and reached out with my remaining glamour, feeling the pulsing heart of the tree and the roots, extending deep into the earth.
“Lay me down…at the base,” I whispered.
He hesitated, but then stepped beneath the tree and knelt, depositing me gently on the ground between two giant roots. And he stayed there, kneeling beside me, holding my hand in his. Something splashed the back of my hand, cold as spring water, crystallizing to my skin. A faery’s tears. I gazed up at him and tried for a smile, tried to be brave, to show him that none of this was his fault. That this was how it had to be. His eyes glimmered in the darkness, bright and anguished. I squeezed his hand.
“It was…quite a ride, wasn’t it?” I whispered, as my own tears ran down my cheek, staining the hard ground. “I’m sorry, Ash. I wish…we had more time. I wish…I could’ve gone with you…but things didn’t quite work out, did they?”
Ash brought my hand to his lips, his eyes never leaving mine. “I love you, Meghan Chase,” he murmured against my skin. “For the rest of my life, however long we have left. I’ll consider it an honor to die beside you.”
I took a deep breath, chasing back the darkness on the edge of my vision. Now came the hardest part, the part I’d been dreading. I didn’t want to die, and even more, I didn’t want to die alone. The thought made my stomach clench, and my breath come in short, panicked gasps. But Ash would not fade away. I would not let him die because of his vow. This was the last unselfish thing I could do for him. He had been with me every step of the way; now it was my turn to set him free.