For three days, I saw no signs of Puck around the manor. Everyone distracted me in their own ways, but every night I crawled into bed with an aching void in the middle of my stomach. Some of the basic charms had come back to me, not enough to be promising. I was on the verge of shutting myself away in my room, useless except for my ability to mourn for things not quite gone, yet not quite there.
A letter arrived on the fourth day of Goodfellow’s absence, sent by hawk from the wyldwood. I watched the hawk fly off, eager to escape the power lurking in the manor itself, and inclined my head toward the sky. Violence thrummed in the air.
“Starr?” Ash poked his head into my room. I turned away from the window with a raised eyebrow. “The Unseelie are under siege.”
Honestly, I was about to turn my back on him. Except there was a desperation in his mercurial gaze that reminded me of who I used to be, with or without the trickster. “I’ll be downstairs in a minute,” I told him, my voice scratching my throat. He did nothing to hide the surprise from his face as he retreated the way he’d come.
Looking down at the T-shirt and riding pants I hadn’t changed out of yet, I closed my eyes. I’d spent the last three days wallowing in something that would never help me recover. At least I knew what I was doing in battle. I had no clue what I was doing here, leaving my friends to face this war alone.
Disappointed in myself, I threw on some gear and tied my hair back. There was nothing to be done about the shadows lining my hollowed features. Pressing my shoulders back, I headed after Ash.
“Tiaothin managed to get this message out from the border before Sage called her back to defend the inner Court. Lokesh is still unable to breach our lands, but Machina has invaded from the territory he’s annexed at the edges of Arcadia and Tir Na Nog. If not for the snow and ice covering everything, the iron in their blood might poison our home.”
The detached way Ash spoke revived me a bit more. “How long until they reach the inner Court?” I asked, taking the letter from him. It was written in Mab’s elegant script, much to my surprise.
“Probably only hours, at this rate,” he answered, a muscle jumping in his cheek. “My mother wouldn’t write us, let alone this urgently, unless something was terribly wrong.” His silver eyes met mine tentatively. “How soon can we get a retaliation force together?”
I looked toward Ren, who sat silence throughout the debriefing I needed. Some tiny part of me wondered that if I hadn’t holed up in my room the past few days, I could have better prevented this. “Get that guilt off your face, Starr,” Ren snapped. I nearly jumped at his vehemence. “It’s not your fault this happened. We knew it was coming for a while now.” He glanced at Ash. “Kishan can lead Seelie forces, as long as Oberon learns of Starr’s blessing and we find a trod to bring him directly to Arcadia. I think Meghan has an arsenal of gremlins, but I’d rather not call the untried fey into action just yet. They’re more or less our secret weapons, ones that haven’t been sharpened. And then there’s us.”
“A half hour at least,” I guessed, scrubbing my hand through my hair. “And that’s just to get everyone together.” Ren nodded once. I sighed.
Frenzy entered Ash’s expression for a split second, merely long enough for me to catch it. “They don’t have that kind of time, not if we want to stop Machina before he reaches the Court.” I’d never seen him care so much, especially about the home he despised.
Running through everything in my head, I realized why. Sage and Rowan were his brothers, sure, but the Winter Court was as cold-hearted as its unpredictable season. Meghan was in there. She’d wanted to spend time with the other two princes who had saved our lives. To see if there was a secret cure we hadn’t looked into, to get my magic back instantly. She would be trapped in the ice palace with them, with all the residents of Tir Na Nog and the impatient, ever-changing will of Queen Mab.
At least it wasn’t Titania she was stuck with.
“Send Kishan after Oberon’s forces, maybe some Hunters if he finds the time,” I ordered. “I want you to see if you can dig up some of our other allies in the next half hour, and get them to flank the Iron fey as soon as possible. If we separate the army, we can hit and run.” A tactic I hadn’t used since I was an apprentice, if I recalled. “I can’t do much of anything right now, but I can still fight with blades if I have to. Ash and I will do shadow strikes during their march to the Court.”
My dark faery opened his mouth to protest and quickly closed it. I had enough heat in my glare and my tone for him to realize I wasn’t negotiating this. As much as I wanted to lock myself away again, I had people relying on me. So I would be there for them, myself in act if not in truth.
Ren bowed slightly before leaving. Ash stared at me. “You better know what you’re doing,” he challenged subtly, visibly torn between the family he wasn’t fond of and the sister he’d adopted.
“Ferrum,” I reminded him sharply. “We’re going after Ferrum.”
What? His thought shattered my skull. I winced. “Sorry. I just… Why the hell would you want to go after him when you’re burnt out?” he exclaimed.
Because I was insane. “Because they won’t see it coming.” I took a bow and quiver of arrows from the hooks on the far wall, following in Ren’s wake out the door. Ash actually scrambled after me, not expecting the long stride I already reclaimed. The natural elements embedded in my weapons clashed with the feel of the blades I had kept on my belt, even during the past three days of wallowing. “I’ll leave you to creating a barrier around Ferrum once we see him. My aim is good, but we’ll still need some glamouring help in order for me to land a blow.” I sounded surprisingly calm, even to my own ears.
Pressing a cold hand to my wrist, Ash fashioned an arm guard of frost up to my elbow. “In the meantime, I’m going to make you seem like you’re the bloody Queen of Fate.” I glanced sidelong at him in warning. Bitterness etched his expression darkly.
The two of us crossed into the wyldwood faster than I would have expected. Then farther still, the chilly air biting into my skin. I shivered for once. Ash traced a finger across my knuckle, and my Unseelie ability to withstand the freeze returned. Or maybe I simply borrowed some of his.
“Draw your bow,” he whispered, muting our footsteps in the snow. “Rear scouts coming up.”
For the ensuing thirty-eight minutes, Ash and I really did hit them like shadows. Every time one of the Iron faeries dropped dead, the others were too slow to try to find the murderer. We moved far more quickly than I could with human limitations; Ash’s ice guard also served to tie my abilities to his. Luckily, it also improved my chances of hitting them.
Battle drums sounded in my ears. I cocked one eyebrow at Ash, who ever so slightly dipped his head. The drums of war were coming closer from the wyldwood border, something his connection as Unseelie Prince allowed him to recognize. But they were ours.
“Where are you hiding, sweet huntress?” a ragged voice called. The two of us slowed. “Let’s have a real fight!”
I exchanged a look with Ash. My dark faery slipped his cloak around my shoulder, leaving the tied-off quiver exposed in case I needed more than the arrow I already held. Once the hood was pulled up, I was indistinguishable. The scent of crisp mountain air invaded my nostrils as Ash glamoured himself invisible. I still saw him, though, thank God.
Ferrum was exactly how he looked in my dream. I might have trembled if Ash didn’t crouch at my shoulder, so near that I would have to be careful when loosing my arrow. I took aim at a spot in the snow, waiting for him to step into my trap.
It’s not him, I thought worriedly. He was alone. The trap was on us. I howled when metal talons gripped my shoulders and yanked me backward. Ash shot to his feet, exposing himself, but a triple of Iron soldiers engulfed him. He shouted after me, my magic failing as I tried to fight. They kept my arms held at an angle where I couldn’t reach my weapons.
The two generals stood side by side. I was dragged in front of them, kicking out at whatever I could, which was mostly empty air. “Huntress,” Machina greeted –– his illusion, actually. The real Machina was probably storming the inner Court right about now, so this had to be a projection of his mind.
“Or should we say Starr?” Ferrum gloated, tearing away my hood. I bit his hand in the process. He backed off with a look of betrayal across his features. “Is that any way to treat your lords?”
“I am my own ruler!” I retorted. “I don’t need pricks like you to…”
Terror flooded through me when Ferrum traced a line across my collarbone. Machina’s image winked out. “You are many things, girl, but a monarch is not one of them. Right now you are little more than human.” And the look on his face reminded me of everything faeries, especially the ancient ones, liked to do to humans.
A low growl shook the earth. I went rigid for a new reason. The golden tabby that padded out of the icy forest was nothing beyond a predator. Muscles rippled along his back. “Let her go,” he snarled. Even his voice was different now.
“Robin Goodfellow,” Ferrum greeted with a despicable grin. “We were wondering if you would come after your best friend, or your best lover.”
Wild hurt burned in his gaze. He and I both knew how far we were from each other. If I had the power, I would have gone after Ash then and there. The beast could handle himself. Looking at the feral emerald depths, I realized this would be my best bet. With him as the distraction, I pulled an ash-wood knife and stabbed Ferrum straight in the heart.
“Karma,” I hissed in his ear, driving the knife deeper into his chest as stained black blood flowed over my hand. “Now, Goodfellow!”
Flames erupted at the dying fey’s feet. I launched myself across the frost-coated landscape. Ash was a black blur moving rapidly toward me, and it was all I could do to stop before my dark faery crashed into me.
His embrace was crushing. “Let’s go,” he said, releasing me a heartbeat later. “Machina will know he’s lost an ally and half the army.” He tugged me on at an immortal speed.
Looking over my shoulder with him safely guiding me, I saw that nobody was left behind us. There was no trace of Puck or Ferrum in the bleached forest. I forced myself to face wherever Ash led us, because I knew that if I looked back, I would collapse into a heap of useless limbs and emotions. He had come to defend me, even though he didn’t know the first thing about our group anymore. That knowledge hurt more than my unused muscles did.
“Rowan!” Ash shouted as we neared the palace. All of the Court fought outside the gates that led underground. The middle prince broke from the fray to respond to his brother. I sighed in relief as Seelie knights stormed around us, led by the two Indian tigers. So I wouldn’t have to keep fighting, after all. “Take her to the Summer border. She can follow the path from there to her sanctuary.” Ash gripped Rowan’s arm hard, silver flinty against blue. “Don’t follow her, or even touch her along the way unless she starts shaking uncontrollably.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Rowan spirited me away about as fast as Ash and I had run to arrive here. I was one of the greatest leaders our military knew, and I was unable to complete my job. How could I have been so stupid to lock myself in my room?
“I can escort her from here,” a too-deep voice said, halting our progress.
Rowan shifted slightly away from me. “Last I checked, Robin, you and I were forbidden to kill each other despite our long-lost hatred.” His blue eyes flashed with mischief and warning.
Puck bared tiger-sharp fangs at the Winter faery. “That was not a question.” His green eyes flicked to me. My not-so-strong legs, already weak from the overwhelming amount of running that would tire me out even if I had all my strength, threatened to give out under that stare. “Unless, of course, the mastermind does not agree to having an escort?” It was the first hint of the trickster I knew.
“I’ll be okay, Rowan,” I reassured him, moving toward my old friend. “I know how to call for help if I need anything.”
The Unseelie Prince dipped his head in acknowledgement. I took Puck’s hand to keep him from glaring at Rowan’s back the entire time, leading him to the path Ash had mentioned. Of course he knew I had a trod to the sanctuary positioned between the two natural courts. I was glad he still didn’t know where the real sanctuary was, though.
As the two of us walked, Puck watched where I placed my feet on the trail. Every time I faltered, his fingers twitched as though he was fighting the urge to help me. We crossed the border where the court territories vanished into unclaimed land, and I lifted my chin at the warmth of my middle ground. Clumsily, my foot caught on a tree root. Puck’s hand shot out before I could even stumble, his grip painfully tight.
“I’ll be okay,” I murmured into the silence, picking up my pace despite my aching muscles’ protests. I fought the urge to yawn. “I’m just tired.”
The beast growled. “Someone drained you, what, a week ago? And you went to war with fey and magic-users that could handle it on their own?” He emitted another quiet growl, this one laced with frustration instead of threat.
“I fight alongside my people,” I replied simply. I tapped at the last of my energy in order to run and dive into the pool. This time I stayed in the gear I’d worn. When I resurfaced, I met Puck’s gaze from where he still stood on the bank. “If I drown, I’m blaming you for not joining me.”
A tiny quirk played at the corner of his mouth. “If you drown, it’s your own fault for swimming while you’re so exhausted.” Puck removed his hunter’s tunic. A fresh scar puckered the skin at the left side of his waist. Any straighter, any deeper…
Before I realized what I was doing, I had gotten out of the pool and gone to him. My fingers splayed across the bruising on his side. “Who did this to you?” As I traced it, I locked gazes with him. Discomfort ghosted across his expression.
“You didn’t expect me not to defend you, right?”
The grief that encompassed me for days returned now, only with less force. Not knowing if I had lost my trickster forever, save for fleeting glimpses, I had to say it. “Thank you for everything.”
“You sound like you’re saying goodbye.” Heedless of my soaked gear, his arms wrapped around my waist. “What’s wrong, Starr?” I shook my head, faces flashing in my mind. Those I had killed today, the lives I’d taken in the past –– a sob lodged in my throat. “What have I done?”
With that, the sound escaped. I rested my palm over his heart. “Nothing,” I lied through gritted teeth, pushing away. “I… It’s nothing, really.”
The beast released me hesitantly, and I leaped into the waterfall’s pounding mist.