Ash and Meghan were practicing on the outskirts of the Iron Kingdom, close enough that Meghan’s powers were strengthened but Ash wasn’t poisoned by the iron. Sage stuck close to me, his chill at my back the only thing keeping me from passing out.
“What happened?” Ash got in another swipe at Meghan.
I watched their spar for several heartbeats in a vain attempt to collect my thoughts. “Durga visited.” Meghan stilled. Ash went in for a killing blow but stopped short. I tsked at her. “No matter what news you hear, never give up the fight.” Sage coughed behind me, probably stifling a laugh.
“Like I would ever do that in a real battle,” Meghan replied indignantly. I shrugged. “Are Kelsey’s marks back?”
“Yep. And Ren seemed to have selective memory when it came to that, or they were so faded from the last time he saw them that it didn’t register. He blamed me for hurting her.”
Icy fire sparked in Ash’s silver gaze. “Did he do anything to you?”
There was a sarcastic remark on the tip of my tongue, but I had come here to talk Meghan into assuming my leadership for a while. I needed to get away before my memories all came crashing back at the same time and incapacitated me, or another god decided to reclaim what was lost here. I had to convince Ash that I could handle the mortal realm alone, at least for a while.
“Not exactly,” I answered at last. “I remember the aftermath of the ambush, though, and what caused this stuff in the first place.”
Sage hadn’t known that. His soothing chill was an arctic blast for a moment, until he regained his calm control. Ash clenched both fists. “At least you’re still upright,” he said through gritted teeth, clearly holding back on the threat to kill the white tiger.
“I’m going away.” I fixed a hard stare on Meghan. “Think you can boss these guys around long enough for me to figure some things out?”
My friend was about to gape but caught her jaw in time. “I… Sure,” she stammered.
Ash stepped closer. “Wherever you plan on going to recover, I’m coming with you. Sage can stay here and help Meghan while Rowan takes care of things in Tir Na Nog. You’ll need protection.”
“You’re not going,” Meghan and I said at the same time.
The brothers glanced between the two of us, shocked. Meg dipped her head for me to speak, somewhat of the leader already. I was grateful to know I made the right choice. “I’m going home for a few days,” I explained to Ash. “They’ll barely know who I am, with the whole fey-forgetting thing that’s lasted for centuries. I might not be a faery, but it still applies with my glamour.” That was my safety net. I only hoped I was right. “No one really found me there in the first place, except for you. It was only when we met in Oregon that the war started to loom over us again. I can have a sense of normalcy while I’m trying to fix my mental state, and I can practice some basic charms without anybody knowing. Mundane stuff is easy.” Especially compared to the life I reentered.
Meghan was quick to chime in. “She should go into hiding while Kelsey goes to look for Durga’s things, anyway. If the goddess marked Kels already, that means we’re closer to the fight than we think. We need the weapons.” That part meant nothing to me; I didn’t know what she was talking about.
Both princes were giant ice blocks. Sage’s refusal was at least silent. Ash shook his head vehemently. “Whether other beings learn where you are, you’ll need protection from hexes and other spells those same ‘mundanes’ can get their hands on. And what if the enemy does figure out where you are? You shouldn’t be alone.”
“She won’t be alone,” another voice responded fiercely. Puck walked into the clearing on a heated stride. Inexplicably, he entered from the direction that held the Iron Kingdom. “I’m going with her.”
Again, Meghan and I were simultaneous. “No, you’re not.”
“Give me one good reason why you would deny me this,” he snarled at Meghan, every bit the dangerous trickster who relished in pranks gone wrong. “Ren’s lucky she forgave him. Otherwise I’d make sure he regretted losing his temper.” He whipped around to face me, no trace of mischief in the emerald depths now. “And you aren’t possibly stupid enough to leave a warded area in favor of some alone time. I don’t care how much you need to think about after all that’s happened. Someone has to go with you.” He spread his arms wide. “I’m the only one who isn’t bound to one of the damn princesses already. I am going. With. You.” He dropped his arms.
I couldn’t help but glare at him. “Don’t you think if I’m forcing Ash to stay here, I’m going to force you, too?” I snapped.
Being called back to Unseelie territory, Sage touched the small of my back in farewell. Amid my fury, I was glad I did remember that one signal.
Puck’s eyes flashed. “You couldn’t force me to do anything if you tried.”
“She could,” Ash replied for me. Even though I was thinking it, he could probably hear his True Name circling around in my head. I would compel him to stay with Meghan if I had to.
Unfortunately, I still knew close to nothing about Puck. It would be hard to do the same to him. “Why do you have to do the exact opposite of what she wants, Goodfellow?” Meghan asked in exasperation. “She’s going home. She might not recall a lot about how close you two were, but the rest of us do. You and I both know that you’ll do anything she says, simply because she’s Starr.” She paused for a second. “Let her go as she pleases.” None of them saw how much her words hurt me. I refused to let it show.
The trickster raked a hand through his unruly hair. “How can you expect me to watch you walk away?” he questioned me.
“I’m coming back. It might take a week or two, but I will.” Ash made a pained sound low in his throat, yet was smart enough to say nothing. The second part would have to drive Puck away. “Besides, as Meghan pointed out, I barely know you anymore. I’m not going to trust this crazy-assed side of you when I hardly trust you sane.”
Surprisingly, the words got stuck in my mouth. I managed to say them, though, and they visibly jabbed at Puck. “Have fun, Starr,” he snapped before vanishing into his glamour.
“Just come back in one piece,” Meghan told me as I headed out.
I glanced over my shoulder at the light-haired Summer girl and the dark-clad Winter Prince. “I promise.”As soon as I reached my old house, I realized that for the first time in a long time, I was really and truly alone. The thought terrified me more than it liberated me. But I was here to puzzle through the mess of my mind, not to dwell on my heartache. That was exactly what I planned on doing.