At last, forty-eight human hours after we'd entered the wyldwood, Puck and I stood at the edge of the Iron Realm, gazing at the metal trees stretching to either side as far as one could see. It seemed the Nevernever itself had done its best to separate from the Iron Kingdom, for a great chasm ran between the wyldwood and the Iron Queen's territory, the earth having fal en away. A wooden bridge had been hastily constructed to span the gulf, but the wyldwood was slowly attempting to destroy that as well , for vines and weeds were already wrapped about the planks, as if trying to drag it down.
Puck and I stopped at the edge of the bridge. "Wel , here we are." The Summer jester sighed, scrubbing the back of his head while eyeing the forest. "Home sweet home for you, iceboy, strange as it is to think about that. Sure you can make it to Mag Tuiredh on your own? I really don't know where it's located from here."
"It doesn't matter," I said, gazing into the glimmering forest of steel.
Not long ago, the sight of it had made my stomach recoil. Now it churned with excitement. "I'll find it."
"Yeah, I've no doubt you will." Puck sighed, crossing his arms. "Anyway, you probably won't see me for a while, iceboy. The thought of returning to Summer just isn't as appealing as it once was. Maybe it's time for a road trip." He f lung out his arms dramatical y. "The wind in my face, the open road stretching out before me, excitement and adventure just around the next bend."
"Huh." I eyed him shrewdly. "Oberon didn't give you permission to go tromping through the Deep Wyld with me, did he?"
"Not so much." Puck grimaced. "Anyway, I think it's time for a vacation, let Lord Pointy Ears cool down for a bit. Give Meghan a hug for me, will ya? Maybe I'll see you both in a few decades."
"Where are you going?"
Robin Goodfel ow shrugged, uncertain and carefree. "Who knows?
Maybe I'll try to find the End of the World again. Maybe I'll travel the mortal realm for a while. It really doesn't matter where I go, or where I end up. There's a whole huge world out there, and it's high time for us to get reacquainted." He looked at me, and his eyes gleamed. "I'm glad we had one last little adventure, ice-boy, but its time for me to strike out on my own. Try not to have too much fun without me, okay?"
"Puck," I said, stopping him as he started to leave. Turning back, he raised an eyebrow, a faint, wary smile crossing his face.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped forward and held out a hand.
Puck blinked, then very seriously reached out and gripped my palm, squeezing hard, as I did the same. "Good luck," I said quietly, meeting his eyes. He grinned, not one of his leering, mocking smiles, but a real one.
"You, too, Ash."
"If you're ever in Tir Na Nog, say hi to Mab for me."
Puck laughed, shaking his head as he backed away. "Yeah. I'll be sure to do that." On the other side of the bridge, he raised one hand in a salute as glamour shimmered through the air. "See you around, ice-boy."
A ripple of magic, and Puck's form twisted and shrank into a huge, black raven, beating the air with powerful wings. With a raucous caw, he rose above me, shedding glamour and feathers, and spiraled away over the trees, until he became a tiny black dot on the horizon and disappeared.
I smiled, turned my back on the wyldwood and crossed the bridge, slipping into the Iron Kingdom alone.
THE IRON QUEEN My name is Meghan Chase, monarch of Mag
Tuiredh, sovereign of the Iron territories, and queen of the Iron fey, and whoever said kings and queens had it easy certainly didn't know what they were talking about.
The throne room of the Iron palace was fil ed to capacity again, and the murmur of voices along the wall s was a constant buzz in my mind.
Today was going to be another long day. As sole ruler of the Iron Realm, it was up to me to resolve disputes, manage resources, listen to complaints and somehow keep my own lands and people safe from the other fey courts that wanted them dead, all while trying to rebuild and establish my own kingdom. I wasn't complaining, but it seemed a lot to ask of a once-normal seventeen-year-old who had only recently in-herited an entire realm of Iron fey. And, admittedly, some days were more trying than others.
I shifted on my throne, a great monstrosity of wood and iron, made no more comfortable by the thick cushions I was sitting on. At first, I'd jokingly suggested using a La-Z-Boy recliner for these long hearings, but that was rather fervently vetoed by both Glitch and my chief adviser, a packrat named Fix. The Iron Queen had to appear strong and imposing, they said, even while sitting down. At least in public, the Iron Queen had to seem invulnerable. I suppose, to them, invulnerable meant rigid and uncomfortable. At least, that's what my back thought.
This is the Iron Kingdom, I thought during a short break in the hearings. This doesn't have to be so old-fashioned. I bet I can get Diode to set it up so that some of these petitions come in by email or something.
Another petitioner approached, a wire nymph whose territory rested very close to Tir Na Nog and the Winter Court. I listened patiently as she poured out the latest development: groups of Winter knights ter-rorizing the tribes that sat closest to the border. I'd have to speak to Mab about that, make sure her court was fol owing the treaty agreement, as well . That was going to be loads of fun. The Winter Queen already hated me for being Oberon's daughter, and now that I was a queen as well , the look in her eyes whenever she saw me was down-right scary. Stil , I was queen. I ruled a court, and by Faery law, the Winter monarch would have to hear me out, whether she liked it or not.
"Alkalia," I said, making sure to remember the nymph's name. "You were right to bring this to my attention. I'll speak to Queen Mab about it as soon as I am able."
"We are very grateful, your majesty," the wire nymph said, bowing as she was ushered away. I nodded at Fix, and he punched the request in-to my planner, adding it to the already lengthy list of things that needed doing.
"Let's take a break," I said, and stood up, feeling my back pop as I stretched. Fix chittered a question, the junk on his back swaying as he turned to me. "We've been here nearly four hours," I replied. "I'm hungry, I have a headache and my butt has gone numb from sitting on that torture device. Let's pick back up in an hour, yes?"
Fix warbled an agreement, but at that moment, the doors of the throne room swung open with a groan, and Glitch walked in. Scores of Iron fey scurried aside as the First Lieutenant marched down the aisle to the foot of the throne, his sharp face intense. Behind him, a robed, hooded figure matched his steps, cloak torn and dusty from travel, a dark cowl hiding its face.
"Majesty." Glitch bowed at the foot of the dais, and though his voice was solemn, I could sense my First Lieutenant was trying hard not to smile.
"This traveler has come far to request an audience with you. I know you are very busy at the moment, but as he has come a great distance, perhaps you could hear him out."
Glitch bowed again and backed away, melting into the crowd. I shot him a look, but he was staring straight ahead, giving nothing away.
The First Lieutenant normal y didn't take it upon himself to show petitioners to the throne room, having other duties that kept him busy, like managing the army. If he made an exception for this traveler, he must've thought it was very important.
I frowned and looked at the stranger in the middle of the hal , waiting for me to acknowledge him. "Come forward," I said. He approached the foot of the throne and sank to one knee, bowing his cowled head.
"Where have you come from, traveler?"
"I have come from the End of the World," said a quiet voice that made my heart stop beating. "From the River of Dreams, through the gauntlet and the Briars and the Deep Wyld, in order to stand before you today. I have but one request-to take my place at your side. To re-sume my duty as your knight, and to protect you and your kingdom for as long as I draw breath." He raised his head and pushed back the hood, and a gasp went around the throne room. "I am stil yours, my queen," Ash said, looking me straight in the eye. "If you'l have me."
For a moment, the shock held me immobile. He couldn't be here; it was impossible. No normal fey could set foot in the Iron Realm and live. And yet, here he was, looking tired and dusty and slightly ragged, but completely fine. "Ash," I whispered, stepping toward him in a daze. He didn't move, gazing up at me with those intense silver eyes I knew so well . Reaching down, I drew him to his feet, taking in the lean, muscular frame, the unruly black hair, covered in dust from his travels, the way he was looking at me, as if the entire court had disappeared, and we were the only two people in the world.
"You're here," I murmured, reaching out to touch him, hardly believing this was real. "You came back." Ash's breath hitched, and he put his hand over mine.
"I came home."
Our fragile composure shattered. I stepped into him, holding him tight, and he hugged me close as the room around us exploded with noise.
Applause and cheers rose into the air, but I barely heard any of it. Ash was real. I could feel his breath on my neck, feel his heart pounding with mine. I didn't know how he could be here; it should've been impossible, but I didn't want to face that now. If this was a dream, I wanted to have one perfect moment of happiness, before reality intruded and I'd have to let him go.
Finally, I pulled back to look at him, running a palm over his cheek, as he gazed at me with those eyes I could lose myself in. And I finally voiced the question that I had been dreading, not sure I wanted to know the answer. "How?"
Amazingly, Ash smiled. "I told you I'd find a way, didn't I?" He chuckled at my disbelief, and I could sense the secret pride-the knowledge that he had set out to do something impossible and had succeeded. Taking my hand, he guided it to his chest, where I could feel his heartbeat thudding against my palm. "I became human. I went to the ends of the Nevernever and found my soul."