"Oy, ice-boy! You sure you know where you're going?"
I ignored Robin Goodfellow as we wove through the gray murk of the wyldwood, pushing farther into the soggy swamp known as the Bone Marsh. Mud sucked at my footsteps, and water dripped from twisted green trees so covered in moss they appeared sheathed in slime. Mist coiled around the exposed roots or pooled in sunken areas, hiding what lay beneath, and every so often there was a splash in the still waters farther out, reminding us that we were not alone. As its name suggested, bones were scattered throughout the marsh, jutting out of the mud, half-hidden in tangles of weeds or shimmering beneath the surface of the water, bleached and white. This was a dangerous part of the wyldwood, more so than mostnot because of the catoblepas and the jabberwocks and other monsters that called the dark swamp their home, but because of the resident who lived somewhere deep within the marsh.
The one we were going to see.
Something flew past my head from behind, barely missing me, and spattered against a trunk a few feet away. Stopping beneath the tree, I turned and glared at my companion, silently daring him to do that again.
"Oh, hey, it lives!" Robin Goodfellow threw up his muddy hands in mock celebration. "I was afraid it had become a zombie or something." He crossed his arms and smirked at me, mud streaking his red hair and speckling his pointed face. "Did you hear me, ice-boy? I've been yelling at you for some time now."
"Yes," I said, repressing a sigh. "I heard you. I think the jabberwocks on the other side of the swamp heard you."
"Oh, good! Maybe if we fight a couple you'll start paying attention to me!" Puck matched my glare before gesturing around at the swamp. "This is crazy," he exclaimed. "How do we even know he's here? The Bone Marsh isn't exactly on my list of favorite vacation getaways, prince. You sure your contact knew what he was talking about? If this turns out to be another false lead I might turn that phouka into a pair of gloves."
"I thought you wanted an adventure," I said, just to annoy him. Puck snorted.
"Oh sure, don't get me wrong. I'm all for tromping to all five corners of the Nevernever, getting chased by angry Summer Queens, sneaking into an ogre's basement, fighting giant spiders, playing hide-and-seek with a cranky dragongood times." He shook his head, and his eyes gleamed, reliving fond memories. "But this is like the sixth place we've come to look for that wretched cat, and if he isn't here I'm almost afraid of where we're going next."
"You don't have to be here," I told him. "Leave if you want. I'm not stopping you."
"Nice try, prince." Puck crossed his arms and smiled. "But you're not getting rid of me that easily."
"Then let's keep moving." It was getting dark, and his constant chattering was getting on my nerves. Joking aside, I did not want to attract the attention of a hungry jabberwock and have to fight it in the middle of the swamp.
"Oh, fine," Puck sighed, tromping along behind me. "But if he's not here, I refuse to go to the Spider Queen's palace with you, ice-boy. That's where I draw the line."
My name, my full, True Name, is Ashallayn'darkmyr Tallyn, and I am the last son of the Unseelie Court.
There were three of us at one time, all princes of Winter, myself and my brothers, Sage and Rowan. I never knew my sire, never cared to know him, nor did my siblings ever speak of him. I wasn't even positive we shared the same sire, but it didn't matter. In the Unseelie Court, Mab was the sole ruler, the one and only queen. Handsome fey and even wayward mortals she might take to her bed, but Mab shared her throne with no one.
We were never close, my brothers and I. As princes of Winter, we grew up in a world of violence and dark politics. Our queen encouraged this, favoring the son who earned her good graces while punishing the others. We used each other, played vicious games against one another, but we were all loyal to our court and our queen. Or so I'd thought.
There is a reason the Winter Court freezes out their emotions, why feelings are considered a weakness and a folly among the Unseelie fey. Emotion corrupts the senses, makes them weak, makes them disloyal to kith and court. Jealousy was a dark, dangerous passion that ate at my brother Rowan until he did the unthinkable and turned on his court, betraying us to our enemies. Sage, my eldest sibling, fell to Rowan's treachery, and he was only the first. In a bid for power, Rowan sided with our greatest enemies, the Iron fey, helping their king nearly destroy the Nevernever. I killed Rowan in the end, avenging Sage and the rest of my kin, but retribution cannot bring either of them back. It's only me now. I am the last, the only remaining son of Mab, Queen of the Unseelie Court.
And I'm already dead to her.
Rowan was not the only one to succumb to emotion and passion. My fall began, as many stories do, with a girl. A girl named Meghan Chase, the half-human daughter of our ancient rival, the Summer King. Fate brought us together, and despite everything I did to shield my emotions, despite the laws of our people and the war with the Iron fey and the threat of eternal banishment from my home, I still found myself falling for her. Our paths were woven together, our fates intertwined, and before the last battle I swore I would follow her to the end of the world, to protect her from all threats, including my own kin, and to die for her if called to do so. I became her knight, and would have gladly served this girl, this mortal who had captured my heart, until the last breath left my body.
But Fate is a cruel mistress, and in the end, our paths were forced apart, as I'd feared they would be. Meghan became the Iron Queen, as was her destiny, and took the throne in the kingdom of the Iron fey. A place I could not follow, not as I ama faery creature whose essence weakens and burns at the touch of iron. Meghan herself exiled me from the lands of the Iron fey, knowing that staying would kill me, knowing I would try anyway. But before I left, I swore an oath that I would find a way to return, that someday we would be together, and nothing would separate us again. Mab tried to convince me to return to the Winter CourtI was her only prince now, and it was my duty to come homebut I bluntly stated that I was no longer part of the Unseelie Court, that my service to her and Winter was at an end.
There is nothing more terrible than a spurned faery queen, particularly if you defy her a second time. I escaped the Winter Court with my life intact, but just barely, and I won't be returning anytime soon. Regardless, I feel little regret at turning my back on my queen, my kith and my home. That part of my life is done. My loyaltyand my heartbelongs to another queen now.
I promised I'd find a way for us to be together. I intend to keep that promise. Even if it means trekking through a sprawling, deadly marsh in search of a rumor. Even if it means putting up with my fiercest and most annoying rival, Robin Goodfellow, whodespite all his attempts to hide itis in love with my queen as well. I don't know why I haven't killed him yet. Maybe because Puck is Meghan's closest friend, and she would mourn him terribly if he were gone (though I can't understand why). Or, maybe, deep down, I'm tired of being alone.
In any case, it matters little. With every ruin we search, every dragon we slay, or every rumor we unearth, I'm one step closer to my goal. Even if it takes a hundred years, I will be with her in the end. Another piece of the puzzle lurks somewhere in this dreary swampland. The only difficulty lies in finding it.
Thankfully, despite Puck's constant griping and complaining, the jabberwocks decided not
to see what the racket was about and come stalking through the marsh to find us. That was just as well, because it took nearly the whole night to find what we were looking for.
At the edge of a scummy pond stood a house, faded and gray like everything else. A picket fence made of bleached white bones surrounded it, naked skulls topping the posts, and a few scraggly chickens milled about in what passed as a yard. The hut was old and wooden, creaking faintly though there was no wind. The most unusual thing, however, wasn't the house itself, but what held it up. It stood on a pair of massive bird legs, gnarled and yellow, blunt talons digging into the mud. The legs were crouched low, as if sleeping, but every so often they shifted restlessly, causing the whole house to shudder and groan.
"We're heeeeere," Puck sang softly. "And can I say that the old gal hasn't gotten any less creepy than when I saw her last."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Just shut up and let me do the talking this time. It was bad enough when you insulted the centaur chief."
"All I suggested was that we could've used a ride out of the meadow. I didn't mean from him"
Sighing, I opened the bone gate and crossed the weed-choked yard, scattering chickens in front of me. Before we reached the steps, however, the door creaked open and an old woman emerged from the darkened interior. Tangled white hair framed a lined, wrinkled face, and sharp black eyes peered out at us, bright and gleaming. In one gnarled hand she held a basket, in the other a butcher knife, stained with the blood of many victims.
I stopped at the foot of the stairs, wary and alert. Old as she appeared, the witch of this house was powerful and unpredictable. If Puck said something stupid or accidentally insulted her, it would be vastly annoying if we had to fight our way out.
"Well," the witch said, curling bloodless lips to smile at us. Crooked yellow teeth flashed in the light like jagged bits of bone. "What do we have here? Two handsome faery boys, come to visit a poor old woman. And if my eyes don't deceive me, that's Robin Goodfellow I see before me. The last I saw of you, you stole my broom and tied my house's legs so it fell over when we tried to catch you!"
I repressed another sigh. This wasn't starting well. I should've known Puck had already done something to earn her wrath. But at the same time, I had to fight the urge to smile, to laugh at such a ridiculous thought, the house falling on its face in the mud because the Great Prankster had tied its feet together.
I kept my expression neutral, as it was obvious the witch was not amused in the slightest. "What do you have to say for yourself, villain?" she continued, shaking her butcher knife at Puck, who ducked behind me in a pathetic attempt to hide, though I could hear him trying to muffle his laughter. "Do you know how long it took me to repair my home? And then you have the gall, the absolute gall, to leave my broom at the edge of the forest, just to prove you could take it. I've half a mind to stick you in the pot and feed you to my chickens!"
"I apologize for him," I said quickly, and those sharp black eyes suddenly turned on me. I held myself tall, unafraid but still polite, lest she lump me together with the buffoon at my back. "Excuse this intrusion, old mother," I continued formally. "I am Ash of the Unseelie Court. And I need your help, if you would hear me."
The witch blinked. "Such manners. You were not raised in a barn like that one, I see." She stabbed her knife in Puck's direction, wrinkling her long nose. "And I know who you are, son of Mab. What would you have of me? Be quick about it."
"We're looking for someone," I said. "He was rumored to be traveling through here, through the Bone Marsh. We thought you might know where he is."
"Oh?" The witch cocked her head, giving me a scrutinizing look. "And what makes you think I know where this person is?"
"Not a person," I corrected. "A cat. A cait sith. In some tales he's known as Grimalkin. And in some tales he's been rumored to keep company with a powerful witch out in the swamps, whose house stands on chicken legs in a fence made of bones."
"I see," said the witch, though her face and voice remained expressionless. "Well, I admire your tenacity, young prince. Grimalkin is not easy to find in the best of times. You must have come very far to seek him out." She peered closely at me, narrowing her eyes. "And this is not the first place you have searched. I can see it on your face. Why, I wonder? Why does he come so far? What is it that he desires so badly, to risk the ire of the Bone Witch? What is it you want, Ash of the Winter Court?"
"Would you believe the cat owes him money?" Puck's voice came from behind my shoulder, making me wince. The witch scowled at him.