Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Winters Passage

Julie Kagawa

Page 1

  Chapter One

  Keeping Promises

  In the shadows of the cave, I watched the Hunter approach. Silhouetted black against the snow, it stalked closer, eyes a yellow flame in the shadows, breath coiling around it like wraiths. Ice-blue light glinted off wet teeth and a thick shaggy pelt, darker than midnight. Ash stood between the Hunter and me, sword unsheathed, his eyes never leaving the massive creature that had tracked us for days, and now, had finally caught up.

  “Meghan Chase. ” Its voice was a growl, deeper than thunder, more primitive than the wildest forests. The ancient golden eyes were fixed solely on me. “I’ve finally found you. ”

  My name is Meghan Chase.

  If there are three things I’ve learned in my time among the fey, they are this: don’t eat anything you’re offered in Faeryland, don’t go swimming in quiet little ponds and never, ever, make a bargain with anyone.

  Okay, sometimes, you have no choice. Sometimes, you’ve been backed into a corner and you have to make a deal. Like when your little brother has been kidnapped, and you have to convince a prince of the Unseelie Court to help you rescue him instead of dragging you back to his queen. Or, you’re lost, and you have to bribe a smart-mouthed, talking cat to guide you through the forest. Or you need to get through a certain door, but the gatekeeper won’t let you through without a price. The fey love their bargains, and you have to listen to the terms very carefully, or you’re going to get screwed. If you do end up in a contract with a faery, remember this: there’s no way you can back out, not without disastrous consequences.

  And faeries always come to collect.

  Which is how, 48 hours ago, I found myself walking across my front yard in the middle of the night, my house growing smaller and smaller in the background. I didn’t look back. If I looked back, I might lose my nerve. At the edge of the woods, a dark prince and a pair of glowing, blue-eyed steeds waited for me.

  Prince Ash, third son of the Winter Court, regarded me gravely as I approached, his silver eyes reflecting the light of the moon. Tall and pale, with raven-black hair and the unattainable elegance of the fey, he looked both beautiful and dangerous, and my heart beat faster in anticipation or fear, I couldn’t tell. As I stepped into the shadows of the trees, Ash held out a pale, long-fingered hand, and I placed my own in his.

  His fingers curled over mine, and he drew me close, hands resting lightly on my waist. I lay my head against his chest and closed my eyes, listening to his beating heart, breathing in the frosty scent of him.

  “You have to do this, don’t you?” I whispered, my fingers clutched in the fabric of his white shirt. Ash made a soft noise that might’ve been a sigh.

  “Yes. ” His voice, low and deep, was barely above a murmur. I pulled back to look at him, seeing myself reflected in those silver eyes. When I’d first met him, those eyes were blank and cold, like the face of a mirror.

  Ash had been the enemy, once. He was the youngest son of Mab, queen of Winter and the ancient rival of my father, Oberon, the king of the Summer Court. That’s right. I’m half-fey—a faery princess, no less—and I didn’t even know it until recently, when my human brother was kidnapped by faeries and taken into the Nevernever. When I found out, I convinced my best friend, Robbie Goodfell—who turned out to be Oberon’s servant, Puck—to take me into Faeryland to get him back.

  But being a faery princess in the Nevernever proved to be extremely dangerous. For one, the Winter Queen sent Ash to capture me, to use me as leverage against Oberon.

  That’s when I made the bargain with the Winter prince that would change my life: help me rescue Ethan, and I’ll go with you to the Winter Court.

  So, here I was. Ethan was home safe. Ash had kept his side of the bargain. It was my turn to uphold my end and travel with him to the court of my father’s ancient enemies. There was only one problem.

  Summer and Winter were not supposed to fall in love.

  I bit my lip and held his gaze, watching his expression. Though I had once viewed it as frozen solid, his demeanor had thawed somewhat during our time in the Nevernever. Now, looking at him, I imagined a glassy lake: still and calm, but only on the surface.

  “How long will I have to stay there?” I asked.

  He shook his head slowly, and I could feel his reluctance. “I don’t know, Meghan. The queen doesn’t disclose her plans to me. I didn’t dare ask why she wanted you. ” He reached up and caught a strand of my pale blond hair, running it through his fingers. “I was only supposed to bring you back,” he murmured, and his voice dropped even lower. “I swore I would bring you back. ”

  I nodded. Once a faery promises something, he’s obligated to carry it through, which is why making a deal is so tricky. Ash couldn’t break his vow even if he wanted to.

  I understood that, but… “I want to do something before we go,” I said, watching for his reaction. Ash raised an eyebrow, but otherwise his expression stayed the same. I took a deep breath. “I want to see Puck. ” The Winter prince sighed. “I suppose you would,” he muttered, releasing me and stepping back, his expression thoughtful. “And, truth be told, I’m curious myself. I wouldn’t want Goodfellow dying before we ever resolved our duel. That would be unfortunate. ” I winced. Puck and Ash were ancient enemies, and had already engaged each other in several savage, life-threatening duels before I was even in the picture. Ash had sworn to kill Puck, and Puck took great pleasure in goading the dangerous ice prince whenever he had the chance. It was only because I insisted they cooperate that they had agreed to an extremely shaky truce. One that wouldn’t last long, no matter how much I intervened.

  One of the horses snorted and pawed the ground, and Ash turned to put a hand on its neck. “All right, we’ll check on him,” he said without turning around. “But, after that I have to take you to Tir Na Nog. No more delays, understand? The queen won’t be happy with me for taking this long. ”

  I nodded. “Yes. Thank y— I mean…I appreciate it, Ash. ”

  He smiled faintly and offered a hand again, this time to help me into the saddle. I gingerly picked up the reins and envied Ash, who swung easily aboard the second horse like he’d done it a thousand times.

  “All right,” he said in a faintly resigned voice, staring up at the moon. “First things first. We have to find a trod to New Orleans. ”

  Trods are faery paths between the real world and the Nevernever, gateways straight into Faeryland. They can be anywhere, any doorway: an old bathroom stall, the gate to a cemetery, a child’s closet door. You can go anywhere in the world if you know the right trod, but getting through them is another matter, as sometimes they’re guarded by nasty creatures the fey leave behind to discourage unwanted guests.

  Nothing guarded the enormous rotting barn that sat in the middle of the swampy bayou, so covered in moss it looked like a shaggy green carpet was draped over the roof. Mushrooms grew from the walls in bulbous clumps, huge spotted things that, if you looked closely enough, sheltered several tiny winged figures beneath them. They blinked at us as we went by, huge multifaceted eyes peering out from under the mushroom caps, and took to the air in a flurry of iridescent wings. I jumped, but Ash and the horses ignored them as we stepped beneath the sagging frame and everything went white.

  I blinked and looked around as the world came into focus again.

  An eerie gray forest surrounded us, mist creeping over the ground like a living thing, coiling around the horses’ legs. The trees were massive, soaring to mind-boggling heights, interlocking branches blocking out the sky. Everything was dark and faded, like all color had been washed out, a forest trapped in perpetual twilight.

  “The wyldwood,” I muttered, and turned to Ash.

hy are we here? I thought we were going to New Orleans. ”

  “We are. ” Ash pulled his horse around to look at me.

  “The trod we want is about a day’s ride north. It’s the quickest way to New Orleans from here. ” He blinked and gave me an almost smile. “Or were you planning to hitchhike?”

  Before I could reply, my horse suddenly let out a terrifying whinny and reared, slashing the air with its forelegs. I grabbed for the mane, but it slipped through my fingers, and I tumbled backward out of the saddle, hitting the ground behind the horse, snapping bushes underneath. Snorting in terror, the fey steed charged off toward the trees, leaped over a fallen branch and vanished into the mist.

  Groaning, I sat up, testing my body for pain. My shoulder throbbed where I’d landed on it, and I was shaking, but nothing seemed broken.

  Ash’s mount was also throwing a fit, squealing and tossing its head, but the Winter prince was able to keep his seat and bring it back under control. Swinging out of the saddle, he tied the horse’s reins to an overhead branch and knelt beside me.

  “Are you all right?” His fingers probed my arm, surprisingly gentle. “Anything broken?”

  “I don’t think so,” I muttered, rubbing my bruised shoulder. “That lovely patch of bramble broke my fall. ” Now that the adrenaline had worn off, dozens of stinging scratches began to make themselves known. Scowling, I glared in the direction my mount had disappeared. “You know, that’s the second time I’ve been thrown off a faery horse. And another time one tried to eat me. I don’t think horses like me very much. ”

  “No. ” Abruptly serious, Ash stood, offering a hand to pull me to my feet. “It wasn’t you. Something spooked them. ” He gazed around slowly, hand dropping to the sword at his waist. Around us, the wyldwood was still and dark, as if the inhabitants were afraid to move.

  I looked behind us, where the trunks of two trees had grown into each other, forming an archway between. The space between the trunks, where the trod lay, was cloaked in shadow, and it seemed to me that the shadows were creeping closer. A cold wind hissed through the trunks, rattling branches and tossing leaves, and I shivered.

  With a frantic rushing sound a flock of tiny winged fey burst from the trod, swirling around us in panic and spiraling into the mist. I yelped, shielding my face, and Ash’s horse screamed again, the sound piercing the ominous quiet. Ash took my hand and pulled me away from the trod, hurrying back to his mount. Lifting me to sit just behind the saddle, he grabbed the reins and climbed up in front.

  “Hold on tight,” he warned, and a thrill shot through me as I slipped my arms around his waist, feeling the hard muscles through his shirt. Ash dug in his heels with a shout, and the horse shot forward, snapping my head back. I squeezed Ash tightly and buried my face in his back as the faery horse streaked through the wyldwood, leaving the trod far behind.

  We stopped infrequently, and when we did, it was only to let me and the horse rest for a few minutes. As evening fell, Ash pulled several food items from the horse’s pack and gave them to me; bread and dried meat and cheese, ordinary human food. Apparently, he remembered my last experiment with eating faery food, which hadn’t turned out so well. I nibbled the dry bread, gnawed on the jerky and hoped he wouldn’t mention the Summerpod incident and the embarrassment that followed.

  Ash didn’t eat anything. He remained wary and suspicious, and never truly relaxed the entire journey. The horse, too, was jumpy and restless, and it panicked at every shadow, every rustle or falling leaf. Something was following us; I felt it every time we stopped, a dark, shadowy presence drawing ever closer As we rode on through the night, the eternal twilight of the wyldwood finally dimmed and a pale yellow moon rose into the sky. Ash and the fey horse both had seemingly unlimited endurance, more so than me, anyway. Riding a horse for hours and hours is not easy, and the stress of being chased by an unknown enemy was taking its toll. I struggled to stay awake, dozing against the prince’s back, leaning dangerously off the sides until a jolt or sharp word from Ash snapped me upright.

  I was dozing off once more, fighting to keep my eyes open, when Ash suddenly pulled the horse to a stop and dismounted. Blinking, I looked around dazedly, seeing nothing but trees and shadows. “Are we there yet?”

  “No. ” Ash glared at me in exasperation. “But you keep threatening to fall off the horse, and I can’t keep reaching back to make sure you’re still on. ” He motioned to the front of the saddle. “We’re switching places. Move forward. ”

  I eased into the saddle and Ash swung up behind me, wrapping an arm securely around my waist, making my pulse beat faster in excitement.

  “Hold on,” he murmured as the horse started forward again. “We’re almost to the trod. Once we’re in the mortal realm, you can rest. We should be safe there. ”

  “What’s following us?” I whispered, making the horse’s ears twitch back. Ash didn’t reply for several moments.

  “I don’t know,” he muttered, sounding reluctant to admit it. “Whatever it is, it’s persistent. We’ve been keeping a pretty steady pace and haven’t lost it yet. ”

  “Why is it following us? What does it want?”

  “Doesn’t matter. ” Ash’s grip around my waist tightened. “If it wants you, it’ll have to get past me first. ” My stomach prickled, and my heart did a weird little flop. In that moment, I felt safe. My prince wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Settling back against him, I closed my eyes and let myself drift.

  I must have dozed off, for the next thing I knew Ash was shaking me gently. “Meghan, wake up,” he murmured, his cool breath fanning my neck. “We’re here. ”

  Yawning, I looked at the small glade ahead of us.

  Without the cover of the trees, I could see the sky, dotted with stars. The glade was clear, except for one massive gnarled oak in the very center. Roots snaked out over the ground, huge thick things that prevented anything bigger than a fern to flourish. The trunk was wide and twisted, like three or four trees had been squashed together into one. But even with the oak’s size and dominating presence, I could see that it was dying. Its branches drooped, or had snapped off and were scattered about the base of the tree. Most of its broad, veined leaves were dead and brittle; the rest were a sickly yellow-brown. The glade, too, looked withered and sick, as if the tree was leeching life from the forest around it.

  “It wasn’t like this before,” Ash murmured behind me. I gazed at the dying tree and felt an incomprehensible sadness, as if I were seeing an old friend about to die.

  Shaking it off, I looked around for a doorway or gate, but the tree was the only thing here.

  “Will it still work?” I wondered as he urged the horse into the clearing, toward the ancient tree. “The trod, I mean. Will it open?”

  “We’ll see. ” Ash dismounted and led the horse up to the trunk. When it stopped, I slid out of the saddle and joined him.

  “So, how does the trod work?” I asked, peering at the trunk for a door of some kind. Doors in trees were not unusual in the Nevernever. In fact, during my first time to Faeryland, I’d spent the night in a wood sprite’s tree, somehow shrinking down to the size of a bug to fit through his door. “I don’t see a gate. How do you get it to open?”

  “Easy,” Ash replied. “We just ask. ” Ignoring my scowl, he faced the trunk and put a hand on the rough bark. “This is Ash,” he said clearly, “third son of the Unseelie Court, requesting passage to the mortal realm and the clearing of the Elder. ”

  “Please,” I added.

  For a moment, nothing happened. Then, with a loud groaning and creaking, one of the massive roots snaked out of the ground, shedding dirt and twigs. Rising into the air, it formed an archway between itself and the ground, and the space between shimmered with magic.

  “There’s your trod,” Ash murmured, as my heart beat faster in my chest. Puck was through that gateway. If he was still alive.

  Clutching Ash’s hand, almost pulling him
along in my impatience, I ducked through the arch.

  I tripped over a root on the other side and stumbled forward, barely catching myself. Straightening, I gazed around the moonlit grove of New Orleans City Park, recognizing the huge mossy oaks from our last visit. The air was humid, warm and peaceful. Crickets buzzed, leaves rustled and moonlight shimmered off the nearby lake. Nothing had changed. It had been this peaceful the last time we were here, though my world had been falling apart.

  Ash touched my arm and nodded at a tree, where a willowy girl with moss-green skin watched us from the shadow of an oak, her dark eyes wide and startled.

  “Meghan Chase?” The dryad swayed toward us, moving like a wind-blown branch. “What are you doing here?” I blinked at the fear in her voice. “You must not stay!” she hissed as she drew close. “It is not safe. There is something dangerous following you. ”

  “We know,” Ash said beside me, calm and unflustered as always. The dryad blinked and shifted her gaze to him. “But we came through the Elder gate, so hopefully she won’t let whatever is hunting us into this world. ”

  Elder gate? I glanced behind me, and my stomach twisted so hard I felt nauseous.

  It was the Elder Dryad’s tree, the great oak that once stood tall and proud, looming over the others. Now, like its twin in the clearing, it was dying. Its branches were bare of leaves, the shaggy moss that covered it brown and dead.

  A lump rose to my throat. I remembered the Elder Dryad from our first visit here: an old, grandmotherly fey with a soft voice and kind eyes who had given the very heart of her tree to make sure I could rescue my brother.

  And kill the faery who’d kidnapped him. The Elder had known she would die if she helped me. But she gave us the weapon we needed to take down the enemy fey and get Ethan back.

  The dryad girl stepped beside me, gazing at the dying oak. “She lives still,” she murmured, her voice like the whisper of leaves. “Dying, yes. Too weak to leave her tree, she sleeps now, dreaming of her youth. But not gone, not yet. It will take a long time for her to fade completely. ”

  “I’m so sorry,” I whispered.

  “No, Meghan Chase. ” The dryad shook her head with a faint rustling sound, and a shiny beetle crawled across her face to burrow into her hair. “She knew. She knew all along what was going to happen. The wind tells us these things. Just as it tells us you are in terrible danger now. ” She suddenly fixed me with piercing black eyes.

  “You should not be here,” she said firmly. “It is very close. Why have you come?”

  My skin prickled, but I shook off the feeling of trepidation and held her gaze. “I’m here for Puck. I need to see him. ”

  The dryad’s expression softened. “Ah. Yes, of course. I will take you to him, but I fear you will be disappointed. ”

  “It doesn’t matter. ” I felt cold, even in the warm summer night. “I just want to see him. ”

  The dryad nodded and shuffled back, swaying in the breeze. “This way. ”