The Iron Daughter, Page 11Julie Kagawa
“Hang on,” he murmured, pressing his forehead to mine through the wall.
“I’m getting you out of there. ” He leaned back, both hands against the ice, and closed his eyes. The air began to vibrate; a tremor shook the walls around me, and tiny cracks spider-webbed through the ice.
With the sound of breaking glass, the prison shattered, shards flying outward but somehow leaving me unscathed. My legs buckled and I fell, choking and coughing, vomiting up water and ice shards. Ash knelt beside me and I clung to him, gasping air into my starved lungs, feeling the world spin around me.
Somehow, through the dizzying rush of air, the relief at being able to breathe again, I noticed that Ash was holding me, too. His arms were locked around my shoulders, pressing me to his chest, his cheek resting against my wet hair. I heard his rapid heartbeat, pounding against my ear, and strangely, that calmed me down a little. The moment ended too soon. Ash pulled away, dropping his black coat around my shoulders. I clutched at it gratefully, shivering. “Can you walk?” he whispered, and his voice was urgent. “We have to get out of here, now. ”
“W-where are we g-going?” I asked, my teeth chattering. He didn’t answer, only pulled me to my feet, his gaze darting about warily. Grabbing my wrist, he started leading me from the room.
“Ash,” I panted, “wait!” He didn’t slow down. My nerves jangled a warning. With all my strength, I stopped dead in the middle of the floor and yanked my hand out of his grip. He whirled, eyes narrowing to slits, and I remembered all the things he’d said to Rowan, that everything he’d done was in service to his queen. I quickly backed out of his reach.
“Where are you taking me?” I demanded.
He looked impatient, stabbing his fingers through his hair in an uncharacteristically nervous gesture. “Back to Seelie territory,” he snapped, reaching for me again. “You can’t be here now, not when a war is about to start. I’ll get you safely over to your side and then I’m done with this. ”
It felt as if he’d slapped me. Fear and anger flared, making me stupid, making me want to hurt him all over again. “Why should I trust you?” I snarled, throwing the words at him like stones. I was completely aware that I was being an idiot, that we needed to get out of there before anyone saw us, but it was like I’d eaten spill-your-guts again, and words just kept pouring out. “You’ve misled me from the beginning. Everything you said, everything we did, that was all a ploy to bring me here. You set me up from the very start. ”
“Shut up! I hate you!” I was on a roll now, and had the vindictive pleasure of seeing Ash flinch as if I’d struck him. “You’re a real piece of work, you know? Is this a game you like to play? Make the stupid human girl fall for you and then laugh as you rip her heart out? You knew what Rowan was doing, and you didn’t do anything to stop it!”
“Of course not!” Ash snarled back, his vehemence startling me into silence.
“Do you know what Rowan would do if he found out…what we did? Do you know what Mab would do? I had to make them believe I didn’t care, or they would’ve torn you apart. ” He sighed wearily, giving me a solemn look. “Emotions are a weakness here, Meghan. And the Winter Court preys on the weak. They would’ve hurt you to get to me. Now, come on. ” He reached for me again, and I let him take my hand without protest. “Let’s get out of here before it’s too late. ”
“I’m afraid it’s already too late,” drawled a snide, familiar voice, making my heart stop. Ash jerked to a halt, yanking me behind him, as Rowan stepped out of the hallway, grinning like a cat. “I’m afraid your time just ran out. ”
“Hello, Ash. ” The older prince smiled gleefully as he sauntered into the room. His gaze met mine, and he raised a sardonic eyebrow. “And what, may I ask, are you doing with the half-breed? Could it be you’re actually helping her escape? Oh dear, what a dreadfully treasonous idea you’ve come up with. I’m sure Mab will be quite disappointed in you. ”
Ash said nothing, but his hand on mine clenched tight. Rowan chuckled, circling us like a hungry shark. Ash moved with him, keeping his body between me and Rowan.
“So, little brother,” the older prince mused, adopting an inquisitive expression, “I’m curious. What made you risk everything for our wayward princess here?” Ash said nothing, and Rowan tsked. “Don’t be stubborn, little brother. You might as well tell me, before Mab tears you limb from limb and banishes you from Tir Na Nog. What is the price of such loyal obedience? A contract? A promise? What is the little harlot giving you to betray your entire court?”
“Nothing. ” Ash’s voice was cold, but I caught the faintest tremor below the surface. Rowan apparently did as well, for his eyebrows shot up and he gaped at his brother, before throwing back his head with a wild laugh.
“I can’t believe it,” Rowan gasped, staring at Ash in disbelief. “You’re in love with the Summer whelp!” He paused and, when Ash didn’t deny it, collapsed into shrieking laughter again. “Oh, this is rich. This is too perfect. I thought the half-breed was a fool, pining for the unattainable Ice prince, but it seems I was wrong. Ash, you’ve been holding out on us. ”
Ash trembled, but he didn’t release my hand. “I’m taking her back to Arcadia. Get out of our way, Rowan. ”
Rowan sobered immediately. “Oh, I don’t think so, little brother. ” He smiled, but it was a cruel thing, sharp as the edge of a blade. “When Mab finds out, you’ll both be decorating the courtyard. If she’s feeling merciful, maybe she’ll freeze you two together. That would be tragically fitting, don’t you think?”
I shuddered. The thought of returning to that cold, airless, living death was too much. I couldn’t do it; I’d rather die first. And the thought of Ash having to endure it with me for hundreds of years was even more horrifying. I squeezed Ash’s hand and pressed my face into his shoulder, glaring at Rowan for all I was worth.
“Of course,” Rowan went on, scratching the side of his face, “you could always beg forgiveness, drag the half-breed to the queen, and still be in Mab’s favor. In fact,”
he continued, snapping his fingers, “if you go to Mab right now and turn over the princess, I’ll even keep my mouth shut about what I saw here. She won’t hear a peep out of me, I swear. ”
Ash went rock still; I could feel muscles coiling beneath his skin, the tension lining his back.
“Come on, little brother. ” Rowan leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms. “You know it’s for the best. There are only two choices here. Hand over the princess, or die with her. ”
Ash finally moved, as if coming out of a trance. “No,” he whispered, and I heard the pain in his voice as he came to some terrible decision. “There is one more. ”
Releasing my hand, he took one deliberate step forward and drew his sword. Rowan’s eyebrows shot up as Ash pointed his blade at him, a cold mist writhing along its edge. For a moment, there was absolute silence.
“Get out of the way, Rowan,” Ash growled. “Move, or I’ll kill you. ”
Rowan’s face changed. In one instant, it went from arrogant, condescending and evilly smug, to something completely alien and terrifying. He pushed himself from the archway, his eyes gleaming with predatory hunger, and slowly drew his sword. It sent a raspy shiver echoing across the hall as it came into view, the blade thin and serrated like the edge of a shark’s tooth.
“You sure about this, little brother?” Rowan crooned, flourishing his weapon as he stepped up to meet Ash. “Will you betray everything—your court, your queen, your own blood—for her? You can’t change your mind once you start down this path. ”
“Meghan,” Ash said, his voice so soft I nearly lost it. “Get back. Don’t try to help me. ”
“Ash…” I wanted to say something. I knew I should stop this, this fight between brothers, but at the same time I knew Rowan would never let us go. Ash knew it, to
o, and I could see the reluctance in his eyes as he steeled himself for battle. He didn’t want to fight his brother, but he would…for me.
They faced each other across the icy room, two statues each waiting for the other to make the first move. Ash had taken a battle stance, his sword out in front of him, his expression reluctant but unwavering. Rowan held his blade casually at his side, tip pointing toward the floor, smirking at his opponent. Neither of them seemed to breathe. Then Rowan grinned, a predator baring his fangs. “All right, then,” he muttered, sweeping up his blade in a blindingly quick move. “I think I’m going to enjoy this. ”
He lunged at Ash, his sword a jagged blur through the air. Ash brought his weapon up, and icy sparks flew as the blades screeched against each other. Snarling, Rowan cut viciously at his brother, advancing with a series of savage head strikes. Ash blocked, ducked, and suddenly lunged, stabbing at Rowan’s throat. But Rowan spun gracefully aside, his sword licking out and back again. Ash whirled with inhuman speed, and would’ve cut him in two if the older prince hadn’t leaped back.
Smiling, Rowan raised his weapon, and I gasped. The gleaming point was smeared with crimson. “First blood to me, little brother,” he taunted, as a trickle of red began to drip from Ash’s sword arm, speckling the floor. “There’s still time to stop this. Turn over the princess and beg for Mab’s mercy. And mine. ”
“You have no mercy, Rowan,” Ash growled, and lunged at him again. This time, they both moved so quickly, twisting, jumping, spinning aside and slashing with their blades, it was hard to see it as anything but a beautifully timed dance. In fast-forward. Sparks flew, and the sound of blades clashing echoed off the walls. Blood appeared on both swords, and red splattered the floor around the combatants, but I couldn’t see who had the advantage.