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The Iron Daughter, Page 17

Julie Kagawa

Page 17

 

  “Stay where you are, Prince,” Edgebriar spat, and pressed a cold black dagger against my cheek. “Not another step, or I will gouge out her pretty eyes. The Iron King doesn’t care if she’s a bit damaged when she comes to him. ”

  Ash stopped, lowering his blade, his eyes never leaving the knight. Edgebriar’s chokehold loosened just the tiniest bit, and I sucked in a much-needed breath, trying to be calm. This close, the knight smelled of sweat and leather, and something sharper, metallic. The ring on his hand glinted against his blackened finger as he held the knife point to my face.

  “Now,” Edgebriar panted, locking gazes with Ash, “I want you to put down your sword and swear you will not follow us. ” When Ash didn’t move, Edgebriar stabbed the point of the knife into my cheek, just enough to draw blood. I gasped at the sudden pain, and Ash tensed. “I won’t ask you again, Your Highness,” Edgebriar growled. “You’ve lost this battle. Put down your sword, and promise you will not follow us. ”

  “Edgebriar. ” Ash’s voice was as cold as frozen steel. “Rowan has poisoned your mind, as surely as that iron is poisoning your insides. You can still walk away from this. Let me take the princess back to Arcadia, and then we can warn Mab about the Iron King and Rowan. ”

  “It’s too late. ” Edgebriar shook his head wildly. “They’re already coming. You can’t stop them, Ash. No one can. ” He chuckled, a note of madness coming to the surface, and tightened his stranglehold on my neck. “All the king’s army and all the king’s men,” he whispered, waving the knife in front of my eyes, “came to Faery on the day it would end. ”

  All right, enough was enough. Edgebriar had lost it; he had taken a long walk off the short end. I had to do something. But without a weapon or glamour, what could I do?

  Blood was trickling down my face, oozing a path over my skin like a giant red tear. My cheek throbbed, and pain brought everything into sharp focus. In my mind, I saw the metal ring glowing white, pulsing with energy. I felt the glamour around it, but it was different from anything I’d felt before—cold and colorless. Was this…iron glamour? Could I use it as the fey used the wilder magic of dreams and emotion? The ring shimmered, fluid and alive, eager to be worked upon. To be shaped into something new.

  Tighten, I thought, and the metal band responded instantly, biting into the skin. Edgebriar jerked, looking startled, and I squeezed harder, twisting the ring so that it cut into his flesh, drawing blood. It hissed where it touched, and Edgebriar howled, jerking his arm from my neck as if burned. I twisted from his grasp and shoved him away. Ash lunged for Edgebriar. The Thornguard saw him coming and at the last second went for his sword, too late. Ash stepped within his guard and plunged the blade through his chest, so hard that it erupted out the knight’s back. Edgebriar staggered and fell away, hitting the water with a loud splash. He stared at the blood on his chest, than gazed up at us, his eyes blank and confused. “You don’t…understand,” he gurgled, as Ash looked down on him sadly. “We were going to become…like them. Rowan…promised us. He promised…”

  Then his eyes rolled up in his head, and thorny creepers slithered over his body, hiding him from view.

  I shuddered, torn between throwing up and bursting into tears. Strange how all my time in the Winter Court still hadn’t desensitized me to blood and death. I felt Ash’s gaze on me, curious and wary, like a stranger’s.

  “What did you do to him?”

  I shook my head. The strange glamour was already fading, like it had never been. My body trembled from the aftermath of shock and adrenaline. “I don’t know. ”

  Ash glanced once more at the thornbush, at the iron ring dangling from a twig, and shuddered. “Come here,” he sighed, motioning me to a large rock. “Sit down. Let me see your face. ”

  The cut wasn’t deep, more of a puncture wound than a gash, though it still hurt like hell. Ash knelt and studied it, then tore a strip from his sleeve and dunked it in a nearby puddle. As he raised it to my cheek, I instinctively flinched and jerked away, grimacing. He shook his head, and a corner of his lip twitched.

  “I haven’t even touched it yet. Now hold still. ”

  He lifted the rag, and our gazes met. Ash froze. I saw a dozen emotions cross his face before he took a quiet breath and very carefully pressed the cloth to my cheek. I was tempted to close my eyes, but kept them open, watching his face. To have him here, to have him this close, was worth the pain. I studied his eyes, his lips, the tiny silver stud in his ear, almost hidden by his dark hair. I memorized those little details, searing his image into my brain, wanting to remember this moment. Though his expression was closed and businesslike after that first glance, his fingers were gentle.

  “Why are you staring at me?”

  His voice made me jump. “What? I’m not. ”

  “Liar. ” Ash took my hand and pressed it to the cloth, holding it to my cheek.

  “Here. The bleeding’s stopped, but keep pressure on it for a bit just to be sure. ” His hand lingered on mine, cool and smooth, though he wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m sorry, Meghan. ”

  “Why?”

  “For Rowan. For all of this. ” He rose and walked to where Edgebriar had fallen. Now only a black thorny bush marked the place where he had died, and Ash glared at it as if it might come back to life.

  “Rowan,” I heard him mutter. “What are you thinking?”

  Dropping the cloth, I walked up to him. “What now?”

  He was quiet a moment, brooding. The shock of discovering that his brother was responsible for betraying all of Faery was still new, like a wound that wouldn’t close. I could tell he didn’t want to believe it. “Nothing’s changed,” he said at last, his voice cold and resolved. “The scepter is still out there, and if Rowan knows where it is, he isn’t going to tell us. When this is over, Mab will decide what to do with Rowan, but the scepter comes first. ”

  Very lightly, I touched his arm. “I’m sorry. He’s a jerk, but I’m sorry it had to be him. ”

  He nodded. “Let’s get out of here. ”

  Four horses stood waiting at the cave entrance; faery steeds with jet-black coats, lightning-colored manes, and glowing, white-blue eyes. Their slender hooves didn’t quite touch the ground as they stamped and shifted, regarding us with eerie intelligence. Ash helped me into one’s saddle, and the fey-horse swished its tail and rolled its eyes at me, as if sensing my unease. I gave it a warning glare.

  “Don’t try anything, horse,” I muttered, and it pinned back its ears, which was not a good sign. Ash approached another mount and swung easily into the saddle, as if he’d done it a thousand times.

  “Where are we going?” I asked, fumbling with the reins, which made the horse prance sideways. Dammit, I’d never get used to this. “We know Tertius stole the scepter, Rowan helped him into the palace, and they’re both working for a new Iron King. ” I frowned as I thought of the implications. “Ash, do you think we’ll have to go back to the Iron Kingd—”

  My horse suddenly let out a shrill whinny and half reared, nearly throwing me off. As I shrieked and grabbed its mane, the other mount tried to bolt, but Ash pulled one rein short, and the horse spun in frenzied circles until it calmed down. As our mounts quieted, still prancing and tossing their heads, we gazed around for the source of their fear. We didn’t have to look far.

  Through the trees, silhouetted against the cloudy sky, a lone figure on horseback watched us atop a snowy rise. The single tree standing over it had curled its branches as far away from the figure as possible, its limbs twisted and warped, but the rider didn’t seem to care. As we stared at each other, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, glinting off its steel armor.

  A faint metallic rustling drifted over the wind, like thousands of knives scraping together, making my blood run cold. As the Iron knight stood motionless on the hill, an enormous pack of spindly legged creatures appeared around him. Claws flashing, limbs jerking sporadically, the w
ire-fey crowded the hilltop like huge spiders, gleaming in the sun. Ash went pale, and my heart contracted in horror as the knight raised a hand toward us, sending the entire pack skittering down the hill.

  We ran.

  The faery steeds ate up the ground as they charged through the forest, their hooves making almost no noise in the snow. The trees flew by at a terrifying speed as the horses plunged between trunks and over logs, reminding me of my first wild ride through Faery, when I had been running away from Ash, ironically. At least I had a saddle this time. I clung to the horse’s neck, unable to do anything else, steering or otherwise. Thankfully, Ash seemed to know where he was going, and my horse followed his as we flew over the ground. Behind us, the metallic skittering of the wire-fey echoed on the wind, never fading or falling behind.

  The trees fell away, and a steep incline soared above us, jagged rocks covered in ice as smooth as glass. My stomach turned, imagining my horse slipping and rolling on top of me, but the hooves of the Winter-born faery steeds charged up the hill without hesitation. It felt like they were running up a wall, and I clung to my horse until my arms burned with liquid fire.

  At the top of the rise, Ash pulled his mount to a halt, and my horse stopped as well, prancing in place. Arms shaking from the strain of keeping my seat, I straightened cautiously.

  Ash was staring down the slope, eyes narrowed to slits. I followed his gaze, and my stomach lurched. The edge of the rise fell away into a dizzying vertical drop, jagged rocks jutting up like spines. I suddenly wished I knew how to steer my horse, just to move it away from the edge.

  “They’re coming,” Ash muttered.

  The wiremen fey flowed from the trees in a glittering swarm. Scuttling to the rise, they began to climb, digging their claws into the ice as they edged upward. Steel limbs flashing, they crawled up the icy slope like ants, barely slowing down.

  “What are these things?” Ash whispered. He raised his arm, and the air around him sparkled as a glittering ice spear formed overhead. With a flick of his hand, he hurled it down the slope, into the ranks of oncoming fey.