The Iron Queen, Page 2Julie Kagawa
My heart stood still. I was home.
I slid off the tatter-colt’s back and stumbled as I hit the ground, my legs feeling weird and shaky after being on horseback for so long. Ash dismounted with ease, murmuring something to the tatter-colt, which snorted, threw up its head and bounded into the darkness. In seconds, it had disappeared. I gazed up the long gravel road, my heart pounding in my chest. Home and family waited just beyond that rise: the old green farmhouse with paint peeling off the wood, the pig barns out back through the mud, Luke’s truck and Mom’s station wagon in the driveway.
Ash moved up beside me, making no noise on the rocks. “Are you ready?”
No, I wasn’t. I peered into the darkness where the tatter-colt had vanished instead. “What happened to our ride?” I asked, to distract myself from what I had to do. “What did you say to it?”
“I told him the favor has been paid and that we’re even now. ” For some reason, this seemed to amuse him; he gazed after the colt with a faint smile on his lips. “It appears I can’t order them around like I used to. I’ll have to rely on calling in favors from now on. ”
“Is that bad?”
The smile twitched into a smirk. “A lot of people owe me. ” When I still hesitated, he nodded toward the driveway. “Go on. Your family is waiting. ”
“What about you?”
“It’s probably better if you go alone this time. ” A flicker of regret passed through his eyes, and he gave me a pained smile. “I don’t think your brother would be happy to see me again. ”
“I’ll be close. ” He reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind my ears.
I sighed and gazed up the driveway once more. “All right,” I muttered, steeling myself for the inevitable. “Here goes nothing. ”
I took three steps, feeling the gravel crunch under my feet, and glanced over my shoulder. The empty road mocked me, the breeze stirring up leaves in the spot Ash had been. Typical faery. I shook my head and continued my solitary trek up the driveway.
It wasn’t long before I reached the top of the rise, and there, in all its rustic glory, was the house I’d lived in for ten years. I could see lights on in the window, and my family moving about in the kitchen. There was Mom’s slender frame, bent over the sink, and Luke in his faded overalls, putting a stack of dirty plates on the counter. And if I squinted hard enough, I could just see the top of Ethan’s curly head, poking over the kitchen table.
Tears pricked my eyes. After a year of being away, fighting faeries, discovering who I was, cheating death more times than I cared to remember, I was finally home.
“Isn’t that precious,” a voice hissed.
I spun, looking around wildly.
“Up here, princess. ”
I looked straight up, and my vision was filled with a thin, shimmering net an instant before it struck me and sent me tumbling back. Cursing, I thrashed and tore at the threads, trying to rip through the flimsy barrier. Stinging pain made me gasp. Blood streamed down my hands, and I squinted at the threads. The net was actually made of fine, flexible wire, and my struggles had sliced my fingers open. Harsh laughter caught my attention, and I craned my neck up, searching for my assailants. On the lone set of power lines that stretched to the roof of the house perched three bulbous creatures with spindly legs that glinted under the moonlight. My heart gave a violent lurch when, as one, they unfurled and leaped from the lines, landing in the gravel with faint clicking sounds. Straightening, they scuttled toward me.
I recoiled, tangling myself even further in the wire net. Now that I saw them clearly, they reminded me of giant spiders, only somehow even more horrible. Their spindly legs were huge needles, shiny and pointed as they skittered over the ground. But their upper bodies were of gaunt, emaciated women with pale skin and bulging black eyes. Their arms were made of wire, and long, needlelike fingers uncurled like claws as they approached, their legs clicking over the gravel.
“Here she is,” hissed one as they surrounded me, grinning. “Just as the king said she would be. ”
“Too easy,” rasped another, peering at me with a bulbous black eye. “I’m rather disappointed. I thought she would be a good catch, but she’s just a skinny little bug, trapped in a web. What is the king so afraid of?”
“The king,” I said, and all three blinked at me, surprised I was talking to them instead of cringing in fear, perhaps. “You mean the false king, don’t you? He’s still after me. ”
The spider-hags hissed, baring pointed teeth. “Do not blaspheme him so, child!” one screeched, grabbing the net and pulling me forward. “He is not the false king! He is the Iron King, the true monarch of the Iron fey!”
“Not from what I heard,” I retorted, meeting the blazing black eyes full on.
“I’ve met the Iron King, the real Iron King, Machina. Or have you forgotten him?”
“Of course we haven’t!” hissed the hag’s sister. “We will never forget Machina. He wanted to make you his queen, queen of all the Iron fey, and you killed him for his trouble. ”
“He kidnapped my brother and was planning to destroy the Nevernever!” I snapped in return. “But you’re missing the point. The king you serve, the one who took over the throne, is an imposter. He isn’t the real heir. You’re supporting a false king. ”
“Lies!” the hags screeched, crowding in, grabbing me with pointed needle claws, drawing blood. “Who told you this? Who dares blaspheme the name of the new king?”
“Ironhorse,” I said, wincing as one snatched my hair, shaking my head back and forth. “Ironhorse told me, Machina’s lieutenant himself. ”
“The traitor fey! He and the rebels will be destroyed, right after the king takes care of you!”
The spider-hags were shrieking now, shouting curses and threats, tearing at me through the wire net. One of them tightened her grip in my hair and lifted me off my feet. I gasped, tears of pain flooding my eyes as the faery hissed in my face.
A flash of cold blue light erupted between us. The Iron faery gave a shriek and…disintegrated, becoming thousands of tiny slivers that rained down around me. They glimmered in the darkness, needles and pins catching the moonlight as the spider-hag departed the world in the manner of her kind. The other two wailed and drew back as something tore the net off me and stepped between us.
“Are you all right?” Ash growled as I staggered to my feet, his gaze never leaving the hags in front of him. My scalp burned, my fingers still bled, and a dozen tiny scratches covered my arms from the hag’s claws, but I wasn’t badly hurt.
“I’m fine,” I told him, a slow anger building in my chest. I felt my glamour rise like a tornado, swirling with emotion and energy. When I’d first met Mab, the Winter Queen had sealed my magic away, afraid of my power, but the seal had been broken and I could feel the pulse of glamour once more. It was everywhere around me, savage and wild, the magic of Oberon and the Summer fey.
“You killed our sister!” the hags screeched, tearing at their own hair. “We’ll slice you to pieces!” Hissing, they scuttled toward us with raised claws. I felt a ripple of glamour from Ash, colder than the fiery magic of Summer, and the Winter prince swept his arm forward.
A burst of blue light, and one of the hags skittered into a hail of ice-daggers, the pointed shards ripping through her like shrapnel. She wailed and fell apart, scattering into thousands of glittering pieces in the grass. Ash brandished his sword and charged the last one.
The remaining spider-hag screamed her fury and raised her arms. Ten shimmering lengths of wire seemed to grow from her needle-tip fingers. She sliced them toward Ash, who ducked, and the wires cut a nearby sapling into pieces. As he danced around her, I knelt and buried my hands in the dirt, calling up my glamour. I felt the pulse of living things deep in the earth and sent a request into the ground, asking for aid in defeating the iron monster on the surface. r />
The spider-hag was so busy trying to slice Ash to ribbons, she was taken completely by surprise when the ground erupted at her feet. Grass and weeds, vines and roots wrapped around her spindly legs and crawled up her torso. She shrieked and flailed with her deadly wires, slicing vegetation like an angry weedwhacker, but I poured more glamour into the ground, and the plants responded like they were growing in fast-forward. Panicked, the spider-hag tried to flee, ripping through vegetation as it twined around her legs, dragging her down. A dark form blurred the air above her as Ash dropped from the sky, his blade pointed straight down. It struck the faery’s bulbous torso, pinning her to the earth for a split second, before she shivered into an enormous needle pile and scattered over the ground.
I sighed with relief and stood, but suddenly the ground tilted. The trees began to spin, all feeling left my legs and arms, and the next thing I knew the ground rushed up at me.
I woke lying on my back, feeling breathless and faint as if I’d just run a marathon. Ash was peering down at me, silver eyes bright with concern.
“Meghan, are you all right? What happened?”
The dizziness was fading. I took several deep breaths to make sure my gut stayed where it was supposed to, and sat up to face him.
“I…don’t know. I used my glamour, and just…passed out. ” Dammit, the ground was still spinning. I leaned into Ash, who held me cautiously, as if afraid I would break. “Is that normal?” I muttered against his chest.
“Not that I know of. ” He sounded troubled, worried but trying not to show it.
“Perhaps it’s a side effect from having your magic sealed for so long. ”
Well, that was another thing I’d have to thank Mab for. Ash stood, carefully drawing me up with him. My arms stung, and my fingers were sticky from where I’d sliced myself on the wire net. Ash tore strips from his shirt and wrapped them around my hands, silent and efficient, though his touch was gentle.
“They were waiting for me,” I murmured, gazing at the thousands of needles scattered through the yard, glittering in the moonlight. More problems the fey had brought to my family. Mom and Luke would probably have a fit, and I desperately hoped Ethan wouldn’t accidentally step on one before they had a chance to disappear. “They know where I live,” I continued, watching the slivers wink at me in the grass. “The false king knew I’d be coming home, and he sent them…” My gaze rose to my house, and my family moving about through the windows, unaware of the chaos outside.