The iron daughter, p.21
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       The Iron Daughter, p.21

         Part #2 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 21

 

  “What’s happened to it?” Puck said, and caught her as she fell. She sagged against him, her head lolling back on her shoulders. “Hey,” he said, shaking her a little. “Stay with me now. Where’s your tree? Did someone cut it down?”

  The dryad gasped for air. “P-poisoned,” she whispered, before her eyes rolled up and her body turned to wood in his arms. With the sound of snapping twigs, the dryad curled in on herself until she resembled little more than a bundle of dry branches. I watched the faery’s life fade away, remembered what Ash had said about the fey and death, and felt terribly, terribly sad. That was it for her, then. She’d simply ceased to exist. Puck sighed, bowing his head, and gathered the lifeless dryad into his arms. She was thin and brittle now, fragile as spun glass, but not one twig snapped or broke off as he carried her away. With utmost care, he laid the body at the foot of a giant tree, murmured a few words and stepped back.

  For a moment, nothing happened. Then, huge roots unfurled from the ground, wrapping around the dryad to draw her down into the earth. In seconds, she had disappeared. We stood quietly for a moment, unwilling to break the somber mood. “What did she mean by poisoned?” I finally murmured.

  Puck shook himself, giving me a humorless grin. “Let’s find out. ”

  WE DIDN’T HAVE to search far. Only a few minutes into the wyldwood, the trees curled away, and we stumbled onto a familiar patch of dead ground in the middle of the forest. An entire swath of forest was sickened and dying, trees twisted into strange metal parodies. Metal lampposts grew out of the ground, bent over and flickering erratically. Wires crawled over roots and trunks, choking trees and vegetation like red and black creeper vines. The air smelled of copper and decay.

  “It’s spreading,” Puck muttered, holding his sleeve to his face as the metallic breeze ruffled my hair and clothes. “This wasn’t here a few months ago. ” He turned to me. “I thought you said you killed the Iron King. ”

  “I did. I mean, yes, he’s dead. ” I gazed out over the poisoned forest, shuddering. “But that doesn’t mean the Iron Realm is gone. Tertius told me he served a new Iron King. ”

  Puck’s eyes narrowed. “Another one? You sort of failed to mention that before, Princess. ” Shaking his head, he scanned the wasted area and sighed. “Another Iron King. Dammit, how many of them are we going to have to kill? Are they going to keep popping up like rats?”

  I squirmed at the thought of yet another killing. A sharp wind hissed over the wasteland, scraping the branches of the metal trees, making me shiver. Puck coughed and staggered away.

  “Well, come on, Princess. We can’t do anything about it now. Let’s get you home. ”

  Home. I thought about my family, about my normal life, so tantalizingly close. I thought of the Nevernever, dying and fading away bit by bit. And I made my decision.

  “No. ”

  Puck blinked and looked back. “What?”

  “I can’t go home yet, Puck. ” I gazed around at the poisoned Nevernever, seeing echoes of Machina’s realm looming over everything. “Look at this. People are dying. I can’t close my eyes and pretend it isn’t happening. ”

  “Why not?” I blinked at him, stunned by his cavalier attitude. He just grinned. “You’ve done enough, Princess. I think you deserve to go home after everything you went through. Hell, you already took care of one Iron King. The Nevernever will be fine, trust me. ”

  “What about the scepter?” I persisted. “And the war? Oberon should know Mab is planning to attack him. ”

  Puck shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I was already planning on telling him, Princess, provided he doesn’t turn me into a rat as soon as he sees me. As for the scepter, the Ice prince is already looking for it. Not a lot we can do, there. ” At my protest, he waved a hand airily. “The war is going to start with or without us, Princess. It’s nothing new. Winter and Summer have always been at odds. Not a century goes by that there isn’t some kind of fighting going on. This will pass, like it always does. Somehow, the scepter will be returned, and things will go back to normal. ”

  I frowned, remembering something Mab had said to Oberon at the ceremony.

  “What about my world?” I demanded. “Mab said there would be a catastrophe if Summer held the scepter longer than it was supposed to. What will happen if the Iron King gets it? Things will get really screwed up, right?”

  Puck scratched the back of his neck. “Erm…maybe. ”

  “Maybe, like how?”

  “Ever wanted to go sledding in the Mojave Desert?”

  I stared at him. “We can’t let that happen, Puck! What’s wrong with you? I can’t believe you’d think I’d just ignore this!” He shrugged, still infuriatingly nonchalant, and I went for the cheap shot. “You’re just afraid, aren’t you? You’re scared of the Iron fey and you don’t want to get involved. I didn’t think you’d be such a coward. ”

  “I’m trying to keep you safe!” Puck exploded, whirling on me. His eyes glowed feverishly, and I shrank back. “This isn’t a game, Meghan! The shit is about to hit the fan, and you’re right in the middle of it without knowing enough to duck!”

  Righteous indignation flared; I was sick of being told what to do, that I should be afraid. “I’m not helpless, Puck!” I shot back. “I’m not some squealing cheerleader you have to babysit. I’ve got blood on my hands now, too. I killed the Iron King, and I still have nightmares about it. I killed something! And I’d do it again, if I had to!”

  “I know that,” Puck snapped, throwing up his hands. “I know you’d risk everything to protect us, and that’s what worries me. You still don’t know enough about this world to be properly terrified. Things are going to get screwed eight ways from Sunday, and you’re making goo-goo eyes at the enemy! I heard what happened in Machina’s realm and yes, it scared the hell out of me. I love you, dammit. I’m not going to watch you get torn apart when everything goes bad. ”

  My stomach twisted, both from his confession, and what he’d said about me and Ash. “You…you knew?” I stammered.

  He gave me a scornful look. “I’ve been around a long time, Princess. Give me a little credit. Even a blind man would see the way you looked at him. I’m guessing something happened in Machina’s realm, but once you came out, our boy remembered he wasn’t supposed to fall in love with Summer. ” I blushed, and Puck shook his head. “I didn’t say anything because he’d already made up his mind to leave. You might not know the consequences, Princess, but Ash does. He did the right thing, much as I hate to speak well of him. ”

  My lip trembled. Puck snorted, but saw me teetering on the brink of tears. His expression softened. “Forget about him, Meghan,” he said gently. “Ash is bad news. Even if the law wasn’t an issue, I’ve fought him enough times to know he would break your heart. ”

  The tears finally spilled over. “I can’t,” I whispered, giving in to the despair that had followed me all morning. This wasn’t fair to Puck, after he’d finally confessed that he loved me, but I couldn’t seem to stop. My soul cried out for Ash, for his courage and determination; for the way his eyes thawed when he looked at me, as if I were the only person in the world; for that beautiful, wounded spirit I saw beneath the cold exterior he showed the world. “I can’t forget. I miss him. I know he’s the enemy, and we broke all kinds of rules, but I don’t care. I miss him so much, Puck. ”

  Puck sighed, either in sympathy or aggravation, and pulled me close. I sobbed into his chest, releasing all the pent-up emotions that had been building since I first saw Ash in the throne room. Puck held me and stroked my hair like old times, saying nothing, until the tears finally slowed and I sniffled against his shirt.

  “Better?” he murmured.

  I nodded and broke away, wiping my eyes. The ache was still there, but it was bearable now. I knew it would be a long time before the hurt went away, if ever, but I knew in my heart that I had said my last goodbyes to Ash. Now, maybe I could let him go
. Puck moved behind me and put his hands on my shoulders, leaning close. “I know it’s too soon right now,” he muttered into my hair, “but, just so you know, I’ll wait. When you’re ready, I’ll be right here. Don’t forget, Princess. ”

  I could only nod. Puck squeezed my shoulders and stepped back, waiting quietly while I composed myself. When I turned around again, he was back to being normal Puck, perpetual grin plastered to his face, leaning against a tree.

  “Well,” he sighed, “I don’t suppose I’ll be changing that stubborn mind of yours, will I?”

  “No, you won’t. ”

  “I was afraid of that. ” He leaped onto an old stump, crossing his arms and cocking his head. “Well then, my scheming princess, what’s the plan?”

  I wanted to smile at him, but something was wrong. My legs felt all tingly, and a strange pull tugged at my stomach. I felt restless, like ants crawled beneath my skin, and I couldn’t hold still if my life depended on it. Without meaning to, I began edging away from Puck, toward the forest.

  “Princess?” Puck hopped down, frowning. “You all right? Got ants in your pants or something?”

  I had just opened my mouth to reply when some invisible force nearly yanked me off my feet, and I shrieked instead. Puck reached for me, but I leaped away without meaning to. “What is this?” I cried, as the strange force yanked on me again, urging me into the trees. “I can’t…stop. What’s going on?”

  Puck grabbed my arm, holding me back, and my stomach felt like it was being pulled in two. I screamed, and Puck let go, his face white with shock.

  “It’s a Summoning,” he said, hurrying after me as I walked away. “Something is calling you. Did you make a bargain or give anything personal away recently? Hair? Blood?