The Iron Queen, Page 23Julie Kagawa
The Erlking was silent a moment, his green eyes blank and mirrorlike, reflecting nothing. Then, he smiled, very faintly, and nodded once. “As you wish, daughter,” he mused, ignoring Titania as she whirled on him. “I will promise that no harm will befall your mortal family from anyone in my court. The Winter Court and the denizens of Tir Na Nog are not mine to order, but that is the best I can offer. ”
Titania made a strangled noise of rage and stalked out of the clearing, leaving me victor of the field. I breathed deep to calm my pounding heart and turned to Oberon again.
“What about Ash and Puck?”
“Goodfellow is free to return to Faery as he pleases,” Oberon said with a brief glance at Puck. “Though I am certain he will do something else that will raise my ire in the next century or two. ” Puck gave Oberon an innocent look. The Erlking did not seem appeased. “However,” he continued, turning back to me, “I am not the one who issued Prince Ash’s exile. You will have to take that up with the Winter Queen. ”
“Where is she?”
“Meghan. ” Ash moved closer, putting a hand on my arm. “You don’t have to confront Mab on my account. ”
Ignoring Oberon, I turned, meeting his gaze. “You don’t care about going home?”
He paused, and I saw it in his eyes. He did care. Cut off from the Nevernever, he would eventually fade away into nothingness; we both knew that. But all he said was, “My only duty is to you now. ”
“Mab is in the Winter camp,” Oberon said, after a long, piercing stare at Ash. Turning to me, he fixed me with a solemn gaze. “There is a war council tonight, daughter, between all the generals of Summer and Winter. It would do well for you to attend. ”
I nodded, and the Erlking waved dismissal. “I will have someone show you your quarters soon,” he murmured. “Now, go. ”
We’d started to retreat when Oberon’s voice stopped us halfway to the door.
“Robin Goodfellow,” he said, making Puck wince, “you will remain here. ”
“Damn,” Puck muttered. “That was quick. One minute back in the Nevernever and he’s already pulling my strings. You guys go ahead,” he said, waving us off. “I’ll meet you as soon as I can. ” Rolling his eyes, Puck sauntered back toward Oberon, and we left the clearing.
“That was impressive,” Ash said quietly as we walked through the maze of tents. Summer fey parted for us, scurrying out of sight as we headed deeper into camp. “Oberon was throwing all the mind-altering glamour he could at you, trying to get you to agree to his terms quickly and not question him. Not only did you resist, you turned the contract to your advantage. Not many could have done that. ”
“Really?” I thought back to the thick, sluggish feeling in the Erlking’s tent.
“So that was Oberon trying to manipulate me again, huh? Maybe I could resist since I’m family. Half Oberon’s blood and all that. ”
“Or you’re just incredibly stubborn,” Ash added, and I smacked his arm. He chuckled, taking my hand, and we continued on to Winter’s territory. The Unseelie camp sat closer to the edge of the Iron Realm, and the tension here was definitely high. Winter knights stalked the camp’s borders, grim and dangerous in their black ice armor. Ogres glowered at me from their guard posts, drool dripping from their tusks, their eyes blank and menacing. A wyvern screeched from where it was tied to several stakes, flapping its wings and trying to yank free, snapping angrily at its handlers. I shivered, and Ash’s hand tightened on mine. We encountered no resistance, even among the many goblins, redcaps, and boggarts wandering the rows. The Unseelie gave us a wide berth, staring at Ash with a mixture of fascination, fear, and contempt—the wayward prince who’d turned his back on them all to be with the half-breed human. They never went further than to glare at me stonily, or shoot me a suggestive grin, but I was extremely glad for both the Winter prince and the steel blade at my side. Just beyond the camp, the entrance to the Iron Realm loomed, metallic trees and twisted steel branches glinting in the dim light. I paused to stare at it, feeling ice form in my stomach as I remembered what it was like; the burning wasteland of junk, the corrosive, flesh-eating rain sweeping over the land, Machina’s black tower stabbing into the sky.
“Well, look who’s back. ”
I turned to see a trio of Winter knights blocking our path, armored and dangerous looking, blue icicle shards stabbing up from their shoulders and helms.
“Faolan. ” Ash nodded, moving subtly in front of me.
“You’ve got some nerve to come back here, Ash,” the middle knight said. His eyes glittered beneath his helm, glassy-blue and filled with loathing. “Mab was right to exile you. You and the half-breed Summer whore should have stayed in the mortal realm where you belong. ”
Ash drew his sword, sending a raspy screech across the field. The knights tensed and quickly backed up, hands dropping to their own blades. “Insult her again, and I will cut you into so many pieces they’ll never find them all,” Ash stated calmly. Faolan bristled and started forward, but Ash leveled the tip at him.
“We don’t have time to play with you now, so I’m going to ask you to move. ”
“You’re not a prince any longer, Ash,” Faolan growled, drawing his own blade. “You’re just an exile, lower than goblin dung. ” He spat at our feet, the spittle crystallizing in the grass, turning to ice. “I think its time we taught you your place, your highness. ”
More knights appeared, drawing their swords and hemming us in. I counted five in all, and my heart hammered. As the circle started to close, I drew my sword and stood back-to-back with Ash, raising the blade so the light gleamed off its metal edge. “Stop right there,” I told the knights, feigning a bravado I didn’t feel. “This is iron, as I’m sure you can tell. ” I sliced at the air with a satisfying whuff, and pointed at my assailant. “You want to go through with this, go right ahead. I’ve been dying to see what this can do to fey armor. ”
“Meghan, get back,” Ash muttered, his gaze never leaving his opponents.
“You don’t have to do this. They’re not here for you. ”
“I’m not going to let you fight them by yourself,” I hissed back. A crowd was gathering, peering at us from the rows of tents, curious and eager to see a fight. A few goblins and redcaps shouted “Fight!” and “Kill ’em!”
from the sidelines.
Bolstered by the mob and the cries for blood, Faolan grinned and raised his sword. “Don’t worry, Ash,” he smiled. “We won’t rough your human up too badly. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for you. Attack!”
The knights charged. Balanced on the balls of my feet, as Ash had taught me, I focused on the two coming in from behind and let instinct take over. The knights were sneering as they approached, their stances loose and sloppy. Obviously, they didn’t think I was much of a threat. One sword swept up in a lazy arc toward my head, and I raised my own blade to parry, knocking it aside. I saw the knight’s look of shock that I had blocked his attack, and saw an opening. Reacting solely on instinct, my arm shot out, faster than I thought it could, and the tip of my sword pierced his armored thigh.
The knight’s scream snapped me out of my fighter’s trance, and the stench of burned flesh tainted the air, making my stomach churn. I had fully expected him to leap aside or parry, as Ash always did. Instead, I watched my opponent stagger away, clutching his leg and howling, and my rhythm stuttered to a halt. Giving me a furious glare, the other knight raised a huge blue greatsword and lunged with a snarl. I backed away frantically, barely avoiding him. He was pissed now, coming at me fast, and fear churned my insides.
Ash’s voice snapped me out of my terrified daze, and I instinctively jerked to attention, raising my sword. “Remember what I taught you,” he growled somewhere to my left, clipped and breathless from fighting his own assailants.
“This is no different. ”
The knight attacked savagely, teeth
bared in a fearsome snarl, his greatsword sweeping through the air in a lethal arch. His weapon, I thought, dodging away. It’s heavier than mine, slowing him down. Always use your enemy’s weakness to your advantage. I danced around him, keeping just out of reach, watching him pant and grit his teeth as he followed, swatting at me like a pesky fly. With a frustrated bellow, the knight slammed the edge of his sword into the earth, and a spray of grit and icy shards flew at my face. I turned quickly to shield my eyes, feeling the ice sting my cheek and exposed skin, and heard the knight lunge for me. On instinct, I ducked, nearly going to my knees, feeling the blade whoosh overhead. Coming up blind, I let my sword arm lead me forward and stabbed with all my might.
A jarring impact rocked my shoulder back, and the knight screamed. Glancing up, I found myself standing in front of the knight, the iron blade jammed into his stomach.
The knight choked and dropped his sword, clutching his middle as he staggered back, the sudden stench of burned flesh rising on the breeze. Face tight with fury and pain, the knight turned and vanished into the crowd, and I breathed a ragged sigh.
Shaking with adrenaline, I looked around for Ash and saw him leveling his sword at the throat of a kneeling Faolan. The other knights sprawled nearby, groaning.
“Are we done here?” Ash said softly, and Faolan, eyes blazing with hate, nodded. Ash let him up, and the knights limped off, to the jeers and taunts of the Winter fey.
Sheathing his sword, Ash turned to me. I was still shaking with adrenaline, replaying every moment of the fight in my head. It didn’t seem quite real, like it happened to someone else, but the thrill coursing through my veins said different.
“Did you see that?” I grinned at Ash, my voice trembling with excitement and nerves. “I did it. I actually won!”
“Indeed,” mused a familiar, terrifying voice, one that turned my blood to ice and made the hairs on my neck stand up. “It was quite amusing. I do believe I’m going to need some new guards, if they can’t even defeat one scrawny halfblood. ”