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The Iron Queen, Page 24

Julie Kagawa

Page 24


  It’s amazing how quickly a bloodthirsty mob can clear out, but the Queen of the Winter Fey had that effect on people. In seconds, the crowd had fled, fading back into the camp until it was just me and Ash in the middle of the path. The temperature dropped sharply, and frost spread over the blades of grass at our feet, which could mean only one thing. A few yards away, flanked by two unsmiling knights, Queen Mab watched us with the stillness of a glacier. As usual, the Winter Queen was stunning in a long battlegown of black and red, her ebony hair a dark cloud behind her. I shivered and pressed closer to Ash as she raised one pure-white hand and beckoned us forward. The Unseelie monarch was as unpredictably dangerous as she was beautiful, prone to trapping living creatures in ice or freezing the blood in their veins, making them die slowly and in agony. I’d already felt the brunt of her legendary temper, and I had no desire to do so again.

  “Ash,” Mab crooned, paying no attention to me. “I heard the rumors that you were back. Have you had enough of the mortal world yet? Are you ready to come home?”

  Ash’s face was shut into that blank, empty mask, his eyes cold and expressionless. A self-defense mechanism, I recognized, to shield himself from the cruelty of the Winter Court. The Unseelie preyed on the weak, and emotions were considered a weakness here. “No, my Queen,” he said, quiet but unafraid.

  “I’m no longer yours to command. My service to the Winter Court ended last night. ”

  Silence for a few heartbeats.

  “You. ” Mab’s depthless black eyes shifted to me, then back to Ash. “You became her knight, didn’t you? You swore the oath. ” She shook her head in disbelief and horror. “Foolish, foolish boy,” she whispered. “You are truly dead to me now. ”

  Fearing she might turn and walk away, I eased forward. “You’ll still lift his exile, though, won’t you?” I asked, and Mab’s gaze snapped to me. “When this is over, when we take care of the false king, Ash is still free to return to the Nevernever, right?”

  “He won’t,” Mab said in a lethally calm voice, and goose bumps rose on my arms from the sudden chill. “Even if I raise his exile, he’ll stay in the mortal realm with you, because you were foolish enough to ask for that oath. You’ve damned him far worse than I ever could. ”

  My stomach twisted, but I took a deep breath and continued to speak firmly.

  “I still want your word, Queen Mab. Please. When this is done, Ash is free to return to Tir Na Nog if he chooses to. ”

  Mab stared at me, long enough for sweat to trickle down my back, then gave us both a cold, humorless smile. “Why not? You are both going to die anyway, so I don’t see how it will matter. ” She sighed. “Very well, Meghan Chase. Ash is free to return home if he wants, though he said it himself—his service to the Unseelie Court is done. His oath to you will destroy him faster than anything else. ”

  And without waiting for a reply, the Unseelie Queen whirled and stalked away from us. Though I couldn’t see her face as she left, I was almost sure she was crying.



  A swollen crimson moon hovered over the camp that night, rust-red and ominous, bathing everything in an eerie, bloody tint. Snow flecks drifted from a nearly clear sky, rusty flakes dancing on the wind, like the moon itself was tainted and corroding away.

  I left my tent, which was small and musty and lacked an illusionary forest clearing, to find Ash and Puck waiting for me on the other side of the flaps. The eerie red light outlined their sharp, angular features, making them seem more inhuman than before, their eyes glowing in the shadows. Behind them, the camp was quiet; nothing moved beneath the harsh red moon, and the city of tents resembled a ghost town.

  “They’ve called for you,” Ash said solemnly.

  I nodded. “Then let’s not keep them waiting. ”

  Oberon’s tent loomed above the others, twin banners flapping limply in the breeze. A fine dusting of snow lay on the ground, marred by boots and clawed feet and hooves, all heading toward the center of the camp. Flickering yellow light spilled from the cracks in the tent flaps, and I pushed my way inside. The forest clearing was still there, but this time a massive stone table sat in the middle, surrounded by faeries in armor. Oberon and Mab stood at the head, imposing and grim, flanked by several sidhe gentry. A huge troll, ram horns curling through his bony helmet, stood quietly with his arms folded, watching the proceedings, while a centaur argued with a goblin chief, both of them stabbing fingers at the map on the table. An enormous oakman, gnarled and twisted, crouched low to hear the voices at his feet, his weathered face impassive.

  “I’m warning you,” the centaur said, the muscles in his flank quivering with rage, “if your scouts are going to set traps at the edge of the wasteland, let me know so my scouts don’t walk right into them! I’ve had two break their legs stepping into a pit, and another nearly die from one of your poison darts. ”

  The goblin chief snickered. “Ain’t my fault yer scouts don’t watch where they tromp,” he sneered, baring a mouthful of crooked fangs. “Besides, what’re yer scouts doin’ so close to our camp, hmm? Stealin’ secrets, I’d wager. Jealous that we’ve always been the better trackers, I bet. ”

  “Enough. ” Oberon broke in before the centaur could leap across the table and strangle the goblin. “We are not here to fight each other. I wished only to know what your scouts have reported, not the silent war between them. ”

  The centaur sighed and gave the goblin a murderous look. “It is as the goblins say, my lord,” he said, turning to Oberon. “The skirmishes we have fought with the Iron abominations seem to be advance units. They are testing us, probing our weaknesses, knowing we cannot follow them into the Iron Realm. We have yet to see the full army. Or the Iron King. ”

  “Sire,” said one of the sidhe generals, bowing to Oberon, “what if this is a ruse? What if the Iron King intends to attack elsewhere? We might be better served defending Arcadia and the Summer Court than waiting at the edge of the wyldwood. ”

  “No. ” It was Mab who spoke then, cold and unyielding. “If you leave to return to your home court, we will be lost. If the Iron King taints the wyldwood, Summer and Winter will soon follow. We cannot retreat to our homes. We must hold the line here. ”

  “Agreed,” said Oberon in a voice that was final. “Summer will not retreat from this. The only way to protect Arcadia, and all of the Nevernever, is to stop the advance here. Kruxas,” he said, looking at the troll. “Where are your forces?

  Are they on their way?”

  “Yes, your majesty,” growled the troll, nodding his huge head. “They will be here in three days, barring any complications. ”

  “And what of the Ancient Ones?” Mab looked at the general who had spoken. “This is their world, even if they slumber through it. Have the dragons heeded our call to arms?”

  “We do not know the state of the few remaining Ancients, your majesty. ”

  The general bowed his head. “Thus far, we have only been able to find one, and we are unsure if she will help us. As for the rest, they either sleep still or have retreated deep into the earth to wait this out. ”

  Oberon nodded. “Then we will do without them. ”

  “Forgive me, your majesty. ” It was the centaur who spoke again, giving Oberon a pleading look. “But how do we stop the Iron King if he refuses to engage us? He still hides within his poisoned land, while we waste lives and resources waiting for him. We cannot sit here forever, while the Iron abominations pick us off one by one. ”

  “No,” said Oberon, and looked directly at me. “We cannot. ”

  All eyes turned to me. I swallowed and resisted the urge to shrink back as Puck let out a puff of breath and gave me a wry glance. “Well, that’s our cue. ”

  “Meghan Chase has agreed to go into the wasteland and find the Iron King,”

  Oberon said as I edged up to the table, followed by Ash and Puck. Curious, disbeli
eving, and disdainful stares followed me. “Her half-human blood will protect her from the poison of the realm, and without an army she has the chance to slip through unnoticed. ” Oberon’s eyes narrowed, and he stabbed a finger into the map. “While she is there, we must hold this position at all costs. We must give her the time she needs to discover the location of the Iron King and kill him. ”

  My gut clenched, and my throat felt dry. I really didn’t want to have to kill again. I still had nightmares about sticking an arrow through the chest of the last Iron King. But I’d given my word, and everyone was counting on me. If I wanted to see my family again, we had to end this now.

  “Your majesty. ” It was a Winter sidhe who spoke this time, a tall warrior in icy armor, his white hair braided down his back. “Forgive me, sire. But are we really entrusting the safety of the realm, the entire Nevernever to this…halfbreed? This exile who flouts the laws of both courts?” He shot me a hostile glare, his eyes glittering blue. “She is not one of us. She will never be one of us. Why should she care what happens to the Nevernever? Why should we even trust her?”

  “She is my daughter. ” Oberon’s voice was calm, but had the tremor of an approaching earthquake. “And you do not need to trust her. You need only to obey. ”

  “But he raises a good point, Erlking,” Mab said, smiling at me in a way that made my skin crawl. “What are your plans, half-breed? How do you expect to find the Iron King, and if you do, how do you expect to stop him?”

  “I don’t know,” I admitted softly, and disgusted growls went around the table. “I don’t know where he is. But I will find him, I promise you that. I took down one Iron King—you’ll just have to trust I can do it again. ”

  “You are asking a great deal of us, half-breed,” said another faery, a Summer knight this time, regarding me with a dubious, acid-green gaze. “I cannot say I like this plan of yours, such as it is. ”