The Iron Queen, Page 26Julie Kagawa
“Um. ” The goblin gave a last twitch and calmed down. “Few hundred?” it croaked. “Many lights, many creatures. Snigg didn’t get a good look, so sorry. ”
“And are they approaching, or stationary?” Mab continued in what would have been a calm, reasonable voice, if the glassy look in her eyes hadn’t betrayed her scariness. “Do we have time to prepare, or are they right at our door?”
“Few miles out, your majesty. Snigg ran all the way back when he saw them, but they had camped, camped for the night. Snigg’s guess is they’ll attack at dawn. ”
“So we have a little time, at least. ” Mab tossed away the goblin like she was throwing out an empty soda can. “Go inform our forces that battle is nigh. Tell the generals to attend me, to discuss our strategy for the morning. Go!”
The goblin fled, a leafy bush scrambling out of the tent. Mab whirled on Oberon. “It is terribly convenient,” she hissed, scowling, “for your daughter to appear and we are immediately attacked. It is almost as if they are coming for her. ”
Sheer black fright washed through me. One or two opponents I could handle, but not an entire army. “What can I do?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor from my voice. “Do you want me to leave now?”
Oberon shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said firmly. “The enemy is at our doorstep, and you could walk straight into their jaws. ”
“I could sneak around—”
“No, Meghan Chase. I will not risk your discovery. Too much is at stake for you to be captured and killed. We will fight them tomorrow and when they are defeated, you will have a clear path into the Iron Realm. ”
“I will not argue with you, daughter. ” Oberon turned and fixed me with unyielding green eyes, his voice going deep and terrible. “You will remain here, where we can protect you, until the battle is won. I am still king, and that is my final word on the matter. ”
He glared at me, and I didn’t protest. Despite our family ties, he was still Lord of the Summer Fey; it would be dangerous to push him any further. Mab sniffed, shaking her head disapprovingly. “Very well, Erlking,” she said, drawing herself up. “I must ready my troops for the battle. Excuse me. ”
With a last chilly smile at me, the Queen of the Winter Fey left the clearing. I watched her swoop out of the tent, and turned back to Oberon. “So, what now?”
“Now,” Oberon replied, “we make ready for war. ”
THE TRAITOR KNIGHT
The camp celebrated that night. Once word of the impending attack got out, excitement and anticipation spread like wildfire, until it could no longer be contained to a few stuffy tents. Faeries swarmed the streets like revelers after a hockey game, drudging up food and alcohol and other, more questionable things. Drums and pipes, primal and dark, echoed over the wind, pounding out a savage rhythm. On each side of the camp, massive bonfires were lit, roaring up like phoenixes in the night, as the armies of Summer and Winter danced and drank and sang the night away.
I hung back from the main fires, avoiding the dancing and the drinking and the other acts going on in the shadows. From where I stood, a mug of black tea warming my hands, I could see both Summer and Winter fires and the dark silhouettes dancing around them. On the Unseelie side, goblins and redcaps chanted dark, vulgar battle songs, usually about blood and meat and body parts, while dryads and tree nymphs swayed a mesmerizing dance around the Seelie camp, moving like branches in the wind. A sylph fluttered by, chased by a satyr, and an ogre hefted a whole ale keg above his open mouth, bathing his face in dark liquor.
“You wouldn’t think there’s a fight tomorrow,” I muttered to Ash, who was leaning against a tree, a green bottle held lightly between two fingers. Every so often, he’d raise the glass and take a single swallow from the neck, but I knew better than to ask him to share. Faery wine is potent stuff, and I had no desire to spend the rest of the night as a hedgehog, or holding a conversation with giant pink rabbits. “Isn’t it traditional to celebrate after you win?”
“And what if there is no tomorrow?” Ash turned his gaze toward the Unseelie bonfire, where the goblins were singing, something about fingers and meat cleavers. “Many of them won’t live to see another dawn. And once we die, there is nothing left. No existence beyond this one. ” Though his voice was matter-offact, a shadow hovered in his eyes. He took a swig of wine and glanced at me, one corner of his lip turned up. “I think you mortals have a phrase—eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die?”
“Oh, that’s not morbid at all, Ash. ”
Before he could reply, something stumbled into our little space, tripped, and went sprawling at my feet. It was Puck, his shirt off, his red hair in disarray. He grinned up at me, a crown of daisies woven through his hair, a bottle clutched in one hand. A group of nymphs crowded around him a second later, giggling. I drew back as they swarmed all over him.
“Oh, hey, princess!” Puck waved inanely as the nymphs pulled him to his feet, still giggling. His hair gleamed, his eyes gleamed, and I barely recognized him. “Wanna play ride the phouka with us?”
“Um. No thanks, Puck. ”
“Suit yourself. But you only live once, princess. ” And Puck let himself be pulled away by the nymphs, vanishing into the crowd by the fire. Ash shook his head and took a swig from his bottle. I stared after them, not knowing what to feel.
“That’s a side of him I haven’t seen before,” I muttered at last, hunching my shoulders against the wind. Ash chuckled.
“Then you don’t know Goodfellow as well as you think. ” The dark faery pushed himself off the tree and came to stand beside me, lightly touching my shoulder. “Try to get some rest. The revel will only get wilder as the night goes on, and you might not want to see what happens when faeries get extremely drunk. Besides, you’ll want at least a few hours of sleep before the battle tomorrow. ”
I shivered as I rose, my stomach clenching as I thought of the impending war.
“Will I have to fight, too?” I asked as we fell into step back toward my tent. Ash sighed.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” he said, almost to himself. “And I don’t think Oberon will want you in the midst of it, either. You’re too important to risk being killed. ”
I was relieved, but at the same time, guilt gnawed at me. I was tired of people dying while I stood by, helpless. Maybe it was time I started fighting my own battles.
We reached my tent and I hesitated, my heart suddenly fluttering like crazy. I could feel his presence at my back, quiet and strong, making my skin tingle. The darkness beyond the flaps beckoned invitingly, and words danced on the tip of my tongue, held back by nervousness and fear.
Just spit it out, Meghan. Ask him to stay with you tonight. What’s the worst that could happen? He says no? I cringed inwardly with embarrassment. Okay, that would suck. But would he really refuse? You know he loves you. What are you waiting for?
I took a breath. “Ash…um…”
“Prince Ash!” A Winter knight marched through the line of tents and bowed when he reached us. I wanted to kick him, but Ash looked amused.
“So, I’m a prince again, am I?” he mused softly. “Very well. What do you want, Deylin?”
“Queen Mab has requested your presence, your highness,” the knight continued, ignoring me completely. “She wishes you to meet her in her tent on the Winter side of the camp. I will remain here and guard the Summer princess until—”
“I no longer answer to Queen Mab,” Ash said, and the knight gaped at him.
“If my lady wishes me to go, I will honor her request. If she does not, then I would ask you to send the queen my apologies. ”
The Winter knight continued to look dumbstruck, but Ash turned to me, serious and formal, though I could sense a secret triumph deep within. “If you want me to stay, you only have to say the word,” he stated quietly. “Or I can go see what Mab
wants. Your will is my command. ”
I was tempted, so very tempted, to ask him to stay. I wanted to pull him into my tent and make us both forget about the war and the courts and the looming battle, just for a night. But Mab would be even more furious, and I really didn’t want to piss off the Winter Queen any more than I already had.
“No,” I sighed. “Go see what Mab wants. I’ll be all right. ”
“Are you sure?”
I nodded, and he drew back. “I’ll be close,” he said. “And Deylin will be right outside. You can trust him, but if you need me, just call. ”
“I will,” I replied, and watched him walk away until he disappeared into the shadows, my skin buzzing with thwarted desire. Deylin gave me a jerky bow and turned away, positioning himself in front of my tent. Sighing, I ducked inside and flopped down on my bed, covering my heated face with a pillow. My head swirled with forbidden thoughts and feelings, making it impossible to relax. For a long time, I could think only of a certain dark knight, and when I finally dropped off to sleep, he continued to invade my dreams.
SOMETHING CLAMPED DOWN over my mouth in the darkness, muffling my startled yelp. I jerked, but found myself pinned on my back, my arms crushed under the body straddling my waist. An armored knight loomed over me, a full helm and visor concealing his face.
“Shhhhhh. ” The knight pressed a finger to his lips through the helm. I could feel him smiling behind the visor. “Relax, your highness. This will be much easier if you don’t fight. ”
I bucked desperately, but the gauntlet over my mouth slammed me back, squeezing until tears formed in my eyes. The knight sighed. “I see you want to do this the hard way. ”
The gauntlet grew icy cold on my skin, burning like fire. I thrashed and kicked, but couldn’t dislodge the weight on my chest or the hand over my face. Ice formed on my skin, spreading over my cheeks and jaw, freezing my lips shut. The knight chuckled and removed his hand, leaving me panting through my nose against the ice gag. My face felt like it had been splashed with acid, vicious cold eating into my bones.