The iron queen, p.27
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       The Iron Queen, p.27

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 27

 

  “That’s better. ” The knight sat back, settling his weight more fully, and gazed down at me. “Wouldn’t want dear Ash to come running just yet, would we?”

  I jerked in recognition. I knew that smug, arrogant voice. The knight saw my reaction and chuckled.

  Reaching to his helm, he flipped up the visor, confirming my suspicions. My heart pounded, and I shivered violently, struggling to control my fear.

  “Miss me, princess?” Rowan smiled, his diamond-blue eyes gleaming in the darkness, and I would’ve gasped in revulsion if I could. Ash’s older brother looked different now; his once-handsome, pointed face resembled a crater of raw flesh and ugly burns. Open, gaping wounds seeped fluid down his cheeks, and his nose had fallen off, leaving ugly holes behind. He reminded me of a grinning skull, glassy eyes sunk deep into his head, bright with pain and madness.

  “Do I disgust you?” he whispered, as I fought the urge to gag. “This is merely a trial, princess, my rite of passage. The iron burns away the weak, useless flesh, until I am reborn as one of them. I must merely endure the pain until I am complete. When the Iron King takes over the Nevernever, I will be the only one of the oldbloods to withstand the change. ”

  I shook my head, wanting to tell him he was wrong, that there was no rite of passage, that the false king was merely using him like all the others. But of course, I couldn’t speak through the ice, and Rowan suddenly pulled a dagger, the onyx blade thin and serrated like the edges of a shark’s tooth.

  “The Iron King wants to do the honors himself,” he whispered, “but all you have to be is slightly alive when you get there. I think I’ll cut off a few fingers and leave them behind for Ash to find before we go. What do you say, your highness?”

  He shifted his weight to free one of my arms, grabbed my wrist, and pinned it to the ground despite my wild thrashing. “Oh, keep squirming, princess,” he cooed. “It makes this so erotic. ” Picking up the knife, he positioned it above my hand, choosing a finger.

  I took a deep breath to calm my panic and tried to think. My sword was close, but I couldn’t move my arm. Using glamour would either exhaust or sicken me, but I had no choice this time. As Rowan prodded my exposed fingers with the tip of the knife, drawing tiny blood drops and extending the torment, I focused on the hilt.

  Wood is wood. Puck’s voice echoed in my mind. Be it a dead tree, the side of a ship, a wooden crossbow or a simple broom handle, Summer magic can make it come alive again, if only for a moment. Concentrate.

  A surge of glamour, and gleaming thorns erupted from the hilt, stabbing through the gauntlet and into Rowan’s flesh. The room swirled as dizziness came almost immediately, and I broke the connection as Rowan howled, jerking back and releasing my arm. Exactly as I hoped. With an internal yell, I surged up, ignoring the clinging nausea, and thrust my freed hand under his visor, clawing at his hideous, burned face.

  This time, Rowan’s scream shook the cloth walls. Dropping the knife, he went to cover his face and I shoved him off with all my might. Scrambling upright, I whirled and drew my sword with one hand, clawing at my frozen face with the other. Ice broke off in chunks, feeling like they took flaps of skin with them. I blinked away tears as Rowan got to his feet, his expression murderous.

  “You really think you’re going to beat me?” Drawing his sword, which was ice-blue and serrated like the knife, Rowan stepped forward. Blood ran down the side of his face, and one eye was squeezed shut. “Why didn’t you run, princess?”

  he mused. “Run to Ash and your father—I can’t chase you through the whole camp. You should have run. ”

  I ripped the last of the ice from my lips and spat on the ground between us, tasting blood. “I’m through with running,” I said, watching his one good eye narrow. “And I’m not about to let you stab me in the back, either. I want you to take a message to the false king. ”

  Rowan smiled, teeth shining like fangs in his ravaged face, and eased closer. I held my ground, sinking into a defensive stance like Ash taught me. I was still afraid, because I’d seen Rowan fight Ash before, and I knew he was far better than me. But anger overshadowed fear now, and I pointed at Rowan with my sword. “You tell the false king he doesn’t have to send anyone to get me,” I said in the firmest voice I could manage. “I’m coming for him. I’m coming for him, and when I find him, I’m going to kill him. ”

  With a shock, I realized that I really meant it. It was either him or my family now, both mortal and faery. For everyone else to live, the false king had to die. As Grim once prophesized, I had become an assassin of the courts. Rowan sneered, unimpressed. “I’ll be sure to tell him, princess,” he mocked.

  “But don’t think you’re getting away from me unscathed. ” He took another step forward, and I eased backward, toward the tent flaps. “I think I’ll take an ear for a trophy, just to show the king that I didn’t fail him. ”

  He lunged, a blindingly quick move that took me by surprise. I jerked back, sweeping my blade up to parry, managing to deflect his sword, but I wasn’t quite fast enough. The tip grazed my skin, slicing a line of fire across my cheek. I stumbled back, tripped over something in the doorway, and fell backward out of the tent.

  Deylin’s lifeless, frozen body stared up at me, his eyes wide with shock. As I watched, the faery’s body rippled, then dissolved like an ice cube in the microwave, until nothing was left but a puddle of water in the dirt. Cursing, I scrambled to my feet, backing away from the opening. My cheek burned, and I could feel something warm trickling down my face. “Ash!” I yelled, gazing around wildly. “Puck! It’s Rowan! Rowan is here!”

  The camp was dark, silent. Faeries lay passed out on the ground, snoring where they’d fallen, mugs and bottles scattered everywhere. Smoke curled lazily into the air from charred timbers, embers flickering weakly in the darkness. Rowan exited the tent, pushing aside the flaps and brazenly stepping into the open, sneering all the while. Still smiling, he put two fingers to his mouth and blew out a piercing whistle that carried over the trees. “Running away now, princess?” he asked, as faeries began to groan and stir, blinking and confused.

  “How do you expect to kill the Iron King when you can’t even get past his knight?”

  “I’ll find a way,” I told him, keeping my sword pointed at his chest. “I did before. ”

  Rowan chuckled. “We’ll look forward to it then, princess. Say hello to Ash for me. ”

  “Rowan!”

  Ash’s shout of fury echoed through the camp. The dark prince appeared beside me from nowhere, anger swirling around him in a black-and-red cloud. The look in his eyes when he faced his brother was terrifying—that blank, glassy killing stare that promised no mercy.

  Rowan laughed and threw up an arm.

  An answering bellow rang overhead, and two tons of scaly brown wyvern crashed into our midst, roaring and lashing out with its tail. I saw the gleaming, poisoned barb coming toward me and slashed wildly with my blade, cutting through the tip. The barb and the end of its tail fell, writhing, in the dirt, though the force of the blow knocked me off my feet. In the same second, Ash’s sword lashed out, slicing across one bulbous yellow eye.

  The wyvern screeched and drew back, and in one swift motion, Rowan leaped atop the scaly neck as it lunged skyward, beating the air with tattered, leathery wings. Rising above our heads, the huge lizard streaked toward the edge of the trees and vanished through the gap that led to the Iron Realm, Rowan’s mocking laughter echoing in its wake.

  Panting, Ash sheathed his sword and helped me to my feet. “Meghan, are you all right?” he asked, his gaze flicking over my face, resting on my cut cheek. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner. Mab wanted a full report from the time we were exiled. What happened?”

  I winced. Talking hurt now; my lips were raw and bloody, and the left side of my face felt like someone had pressed it to a lit stove. “He showed up in my tent bragging that he was going to become an Iron faer
y, and that the false king was waiting for me. He was going to cut off my fingers and leave them for you to find,” I continued, looking at Ash, seeing his eyes narrow, “but that was before I clawed his eyes out. Ow. ” I gingerly probed my cheek, grimacing as my fingers came away stained with blood. “Bastard. ”

  “I will kill him,” Ash muttered in that soft, scary voice. It sounded like a promise, though he didn’t say the words. The murderous look in his eyes spoke loud enough.

  “Princess!” Puck appeared then, still shirtless, his hair looking like a vulture had nested in it. “What happened? Was that Rowan that just beat the hell out of here? What’s going on?”

  I scowled at him, barely stopping myself from asking what he’d been doing all night. Flowers were still woven into his hair, and I couldn’t tell if those were scratches on his bare skin or not. “That was Rowan,” I told him instead. “I don’t know how he snuck through the camp, but he did. And you can be sure he’s off to tell the false king I’m here. ”

  Ash narrowed his eyes. “Then we should be ready for them. ”

  The sharp blast of a horn echoed over the trees then, loud and sudden. It was followed by another, and another, as faeries jerked awake or emerged from their tents, blinking in alarm. Ash raised his head and followed the sound, the ghost of a vicious smile crossing his face.

  “They’re coming. ”

  The camp erupted into organized chaos. Fey leaped to their feet, snatching weapons and armor. Captains and lieutenants appeared, barking orders, directing their squads to form ranks. Gryphon and wyvern handlers ran to get their beasts ready for combat, and knights began saddling their fey steeds, while the horses tossed their heads and pranced with anticipation. For a moment, I had the surreal feeling of being in the center of a medieval fantasy film, Lord of the Rings style, with all the knights and horses rushing back and forth. Then the full realization hit, making me slightly nauseous. This wasn’t a movie. This was a real battle, with real creatures that would do their best to kill me.