The Iron Queen, Page 28Julie Kagawa
A pair of female satyrs trotted toward me, ducking and weaving through the crowd, their furry goat legs skipping over the mud. “Your father sent us to make sure you were suitably attired for the battle,” one of them told me as they drew close. “He had something designed especially for you. If you would follow us, please. ”
I winced. The last time Oberon had had something designed especially for me, it was a horribly fancy dress that I’d refused to wear. But Ash released my arm and gave me a gentle nudge toward the waiting satyrs.
“Go with them,” he told me. “I have to find something for myself, as well. ”
“I’ll be back soon. Take care of her, Goodfellow. ” And he jogged away, vanishing into the crowds.
The satyrs beckoned impatiently, and we followed them to a strange white tent on the Summer side of the camp. The material was light and gauzy, draped over the poles in wispy strands that reminded me uncomfortably of spiderwebs. The satyrs ushered me through the flaps, but I turned and stopped Puck at the entrance, firmly telling him he would have to wait outside while I dressed. Ignoring his stupid leer, hoping he wouldn’t turn into a mouse so he could sneak in and watch, I went inside.
The interior of the tent was dark and warm, the walls covered with webbing that rustled and slithered, as if hundreds of tiny creatures were scurrying through it. A tall, pale woman with long dark hair waited for me in the dim room, her eyes gleaming-black orbs in her pinched face.
“Meghan Chase,” the woman rasped, huge black eyes following my every move. “You have arrived. How fortuitous that we meet again. ”
“Lady Weaver. ” I nodded, recognizing the Seelie Court’s head seamstress, and stifled the urge to rub my arms. I’d met her before on my first trip into Faery, and like before, her presence made me feel itchy, as if thousands of bugs were crawling over my skin.
“Come, come,” Lady Weaver said, beckoning me with one pale, spiderlike hand. “The battle is about to commence, and your father wished for me to design your armor. ” She led me toward the back of the tent, where something shimmered in the gloom, held up by thin white strands. “It is my best work so far. What do you think?”
At first glance, it looked like a long coat of some sort, fastened at the waist and split to flare out behind the legs. Looking closer, I saw that the material was made up of tiny scales, flexible to the touch, yet impossibly strong. The back was strewn with intricate designs that looked almost geometric in nature. Gauntlets, greaves, leggings, and boots, made of the same scaly material, completed the outfit.
“Wow,” I said, drawing closer. “It’s beautiful. ”
Lady Weaver sniffed.
“As usual, my talents are underappreciated,” she sighed, snapping her fingers at the two satyrs, who hurried forward. “Here I am, the greatest seamstress in the Nevernever, reduced to weaving dragon-scale armor for unrefined half-breeds. Very well, girl. Try it on. It will fit perfectly. ”
The satyrs helped me into the suit, which was lighter and more flexible than I’d thought it would be. Except for the gauntlets and greaves, I didn’t even feel like I was in armor. Which I guessed was kind of the point.
“Nice,” came a voice at the door, and Puck strolled in. I blinked in surprise. He was dressed for battle, too, in a leather breastplate over a suit of silvery-green mail, dark leather gauntlets, and knee-high boots. A green cloth hung from his belt, decorated with curling vines and leaves, and thick shoulder plates jutted out from his collarbone, looking like rough, spiky bark.
“Surprised, princess?” Puck shrugged, causing his shoulder spikes to jerk up.
“I don’t normally wear armor, but then, I don’t normally have to face an army of Iron fey, either. Figured I might as well have some protection. ” He scanned my outfit and nodded with appreciation. “Impressive. Real dragon-scale—that’ll hold up to almost anything. ”
“I hope so,” I murmured, and Lady Weaver snorted.
“Of course it will, girl,” she snapped, pursing her bloodless lips at me. “Who do you think designed this suit? Now, shoo. I have other things to work on. Out!”
Puck and I fled, ducking out of the tent. The camp was nearly empty now, ranks upon ranks of Summer and Winter fey lining the edge of the metal forest. Waiting for the battle to begin.
I shivered and rubbed my arms. As if reading my thoughts, Puck moved closer and put a hand on my elbow. “Don’t worry, princess,” he said. And though his voice was light, there was a hard edge to his smile. “Any Iron bastard that wants you will have to get past me, first. ” He rolled his eyes. “And of course, the dark knight over there. ”
“Where?” I followed his gaze, just in time to see Ash appear from behind a tent and walk toward us. His armor gleamed under the sun, black marked with icy silver, a stylized wolf head on the breastplate. He looked incredibly dangerous, the black knight out of legend, a tattered cape fluttering behind him.
“Oberon has called for you,” he announced, taking in my suit with a single, approving nod. “He wants you to stay near the back, where the fighting won’t reach you. He has a platoon of bodyguards stationed there to protect—”
“I’m not going. ”
Both Ash and Puck blinked at me. “I’m fighting,” I said in the firmest voice I could manage. “I don’t want to hang back and watch everyone die for me. This is my war, too. ”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, princess?”
I glanced at Puck and smiled. “Are you going to stop me?”
He held up his hands. “Wouldn’t dream of it. ” He grinned and shook his head. “I just hope you know what you’re doing. ”
I looked at Ash, wondering what he thought of this, if he would try to talk me down. He gazed back with a solemn expression, teacher to student, sizing me up.
“You’ve never fought in a real war,” he said softly, and I caught the trace of worry in his voice. “You don’t know what real battle is like. It’s nothing like a one-on-one duel. It will be violent and bloody and chaotic, and you won’t have any time to think about what you’re doing. The things you’ve seen, the things you’ve experienced—nothing will have prepared you for this. Goodfellow and I will protect you as best we can, but you will have to fight, and you will have to kill. Without mercy. Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Yes. ” I raised my chin and stared back, meeting his eyes. “I’m sure. ”
“Good. ” He nodded once, and turned toward the looming forest. “Because here they come. ”
THE CREEPING IRON
“Get ready,” Ash muttered, and drew his sword.
My hand shook as I followed his example, the blade awkward and clumsy in my grasp. Ahead of us, light glinted off swords, shields, and armor, a menacing wall of bristling faery steel. Trolls and ogres shifted impatiently, gripping their spiked clubs. Goblins and redcaps licked their pointed teeth, bloodlust shining from their eyes. Dryads, hammadryads, and oakmen waited silently, their green and brown faces tight with hate and fear. Out of all the fey, the slow corruption of the Nevernever affected them most of all and reminded me what was at stake. I gripped the hilt of my sword, feeling the metal bite into my palm. Come on, then, I thought, as a great rustling sounded just beyond the hole—hundreds of feet, marching toward us. Branches snapped, trees shook, and the armies of Summer and Winter howled in reply. You won’t beat me. The false king isn’t going to win. Your advance stops right here.
“Here we go,” Ash growled, as with the screeching of a million knives, the Iron fey broke from the forest and came into view. Wiremen and Iron knights, clockwork hounds, spider-hags, skeletal creatures that looked like the Terminator, all shiny and metallic, and hundreds more of different shapes and sizes, pouring out of the forest in a huge, chaotic swarm. For a moment, the two armies stared at each other, hate and violence and bloodlust shining
from their eyes. Then, a monstrous armored knight, horns bristling from a steel helm, stepped to the front of the army and swept an arm forward, and the Iron fey charged with hair-raising shrieks.
The Seelie and Unseelie roared in response, surging forward to meet them. Like ants, they spilled onto the battlefield, the space between them growing smaller and smaller as they closed on each other. The two armies met with the deafening screech and clang of weapons, and then everything dissolved into madness.
Ash and Puck pressed close, refusing to advance, only engaging an enemy if it attacked first. The front lines held off the worst of the battle, but gradually the Iron fey began slipping through the holes and pushing toward the back. I gripped my weapon and tried to focus, but it was hard. Everything was happening so fast, bodies whirling by, swords flashing, the shrieks and howls of the wounded. A giant praying mantis–thing lunged at me, bladed arms sweeping down, but Ash stepped in front of it and caught the edges with his sword, shoving it back. An Iron knight, dressed head to toe in plate mail, rushed me, but tripped as Puck kicked him in the knee and sent him sprawling.
Another armored knight broke through the back ranks, slicing at me with his weapon, a serrated, two-handed broad-sword. Reacting on instinct, I dodged the blow and stabbed at him with my sword. It screeched off his breastplate, leaving a shiny gash in the armor but not hurting him. The knight bellowed a laugh, confident in his victory, and lunged again, sweeping his blade across at my head. Ducking the blow, I stepped forward and plunged my sword through his visor, feeling the tip strike the back of his helm.
The knight dropped like his strings had been cut. My stomach roiled, but there was no time to think about what I’d just done. More Iron fey were pouring from the woods. I saw Oberon charge into the fray on a huge black warhorse, glamour swirling around him, and sweep a hand toward the thickest of the fighting. Vines and roots erupted from the ground, coiling around the Iron fey, strangling them or pulling them beneath the earth. Atop a rise, Mab raised her arms, and a savage whirlwind swept across the field, freezing fey solid or impaling them with ice shards. The armies of Summer and Winter howled with renewed vigor and threw themselves at the enemy.