The Iron Queen, Page 38Julie Kagawa
Nothing happened. My mind said jump, but my body refused to fall. I teetered on the edge of the landing, the wind whipping my hair, and felt sick. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I said, as my glider gave an irritated buzz. “Hey, don’t judge me. How do I even know this is sa—ahhhh!”
Something nudged me from behind, just enough to make me lose my balance. Shrieking like a bean sidhe on a roller coaster, I fell forward. For a moment, I couldn’t open my eyes, certain I was going to die. The wind whipped around me, howling in my ears as I seemed to plummet straight to my death. Then the glider curved upward, leveling out as it caught the wind currents. As my heart slowed and my death grip on the glider’s legs eased a bit, I cautiously opened my eyes and looked around.
The land stretched out before me, flat and infinite, fractured with glowing threads of lava vanishing into the horizon. From this height, the Iron Realm didn’t look quite so ominous. The wind shrieked in my ears and whipped at my hair, but I wasn’t afraid. Experimentally, I tugged on the glider’s front leg, and it instantly swerved to the right. I pulled on the other leg and it swooped to the left, sending a thrill coursing through me. I wanted to go faster, higher, to find a flock of…something…and race them into the sun. How had I been afraid of this? This was easy; this was awesome! The glider buzzed in excitement, as if sensing my mood, and I would’ve sent it into a steep dive if a voice hadn’t stopped me.
“Exhilarating, isn’t it, princess?” Glitch had to shout to be heard as his glider swooped down next to mine. The lightning in his hair snapped wildly, trailing threads of energy behind him. “First time on a glider, and you’ll never want to walk again. ”
“You couldn’t have let me jump on my own?” I yelled, glaring at him. He laughed.
“I could have. But we would’ve been standing there till the sun came up. ”
Glitch pulled on his glider’s legs, and the insect swooped skyward, rolled, and came down on my other side. “So, your highness, you seem to be getting the hang of this, no pun intended. Want me to show you what these can really do? That is, if you’re not afraid of a little challenge. ”
My adrenaline was pumping, and the thrill of flying made my blood soar. I was annoyed at the Iron faery and up for a challenge, little or not. “You’re on!”
Glitch grinned, and his eyes sparked. “Follow me, then. And try to keep up!”
His insect shot skyward, his whoop ringing out behind him. I yanked my glider’s front legs back, and it followed instantly, shooting up like a bottle rocket. Glitch banked sharply to the right; I pulled the glider’s right leg, and it performed the same maneuver, sweeping around in a lazy arc. We chased Glitch across the open sky, through a series of loops, arcs, curves, and dives, all at top speed. The ground rushed beneath me, the wind howled in my ears, and my blood raced faster than it ever had before. I pushed my glider into a steep, vertical dive, pulling up at the last second. My adrenaline surged, and I whooped with sheer, unrestrained joy.
Finally, we caught up to Glitch again, back to flying in a normal, straight line. He shot me a grudging look as I joined him, still panting from the thrill of stunt gliding an insect. “You’re a natural,” he said, shaking his head. “The gliders don’t perform that well for just anyone. You have to bond for it to really give you its all. Guess you made an impression. ”
I was absurdly pleased at the compliment, and had the strange impulse to pat my glider on the head. “How much longer to where we’re going?” I asked, noticing that the huge red moon above us was beginning to set. Glitch sighed, and his playful mood vanished.
“We’re almost there. In fact, you should start to see it…now. ”
We soared over a rise, the land dropping away into a shallow basin, and I saw the forces of the false king for the first time.
They covered the ground in a glimmering carpet, a small city’s worth of Iron fey, marching forward in perfectly square sections. The army was massive, easily twice the size of the forces of Summer and Winter. Great iron beetles, like the ones we saw in the earlier attack, lumbered forward like tanks, overshadowing the ranks of smaller fey. I counted at least three dozen of them, and remembered how hard it was to bring down just one of the massive bugs. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Behind the army, creeping forward at an impossible rate, was a massive iron fortress. I blinked, rubbing my eyes, wondering if I was hallucinating. It was impossible. Something that size should not be able to move. But yet, there it was, rolling after the army, a huge structure of iron and steel. It was lopsided and uneven, looking cobbled together from whatever was lying around, but somehow shaped into a monstrous moving citadel.
“He’s been gathering his forces for a while,” Glitch said as I stared at the fortress, unable to take my eyes from it. “Those skirmishes at the edge of the Nevernever? Just a distraction, something to weaken the other side while he gathers his strength. At the rate he’s going, he’ll reach the edge of the Iron Kingdom in a little under a week. And when he plows through the Nevernever with that fortress and the full might of his army behind it, none of the oldbloods will be able to stop him. First he’ll take out the courts, and then he’ll plant that castle in the middle of your precious Nevernever to finish it off. Faery will be converted to Iron in a matter of days.
“So, your highness,” Glitch said, as we wheeled our gliders around, retreating from the army and the fortress of death that followed. My excitement had fled, replaced with sheer fright and a nagging despair. “What do you expect to do against that?”
I had no answer for him.
THE REBELS HAD CONVERTED part of Machina’s tower into their underground base. Though much of it still remained a ruin, enough had been cleared out for us to be given separate quarters. Glitch showed us a set of rooms we could use—small and windowless, with a rough stone floor—and said he would leave them unlocked for the time being.
“You can roam the tower grounds all you like, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t leave the ruins,” he said, pushing open the door to another identical room, furnished with only a cot, a lamp, and an upside-down barrel that served as a table. “You’re our guests, of course, but be warned that I’ve given specific orders to keep you from leaving the tower, by force if necessary. Not that I want a fight. I’d much rather things be civil between us. ”
“Yeah, good luck with that, socket-head,” Puck sneered, and I was too tired to argue. Glitch needn’t have worried; I wasn’t planning any grand escape. There was no place for us to go. We couldn’t get to the false king through that huge army, and even if we did, we’d have to somehow find a way into that moving fortress, which would certainly be heavily guarded. I was at a loss. Asking Glitch and the rebels to charge the false king’s forces would be suicide, but if we didn’t do something quickly, that castle would reach the battlefront and then it would be game over.
Ash moved close, putting a hand on my shoulder, his eyes bright with concern. “Don’t worry about Glitch, or the castle,” he said in a low voice, so that only I could hear. I’d told him about the army and the Iron fey and the moving fortress the moment I came back with Glitch, and the Winter prince had nodded grimly but didn’t seem terribly concerned about it. “Nothing is impenetrable. We’ll think of something. ”
“Really? ’Cause I’m feeling a bit outgunned at the moment. ” I sighed and leaned into him, closing my eyes. Puck and Glitch were throwing insults and challenges at each other a few yards away, but it didn’t seem terribly serious so I wasn’t going to worry about it. “How are we supposed to get in that thing?” I whispered. “Or even get close? There’s no force big enough to stand against that huge army. And by the time they reach the wyldwood it’ll be too late. ”
“We have a little time. ” Ash’s voice, low and soothing, flowed over me.
“And you haven’t really slept since we left Leanansidhe’s. Get some rest. I’ll be right outside the door. ”
�You’re always—” the statement was interrupted by a huge yawn “—telling me to rest,” I finished, deliberately ignoring the irony. Ash snorted, and I frowned, poking him in the chest. “I can take care of myself, you know. ”
“I know,” he replied, steering me toward the room. “But you also have this tendency to push yourself beyond the limits of your endurance, and you don’t notice until you fall over from exhaustion. ” He escorted me over the threshold, smiling as I glowered at him. “As your knight, I’m entitled to point these things out. Part of the job description when you asked me. ”
“Yeah, right,” I muttered, crossing my arms. Ash smiled.
“I don’t lie, remember?” He stepped into the room, bent down, and brushed a featherlight kiss to my lips, making my insides melt. “I’ll be close. Try to get some rest. ” He closed the door, leaving me with a growing ache that wouldn’t go away.
Tired as I was, it was hard to sleep. I lay on the lumpy, uncomfortable cot and stared at the ceiling, my thoughts swirling too furiously to rest. I thought about the false king and his moving fortress, of the armies of Summer and Winter camped on the edge of the Iron Realm, oblivious to the danger. I tried formulating ways to stop the moving citadel and the huge army bearing down on the camps, but my plans looped in crazy, complicated circles or were too suicidal to take seriously.
But mostly, I thought of Ash, who kept invading my thoughts every few seconds. I wanted him here with me, alone in this little room with the door locked, but at the same time I didn’t know if I was ready. Several times, I thought about opening the door and dragging him back inside with me, but would that be too forward? Would he think it inappropriate, considering where we were? Or was he waiting for me to make the first move? He had said he would wait for me, right?