The iron queen, p.43
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       The Iron Queen, p.43

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 43

 

  The glider sagged, its whole body trembling, and I reached up to pat its chest.

  “You did good,” I panted, shaking myself. “It’s not over yet, though. ”

  The glider gave a tired buzz but roused itself and shot forward toward the battle again. Ash came swooping toward us, his expression and even the way he flew his glider determined and angry.

  “Why do you insist on hurling yourself into battles where I can’t follow?” he snarled, wheeling his glider next to mine. “I can’t protect you if you’re constantly running away from me. ”

  His words stung, and my adrenaline-soaked brain responded in turn before I thought better of it. “I made the call—it was a split-second decision, and I don’t need your approval, Ash! I don’t need you to protect me from everything!”

  Shock, hurt, and disbelief flickered across his features. Then, his expression closed, his eyes turning blank and stony as the mask of the Unseelie prince dropped across his face.

  “As you wish, lady,” he said in a stiff, formal voice. “What would you have me do?”

  I shivered, hearing him speak like that. The cold, unreachable Ice Prince…

  But there was no time to talk, as a scream from the fighting below and the roar of gunfire jerked me back to the situation. Talking would have to wait.

  “This way,” I said, and pushed my glider into a steep dive, Ash following on my tail. The fighting was still fast and furious, but the numbers were fewer now on both sides. The monstrous iron beetle still plodded forward relentlessly, scattering waves of rebels before it, their weapons bouncing off its metal hide.

  “We have to take that bug down, now!” I yelled to Ash, hoping he could hear me. “If I can get on top of it, I might be able to stop it!”

  As I circled the beetle, the musket elves perched on its broad back looked up and spotted me. Swinging their guns around, there was a roar of musket fire, and I felt the wind from several iron balls go zinging past my face. The glider jerked violently, shuddering in the air, and I fought to keep it upright. Then Ash’s glider swooped by overhead, and the Unseelie knight dropped right into the cluster of elves. Sword flashing, he whirled and spun in a blue circle of death, and the elves fell away, tumbling off the beetle to the unforgiving ground.

  Standing alone on the back of the huge insect, Ash gave his blade a final flourish and slammed it back in its sheath. His cold gaze met mine, defiant and unyielding, a silent challenge. Avoiding his icy glare, I swung close enough to drop onto the beetle’s carapace, letting my poor, gallant glider fly off to recuperate.

  Okay, I was on the bug’s back. Now what? I looked around, wondering if there was a steering wheel or reins or something that controlled this giant thing.

  “The antennae,” Ash said flatly, breaking through my thoughts. I blinked at him.

  “What?”

  The Ice Prince gave me one of his hostile stares and gestured toward the front of the beetle, where a pair of stiff black antennae, each as thick as my arm, stuck over the bug’s carapace. Ropes, dangling from the tips of the antennae, swept down and were tied to a platform behind the beetle’s head. “There’s your saddle,”

  Ash pointed out, still in that same cold, flat voice. “Better get this thing under control before it plows straight into the tower. ”

  I swallowed the lump in my throat and hurried to the steering platform, arms spread to balance against the swaying of the giant bug. Grabbing the reins, I peered out over the beetle’s head, seeing the remaining forces of knights and rebels scurrying away before me. I saw Glitch, locked in battle with a huge clockwork golem, roll under the giant’s blow and touch the golem’s knee as he passed. The golem spasmed, froze in place, and toppled to the ground, threads of lightning crawling over its body. An Iron knight rushed Glitch from behind, but Puck suddenly leaped over the golem and slammed his foot into the knight’s face, knocking him back. They were fighting bravely, but the false king’s forces had backed the rebels against the base of the tower and were steadily closing in. They needed the cavalry, right now.

  “Okay, bug,” I muttered, gripping the reins. The beetle’s antennae twitched, and it cocked a massive black eye back to stare at me. “I hope you like me better than every horse I’ve ever been on. Now, charge!”

  The bug lurched forward, nearly throwing me from the platform, and gave a bellow that shook the earth. Iron knights and soldiers glanced back in alarm as the huge bug plowed into them, crushing them underfoot or sweeping them aside with its armored head. As we broke through the lines, tossing the enemy like leaves, the reenergized rebels gave a savage roar and charged, swarming over the soldiers with desperate abandon.

  Moments later, beaten back, demoralized, half their army killed by rebels or trampled under the huge bug, the remaining enemy forces broke away and retreated, fleeing over the cracked ground to vanish over the horizon. I pulled the rampaging beetle to a stop, tying off the reins as a cheer went up from Glitch’s remaining forces. I was wondering how I would get off the giant bug, when the beetle, sensing the battle was done, folded its legs and sank down with a rumbling groan, making the ground tremble. Sliding down the smooth carapace, I landed with a grunt and straightened quickly, looking around for Glitch.

  Ash dropped beside me, making no sound, his features still distant and cold like a stranger’s. Guilt stabbed me like a blade when I saw him, but even now, I couldn’t talk to him like I wanted. Now more than ever, I knew we couldn’t sit here doing nothing. Not when the false king was almost to the front lines. We had to act now.

  I fought my way through the crowd, shouldering rebels aside as they surrounded me, laughing and cheering, congratulating me on a brilliant counterstrike.

  “Where’s Glitch?” I called, my voice nearly lost in the cacophony. “I need to speak to him! Where is he?”

  Suddenly, I saw him, standing over a body on the ground, arms crossed to his chest and face grim. A hacker elf knelt over the prone figure, prodding him with long fingers. My heart stopped when I saw who it was.

  “Puck!” I shouldered my way through the crowd, rushing up to his still form. My heart pounded. Blood smeared his face, oozing out beneath his hair, and his skin was pale. One hand still gripped his curved dagger. I shoved the elf out of the way, ignoring his protests, and knelt beside Puck, taking his hand. He was deathly still, though I thought I could see the faint rise and fall of his chest, and tears rose to my eyes.

  “He fought bravely,” Glitch murmured. “Threw himself at a squad of Iron knights that would’ve killed me. I’ve rarely seen such courage, even among the Iron fey. ”

  Rage burned, hot and furious, searing away the tears. I suddenly had to fight the urge to leap up and stab Glitch with Puck’s dagger. “You,” I said in a low voice, anger burning my throat. “You have no clue of what courage is. You say you oppose the false king, but all you do is sit here and cower, hoping he won’t notice you. You’re cowards, all of you. Puck was hurt fighting your war, and you don’t even have the guts to do the same. ”

  Angry murmurs went through the crowd. I felt Ash step up beside me, silently challenging anyone to come close. Glitch was quiet for a moment, but the lightning in his hair snapped angrily.

  “And what would you have us do, your highness?” he challenged. “Throw my people at the feet of the false king, knowing that they will die? You saw his army. You know we wouldn’t stand a chance. ”

  “You don’t really have a choice,” I replied, still searching Puck’s face, hoping for a flicker of life, a sign that he would be all right. “You can’t stay here. The false king knows where you are now. He’ll come after you again, and he won’t stop until he kills every last one of you. ”

  “We can move,” Glitch said. “We can evacuate to a safe place again—”

  “For how long?” I stood and turned on Glitch, glaring at him furiously. “How long do you think you can hide before he finds you again?” I raised my v
oice, staring around me at the rest of the fey. “How long are you willing to cower like sheep while he destroys everything? Do you think you’ll ever be safe while he’s out there? If we don’t stand against him now, he’ll only get stronger. ”

  “Again, what would you have us do, princess?” Glitch snapped, his spines snapping furiously. “Our forces are too small! There’s nothing we can do to stop him. ”

  “There is. ” I stared at him, keeping my voice level and calm. “You can join forces with Summer and Winter. ”

  Glitch barked a laugh as the crowd exploded with noise. “Join the oldbloods?” he mocked. “You are delusional. They want to destroy us as much as the false king. You think Oberon and Mab will happily let us march in and shake hands and everything will be fine? They won’t let us across the border without trying to kill us all. ”

  “They will if I lead you there. ” I stared him down, refusing to give. “They will if there is no other way to beat the false king. Come on, Glitch! You all want the same thing, and this is the only way we stand a chance. You can’t hide from him forever. ” Glitch didn’t say anything, refusing to meet my gaze, and I threw my hands up in frustration. “Fine! Stay here and shake like a coward. But I’m going. You can try to keep me here by force, but I can tell you, it’s not going to be pretty. As soon as Puck is well enough, we’re leaving, with or without your consent. So either help me or get out of my way. ”

  “All right!” Glitch yelled, startling me. Running his hands through his hair, he sighed and gave me an irritated look. “All right, princess,” he said in a softer voice. “You win. You make a good point. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?” He sighed again, shaking his head. “We can’t stay hidden forever. It’s only a matter of time before he comes for us again. If I’m going to die, I’d rather die in battle than be hunted down like a rat. I only hope your oldblood friends don’t try to kill us as soon as the battle is done. I can see Oberon conveniently letting that little detail slip in any deal we make with them. ”