The iron queen, p.49
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       The Iron Queen, p.49

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 49

  I found his tent sitting on the edge of camp, farther out from the rest. I didn’t know how I knew it was his; all the tents looked basically the same. But I could feel him, as surely as I felt my own heartbeat. For a moment, I hesitated at the entrance, my hand poised to push back the cloth. What would I say to him, the last night we could be alive?

  Gathering my courage, I pushed open the flap and stepped inside. Ash lay on his back in the corner, one arm flung over his eyes, his breathing slow and deep. He was shirtless, and the amulet gleamed against his sculpted chest, almost completely black now, a drop of ink against his pale skin. I was surprised he hadn’t heard me come in; the normal Ash would’ve been up and on his feet with his sword drawn in the blink of an eye. He must’ve been truly exhausted from our march through the tunnels. Taking advantage of the moment, I watched him, admiring the lean, hard muscles, gazing at the scars slashed across his pale skin. His chest rose and fell with each quiet breath, and just watching him sleep made me feel a bit calmer.

  “How long are you going to keep staring at me?”

  I jumped. He hadn’t moved, but one corner of his mouth was curved in a slight smile. “How long did you know I was here?”

  “I felt you the moment you came to the tent and stood outside, wondering if you should come in. ” Ash removed his arm and shifted to perch on an elbow, watching me. His expression was solemn now, silver eyes bright in the gloom.

  “What’s wrong?”

  I swallowed. “I just…I wanted…oh, dammit…” Blushing, I trailed off, gazing at the floor. “I’m scared,” I finally admitted in a whisper. “Tomorrow’s the war and we could die and I won’t ever see my family again and…and I don’t want to be alone tonight. ”

  Ash’s gaze softened. Without a word, he shifted back on the cot, making room for me. Heart pounding, I crossed the room and lay down next to him, feeling his arm wrap around my stomach, pulling me close. I felt his heartbeat against my back and closed my eyes, tracing idle patterns on his arm, brushing a faint scar on the back of his wrist.

  “Ash?”

  “Hmm?”

  “Are you scared? Of dying?”

  He was quiet a moment, one hand playing with my hair, his breath fanning across my cheek. “Perhaps not in the way you would think,” he murmured at last.

  “I’ve lived a long time, been in many battles. Of course, there was always that knowledge that I could die, but there have been times I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t give up, let it happen. ”

  “Why?”

  “To escape the emptiness. I was dead inside for so long. Not existing didn’t seem any different than what I was doing. ” He buried his face in my shoulder, and I shivered. “It’s different now, though. I have something to fight for. I’m not afraid to die, but I don’t intend to give up, either. ” His lips touched my hair, very lightly. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he murmured. “You are my heart, my life, my entire existence. ”

  My eyes watered, and my heart thudded in my ears. “Ash,” I whispered again, clenching my fists in the quilt to stop the shaking. I knew what I wanted, but I was still afraid, afraid that I wouldn’t do it right, afraid of the unknown, afraid that I would somehow disappoint him. Ash kissed the back of my neck, and I felt his arm tighten, fingers digging into my shirt. I saw a flare of color behind me, bright red desire, felt him tremble as he struggled to control himself, and all my doubts melted away.

  I shifted in his arms, rolling toward him so that he was propped on an elbow above me, eyes shining in the darkness. And I let him see the need, the longing, rising up like tendrils of colored smoke to dance with his. I didn’t have to say anything. He drew in a quiet breath and lowered his head, touching his forehead to mine.

  “Are you sure?” His voice was barely a whisper, a ghost in the dark. I nodded, tracing my fingers down his cheek, marveling as he closed his eyes.

  “We could die tomorrow,” I whispered back. “I want to be with you tonight. I don’t want to have any regrets, when it comes to us. So, yes, I’m sure. I love you, Ash. ”

  My voice was lost then, as Ash closed the final few inches and kissed me. And in the quiet stillness before dawn, on the brink of a war that could tear us apart, our auras danced and twined in the darkness, coiling around each other until they finally merged, becoming one.

  PART THREE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  THE BATTLE FOR FAERY

  When I woke, the tent was still dark, though a faint gray light peeked through the flaps. Ash was already gone, typical for him, but my body still glowed from the aftermath of last night. I could feel him now, stronger than ever. He was close. He was—

  Right beside me.

  I jumped a bit, and turned to see him sitting beside the cot, fully clothed, his sword across his lap, watching me. He wasn’t smiling, but his face was relaxed, his eyes peaceful.

  “Hey,” I whispered, smiling and reaching out to him. His fingers wrapped around mine and he kissed the back of my hand, before standing.

  “It’s almost time,” he said quietly, tucking his sword into his belt again. And the looming war descended like a hammer, shattering the tranquility. “Better get dressed—Glitch will be looking for us. Or worse—”

  “Puck,” I groaned and struggled upright, searching for my clothes. Ash silently turned his back while I dressed, facing the door, and I bit down a giggle at his chivalry. Once I shrugged into the dragon-scale armor, I turned to show I was ready to follow him out. But Ash crossed the tiny space between us and drew me close, fingers combing my tangled hair, his expression thoughtful.

  “I’ve been thinking…” he mused as I slid my arms around his neck, gazing up at him. “When this is over, let’s disappear for a while. Just the two of us. We can check on your family first, and then we can go. I can show you the Nevernever like you’ve never seen it before. Forget the courts, the Iron fey, everything. Just you and me and nothing else. ”

  “I’d like that,” I whispered. Ash smiled, brushed a kiss to my lips, and pulled away.

  “That’s all I needed to hear. ” His eyes gleamed, determined and eager, and filled with something I hadn’t see before. Hope. “Let’s go win a war. ”

  We stepped out of the tent together, not touching, but I didn’t need to touch him to feel him, right beside me. He was part of my soul now, and that somehow made this all the more real. The battle loomed over our heads, close and ominous, made all the more threatening by the eerie red clouds and the ash flakes drifting from them, as if the very sky was falling apart. I gazed up at the sky with a fierce determination. I would win this war. I never wanted anything like this.

  “There you are. ” Glitch emerged from the crowds, dressed for battle with a spear that crackled at the tip, shedding sparks of lightning. “We’re almost ready. My scouts have reported the battle has already started, that Summer and Winter have already engaged the false king’s forces. The entire army has breached the line into the wyldwood—it looks like this is it. ”

  My blood ran cold. “What about the fortress?”

  “Not there yet. ” Glitch planted the butt of the spear in the ground. “The forest is slowing it down. But it’s close. We have to hurry. Where’s Goodfellow?”

  “Right here. ” Puck appeared, a smug grin on his face, carrying a long pole beneath his arm. “Been working on something, princess. Last night, I was wondering how the courts were going to tell us apart from the false king’s army. Bad Iron fey, good Iron fey—they all look the same to me. Sooooo…” He swept the pole up with a flourish, and a bright green banner snapped open at the top, the silhouette of a great oak splayed proudly across the front. “I wanted to make it a picture of a flower or butterfly,” Puck said, smiling at my awed look, “but I didn’t think that would strike fear into the heart of the false king. ”

  “Not bad, Goodfellow,” Glitch said with grudging respect.

  “Oh, so glad you think so, socket-he
ad. My mad crocheting skills finally came in handy for something. ”

  “In any case,” Glitch added, rolling his eyes, “we would be proud to carry that into battle for you. ”

  My heart swelled. All these people were willing to follow me, to die to save Faery. I couldn’t fail them. I wouldn’t.

  At that moment, a great commotion came from the edge of the camp, Iron fey shouting in alarm, tents flung aside, and the sound of thundering footsteps. A moment later, the crowds fell back as a group of huge black horses galloped into camp, skidding to a stop before me.

  I gasped. They looked like smaller, sleeker versions of Ironhorse, made of black metal with burning crimson eyes and nostrils that breathed flame. As I stared, one of them stepped forward and tossed his head at me.

  “Meghan Chase?” he asked in that same regal, noble air, his deep voice accompanied by a blast of cinders. I blinked rapidly and nodded.

  “One called Grimalkin sent us. ” The Ironhorse look-alike nodded to the others. “He carries with him the spirit of our progenitor, the first Iron Horse, and has compelled us to join you and your cause against the False Monarch. Out of respect for the Great One, we have agreed. Do you accept our assistance?”

  Ironhorse, I thought sadly. You’re still helping us, even now. “I accept your offer,” I told the first horse, who nodded regally and bent his foreleg, lowering himself into a bow.

  “Then, it is done,” he said, as the others bent their front legs and did the same. “For this conflict only, we will carry you and your officers into battle. Afterward, our contract is done, and you will release us. ”

  “Oh, goodie,” Puck said as I stepped forward. “I’m going to have a rash in the most uncomfortable places. ”

  I swung onto the horse’s back, feeling thick iron muscles shift under me as he rose, clanking and groaning. His metallic skin was warm to the touch, especially near my legs, as if a great fire burned inside him. I remembered the flames roaring in Ironhorse’s belly, visible through his exposed ribs and pistons, and felt another ripple of sadness at his loss.