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The Iron Queen, Page 50

Julie Kagawa

Page 50


  Ash, Puck, and Glitch watched me from the backs of the metal horses, who snorted flame and tossed their heads, eager and ready. The banner was hoisted up, the black oak against a background of green flapping in the wind. I gazed out over the solemn, upturned faces and took a deep breath.

  “Summer and Winter are not your enemies!” I called, my voice echoing into the silence. “They are different, yes, but they are fighting the enemy that you hate—a tyrant who seeks to destroy everything King Machina stood for. We cannot abandon them now! Peace with the courts is possible, but the false king will corrupt and enslave everyone if he wins. The only thing necessary for evil to conquer is for us and those like us to do nothing, and I will not sit by and let that happen! We will take this fight to the false king, and we will show him what happens when we stand united against him! Who is with me?”

  The roar of the army was like a sudden tornado, as hundreds of voices rose up as one. I drew my sword and raised it over my head, adding to the sea of weapons flashing in the light.

  “Let’s go win a war!”

  I HEARD THE SOUNDS of the battle before I saw it. They echoed through the trees that marked the edge of the Iron Realm: shouts and screams, howls of fury, and weapons clashing in the wind. Every so often there was the boom of gunfire, or the thunderous roar of flame. Above the tree line, a huge emerald dragon swooped into the air, paused a moment, then dove out of sight again. Spikerail, the horse I was riding, snorted and tossed his head. “The battle has already been joined,” he announced, nearly prancing with excitement. “Shall we give the order to charge?”

  “Not yet,” I replied, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get through the trees, at least. I want to see the battle, first. ”

  He pawed the ground impatiently, but kept his pace to a fast walk as we entered the forest. The metal trunks closed around us, dark and twisted, smelling of rust and battery acid. Above the clash of battle, I heard something else in the woods—a great snapping and groaning, as if something huge were pushing through the trees.

  “Faster,” I told Spikerail, and he broke into a trot, stirring up clouds of ash as we moved through the forest. The sounds of battle drew closer. And then the trees fell away, and we were gazing down on mass chaos. I’d seen the fey in battle twice now, but this seemed even more vicious, more desperate, as if hell itself had been released onto the field. Troops swarmed each other like ants, hacking with ancient and modern weapons, blades and armor glinting in the swirling ash storm. Iron beetles lumbered through the mobs, the gunmen on their backs blasting away. Creatures plunged and dove through the air; an icy-blue dragon, its scales streaked with red, landed on the back of an iron bug, blasted the musket elves with a deadly spray of frost before they could react, and swooped away again. A gryphon, darting by with an elfin rider, was snatched out of the air by a clockwork golem and smashed against a rock. Two metallic praying mantises double-teamed a Summer knight, slashing at him with their massive, curved blades, until he slipped in the ash and was instantly beheaded. The battle wasn’t going well, it seemed. There was a lot more silver and gray on the field than green and gold, blue and black.

  “Looks like we got here just in time,” Puck mused beside me. “Ready for the

  ‘here comes the cavalry’ charge, princess?”

  “If we hit their right flank,” Ash said, observing the battle with narrowed silver eyes, “we may surprise them where their line is thin and tear through them before they can react. ”

  I met both their gazes, fierce, protective, blazing with determination and love, and felt no fear. Well, maybe a little fear, but it was swallowed by resolve and the almost painful need to win this fight. Drawing my blade, I wheeled Spikerail to face the army—my army, truth be told—and looked out over the taut, waiting forces.

  “For Faery!” I called, raising my sword, and the rebels took up the cry. A few hundred voices rose into the air, roaring, cheering, stabbing their weapons skyward. My adrenaline soared as the crescendo echoed around me, and I howled again, adding my voice to the mix. With a shrill whinny, Spikerail reared, pawing the air, and plunged down the slope.

  Wind whipped at my hair and ash swirled around me, stinging my eyes. My ears were filled with pounding hoof-beats and the roar of the army behind us. We neared the ocean of battle, the rise and fall of soldiers like waves on the shore, the scream and clash of weapons, and roared as we came in, like a hurricane coming to land. The false king’s army turned just as we hit them, their eyes going wide, desperately readying to meet this new threat, but by then it was too late. We slammed into them with the force of a tidal wave, swift and vengeful, and all hell broke loose around me.

  Spikerail plunged through the masses, blasting and breathing flame, powerful hooves lashing out at those who got too close. I struck out from his back, stabbing at the false king’s army with my sword. Everything was chaos. I was vaguely aware of Ash and Puck fighting close to me, fending off attacks from all sides. I saw Ash stab one Iron knight through the chest and hurl an ice spear through another. I saw Puck throw what looked like a fuzzy golf ball at a group of Iron knights, where it erupted into an angry grizzly. Glitch whirled his spear in a deadly circle, lightning arcing from the tip, stabbing the point through the knights’ armor to fry them to blackened husks.

  Where’s Oberon? I wondered, blocking a spear thrust at my face, kicking the knight away. I had to find him, to tell him that the rebels were not the enemy, that they were here to help. I spotted Glitch through a lull in the fighting and nudged Spikerail in his direction. If Glitch was there as well, to explain himself and his actions, perhaps Oberon would listen.

  “Glitch!” I called as we drew close. “Come with m—”

  A bellow interrupted us, and a huge clockwork golem plowed through the ranks, swinging its club and sending rebels flying. It caught Glitch by surprise, and the rebel leader tried to dodge, too late. The metal club caught his horse’s shoulder and knocked both of them several feet through the air. I screamed, but my voice was lost in the cacophony, and the golem lumbered closer to the motionless Glitch, raising its club for the killing blow. Ash suddenly wheeled his horse around and charged the golem, hurling an ice dagger that shattered off the metal skull, making its head snap up. Roaring, it swung at Ash, and my heart leaped to my throat as the huge club came swooshing down. But at the last moment, Ash sprang from his mount’s back and landed on the golem’s arm, running up to its shoulder. As the golem pulled back with a roar, thrashing and flailing, the Ice Prince raised his sword and stabbed it through the construct’s neck. There was a flash of blue light, and the golem bellowed, falling to its knees. Ash leaped off the giant, landing on his feet in the grass, as the golem shuddered and collapsed into a hundred pieces of frozen clockwork, rolling through the ashes.

  “I’m not impressed, ice-boy!” Puck yelled, kicking away an Iron knight. “Do that again, only this time, make it dance!”

  Ignoring Puck, I turned Spikerail and hurried over to where Glitch had fallen. His horse lay in an ash drift, struggling to get up, and Glitch lay a few feet away, his spikes snapping feebly.

  “Glitch!” I leaped off Spikerail’s back and ran to the prone figure, kneeling beside him in the ashes. “Are you all right? Talk to me. ” Ash and Puck loomed to either side, protecting us from surrounding chaos. I reached down and shook his limp arm. “Glitch!”

  He groaned and cracked open his eyes. “Ow,” he moaned. “Dammit, what hit me?” He tried sitting up and winced, grabbing his arm. “Ouch. That’s not good. ”

  “Can you stand?” I asked anxiously.

  He nodded and tried to get up, but gasped and sank back again, gritting his teeth. “Nope. Ribs broken, as well. Sorry, highness. ” Glitch swore and shook his head. “I might have to sit this one out. ”

  “That’s fine. We just have to get you out of here. ” I looked around, flinching as Puck leaped between me and a clockwork hound, cutti
ng the dog out of the air. I spotted Glitch’s horse, finally on his feet though looking a bit dazed, and gave a shrill whistle. “Coaleater!” I yelled, remembering the horse’s name. “Over here!

  The horse limped up, and we helped Glitch heave himself onto its back.

  “Take him to safety,” I told the horse, who bobbed his head in consent, seemingly glad to get out of the fight. “Make sure he gets the help he needs. I’ll take it from here. ”

  “Meghan. ” Glitch’s voice, though reedy with pain, was firm. The rebel leader gazed down at me and nodded, once. “I was wrong about you. Good luck. Win this war for us. ”

  “I will,” I replied, as Coaleater moved carefully but swiftly out of sight, disappearing into the swirling ash. Now it was the three of us, just like before. Puck and Ash pressed close, and I narrowed my eyes, peering through the whirling bodies. “Let’s find Oberon, right now. ”

  I threw myself back into the fight, Puck and Ash right beside me. Together, we carved our way through the seemingly endless ranks of Iron fey. Sweat ran into my eyes, my dragon-scale armor took a hundred or so painful bangs and scrapes, and my arms burned from swinging my sword, but we continued to fight, inching our way across the field. I became lost in the dance: block, swing, parry, dodge, stab, repeat, always moving on, always pressing forward. An iron beetle bore down on us, muskets firing, and I drew on the Iron glamour to tear the bolts from its legs at the joints, fighting the nausea that overtook me right after. The beetle crashed to the ground and was quickly overrun. Another clockwork giant stumbled into our midst, and this time both Ash and Puck went after it, Puck turning into a raven and pecking at its eyes, while Ash darted around and leaped onto its back, plunging his blade through its chest. Glamour swirled around me, Iron, Summer, and Winter, though the magic of the Iron fey was much stronger here. I could feel it, pulsing through the land, lending strength to both the rebels and the forces of the false king. I could feel the core of the Iron glamour drawing closer, pulsing and angry, corrupting everything in its path. For just a moment, I was distracted, and that was long enough for something to slip through my guard. The tip of a spear cut through my defenses and slammed me in the shoulder, not enough to pierce the dragon-scale, but hard enough to rock me back and send a flare of pain up my arm. I dropped my sword, and the knight pulled back for another shot.