The iron queen, p.51
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       The Iron Queen, p.51

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 51

 

  A huge, gnarled fist closed over his head, crushing the helmet like a grape and lifting the knight high into the air. I gaped as a monstrous, treelike being with thick, thorny skin and a crown of antlers flung the knight away, then turned to knock back a whole platoon with its treelike limbs. Grasses and flowers bloomed briefly where it stepped, as the great tree creature moved forward with surprising speed and grace, looming above my head, as if to protect me. Then its gaze swept down, and I was staring into the ancient, familiar face of the Summer King.

  “You’ve returned. ” Oberon’s voice shook the ground, deeper and lower than a thunderclap, and just as emotionless. The Seelie King gave no hint as to what he was feeling, if he felt anything when he saw me. “And you have brought more Iron fey to our territory. ”

  “They’re here to help us!” I yelled, snatching my sword and glaring up at him. He gazed back with impassive green eyes, and I stabbed a finger in his direction. “Don’t you dare turn on them, Father! They want the same thing you do!”

  Oberon blinked, and I realized I had just called him father. Well, I was the Summer princess; it was useless to deny it any longer. “I make no promises,” the Seelie King said, and turned away, his giant limbs crushing another pair of Iron knights. “We shall see, after the battle, what to do with the intruders. ”

  Furious, I snarled a curse and turned on the Iron knight trying to rush me from behind. Stupid, unreasonable, uncompromising faeries! He’d better not try anything with the rebels when this was done. I’d given my word that they would be safe from him and Mab.

  I stabbed my sword through the chest of an Iron knight, watched the empty armor clatter to the ground, and looked up for the next enemy. Only to find there wasn’t one. I looked around to see the false king’s forces pulling back, running away. As a tired cheer rose up from the army around us, I looked up to see Oberon, surrounded by the remains of countless Iron fey, crush a final golem into scrap metal and turn to me. A shiver went through the Summer King. He began shrinking, growing smaller and less…thorny…until he was as I remembered him. But his eyes, and the inflexibility on his face, remained.

  “Why have you brought them here?” Oberon demanded, his cold gaze going to the rebels at my back. “More Iron fey to poison the land, more Iron fey that would destroy us. ”

  “No!” I stepped forward, instinctively shielding them behind me. “I told you before, they’re here to help. They want the false king gone, just like you. ”

  “And what then? Offer them sanctuary within our courts? Let them go back to the Iron Realm, so that it may continue to spread and corrupt our home?”

  Oberon seemed to grow in stature, though his size remained the same. The rebels murmured and cringed back as the Seelie King swept his arm over the crowd.

  “Every Iron fey, whether they are hostile or peaceful, is a danger to us. We will never be safe while they are alive. This is why we asked you to go into their realm and destroy the Iron King. You have failed us. And now, all of Faery will perish because of you. ”

  “I gave my word that they would be safe here!” I shouted, feeling Ash and Puck step up beside me. “If you attack them, you’ll make me your enemy, as well! And I don’t think you can afford an attack on two fronts, Father. ”

  “The girl is right. ” A blast of icy cold, and Mab the Winter Queen swept up, her white battlegown streaked with splashes of red and black. “We waste time arguing here while our home is being destroyed around us. Let the rogue fey fight with us—there will be time later to decide their fate. ”

  I didn’t like the sound of that, either, but in another moment, it didn’t matter. A loud grinding, ripping sound echoed across the field, coming from the edge of the woods, like thousands of trees were being snapped at once. Branches shook violently, swaying like reeds in the wind, and my heart lurched as the massive bulk of the fortress broke through the edge of the woods, crushing trees beneath it, and dragged itself onto the field.

  Up close, the false king’s fortress was even larger than I’d thought, casting a looming shadow across the battleground and blocking out the sky. Again, I was struck by how irregular it was, an accumulation of different parts—smokestacks, towers, balconies—thrown into place with no care as to how it looked, yet somehow held together. Smoke leaked from every crevice, billowing into the sky, and the entire thing moved forward with a cacophony of clanks and groans and squeals, sending chills down my spine.

  As the armies of Summer and Winter drew back in shock from the monstrous structure, Ash grabbed my arm and pointed to the ground beneath it. “Look!” he said, his voice filled with horror and disbelief. “Look at what’s carrying it!”

  I gasped, hardly comprehending what I saw. The fortress was being carried on the shoulders of hundreds, maybe thousands, of packrats. They shuffled forward in a daze, their eyes blank and glassy, moving across the field like ants with a giant grasshopper.

  “Oh, God,” I whispered, stumbling back a step. “They don’t know what they’re doing. The false king must have enchanted them somehow. ”

  “Uh, enchanted or not, they’re not stopping,” Puck observed, looking nervous as the huge fortress crawled forward, moving at a slow but steady pace through the falling ash. “If we’re gonna get inside that thing and stop the false king, now would be a great time. ”

  “Attack!” roared Oberon, sweeping his arm toward the moving citadel. “All forces, stop that castle! Do not let it cross the lines!”

  The armies surged forward again, both my Iron fey and the oldbloods, uncaring that they were suddenly fighting side by side. In the face of a much greater evil, they hurled themselves at the fortress, their battle cries rising into the air as one.

  A flash of smoke and fire erupted from the fortress, and a moment later the explosion of a cannonball rocked the ground, sending several flying. Suddenly the air was filled with explosions, as the fortress opened fire on the advancing fey. Howls and screams rose into the air, and from the woods, coming from behind the fortress, another regiment of the false king’s swarmed onto the field.

  “Reinforcements!” I gasped as the new army slammed into our forces. Drawing my sword, I turned to Ash and Puck. “Let’s go. One way or another, we have to get into that fortress. ”

  We charged the field, joining our allies in trying to hold the line. But the false king’s army was new and fresh, and most of our forces were already exhausted. More and more of our soldiers fell under the relentless push of the false king’s army, and the fortress continued to creep forward, peppering the ground with cannonballs and explosions. We were being pushed back. We were giving ground.

  With a roar, the green Summer dragon swooped overhead, its shadow flashing over us, and landed on the castle, talons digging into the side. Snarling, the dragon ripped and tore at the fortress walls, smashing cannons and breathing fire at the faeries manning them. For a moment, my heart leaped with hope. But then, the metal towers atop the castle glowed blue-white with energy, and an arc of lightning leaped outward, slamming into the dragon. The dragon screeched, going rigid, as more strands of deadly electricity coursed over and through it, lighting up the sky. It finally dropped off the castle, trailing smoke from its blackened scales, and crashed to the ground. It didn’t move again. My spirits plummeted. We couldn’t do it. If a freaking dragon couldn’t get into the fortress, what chance did I have? Shearing through a wireman, I looked around the field and my heart dropped even lower. There didn’t seem to be many good guys left. Oberon was back in his tree-giant form, flinging soldiers left and right, and Mab was an icy whirlwind of death, surrounded by frozen corpses and suits of armor, but I couldn’t see much of our army through the masses of Iron knights and other false-king soldiers. Worse, they appeared to have us surrounded.

  An explosion shook the ground, very close, and I staggered backward, showered with rocks and dirt. Ash and Puck stood back-to-back, fending off attacks from all sides, but they were
being pushed back, as well. A cold numbness spread through my body. We were going to lose. I couldn’t get into the fortress, couldn’t beat the false king. His army was too much for us. We had failed. I had failed.

  “Master!”

  Something small and fast leaped at me. I reacted instinctively and swatted it from the air, smashing it to the ground.

  “Ouch. ”

  “Razor!” I scooped up the gremlin, holding him at arm’s length to see him clearly. He buzzed with joy. “What are you doing here? I told you to go to Mag Tuiredh. Why did you follow me?”

  “Razor help! Help Master! Wanted to find you!”

  “I know, but I needed you to get the others!” Despair rose up like a wave, and I shook him, angry and frustrated. He squeaked. “Why didn’t you go to Mag Tuiredh? Why didn’t you do what I asked? Now we’re all going to die!”

  “No die!” Razor squirmed from my grasp, hitting the dirt to bounce around my feet. “No die, no! Razor did what Master wanted! Look!”

  He pointed. From the edge of the woods, over the roar of explosions and screams of battle, I saw thousands of tiny green lights. Eyes, all staring at me. I gasped, and as one, they all broke into a smile, neon-blue crescent grins floating in the air.

  They spilled from the woods like a rush of ink, black against the ash-covered ground, thousands upon thousands of gremlins, flowing toward the castle. They swarmed over and around the Iron soldiers like rocks in a stream, unhindered and unstoppable. Several fey lashed out at them, and several gremlins fell, left behind by the mass, but there were just too many of them to stop. They scurried up to the fortress and leaped onto its walls, swarming it like army ants or hornets. Lightning flashed, blasting them from the walls, and gremlins fell like rain, but there were always more, hissing and buzzing, and suddenly, the entire fortress shuddered to a halt.

  Razor laughed, clamping on to my leg. “See?” he crowed, crawling up to my shoulder. “We help! Razor help! Razor did good?”