The iron daughter, p.53
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       The Iron Daughter, p.53

         Part #2 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 53

 

  The clatter of metal bugs brought me back to my senses. “Ash,” I muttered, struggling to free myself. Puck wrapped his arms around me and held me to his chest. “I have to go to him…see if he’s all right. ”

  “He’s fine, Princess,” Puck snapped, tightening his grip. “Relax. He knows enough to get out of the rain. ”

  I relented. Closing my eyes, I leaned into him, resting my head on his chest as the bugs clattered around us like glittering hail. He hugged me close, muttering something about Egyptian plagues, but I wasn’t listening. My head hurt, and I was still trying to process everything that had just happened. I was so tired, but at least it was over. And we had survived. Or, most of us had.

  “Ironhorse,” I whispered as the rain of bugs finally came to an end. I felt Puck tense. Freeing myself from his arms, I stumbled across the mezzanine, taking care to avoid the dead bugs and Thornguards, and groped my way down the stairs. I didn’t know what I’d find, but I was hopeful. Ironhorse couldn’t be dead. He was the strongest of us all. He might be terribly hurt, and we’d have to find someone to put him back together, but Ironhorse was near invincible. He had to have survived. He had to.

  I’d almost convinced myself not to worry when Ash stepped out from beneath the overhang and stood at the foot of the stairs, gazing up at me. His sword was sheathed, and in one hand, the Scepter of the Seasons pulsed with a clean blue light. For a long moment, we stared at each other, unwilling to break the silence, to voice what we both were thinking. I wondered if Ash would take the scepter and leave. Our contract was done. He had what he came for; there was no reason for him to stick around any longer.

  “So. ” I broke the silence first, trying to quell the tremor in my voice, the stupid tears that pressed behind my eyes once more. “Are you leaving now?”

  “Soon. ” His voice was calm but tired. “I’ll be returning to Winter, but I thought I would pay my respects to the fallen before I go. ”

  My stomach dropped. I looked behind him and saw, for the first time, the pile of mangled iron in the shadows of the mezzanine. With a gasp, I lurched down the rest of the stairs, pushed past Ash, and half ran, half stumbled to where Ironhorse lay surrounded by dead bugs and the smoking remains of Virus.

  “Ironhorse?” For a split second, I thought I saw Grimalkin there, sitting at his head. But I blinked back tears and the image was gone. Ironhorse lay on his side, heaving with great raspy breaths, the fires in his belly burning low. One of his legs was shattered, and huge chunks of his body had been ripped away. Pistons and gears were scattered around him like broken clockwork.

  I knelt beside his head, putting a shaking hand on his neck. It was cold, and his once burning red eyes were dim, flickering erratically. At my touch, he stirred, but didn’t raise his head or look at me. I had a horrid suspicion he couldn’t see any of us.

  “Princess?”

  Hearing his voice, so small and breathy, almost made me burst into tears.

  “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, feeling Puck and Ash press behind me, gazing over my shoulder.

  “No. ” The red in his eyes dimmed to tiny pinpricks, and his voice dropped to a whisper. I had to strain to hear him. “It was…an honor…” He sighed one last time, as the tiny spots of light flickered once, twice. “…my queen. ” And he was gone. I closed my eyes and let the tears come. For Ironhorse, who had never wavered, never once compromised his beliefs or convictions. Who had been an enemy, but chose to become an ally, a guardian and, ultimately, a friend. I knelt on the cold tile and sobbed, unembarrassed, as Puck and Ash looked on gravely, until the faint rays of dawn began seeping through the broken skylights.

  “Meghan. ” Ash’s quiet voice broke through my grieving. “We should go. ”

  His tone was gentle but unrelenting. “The Iron King’s army is ready to march. We have to return the scepter. There’s not much time left. ”

  I sat up and wiped my eyes, cursing the damned faeries and their eternal war. It seemed there was never enough time. Time to dance, or talk, or laugh, or even mourn the passing of a friend. Slipping off my corsage, I laid it on Ironhorse’s cold metal shoulder, wanting him to have something natural and beautiful in this lifeless place. Goodbye, Ironhorse. Ash held out a hand, and I let him pull me to my feet.

  “Where to now?” I sniffled.

  “The Reaping Fields,” answered a familiar voice, and Grimalkin appeared, perched several feet away on a cardboard box. He gingerly batted a metal bug off the surface, where it pinged to the floor, before continuing. “All the major battles between the courts have been fought on those plains. If I were looking for the armies of Summer and Winter, that is where I would go. ”

  “Are you sure?” I asked.

  “I did not say I was sure, human. ” Grimalkin twitched his whiskers at me. “I only said that is where I would look. Also, I am not coming with you. ”

  Somehow, this didn’t surprise me. “Why not? Where are you going this time?”

  “Back to Leanansidhe’s. ” Grimalkin yawned and stretched, arching his tail over his back. “Now that we are done here, I will inform her that Virus is dead, and that the scepter is on its way back to the Winter Court. I am sure she will want to hear about your success. ” The cat turned, waving his tail in farewell. “Until next time, human. ”

  “Grim, wait. ”

  He paused, looking back with unblinking golden eyes.

  “What did Ironhorse promise you, that made you come along?”

  He flicked his tail. “It is not for you to know, human,” he replied, his voice low and solemn. “Perhaps you will find out, someday. Oh, and if you do make it to Reaping Field, look for a friend of mine. He still owes me a favor. I believe you have met him before. ”

  And with that cryptic message, he leaped off the box and wove gracefully through the scattered hordes of fey and metal bugs. Trotting behind a beam, he disappeared. I looked at the boys. “How will we get to Reaping Field?”

  Ash held up the scepter. It throbbed with icy blue light, sparkling like it was made of crystal, as I’d first seen it back in Tir Na Nog. “I’ll use the scepter to open a trod,” he murmured, turning away. “Stand back. ”

  The scepter flared, filling the room with cold, making my breath steam. The air around us shimmered, as though a veil had been dropped over everything. A hazy circle opened up in front of Ash; beyond it, I saw trees and earth and the foggy twilight of the wyldwood.

  “Go,” Ash told us, his voice slightly strained.

  “Come on, Princess. This is our stop. ” Puck gestured at the portal, waiting for me to go through. I turned and cast one final look at Ironhorse’s body, lying cold on the cement, and blinked back tears.

  Thank you, I told him silently, and stepped through the circle.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  Reaping Fields

  The wyldwood was in chaos. Wind and hail whipped around me as I stumbled off the trod, screaming through the branches and pelting me with shards of ice. Green lightning streaked overhead, slashing through massive clouds that roiled and churned above us, shaking branches and stirring debris into violent whirlwinds. Gouts of snow intermingled with the rain, gathering in mounds and drifts and then scattered by the wind. A violet-skinned piskie went hurtling by, caught in a savage tailspin, until she vanished into the trees.

  “Dammit. ” Puck appeared behind me, crimson hair flying in all directions. He had to shout to be heard. “They started the war without us. I had an invitation, too. ”

  Ash stepped through the circle, and it closed behind him. “Reaping Field is close. ” He raised his head to the wind, closing his eyes, and his brow furrowed. “The fighting is well underway. I can smell the blood. Follow me. ”

  We hurried through the forest, Ash in front leading the way, the scepter a bright blue glow against the dark of the wyldwood. Around us, the storm raged and howled, and thunder boomed overhead, shaking the ground. My shoes
sank into the mud, and my gown snagged on a dozen thorns and branches that tore through the fabric and ripped what remained to shreds.

  Finally, the trees fell away, leaving us staring over a vast, icy gulley flanked by rugged hills, their tops disappearing into the clouds. A frozen river snaked its way through the boulder-studded valley, coiling lazily around the ruins of an ancient castle in the center of the plains.

  From here, the armies of Summer and Winter looked like swarming ants, a huge, chaotic blur of motion and color. Roars and screams filled the air, rising above the howl of the wind. Ranks of soldiers clashed against one another in a somewhat disciplined fashion, while other groups bounded across the field, ricocheting from one fight to the next, joyfully hurling themselves into the fray. Giant shapes lumbered through the masses, swinging and crushing, and swarms of flying creatures attacked from the air. It was a colossal, violent, crazy free-for-all that would be suicide to go through.

  I gulped and looked to Ash and Puck. “We’re going through that, aren’t we?”

  Ash nodded. “Look for Oberon or Mab,” he said grimly, scanning the battlefield. “They’ll likely be on opposite sides of the river. Try not to engage anything, Goodfellow. We don’t want a fight—we just want to get the scepter to the queen. ”

  “Don’t kid yourself, Prince. ” Puck grinned and drew his daggers, pointing to Ash with the tip. “You’re a traitor, Meghan’s the Summer princess, and I’m Robin Goodfellow. I’m sure the ranks of Unseelie will just let us waltz right through. ”

  And then, a shadow fell over us, and a blast of wind nearly knocked me down. Ash shoved me away as a huge, winged lizard landed where I’d stood in an explosion of snow and rock. The creature hissed and shrieked, beating tattered wings and churning the ground with two clawed forelegs. Its scales were a dusty brown, its yellow eyes vicious and stupid. A long, muscular tail whipped the air behind it, a wicked, gleaming barb on the end. Hissing, it stepped between me, Ash and Puck, separating us with its body, coiling its tail over its back like a massive scorpion.