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The Iron Daughter, Page 54

Julie Kagawa

Page 54


  A rider sat between the creature’s shoulder blades, his white armor pristine and shining, not a drop of blood on him.

  “Rowan!” I gasped.

  “Well, well. ” The older prince sneered at me from the back of his lizard mount. “Here you are again. The wayward princess and our traitor prince. Don’t move, Ash,”

  he warned, shooting his brother a dark look. “One tiny move, and Thraxa will snap up your beloved half-breed faster than you can blink. You don’t want to lose another girl to wyvern poison, do you?”

  Ash already had his sword out, but at Rowan’s threat he paled and shot me a haunted look. I saw the desperation in his eyes before he lowered his blade and stepped back.

  “Good boy. This will be over soon, don’t worry. ” Rowan raised his fist, and a dozen Thornguards emerged from the trees, weapons drawn, trapping us between them and Rowan. “It shouldn’t be long now,” the older prince smiled. “Once the courts are done tearing each other to pieces, the Iron King’s armies will sweep in, and everything will be over.

  “But first,” he continued, turning to glare at Ash, “I’ll need that scepter. Hand it over, little brother. ”

  Ash tensed, but before he could do anything, Puck stepped between us, an evil grin stretching his face. “Come and get it,” he challenged. Rowan looked over and sneered.

  “Robin Goodfellow,” he smiled. “I’ve heard so much about you. You’re the reason Ariella is dead, aren’t you?” Puck frowned, but Rowan went on without pause. “A pity Ash won’t ever take his revenge, but believe me when I say this will be a pleasure. Thraxa,” he ordered, sweeping his arm contemptuously toward Puck. “Kill. ”

  The wyvern hissed and snaked its head down, baring needle sharp fangs. It was frighteningly quick, like a viper, and its jaws snapped shut over Puck’s head. I gasped, but Puck exploded in a swirl of leaves, leaving the wyvern blinking and confused. As it drew back, huffing and scanning the ground for its victim, a huge black raven swooped out of the trees, aiming right for its face. With a screeching caw, the bird sank its talons into the side of the wyvern’s head and plunged its sharp beak into the slitted yellow eye.

  The wyvern reared back with a scream, beating its wings and shaking its head, trying to dislodge the bird that clung to it. Rowan, nearly thrown from the saddle, cursed and yanked at the reins, trying to regain control, but the wyvern was panicked now, screeching and thrashing about in anguish. I ducked beneath the monster and ran to Ash, who caught me in an almost desperate hug, even as he kept his eyes on Rowan. I felt his heart racing beneath his coat.

  The raven hung on, jabbing and clawing, until black ichor spattered the wyvern’s face and the eye was a popped, useless mess. With a caw of triumph, it broke away and swooped back to us, changing to Puck in an explosion of feathers. He was still laughing as he rose to his feet, drawing his weapons with a flourish.

  “Kill them!” Rowan screamed, as his mount decided it had had enough, and leaped skyward. “Kill them all and get that scepter! Don’t let them ruin everything!”

  “Stay back,” Ash told me as the Thornguards started forward, closing their deadly half circle. There were a lot of them, seeming to melt out of the trees and bramble, more than I first thought. My eyes fell on Ash, holding both the scepter and his sword in a doubleweapon stance. Could I just take the scepter and run? I shot a quick glance down the slope, into the valley, and my heart went cold with fear. No way. There was no way I’d get through that churning mass alive.

  Lightning flickered, bright and eerie, and between one flash and the next, a white creature appeared at the edge of the slope. At first, I thought it was a horse. Only it was smaller and more graceful than any I’d seen before, more deer than equine, with a lion’s tail and cloven hooves that barely touched the ground. Its horn spiraled up between its ears, beautiful and terrible at the same time, destroying any preconceived notions I had of the word unicorn. It regarded me with eyes as ancient as the forest, and I felt a shiver of recognition, like a memory from a dream, but then it was gone.

  Grimalkin sent me. The voice whispered in my head, soft as a feather’s passing. Hurry, Meghan Chase. With a toss of its head, the unicorn turned and vanished down the slope. In that moment, I knew what I had to do.

  That whole encounter seemed to have taken place in an instant. When I turned back to the boys, they were still waiting for the Thornguards, who approached slowly, as if they knew we weren’t going anywhere. “Ash,” I murmured, placing a hand on his arm.

  “Give me the scepter. ”

  He shot me a look over his shoulder. “What?”

  “I’ll get it to Mab. Just hold them off until I can get across the field. ” Ash stared at me, his expression torn. I closed my hand over the scepter, gritting my teeth as the cold burned like fire. “I can do this. ”

  “Hey, Prince,” Puck called over his shoulder, “uh, you can join in anytime, now. Whenever you’re ready. ”

  A shriek echoed over the valley, and a dark shape wheeled toward us on leathery wings. Rowan was coming back.

  “Ash!” The Thornguards were almost upon us, and Ash still held the scepter tightly. Desperately, I met his eyes, saw the indecision there, the doubt, and the fear that he was sending me to my death. “Ash,” I whispered, and put my other hand over his, “you have to trust me. ”

  He shivered, nodded once, and released his grip. Clutching the scepter, I backed away, holding his worried gaze as the Thornguards got closer and the wail of the wyvern echoed over the trees. “Be careful,” he said, a storm of emotion in those two simple words. I nodded breathlessly.

  “I won’t fail,” I promised.

  The Thornguards charged with a roar. Ash spun toward them, blade flashing, as Puck gave a whooping battle cry and plunged into their midst. Feeling the scepter burn in my hands, I turned and fled down the slope.

  The unicorn waited at the bottom of the hill, almost invisible in the mist, its horn more real than the rest of it. My heart pounded as I approached. Even though the unicorn stood perfectly still, watching me, it was akin to walking up to a tiger that was tame and friendly, but still a tiger. It could either kneel and lay its head in my lap, or explode into violence and skewer me with that glimmering horn. Thankfully it did neither, standing motionless as a statue as I walked up close enough to see my reflection in its dark eyes. What do I say? Do I have to ask permission to get on its back?

  A piercing wail rent the air above us, and the shadow of the wyvern passed overhead. The unicorn jumped, flattening its ears, trembling with the effort not to bolt. Screw it, I don’t have time! As the wyvern’s howl rang out again, I heaved myself awkwardly onto the unicorn’s back and grabbed its mane.

  As soon as I was settled, the unicorn made a fantastic leap over the rocks and landed at the edge of the icy field, making my stomach lodge in my throat. For a moment, it hesitated, looking this way and that, trying to find an easier way in. A red-eyed hound sprang at us with a snarl, tongue lolling. The unicorn leaped nimbly aside, lashing out with its hooves. I heard a crack and a yelp, and the hound fled into the mist on three legs.

  “There’s no time to go around!” I yelled, hoping the unicorn could understand me. “Mab is on the far side of the river! We have to go straight through!”

  A bellow sounded behind us. I glanced back to see the wyvern dive from the slope and glide toward the ground, straight for us. I saw Rowan on the wyvern’s back, sword drawn, his furious gaze fixed on me, and my stomach clenched in terror. “Go!” I shrieked, and with a desperate whinny, we plunged into the heart of the battle. The unicorn bounded through the chaos, dodging weapons, leaping over obstacles, moving with terrifying speed. My hand gripped the mane so hard that my arms shook; the other hand burned with the scepter. Around us, Summer and Winter fey tore and slashed at each other, screaming in fury, pain and pure, joyful bloodlust. I caught flashes of the battle as we sped through. A pair of trolls pounded stone c
lubs into a swarm of goblins, their shoulders and backs bristling with spears. A trio of redcaps dragged a wailing sylph from the air, ignoring the razor edge of her dragonfly wings, and buried her under their stabbing knives. Seelie knights in green and gold armor clashed swords with Unseelie warriors, their movements so graceful it looked like they were dancing, but their unearthly beauty was twisted with hate. The roar of the wyvern sounded directly above us, and the unicorn leaped aside so quickly I nearly lost my seat. I saw the wyvern’s hooked, grasping talons slam into a dwarf, and the bearded man screamed as he was torn away and lifted into the air, struggling weakly. The wyvern soared upward, and I watched in horror as it dropped the still struggling dwarf to the rocks below. Wheeling in a lazy circle, it came for us again. My mount started weaving, a frantic, zigzag pattern that jostled me from side to side and made me sick with fear. I pressed my knees into the unicorn’s sides so hard that I felt its ribs through my gown. The wyvern wavered in the air, confused, then dove with another chilling wail. My nimble steed dodged once more, but this time the wyvern passed so close I could’ve slapped its claws with the back of my hand.

  We were in the middle of the field, still nowhere near the river, when the unicorn went down.

  The fighting was thicker in the center of the battleground, where soldiers from both sides clashed together over the dead and the dying. The unicorn darted between the crowds, seeming to know exactly when a hole would open up, slipping through without slowing down. But Rowan was still on our tail. As the unicorn dodged the wyvern’s pass for the third time, a huge, rocklike monster reared up from beneath the snow, swiping at us with a massive club. It clipped the unicorn’s front legs, and the graceful animal collapsed with a shrill whinny. I went flying off its back and hit a snowbank with a landing that drove the air from my lungs. Dazed, I lay there as the world spun like a carousel, flickering in and out of view. Blurred, shadowy figures raged around me, screaming, but the sounds were muffled and distorted, coming from a great distance away.