The Iron Warrior
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I swallowed hard and nodded. “Yeah,” I rasped, “I promise.”
* * *
Gazing out the carriage window, I shivered, both from the chill coming through the glass, and the pristine white palace looming at the end of the walk. I knew Mab, Queen of Winter and one of the scariest fey in existence, held court in a massive underground city filled with Unseelie nightmares. I knew it was going to be cold and had borrowed some warmer attire from Meghan’s court in preparation: long wool coat, gloves and hat. But there was cold, and then there was cold. As in, hurts-to-breathe cold. As in there were colored ice crystals, bristling from the ground and dangling from rooftops, that were taller than me. As in unnatural, Winter Court cold. The door opened with a swirl of frigid, stinging air, making me grit my teeth as I slid out of the carriage. Grimacing, I stepped onto the ice-covered path, turning up my coat collar and wishing I had a scarf to wrap around my face. Jeez, it was freezing! What I wouldn’t give for a couple flamefruits right now.
Whoa, wait a second, Ethan. Crossing my arms, I followed Glitch up the path through the pristine, snow-covered courtyard toward the palace steps. When did you start wishing for magical solutions? You hate faery glamour, remember?
Oh, shut up, I told myself, annoyed. Obviously I wasn’t going to make any dangerous bargains or drink a bottle of faery wine, and I was going to be extremely paranoid of any strange glamour cast my way, but the entire Nevernever was one giant, magical place. I couldn’t avoid magic if I wanted to. I would admit, very reluctantly, that some faery magic could be useful.
Like keeping me from freezing to death in the freaking Winter Court.
Meghan and Ash were waiting at the top of the steps when Glitch and I came up. Meghan wore a dark blue cloak, but below that, a coat of glimmering silver scales rustled metallically as she turned to us. A sword hung at her waist, and her hair had been pinned up, making her look older, regal, almost intimidating. Beside her, Ash was dressed in jet-black armor with the silhouette of a great tree on the breastplate. Seeing them like that caused a lump of dread to settle in my gut. This wasn’t a faery ball or a fancy party. This was a meeting to determine if the courts of Summer, Winter and Iron would go to war with the Forgotten, the Lady...and my former best friend.
We strode through the halls of the Winter Palace, and I stayed very close to Glitch and the retinue of Iron knights accompanying us. I wasn’t afraid...well, no, screw that, I was afraid. The twin swords at my waist were a necessity; no way I was walking through Tir Na Nog unarmed. But I was mostly nervous for Meghan. Iron Queen or not, Keirran was her son; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have to declare war against your own family. I hoped the faery courts could find a peaceful solution to the Forgotten and the Lady. I would do my damnedest to help make that happen.
Redcaps, ogres, goblins and other Winter fey stared at us, eyes and fangs gleaming, as we made our way through the frozen halls. At the end of a long corridor lit with blue ice chandeliers, a pair of Winter knights pulled back huge double doors and bowed to Meghan as we swept through.
An enormous round table made entirely of ice stood in the center of the room, throwing off tendrils of mist that writhed along the floor. Surrounding it were scores of fey, both Seelie and Unseelie, most of them dressed in battle gear. My skin prickled. For a council that was supposedly about “discussing” the Forgotten menace, everyone here seemed more than ready to fight.
The rulers of Summer and Winter stood at the head of the table, watching us as we came in. I’d never seen either of them before, but they were instantly recognizable. Oberon, the King of Summer, stood tall and proud at the table edge, silver hair falling down his back, his antlered crown casting jagged shadows over the surface. A pale, beautiful woman stood a few feet away, dark hair cascading around her shoulders, a high-collared cloak draping her armor of red and black. Piercing dark eyes stabbed me over the table, and my insides curled with fear. Mab, the Queen of Winter, was just as dangerous and terrifying as I’d imagined she would be. The only good thing was that Titania, the Summer Queen, appeared to be absent today. The queens’ hatred for each other was well-known, and the situation was volatile enough without two immortal faery rulers having a spat in the middle of the war council.
There was one faery in the room who could, unintentionally, cause a lot of trouble, just by being himself. Robin Goodfellow lounged against one wall, hands laced behind his head, watching everything with bright green eyes. When he saw me, one eyebrow arched, and he shot me a knowing smirk. I sighed and sidled around the table to stand beside him, not wanting to be too close to the Winter Queen and her retinue. Even though I was the Iron Queen’s brother, I was still fully human, something that was viewed as “lesser” here. Or even quite tasty. At least I didn’t have to worry about some goblin attacking me if I was with the Great Prankster.
“Hey, Ethan Chase,” Puck greeted softly as I settled beside him, crossing my arms. “Back from the dead, I see. Were there choirs of angels and twinkling lights? I’ve always wondered about that.”
“Couldn’t tell you,” I muttered. “I don’t remember being dead.”
“Aw, well, that’s disappointing.” Puck shook his head with a grin. “Dying sounds terribly dull. I was hoping you would prove me wrong.” He sniffed and turned his attention back to the meeting. “Anyway, speaking of dull, these war councils are such a bore. Let’s see if I can guess exactly how this is going to go. First off, Mab will be all cold and threatening, because well, that’s Mab...”
“Iron Queen,” Mab stated in a cold voice as Meghan and Ash stepped forward. “How good of you to join us. Perhaps you would like to hear the reports of what your son has been doing of late?”
“I am aware that Keirran is with the Forgotten,” Meghan replied, far more calmly than I would have expected. “I know they have been scouting the borders of Arcadia and Tir Na Nog. They have not, to my knowledge, harmed anyone or made any hostile overtures toward the courts.”
“Yet,” Mab seethed. “It is obvious they plan to attack, and I refuse to be besieged in my own kingdom. I propose we take the fight to the Forgotten now, before they and their mysterious Lady set upon us en masse.”
“And now Lord Pointy Ears will jump in with his eternal logic,” Puck went on.
“How do you plan to do that, Lady Mab?” Oberon asked, his voice like a mountain spring, quiet yet frigid. “We do not know where the Forgotten are, where the rest of this army is hiding. Whenever anyone tries to follow them, they disappear, both from the mortal realm and the Nevernever. How do you propose we find something that does not exist?”
Puck yawned. “Right on the money,” he mused. “And now we’ll have to endure several minutes of arguing as they try to solve the mystery of where the Forgotten have vanished to.”