“BECAUSE—” Ironhorse stamped a hoof. “—THE NEW IRON KING IS A

FRAUD.”

It was my turn to blink at him. “A fraud? What do you mean?”

The lieutenant tossed his head disdainfully. “EXACTLY WHAT I SAID. THE KING CURRENTLY SITTING THE THRONE IS AN INTRUDER AND A FAKE. I FEEL NO LOYALTY TOWARD HIM.” He swished his tail and raised his head imperiously.

“I AM NOT LIKE THE IRON BROTHERHOOD. THE KNIGHTS WERE CREATED TO

OBEY WHOEVER SITS UPON THE THRONE. THEIR SENSE OF DUTY IS WARPED. I KNOW THE TRUTH. AND I WILL NOT SERVE HIM.”

I glanced at Puck. “What do you think of all this?”

“Me?” Puck smirked and crossed his arms. “I think all Iron fey should be melted down into scrap metal. I wouldn’t follow Rusty here if my life depended on it.”

“How very predictable.” Grimalkin’s voice drifted up from near my feet. I hadn’t even heard him move. “Your prejudice blinds you to what is really happening.”

“Oh, really?” I glared at him. “Then why don’t you tell us what’s going on, Grim.”

Grimalkin yawned. “Is it not obvious? When you killed Machina, the Iron fey lost their ruler. They needed someone to sit upon the throne, give them direction. A false monarch claiming to be the Iron King answered them, but not everyone accepted him. Now, the Iron fey are split into two camps, one siding with the false king, and one that wishes to bring him down. Ironhorse is part of the second. Is that not true?”

“THAT IS CORRECT.”

“If the false king gets the scepter, he will become even more powerful,”

Grimalkin continued, gazing at me with unblinking golden eyes. “If he is to be stopped, it must happen before he receives it. Ironhorse claims to know its location. You would be foolish not to listen to him.”

“What if he’s lying?”

Ironhorse threw up his head with an indignant blast of flame. “I DO NOT

LIE,” he boomed, and I shrank back from the heat. “DESPITE WHAT YOU THINK OF ME, I AM STILL FEY, AND NO FEY CAN TELL AN UNTRUTH.”

Blinking, I looked at Puck. I hadn’t heard that before, except in vague mentions of faery lore. “Really?”

Puck nodded. “Pretty much, Princess.” He shot an evil look at Ironhorse.

“Though comparing Rusty to one of us is a bit of a stretch.”

“But…you told lies all the time, when you were Robbie. Your entire life was a lie.”

Grimalkin snorted. “Just because he cannot lie does not mean he cannot deceive, human. Robin Goodfellow is an expert at dancing around the truth.”

“Oh, look who’s talking. If you’re not an expert at screwing people over, I’ll eat my head.”

Ironhorse snorted and shook his mane. “ENOUGH. TIME IS PRESSING. WE DO NOT HAVE TIME TO ARGUE. MEGHAN CHASE, WILL YOU ACCEPT MY

HELP OR NOT?”

I looked him in the eye. His blank, rigid mask gazed back at me, expressionless and impassive. “Are you really here to help us?” I asked. “You really want to get the scepter back and stop the war?”

“YES.”

“And, you aren’t going to lead us into some kind of trap?”

“NO.”

I took a deep breath and let it out again. “That seems to be all the questions I can think of right now.”

“Here’s an important one,” Puck added. “Where is the scepter anyway, Rusty?”

Ironhorse blew a puff of steam at him. “I DO NOT ANSWER TO YOU, OLDBLOOD. MY BARGAIN IS WITH THE GIRL.”

“Yeah?” Puck’s grin grew dangerous. “What if I take you apart and turn you into a toaster oven? How’d you like that, tin can?”

“I WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU TRY.”

“Guys, please!” This was as bad as refereeing the frequent threat-fests between Puck and Ash. “Enough with the posturing and testosterone. Ironhorse, if we’re going to do this, we need to know where the scepter is. We can’t follow you blindly into wherever.”

Ironhorse bobbed his head. “OF COURSE, MEGHAN CHASE.” I frowned at his compliancy, but he went on without pause. “THE SCEPTER OF THE SEASONS HAS

BEEN TAKEN INTO THE MORTAL REALM. IT IS BEING HELD IN A PLACE CALLED

SILICON VALLEY.”

“Silicon Valley? That’s in California.”

“YES.”

“Why there?”

“SILICON VALLEY WAS THE BIRTHPLACE OF LORD MACHINA,”

Ironhorse said gravely. “MANY OF HIS LIEUTENANTS, LIKE VIRUS AND GLITCH, ALSO HAIL FROM THAT AREA. IT IS A REGION OF IRON FEY, ONE THAT THE

OLDBLOODS—” he shot a glance at Puck “—AVOID COMPLETELY. IT IS THE IDEAL

PLACE TO HIDE THE SCEPTER.”

“You can say that again,” I mused. Silicon Valley wasn’t just one city, it was every city in that area. “Finding the scepter will be like looking for a needle in a haystack—in a field of haystacks.”

“I CAN FIND IT.” Ironhorse raised his head, looking down his long nose at us. “I SWEAR IT. DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY THE WORDS? MEGHAN CHASE, I, IRONHORSE, LAST LIEUTENANT OF LORD MACHINA, WILL TAKE YOU TO THE

SCEPTER OF THE SEASONS, AND I VOW TO PROTECT YOU UNTIL IT IS IN YOUR

HANDS. THIS I SWEAR, ON MY HONOR AND MY DUTY TO THE TRUE MONARCH OF

THE IRON COURT.”

I drew in a breath, and even Puck looked surprised. An oath like that meant the speaker was bound to fulfill it. Ironhorse wasn’t playing around. As I stood there gaping at him, Puck took my arm and turned me aside.

“What about Oberon?” he murmured. “He’s the only one who can remove the seal. If we go gallivanting off to California, you won’t have your magic to protect you.”

“We can’t worry about that now.” I shook off his hand. “The scepter is more important. Besides, that’s what I have you for.” I smiled at him, and turned to Ironhorse. “All right, Ironhorse. We have a deal. Take us to the scepter.”

“Finally.” Grimalkin stood and stretched, bottlebrush tail curling over his back. “You make decisions as slowly as you answer Summonings, human. I do hope this will not become a habit.”

“Wait. You’re coming, too? Why?”

“I am bored.” Grimalkin waved his tail languidly. “And you are always entertaining…except when I am waiting for you to arrive, of course. Besides, the lieutenant and I have business, as well.”

“You do?” I waited, but he didn’t elaborate. “What is it?”

He sniffed and half slitted his eyes. “None of your concern, human. And you will need my guidance, if you want to get the scepter as quickly as possible. I believe the closest trod to Silicon Valley is through the Briars.”

Puck’s eyebrows shot up. “The Briars? You’re risking an awful lot, cat. Why don’t we try a trod a little less, oh I don’t know…lethal? If we double back, we can use the trod through the Frost Meadows. That will bring us close to San Francisco, and we can easily hitch a ride from there.”

Grimalkin shook his head. “If we want to reach Silicon Valley, we must go through the thorns. Do not worry, I will not get you lost. The trod past the Frost Meadows has become inaccessible. It sits too close to Tir Na Nog.”

“Still don’t see the problem, cat.”

Ironhorse snorted. “THE FROST MEADOWS HAVE BECOME A BATTLEFIELD, ROBIN GOODFELLOW,” he said, making my stomach clench. “WINTER

HAS ALREADY CUT A SWATH OF DESTRUCTION THROUGH THE WYLDWOOD, AND THEY ARE ADVANCING ON SUMMER AS WE SPEAK. THERE IS A HUGE ARMY

OF UNSEELIE BETWEEN US AND THAT TROD. THE CAITH SITH IS RIGHT—WE

CANNOT TURN BACK.”

“Of course I am,” Grimalkin agreed. “We go through the Briars.”

“I don’t get it,” I said, as Grim trotted off with his tail in the air, confident in his victory. “What are the Briars? Grimalkin? Hey!”

Grimalkin looked back, his eyes bright floating orbs in the gloom.

“I am not here to chitchat, human. If you truly want your question answered, ask your Puck. Perhaps he will be able to soften the reality for you. I would not.” He twitched his tail, and continued into the trees without looking back.

I looked at Puck. He grimaced and shot me a humorless smile.

“Right. The Briars. Just a second, Princess. Hey, Rusty,” he called, motioning to Ironhorse, who pinned back his ears, “why don’t you walk ahead of us, huh? I want your big ugly ass where I can see it.”

Ironhorse glared at him balefully, tossed his head, and strode after the quickly vanishing Grimalkin. The Iron faery left a faint path of destruction in his wake; branches curled away from him, plants withered and grass shriveled under his feet, leaving burned-out hoofprints on the trail. Shaking his head, Puck muttered something very rude under his breath and followed, leading us deeper into the wyldwood.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The Briars

Later, after a night of following Grimalkin through increasingly thick forest, I decided that some questions are better left unanswered.

“The Briars,” Puck began, keeping a wary eye on Ironhorse walking in front of us, “or Brambles or Thorns, or whatever you want to call it, is a maze. No one knows how big it really is, but it’s huge. Some say it encircles the entire Nevernever. There are rumors that if you’re in the wyldwood and start walking in any direction, you’ll eventually hit the Briars. You can find patches growing most anywhere, from the Greatwood and the Venom Swamps, to the courts of Arcadia and Tir Na Nog.”

“Like the Hedge,” I murmured, remembering the tunnel of thorns in Oberon’s court and the brambly escape route Grimalkin had used to get us out of Faery. The bramble wall surrounding the Seelie Court had opened for the cat, revealing a maze of tunnels in the thorns, and I’d followed him as he led me back to the mortal world. Puck nodded. “That’s another name for it. Though the Hedge is a tamer version of the real Briars. In Arcadia, the Hedge responds fairly consistently, taking you wherever you want to go within the court. Out here, in the wyldwood, the Briars are rather…sadistic.”

“You make it sound like they’re alive.”

Puck gave me a very eerie stare. “They are alive, Princess,” he warned in a low voice. “Not in the way that we’re accustomed to, but do not take them lightly. The Briars are a force, one that cannot be tamed or understood, even by Oberon or Mab. And they’re always hungry. It’s easy to get in—getting out is the tricky part. Not only that, but the things that live in the Briars are always hungry, too.”

I felt a chill run all the way down my spine. “And we’re going through the Briars…why?”

“Because the Briars have the greatest concentration of trods in all the Nevernever,” Puck replied. “There are doors hidden throughout the Briars, some constantly shifting, some only appearing at a special time under special circumstances. Rumors are that, within the Briars, there is a trod to every doorway in the mortal realm, from an L.A. strip club to some kid’s bedroom closet. Find the right door, and you’re home free.” The grin grew wider, and he shook his head. “But you have to get to it first.”


Tags: Julie Kagawa The Iron Fey Book Series
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