Right beside me.
I jumped a bit, and turned to see him sitting beside the cot, fully clothed, his sword across his lap, watching me. He wasn’t smiling, but his face was relaxed, his eyes peaceful.
“Hey,” I whispered, smiling and reaching out to him. His fingers wrapped around mine and he kissed the back of my hand, before standing.
“It’s almost time,” he said quietly, tucking his sword into his belt again. And the looming war descended like a hammer, shattering the tranquility. “Better get dressed—Glitch will be looking for us. Or worse—”
“Puck,” I groaned and struggled upright, searching for my clothes. Ash silently turned his back while I dressed, facing the door, and I bit down a giggle at his chivalry. Once I shrugged into the dragon-scale armor, I turned to show I was ready to follow him out. But Ash crossed the tiny space between us and drew me close, fingers combing my tangled hair, his expression thoughtful.
“I’ve been thinking…” he mused as I slid my arms around his neck, gazing up at him. “When this is over, let’s disappear for a while. Just the two of us. We can check on your family first, and then we can go. I can show you the Nevernever like you’ve never seen it before. Forget the courts, the Iron fey, everything. Just you and me and nothing else.”
“I’d like that,” I whispered. Ash smiled, brushed a kiss to my lips, and pulled away.
“That’s all I needed to hear.” His eyes gleamed, determined and eager, and filled with something I hadn’t see before. Hope. “Let’s go win a war.”
We stepped out of the tent together, not touching, but I didn’t need to touch him to feel him, right beside me. He was part of my soul now, and that somehow made this all the more real. The battle loomed over our heads, close and ominous, made all the more threatening by the eerie red clouds and the ash flakes drifting from them, as if the very sky was falling apart. I gazed up at the sky with a fierce determination. I would win this war. I never wanted anything like this.
“There you are.” Glitch emerged from the crowds, dressed for battle with a spear that crackled at the tip, shedding sparks of lightning. “We’re almost ready. My scouts have reported the battle has already started, that Summer and Winter have already engaged the false king’s forces. The entire army has breached the line into the wyldwood—it looks like this is it.”
My blood ran cold. “What about the fortress?”
“Not there yet.” Glitch planted the butt of the spear in the ground. “The forest is slowing it down. But it’s close. We have to hurry. Where’s Goodfellow?”
“Right here.” Puck appeared, a smug grin on his face, carrying a long pole beneath his arm. “Been working on something, princess. Last night, I was wondering how the courts were going to tell us apart from the false king’s army. Bad Iron fey, good Iron fey—they all look the same to me. Sooooo…” He swept the pole up with a flourish, and a bright green banner snapped open at the top, the silhouette of a great oak splayed proudly across the front. “I wanted to make it a picture of a flower or butterfly,” Puck said, smiling at my awed look, “but I didn’t think that would strike fear into the heart of the false king.”
“Not bad, Goodfellow,” Glitch said with grudging respect.
“Oh, so glad you think so, socket-head. My mad crocheting skills finally came in handy for something.”
“In any case,” Glitch added, rolling his eyes, “we would be proud to carry that into battle for you.”
My heart swelled. All these people were willing to follow me, to die to save Faery. I couldn’t fail them. I wouldn’t.
At that moment, a great commotion came from the edge of the camp, Iron fey shouting in alarm, tents flung aside, and the sound of thundering footsteps. A moment later, the crowds fell back as a group of huge black horses galloped into camp, skidding to a stop before me.
I gasped. They looked like smaller, sleeker versions of Ironhorse, made of black metal with burning crimson eyes and nostrils that breathed flame. As I stared, one of them stepped forward and tossed his head at me.
“Meghan Chase?” he asked in that same regal, noble air, his deep voice accompanied by a blast of cinders. I blinked rapidly and nodded.
“One called Grimalkin sent us.” The Ironhorse look-alike nodded to the others. “He carries with him the spirit of our progenitor, the first Iron Horse, and has compelled us to join you and your cause against the False Monarch. Out of respect for the Great One, we have agreed. Do you accept our assistance?”
Ironhorse, I thought sadly. You’re still helping us, even now. “I accept your offer,” I told the first horse, who nodded regally and bent his foreleg, lowering himself into a bow.
“Then, it is done,” he said, as the others bent their front legs and did the same. “For this conflict only, we will carry you and your officers into battle. Afterward, our contract is done, and you will release us.”
“Oh, goodie,” Puck said as I stepped forward. “I’m going to have a rash in the most uncomfortable places.”
I swung onto the horse’s back, feeling thick iron muscles shift under me as he rose, clanking and groaning. His metallic skin was warm to the touch, especially near my legs, as if a great fire burned inside him. I remembered the flames roaring in Ironhorse’s belly, visible through his exposed ribs and pistons, and felt another ripple of sadness at his loss.
Ash, Puck, and Glitch watched me from the backs of the metal horses, who snorted flame and tossed their heads, eager and ready. The banner was hoisted up, the black oak against a background of green flapping in the wind. I gazed out over the solemn, upturned faces and took a deep breath.
“Summer and Winter are not your enemies!” I called, my voice echoing into the silence. “They are different, yes, but they are fighting the enemy that you hate—a tyrant who seeks to destroy everything King Machina stood for. We cannot abandon them now! Peace with the courts is possible, but the false king will corrupt and enslave everyone if he wins. The only thing necessary for evil to conquer is for us and those like us to do nothing, and I will not sit by and let that happen! We will take this fight to the false king, and we will show him what happens when we stand united against him! Who is with me?”
The roar of the army was like a sudden tornado, as hundreds of voices rose up as one. I drew my sword and raised it over my head, adding to the sea of weapons flashing in the light.
“Let’s go win a war!”
I HEARD THE SOUNDS of the battle before I saw it. They echoed through the trees that marked the edge of the Iron Realm: shouts and screams, howls of fury, and weapons clashing in the wind. Every so often there was the boom of gunfire, or the thunderous roar of flame. Above the tree line, a huge emerald dragon swooped into the air, paused a moment, then dove out of sight again. Spikerail, the horse I was riding, snorted and tossed his head. “The battle has already been joined,” he announced, nearly prancing with excitement. “Shall we give the order to charge?”
“Not yet,” I replied, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get through the trees, at least. I want to see the battle, first.”
He pawed the ground impatiently, but kept his pace to a fast walk as we entered the forest. The metal trunks closed around us, dark and twisted, smelling of rust and battery acid. Above the clash of battle, I heard something else in the woods—a great snapping and groaning, as if something huge were pushing through the trees.
“Faster,” I told Spikerail, and he broke into a trot, stirring up clouds of ash as we moved through the forest. The sounds of battle drew closer. And then the trees fell away, and we were gazing down on mass chaos. I’d seen the fey in battle twice now, but this seemed even more vicious, more desperate, as if hell itself had been released onto the field. Troops swarmed each other like ants, hacking with ancient and modern weapons, blades and armor glinting in the swirling ash storm. Iron beetles lumbered through the mobs, the gunmen on their backs blasting away. Creatures plunged and dove through the air; an icy-blue dragon, its scales streaked with red, landed on the back of an iron bug, blasted the musket elves with a deadly spray of frost before they could react, and swooped away again. A gryphon, darting by with an elfin rider, was snatched out of the air by a clockwork golem and smashed against a rock. Two metallic praying mantises double-teamed a Summer knight, slashing at him with their massive, curved blades, until he slipped in the ash and was instantly beheaded. The battle wasn’t going well, it seemed. There was a lot more silver and gray on the field than green and gold, blue and black.
“Looks like we got here just in time,” Puck mused beside me. “Ready for the
‘here comes the cavalry’ charge, princess?”
“If we hit their right flank,” Ash said, observing the battle with narrowed silver eyes, “we may surprise them where their line is thin and tear through them before they can react.”
I met both their gazes, fierce, protective, blazing with determination and love, and felt no fear. Well, maybe a little fear, but it was swallowed by resolve and the almost painful need to win this fight. Drawing my blade, I wheeled Spikerail to face the army—my army, truth be told—and looked out over the taut, waiting forces.
“For Faery!” I called, raising my sword, and the rebels took up the cry. A few hundred voices rose into the air, roaring, cheering, stabbing their weapons skyward. My adrenaline soared as the crescendo echoed around me, and I howled again, adding my voice to the mix. With a shrill whinny, Spikerail reared, pawing the air, and plunged down the slope.
Wind whipped at my hair and ash swirled around me, stinging my eyes. My ears were filled with pounding hoof-beats and the roar of the army behind us. We neared the ocean of battle, the rise and fall of soldiers like waves on the shore, the scream and clash of weapons, and roared as we came in, like a hurricane coming to land. The false king’s army turned just as we hit them, their eyes going wide, desperately readying to meet this new threat, but by then it was too late. We slammed into them with the force of a tidal wave, swift and vengeful, and all hell broke loose around me.
Spikerail plunged through the masses, blasting and breathing flame, powerful hooves lashing out at those who got too close. I struck out from his back, stabbing at the false king’s army with my sword. Everything was chaos. I was vaguely aware of Ash and Puck fighting close to me, fending off attacks from all sides. I saw Ash stab one Iron knight through the chest and hurl an ice spear through another. I saw Puck throw what looked like a fuzzy golf ball at a group of Iron knights, where it erupted into an angry grizzly. Glitch whirled his spear in a deadly circle, lightning arcing from the tip, stabbing the point through the knights’ armor to fry them to blackened husks.
Where’s Oberon? I wondered, blocking a spear thrust at my face, kicking the knight away. I had to find him, to tell him that the rebels were not the enemy, that they were here to help. I spotted Glitch through a lull in the fighting and nudged Spikerail in his direction. If Glitch was there as well, to explain himself and his actions, perhaps Oberon would listen.