“Glitch!” I called as we drew close. “Come with m—”
A bellow interrupted us, and a huge clockwork golem plowed through the ranks, swinging its club and sending rebels flying. It caught Glitch by surprise, and the rebel leader tried to dodge, too late. The metal club caught his horse’s shoulder and knocked both of them several feet through the air. I screamed, but my voice was lost in the cacophony, and the golem lumbered closer to the motionless Glitch, raising its club for the killing blow. Ash suddenly wheeled his horse around and charged the golem, hurling an ice dagger that shattered off the metal skull, making its head snap up. Roaring, it swung at Ash, and my heart leaped to my throat as the huge club came swooshing down. But at the last moment, Ash sprang from his mount’s back and landed on the golem’s arm, running up to its shoulder. As the golem pulled back with a roar, thrashing and flailing, the Ice Prince raised his sword and stabbed it through the construct’s neck. There was a flash of blue light, and the golem bellowed, falling to its knees. Ash leaped off the giant, landing on his feet in the grass, as the golem shuddered and collapsed into a hundred pieces of frozen clockwork, rolling through the ashes.
“I’m not impressed, ice-boy!” Puck yelled, kicking away an Iron knight. “Do that again, only this time, make it dance!”
Ignoring Puck, I turned Spikerail and hurried over to where Glitch had fallen. His horse lay in an ash drift, struggling to get up, and Glitch lay a few feet away, his spikes snapping feebly.
“Glitch!” I leaped off Spikerail’s back and ran to the prone figure, kneeling beside him in the ashes. “Are you all right? Talk to me.” Ash and Puck loomed to either side, protecting us from surrounding chaos. I reached down and shook his limp arm. “Glitch!”
He groaned and cracked open his eyes. “Ow,” he moaned. “Dammit, what hit me?” He tried sitting up and winced, grabbing his arm. “Ouch. That’s not good.”
“Can you stand?” I asked anxiously.
He nodded and tried to get up, but gasped and sank back again, gritting his teeth. “Nope. Ribs broken, as well. Sorry, highness.” Glitch swore and shook his head. “I might have to sit this one out.”
“That’s fine. We just have to get you out of here.” I looked around, flinching as Puck leaped between me and a clockwork hound, cutting the dog out of the air. I spotted Glitch’s horse, finally on his feet though looking a bit dazed, and gave a shrill whistle. “Coaleater!” I yelled, remembering the horse’s name. “Over here!
The horse limped up, and we helped Glitch heave himself onto its back.
“Take him to safety,” I told the horse, who bobbed his head in consent, seemingly glad to get out of the fight. “Make sure he gets the help he needs. I’ll take it from here.”
“Meghan.” Glitch’s voice, though reedy with pain, was firm. The rebel leader gazed down at me and nodded, once. “I was wrong about you. Good luck. Win this war for us.”
“I will,” I replied, as Coaleater moved carefully but swiftly out of sight, disappearing into the swirling ash. Now it was the three of us, just like before. Puck and Ash pressed close, and I narrowed my eyes, peering through the whirling bodies. “Let’s find Oberon, right now.”
I threw myself back into the fight, Puck and Ash right beside me. Together, we carved our way through the seemingly endless ranks of Iron fey. Sweat ran into my eyes, my dragon-scale armor took a hundred or so painful bangs and scrapes, and my arms burned from swinging my sword, but we continued to fight, inching our way across the field. I became lost in the dance: block, swing, parry, dodge, stab, repeat, always moving on, always pressing forward. An iron beetle bore down on us, muskets firing, and I drew on the Iron glamour to tear the bolts from its legs at the joints, fighting the nausea that overtook me right after. The beetle crashed to the ground and was quickly overrun. Another clockwork giant stumbled into our midst, and this time both Ash and Puck went after it, Puck turning into a raven and pecking at its eyes, while Ash darted around and leaped onto its back, plunging his blade through its chest. Glamour swirled around me, Iron, Summer, and Winter, though the magic of the Iron fey was much stronger here. I could feel it, pulsing through the land, lending strength to both the rebels and the forces of the false king. I could feel the core of the Iron glamour drawing closer, pulsing and angry, corrupting everything in its path. For just a moment, I was distracted, and that was long enough for something to slip through my guard. The tip of a spear cut through my defenses and slammed me in the shoulder, not enough to pierce the dragon-scale, but hard enough to rock me back and send a flare of pain up my arm. I dropped my sword, and the knight pulled back for another shot.
A huge, gnarled fist closed over his head, crushing the helmet like a grape and lifting the knight high into the air. I gaped as a monstrous, treelike being with thick, thorny skin and a crown of antlers flung the knight away, then turned to knock back a whole platoon with its treelike limbs. Grasses and flowers bloomed briefly where it stepped, as the great tree creature moved forward with surprising speed and grace, looming above my head, as if to protect me. Then its gaze swept down, and I was staring into the ancient, familiar face of the Summer King.
“You’ve returned.” Oberon’s voice shook the ground, deeper and lower than a thunderclap, and just as emotionless. The Seelie King gave no hint as to what he was feeling, if he felt anything when he saw me. “And you have brought more Iron fey to our territory.”
“They’re here to help us!” I yelled, snatching my sword and glaring up at him. He gazed back with impassive green eyes, and I stabbed a finger in his direction. “Don’t you dare turn on them, Father! They want the same thing you do!”
Oberon blinked, and I realized I had just called him father. Well, I was the Summer princess; it was useless to deny it any longer. “I make no promises,” the Seelie King said, and turned away, his giant limbs crushing another pair of Iron knights. “We shall see, after the battle, what to do with the intruders.”
Furious, I snarled a curse and turned on the Iron knight trying to rush me from behind. Stupid, unreasonable, uncompromising faeries! He’d better not try anything with the rebels when this was done. I’d given my word that they would be safe from him and Mab.
I stabbed my sword through the chest of an Iron knight, watched the empty armor clatter to the ground, and looked up for the next enemy. Only to find there wasn’t one. I looked around to see the false king’s forces pulling back, running away. As a tired cheer rose up from the army around us, I looked up to see Oberon, surrounded by the remains of countless Iron fey, crush a final golem into scrap metal and turn to me. A shiver went through the Summer King. He began shrinking, growing smaller and less…thorny…until he was as I remembered him. But his eyes, and the inflexibility on his face, remained.
“Why have you brought them here?” Oberon demanded, his cold gaze going to the rebels at my back. “More Iron fey to poison the land, more Iron fey that would destroy us.”
“No!” I stepped forward, instinctively shielding them behind me. “I told you before, they’re here to help. They want the false king gone, just like you.”
“And what then? Offer them sanctuary within our courts? Let them go back to the Iron Realm, so that it may continue to spread and corrupt our home?”
Oberon seemed to grow in stature, though his size remained the same. The rebels murmured and cringed back as the Seelie King swept his arm over the crowd.
“Every Iron fey, whether they are hostile or peaceful, is a danger to us. We will never be safe while they are alive. This is why we asked you to go into their realm and destroy the Iron King. You have failed us. And now, all of Faery will perish because of you.”
“I gave my word that they would be safe here!” I shouted, feeling Ash and Puck step up beside me. “If you attack them, you’ll make me your enemy, as well! And I don’t think you can afford an attack on two fronts, Father.”
“The girl is right.” A blast of icy cold, and Mab the Winter Queen swept up, her white battlegown streaked with splashes of red and black. “We waste time arguing here while our home is being destroyed around us. Let the rogue fey fight with us—there will be time later to decide their fate.”
I didn’t like the sound of that, either, but in another moment, it didn’t matter. A loud grinding, ripping sound echoed across the field, coming from the edge of the woods, like thousands of trees were being snapped at once. Branches shook violently, swaying like reeds in the wind, and my heart lurched as the massive bulk of the fortress broke through the edge of the woods, crushing trees beneath it, and dragged itself onto the field.
Up close, the false king’s fortress was even larger than I’d thought, casting a looming shadow across the battleground and blocking out the sky. Again, I was struck by how irregular it was, an accumulation of different parts—smokestacks, towers, balconies—thrown into place with no care as to how it looked, yet somehow held together. Smoke leaked from every crevice, billowing into the sky, and the entire thing moved forward with a cacophony of clanks and groans and squeals, sending chills down my spine.
As the armies of Summer and Winter drew back in shock from the monstrous structure, Ash grabbed my arm and pointed to the ground beneath it. “Look!” he said, his voice filled with horror and disbelief. “Look at what’s carrying it!”
I gasped, hardly comprehending what I saw. The fortress was being carried on the shoulders of hundreds, maybe thousands, of packrats. They shuffled forward in a daze, their eyes blank and glassy, moving across the field like ants with a giant grasshopper.
“Oh, God,” I whispered, stumbling back a step. “They don’t know what they’re doing. The false king must have enchanted them somehow.”
“Uh, enchanted or not, they’re not stopping,” Puck observed, looking nervous as the huge fortress crawled forward, moving at a slow but steady pace through the falling ash. “If we’re gonna get inside that thing and stop the false king, now would be a great time.”
“Attack!” roared Oberon, sweeping his arm toward the moving citadel. “All forces, stop that castle! Do not let it cross the lines!”
The armies surged forward again, both my Iron fey and the oldbloods, uncaring that they were suddenly fighting side by side. In the face of a much greater evil, they hurled themselves at the fortress, their battle cries rising into the air as one.
A flash of smoke and fire erupted from the fortress, and a moment later the explosion of a cannonball rocked the ground, sending several flying. Suddenly the air was filled with explosions, as the fortress opened fire on the advancing fey. Howls and screams rose into the air, and from the woods, coming from behind the fortress, another regiment of the false king’s swarmed onto the field.
“Reinforcements!” I gasped as the new army slammed into our forces. Drawing my sword, I turned to Ash and Puck. “Let’s go. One way or another, we have to get into that fortress.”