Iron's ProphecyBy: Julie Kagawa
Darkness surrounded me.
I stood in the center of a familiar room, the walls and shelves covered with the macabre and strange. Snakes floating in jars, teeth scattered among feathers and bones and pestles. A skeleton in a top hat grinning at me from the corner. Frightening, but I wasn’t afraid. I knew this place. I just couldn’t remember from where.
An old wooden rocking chair creaked softly at the edge of the light. It was facing away from me, and I could see a body slumped in the seat, withered arms dangling over the sides. I took a step closer and smelled the decay, the stench of grave dust and rags and ancient newspapers, crumbling in the attic. Walking around to face the chair, I gazed down at the shriveled corpse of an old woman, her nails curved into long, steely talons, her head slumped on her sunken chest.
Then she raised her head, and her eyes burned with black fire as she opened her mouth and breathed the words that stopped my heart in fear.
And I awoke.
* * *
My name is Meghan Chase.
And I’ve been working way too hard, lately.
I lifted my head from my desk, blinking at my computer and the nonsensical words scrolled across the screen. A quick glance at the clock proclaimed it 6:32 a.m. Had I pulled another all-nighter? I yawned, shaking cobwebs from my mind, as memory returned. No, I’d come here only an hour ago, to check the status of the new railroad system that was going up around the Iron Realm. It was a pet project of mine; the Iron Realm, despite being the smallest and newest realm in the Nevernever, was still large and sprawling. It needed a way for its citizens to travel safely and quickly, particularly if they were coming to Mag Tuiredh to see their new queen. The railroad was the perfect solution, though it would be a while before it was finished.
I rubbed my eyes, the remnants of a dream fading from my mind. Something with a skeleton and a creepy old corpse…I couldn’t remember. Maybe I needed to slow down, take a break or a vacation, if the Iron Queen was allowed such things. It wasn’t such an impossible idea now. The Iron Court, despite all the fear and hatred it still faced from the other courts, was doing well. There were a few hiccups, particularly involving the Winter Court, as Tir Na Nog’s boundaries rested very close to Iron, but as a whole things were going far more smoothly and peacefully than I could’ve hoped for.
Which reminded me. Today marked the first day of Winter. The Winter Court Elysium was this afternoon in Tir Na Nog. I groaned at the thought.
At my feet, Beau, my German shepherd, raised his head and thumped his tail hopefully, and I smiled down at him.
“Hey, boy. You need to go out?”
The big dog panted and surged to his feet, wagging his tail. I ruffled his fur and stood, then winced as the floor swayed and a cloud of nausea bloomed in my stomach. Frowning, I put my hand on the desk to steady myself, clenching my jaw until the spell passed. Beau nudged my hand and whined.
I patted his neck, and the sick feeling faded and everything was normal again. “I’m okay, boy,” I assured the dog, who gazed up at me with worried brown eyes. “Working too hard, I guess. Come on, I bet Razor is waiting for his daily game of catch-me-if-you-can.”
We slipped into the hallway of the palace, where I was instantly trailed by several gremlins, tiny Iron fey that lived for trouble and chaos. They laughed and skittered around me, climbing walls and hanging from the ceiling, taunting poor Beau, until we reached the doors that led to the gardens surrounding the palace. As soon as I opened the doors, the gremlins shot through, buzzing challenges, and Beau took off after them, barking like mad. I rolled my eyes and shut the door as quiet returned to the Iron palace, if only temporarily. I couldn’t help but smile as I headed back to my chambers, nodding at the Iron knights who bowed as I passed. This was my life now, crazy and weird and strange and magical, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
* * *
As soon as I wandered back into the bedroom, my gaze strayed to the large bed along the wall and the lump beneath the covers. Pale light streamed through the half-open curtains, settling around the still-sleeping form of a Winter sidhe. Or a former Winter sidhe. Pausing in the door frame, I took advantage of the serene moment just to watch him, a tiny flutter going through my stomach. Sometimes, it was still hard to believe that he was here, that this wasn’t a dream or a mirage or a figment of my imagination. That he was mine forever: my husband, my knight.
My faery with a soul.
He lay on his stomach, arms beneath the pillow, breathing peacefully, his dark hair falling over his eyes. The covers had slipped off his lean, muscular shoulders, and the early-morning rays caressed his pale skin. Normally, I didn’t get to watch him sleep; he was usually up before me, in the courtyard sparring with Glitch or just prowling the halls of the castle. In the early days of our marriage, especially, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find him gone, the hyperawareness of his warrior days making it impossible for him to stay in one place, even to sleep. He’d grown up in the Unseelie Court, where you had to watch your back every second of every day, and centuries of fey survival could not be forgotten so easily. That paranoia would never really fade, but he was gradually starting to relax now, to the point where sometimes, though not often, I would wake with him still beside me, his arm curled around my waist.
And given how rare it was, to see him truly unguarded and at ease, I hated to disturb him. But I walked across the room to the side of the bed and gently touched his shoulder.
He was awake in an instant, silver eyes cracking open to meet mine, never failing to take my breath away. “Hey,” I greeted, smiling. “Sorry to wake you, but we have to be somewhere soon, remember?”
He grunted and, to my surprise, shifted to his back and put the pillow over his head. “I don’t suppose I could convince you to go without me,” he groaned, his voice muffled beneath the fabric. “Tell Mab I’ve been eaten by a manticore or something?”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous.” I snatched the pillow off his head, and he winced, peering up at me blearily. “It’s our first Elysium together, Ash. They’ll be expecting us. Both of us.” He moaned and grabbed another pillow, covering his eyes. “No playing hooky and insulting the Winter Queen. I’m not doing this by myself.” I took the second pillow, tossing it on the floor, and mock-glowered at him. “Up.”
He regarded me with a wry smile. “You’re awfully perky for someone who kept me up all night.”
“Hey, you started it, remember?” I feigned defiance, but it still made my heart soar to see him like this. It was like tiny pieces of his wall crumbled every day, showing me the bright, beautiful soul that lay beneath. I knew it was there, of course, when he had returned from his quest at the End of the World, but it had been new and fragile and overshadowed by his past, by his Unseelie nature and ruthless upbringing. Now, though, I could see more of it every day. He was still Ash the ice prince to everyone else in the castle, and sometimes that frozen barrier sprang up when he was angry or upset, but he was trying.
“So, come on.” I poked him in the ribs, making him grunt. “If I have to suffer through this, you do, too. That was part of the deal when you married me.”
I went to poke him again, but his hand shot out faster than I could see, grabbing my wrist and pulling me forward. I gave a startled yelp and fell on top of him, and his arms immediately snaked around my waist, trapping me against him.
“I don’t know,” he mused, giving me a lazy smile, as my heart started pounding in my chest. “What would you do if I just kept you here all afternoon? We could send Glitch to Tir Na Nog in our place—I’m sure he’d smooth things over.”
“Oh, yeah, that would go over well—” But my voice was lost as Ash leaned up and kissed me, cutting off any protest. My eyes closed, and I melted into him, savoring the feel of his lips on mine, breathing in his scent. God, he was like a drug; I could never get enough. My fingers roamed over his bare shoulders and chest, and he sighed against me, sliding his hands up to tangle in my hair.