All their heads went up toward the voice, and then they all turned back to Dakotah.
“Fuck,” said Phin.
Dakotah had the same thought.
“She’s coming!” cried the Seelie fighter.
Damnshitfuck, thought Dakotah.
“Free the king and queen,” he yelled, and then ran to meet Samantha.
“Dakotah!” his friends called after him, but he didn’t look back.
He made it to the front of the tree as Samantha and her entourage burst over the clearing. Spotting him, she roared a laugh and swooped toward the ground. She alighted, the Unseelie all around her.
Dakotah had not gotten a good look at her before. Now she strode forward and he had time to take her in. Her skin was tree-like, brown and barky. She had glittering wings, bigger than any other fairy. Clothing made of leaves and flowing scraps of fabric were draped over her. Her most fascinating feature was her hair–if it could be called that. Over a moon-shaped face, prairie grass grew in sweeping waves. Here and there small trees were growing, not horns like Dakotah thought he’d seen before. Flowers bloomed and a light dew covered everything. Small birds flitted around her head.
“Guardian,” Samantha said. Her voice was sour. “Meddler. Did it ever occur to you that the affairs of fairy are not yours to control? Give humans an inch of power and they will take the world with it–”
“Sounds familiar,” interrupted Dakotah.
To his surprise, Samantha laughed. The birds in her hair chirped and the grass looked greener.
“At least I remain in the domain of my people,” she said. “But you, and Icarus, and Sunil–” Her hair was frosting over, leaves dropping from trees, grass turning brown. “Humans should remain subject to the fey, as they were in the past. Like animals, close to the nature magic, knowing naught but fear for us.”
“There have been Guardians just as long as fey,” Dakotah said flatly. Was that true? He had absolutely no idea. His knowledge of Guardianship was limited. A lot of it had come from his own experiences. As uncertain as he sometimes felt, he still knew when he was doing something right. When he took on the powers of the fey around him, it felt natural. When he’d connected with the House, it felt right. When Val had first shown him how to raise the Shield, he’d known he was connecting to something ancient and intrinsic, something that came so easily because it was built into his role. He wished he could just cover the whole army with a shield, but he knew that wouldn’t solve anything in the long term.
But he’d stand there and tell lies about being a Guardian all day if necessary, because all he wanted now was to give his friends time to free the king and queen.
“We cannot follow,” the Seelie knight said to Pete, Phin, and Val. Both he and the bunny soldier looked sick to their stomachs by the iron tree.
“We’ve got it,” Pete said with her usual confidence.
Phin felt, for once, the same confidence. “Guard the outside,” he ordered. He lifted a hand and parted the metal leaves so Val and Pete could pass through.
He followed and let the leaves fall behind him.
Immediately the noise of battle ceased. They were in the small space between the metal canopy and the trunk. Val looked around them nervously. “Should I be helping Dakotah?”
Phin and Pete hesitated. Finally Phin shook his head. “You know the most about magic. We might run into something weird down here. Dakotah knows how to fight, he can hold her off.”
Pete crouched by the trunk. “Plus, if you go out, Samantha might realize Phin and I are here.” She reached out, hesitating just a moment before putting her hands to the trunk. She curled her fingers around a cool handle and pulled. Part of the tree swung open, revealing a dark interior, also made of iron.
“There’s something–” Val pointed. Pete took a step inside even as Phin’s hand fell on her shoulder.
“A body,” said Pete. A shriveled fairy corpse lay on the ground, its fingers reaching for the door.
“What the fuck happened to it?” Val asked.
Pete looked up. The tree was hollow on the inside. “Maybe one of the builders, poisoned by the iron.”
They passed the body, and two more, as they walked single file into the tree. After a short distance, metal stairs descended into the ground. Pete, in the lead, looked all around. There was nowhere else to go. She led the way down.
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