The Iron Knight
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And, for just a moment, I wanted to kill him. I wanted to take my sword and plunge it deep into his chest, to watch the light fade from his eyes right before he crumpled at my feet. Turning away, I struggled to compose myself, to stif le the cold rage ebbing through me. The demon inside was stirring, unwil ing to hold back any longer, and the core of the rage was directed, like a spearhead, at Puck.
“Ash,” the voice whispered again, and I looked up.
Several yards away, barely visible through the mist, a ghostly, glowing figure walked through a space between the briars, catching my eye and then vanishing from sight. My breath caught in my throat.
Forgetting Puck, forgetting everything that had brought us here, I followed the figure into the mist. Voices hissed at me through the brambles, faint and incomprehensible, though every so often I heard them whisper my name. I caught glimpses of the lone figure through the branches, always walking away from me, just out of reach.
Somewhere in the mist, I heard Puck cal my name as he tried to fol ow, but I ignored him. Ahead of me, the thorns finally thinned, and the ghostly figure strode purposeful y forward, never glancing back. It turned a corner, and I hurried to catch up….
The brambles fel away, and I found myself in a smal clearing, thick briars hemming me in on either side. Before me, rising out of the mist, a bleached-white skeleton lay sprawled in the mud and stagnant water of the clearing. The skeleton was huge, an enormous reptilian creature with thick hind legs and a long, powerful tail. Wingbones lay folded beneath it, snapped and broken, and the huge jaws were open in a last, silent roar.
I started to shake. Not with fear, but with complete, all consuming fury, and despair burned my throat like bile. I knew this place. I recognized where we were at last. It was here, on this spot, that Puck, Ariel a and I had fought and kill ed a monstrous wyvern, slaying it but losing one of our own in the process. This was the hol ow where Ariel a died. This was the place where I'd vowed to kill Puck. It had all started right here.
It would end here, as well .
“Ash!” Footsteps splashed behind me, as Puck came into the clearing and stumbled to a halt, panting. “Dammit, iceboy, what's gotten into you?
Next time, give me a heads-up that you're taking off. Don't leave a guy standing in a creepy, mist-fil ed hol ow of death all by himself.”
“Do you know where we are?” I asked softly, not turning around. I felt his puzzlement, then heard his sudden intake of breath as he realized.
I gripped my sword and spun slowly to face him, feeling darkness spread through me like a rush of ink. The Unseelie demon was ful y awake now, the icy barrier that held it at bay shattered. Memories rose up, fresh and painful: the hunt, the chase into the hol ow at Puck's insistence, the roar of the monster as it charged with lethal speed. Rage and despair swirled around me; whether mine or the memories of this dark place, I didn't know.
Nor did I care. Meeting Puck's eyes, I started forward.
“Ash,” Puck said, backing away, his eyes wary and hooded, “wait. What are you doing?”
“I told you.” I advanced steadily, calmly, the sword heavy in my hand.
“I warned you that it would be soon. It's time, Puck. Today.”
“Not now.” He paled, and drew his daggers. I didn't stop, and he circled with me, his weapons held up and ready. “Ash, get a hold of yourself,” he said, almost pleading. “We can't do this now. You're not here for her.”
“Look at where we are!” I roared, sweeping my blade toward the bleached skeleton in the mud. “If not now, when? This is the place, Puck! This is the place she died. I lost Ariel a right here. Because of you!” My voice broke, and I sucked in a breath as Puck stared at me with wide eyes. I'd never said those words to him; it was always an unspoken feud that drove us to fight each other. We both knew the reason, but I'd never accused Puck out loud, until now.
“You know I didn't mean for that to happen.” Puck's voice shook as we continued to circle each other, blades bare and glittering in the faint light. “I loved her, too, prince.”
“Not like me.” I couldn't stop myself now. The rage was a cold, all -consuming fire, fed from the darkness of the earth, from the grief and hate and painful memories that had seeped into this spot. “And that doesn't change the fact that her death is on your head. If I'd kill ed you when we first met, like I was supposed to, she would stil be alive!”
“You don't think I know that?” Puck was shouting now, green eyes fe-verish. “You don't think I regret what I did, every single day? You lost Ariel a, but I lost you both! Believe it or not, I was kind of a mess, too, Ash. It got to a point where I actual y looked forward to our random duels, because that was the only time I could talk to you. When you were freaking trying to kill me!”
“Don't compare your loss to mine,” I snarled. “You have no idea what I went through, what you caused.”
“You think I don't know pain?” Puck shook his head at me. “Or loss?
I've been around a lot longer than you, prince! I know what love is, and I've lost my fair share, too. Just because we have a different way of handling it, doesn't mean I don't have scars of my own.”
“Name one,” I scoffed. “Give me one instance where you haven't—”
“Meghan Chase!” Puck roared, startling me into silence. I blinked, and he sneered at me. “Yeah, your highness. I know what loss is. I've loved that girl since before she knew me. But I waited. I waited because I didn't want to lie about who I was. I wanted her to know the truth before anything else.
So I waited, and I did my job. For years, I protected her, biding my time, until the day she went into the Nevernever after her brother. And then you came along. And I saw how she looked at you. And for the first time, I wanted to kill you as much as you wanted to kill me.
“So, here, prince!” he said, and without warning, f lipped his daggers at me. They struck the ground at my feet, hilts up, glinting in the dim light. “I'm tired of fighting. You want your revenge?” He straightened and f lung his arms wide, glaring at me. “Come and take it! This is the place where she died, where it all started. Here I am, Ash—strike me down already. I won't even fight you. Let's end this, once and for all !”
The rage in me boiled. Raising my sword, I went for him, sweeping the blade down at his neck, a blow that would slice through his col arbone and out the other side. I would end this, right here. Puck didn't move, nor did his gaze stray from mine as I lunged forward. He didn't f linch as the weapon sliced down in a blur of icy blue——and stopped.
My hands shook, and the sword trembled against Puck's col arbone, the edge drawing the faintest line of red against his skin. I was panting, breathing hard, but he stil watched me, his face blank, and I could see my tortured ref lection in his eyes. Do it, the rage whispered as I struggled to make my arms move, to finish what I'd started. Strike him down. This is what you've always wanted. End the feud, and keep your promise.
Puck took a deep, careful breath and spoke softly, almost a whisper. “If you're going to do it, prince, do it now. The anticipation is kill ing me.”
I straightened, bracing myself for the deed. Robin Goodfel ow would die today. It had to end like this. It didn't matter that Puck had lost just as much as I had, that his pain was just as great, that he loved Meghan enough to step aside, to bow out graceful y. Never mind that he loved her so much he would join his sworn enemy on a search for the impossible, just to ensure her happiness. He was here, not because of me, but because of her.
None of that mattered. I had sworn an oath, here, on this very spot, and I had to see it through.
I gripped the sword handle, steeling myself. Puck stood rock-stil , waiting. I raised the sword again…and whirled away with a roar of frustration, f linging my weapon into the nearest bramble patch.
Puck couldn't quite conceal his sigh of relief as I stalked away, retreating into the mist and out of sight before I fel apart. Dropping to my knees, I slammed my fist into the mud and bowed my head, wishing the earth would open up and swal ow me whole. I shook with anger, with grief and selfloathing and regret. Regret of what conspired here.
That I had failed. That I had ever made that vow to kill my closest friend.
I'm sorry, Ariella. Forgive me. I'm weak. I wasn't able to keep my promise.
How long I knelt there, I didn't know. Perhaps only minutes, but before I could really compose myself, I had the sudden knowledge that I wasn't alone. Wondering if Puck was really foolish enough to bother me now, I raised my head.
It wasn't Puck.
A robed figure stood at the edge of the mist, pale and indistinct, blending into the surrounding fog. Its cowl was raised, showing nothing but darkness beneath the hood, but I could feel its eyes on me, watching.
I rose slowly, muscles tensed to leap away should the stranger make any move to attack. I wished I had my sword, but there was no time to regret that now.
Watching the stranger, I felt a glimmer of recognition. We'd met before, recently in fact. This was the same presence I had felt in my nightmare of the Iron Realm, the one keeping just out of sight, holding me to the dreamworld. And as my memory returned with the shattered pieces of my composure, I finally recal ed why we were here, who we had come to find.
“You are…the seer?” I asked softly. My voice came out shaky and was swal owed by the coiling fog, but the robed figure nodded. “Then…you know why I've come.”
Another nod. “Yes,” the seer whispered, its voice softer than the mist around us. “I know why you are here, Ash of the Winter Court. The real question is…do you?”
I took a breath to answer, but the seer stepped forward and pushed back its hood.
The world fel out from under me. I stared, staggered and frozen in a way that had nothing to do with winter.
“Hello, Ash,” Ariel a whispered. “It's been a long time.”