The Iron Knight
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“A body,” I muttered, as the Wolf peered over my shoulder. “There was a body lying here, on its stomach. Not a hobyah, either. My size.”
“Are you sure?” the Wolf growled. Lowering his muzzle, he sniffed the spot I pointed to and sneezed again, shaking his head. “Pah, I can't smel anything but hobyah stink.”
“They had it surrounded,” I mused, seeing the scene in my mind. “It must have come out of the water, pulled itself onto the bank, then col apsed here.
No, not just one.” I ran my fingers over the grass. “There was another one here. Two of them. The hobyahs probably found them when they were passed out.”
“Hobyahs aren't anyone's friends,” the Wolf said gravely. “And they eat almost everything. There might not be anything left once we catch up.”
I ignored the Wolf, though a cold rage burned deep in my stomach, making me want to put my sword through some creature's head. As I followed the tracks farther up the bank, more of the scene played out before me. “They dragged them away,” I continued, pointing at a spot where the grass was f lattened and bent in one direction, “into the forest.”
“Impressive,” the Wolf growled, coming to stand beside me. “And unfortunate, considering those two are now at the mercy of bloodthirsty cannibals.” He sniffed and gazed into the dark tangle of trees. “I suppose this means we are going after them.”
Relief, swift and sudden, bloomed through me. They were stil alive.
Captured perhaps, in danger of being tortured or kill ed, but for now, they were alive. I shot the Wolf a cold stare.
“What do you think?”
He bared his fangs at me. “Be careful, boy. In some tales, the hero gets eaten by the monster after all .”
Tracking the hobyahs through the dark, eerie forest proved easier then fol owing the river. They didn't bother to cover their tracks, and their greasy odor clung to every leaf and twig and blade of grass they stepped on or brushed by.
The trail led us deep into the woods, until at last, the ground sloped away and we were staring down into a shal ow basin fil ed with swampy water. Thatch huts stood on wooden stilts over the murk, and long spears standing point up in the mud held an assortment of rib cages, rotting carcasses and severed heads.
Small, pale creatures like those from the riverbank swarmed the vil age like ants whose nest had been invaded. They barely came up to my knee. Along with their dark cloaks and hoods, many of them wore thin spears that looked to be made of bone.
The Wolf growled and shifted beside me. “Disgusting things, hobyahs.
And they taste even worse then they look.” He turned to me. “What are you going to do now, little prince?”
“I have to find Puck and Ariel a, if they're down there.” “Hmm. Perhaps they are in that pot.”
An enormous kettle hung on stilts in the middle of the camp, with a crackling fire underneath. Noxious black fumes came from whatever was in the pot, and I shook my head. “No,” I mused, dismissing that notion immediately. “Both of them are too smart to end up like that.”
“If you say so,” the Wolf mused as we circled the camp. “I hope your faith in those two does not get you kill ed.”
“There you are!” hissed an impatient voice above my head. “Where have you been? I was beginning to think the dog had eaten you after all.”
The Wolf snarled and spun around, craning his neck at the tree, where Grimalkin peered at us from a branch safely out of reach. “I've grown tired of your insults, cait sith,” he chal enged, eyes blazing with pure hatred. “Come down here and say that. I'll rip that arrogant tongue right out of your head. I'll crush your skul in my teeth, tear the hide off your useless feline skeleton and eat your heart.”
His voice was getting louder with each threat. I put a hand on his huge shoulder and shoved, hard. “Quiet!” I warned as he turned with a snarl. “You'l alert the camp. There's no time for this now.”
“A wise statement,” Grimalkin replied, giving the Wolf a lazy, half-lidded stare. “And the prince is correct, much as I would enjoy watching you chase your tail and bark at the moon.” The Wolf growled again, but the cat ignored him, looking at me. “Goodfel ow and the seer are being held in one of the inner huts, stil unconscious, I believe. The hobyah shaman is keeping them in a drugged sleep—so much easier to put them in the kettle when the time comes. They have been waiting for it to get hot enough, but I believe it is very nearly ready.”
“Then we need to move fast.” Crouching, I looked over the camp again but spoke to the Wolf. “I'm going to sneak around the back. Do you think you can create a big enough diversion for me to find the others and get out of there?”
The Wolf bared his teeth in a savage grin. “I think I can come up with something.”
“Wait for my signal, then. Grimalkin—” I looked to the cait sith, who blinked calmly “—show me where they are.”
We crept around the outskirts of the camp, moving soundlessly through the trees and marshy undergrowth, until Grimalkin stopped at the edge of the basin and sat down.
“There,” he said, nodding to the left side of the camp. “The shaman's hut is the second one from the rotting tree. The one with the torches and the chicken feet strung across the entrance.”
“All right,” I murmured, staring at the hut. “I'll take it from here. You should hide—” But Grimalkin was already gone.
I closed my eyes and drew my glamour to me, creating a cloak of shadows that the light would shy away from. As long as I didn't make any noise or draw attention to myself, glances would slide past me and torchlight would not penetrate my fabricated darkness.
With the glamour cloak in place, I walked down the slope into the swampy basin.
The smel s here were foul and potent; rancid water, putrid carcasses, rotting fish and the oily, reptilian stench of the hobyahs themselves.
They hissed and snarled at each other in their garbled, burbled language, punctuated by one recognizable word: hobyah. Probably how they got their name. Moving from shadow to shadow, being careful not to slosh the warm swamp water that soaked my legs, I made my way to the shaman's hut.
Chanting sounds and a thick, pungent smoke drifted past the veil of chicken feet at the doorway. Silently drawing my sword, I eased inside.
The interior of the tiny shack reeked of a foul incense, stinging my eyes and scratching the back of my throat. A squat, potbel ied hobyah sat beside one wall on a pile of animal skins, chanting and waving a burning stick over a pair of limp figures. Puck and Ariel a, sprawled out on the dirty hut f loor, their faces pale and slack, hands and feet bound with yel ow vines. The shaman jerked his head up as I came in, and hissed in alarm.
Quick as lightning, he lunged for his staff, standing in the corner, but I was faster. Just as his claw closed on the gnarled wood, an icicle shard hit him from behind. It should have kill ed him, but he turned and shrieked something at me, rattling the bones atop his staff. I felt a ripple of some dark glamour go through the air, and lunged forward, slashing with my blade. The shaman's mouth opened, and he spit something at me, an acidic yel ow substance that burned my skin where it hit, right before the blade struck home. He screamed a death cry and dissolved into a pile of squirming snakes and frogs. One down, but the other hobyahs would not be far behind.
My skin tingled and was starting to go numb where the shaman's spittle had landed, but I couldn't focus on that now. Kneeling beside Ariel a, I cut her bonds and drew her into my arms.
“Ari,” I whispered urgently, tapping her cheek. Her skin was cold to the touch, and even though that was normal for Winter fey, my stomach twisted.
“Ari, wake up. Come on, look at me.”
I pressed two fingers to the pulse at her throat, but at that moment she stirred and her eyelids f luttered. Relief shot through me like an arrow, and I resisted the urge to hug her close. Opening her eyes, she jerked when she saw me, and I pressed my finger to her lips. “Just me,” I whispered, as her eyes widened. “We have to get out of here. Quietly.”
A shriek came from the entrance of the hut. A hobyah stood there, red eyes wide as he stared at us. I hurled an ice dagger at him, but he darted away, hissing, and f led into the camp. Cries of alarm and rage echoed beyond the door, and then came the sound of many bodies rushing toward us through the water.
I cursed and lunged upright, grabbing my sword. “Get Puck on his feet,” I cal ed to Ariel a, crossing the f loor to the entrance. “We're leaving now!”
The first hobyah rushed into the shack, saw me, and lunged with a howl, stabbing his spear at my knee. My sword f lashed down and sent the hobyah's head rol ing toward the corner, before both parts dissolved into a pile of writhing salamanders. Another darted through and hurled its spear at my face. I ducked the projectile and sent one of my own at the hobyah. The ice shard hit it square between the eyes and it slithered away in a tangle of snakes and lampreys.
Stepping outside, deliberately blocking the entrance to the hut, I raised my sword and met the horde of hobyahs swarming me from every direction.
“Hobyah!” they screeched as they rushed me. “Hobyah hobyah hobyah!” Spears f lew at me, though I managed to dodge or block most of them, lashing out at any hobyah that got too close. The pile of newts, frogs and snakes grew at my feet, but there were always more attackers, more hobyahs dropping from the trees, erupting from the water, or climbing over the roof to leap at my back.
A huge black bird suddenly exploded from the hut behind me in a f lurry of wings and feathers. With an enraged caw, it plunged down, sank its talons into a hobyah and carried it high into the trees, the hobyah struggling and howling in its grip. The others hissed and snarled, craning their necks to fol ow it as Ariel a stepped out beside me.
“I assume there's a plan?” she asked, pale but calm as a mass of frogs and snakes suddenly rained down from the trees. Puck dropped onto the roof of the hut with a crash, daggers already in hand. I smiled at Ariel a.