The Iron Knight
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I kept my expression neutral, as it was obvious the witch was not amused in the slightest. “What do you have to say for yourself, vil ain?” she continued, shaking her butcher knife at Puck, who ducked behind me in a pathetic attempt to hide, though I could hear him trying to muff le his laughter. “Do you know how long it took me to repair my home? And then you have the gal , the absolute gal , to leave my broom at the edge of the forest, just to prove you could take it. I've half a mind to stick you in the pot and feed you to my chickens!”
“I apologize for him,” I said quickly, and those sharp black eyes suddenly turned on me. I held myself tal , unafraid but stil polite, lest she lump me together with the buffoon at my back. “Excuse this intrusion, old mother,” I continued formal y. “I am Ash of the Unseelie Court. And I need your help, if you would hear me.”
The witch blinked. “Such manners. You were not raised in a barn like that one, I see.” She stabbed her knife in Puck's direction, wrinkling her long nose. “And I know who you are, son of Mab. What would you have of me? Be quick about it.”
“We're looking for someone,” I said. “He was rumored to be traveling through here, through the Bone Marsh. We thought you might know where he is.”
“And what makes you think I know where this person is?”
“Not a person,” I corrected. “A cat. A cait sith. In some tales he's known as Grimalkin. And in some tales he's been rumored to keep company with a powerful witch out in the swamps, whose house stands on chicken legs in a fence made of bones.”
“I see,” said the witch, though her face and voice remained expression-less. “Wel , I admire your tenacity, young prince. Grimalkin is not easy to find in the best of times. You must have come very far to seek him out.” She peered closely at me, narrowing her eyes. “And this is not the first place you have searched. I can see it on your face. Why, I wonder?
Why does he come so far? What is it that he desires so badly, to risk the ire of the Bone Witch? What is it you want, Ash of the Winter Court?”
“Would you believe the cat owes him money?” Puck's voice came from behind my shoulder, making me wince. The witch scowled at him.
“I did not ask you, Robin Goodfel ow,” she snapped, jabbing a clawlike finger at him. “And you had best watch your tongue, lest you find yourself neck-deep in a pot of boiling snake venom. Right now your friend's civility is the only thing keeping me from skinning you alive, and you will be silent on my land or you will leave. My question was for the prince.”
“I am a prince no longer,” I said softly, interrupting her rant. “My service to the Winter Queen is done, and Mab has cast me from her circle. I am dead to her.”
“Regardless,” the witch said, turning back to me with her piercing black eyes, “that does not answer my question. Why are you here, Ash-who-is-no-longer-a-prince? And do not attempt to mislead me with faery riddles and half truths, for I will know, and I will not be happy about it. If you wish to see this Grimalkin, you must answer my question first. What is it you seek?”
“I…” For a moment, I hesitated, and not because Puck nudged me sharply in the ribs. He knew the reason we were here, why I wanted to find Grimalkin, but I'd never voiced my intentions out loud. Maybe the witch knew this, maybe she was just curious, but saying it aloud suddenly made it all the more real. “I want to become…mortal,” I said in a low voice. My stomach recoiled, hearing those words for the first time.
“I promised someone… I swore I would find a way to survive the Iron Realm, and I can't go there as I am.” The witch raised an eyebrow, and I drew myself up, fixing her with a cold stare. “I want to become human. And I need Grimalkin to help me find a way.”
“Well,” said a familiar voice behind us, “that is an interesting request.”
We whirled around. Grimalkin sat on an overturned bucket, a bushy gray cat with his tail curled around himself, watching us lazily.
“Oh, of course!” Puck exclaimed. “There you are. Do you know what we've been through to find you, cat? Have you been there the whole time?”
“Do not make me state the obvious, Goodfel ow.” Grimalkin twitched his whiskers at him, then turned to me. “Greetings, prince. I have heard that you were looking for me.”
“If you knew, why didn't you come to us?”
The cait sith yawned, curling a pink tongue over sharp white teeth. “I have grown rather bored of court politics,” he continued, blinking gold eyes.
“Nothing ever changes between Summer and Winter, and I did not want to become embroiled in the endless bickering of the courts. Or the games of certain Dark Muses.”
Puck winced. “You heard about that, huh? Word travels fast.” He shook his head at me and grinned. “I wonder if Titania has calmed down yet, after that trick we played in the Summer Court.”
Grimalkin ignored him. “I wanted to know why you were looking for me, to see if I wished to make myself known. Or not.” He sniffed, cocking his head at me. “But this request was definitely not what I was expecting of you, prince. How very…interesting.”
“Foolish, if you ask me,” the witch stated, waggling her knife in my direction. “Does a crow become a salmon simply because it wishes to? You do not know the first thing about mortality, prince-who-is-not. Why would you want to become like them?”
“Because,” Grimalkin answered before I could say anything, “he is in love.”
“Ahhh.” The witch looked at me and shook her head. “I see. Poor creature. Then you will not hear a word I have to say.” I gazed at her cool y, but she only smiled. “Fare ye well , then, prince-who-is-not. And Goodfel ow, if I see you again, it will be to hang your skin over my door. Now, excuse me.”
She gathered herself up and tromped down the steps, taking a swipe at Puck as she passed, which he deftly avoided.
I didn't like the way Grimalkin continued to stare at me, a hint of laughter in his slitted eyes, and I crossed my arms. “Do you know a way for a faery to become mortal, or not?”
“I do not,” Grimalkin said simply, and for a moment my heart sank.
“But, there are…rumors. Legends of those who wanted to become
mortal.” He lifted a front paw and began washing it, scrubbing it over his ears. “There is…one…who might know the way to becoming human,” he continued, much too nonchalantly. “A seer, in the wildest regions of the Nevernever. But the way to the seer is twisted and tangled, and once you step off the path, you will never find it again.”
“Right, and you just happen to know the way, don't you?” Puck inter-jected, but Grimalkin ignored him. “Come on, cat, we all know where this is going. Name your price, so we can agree and get on the road already.”
“Price?” Grimalkin looked up, and his eyes gleamed. “How well you seem to know me,” he mused in a voice I didn't like at all . “You think this is some simple request, that I guide you to the seer and that will be all . You have no idea what you are asking, what lies ahead, for all of us.” The cat stood, waving his tail, regarding me with a solemn gold gaze. “I will name no price, not today. But the time will come, prince, when I arrive to col ect this debt. And when that day comes, you will pay it in ful .”
The words hung in the air between us, shimmering with power. A contract, and a particularly nasty one at that. Grimalkin, for whatever reason, was playing for keeps. A part of me recoiled, hating being bound in such a way. If I agreed to this, the cat could ask anything of me, take anything, and I would be forced to comply.
But, if it meant being human, being with her in the end…
“You sure about this, ice-boy?” Puck caught my gaze, worried as well .
“This is your quest, but there's no backing out if you agree to do this.
You can't just promise him a nice squeaky mouse and be done with it?”
I sighed and faced the cait sith, who waited calmly for my answer. “I will not deliberately harm anyone,” I told him firmly. “You will not use me as a weapon, nor will I work evil against those I consider all ies or friends. This contract will involve no one else. Just me.”
“As you wish,” Grimalkin purred.
“Then you have a deal.” I felt a tingle in the air as the bargain was sealed, and clenched my fists. There was no backing out of it now, not that I had any intention to do so, but it seemed that I'd made more deals, accepted more contracts, in a single year then I had in my entire life as a prince of Winter.
I had the feeling I'd sacrifice more before the trip was over, but there was nothing for it now. I'd made my promise, and I would see it through.
“Then it is done.” Grimalkin nodded and leaped off the bucket, landing in a patch of weeds surrounded by mud. “Let us go. We waste time dal ying here.”
Puck blinked. “What, just like that? You're not going to tel the old chicken plucker you're leaving?”
“She already knows,” Grimalkin said, picking his way across the yard.
“And incidental y, ‘the old chicken pluckerld ce can hear every word you say, so I suggest we hurry. After she is done with the fowl, she intends to come after you as well .” He reached the fence and leaped up on it, somehow balancing himself on a crooked skul , peering back with glowing yel ow eyes. “You did not think she would let you go so easily, did you?” he asked.
“We have until nightfal to be clear of the marsh, before she comes riding after us with all of hell close behind her. So let us pick up the pace, hmm?”
Puck shot me a sideways look, grinning feebly. “Er. Never a dul moment, huh, ice-boy?”
“I'm going to kill you one day,” I told him as we hurried after Grimalkin, back into the swampy marshland. It was not an idle threat.
Puck just laughed. “Yeah. You and everyone else, prince. Join the club.”