The Iron Knight
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I won't hold it against you.”
My gaze caught Ariel a's as I said this. “I can go on alone, if I must, if being around me is too dangerous or hard or painful to go on.”
I would save you my fate, if I could. I will not watch you die again.
“Hmm. Hey, ice-boy, hold these for a second, will ya?” Puck asked, holding out the mushroom kebabs. Frowning, I took them, and he struck me upside the head, not hard, but solid enough to rock me forward a step. “Stop being so damned fatalistic,” he said as I turned on him with a snarl. “If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't be. And you know you can't do it all by your lonesome, ice-boy. Sooner or later, you're going to have to start trusting us.”
I laughed at him then, bitter and self-mocking. “Trust,” I said f latly.
“Trust requires the faith of both parties, Goodfel ow.”
“Enough,” the Wolf growled, baring his fangs at us all . “We're wasting time. Those who wish to leave, leave. But I believe the consensus is that everyone is staying, is that right?” No one disagreed with him, and he snorted. “Then let us go. I have no idea why two-legs wish to stand around and talk so much.”
“For once, I agree with the dog.” Grimalkin's voice came from an overhead branch. Golden eyes peered down at us, and the Wolf growled, raising his hackles. The cat ignored him. “If we are to reach the Briars by the River of Dreams, we must find the river first,” he said, sharpen-ing his claws on the branch. “As the dog knows this territory best, perhaps it should do something useful and lead us there. Otherwise I see no reason to have it along at all .”
The Wolf snarled, tensing his muscles, as if he wished he could climb the tree after the feline. “One day I will catch you on the ground, cat,” he said through bared teeth. “And you won't even know I'm there until I tear your head off.”
“You have been saying that since before humans had fire, dog,”
Grimalkin replied, completely undisturbed. “You will have to forgive me if I do not hold my breath.” And he disappeared into the leaves.
“So, I'm curious,” Puck announced, fal ing into step beside me. We were fol owing the Wolf through a forest that was larger than any I'd ever seen: massive trees so tal you couldn't see the tops of the branches, with trunks so wide a dozen people couldn't encircle the base. Luminescent f lowers and fungi populated this part of the forest, pulsing softly in all the colors of the spectrum. The earth was covered with a thick, spongy moss that glowed bright blue-and-green whenever you stepped on it, leaving footprints that attracted ghostly dragonf lies to hover over the indentions. The Wolf loped tirelessly through this glowing wood, pausing occasional y to glance back, often with an annoyed look that we were taking so long. Puck and I trailed doggedly after him, with Ariel a bringing up the rear, moving as quietly as a shadow.
Despite assurances that she was fine, my worry for her gnawed at my insides. After the whole dream encounter and our stammering, awkward conversation, she seemed distant and withdrawn, more so than usual. With every step, she grew more shadowlike, more insubstantial, until I feared she would fade away like the mist in the hol ow. I tried talking to her, but though she smiled and answered my questions and told me she was fine, her eyes seemed to stare right through me.
I couldn't get Meghan out of my head, either. I wished I had told her what I was doing. I wished I had said more, argued more. Maybe then I wouldn't have this hol ow ache in my chest whenever I thought of our parting words. Had she already moved on, forgotten me? In her position, what she said made sense, but the thought of her with someone else made me wish I had something to fight, to kill , just so I could forget. Between Meghan and Ariel a, I felt like I was being torn in two.
So I really wasn't in the mood to talk when Puck ambushed me, coming out of nowhere with that faint smirk on his face, looking for trouble. I knew I wasn't going to like his next question, but he stil surprised me when he asked, “So, what did Meghan say when she saw Ariel a?”
I glanced at him sharply, and he grinned. “Come on, iceboy. I'm not stupid. I can put the pieces together well enough to figure out what happened. What did she say?” When I didn't answer, he suddenly reached out and grabbed my shoulder, spinning me around. “Hey, I'm serious, prince!”
I drew my sword in an instant, cutting for his head as I turned. Puck was already bringing up his dagger to block, and the two blades met in a screech of sparks.
Puck glared at me over the crossed blades, eyes gone hard and cold, ref lecting my own expression. Dragonf lies buzzed around us, and the forest threw odd patches of light over his forehead, almost like war paint. “You're wavering, Ash,” Puck said quietly, his eyes glowing like the woods around him. “I've seen how you look at Ariel a of late. You don't know what you want, and that indecision is going to destroy you, and the rest of us along with it.”
“I gave you the choice to leave,” I said, deliberately ignoring the accusation. “No one is keeping you here. You could've gone back to Arcadia, Puck. You could have left if you wanted—”
“No.” Puck's eyes narrowed to green slits, and he spoke through clenched teeth. “I'm not going back to explain to Meghan that I left you here alone, to tel her I don't know what happened to you. If I go back, it will be to tel her that you're gone for good, or I won't go back at all .”
“I see.” I smiled without humor. “You want me to fail. If I die, then you'l be there for Meghan. You're hoping I never come back.”
“Ash! Puck!” Ariel a's voice broke our standoff as she rushed up, white-faced and frightened. “Stop it! What are you doing?”
“It's fine, Ari,” Puck said, not taking his eyes from me. “Ice-boy and I are just having a conversation, isn't that right, prince?”
I held the stance a moment longer, then stepped back, sheathing my blade. Puck grinned, but the look in his eyes told me this wasn't over yet.
“If you two are quite finished,” the Wolf growled, circling back, his voice tight with irritation, “we're almost there.”
This far into the Deep Wyld, the River of Dreams had widened into a wide, sleepy canal of pitch-black water ref lecting the darkened sky.
“I wouldn't stand so close to the edge if I were you,” the Wolf warned Puck, who was about to skip a pebble along the glassy surface. “We're stil very close to the nightmare stretch of the river, and we wouldn't want you pulled in by something nasty. I'd hate to go in after you again.”
Puck grinned and f lung the rock over the mirrorlike surface. I counted five jumps before something huge and scaly erupted from the water, snapping up the pebble in a fine spray before sinking into the depths once more.
We moved back from the edge.
“How far is it to the Briars?” I asked Ariel a, who was sitting on a rock several feet from the bank, looking exhausted. Grimalkin sat beside her, washing a front paw. The Wolf wrinkled his muzzle at the cat but didn't lunge at him, so hopeful y they had gone back to pretending the other didn't exist.
“I'm not sure,” she said, staring down the river as if in a daze. “A long way, I think. But at least we won't get lost. We just have to fol ow the river…to the end.”
“Wish we had a boat,” Puck muttered, tossing another rock into the current. Another splash and a f lash of scales erupted from the surface, making him wince. “Then again, maybe not. Our last little trip didn't work out so well , what with the giant eels and arrows and bloodthirsty newts. Guess we're walking to the End of the World after all , unless anyone has a better idea.”
The Wolf sat down, his dark form outlined by moonlight, and gazed out toward the water. “There is another boat,” he said in a solemn voice. “I've seen it sometimes. A ferry, always unmanned, always going in the same direction. It never appears to stop, and the river nightmares seem unaware of its existence.”
“Mmm, you are speaking of the ghost ferry,” Grimalkin said, pausing in his grooming to look up. “One of the more common legends, I believe. There is a similar ship that haunts the Broken Glass Sea, a pirate vessel made of the bones of men. Or something like that.” He sniffed and shook his head. “According to certain legends, the ghost ferry always appears when there is need.”
“Well, there's need here,” Puck said, gazing up and down the dark river. “We need it, because I don't want to go tromping down the river for who knows how long until we reach the Briars or the End of the World or whatever.” He cupped his hands to his mouth and bel owed,
“Do you hear me, ferry? Need! Here! We need you now!”
Grimalkin f lattened his ears, and the Wolf 's hackles went up as he looked at me. “How did he ever survive so long without something tearing his throat out?” he growled.
“Believe me, I've wondered the same.”
“The ferry will come to us,” Ariel a said, causing everyone to turn and stare at her. She gazed down the river, her eyes glazed, distant and a mil ion miles away. “I've seen it. In my visions. It will appear, when it is time.”
“When will that be?” I asked.
“I don't know. But it will not be here. I've seen the boat, and a long, long pier. That is all I know.”
“Well …” Puck sighed, grabbing another pebble. “I guess we're looking for some kind of dock. Anyone know where we can find one?”
There was no answer to that, and he sighed again. “Guess we're hoof-ing it, then.”
The forest on our side of the river soon changed, almost as abruptly as a door slamming. The lights faded, and the trees became twisted, warped versions of themselves, branches creaking and groaning though there was no wind. The stars disappeared, and the river turned even blacker, ref lecting nothing but a sickly red moon, peering through the clouds like a lone bloodshot eye. I figured we were stil in the nightmare stretch of the river, and hoped nothing would come lurching up from those dark waters or out of the trees, both much too close for comfort.