The Iron Knight
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The ferry abruptly broke from the mist, punching through it like a wall, revealing the vast river before us and the night sky above. I blinked and looked around. Puck was standing at the bow of the boat, gazing over the water, and Ariel a was asleep on a bench.
I frowned, feeling like I was missing something. I remembered we had been looking for the ferry, walking along the riverbank searching for it, but the memory of us actual y boarding was hazy. Had something been chasing us? I vaguely recal ed a dock, and carrying Ariel a aboard, but beyond that…nothing. I felt groggy and disoriented, as if I'd just woken up from a dream—
The dream. My stomach turned, and I clutched the railing to remain steady on my feet. I remembered the dream. kill ing Mab. Ruling Winter. Waging war. Blood and death and violence, the hol ow, raven-ous void that threatened to drag me down and swal ow me whole.
Fighting the Iron Queen. Dying by her hand.
In a daze, I walked to the bench in front of Ariel a and sat down, watching her. After a few minutes, her eyelids f lickered, and she opened her eyes, blinking at me looming above her.
“Was it real?” I asked, my voice sounding hoarse and dry in my ears.
She frowned and sat up to face me, brushing her hair from her eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“What I saw.” I leaned forward, and she drew back, a wary shadow crossing her face. “That was you, wasn't it? Showing me the future. kill ing Mab.
Making myself the Winter King. Going to war with the other courts—”
I stumbled to a halt, not wanting to remember beyond that, to see the look on the Iron Queen's face as she kill ed me.
Ariel a went pale. “You saw…? Oh, Ash. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for you to see…” She stopped. Took a deep breath. “It must have been the hobyah venom. It made you hypersensitive to dreams and dreamwalk-ing. If you were asleep, you probably—”
“Ari.” My voice was soft, and she blinked at me. I raked a hand through my damp hair, fighting to stay calm, to ignore the darkness clawing at my feet, trying to drag me down. “What I saw. Is this…the future? My future? Am…am I destined to become…that? The destroyer of the courts, slaughtering everything, everyone I know?” Ariel a was silent, and I reached out to take her hand, squeezing as if it were a lifeline, holding me to sanity. “Tel me,” I said, forcing out the words. “Tel me, is that what I become?”
“I don't know, Ash.” Her voice was a whisper, on the verge of tears.
“It's a future, one of several. Probably the worst, but not the most unlikely. You… you have so much darkness in you, so much anger and grief. Not even I could reach you if you gave in to despair, if you broke your promise.”
She took a deep breath. “Your essence…when it's gone you'l forget everything that makes you…you. Most Promise-breakers just fade away, never to be seen again. But a few, especial y those who are strong, become something else entirely.”
“This is what will happen,” I whispered, “if I fail.”
Silence for a moment. The ferry glided steadily through the night, the only sounds the splash of water against the sides and the Wolf 's deep breathing.
“Not necessarily,” Ariel a said at last, avoiding my gaze. “Nothing is certain, and that is only one possible future. But… yes. If you fail here, there is a real possibility of losing you to the darkness, and you becoming the Winter King.”
“So it wasn't just a nightmare,” Puck's voice broke in. I turned to see him standing behind us, hands in his pockets, watching me with serious green eyes. “Sorry, couldn't help but overhear you guys,” he continued, not sounding the least bit apologetic. “And you know, I was just thinking, that dream you were talking about. It sounds an awful lot like the one I just had.” His mouth twisted into a smirk, and his gaze narrowed. “Only, in this version, I died. Some Winter King bastard stuck me through the chest while we were fighting. Kinda trau-matic, if you know what I mean. And that was after he destroyed most of the Summer Court.”
I held his gaze. Puck didn't shy away and continued to stare at me, half smile firmly in place. But beyond the smirk, beyond the f lippancy and cheek and cocky self-assurance, I could sense the indecision, the fear he never let anyone see.
“Do you regret it?” I asked, and he raised a brow at me. “Do you regret our feud is over, not kill ing me when you had the chance?”
Puck shot me a painful smile. “Oh, there's a part of me that will always miss our little duels, prince,” he said cheerfully. “Nothing like a little attempted murder to feel close to someone, right?” He grinned, then a shadow fel over his face, and he sobered, shaking his head. “Truth is, I'm glad it's done,” he said quietly, scrubbing the back of his head. “I never wanted it, I hated that I always had to watch my back, and I knew you really didn't want to go through with it either, prince. Especial y toward the end.”
“But?” I prompted.
“But, if I see any signs of you becoming…that.” Puck shivered. “If I suspect you're about to go postal on Mab and take a shot at the Winter throne, I won't need a formal duel invitation to make me show up in Tir Na Nog.” He crossed his arms and stared at me with a mix of regret and determination. “If it comes to that, prince, I will stop you.”
I stood. A breeze blew across the surface of the river, tossing hair and tugging at clothes. I gripped the railing and stared out over the water, feeling his eyes on my back. “If it comes to that,” I told him quietly,
“I'd want you to.”
The ferry continued through the seemingly endless waters of the River of Dreams. The sun never rose, the night never waned; it was all eternal midnight this far into the Deep Wyld. Farther in, the river became crowded with more dream debris, larger and wilder than before. A huge cherry tree, springing from the middle of the river, shedding pink blossoms like fal ing snow. A glass coffin with a black-haired princess inside, pale hands folded on her stomach as she slept. A long table floated past, complete with a ful tea-party set— pot, plates, teacups.
Puck snatched a large basket of scones as it drifted by.
How long the ferry slid through the River of Dreams, I wasn't sure. We took turns at guard duty, ate and slept when we could, and talked among ourselves. Puck quickly grew restless, and being trapped in a smal area with a bored Robin Goodfel ow and a huge, volatile wolf was a scene from a nightmare. After one hot-tempered explosion that rocked the boat and nearly dumped everyone into the river, I suggested Puck adopt his raven form and “scout ahead,” which he was happy to do, much to everyone's relief.
After Puck left, things quieted down. Grimalkin slept almost constantly, and the Wolf either paced the deck like a caged tiger or lay curled up at the stern, his burning eyes distant and far away. He rarely spoke to anyone, though there were times, when the Wolf was on guard duty and everyone was supposed to be asleep, that I saw him and Grimalkin talking together, their voices always too low to hear.
Awake, they studiously ignored each other or shot contemptuous glances in each other's direction, but the night I saw them at the bow of the ferry, gazing over the water side by side, I couldn't help but wonder if their ancient war was just another game they liked to play.
Ariel a and I talked sparingly, and when we did, it was often of the present, of the Winter and Summer Courts, of the Iron fey that had so recently invaded our world. We avoided talk of the past, the old hunts and long nights in the wyldwood, though the memories kept springing up whenever we spoke. But ever since the dream with Meghan, Ariel a seemed like a different person. She was so quiet, drawn into herself, brooding over a future I could not see. Her smiles seemed rigid and forced, her laughter tinged with melancholy. Once, when I asked if the visions had shown her anything of herself, her eyes glazed over and she stared right through me before she shook herself and waved it off, smiling. But for a long time after, she stared over the River of Dreams, and though I could reach out and touch her, feel her soft skin under my fingertips, it seemed I was staring at a ghost, an echo of a person I once knew.
“Here,” she said one night, joining me at the bow. It was my turn for watch, and I was leaning against the railing staring into the passing forest.
When Ariel a dropped an orange into my hand, I blinked and looked at her curiously. “Eat something,” she ordered, pointing to the fruit. “I hardly ever see you eat, and I know even you get hungry from time to time.”
“How did you get this?”
She looked embarrassed for a second. “Never mind that. Just eat it, Ash.”
Her tone was ful of warning, but I couldn't let it go. “Where—”
“A group of winged monkeys threw it at me.” Ariel a crossed her arms and glared, and I had an odd moment of déjà vu. “On my last watch, we passed an orchard on the banks, and there were at least a dozen monkeys living there, staring down at us. I threw a rock at them and they…threw things back. And not just food items, either.” She blushed with embarrassment and glowered, daring me to laugh. “So you'd better eat that before I stuff something else down your throat, and it won't be a banana.”
I laughed and raised my hands in surrender. “As you wish, your highness,” I said without thinking, but sobered quickly.
Now I knew why this felt so familiar. For just a moment, Ariel a had sounded just like Meghan.
And, judging from the look on Ariel a's face as she pulled back, she knew it, too.
Guilt pierced me, sharp and painful. “Hey,” I said, catching her wrist as she started to turn away, “Ari, listen. When this is all over, when we come back from this crazy venture, I'll make sure you can go home if you want to.” She blinked and gazed up at me, as if such a thought had never occurred to her. “Your father's estates are stil standing,” I went on.
“No one has tried to claim them yet. Or you can return to court—I don't think Mab will try to stop you. If she does, I can talk to her. I stil have some inf luence in the Winter Court, no matter what Mab thinks of me. I want you to know that you'l be taken care of. I can give you that much, at least.” She smiled faintly, though her gaze was distant and unreachable. “If I had wanted any of those things, I would already have them,” she replied in a gentle voice. “I'm grateful, Ash, but it's far too late for me to return to that life.” “I want to help you,” I told her quietly. “Anything in my power, anything I can give freely is yours. Let me try to make this right. Just tel me what to do.”