The Iron Knight
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Our exit from the Bone Marsh was far more harrowing than our journey to find the witch. True to Grimalkin's prediction, as the sun sank beneath the western horizon, a mad howl arose, seeming to echo from the swamp itself. A shudder passed through the land, and a sudden wind stole the late afternoon warmth.
“Perhaps we should move faster,” Grimalkin said, and bounded into the undergrowth, but I stopped and turned to face the howling wind, drawing my sword. The breeze, smel ing of rot, stagnant water and blood, whipped at my face, but I held my blade loosely at my side and waited.
“Oy, prince.” Puck circled back, frowning. “What are you doing? If you didn't know already, the old chicken plucker is on her way, and she's gunning for Winter and Summer stew.”
“Let her come.” I was Ashal ayn'darkmyr Tal yn, son of Mab, former prince of the Unseelie Court, and I was not afraid of a witch on a broom.
“I would advise against that,” Grimalkin said, somewhere in the bushes. “These are her lands, after all , and she will be a formidable opponent should you insist on fighting her here. The wiser course of action is to f lee to the edge of the swamp. She will not fol ow us there.
That is where I will be, should you decide to come to your senses. I will not waste time watching you fight a completely useless battle based on ridiculous pride.”
“Come on, Ash,” Puck said, edging away. “We can play with extremely powerful witches some other time. Furbal might disappear, and I do not want to tromp all over the Nevernever looking for him again.”
I glared at Puck, who shot me an arrogant grin and hurried after the cat. Sheathing my weapon, I sprinted after them, and soon the Bone Marsh was a blur of malachite moss and bleached bone. A cackling scream rang out somewhere behind us, and I leaned forward, adding speed and cursing all Summer fey under my breath.
We ran for an hour or more, the cackle of our pursuer never seeming to gain, but never fal ing behind. Then the ground began to firm under my feet, the trees slowly gaining breadth and height. The air changed as well , losing the acrid odor of the bog and turning to something sweeter, though mixed with the faintest hint of decay.
I caught sight of a gray stil ness in one of the trees and skidded to a halt, so suddenly that Puck slammed into me. I turned with the impact and gave a little push. “Oy!” Puck yelped as he careened off and landed in an ungraceful sprawl. I smirked and stepped around him, dodging easily as he tried to trip me.
“Now is not the time for playing,” Grimalkin said from his perch, watching us disdainful y. “The witch will not fol ow us here. Now is the time for resting.” Turning his back on us, he leaped higher into the branches and disappeared from sight.
Settling against a trunk, I pulled my sword and laid it across my knees, leaning back with a sigh. Step one, complete. We'd found Grimalkin, a task harder than I'd thought it could be. The next task would be to find this seer, and then…
I sighed. Then everything became fuzzy. There was no clear path after finding the seer. I didng th"t know what would be required of me, what I would have to do to become mortal. Perhaps it would be painful. Perhaps I would have to offer something, sacrifice something, though I didn't know what I could offer anymore, beyond my own existence.
Narrowing my eyes, I shut those thoughts away. It didn't matter. I would do whatever it took.
Memory trickled in, seeking to slip beneath my defenses, the icy wall I showed the world. I had once thought my armor invincible, that nothing could touch me…until Meghan Chase had entered my life and turned it upside down. Reckless, loyal, possessing the unyielding stubbornness of a granite cliff, she'd smashed through all the barriers I'd erected to keep her out, refusing to give up on me, until I finally had to admit defeat. It was official.
I was in love. With a human.
I smiled bitterly at the thought. The old Ash, if faced with such a suggestion, would've either laughed scornful y or removed the offender's head from his neck. I'd known love before, and it had brought me so much pain that I had retreated behind an impenetrable wall of indifference, freezing out everything, everyone. So it had been shocking and unexpected and a little terrifying to discover I could stil feel anything, and I'd been reluctant to accept it. If I dropped my guard, I was vulnerable, and such weakness was deadly in the Unseelie Court. But more important, I hadn't wanted to go through the same hurt a second time, lowering my defenses only to have my heart torn away once more.
Deep down, I'd known the odds were stacked against us. I knew a Winter prince and the half-human daughter of the Summer King didn't have much of a chance to be together in the end. But I had been will ing to try. I'd given it my all , and I didn't regret any of it, even when Meghan had severed our bond and exiled me from the Iron
I'd expected to die that day. I had been ready. Being ordered by my True Name to walk away, leaving Meghan to die alone in the Iron Kingdom, had nearly shattered me a second time. If it hadn't been for my oath to be with her again, I might've done something suicidal, like chal enge Oberon to battle before the entire Summer Court. But now that I've made my promise, there is no turning back. Abandoning my vow will unravel me, bit by bit, until there is nothing left. Even if I wasn't determined to find a way to survive in the Iron Realm, I'd have no choice but to continue.
I will be with her again, or I will die. There aren't any other options.
“Hey, ice-boy, you okay? You've got your brooding face on again.”
“You're so ful of crap.” Puck lounged in the cradle of a tree, hands behind his head, one foot dangling in the air. “Lighten up already. We finally found the cat—which we should get a freaking medal for, the search for the Golden Fleece wasn't this hard—and you look like you're going to engage Mab in single combat first thing in the morning.”
“I'm thinking. You should try it sometime.”
“Ooh, witty.” Puck snorted, pulled an apple out of his pocket, and bit into it. “Suit yourself, ice-boy. But you really should try to smile sometimes, or your face will freeze like that forever. Or so I've been told.” He grinned and crunched his apple. “So, whose turn is it for first watch, yours or mine?”
“Real y? I thought it was your turn. Didn't I take first watch at the edge of the Bone Marsh?”
“Yes.” I glared at him. “And it was interrupted when you followed that nymph away from the camp, and that goblin tried to steal my sword.”
“Oh, yeah.” Puck snickered, though I didn't think it was very amusing.
This sword was made for me by the Ice Archons of Dragons' Peak; my blood, glamour and a tiny piece of my essence had gone into its cre-ation, and no one touches it but me.
“In my defense,” Puck said, stil grinning faintly, “she did try to rob me as well . I've never heard of a nymph being in league with a goblin. Too bad for them that you're a light sleeper, huh, ice-boy?”
I rol ed my eyes, tuned out his incessant chattering, and let myself drift.
I almost never dream. Dreams are for mortals, humans whose emotions are so strong, so consuming, they spil over into their subconscious minds. The fey do not usual y dream; our sleep is untroubled by thoughts of the past or future, or anything except the now. While humans can be tormented by feelings of guilt, longing, worry and regret, most fey do not experience these things. We are, in many ways, emptier than mortals, lacking the deeper emotions that make them so…human. Perhaps that is why they are so fascinating to us.
In the past, the only time I had dreamed was right after Ariel a's death, horrific, gut-wrenching nightmares about that day I let her die, the day I couldn't save her. It was always the same: I, Puck and Ariel a chasing the golden fox, the shadows closing around us, the monstrous wyvern rearing up out of nowhere. Each time, I knew Ariel a would be hit.
Each time, I tried to get to her before the wyvern's deadly stinger found its mark. I failed every single time, and she would look at me with those clear blue eyes and whisper my name, right before she went limp in my arms and I jerked myself awake.
I learned to freeze out my emotions then, to destroy everything that made me weak, to become as cold inside as I was outside. The nightmares stopped, and I never dreamed again.
I knew I stood at the center of Tir Na Nog, the seat of the Unseelie Queen, my old home. These were my lands, once. I recognized distinct landmarks, as familiar to me as my own face, and yet all was not well .
The jagged mountains, rising up until they vanished into the clouds, were the same. The snow and ice that covered every square inch of the land and never really melted, that was the same.
Everything else was destroyed. The great sweeping forests of Tir Na Nog were gone, now barren, wasted fields. A few trees stood here and there, but they were corrupt, twisted versions of themselves, metal ic and gleaming. Barbed-wire fences slashed the landscape, and hulks of rusted metal vehicles lay half-buried in the snow. Where an icy city once stood, its pristine crystal towers glittering in the sun, now black smokestacks pumped bil owing darkness into the overcast sky. Sky-scrapers of twisted metal towered over everything; glittering, skeletal silhouettes that vanished into the clouds.
Faeries roamed across the darkened landscape, swarms of them, but they were not my Unseelie brethren. They were of the poisoned realm, the Iron fey; gremlins and bugs, wiremen and Iron knights, the faeries of mankind's technology. I gazed around at my homeland and shuddered. No normal fey could live here. We would all die, the very air we breathed burning us from the inside out, from the Iron corruption that hung thick on the air like a fog. I could feel it searing my throat, spreading like fire to my lungs. Coughing, I put my sleeve to my nose and mouth and staggered away, but where could I go if all of Tir Na Nog was like this?
“Do you see?” whispered a voice behind me, and I whirled around. No one stood there, but from the corner of my eye I caught a shimmer, a presence, though it slid away whenever I tried to focus on it. “Look around you. This is what would have happened had Meghan not become the Iron Queen. Everything, everyone you knew, destroyed. The Iron fey would have corrupted the entire Nevernever, were it not for Meghan Chase. And she could not have succeeded had you not been there.”