The Iron Knight
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After all we've been through, you could at least introduce me to your new lady friend.”
“This is Ariel a Tularyn,” I introduced, refusing to rise to Puck's goading. “Ariel a, this is Robin Goodfel ow, who despite my best efforts, insists on hanging around when he isn't wanted.”
“You wound me, prince.” Puck looked anything but hurt, and I crossed my arms. “Um, I guess you're stil mad about that whole harpy fiasco. I swear, I thought those caves were empty.”
“How did you overlook a hundred harpies nesting in that cave? Did the giant carpet of bones not tip you off?”
“Oh, sure, complain now. But we found the trod to Athens, didn't we?”
Ariel a blinked, looking back and forth between us. “Wait, wait,” she said, holding up her hands. “You two know each other? Traveled together?”
She frowned and looked at us both. “Are you friends?”
I snorted. “I wouldn't go that far.”
“Oh, best friends, lady,” Puck said at the same time, giving her a wink.
“Ice-boy will deny it until the mountains crumble, but you know how hard it is for him to admit his feelings, right?”
“But, you're Summer.” Ariel a glanced back at me, confused. “Robin Goodfel ow is part of the Seelie Court, right? Isn't it against the law to conspire with Summer fey?”
“Conspire?” Puck grinned, looking at me. “That's a nasty word. We don't conspire, do we, prince?”
“Puck.” I sighed. “Shut up.” Turning away from him, I drew Ariel a close, ignoring the way Puck's eyes lit up gleeful y. “The answer to your question is yes,” I told her quietly. “It is against the law. And within the borders of Arcadia and Tir Na Nog, Robin Goodfel ow and I are enemies. We will both readily admit that.” I shot Puck a look, and he nodded, stil grinning.
“But,” I continued, “here in the wyldwood, the laws, though they're not completely f lexible, don't extend quite as far. Puck and I have been known to…bend the rules a little. Not always, and not often. But, he's the only one that can keep up with me, and the only one who doesn't care that I'm part of the Winter Court.”
Ariel a pulled back and looked at me, her sea-green eyes intense. “So, you're tel ing me that you, a prince of the Unseelie Court, are admitting to breaking the law and conspiring with the Winter Court's sworn enemy on a regular basis?”
I held my breath. Though I'd known this day would come, I'd been hoping to bring up my…association…with Puck on my own terms. That the Summer Court prankster had forced the issue wasn't surprising, but what I feared most was being forced to choose where my loyalties lay. Ariel a was stil Unseelie, brought up to hate Summer and everything in it. If she decided Puck was the enemy and that we had no business involving him in anything that wasn't a fight to the death… what would I do then?
I sighed inwardly. I was a prince of the Unseelie Court. I would always side with my court and kith, there was no question in my mind. If it came down to that choice, I would turn my back on Puck, turn my back on our years of camaraderie, and choose Winter. But that's not to say it wouldn't be hard.
Ariel a stared at us, and I waited to see what she would do, how she would react. finally she broke into a teasing smile.
“Well, as I've seen how Ash treats his ‘associates' at the Winter Court, I'd have to say you must be an exception to the rule, Robin Goodfel ow. I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance.” She glanced at me and winked. “And here I was afraid that Ash didn't have any friends.”
Puck roared with laughter. “I like her,” he announced as I crossed my arms and tried to look bored and annoyed. They both giggled at my ex-pense, but I didn't care. Ariel a had accepted my “association” without reservation or judgment. I didn't have to choose. I could keep the best of both worlds without sacrificing either.
I should've known it would never last.
“Prince,” said Puck's voice, drawing me out of my dark thoughts, back to the present. “Prince. Oy, ice-boy!” I blinked and glared at him.
He smirked and nodded to the sky, where a massive wall of black clouds loomed overhead. “There's a nasty storm coming. Furbal suggests we look for shelter, since this area has a reputation for f lash f loods. According to him, we should reach the seer sometime tomorrow.”
“Wow, aren't we chatty today.” Puck shook his head as I strode past him, sliding down a washed-out gul y to where Grimalkin waited at the bottom.
Puck followed easily, continuing to talk. “That's the most you've said to me in two days. What's going on, ice-boy? You've been very broody lately, even for you.”
“Leave it alone, Puck.”
“And here I thought we were doing so well .” Puck sighed dramatical y as he matched my pace down the slope. “Might as well tel me, prince.
You should know by now that I can't leave anything alone. I'll pry it out of you somehow.”
Deep within, something dark stirred. A sleeping giant sensing change in the air, like a forgotten heartbeat, faint but stil alive, beginning to resurface. It was something I hadn't felt, hadn't all owed myself to feel, in years. The part of me that was pure Unseelie, pure hate and darkness and bloodlust. I lost myself to it once, the day Ariel a died. I became something consumed by rage, fil ed with a black hatred that turned me against my closest friend. I thought I'd buried it when I froze out my emotions, training myself to become numb, to feel nothing.
I could feel it in me now, an old madness, an ancient darkness rising to the surface, fil ing me with anger. And hate. Wounds that had never really closed, tearing open again, seeping poison into my heart. It disturbed me, and I shoved it down, back into the blackness it had come from. But I could stil feel it, pulsing and bubbling just below the surface.
Directed solely at Puck, who was, of course, stil talking.
“You know, it's not healthy to keep things bottled up, prince. The whole brooding thing is really overrated. So, come on, out with it. What's bothering —”
“I said—” Whirling abruptly, I came face-to-face with Puck, close enough to see my ref lection in his startled green eyes. “Leave it alone, Puck.”
For all his buffoonery, Robin Goodfel ow was no fool. We'd known each other a long time, both as friends and rivals, and he knew me better than anyone, sometimes better than I knew myself. The irreverent smirk vanished, and his eyes became hard as stone. We stared at each other, inches apart, while the wind picked up and howled around us, stirring up a cyclone of leaves and dust.
“Having second thoughts?” Puck's voice was soft and dangerous, a far cry from his normal f lippancy. “I thought we'd put this behind us for now.”
“Never,” I said, matching his stare. “I can't ever take it back, Goodfel ow. I'm stil going to kill you. I swore to her I would.” Lightning f lickered and thunder rumbled in the distance as we faced each other with narrowed eyes. “One day,” I said softly. “One day you'l look up, and I'll be there. That's the only ending for us. Don't ever forget.”
Puck slowly cocked his head, regarding me intently. “Is this Ash talking? Or the oath?”
“It doesn't matter.” I stepped back, holding his gaze, unwil ing to turn my back on him. “It can never be the same, Puck. Don't fool yourself into thinking that it is.”
“I've never forgotten, prince.” Puck watched me with solemn eyes glowing green in the sudden darkness. Lightning f lashed through the trees again, and thunder growled an answer. Puck's next words were nearly lost in the wind. “You're not the only one with regrets.”
I turned and walked away from him, feeling cold and empty, the darkness coiling around my heart. At the bottom of the slope, Grimalkin sat on a stump, tail curled over his feet, watching us with unblinking golden eyes.
We found a cave, or rather, an annoyed, impatient Grimalkin led us to a cave, seconds before the sky opened up and the rain poured down.
As the light rapidly disappeared, I left Puck poking the fire and retreated to a dark corner. Sitting with my back against the wall , I pulled one knee to my chest and glowered into the distant f lames.
“And so it begins.”
Grimalkin appeared beside me, seated on a rock, watching Puck tend the campfire. The f lames cast a burning orange halo around the cat. I gave him a sideways glance, but he didn't return it. “What do you mean?”
“I warned you this was no simple quest. I told you before, you and Goodfel ow have no idea what lies ahead.” He twitched an ear and shifted on the rock, stil watching the fire. “You feel it, do you not? The anger. The darkness.” I blinked in surprise, but Grimalkin paid no heed. “It will only get worse the farther we go.”
“Where are we going?” I asked softly. A sudden hiss from the campfire showed Puck hanging a skinned rabbit over the f lames. Where he'd gotten it, I didn't even want to guess, and I turned back to Grimalkin.
“I know we're going to the seer, but you stil haven't told us where.”
The cait sith pretended not to hear. Yawning, he stretched languidly, raking his claws over the stones, and trotted off to oversee dinner preparations.
Outside, the storm howled and raged, bending trees and blowing rain at a sharp angle across the mouth of the cave. The fire crackled cheerfully, licking at the rabbit carcass, and the smel of roasted meat began to fil the chamber.
And yet, something wasn't right.
I rose and wandered to the cave mouth, gazing out at the storm. Wind tugged at me, spattering my face with raindrops. Beyond the lip of the cavern, rain skittered over the ground in waves, like silver curtains tossed by the wind.
Something was out there. Watching us.
“Hey, ice-boy.” Puck appeared at my side, peering into the rain with me. He acted perfectly normal, as if the words between us earlier that day had never happened. “Whatcha looking at?”