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The Iron Knight, Page 10

Julie Kagawa

Page 10

 

  I whirled back, lunging forward as Puck hopped onto the hil , pul ing himself up by a twisted root. “Puck!” I shouted, and he glanced back at me, frowning. “Get out of there now!”

  The hil moved. With a yelp, Puck stumbled, f lailing wildly as the grassy mound shifted and lurched and started to rise out of the mud.

  Puck dove forward, landing with a splat in the mud, and the hil stood up, unfolding long, claw-tipped arms and thick, stumpy legs. It turned, twenty feet of muddy green swamp trol , moss and vegetation growing from its broad back, blending perfectly with the landscape. Dank green hair hung from its scalp, and its beady red eyes scanned the ground in confusion.

  “Oh,” Puck mused, gazing up at the enormous creature from the mud.

  “Well, that explains a few things. ”

  The swamp trol roared, spittle f lying from its open jaws, and took a step toward Puck, who bounced to his feet. It swiped a talon at him and he ducked, running under its enormous bulk, darting between the tree-stump legs. The trol roared and started to turn, and I f lung a hail of ice daggers at it, sticking it in the shoulder and face. It bel owed and lurched toward me, making the ground shake as it charged. I dodged, rol ing out of the way as the trol hit the embankment and ripped a huge gash through the huts, tearing them open.

  As the trol pulled back, I lunged at it, swiping at its thick arms, cutting a deep gash through the barklike skin. It howled, more in anger than pain, and whirled on me.

  There was movement on its broad shoulders, and Puck appeared, clinging to its back, a huge grin splitting his face. “Al right,” he announced grandly, as the trol jerked and spun around, trying in vain to reach him, “I claim this land for Spain. ” And he planted his dagger in the base of the trol 's thick neck.

  The creature roared, a shril , painful wail, and clawed desperately at its back. Puck scooted away, avoiding the trol 's raking talons, and stuck his dagger on the other side of its neck. It screeched again, slapping and tearing, and Puck scrambled away. With all its attention on Puck, I leaped forward, vaulted off a stumpy leg, and plunged my sword into the trol 's chest.

  It staggered, fal ing to its knees and with a deep groan, toppled into the mud as I ducked out of the way. Puck sprang off its shoulders as it col apsed, rol ed as he hit the ground and came to his feet, grinning, though he looked like some kind of mud monster himself.

  “Yes!” he exclaimed, shaking his head and f linging mud everywhere.

  “Man, that was fun. Better than playing Stay on the Wild Pegasus. Can we do it again?”

  “Idiot. ” I wiped a splash of mud from my cheek with the back of my hand. “We're not done yet. Whatever is fol owing us is stil out there. ”

  “Also, may I remind you,” Grimalkin said, peering imperiously from the branches of a tal tree, “that swamp trol s, in particular, have two hearts and accelerated healing capabilities? You will have to do more then stick a sword in its chest if you wish to kill it for good. ”

  Puck blinked. “So, you're saying that our mossy friend isn't really—”

  There was a wet, sloshing sound behind us, and Grimalkin vanished again. Puck winced.

  “Right, then,” he muttered as we spun around. The swamp trol lumbered to its feet, its red eyes blazing and angry, fastened on us.

  “Round two. ”

  Puck sighed and swept his hand down in a chopping motion. “Fight!”

  The trol roared. Effortlessly, it reached out and wrapped one claw around the trunk of a pine tree, pul ing it from the mud as easily as picking a dandelion. With blinding speed, it smashed the weapon toward us.

  Puck and I leaped aside in opposite directions, and the tree struck the space between with an explosion of mud and water. Almost immediately, the trol swept the tree across the ground, as if it was whisking away dust with a broom, and this time Puck wasn't quite able to dodge quickly enough.

  The trunk hit him and sent his body tumbling through the air, striking his head on another tree and slumping into the mud several yards away. Red-eyed, the trol turned back to me, stepping forward threateningly. I retreated until my back hit the wall of the embankment, and I tensed as the huge trol loomed over me, raising its club over its head and smashing it down like a battering ram.

  Something big and dark lunged between us with a booming snarl, and a monstrous shaggy thing slammed into the trol , teeth f lashing. The trol screeched and stumbled back, its arm clamped in the jaws of an enormous black wolf the size of a grizzly bear, who growled and shook his head, digging his fangs in farther. Howling, the trol f lailed and yanked back, trying desperately to dislodge the monster clinging to its arm, but the wolf wasn't letting go. I caught my breath, recognizing the creature, knowing who it was, but there was no time to wonder why he was here.

  Dodging the wolf, I ducked beneath the trol 's legs and turned, slashing the thick tendons behind its knees. With a shriek, the trol 's legs buckled, and I leaped onto its back, much as Puck had done, as it went down. But this time, I raised my sword and drove it, point first, into the trol 's head, right between the horns, burying the weapon to the hilt.

  A shudder wracked the trol 's body. It began to stiffen, its skin turning gray and hard. I yanked my sword free and vaulted off its back as the trol curled up on itself, much like a giant insect or spider, and turned to stone. In a few seconds, only a trol -shaped boulder sat in the mud at the edge of the vil age.

  There was a deep chuckle beside me. “Not bad, little prince. Not bad. ”

  Slowly, I turned, gripping my weapon, ready to unleash my glamour in one violent, chaotic burst. A few yards away, the enormous wolf of legend stared at me, eyes glowing yel owgreen in the gloom, fangs bared in a vicious smile.

  “Hello, prince,” rumbled the Big Bad Wolf. “I told you before. The next time we meet, you won't ever see me coming. ”

  I stared at the Wolf, keeping him in my sights as he circled me, fangs bared in a savage grin, huge paws sinking into the mud. Around and inside me, glamour f lared, cold and lethal, ready to be unleashed. I couldn't hold anything back, not with him. This was possibly the most dangerous, ancient creature to ever walk the wilds of the Nevernever.

  His stories outnumbered all the myths and legends ever told, and his power grew with every tel ing, every dire warning and fable that whispered his name. His legends were all born of fear; he was the con-summate vil ain, the creature that old wives warned their children about, a monster that consumed little girls and butchered entire herds for no reason. His brethren in the mortal world had suffered terribly for the fears that birthed him—they had been gunned down, trapped, and slaughtered wholesale—but each death reinforced those fears and made him more powerful than before.

  The immortal Big Bad Wolf. Meghan and I had met him once before, and he'd almost succeeded in kill ing me.

  That wouldn't happen again.

  “Put that stick away. ” The Wolf 's voice, guttural and deep, held traces of amusement. “If I wanted you dead, I wouldn't have bothered saving your sorry carcass from the swamp trol . That's not to say I won't kill you later, but your sil y little toy won't stop me then, either, so you might as well be civil about it. ”

  I kept my sword out, which I could see annoyed the Wolf, but I was certainly not going down without a fight. “What do you want?” I asked, keeping my voice cautiously civil, but letting the Wolf know I would defend myself if needed. I was going to walk away from this. It didn't matter that the Wolf was immortal. It didn't matter that he'd almost kill ed me last time we'd met. If it came down to a fight, I was determined to win this time, by any means necessary. I would not die here, on the banks of a gloomy lake, torn apart by the Big Bad Wolf. I would survive this encounter and keep going.

  Meghan was waiting for me.

  The Wolf smiled. “Mab sent me for you,” he said in a voice that was almost a purr.

  I kept my expression neutral, though an icy fist grabbed my stomac
h and twisted. Not in surprise, or even fear, just the knowledge that, as she did with all her subjects, the Winter Queen had finally grown tired of me. Perhaps she was insulted by my refusal to return to court. Perhaps she'd decided that a former Winter prince running around free was too volatile, a threat to her throne. The whys didn't matter. Mab had sent the most feared hunter and assassin in the entire Nevernever to kill me.

  I sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. “I suppose I should be honored,”

  I told him, and he cocked his enormous shaggy head, stil grinning.

  Taking a furtive breath, I calmed my mind, the glamour settling into a low, throbbing pulse. “We won't get anywhere standing around looking at each other,” I told him, raising my sword. “Let's get on with it, then. ”

  The Wolf chuckled. “As much as I'd enjoy ripping your head off, little prince,” he said, and his eyes gleamed, “I am not here to end your life.

  Quite the opposite, in fact. Mab sent me here to help you. ”

  I stared at him, hardly able to believe what I'd just heard. “Why?”

  The Wolf shrugged, his huge shoulders rippling with the movement. “I do not know,” he said, and yawned, f lashing lethal fangs. “Nor do I care. The Winter Queen knows of your quest; she knows you will probably have to journey far to complete it. I am here to make sure you reach your destination with your guts on the inside. In return, she will owe me a favor. ” He sniffed the air and sat down, watching me with half-lidded eyes.

  “Beyond that, I have no interest in you. Or the Summer prankster.

  Who, if he wants his head to remain on his shoulders, will think long and hard about jumping me from behind. Next time, try standing downwind, Goodfel ow. ”

  “Damn. ” Puck appeared from a clump of reeds, a chagrined smile on his face, glaring at the Wolf. “I knew I was forgetting something. ”

  Blood caked one side of his face, but other than that, he seemed fine.

  Brandishing his daggers, he sauntered up beside me, facing the huge predator. “Working for Mab now, are you, Wolfman?” he smirked.

  “Like a good little attack dog? will you also rol over and beg if she asks?”