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The Iron Knight, Page 13

Julie Kagawa

Page 13



  I stared at the figure before me, hardly able to wrap my mind around it. It looked like Ariel a, sounded like her. Even after all these years, I knew the exact lilt of her voice, the subtlest tilt of her head. But…it wasn't her. It couldn't be. This was a trick, or perhaps a memory, brought to life by the depth of emotion around us. Ariel a was dead.

  She had been for a long time.

  “No,” I whispered, shaking my head, trying desperately to regain my scattered wits. “This…this isn't real. You're not real. Ariel a is…gone. ”

  My voice broke, and I shook my head angrily. “This isn't real,” I repeated, will ing my heart to believe it. “Whatever you are, leave this place. Don't torment me further. ”

  The robed figure glided forward, coils of mist parting for her as she came toward me. I wanted to move, to draw back, but my body wasn't working right anymore. I might as well have been frozen, helpless, as the thing that looked like Ariel a drew very close, so close I could see the f lecks of silver in her eyes, smel the faint scent of cloves that had always surrounded her.

  Ariel a gazed at me a moment, then raised one pale, slender hand and laid it—cool and solid—against my cheek.

  “Does this feel like a memory, Ash?” she whispered as my breath hitched and my knees nearly buckled. I closed my eyes, unwil ing to hope, to have it ripped from me once more. Taking my limp hand, Ariel a guided it to her chest and trapped it there, so I could feel the heartbeat under my fingers. “Does this?”

  Disbelief crumbled. “You're alive,” I choked out, and she smiled at me, a sad, painful smile that held all the years of loss and despair I knew so well . Her grief had been just as fierce, just as consuming, as mine.

  “You're alive,” I whispered again, and pulled her to me.

  Her arms slid around my waist, drawing us even closer, and she breathed my name. I held her fiercely, half-afraid she would dissolve into mist in my arms. I felt her heartbeat, thudding against mine, listened to her breath on my cheek, and felt the centuries-old grief dissolving, melting like frost in the sunlight. I could barely believe it; I didn't know how it could be, but Ariel a was alive. She was alive. The nightmare was finally over.

  It seemed like an eternity before we finally pulled back, but my shock was no less severe. And when she looked at me with those star-f lecked eyes, my mind stil had trouble accepting what was right in front of me.

  “How?” I asked, unwil ing to let her go just yet. Wanting—needing—to feel her, solid and real and alive, pressed against me. “I watched you die. ”

  Ariel a nodded. “Yes, it wasn't a very pleasant experience,” she said, and smiled at my bewildered expression. “There are…a lot of things that need explaining,” she continued, and a shadow darkened her face.

  “I have so much to tel you, Ash. But not here. ” She slid back, out of my arms. “I have a place not far from here. Go col ect Robin Goodfel ow, and then I can tel you both. ”

  A strangled noise interrupted us. I turned to see Puck standing several yards away, staring at Ariel a with an open mouth. His green eyes were wider then I'd ever seen them.

  “I'm…seeing things,” he stammered, and his gaze f lickered to me. For just a moment, I saw hope f lare in their depths. “Ash? Tel me you see her, too. ”

  Incredibly, Ariel a smiled at him. “Hel o, Puck. It's good to see you again. And, no…you're not seeing things. It's really me. ” She held up her hand as Puck took a breath. “I know you both have many, many questions, but this is not the place to ask them. Fol ow me, and then I will try to explain everything. ”

  Numbly, I col ected my sword from where I'd f lung it discourteously into the briars, and we followed Ariel a through the mist and brambles, her spectral form gliding through the fog like a ghost. Each time the mist coiled around her pale figure, my heart twisted in fear, certain that when the tendrils pulled away she would be gone. Behind me, Puck was silent; I knew he was just as dazed, trying to come to terms with what we had just seen and heard. I was stil reeling from the shock, from questions that swirled maddeningly in my head, and Puck was the last person I wanted to talk to.

  We trailed Ariel a through a thick hedge, where the mist cleared away and the briars formed a protective wall around a snowy glen. Glamour fil ed the tiny space, creating the il usion of gently fal ing snow, of icicles that hung on branches and a chil in the air, but not everything was fantasy. A clear pool glimmered in the center of the clearing, and a lone elder tree stood beside it, its branches heavy with purple berries.

  Shelves ful of jars, dried plants and simple bone tools had been worked into the bramble, and a narrow bed stood beneath an overhang of woven thatch and ice.

  Ariel a walked over to a shelf and brushed imaginary dust from between two jars, seeming to col ect her thoughts. I gazed around the clearing in wonder. “Is…is this where you live?” I asked. “Al this time, you've been here?”

  “Yes. ” Ariel a took a deep breath and turned around, smoothing back her hair. She'd always done that when she was nervous. “Sit, if you want. ”

  She gestured to an old log, rubbed smooth and shiny with use, but I couldn't bring myself to sit. Neither could Puck, apparently.

  “So, how long have you been here, Ari?” he asked, and I instantly bristled at the casual use of his old nickname for her. He had no right to speak to her as if nothing had happened. As if everything was all right now. “Have you been here since…that day? all alone?”

  She nodded, smiling tiredly. “It's not the Winter palace by any means, but I make do. ”

  Irritation boiled over into real anger now. I tried to stif le it, but it rose up anyway as the blackest years of my existence seemed to descend on me all at once. She had been here all along, and never thought to see me, to let us know she was stil alive. all those years of fighting, kill ing, all for nothing. “Why didn't you tel me?” I demanded, and she winced as though she'd been expecting that question.

  “Ash, believe me, I wanted to—”

  “But you didn't. ” I stalked over to the elder tree, because I couldn't remain motionless any longer. Her gaze followed me as I whirled back, gesturing to the glade. “You've been here for years, Ari, and you never came back, never made any attempt to see me again. You let me think you were dead!

  Why?” I was near shouting now, my composure shattered, but I

  couldn't help it. “You could've sent word, let me know you were all right! all those years of thinking you were gone, that you were dead.

  Did you know what I was going through? What we both were going through?”

  Puck blinked, startled that I would include him as well . I ignored him, however, stil facing Ariel a, who watched me sadly but offered no argument. I let my arms drop, and my anger vanished as quickly as it had come. “Why didn't you tel me?” I whispered.

  “Because, had I returned, you would have never met Meghan Chase. ”

  I froze at the sound of her name.

  Ariel a sighed, a gesture that seemed to age her a hundred years, and smoothed back her hair once more. “I'm not explaining it well at all,” she mused, almost to herself. “Let me start again, from the beginning.

  The day…I died. ”

  “I've always been a little bit of a seer,” Ariel a began, gazing not at me, but at the pool in the center of the glade, as if she could glimpse the future within. “Even before the… accident…I could sometimes predict things. Smal things, never important. Never enough to threaten or compete with the factions at court. My father tried to use my gift to rise to power, but he soon gave up when he realized my visions never showed me anything useful.

  “That day in the hol ow,” she continued, her voice growing even softer,

  “when the wyvern struck me, something happened. I felt myself die, my essence fade, becoming part of the Nevernever. There was darkness, and then I had a dream… a vision…of the Iron fey, the chaos that woul
d come. And then…I don't know. I found myself waking up, alone, in the place where I died. And I knew what was coming. The Iron fey.

  They would destroy us, except for her.

  “One girl. The half daughter of Oberon, Meghan Chase. When the time came, when the Iron King set his plans into motion at last, she would save us—if she could survive to face the chal enges ahead. ”

  Ariel a paused, smoothing back her hair, her eyes on something I could not see. “I had many visions of Meghan Chase,” she went on in a distant voice. “I saw her struggles as clearly as if they were happening to me. The future is always changing—never is there a clear path to the end, and some of the visions were terrible. I saw her die many, many times. And each time she perished, the Iron fey would overcome Faery. The Iron King triumphed in the end, darkness overtook the Nevernever, and everything we knew was destroyed. ”

  “But she didn't fail,” Puck broke in. “She won. She led an army of Iron fey to the false king's fortress, kicked down the door, turned the old geezer into a tree, and became the new queen. Because of her, the Iron fey aren't poisoning the Nevernever anymore, as long as they stay within their territory. Definitely not the Armageddon you predicted, Ari. ”

  Ariel a nodded. “Yes, and I saw those futures as well , Robin Goodfel ow. But she was never alone. You were always there with her, you and Ash both. You kept her safe, helped her succeed. In the end, she defeated the final evil and claimed her destiny, but you were the ones who enabled her to do it. She would have died without your help. ”

  Ariel a sighed, fiddling with the branches of the tree, her gaze distant again. “I had my own part to play, of course,” she continued hesitantly, as if the things she'd done were somehow distasteful. “I was the pup-pet master, pul ing the strings, making sure all the pieces were in place before her arrival. I watched for the signs of her coming. I began the whispers that Leanansidhe was planning to overthrow the courts, leading to her exile. I suggested the girl have a guardian to watch over her in the mortal world. And I made sure that a certain cat would be on the lookout for the halfhuman daughter of the Summer King, should she happen to fal into his tree one day. ”