The Iron Queen, Page 14Julie Kagawa
A thump from the door drew our attention. Paul wandered into the kitchen, shuffling like a zombie, his hair in disarray. He didn’t look at either of us.
“Hey,” I greeted softly, but I might as well have saved my breath. Paul acted like he didn’t hear me. Staring at the laden breakfast table, he picked up a piece of toast, nibbled a corner, and wandered back out, all without acknowledging my existence.
My appetite fled. Grimalkin eyed the glass of milk perched on the corner and tapped it experimentally. “By the way,” he continued as I stared moodily out the door, “your Winter prince wishes you to meet him in the clearing beyond the stream after you have eaten. He implied that it was important. ”
I grabbed a bacon slice and nibbled half-heartedly. “Ash did? Why?”
“I did not care enough to ask. ”
“What about my dad?” I glanced in the direction Paul had gone. “Will he be safe? Should I just leave him alone?”
“You are terribly dull this morning. ” Grimalkin deliberately knocked over the glass of milk and watched it drip to the floor in satisfaction. “The same glamour that keeps mortals out of this place also keeps them in. Should the human go wandering around outside, he will not be able to leave the clearing. No matter the direction he takes, he will only find himself back where he started. ”
“What if I want to take him away? He can’t stay here forever. ”
“Then you had better take that up with Leanansidhe, not I. In any case, it is no concern of mine. ” Grimalkin dropped from the table, landing on the wooden floor with a thump. “When you go to meet the prince, leave the dishes as they are,” he said, arching his tail over his back. “If you wash them, the brownies will be insulted and might leave the cabin, and that would be terribly inconvenient. ”
“Is that why you made a mess?” I asked, eying the milk dripping to the floor.
“So the brownies would have something to clean up?”
“Of course not, human. ” Grimalkin yawned. “That was purely for the fun of it. ” And he trotted from the room, leaving me to shake my head, grab a piece of toast, and hurry outside.
It was a foggy gray morning, with mist curling along the ground in wispy threads, muffling my footsteps. I hopped over the brook and looked back once I reached the other side. The cabin had disappeared once more, showing only misty forest beyond the stream.
In the center of the clearing, a dark silhouette danced and spun in the mist, his long coat billowing out behind him, an icy sword cutting through the fog like paper. I leaned against a tree and watched, hypnotized by the graceful, whirling movements, the deadly speed and accuracy of the sword strikes, far too quick for a human to ever keep up with. Uneasiness gnawed at me as I suddenly remembered the dream, Machina’s soft voice echoing in my head. Do you think you’ll be able to keep him, once you discover who you really are? Do you think he will even want you anymore?
Angrily, I pushed those thoughts away. What did he know? Besides, that was just a dream, a nightmare conjured from stress and the worry over my dad. It didn’t mean anything.
Ash finished the drill and with a final flourish, slammed the blade into its sheath. For a moment, he stood motionless, breathing deeply, the mist curling around him. “Is your father any better?” he asked without turning around. I jumped.
“Hasn’t changed. ” I moved across the damp grass toward him, soaking the hems of my jeans. “How long have you been out here?”
He turned, raking a hand through his bangs, shoving them out of his eyes. “I went back to Leanansidhe’s last night,” he said, walking forward. “I wanted to get something for you, so I had one of her contacts track one down for me. ”
Ash strode to a nearby rock, swooped down, and tossed me a long, slightly curved stick. When I caught it, I saw that it was actually a leather sheath with a gilded brass hilt poking from the top. A sword. Ash was giving me a sword…why?
Oh, yeah. Because I wanted to learn to fight. Because I’d asked him to teach me.
Ash, watching me with that weary, knowing look on his face, shook his head.
“You forgot, did you?”
“Nooooo,” I said quickly. “I just…didn’t think it would be this soon. ”
“This is the perfect place. ” Ash turned slightly to gaze around the clearing.
“Quiet, hidden. We can catch our breath here. It’s a good place to learn while you’re waiting for your father to come out of it. When we’re done here, I have a feeling things will get much more chaotic. ” He gestured to the sword in my hand.
“Your first lesson begins now. Draw your sword. ”
I did. Unsheathing it sent a raspy shiver across the glen, and I gazed at the weapon in fascination. The blade was thin and slightly curved, an elegant-looking weapon, razor sharp and deadly. A warning tickled the back of my mind. There was something about the blade that was…different. Blinking, I ran my fingers along the cool, gleaming edge, and a chill shot through my stomach. The blade was made of steel. Not faery steel. Not a fey sword covered in glamour. Real, ordinary iron. The kind that would burn faery flesh and sear away glamour. The kind that left wounds impossible to heal.
I gaped at it, then at Ash, who looked remarkably calm to be facing his greatest weakness. “This is steel,” I told him, sure that Leanansidhe had made a mistake.
He nodded. “An eighteenth-century Spanish saber. Leanansidhe nearly had a fit when I told her what I wanted, but she was able to track one down in exchange for a favor. ” He paused then, wincing slightly. “A very large favor. ”
Alarmed, I stared at him. “What did you promise her?”
“It doesn’t matter. Nothing that endangers us in any way. ” He hurried on before I could argue. “I wanted a light, slashing weapon for you, one with a good amount of reach, to keep opponents farther away. ” He gestured to the saber with his own weapon, a blindingly quick stab of blue. “You’ll be moving around a lot, using speed instead of brute force against your enemies. That blade won’t block heavier weapons, and you don’t have the strength to swing a longsword effectively, so we’re going to have to teach you how to dodge. This was the best choice. ”
“But this is steel,” I repeated, listening to him in amazement. He could teach a class with his knowledge of weapons and fighting. “Why a real sword? I could seriously hurt someone. ”
“Meghan. ” Ash gave me a patient look. “That’s exactly why I chose it. You have an advantage with that weapon that none of us can touch. Even the most violent redcap will think twice about facing a real, mortal blade. It won’t scare the Iron fey, of course, but that’s where training will come in. ”
“But…but what if I hit you?”
A snort. “You’re not going to hit me. ”
“How do you know?” I bristled at his amused tone. “I could hit you. Even master swordsmen make mistakes. I could get a lucky shot, or you might not see me coming. I don’t want to hurt you. ”
He favored me with another patient look. “And how much experience do you have with swords and weapons in general?”
“Um. ” I glanced down at the saber in my hand. “Thirty seconds?”
He smiled, that calm, irritatingly confident smirk. “You’re not going to hit me. ”
I scowled. Ash chuckled, then raised his weapon and stalked forward, all amusement gone. “Although,” he continued, sliding into predator mode with no effort at all, “I do want you to try. ”
I gulped and backed away. “Now? Don’t I get a warm-up or something? I don’t even know how to hold the thing properly. ”
“Holding it is easy. ” Ash slid closer, circling me like a wolf. One finger pointed to the tip of his blade. “The sharp end goes in first. ”
“That’s so not helpful, Ash. ”
He smiled grimly and continued to stalk. “Meghan, I would love to teach you properl
y, from the beginning, but that takes years, centuries, even. And since we don’t have that kind of time, I’m giving you the condensed version. Besides, the best way to learn is by doing. ” He jabbed at me with his sword, nowhere near coming close, but I jumped anyway. “Now, try to hit me. And don’t hold back. ”
I didn’t want to, but I had asked him to teach me, after all. Bunching my muscles, I gave a feeble yell and lunged, stabbing at him with the tip. Ash slid aside. In the space of a blink, his sword licked out, slapping my ribs with the flat of the blade. I shrieked as I felt the bite of absolute cold through my shirt, and glared at him.
“Dammit, Ash, that hurt!”
He gave me a humorless smile. “Then don’t get hit. ”
My ribs throbbed. There’d probably be a welt there this evening. For a moment, I was tempted to throw down the blade and stalk back to the house. But I swallowed my pride and faced him again, resolved. I needed this. I needed to learn to defend myself, and the ones I cared about. I could take a few bruised ribs, if it meant saving a life one day.
Ash brandished his sword in an expert manner and cocked two fingers at me.
For the rest of the morning, we practiced. Or, more accurately, I tried to hit Ash and received more swats that stung and burned their way through my clothes. He didn’t do it every time, and he never once cut me, but I became paranoid about getting hit. After several more thwaps that stung my pride as well as my skin, I tried switching to full defense mode, and Ash started attacking me. I got hit a lot more.
Anger burned, flaring up after each swat, each effortless smack that left my skin tingling with failure. He wasn’t being fair. He had years, decades even, of swordplay, and he wasn’t even giving me a chance. He was toying with me instead of teaching me how to fend off his attacks. This wasn’t a lesson, this was just him showing off.
Finally, my temper snapped. After desperately fending off a series of blindingly quick thrusts, I received a swat to my backside that ignited a rage. Screaming, I flew at Ash, intending to hit him this time, to at least smack that calm efficiency off his face.