The iron knight, p.16
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       The Iron Knight, p.16

         Part #4 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
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Page 16

 

  “Wow, if I had a favor for every time someone said that to me…”

  Grimalkin did not look amused. Shooting Puck one last feline glare, he leaped to the edge of the raft, walked graceful y along the edge, and sat at the bow, facing out like a haughty figurehead. I gave the pole a push, and the raft moved smoothly into the River of Dreams, gliding toward the End of the World.

  For a while, the river was smooth. Except for the occasional bump of dream debris col iding with the raft, we slid through the water with hardly a ripple. More strange objects f loated by us: love letters and wristwatches, stuffed animals and limp bal oons. Once, Puck reached down and snatched up a faded copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, grinned like an idiot and tossed it back into the river.

  How long we f loated down the river, I didn't know. The night sky, both above and around us, never lightened. The Wolf lay down, put his head on his enormous paws and dozed. Puck and Ariel a spoke quietly in the center of the raft, catching up on many years of separation. They sounded at ease with each other, comfortable and content, and Ariel a's laughter f loated up occasional y, something I hadn't heard in a long, long time. It made me smile, but I didn't join them in reminiscing. Things were stil shaky between Puck and me; I knew the dark, lingering memories of the hol ow had pushed both of us to the edge that night, and we had, temporarily, put it behind us again, but I didn't trust myself just yet. Besides, I was lost in my own thoughts. Ariel a's previous question had reminded me of the girl I was doing this for. I wondered where she was, what she was doing at that very moment. I wondered if she thought of me, too.

  “Prince. ” Grimalkin's voice suddenly drifted up from near my feet. I looked down at the cait sith, standing beside me. “I suggest we stop for a bit,” he said, waving his tail to keep his balance as the raft bobbed up and down in the current. “I am weary of sitting in one place, and I am not the only one. ” He nodded to where Ariel a and Puck sat together on the planks. Ariel a was slumped against Puck's shoulder, dozing quietly. I felt a tiny twinge of anger, seeing them like that, but Puck glanced back at me, offered a tiny, rueful shrug, and I squashed it down. It was ridiculous to be jealous, to feel anything. That part of my life was gone. I might regret it, I might wish it were different, but I could not bring it back. I'd known that for a long time.

  I steered the raft to the bank, toward a sandy bar beneath ancient, moss-covered trees. As Puck and I pulled it to shore, Ariel a woke, gazing around blearily.

  “Where—”

  “Relax, Ari. We're just stopping for a bit. ” Puck released the boat and stretched, raising long limbs over his head. “You know, it's always rafts and skinny little pole boats that you have to suffer through on these types of trips. Why can't we travel to the End of the World in a yacht?”

  The Wolf leaped off the raft and stretched, baring his fangs in an enormous yawn. Shaking water from his fur, he looked around at the enormous trees and panted a grin. “I'm off to hunt,” he stated simply.

  “It shouldn't take long. ” He glanced back at me, wrinkling his long muzzle. “I'd advise you not to venture into the forest, little prince.

  You're in the Deep Wyld now, and I'd hate to come back to find you all eaten. well , except for the cat. He can get himself eaten anytime he wants. ” With that, he turned and bounded off, his black form merging with the shadows.

  A few seconds later, we realized Grimalkin had also vanished. He'd probably slipped away into the forest as soon as the boat had touched ground, with no explanation and no hint to when he'd return. That left the three of us, alone.

  “You know, we could just leave them,” Puck suggested, grinning to show he wasn't completely serious. “What? Don't give me that look, Ari.

  Wolfman is probably right at home, and we couldn't get rid of Furbal even if we wanted to. We'd be halfway to the End of the World and find him sleeping at the bottom of the boat. ”

  Ariel a continued to frown disapprovingly, and Puck threw up his hands. “Fine. Guess we're stuck here until their furry highnesses deign to show up again. ” He eyed each of us in turn, then sighed. “Right, then. Camp. Food. Fire. I'll get right on that. ”

  Not long after, a cheerful fire crackled in a shal ow pit, trying valiantly to throw back the darkness, failing to do so. The shadows seemed thicker near the River of Dreams, as if Night itself had taken offense to the f lickering campfire and was crowding the edges of the light, seeking to swal ow it whole. Light was an intruder here, much as we were.

  Ariel a sat cross-legged in the sand, idly poking the fire with a stick, while Puck and I attended to the business of finding food. Puck had somehow fashioned a pole from glamour, a stick, and a tangle of string from his pocket, but fishing in the River of Dreams was proving to be a strange and frustrating affair. He managed to pul a couple fish out of the river early, but they were odd, unnatural things: long and black like eels, with oversize teeth that snapped at us when we tried to handle them and bit through the sticks we tried to spear them with.

  We finally decided it wasn't worth the hassle of a lost finger and let them f lop back into the river. His other catches included a yel ow boot, a giant turtle that asked us for a pocket watch, and what looked like a large, normal catfish. That is, until it started sobbing enormous tears, begging us to return it to its family. I might've ignored the wailing fish and stuck it over the fire anyway, but the softhearted Goodfel ow let it go.

  “You realize you've just been duped by a fish,” I said, watching the catfish grin at me before slipping into the dark waters, lost from view.

  Puck shrugged.

  “Hey, it was going to name one of its grandfish after me,” he said, tossing the line into the water again. “That's one of my rules, you know. I refuse to eat anything that names its kid after me. ”

  “Fish don't have children,” I deadpanned. “Fish have fry. ”

  “Even so. ”

  “Fine. ” I rol ed my eyes and stepped back from the edge. “I'm done with this. Let me know if you manage to catch anything useful. ”

  I wandered back to the fire, where Ariel a looked up and smiled faintly, as if she knew exactly how the fishing had gone.

  “Here,” she said, and tossed me a round, pinkish globe. I caught it automatical y, blinking as I realized what it was. A peach, fuzzy and soft and nearly the size of my fist. I glanced beside her and saw she had a whole basket of them.

  “Where did you find these?” I asked in amazement. She chuckled.

  “The river,” she replied, nodding to the dark, glittering water. “You can find almost anything a human would dream of, provided you know what to look for. While you and Puck have been wrestling with nightmares, I just keep an eye on the surface and let the dream debris come. ”

  “Sounds like you've done this before,” I said, taking a seat beside her.

  “Not really,” she admitted. “I've never been to the river in person. But as a seer I can sometimes see into dreams, whether they be faery or mortal.

  Dreamwalking, I believe it's cal ed. And sometimes, I can even shape those dreams, make a person see what I want them to. ”

  “Like you did with mine. ”

  She was silent a moment, gazing back into the fire. “Yes,” she murmured Finally. “I'm sorry, Ash. But I wanted you to see what would've happened if Meghan had lost. I wanted you to understand why I chose what I did, even though I knew it would hurt. ”

  “Did you…” I paused, gathering my thoughts. “Did you see my dreams…before?” Before I found Meghan, before I learned to freeze out my emotions—the nightmares that kept me awake at night, because I knew closing my eyes would force me to live that day over and over again.

  Ariel a shivered, drawing her knees to her chest, and nodded. “I wished I could have helped you. ” She sighed, resting her chin on a knee. “Between you and Puck, it was all I could do not to let you know I was stil alive. ”

  I frowned. Puck had had
nightmares, too? I pushed that thought away, unwil ing to dwel on it. If he had been suffering like me, good. He deserved it.

  “So,” I asked, changing the subject, “what comes next?”

  Ariel a sighed. “I don't know,” she murmured, almost to herself.

  “Everything is so hazy now. I've never been this far into the wyldwood. ”

  “I haven't, either. ”

  “But that doesn't worry you, does it?” She hugged herself and gazed out over the river. “You'l do whatever it takes, won't you? You've always been that way. Completely fearless. ” She shivered again and closed her eyes, seeming to sink into herself. “I wish I could be like that. ”

  “I'm not fearless,” I told her. “There are a lot of things that scare me. ”

  Failure. My own savage, Unseelie nature. Being unable to save those I had sworn to protect. Having my heart ripped from me once more.

  “I'm not fearless,” I said again. “Not by a long shot. ”

  Ariel a gave me a sideways glance, as if she knew what I was thinking.

  “Yes, but you aren't afraid of the things the rest of us are afraid of,” she said wryly. “The things that should terrify you don't. ”

  “Like what?” I chal enged, mostly to get her talking, to argue with me as she had before. This new Ariel a, quiet and sad, bowed under the weight of terrible knowledge and countless secrets, was more then I could take. I wanted her to laugh again, to smile like she used to. Grinning, I bit into the peach, adopting a careless, defiant posture. “Name something you think I should be afraid of. ”

  “Dragons,” Ariel a said immediately, making me snort. “Giants, hydras, manticores. Take your pick. Not only do you lack a healthy respect for them, you go charging into their lairs to chal enge them to a fight. ”

  “I have a healthy respect for manticores,” I argued. “And I avoid picking fights with dragons. You're lumping me together with Goodfel ow. ”