The Iron Knight, Page 21Julie Kagawa
“Ari,” I said, facing her, “what are you doing here? What do you want?”
Ariel a narrowed her eyes. “I'm here to bring you out of this dream,” she replied with a brief glance at Meghan. “Your body is very sick, Ash, and the curse the hobyah shaman laid on you was keeping you trapped in sleep. I don't know how you found your way here, but it is time for you to return to us. ”
Behind me, I could feel Meghan's stare burning into my shoulder blades. “You're…with her now?” she asked softly, not quite accusing—not yet.
“How…how long have you known she was alive?”
“Not long,” Ariel a answered for me. “We haven't had much time together yet. ”
“Ari!” I turned to glare at her. She gazed back, unrepentant, her silver-f lecked eyes watching me sadly. In that moment, I saw the jealousy she'd never shown before, the hurt that I had chosen someone else, though she knew it had to be that way. It was perhaps the first truly ugly emotion I'd ever seen from her, and my anger dissipated completely. I had done this to her. She'd given me everything, and I had turned my back on her.
“I see,” Meghan whispered in a voice that trembled only slightly. I could feel her fading, her presence leaving the dream surrounding us.
“Then…I'll leave you two alone. ”
“That is not necessary, Iron Queen. ” Ariel a shook her head. “There is no need. I came here to bring Ash out of his nightmares, but this is your dream, not his. When you wake, the dream will fade, and he will return to us. I'm sorry to have intruded here. ” With a slight nod to us both, she backed up a few steps into the mist, and disappeared.
Alone with the Iron Queen again, I held my breath, waiting for the explosion, for the storm of questions. But Meghan took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Was that really her?” she asked, stil not looking up. “Ariel a? Is she really alive?”
I crossed the space separating us, reaching for her hand. She blinked as I took her fingers, gazing up at me in surprise. “It's not what you think,” I told her. “Please, hear me out. ”
Meghan gave me a sad smile. “No, Ash,” she whispered.
“Maybe…maybe this is for the best. ” And though she didn't move, I could sense she was pul ing back, letting me go.
“I'm the Iron Queen,” she said firmly. “No matter what I want, that will never change. And you're stil part of the Winter Court. Even if you could come into the Iron Realm, you would die. We can't be together, and there's no use in wishing for the impossible. It's selfish of me to keep hoping. ” Her voice shook on the last sentence, but she took a deep, steadying breath and looked up at me. “Perhaps…it's time to move on, to find happiness with someone else. ”
I wanted to tel her, to explain what I was trying to do. That I was trying to earn my soul. I was going to the End of the World for her; that I would become mortal if it meant we could be together. I wanted to tel her so badly, but at the same time, I feared getting her hopes up only to have them dashed if I failed. I didn't want her waiting for me, worrying and constantly looking to the horizon for someone who would never appear.
“You have a chance to be happy now,” Meghan went on, and her blue eyes shone with unshed tears, though she never looked away. “Ash, this is Ariella, the love you've been missing for decades. If she's really back, then fate has given you both another chance, and I…I'm not going to stand in your way. ” A tear spil ed over, running down her cheek, but she stil smiled as she held my gaze. “What we had was a dream, and it was beautiful, but it was just a dream. It's time for us to wake up. ” I took a breath to argue, but she laid her fingers against my lips, silencing me. “Close your eyes. ”
I didn't want to. I wanted to stay in this dream almost as much as I wanted to find a soul, even though I knew this wasn't real. But, almost against my will , I felt my eyes slip shut, and a moment later her lips brushed against mine, a featherlight touch that pulled my stomach inside out. “Goodbye, Ash,” she whispered. “Be happy. ”
And I awoke.
I was lying on my back, staring up at a roof of branches, tiny pinpricks of light filtering through the leaves. A fire crackled somewhere to my left, and the scent of smoke drifted on the breeze, tickling the back of my throat.
“Welcome back, sleeping beauty. ”
Puck's voice filtered through the haze in my mind. Groaning, I struggled into a sitting position, rubbing my eyes. My skin felt cold and clammy, my body drained. Mostly, I felt hol ow, empty, though the dul ache in my chest reminded me why I had closed off my emotions, freezing everyone out. It hurt, the knowledge that the girl I loved had let me go once more.
Ariel a and the Wolf were nowhere to be seen, but Puck sat on a log in front of a smal campfire, holding a fat, speared mushroom over the f lames, turning it slowly. Grimalkin lay opposite him on a f lat rock, his feet tucked beneath him, purring in contentment.
“'Bout time you woke up, ice-boy,” Puck said without turning around.
“I was hoping for some groaning and thrashing, but you just lay there like the dead. And you didn't even talk in your sleep so I could torment you about it later. What fun is that?”
I struggled to my feet, pausing a moment to let the ground stop swaying. “How long was I out?” I asked, moving toward the fire.
“Hard to say. ” Puck tossed me a mushroom kebab as I walked up. “I haven't seen the sun in forever. We must be far into the Deep Wyld. ”
“Where's everyone else?”
“Wolfman is out hunting. ” Puck stuffed an entire mushroom into his mouth and swal owed without seeming to chew. “I guess my humble white-truff le kebabs weren't good enough for him. Do you know how hard it is to find these things? Furbal turned up his nose as well—picky, ungrateful animals. ”
Grimalkin sniffed without opening his eyes. “I do not eat fungi, Goodfel ow,” he said in a lofty voice. “And if you are so enamored by these spores, feel free to chew on those spotted toadstools in that pile of elk dung. ”
“Oh, well , that's just gross. ”
I swal owed the mushrooms without tasting them, my body recognizing the need for food even though my mind was far away. “Where's Ariel a?” I asked, tossing the stick back into the fire.
Puck nodded to the edge of the circle of firelight, where Ariel a sat hunched on a rock, her back to us. “She walked away a few minutes before you came to,” Puck said softly, watching me with narrowed eyes. “I tried fol owing her, but she said she wanted to be alone for a while. ” I felt his gaze sharpen, cutting into me. “What did you say to her, Ash?”
I was such a mess, pulled in so many directions I felt like I would snap.
I was stil reeling from Meghan's last words, from the f lash of jealousy in Ariel a's eyes, from the strain of walking the line between the girl I had lost and the girl I wanted but could not have. But even though Ari had clearly been goading Meghan back in the dreamworld, I could not ignore her pain.
Disregarding Puck, I walked to where Ariel a sat, her head bowed, silver hair covering her face like a shimmering curtain. As I stepped closer, she raised her head but didn't look back at me.
“So, that was her. ”
I paused. Her voice was f lat, no emotion at all , no indication of what she was feeling. Unsure how to proceed, I answered simply. “Yes. ”
A few heartbeats of silence. When she spoke again, I could hear her smile, but it was as bitter as the fading autumn leaves. “I can see why you love her so much. ”
I closed my eyes. “Ari—”
She stood quickly before I could say more, though she didn't turn around. “I know. I'm sorry, Ash. I…” Her voice caught, and she pushed back her hair, speaking more to herself than to me. “I didn't think it would be this hard. ”
I watched her, in the f lickering shadows. I watched the firelight rippling off her silver hair, the way her body moved, graceful and sure.
And, I was
suddenly reminded why I'd fal en in love with her, all those years ago. She was as beautiful as those days when I was that young, arrogant prince, and time had not dul ed her perfection. I thought about what Meghan had told me: that fate had given us another chance; Ariel a was back in my life, and I could be happy now.
Could I be happy with Ariel a?
I shook my head, veering from those thoughts before they got too tempting, feeling another thread of my essence unravel. It didn't matter, I realized through gritted teeth. I could not abandon my quest, regardless of my feelings. I swore that I would find a way to return to Meghan, and I was bound to that promise. I couldn't go back on my word, even if what I searched for was impossible. Even if Meghan was no longer waiting for me, that she had said her goodbyes, that she had let me go. I could not give up, even now.
Even if I died, and took everyone with me.
“Finally awake, are you?” The Wolf melted from the shadows, a piece of the night becoming real. “I was tempted to rip out your throat while you slept and put you out of your misery, little prince. Watching you sleep was becoming tiring. ” He licked his jaws, where a dul coating of red spattered his fur, and bared his teeth. “We've wasted enough time here, and I am getting bored. Do you wish to reach the Testing Grounds or not?”
“Yes,” I said as Puck joined us, carrying several mushroom kebabs.
“It's time to head out. Where do we go from here?”
Ariel a closed her eyes. “We fol ow the River of Dreams,” she murmured, “past the Briars, until we reach the final barrier, and then the End of the World. Beyond that, the Testing Grounds await. ”
“You make it sound so easy. ” Puck sighed, stuffing another truff le in his mouth. “Past the Briars you say? And then beyond the End of the World?
How long is that going to take us?”
“As long as it takes,” I said firmly. “As long as I have the breath to keep going, I will. But that doesn't mean the rest of you should do the same. ” I gazed around the group, meeting the stares of my companions. “From here on out,” I began, “it's going to be even more dangerous. I won't ask you to stay with me. None of us know what lies beyond the Briars, at the End of the World. If you want to go back, do so now.