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The Iron Knight, Page 39

Julie Kagawa

Page 39


  When it disappeared, Ariel a hurried over and knelt beside me. “Can you stand?”

  Wincing, I struggled to a sitting position. My wounds were gone, I was alive, but my body stil blazed with pain. Taking her hand, I let her pul me to my feet, clenching my jaw to keep the gasp from escaping. “I didn't realize…how fragile humans really are. ”

  “Well, duh. ” Puck strol ed over, not quite able to mask the worry on his face. “I could've told you that. Though some are stronger then others.

  Or more stubborn. ” He crossed his arms, giving me an appraising look. “You okay, ice-boy?”

  I didn't answer. Turning from Ariel a, I ignored her offered arm and limped away, down the long corridors, back to my room. They followed silently, at a distance, but I didn't turn to look back. More than once, I nearly fel but forced myself to keep going, without help.

  In my room I col apsed on the bed, cursing my strange, unfamiliar body and the weakness that came with it.

  How am I going to protect her like this? How can I protect anyone like this?

  Puck and Ariel a hovered in the doorway. A part of me wanted to tel them to leave, hating that they saw me weak and helpless. But, my whole life, I had pushed others away, closing myself off to the world and everyone around me. It had brought me nothing but more pain, despite my attempts to freeze everything out. That was why I was here, after all ; I was trying to become someone else.

  I shifted to my back and put an arm over my face, closing my eyes.

  “I'm not going to throw icicles if you step through the door. ” I sighed.

  “So you can stop lurking and come in already. ”

  I felt them pause, imagined them exchanging glances, but then footsteps padded into the room. Ariel a perched on the edge of the mattress, laying a soft hand on my arm. “Are you in a lot of pain?” she asked.

  “Some,” I admitted, relaxing under her touch. “It's getting better, though. ” And it was, the fire beneath my skin ebbing away, as if my body finally realized it was whole and healthy, not torn apart on a des-olate peak.

  “What happened up there, ice-boy?”

  “What do you think happened?” I lowered my arm and sat up, scrubbing a hand over my eyes. “I lost. I can't use glamour, I can't move like I used to.

  My head was tel ing me to move a certain way, to go faster, and I couldn't. I got cold, Puck. Do you know what that was like, when I finally realized what was happening?” I leaned forward, raking my hands through my hair, shoving it back. “I would've died,” I said softly, reluctant to admit it. “If the Guardian had left me there, I would have died. Those things would've torn me apart. ”

  “But you're not dead,” Puck pointed out. “And the Guardian didn't say you failed. At least, we weren't tossed out on our ears. So what's the problem, ice-boy?”

  I didn't answer, but Ariel a, who was watching my face, drew in a quiet breath. “Meghan,” she guessed, making me wince. “You're worried about Meghan, how she'l react to seeing you like this. ”

  “I can't protect her like this,” I said bitterly, clenching a fist, fighting the urge to punch the mattress. “I'm useless—a liability. I don't want her to feel she has to constantly watch out for me, that I can't hold my own anymore. ” I sighed in frustration and leaned back, thumping my head against the wall . It was satisfyingly painful. “I guess I didn't realize what being human really meant. ”

  You do not know the first thing about mortality, prince-who-isnot. The Bone Witch's voice echoed in my head, mocking me with its smugness.

  Why would you want to be like them?

  Puck snorted. “And what, you think that if you're human you can't protect anyone?” he asked, crossing his arms and glaring at me.

  “That's a load of crap. How did you think you were going to protect her while she was in the Iron Kingdom, prince? I thought we were here to get you a soul, so you could be with her without your skin melting off.

  Are you tel ing me, now that you're more human, you don't want to be with her?”

  I glared at him. “You know that's not what I meant. ”

  “Doesn't matter. ” Puck loomed over me as if daring me to argue. “The way I see it, there are only two options here, iceboy. You can be a human and be with Meghan, or you can be fey and not. And you'd better figure out what you want real fast, or we've wasted our time here. ”

  Ariel a stood. “Come on,” she told Puck, fal ing back into an old tradition. Since the three of us had known each other, she had always been the peacekeeper. “Let's let him rest. Ash, if you need us, we'l be close. ”

  Puck looked defiant, but Ariel a put a hand on his arm and gently but firmly pulled him from the room. As the door closed, I clenched my fists and stared at the wall . Throwing out my arm, I tried sending a f lurry of ice darts at the door, but nothing happened. Not even a cold wind.

  I had no glamour anymore. My magic was gone; centuries of feeling the pulse of the earth, seeing the swirl of emotion and dreams and passion all around me, in every living creature, all vanished in a heartbeat. Could I get used to this? Any of this? I couldn't move like I used to, I wasn't as strong, and my body was susceptible to pain and sickness and cold. I was weaker now. I was…mortal.

  I punched the mattress in frustration, feeling the blow rattle the frame. The Bone Witch was right. I didn't know the first thing about mortality.

  The pain had almost faded now, just a dul , ragged throbbing around the edges of my mind. Wearied by the battle and the cold and the shock of being torn apart, my head dropped to my chest, and I felt myself drifting….

  “There you are,” Ariel a said, smiling at me in my dreams. “I knew you had to fal asleep sooner or later. You were exhausted. ”

  I blinked, stepping beneath the boughs of a huge, snowcovered

  cypress, every leaf outlined in frost. “Is this something I should expect every time I fal asleep?” I asked the figure sitting beneath the trunk.

  Ariel a stood and walked forward, brushing away glittering curtains of leaves. “No,” she said, taking my hand and drawing me forward. “My time as the seer is coming to an end. Soon, I won't be able to dreamwalk anymore, so bear with me for a little while. I want to show you something. ”

  As she spoke, the scene around us changed. It blew away, like dust in a storm, until we were standing on a long gravel driveway, gazing up at an old green house.

  “Do you recognize this?”

  I nodded. “Meghan's old house,” I said, gazing at the weathered, faded structure. “Where her family lives. ”

  A bark interrupted me. The front door creaked open, and Meghan emerged, followed by a smal child of about four or five, an enormous German shepherd trailing them both.

  I drew in a breath and stepped forward, but Ariel a put a hand on my arm.

  “She cannot see us,” she warned. “Not this time. This is more a latent memory than a true dream. Meghan's consciousness is not here—you would not be able to speak to her. ”

  I turned back, watching Meghan and Ethan sit on the old porch swing, swaying gently back and forth. Ethan's feet dangled over the edge, kicking sporadical y, as Meghan passed him a smal blue box with a straw sticking out of it. Beau, the German shepherd, put his huge paws on the swing and tried scrambling up as well , causing Ethan to shriek with laughter and Meghan to yel at him to get down.

  “She dreams of them often,” Ariel a said. “Her family. Especial y him, the smal one. ”

  “Her brother,” I murmured, unable to take my eyes from her. Having successful y ordered Beau off the swing, she patted her lap and scratched the big dog behind the ears, kissing his muzzle as he came up. Ariel a nodded.

  “Yes. The child who started it all , in a way. When he was kidnapped by the Iron King and taken into the Nevernever, she didn't hesitate to go after him. And she didn't stop there. When her magic was sealed by Mab, leaving her defenseless in the Winter Court, she somehow man
aged to survive, even when she thought you had turned on her. When the Scepter of the Seasons was stolen by the Iron fey, she went after it, despite having no magic and no weapon with which to defend herself.

  And when the courts asked her to destroy the false king, she accepted, even though the Summer and Iron glamours within her were making her sick, and she couldn't use either of them effectively. She stil went into the Iron Kingdom to face a tyrant she didn't know if she could overcome.

  “Now,” Ariel a finished, turning toward me, “do you stil believe humans are weak?”

  Before I could answer, the scene faded. Darkness fel , Meghan and her brother vanished before me, and everything went black. I opened my eyes to find myself alone in my room, sitting on the bed with my back to the wall .

  Do you still believe humans are weak?

  I smiled rueful y. The half-blood daughter of Oberon was one of the strongest human beings I'd ever encountered. Even when her magic was sealed, or when it was making her horribly sick, she'd managed to defeat everything Faery threw at her through sheer stubborn determination. She had brought an end to two faery wars, and when it was all over, she had become a queen.

  No, I told myself. Humans weren't weak. Meghan Chase had proven that, many times over. And it didn't matter if I had no magic, or if I wasn't as strong as before. My vow to the Iron Queen, the one I'd sworn when I became her knight, stil stood.

  From this day forth, I vow to protect Meghan Chase, daughter of the Summer King, with my sword, my honor and my life. Should even the world stand against her, my blade will be at her side. And should it fail to protect her, let my own existence be forfeit.

  I couldn't protect her in the Iron Realm, not as Ash the Winter prince.

  All the glamour in the world couldn't help her if I wasn't there. I had to become human to stand beside her. For a moment, I'd lost sight of that.

  That wouldn't happen again. The loss of my glamour wouldn't deter me. I was stil a knight, her knight. And I'd return to the girl I'd sworn to protect.