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The Iron Knight, Page 40

Julie Kagawa

Page 40


  I rose, prepared to find Puck and Ariel a and tel them I was fine, that I was prepared to continue the trials. But before I could move, a dark shaped appeared in the corner of my eye, and the Guardian stood beside me. No warning, no ripple of power or magic to announce its arrival. It was just there.

  “It is time,” the hooded figure stated as I stif led the urge to step out of its cold, dark shadow. “You have made your decision, so let us continue. ”

  “I thought I had til dawn. ”

  “It is dawn. ” The Guardian's voice was cold, matter-of-fact. “Time moves differently here, knight. A single day can pass in a heartbeat, or a lifetime.

  It matters not. The second test is upon us. Are you ready?”

  “How will I know if I've passed?”

  “There is no pass or fail. ” That cold, informal tone never changed.

  “There is only endure. Survive. ”

  Endure. Survive. I could do that. “Al right, then,” I said, bracing myself. “I'm ready. ”

  “Then let us begin. ” Raising its staff, it tapped it once against the stone f loor. There was a f lash, and everything disappeared.



  “Nice shot, little brother. Maybe next time, we can find something that puts up more of a fight. I was about to fal asleep in the saddle. ”

  I ignored Rowan and approached the stag where it lay, stil thrashing in the grass. A white arrow jutted behind its front legs, straight through its heart, and the beast's mouth and nostrils were spattered with bloody foam. It rol ed its eyes at me and tried to rise, but fel , kicking weakly, not quite realizing it was dead. I drew my hunting knife, and one quick slash to the throat ceased its struggles forever.

  I sheathed the blade, gazing down at the twitching creature, somehow smal er in death than in life. “Too easy,” I muttered, curling a lip in disdain.

  “These mortal beasts are no chal enge at all . It's no fun hunting something that dies so easily. ”

  Rowan snickered as I yanked my arrow free and walked back to my horse, leaving the pathetic creature to bleed out in the dirt. “You're just not hunting the right quarry,” he said as I swung into the saddle.

  “You keep chasing these animals, hoping they can survive more than an afternoon. If you want a chal enge, maybe you need to change tactics. ”

  “Like what? Talk them to death? I'll leave that up to you. ” “Oh, har har. ” Rowan rol ed his eyes. “My little brother is around a few decades and thinks he knows everything. Listen to someone who's lived a few centuries. If you want a real chal enge, you need to stop chasing these animals and pursue a quarry that can actual y think. ”

  “You're talking about humans,” I muttered as we rode through the forest, back toward the trod that had brought us here. “I've hunted them before.

  They're less of a chal enge than shooting dead goats. ”

  “Oh, little brother. ” Rowan shook his head at me. “You have such a one-track mind. There are other ways to ‘hunt' humans, other then riding them down and putting an arrow in their skul s. They're a much more interesting quarry alive then dead. You should try it sometime. ”

  “You mean how you hunt them?” I snorted. “That's less hunting and more toying with your prey, like a cat. ”

  “Don't be so smug, Ash. ” Rowan smirked at me, a silent chal enge.

  “Pursuing a mortal's heart, making her fal for you, slowly entangling her to the point where she would promise you anything, takes much more skil then simply sticking an arrow through someone's chest. The human heart is the most difficult quarry of all . ” His smirk grew wider, turning into a leer. “In fact, I'm not sure you could do it. ”

  “Who said I'd want to?” I ignored his baiting. “I've seen mortals ‘in love' before. They're blind and foolish, and their hearts are so fragile.

  What would I do with such a thing if I had it?”

  “Whatever you want, little brother. Whatever you want. ” Rowan gave me that smug, superior grin that made me bristle. “But, I understand if you're afraid. If you don't think you can do it. I just thought that you'd want a more interesting hunt, but if it's too chal enging for you…”

  “All right. ” I sighed. “You'l give me no peace otherwise. Point me to a mortal and I'll make it fal in love with me. ”

  Rowan laughed. “My little brother is growing up. ” He sneered, as we turned our mounts toward the edge of the forest.

  Once we were close to our prey, it didn't take us long to find a likely target. As we approached the crude wooden fence that separated the human's glade from the rest of the forest, faint, off-key singing suddenly reached our ears, and we pulled our mounts to a halt.

  “There. ” Rowan pointed. I followed his finger, and my eyebrows rose in surprise.

  Beyond the fence and the edge of the trees, a stream babbled its way across a rocky field, where a gathering of thatched huts stood in a loose semicircle around a large fire pit. One of the many smal human settlements in the area, this one tempted fate by sitting on the very edge of the forest. They rarely ventured close to the trees, and never left their houses after dark, for good reason. Goblins stil considered this their territory, and I knew of more than one phouka that roamed these woods at night. I didn't know much about these humans except that they were a smal druidic tribe, attempting to live in peace with the land and the forest just outside their vil age wall s. It was risky and foolish, as all humans tended to be, but at least they showed the proper respect.

  So it was surprising to see one of them alone on the banks of the stream, humming as she picked the wildf lowers that grew close to the forest. She was young as humans went, dressed in a simple shift, barefoot and barefaced. Her dark hair gleamed in the sunshine.

  Rowan smiled his toothy wolf-smile and turned to me.

  “All right, little brother. There's your target. ”

  “The girl?”

  “No, fool. Haven't you been listening to me?” My brother rol ed his eyes. “Her heart. Her body and mind and soul. Make her love you. Ensure that she gives herself to you completely, that she can think of nothing else but you. If you can do that, then you'l be a hunter among hunters. ” He sneered and looked down his nose. “If you're up to the chal enge, that is. ”

  I looked back to the girl, stil humming as she picked handfuls of forget-me-nots, and felt a smile stretching my face. I'd never pursued a mortal heart before; this could be…interesting. “Is there a time in which I have to do this?” I asked.

  Rowan pondered that question. “Wel , the best-laid plans are not con-ceived in a day,” he mused, watching the girl. “But, it shouldn't be difficult for you to win a mortal's affections, especial y one as young as that. Let's say, the next ful moon. Get her to fol ow you to the stone circle and pledge her undying love. I'll be there, waiting for you both. ”

  “I'll be there,” I said quietly, reveling in a worthy chal enge, “with the human. Let me show you how it's done. ”

  Rowan gave me a mocking salute, turned his horse and vanished into the forest. Dismounting, I approached the human silently, using glamour to mask my presence until I stood at the very edge of the forest, the girl only a stone's throw away. I didn't reveal myself to her at first.

  Like all pursuits, I began by studying my quarry, observing its strengths and weaknesses, learning its habits and patterns. If I just appeared out of the trees, I might spook her and she might not return to the area, so caution was necessary at first.

  She was slender and graceful, very deerlike in some ways, which made the hunt all the more intriguing and familiar. Her dark eyes were quite large for a human, giving her a constant startled expression, but she moved from bush to bush with a general unawareness, as if a bear could come lumbering out of the trees and she wouldn't even notice.

  She swooped down abruptly, plunging her hand into the stream and emerged clutching a smooth turqu
oise pebble, which she turned over in obvious delight. At once I smiled, watching her drop the stone into her pocket, knowing the bait that would lure my prey to me.

  So, you like shiny things, do you, little mortal? Crouching, I picked up a plain gray pebble and covered it in my fist, drawing a tiny bit of glamour from the air. When I opened my hand, the once dul stone was now a glittering sapphire, and I tossed the glamoured item into the stream.

  She found it almost immediately, and pounced with a squeal of delight, holding it up so it sparkled in the sun. I smiled and drew away, walking back to my mount with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing she would be there tomorrow.

  I left her a silver chain the next day, watching her coo over it with the same delight the glamoured gem had given her, and the next afternoon she admired the golden ring on her finger for a long, long time, before dropping the treasure into her pocket. I didn't have any fear of her showing it to anyone else; much like crows and magpies, she didn't want anyone to steal her treasures, or question where she got them.

  And the glamour on the items eventual y faded, leaving rocks and leaves in their place. I knew she wondered what had become of them; perhaps she told herself that she dropped or misplaced her treasures, choosing to ignore the obvious answer. Perhaps she suspected the truth and knew she should be wary, but I also knew her greed would keep her coming back.

  The fol owing day, I didn't leave her anything, but watched her f lounder about in the stream for hours, searching and growing des-pondent, until evening fel and she left on the verge of tears. And I smiled to myself, already planning the next stage. It was time to move in for the kill .

  The next afternoon, I put a single white rose on a f lat rock near the stream, faded into the woods and waited.

  She wasn't long in coming, and when she saw the rose she gasped and picked it up almost reverently, holding it as if it was made of purest crystal.

  As she straightened and gazed around, eyes shining with hope, I dropped the glamour and stepped out of the trees.