The Iron Knight, Page 43Julie Kagawa
I looked down at the nymph, who had dragged herself across the f loor and was reaching out for me. “M-mercy,” it whispered, clutching at my boots. “Mercy, my lord, we were only trying to save our sister. The knight…the knight was… assaulting her. Please…my friends…my family. The queen will kill them all . ”
For just a moment, I hesitated. I did not doubt her words; the knights were cold and violent, taking what they wanted, but to attack the servants of the Winter Court was a crime punishable by death. Mab would kill the nymph's entire family if she found them, just for protecting their own. I could not lie, of course, but there were other ways to bend the truth. “Prince Ash. ” Mab's voice had changed. No longer in-quiring and friendly, it now held a dangerous undertone of warning. “I believe I asked you a question,” she continued, as the nymph grabbed at my coat hem, pleading for mercy. “Do you know the location of these creatures, or not?”
What are you doing, Ash? Clenching my fist, I shoved the nymph away with my boot, ignoring her cry of pain. Mercy was for the weak, and I was the son of the Unseelie Queen. There was no mercy in my blood.
“Yes, your majesty,” I said, as the nymph col apsed, sobbing, to the icy ground.
“I've seen this tribe before. They have a colony on the edge of the Bramblewood. ”
Mab smiled. “Excel ent,” she rasped. “Then you will lead a force there tonight, and destroy it. kill them all , cut down their trees, and burn their glade to the ground. I want nothing left standing, not a single blade of grass. Set an example for those who would defy the Winter Court, is that clear?”
I bowed my head as the nymph's wails and shrieks rose into the air.
“As you say, my queen,” I murmured, backing away. “It will be done. ”
The forest elf stared at me, clutching his staff, fear written plainly on his wrinkled face. The smal elven tribe that lived here, on the outskirts of the wyldwood and Tir Na Nog, were simple hunter-gatherers. They didn't get many visitors, especial y not from the Unseelie Court. Especial y not a prince of the Winter Court himself.
“Prince Ash?” He bowed stiff ly, and I nodded once. “This is…a surprise. To what do we owe this honor, your highness?”
“I'm here on behalf of Queen Mab and a warrior named Hawthorn,” I replied formal y, and his bushy eyebrows rose. “Is this name familiar to you?”
“Hawthorn?” The elder's brow furrowed. “Yes. Hawthorn was on a warrior quest, to become the strongest wood elf in the wyldwood. Why do you know him?”
I sighed. “Hawthorn found his way to the Unseelie Court,” I went on, as the elder's brow wrinkled further. “He came before Queen Mab, begging her to all ow him to be part of her guard, that he would be honored to serve as one in her court. When Mab refused, he demanded a duel, to prove himself the strongest warrior. He swore on the lives of his kin and tribe that he would be victorious, and that if he won, he would be all owed to serve her. Mab was amused, and all owed him to fight one of her warriors. ”
“I don't understan—”
“Hawthorn was defeated,” I continued softly, as the elder's face went from deep brown to the color of toad stools. He stumbled back, fal ing to his knees, mouth working soundlessly. Drawing my sword, I started forward, as gasps and screams began to rise from the huts around me.
“The lives of his kin and tribe are forfeit should he lose. I am here to col ect on that debt. ”
The human stared up at me from where he knelt in the snow, an arrow piercing his calf, dripping bright mortal blood onto the ground. Trembling, he clasped his hands together and raised them beseechingly at me, eyes fil ing with tears. Pathetic human.
“Please, lord of the forest, have mercy. I didn't mean to trespass. ”
I smiled at him coldly. “The forest is forbidden—your people know this. Venture within our territories, and we have leave to hunt you down. Tel me, human, why should I be merciful?”
“Please, great lord! My wife, my wife is very sick. She is having…birth-ing difficulties. I needed to take a shortcut through the forest to reach the doctor in the town. ”
“Birthing difficulties?” I narrowed my eyes, appraising him. “Your wife will be dead before you get home. You will never reach her in time, not with that wounded leg. You've kill ed them both by trespassing here. ”
The human began to sob. His glamour aura f lickered blueand-black with despair. “Please!” he cried, pounding the snow. “Please, spare them. I care nothing for myself, but save my wife and child. I'll do anything. Please!”
He collapsed, crying softly, in the snow, murmuring “please” over and over again. I watched him for a moment, then sighed.
“Your wife is lost,” I stated bluntly, making him moan and cover his face in hopeless agony. “She cannot be saved. You child, however, might stil have a chance. What will you give me if I save its life?”
“Anything!” the man cried, gazing up at me in earnest. “Take anything you want, just save my child!”
“Say the words,” I told him. “Speak them out loud, and let the trees witness your request. ”
It must have dawned on him then, what was happening, for his face went even paler and he swal owed hard. But he licked his lips and continued in a shaken but clear voice: “I, Joseph Macleary, am prepared to offer anything for the life of my child. ” He swal owed again and looked straight at me, almost defiant. “Take what you wish, even my own life, as long as my child lives and grows up healthy and strong. ”
I smiled at him as the invisible strings of magic wove around us, seal-ing the bargain. “I'm not going to kill you, human,” I said, stepping back. “I have no interest in taking your life now. ”
Relief crossed his face, for just a moment, before alarm f lickered in his eyes. “Then, what is it you want?”
Still smiling, I faded from sight, leaving the human to gaze around the empty woods alone. For a moment, he knelt there, confused. Then, with a gasp, he whirled and began limping back the way he came, leaving a speckled trail of blood in his wake. I laughed silently, sensing his panic as he realized what he had promised. He would never get home in time.
Glamoured and invisible, I turned my steps in the direction of a smal shanty on the edge of the woods.
The Samhain festival arrived at the Winter Court, and with it the gifts and favors and goodwil blessings for the Winter Queen. Mab was extremely pleased with my gift that year; a dark-haired baby boy, and the look on Rowan's face when I presented the child to her was unfor-gettable. The boy grew up, healthy and strong, in the Winter Court, never questioning his past or his heritage, becoming a favorite pet of the queen. Eventual y, when he got a little older and weaker and not so handsome anymore, Mab placed him in an endless sleep and encased him in ice, freezing him as he was forever. And so the bargain made in the snow the night of his birth was fulfil ed.
Slammed back into the present, I lurched away from the Guardian, the faces of the lives I had destroyed staring at me from the shadows of the room. Hitting the wall , I squeezed my eyes shut, but I could not escape the memories, the accusing eyes, boring into me. The screams and wails, the stench of burning wood, the blood and terror and sorrow and death; I remembered it all as if it was yesterday.
“No more,” I whispered, my face stil turned to the wall, feeling wetness against my skin. My teeth were clenched so hard my jaw ached. “No more. I can't…remember…the things I've done. I don't want to remember. ”
“You will. ” The Guardian's voice was calm, ruthless. “Everything. Every soul you destroyed, every life you took. You will remember, knight. We have only just begun. ”
It went on forever.
Each time, I was there, watching the scenes play before me as the heartless Unseelie prince, cold, violent and uncaring. I hunted more humans through the forest, tasting their fear as I ran them down. I slaughtered at the queen's whim, whether it was
a single creature that earned her wrath, a family for her entertainment or an entire vil age to set an example. I competed with my brothers for Mab's favor, playing my own vicious, courtly games that often ended in betrayal and blood.
I seduced even more human females and broke their hearts, leaving them empty and hol ow, writhing in their loss.
Each time I lived these atrocities, I felt nothing. And each time, the Guardian would pul me out, for just a moment, and the horror of what I'd done would threaten to crush me. Crime after crime stacked upon one another, weighing me down, adding new memories and shame to the nightmares of my life. Each time, I wanted to curl up and die with my guilt, but the Guardian gave me only a moment's ref lection before hurling me into the next massacre.
Finally, after what seemed like years, centuries, it was over. I lay on the f loor gasping, my arms around my head, bracing myself for the next horror. Only this time, nothing happened. I heard the Guardian speaking above me, its voice distant and matter-of-fact: “The final trial begins at dawn. ” Then it vanished, leaving me alone.
My thoughts, now my own again, reached out tentatively, probing the silence. And in the sudden calm, every single memory, the crimes of my past, every nightmare and horror and depravity committed by the Unseelie prince, all rose up and descended on me with screams and cries and anguished howls, and I found myself screaming, too.
Puck and Ariel a burst through the door, weapons drawn, scanning the room for attackers. Seeing me, kneeling on the f loor, my face wet and tormented, their expressions went blank with shock. “Ash?” Ariel a whispered, walking toward me. “What happened? What's wrong?”
I lurched away from her. She couldn't know—neither of them could ever know—the horrors I'd committed, the blood staining my hands. I couldn't face their shock and contempt and disgust when they found out who I really was.
“Get back,” I rasped at her, and her eyes widened. “Stay away from me.