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The Iron Knight, Page 48

Julie Kagawa

Page 48


  When I found his bow, broken and splintered, dread squeezed my chest until I could hardly breathe, and I started to run.

  A scream shattered the stil ness of the night. It turned my blood to ice, and I charged blindly in that direction, drawing my sword as I went.

  The icy fey weapon seared my hands with cold, but I was too far gone to notice.

  “Kierran!” I shouted, bursting through the undergrowth. A roar answered me. Something huge and terrible clung to a tree a few yards away, beating batlike wings for leverage and clawing at the branches.

  Its body was bony and leonine, with blood-red fur and a matted black mane. It's long tail ended in a spiky bal , bristling like a huge sea urchin and leaving spines in the adjacent trees as it thrashed in frustration.

  High overhead, a smal , bright figure pressed back into the limbs of the tree, trying to scramble higher, away from the vicious beast swiping at him a few feet away. His tearful blue eyes met mine, but his cry was drowned out by the bel owing of the monster below.

  “Hey!” I roared, and two burning red eyes snapped to me. “Get away from him now!”

  The manticore howled and leaped off the tree, landing with a booming crash on the ground. Lashing its tail, it stalked toward me, its shockingly human face pulled into an animalistic snarl, baring pointed teeth. I gripped the sword, ignoring the numbing chil that spread up my arm, and took a deep breath.

  The manticore lunged, hooked talons swiping at my face, jaws gaping to tear into my throat. I dodged, lashing out with the sword, cutting a gash in the monster's shoulder. It screamed, an oddly human wail, and spun with blazing red eyes. Its tail f licked out, almost too quick to see, and I felt something thwap against my legs.

  Blinding pain came seconds later, nearly dropping me to my knees. I reached down with one hand and felt the long black spines of the manticore's tail sunk deep into my leg. Knowing it would continue to pump venom into me the longer I left it, I grasped the spine and ripped it away, clenching my jaw to keep from screaming. The spine was barbed at the end, and tore a gaping hole in my leg, but manticore venom would quickly paralyze and kill its victim if left in the body.

  Overhead, Kierran cried out in terror. The manticore growled and stalked closer to me, red eyes glowing in the darkness.

  I could feel the poison burning its way through my leg, and fought to remain steady on my feet, watching as the monster circled me, twitching its deadly tail. Waiting for the venom to take effect. Casual y, it f licked its tail again, and I felt another barb slam into my shoulder, making me gasp. I didn't have much time left. Numbness was creeping through my leg, and soon my arm would fol ow. But I had to save Kierran. I would at least make sure Kierran got home safe.

  Feigning weakness, I staggered and fel to my knees, letting the tip of my blade strike the earth. It was what the manticore was waiting for.

  The monster sprang at me with a howl, going in for the kill , jaws gaping. I fel backward, bringing my sword up as the manticore lunged over me, sinking my blade deep into its shaggy chest.

  The creature screamed and col apsed on top of me, pinning me to the earth. Its body smel ed of blood and rotten meat. I tried shoving it off as it twitched and kicked in its death throes, but it was too heavy and I was in too much pain to move it. And so I lay there, pinned under a dead manticore, knowing I probably wouldn't walk away from this. I could feel the venom working its way through my leg, the spine stil piercing my shoulder. Ash the Winter prince would have healed from such wounds, his fey body instinctively drawing in glamour to throw off the sickness, repairing itself with an unending supply of magic. But I was only mortal, and had no such power.

  As I fought for consciousness, I became aware of Kierran, grunting and crying as he tried pul ing the dead manticore off me. “Get up,” I heard him sniff le. “Father, get up. ”

  “Kierran,” I cal ed softly, but he didn't seem to hear me. I tried again, but a shout echoed through the trees, and Kierran jerked his head up.

  “Over here!” he cried, waving both arms. “Glitch, we're over here!”

  Familiar voices surrounded us. Glitch's voice, frantic and angry. The clanking of the Iron knights as they pulled the manticore away. Kierran's sobs as he tried explaining what had happened. I tried answering the questions that buzzed around my head, but my voice was as numb as the rest of me, and the shapes crowding my vision were blurry and indistinct.

  “That leg looks pretty bad,” I heard someone murmur to Glitch as they bent over me. “We'l try to save it, but he is a mortal, after all . ”

  “Do what you can,” Glitch muttered back. “I'm just glad we found him alive. The queen is not going to be happy. ”

  Their voices became garbled after that, blending into the background.

  Eventual y, sounds, people, voices, all blurred together like ink, and turned into darkness.

  I thought I would die, but I lived.

  My leg was never the same. The venom had damaged it too badly.

  Luckily for me, the barb in my shoulder had passed clean through and come out the other side, leaving nothing behind but a puckering scar.

  But forever after that fight, I walked with a limp, and if I stood on the leg too long or put too much weight on it, it would give out from under me. The sparring matches with Glitch and the knights came to a halt, and I had to lean on a cane when traveling or walking any distance.

  I didn't mind…too much. I stil had my son, my wife and my health, though that last fight demonstrated yet again how fragile mortality was. A fact Meghan made painful y clear once I was on my feet again.

  The Iron Queen had been livid, blue eyes f lashing as she ripped into me, demanding to know what I'd been thinking, going into the wyldwood alone.

  “You're human now, Ash,” she said, finally calming down a bit. “I know you think you can take on the world, but that isn't the case anymore.

  Please, please, promise me you'l be more careful. ”

  “I don't really have much of a choice now, do I?” I sighed, grabbing my cane to limp out of the room. Her gaze followed me, sad and concerned, and I paused in the doorway. “Don't worry, your majesty. I'm aware of my limitations. ” I tried to keep the bitterness and pain from my voice, but it slipped out anyway. “I won't be fighting anything for a long time. I can promise you that. ”

  “That's not what concerns me,” Meghan replied softly, but I was already out the door.

  Time passed, and in the Iron Realm, the great clock tower in the center of the city kept track of its march. Kierran grew into a fierce warrior, deadly, light on his feet, possessing a speed unnatural in a human.

  And when he reached a certain point in his life, just past his seven-teenth birthday, he simply… stopped aging. As if he'd decided that he was happy as he was and refused to grow up any more.

  Meghan never changed; though she matured with the passing of time, becoming shrewd and wise and a truly formidable queen, her body remained as young and beautiful as the rest of Faery.

  And I, as a human in the Iron Realm, where time did pass and seconds ticked by the years, did not.

  “What were you thinking?”

  I turned my head at the sound of Meghan's voice, seeing the Iron Queen paused in the doorway, her arms crossed in front of her. Though she was stunning in a long evening gown, her hair hanging in glittering curls down her back, she did not look pleased.

  “Thinking?” I asked, hoping to derail her by acting bewildered and innocent. Unfortunately, that rarely worked with the Iron Queen, and tonight was no exception.

  “Don't give me that, Ash. ” Meghan came into the bedroom, glowering at me. “You know what I'm talking about.

  Why did you tel Kierran he could go to Elysium this year?

  The last thing we need is him picking a fight with a Winter gentry, or seducing someone in my father's court. They're already leery enough of him as it is. ”

p; “He's been asking to go for years,” I told her, swirling my cloak around my shoulders. “I think he's old enough to see what it's like. We can't shelter him forever. He's going to have to learn about the other courts, as prince of the Iron Realm. ” Meghan glared at me a moment longer, then relented with a sigh. “Oh, fine. I know you're right,” she said, giving me an exasperated smile. “It's just…he stil seems so young to me, stil just a kid, getting into trouble. Where does the time go?”

  She crossed to the window, gazing out at Tir Na Nog. The sun was setting, and the huge clock tower in the very center of the city was silhouetted black against the evening sky.

  “Twenty years, Ash,” she murmured. “It's hard to believe it's been more than twenty years since we beat the false king. It feels like yesterday. ”

  For you, perhaps, I thought, glancing at the reflection in the mirror. Gray eyes in a worn, lined face stared back at me.

  Wrinkles crouched under my eyes and at the corners of my mouth, marring my skin, and a scar traced its way from my left cheek to under my jaw, a trophy from a cockatrice hunt in the wyldwood. Lately, my temples had become touched with gray and my shoulder—the one that had taken the manticore sting—stil ached, a dul , persistent throb, whenever it rained.

  Twenty years had left its mark, and I was all too aware of the passing of time.

  And Meghan, my beautiful, half-faery wife, was unchanged.

  “The carriage is here,” Meghan announced, peering over the windowsil . “And there's Kierran, waiting for us by the gate. I guess we should go. ” She turned to me, a f licker of worry passing through her eyes. “Do you need help getting down the stairs?”

  “I'm fine,” I told her quietly. “You go on ahead. I'll be right there. ”

  “Are you sure?”

  I nodded, and Meghan drew back, stil worried. “Al right, but I want you to cal for a servant if you—”

  “Meghan, I'll be fine,” I interrupted, and she frowned at me. I forced a smile to soften the words. “Take Kierran on ahead. I'll ride with Glitch and the guards. Just go. Please. ” Her eyes f lashed, and for a moment I thought she would argue with me, slip into the firm, no-nonsense Iron Queen persona that had everyone terrified. But after a pause, she simply nodded and left the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts.