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The Iron Knight, Page 5

Julie Kagawa

Page 5

  “There was…an attempt on her life,” the knight whispered, and my heart went cold in fear and rage. “Assassins…snuck into the castle…tried to get to the queen. We managed to drive them off and followed them here, but there were more than…we first thought. kill ed the rest of my squad…” He paused for breath, gasping. It was clear he wouldn't last much longer, and I knelt to hear him better, ignoring the nausea that came from being this close to an Iron faery. “You have to…warn her…” he pleaded again.

  “Where are they now?” I asked in a low voice.

  The knight made a gesture over the rise, back into the forest. “Their camp…on the edge of a lake,” he whispered. “Near a tower…”

  “I know that spot,” Puck said, standing several feet back from the Iron knight. “A woman with crazy long hair used to live on the top f loor, but it's empty now. ”

  “Please…” The knight raised dying eyes to me, fighting to get his last words out. “Go to our queen. Tel her…we… failed…. ” Then his eyes rol ed up in his skul , and he slumped forward.

  I stood, taking a step back from the dead Iron knight. Puck sheathed his dagger as he stepped up beside me, giving the Iron faery a dubious look.

  “What now, prince? Should we head to the Iron Court?”

  “I can't. ” Frustration battled cold rage, and I gripped my sword hard enough to feel the edges bite into my palm. “I'm forbidden to set foot in the Iron Realm. That's why we're here, remember? Or did you forget?”

  “Don't freak out, ice-boy. ” Puck crossed his arms with a smirk. “Al is not lost. I can turn into a raven and f ly back to warn—”

  “Do not be foolish, Goodfel ow,” Grimalkin interrupted, coming out of nowhere, hopping onto a stone. “You have no amulet and no protection from the corruption of the realm. You would perish long before you reached the Iron Queen. ”

  Puck snorted. “Give me some credit, Furbal . It's me. Did you forget who you were talking to?”

  “If only I could. ”

  “Enough!” I stared coldly at both of them. Grimalkin yawned, but at least Puck looked faintly guilty. Frustration and anger boiled; I hated that I couldn't be with Meghan, that I was forced to keep my distance.

  But I would not sit back and do nothing. “Meghan is stil in danger,” I continued, gazing up the hil . “And the assassins are close. If I can't go back to warn her, then I'll take care of the threat right here. ”

  Puck blinked, but he didn't seem terribly surprised. “Yeah, I thought you might say that. ” He sighed. “And I can't let you have all the fun, of course.

  But, uh, you do know they took out a whole squad of Iron knights, right, ice-boy?” He glanced at the dead faery and wrinkled his nose.

  “I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, of course, but what if we're charging into an army?”

  I gave him a brittle smile. “Then there will be a lot of fal en soldiers before the day is done,” I said quietly, and walked out of the gorge.

  On the banks of a lake, the slim, crooked tower with its mossy gargoyles and faded blue roof stood tal and proud, easily visible through the trees. At the base, sheltered among broken rocks and crumbling stones, several sidhe knights mil ed around a smoldering campfire, unaware of Puck and me, crouched in the shadows at the edge of the trees. The knights wore suits of familiar black armor, long spines bristling from the shoulders like giant thorns. Though once sharp and proud, the faces beneath the helmets were now ravaged as though dis-eased; charred, melted f lesh, open sores and naked bone gleamed in the f lickering campfire. Some of their noses had fal en off, others had only one good eye. The breeze shifted, and the stench of burned, rotting f lesh assaulted our senses, washing over us. Puck stif led a cough.

  “Thornguards,” he muttered, putting a hand to his nose. “What the heck are they doing here? I thought they were all kill ed in the last war. ”

  “Apparently, we missed a few. ” I gazed over the camp dispassionately.

  The Thornguards once belonged to my brother Rowan, his elite personal guard. When Rowan joined the Iron fey, the Thornguards followed him, believing his claims that they could become immune to iron. They thought the Iron fey would destroy the Nevernever, and the only way to survive was to become like them. To prove their loyalty, they wore a ring of iron beneath their gauntlets, enduring the agony and the destruction it wreaked on their bodies, believing if they could survive the pain, they would be reborn.

  The Thornguards had been misled, deceived, but they had stil chosen to side with the Iron fey and Rowan in the recent war, which made them traitors to the courts of Faery. These few had gone even further, threatening Meghan and attempting to end her life. That made them my personal enemies, a very dangerous position, indeed.

  “So,” Puck continued, watching the camp, “I'm counting at least a half dozen bad boys near the fire, maybe a few more guarding the perimeter.

  How do you want to do this, prince? I could lure them away, one at a time. Or we could sneak around and go at them from different positions—”

  “There are only seven of them. ” Drawing my sword, I stepped out of the trees and started toward the camp. Puck sighed.

  “Or we could do the old kick-in-the-door approach,” he muttered, fal ing into step beside me. “Sil y me, thinking there was another way. ”

  Shouts of surprise and alarm echoed through the camp, but I wasn't trying to be stealthy. Together, Puck and I walked down the bank to the tower, wrapped in a grim, kill ing silence. One sentry came at us, howling, but I blocked his sword, plunged my blade through his armor and stepped around him, leaving the guard to crumple in the dirt.

  By the time we reached the center of camp, six Thornguards were waiting for us, standing in formation with their weapons drawn. Puck and I approached calmly and stopped at the edge of the firelight. For a moment, nobody moved.

  “Prince Ash. ” The lead Thornguard smiled faintly— difficult to see because he had no lips, just a thin, ragged slash where his mouth would be—and stepped forward. His eyes, a glazed, glassy blue, f licked back and forth between us. “And Robin Goodfel ow. What a surprise to find you here.

  We're honored, aren't we, boys?” Though his voice turned mocking, it was stil hopeful, as he gestured toward the forest behind us. “News of our deeds must have spread far and wide, for the mighty Winter prince and the Summer Court jester to track us down. ”

  “Not really. ” Puck smirked at him. “We were just in the area. ”

  His smile faltered, but I stepped forward before he could say anything more. “You attacked the Iron Kingdom,” I said as his attention snapped to me.

  “You led an assault on the Iron Queen, attempting to end her life. Before I kill you, I want to know why. The war is over. The Iron Realm is no longer a threat, and the courts are at peace. Why would you jeop-ardize that?”

  For a moment, the Thornguard stared at me, his eyes and face completely blank. Then, the thin mouth twisted into a sneer. “Why not?”

  He shrugged, and motioned to the surrounding camp. “Look at us, prince,” he spat bitterly. “We have nothing to live for. Rowan is dead.

  The Iron King is dead. We can't return to Winter, and we can't survive in the Iron Realm. Where do we go now? There's nowhere that would take us back. ”

  His tale sounded eerily familiar, much like my own; banished from my own court, yet unable to set foot in the Iron Realm.

  “The only thing left was revenge,” the Thornguard went on, gesturing angrily to his own face. “Kil every Iron bastard that did this to us, starting with their half-breed queen. We gave it our best shot, even made it as far as the throne room, but the little bitch was stronger then we realized. We were driven back at the last minute. ” His chin rose in a defiant gesture. “Though we did manage to kill several of her knights, even the ones that came after us. ”

  “You missed one,” I said quietly, and his eyebrows rose. “The one you left alive told us where you
were and what you had done. You should've made sure all your opponents were dead before moving on. A beginner's mistake, I'm afraid. ”

  “Oh? well , I'll be sure to remember that, next time. ” He smirked at me then, twisted and bitter. “So, tel me, Ash,” he went on, “did you two have a nice little heart-to-heart before he died? Since you're both so smitten with the new Iron Queen, so very eager to be with her. Did he tel you the secret of becoming like them?”

  I regarded the Thornguard coldly. His sneer widened. “Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about, Ash. We've all heard the story, haven't we, boys? The mighty Winter prince, pining for his lost queen, promises he'l find a way to be with her in Iron Realm. How very touching. ” He snorted and leaned forward so that the firelight washed over his burned, ruined face. In the dim light, it was like gazing at a corpse.

  “Take a good look, your highness,” he hissed, baring rotten, yel ow teeth. His stench washed over me, and I fought the urge to step back.

  “Take a good look around, at all of us. This is what happens to our people in the Iron Realm. We thought we could be like them. We thought we'd found a way to live with iron, to not fade away when humans stopped believing. Now look at us. ” His dead, ravaged face twisted in a snarl. “We're monsters, just like them. The Iron fey are a blight and a plague on the Nevernever, and we're going to kill as many as we can in the time we have left. Including their queen, and any sym-pathizers to the Iron Realm. If we can start another war with the Iron fey, and their kingdom is destroyed for good, everything we endured will be worth it. ”

  I narrowed my gaze, imagining another war with the Iron fey, another season of kill ing and blood and death, with Meghan caught in the center.

  “You're sadly mistaken if you think I'm going to let that happen. ”

  The Thornguard shook his head, moving back a pace and drawing his sword. “You should've joined us, Ash,” he said regretful y, as the others shifted and raised their weapons. “You could've fought your way to the throne room and put your blade through the Iron Queen's heart.