The iron knight, p.50
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       The Iron Knight, p.50

         Part #4 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 50

 

  “It is what it is,” I replied as we made our way through the room, weaving through ranks of fey gentry. They moved aside with looks of disdain and contempt. “And you won't be changing it, no matter how hard you try. It's been this way since the beginning of Faery. ”

  “It never stopped you,” Keirran said. His voice was calm and matter-of-fact, but I caught the hint of a chal enge below the surface. That would have to end, here and now. I did not want my son getting ideas into his head that might kill him. I stopped, pul ing him to a halt, and leaned close. My voice was low and rough as I met his eyes. “Do you really want to be like me?”

  He met my gaze for a few seconds, before lowering his eyes.

  “Forgive me, Father,” he muttered. “I spoke out of turn. ” He didn't look at me, but I continued to stare at him until he bowed and took a step back. “I will comply with your wishes, and the laws of this realm. I will not engage the Summer or Winter courts in anything beyond diplomacy. ” He finally looked up, his blue eyes hard as he met my gaze. “Now, if you will excuse me, Father, I will return to the queen and inform her of your arrival. ”

  I nodded. It was a victory, but a hol ow one. Keirran bowed once more and slipped away, vanishing into the crowd, the chil from his passing making me shiver.

  Alone in a crowded room, I found an isolated corner and leaned against the wall , watching the beautiful, dangerous and volatile creatures around me with the barest twinge of nostalgia. Not long ago, I had been one of them.

  Then, the crowd parted a bit, and through the sea of bodies, I saw the dance f loor.

  Meghan, my beautiful, unchanged faery queen, swirled around the room, as elegant and graceful as the gentry surrounding her. Holding her in his arms, as handsome and charming as he had been twenty years ago, was Puck. My stomach tightened, and I gripped my cane so hard my arm spasmed. I couldn't catch my breath. Puck and Meghan glided around the f loor, f lashes of color among the other dancers, their eyes only on each other. They were laughing and smiling, oblivious to the crowd watching and my slow death in the corner.

  I pushed myself from the wall and walked forward, shouldering my way through the crush, ignoring the growls and curses thrown my way.

  My hand reached under my cloak and grasped the sword hilt, welcoming the searing pain. I didn't know what I would do, nor did I care. My mind had shut off, and my body was on autopilot, reacting instinctively. If it had been anyone but Puck…but it was Puck, and he was dancing with my queen. Rage tinted my vision red, and I started to draw my sword. I couldn't beat Robin Goodfel ow in a fight, and my subconscious knew I couldn't, but emotion had taken over and all I could see was Puck's heart on the end of my blade.

  However, as I neared the f loor, Puck spun Meghan around, long silvery hair swirling about her, and she threw back her head and laughed. Her chiming voice hit me like a brick wall , and I stumbled to a halt, my gut clenching so hard I felt nauseous. How long had it been since I'd heard that laugh, seen that smile? As I watched them together, my former best friend and my faery wife, the sick feeling spread to every part of my body. They looked…natural…together; two other-worldly, elegant fey, forever young, graceful and beautiful. They looked like they belonged.

  In that moment of despair, I realized I couldn't give her any of that. I couldn't dance with her, protect her, offer her eternity. I was human. Destined to age, wither and eventually die. I loved her so much, but would she feel the same when I was old and doddering and she was stil as ageless as time? My hand slipped off the hilt of my sword. Puck and Meghan were stil dancing, laughing, spinning about the room. Their voices stabbed at me, a thousand needles piercing my chest. I turned and melted back into the crowd, left the bal room and limped down the dark, icy corridors of the palace until I reached the carriage. Glitch took one look at my face and silently climbed out of the seat, leaving me in the shadows.

  Slumping forward on the bench, I put my face in my hands and closed my eyes, feeling completely and utterly alone.

  Even more time passed.

  Dropping my hands, I raised my bleary eyes to an empty hal , squinting to see through the gloom. The light streaming in the windows behind me did little to chase back the shadows, but I was almost sure I had heard someone come in. One of the servants, perhaps, come to check on the withered, gray-haired human, to make sure he hadn't fal en from his chair. Or to help him totter back to his room, to curl up in his single bed, alone and pushed aside.

  Meghan was gone. War had come to the Iron Kingdom at last, despite many years of peace, and the Iron Queen had gone to help the Summer King in the battle against Winter. Glitch was there beside her, commanding her army and Kierran had become a monster on the bat-tlefield, carving through enemy ranks with the icy sword that had once belonged to me. Most of the castle had gone to war, fol owing their queen into battle. Even the gremlins had gone, their constant chatter and buzzing voices missing from the wall s, leaving the palace silent, cold and empty. Only I had been left behind. Waiting for everyone to return. Forgotten.

  Rain plinked against the windowpanes, and I stirred. Outside, lightning blazed in the sky, and thunder rumbled in the distance. I wondered where Meghan was, what she and Kierran were doing right now.

  Lightning f lickered again, and in the f lash, a figure appeared beside me, a dark, robed figure in a hood and cowl, standing silently at my arm.

  Had I been younger, I might've leaped up, drawn my sword. Now I was simply too tired.

  I blinked and stared at the intruder, peering through my filmy vision.

  The robed figure gazed back, its face hidden in shadow, not attacking or threatening, just watching. Waiting. A memory stirred to life, rising from the cobwebs of the past, like a long forgotten dream. “I…remember you. ”

  The Guardian nodded. “We are at the end of your trials, knight of the Iron Court,” it said, and thunder rumbled outside, shaking the windows.

  “And you have discovered the final truth about being human. No matter how strong, no matter how brave, mortals cannot escape the march of time.

  As a human in the Iron Court, you will grow old, while everyone around you will remain as they are, forever. That is the price of mortality. You will die, and you will die alone. ”

  As it said these words, a cold hand touched my shoulder, and a spasm went through one side of my body. I jerked, nausea and dizziness f looding through me, and tried to stand, groping for the door. My bad leg crumpled and I fel , striking my head on the cold f loor, the breath knocked from my lungs. Gasping, I dragged myself across the room with one arm, my left side numb and dead, but the room spun violently, and darkness crawled along the edge of my vision. Fighting pain and nausea, I tried cal ing for help, but my voice left my throat in a hoarse rasp, and there was no one to hear.

  Except the Guardian, which hadn't moved from where it stood watching me struggle. Watching me die. “Death,” it droned, cold and impassive in the f lickering lights, “comes for all mortals. In the end, it will come for you as well . ”

  I made one last effort to get up, to keep living, though a part of me wondered why I would even resist. But it didn't matter. I was so tired.

  My head touched the cold f loor, darkness covered me like a soft, cool blanket and I felt the last breath escape my lips as my heart—Finally and irreversibly— stopped fighting.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  THE FINAL SACRIFICE

  Cold.

  Everything was cold.

  I was f lying down a dark tunnel, watching fragments of my life f lash before me, unable to stop. Riding with Meghan through the wyldwood. Watching Keirran and Glitch practice in the courtyard.

  The birth of my son. Dancing with Meghan in the bal room. Our wedding…

  Gasping, I bolted upright on a cold, hard f loor, my heart slamming against my ribs, panicked, loud and alive. Clutching my chest, I gazed around, not knowing where I was. Stone wall s surrounded me, can
dles f lickering in the alcoves, casting everything in shadow. The tal hooded figure stood nearby, silently watching, and with a jolt, everything came f looding back.

  The Testing Grounds. The trials. I had come here in the desperate need to earn a soul, to be with Meghan in the Iron Realm. I hunched forward, holding my head in my hands. I couldn't think straight. My mind felt like a tangle of old string, trying to sort out what was real and what was imagined.

  I could feel the cold stare of the Guardian, weighing me, watching what I would do.

  “Was it real?” My voice came out hoarse and raspy, unfamiliar to me.

  “Was any of it real?”

  The Guardian watched me, unmoving. “It could be. ”

  “Ash!”

  Footsteps pounded toward me and Puck came into view. For a moment, I felt a stab of hatred as I gazed at my old nemesis, the memory of him and Meghan dancing and laughing together raging in my mind…but then I paused. That hadn't happened. None of it had happened. My entire human life— my marriage, my wife and son—that was all an il usion.

  “Dammit, ice-boy—” Puck panted as he jogged up. “We were looking everywhere for you. What happened? Did we miss the test? Is it done already?”

  I gazed at him in disbelief. Seconds. Only a few seconds had passed, but to me, it had been a lifetime. Gingerly, I stood, drawing in a slow breath.

  My leg was straight and healthy, my eyesight clear and undimmed.

  When I looked at my hands, pale, smooth skin greeted my sight, when I'd become used to seeing wrinkles and age spots. I clenched my fist and felt the strength in my limbs,

  “It is done,” the Guardian intoned. “The trials are complete. You have passed the gauntlet, knight of the Iron Court. You have seen what it takes to become human—weakness of the f lesh, conscience and mortality. Without these things, a soul would wither and die inside you.

  You have come far, farther than anyone before you. But there is stil one final question. One last thing you must ask yourself, before you are ready for a soul.

  “Do you truly want one?”

  “What?” Puck, coming to stand beside me, glared at the Guardian.

  “What kind of question is that? What do you think he's been doing all this time, picking daisies? You couldn't spring that question before you put him through hell ?”