The Iron Knight, Page 6Julie Kagawa
Destroyed your weakness, as a Winter prince should have done. But you had to fal in love with her, didn't you? And now you're lost to the Iron Realm, same as us. ” He gave me an appraising look. “We're not really that different, after all . ”
Puck sighed very loudly. “So, are you guys going to talk us to death?” he wondered, and the Thornguard glared at him. “Or are we actual y going to get on with this?”
The leader f lourished his weapon, the black, serrated blade glinting in the f lames. Around him, the rest of the Thornguards did the same.
“Expect no mercy from us, your highness,” he warned as the squad began to close in. “You're no longer our prince, and we're no longer part of the Winter Court. Everything we believed in is dead. ”
Puck grinned viciously and turned so that we stood backto-back against the approaching guards. I raised my sword and drew glamour from the air, letting the cold power of Winter swirl within. And I smiled.
“Mercy is for the weak,” I told the Thornguards, seeing them for what they really were: abominations to be cut down, destroyed. “Let me show you how much of an Unseelie I stil am. ”
The Thornguards attacked with howling battle cries, coming from all directions. I parried one slash and swiped at another, leaping back to avoid a third. Behind me, Puck whooped in unrestrained glee, the clash of his daggers ringing in my ears as he danced around his opponents. They fol owed, savage and unrelenting. Rowan's elite guards were dangerous and well trained, but I had been part of the Winter Court for a very long time, observing their strengths and weaknesses, and knew their fatal f laws.
The Thornguards were formidable as a unit, using group tactics to threaten and harry, much like a pack of wolves. But that was their greatest failing as well . Single them out, and they fel apart. Surrounded by a trio of Thornguards, I leaped back and f lung a hail of stinging ice shards into their midst, catching two guards in the deadly arc. They flinched for a brief second, and the third leaped forward, alone, meeting my sword as it cut across his neck. The warrior frayed apart, black armor splitting open as dark brambles erupted from the spot where he died. As with all fey, death returned him to the Nevernever, and he simply ceased to exist.
“Duck, ice-boy!” Puck yelped behind me, and I did, feeling a Thornguard blade hiss overhead. I turned and stabbed the warrior through the chest as Puck hurled a dagger into another rushing me from behind. More brambles spread across the stones.
Now there were only three Thornguards left. Puck and I stil stood back-to-back, guarding each other's f lanks, moving in perfect unison.
“You know,” Puck said, panting slightly, “this reminds me of the time we were underground and stumbled into that Duergar city. Remember that, iceboy?”
I parried a blow to my ribs and returned with a swipe to my opponent's head, forcing him back a step. “Stop talking and keep fighting, Goodfel ow. ”
“Yeah, I think you said that to me then, too. ”
I blocked a stab, lunged forward and ripped my blade across the guard's throat, just as Puck danced within reach of his opponent and jabbed his knife between his ribs. Both warriors split apart, their weapons clanging against the rocks as they died. As they fel , the last Thornguard, the leader who'd taunted me before the battle, turned to f lee.
I raised my arm, glamour swirling around me, and f lung a trio of ice daggers at the warrior's retreating back. They struck with muffled thunks, and the Thornguard gasped, pitching forward. Staggering to his knees, he looked up as I stepped around to face him, his glassy blue eyes fil ed with pain and hate.
“Guess I was wrong,” he panted, his ruined mouth twisted in a last defiant sneer. “You are stil Unseelie, through and through. ” He laughed, but it came out as a choked cough. “Wel , what are you waiting for, your highness? Get on with it. ”
“You know I won't spare you. ” I let the emptiness of the Winter Court spread through me, freezing any emotion, stif ling any thoughts of kindness or mercy. “You tried to kill Meghan, and if I let you go, you will continue to bring harm to her realm. I can't all ow that. Unless you swear to me, on this spot, that you will abandon your quest to harm the Iron Queen, her subjects and her kingdom. Give me that vow, and I'll let you live. ”
The Thornguard gazed at me a moment, then choked another laugh.
“And where would I go?” He sneered, as Puck walked up behind him, watching solemnly. “Who would take me back, looking like this? Mab?
Oberon? Your little halfbreed queen?” He coughed and spat on the stones between us, the spittle a dark red. “No, your highness. If you let me go, I will find my way back to the Iron Queen, and I will put a sword in her heart and laugh as they cut me down for it. And if I somehow survive, I will destroy every Iron faery I come across, tear them limb from limb, until the land is stained with their tainted blood, and I won't stop until every one of them lies de—”
He got no further, as my blade slashed across his neck and severed his head from his body.
Puck sighed as brambles erupted from the dead Thornguard, crooked fingers clawing at the sky. “Yeah, that went about as well as I expected. ” He wiped his daggers on his pants and looked back at the tower, at the new brambles growing around the base. “You think any more are hanging around?”
“No. ” I sheathed my sword and turned from my former Unseelie brethren. “They knew they were dying. They had no reason to hide. ”
“Can't reason with madmen, I guess. ” Wrinkling his nose, Puck sheathed his weapons, shaking his head. “Nice to know they were just as delusional as before, just with a different f lavor of crazy. ”
Delusional? I blinked as the leader's words came back to me, mocking and ominous. You're lost to the Iron Realm, same as us. We're not really that different, after all.
Were the Thornguards that delusional? They had only wanted what I did: a way to overcome the effects of iron. They'd bargained their lives away, endured torment no normal faery could withstand, hoping to conquer our eternal weakness. Hoping to live in the Iron Realm.
Wasn't I doing the same now, wishing for the impossible?
“You've got your brooding face on again, ice-boy. ” Puck squinted at me. “And I can see your brain going a mile a minute. What are you thinking of?”
I shook my head. “Nothing important. ” Spinning on a heel, I turned and walked away, back toward the edge of the trees. Puck started to protest, but I hurried on, unwil ing to think about it any longer. “We've wasted enough time here, and this isn't getting us any closer to the seer. Let's go. ”
He jogged after me. I hoped he would be quiet, leave me in peace, but of course I had only a few moments of silence before he opened his mouth.
“Hey, you never answered my question, prince,” he said, kicking a pebble over the stones, watching it bounce toward the forest. “What were we looking for in that underground city, anyway? A necklace? A mirror?”
“A dagger,” I muttered.
“Aha! So you do remember, after all !”
I glared at him. He grinned cheekily. “Just checking, ice-boy. Wouldn't want you to forget all the good times we had. Hey, whatever happened to that thing, anyway? I seem to recal it was a really nice piece of work. ”
A numbness spread through my chest, and my voice went very, very soft. “I gave it to Ariel a. ”
“…oh,” Puck murmured.
And said nothing after that.
Grimalkin was waiting for us atop a broken limb at the edge of the tree line, washing his paw with exaggerated nonchalance. “That took longer then I expected. ” He yawned as we came up. “I was wondering if I should take a nap, waiting for you. ” Giving his paw a final lick, he looked down at us, narrowing his golden eyes. “Anyway, if you two are quite finished, we can move on. ”
“Did you know about the Thornguards?” I asked. “And their attack on the Iron Kingdom?”
Grimalkin snorted. Flicking his tail, the cat rose a
nd sauntered along the splintered branch with no explanation. Hopping lightly to an overhead limb, he vanished into the leaves without looking back, leaving Puck and me hurrying to catch up.
The wyldwood stretched on, dark, tangled and endless. I didn't count the times the light rose and fel , because the farther we went into the untamed wilderness, the wilder and more unpredictable it became.
Grimalkin took us through a glen where the trees slowly followed us until we looked back, freezing them in place, only to have them creep forward again when our backs were turned. We hiked up an enormous, moss-covered hil , only to discover that the “hil ” was actual y the body of a sleeping giant as it raised a massive hand to scratch the itch on its cheek. We crossed a rol ing, windy plain where herds of wild horses stared at us with cold intel igence, their furtive conversations blown away in the wind.
During this time, Puck and I didn't talk, or if we did, it was just useless banter, threats, insults and the like. Fighting with Robin Goodfel ow, side by side against the Thornguards, had brought up memories I did not wish to deal with now, ones that were frozen deep inside, memories I couldn't thaw out for fear of the pain. I didn't want to remember the hunts, the chal enges, the times we got ourselves neck-deep in trouble and had to fight our way out. I didn't want to remember the laughter, the easy camaraderie, between myself and my onceclosest friend. Because remembering Puck as something more than a rival only reminded me of my vow, the one spoken in a f lash of despair and rage, the one that had turned us into bitter enemies for years to come.
And, of course, I couldn't think of Puck that way without remembering…her.
Ariel a. The only daughter of the Ice Baron of Glassbarrow, Ariel a first came to the Unseelie Court during winter equinox, when Mab was hosting that year's Elysium. As tradition dictated, twice a mortal year, the courts of Summer and Winter would meet to discuss politics, sign new treaties, and basical y agree to play nice for another season. Or at least to refrain from declaring all -out war on the other court. It bored me to tears, but as a Winter prince and the son of Queen Mab, my presence was required, and I had learned to dance the dance and be a good little court monkey.