The Iron Knight, Page 9Julie Kagawa
“I don't know. ” I searched the trees, the shadows, my gaze cutting through the storm, peeling back the darkness, but could see nothing unusual. “It feels like we're being watched. ”
“Huh. ” Puck scratched the side of his face. “I don't feel anything like that. And Furbal is stil here, so that's something. You know if there was anything dangerous coming he'd be gone faster then you could say poof. Sure you're not being paranoid?”
The rain continued to fal , and nothing moved beyond in the darkness and shadow. “I don't know,” I said again. “Maybe. ”
“Well, you can stand here and worry. I'm going to eat. If you see something big and hungry coming at us, just ye—”
“Goodfel ow. ”
My voice made him pause, then turn back, wary and guarded. We stared at each other by the mouth of the cave, the storm whipping at us and making the campfire f licker.
“Why are you here?”
He blinked, made a half hearted attempt at humor. “Uh… because I don't want to get wet?”
I just waited. Puck sighed, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms. “Do we really have to go through this, iceboy?” he said, and though the words were light, his tone was almost pleading. “I think we both know the reason I'm here. ”
“What if I asked you to leave?”
“Why would you want to do that?” Puck grinned, but it quickly faded.
“This is about what happened earlier, isn't it?” he said. “What's going on, Ash?
Two days ago, you were fine. We were f ine. ”
I glanced over to where Grimalkin sat watching the spitted rabbit with something a bit stronger than curiosity. I could feel the darkness in me rising again, despite my attempts to freeze it out. “I'm going to kill you,” I said softly, and Puck's eyebrows rose. “Not tonight. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. Our past is catching up to us, Goodfel ow, and this feud has gone on long enough. ” I looked back at him, meeting his solemn gaze. “I'm giving you this chance now to leave. Run. Find Meghan, tel her what I'm trying to do. If I don't come back, take care of her for me. ” I felt my chest squeeze tight at the thought of Meghan, of never seeing her again. But at least Puck would be there for her if I failed. “Get out of here, Puck. It would be better for both of us if you were gone. ”
“Huh. well , you sure know how to make a guy feel wanted, prince. ”
Puck glared at me, not quite able to mask his anger. Pushing himself off the wall , he took a step forward, never looking away. “Here's a heads-up, though—I'm not going anywhere, no matter how much you threaten, bribe, coerce, or beg. Don't get me wrong, I'm mostly here for her, not you, but I'm betting this isn't something you can do alone.
So you're going to have to suck it up and get used to me, prince, 'cause unless you want that duel right here, right now, I'm not leaving. And I can be just as stubborn as you. ”
Outside, lightning f lickered, turning everything white, and the gale tossed the branches of the trees. Puck and I glared at each other until we were interrupted by a loud pop from the campfire. Breaking eye contact at last, Puck glanced over his shoulder and let out a yelp.
“Hey!” Whirling around, he stalked back toward the fire, and its now-empty spit, waving his arms. “My rabbit! Grimalkin, you sneaky, gray…pig! I hope you enjoy that, 'cause the next thing over the fire might be you!”
As expected, there was no answer. I smiled to myself and turned back to the rain. The violence of the storm had not abated, nor had my feeling of being watched, though continued searches of the trees and shadows yielded nothing.
“Where are you?” I mused under my breath. “I know you can see me. Why can't I find you?”
The storm seemed to mock me. I stood, looking out, until the wind finally died down and the rain slowed to a drizzle. all through the night, I stood there, waiting. But whatever was watching me from its mysterious location never made itself known.
The next day dawned dim and ominous, with a persistent fog that clung to the ground and wrapped everything in opaque silence.
Sounds were absorbed into the surrounding white, and it was impossible to see more than ten feet ahead.
We left the cave, fol owing a smug Grimalkin into the wall of mist. The world looked different from the night before, hidden and lurking, the trees dark, crooked skeletons in the mist. No birds sang, no insects buzzed, no smal creatures scurried through the undergrowth. Nothing moved or seemed to breathe. Even Puck was affected by the somber mood and offered little conversation as we glided through this stil , muffled world.
The feeling of being watched had not dissipated even now, and was making me increasingly uncomfortable. Even more disturbing, I had the sense that something was fol owing us, tracking us through the silent forest. I scanned the surrounding trees, the shadows and the undergrowth, watching, listening for something that seemed out of place.
But I could see nothing.
The fog stubbornly refused to lift, and the farther we pushed into the quiet wood, the stronger the feeling became. Finally, I stopped, turning to gaze behind us. Mist crept over the ground and spil ed onto the tiny forest path we were fol owing, and through the blanket of white, I could sense something drawing closer.
“There's something out there,” I muttered as Puck came to stand beside me, also peering into the fog.
“Of course there is,” Grimalkin replied matter-of-factly, leaping onto a fal en tree. “It has been fol owing us since last night. The storm slowed it down a bit, but it is coming fast now. I suggest we hurry if we do not wish to meet it. And we do not, trust me. ”
“Is it the witch?” Puck asked, frowning as he stared into the bushes and the trees. “Geez, tie a house's feet together and you're marked for life. The old gal can sure hold a grudge, can't she?”
“It is not the witch,” Grimalkin said with a hint of annoyance. “It is something far worse, I am afraid. Now come, we are wasting time. ” He leaped off the branch, vanishing into the mist, as Puck and I shared a glance.
“Worse then the old chicken plucker?” Puck made a face. “That's hard to believe. Can you think of anyone you'd rather not meet in a spooky old forest, prince?”
“Actual y, I can,” I said, and walked away, fol owing Grimalkin through the trees.
“Hey!” Puck scrambled after us. “What's that supposed to mean, iceboy?”
The forest stretched on, and Grimalkin never slowed, weaving through trees and under gnarled roots without looking back. I resisted the urge to glance continuously over my shoulder, half expecting the mist to part as whatever was fol owing us lunged onto the path. I hated being hunted, being tracked by some unseen, unknown monster, but
Grimalkin seemed determined to outpace it, and if I paused I could lose the cat in the fog.
Somewhere behind us, a f lock of crows took to the air with frantic cries, piercingly loud in the silence.
“It's close,” I muttered, my hand dropping to my sword. Grimalkin didn't look back.
“Yes,” he stated calmly. “But we are almost there. ”
“A lmost where?” Puck chimed in, but at that moment the mist thinned and we found ourselves on the edge of a graygreen lake. Skeletal trees loomed out of the water, their expanding web of roots looking like pale snakes in the murk. Smal , mossy islands rose from beneath the lake, and rope bridges spanned the gulf between them, some sagging low enough to nearly touch the surface.
“There is a colony of bal ybogs living on the other side,” Grimalkin explained, hopping lightly to the first rope bridge. He paused to glance back at us, waving his tail. “They owe me a favor. Hurry up. ”
Something went crashing through the bushes behind us—a pair of terrified deer, f leeing into the undergrowth. Grimalkin f lattened his ears and started across the bridge. Puck and I fol owed.
The lake wasn't large, and we reached the other side
a few minutes later, facing Grimalkin's annoyed glare as we stepped onto the muddy bank.
Puck and I had systematical y cut through each of the bridge ropes after every crossing, so whatever was fol owing us would have to swim.
Hopeful y, that would slow it down a bit, but it also meant that we had burned our bridges, so to speak, if we wanted to return the same way.
“Uh-oh,” Puck murmured, and I turned around.
A tiny vil age lay in the mud at the edge of the river, thatch and peat roofs covering primitive huts built into an embankment, peeking out between the roots of enormous trees. Spears lay in the mud, some broken, and the roofs of several huts had been torn off. Silence hung thick over the vil age, the mist creeping up from the lake to smother what was left of the hamlet.
“Looks like something got here before us,” Puck observed, picking a shattered spear out of the mud. “Did a number on the vil age, too. No one's here to welcome us, Grim. We'l have to try something else. ”
Grimalkin sniffed and jumped atop the bank, shaking mud from his paws. “How inconvenient. ” He sighed, looking around in distaste.
“Now I will never receive my favor. ”
In the distance, somewhere beyond the mist coming off the water, there was a splash. Puck looked back and grimaced. “It's stil coming, persistent bastard. ”
I drew my sword. “Then we make our stand here. ”
Puck nodded, pul ing his daggers. “Thought you might say that. I'll find us some higher ground. Wrestling in the mud just isn't my cup of tea, unless it involves scantily clad—” He stopped as I shot him a look.
“Right,” he muttered. “That hil over there looks promising. I'll check it out. ”
Grimalkin followed my stare, blinking as Puck sloshed his way toward a lumpy mound of green moss and ferns. “That was not there the last time I was here,” he mused softly, narrowing his gaze. “In fact…” His eyes widened.
And he disappeared.