The Iron Knight(9)

By: Julie Kagawa

And, just like that, it was gone, and the ties holding me to the vision were released. With a silent gasp, I wrenched myself out of the dream, back into the waking world.

It was very dark now, though the skeletal trees glowed with a soft white luminance that left them hazy and ethereal. Several yards away, Puck still sat in the branches, hands behind his head, chewing the ends of a grass stalk. One foot swung idly in the air and he wasn’t looking at me; I’d learned long ago how to mask my pain and remain silent, even in sleep. You don’t show weakness in the Unseelie Court. Puck didn’t know I was awake, but Grimalkin crouched in the branches of a nearby tree, and his glowing yellow eyes were fixed in my direction.

“Bad dreams?”

The tone of his voice wasn’t exactly a question. I shrugged. “A nightmare. Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I would not be so sure of that, were I you.”

I glanced up sharply, narrowing my eyes. “You know something,” I accused, and Grimalkin yawned. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“More than you want to know, prince.” Grimalkin sat up, curling his tail around himself. “And I am not a fool. You know better than to ask such questions.” The cat sniffed, regarding me with that unblinking gold gaze. “I told you before, this is no simple task. You will have to discover the answers for yourself.”

I already knew that, but the way Grimalkin said it sounded ominous, and it irritated me that the cait sith knew more than he was letting on. Ignoring the cat, I turned away, staring into the trees. A stray sod emerged from the darkness, a tiny green faery with a clump of weeds growing from its back. It blinked at me, bobbed its mushroom hat, and quickly slipped back into the undergrowth.

“This seer,” I asked Grimalkin, carefully marking the place the sod had vanished so as to not tread on it when we left. “Where is it located?”

But Grimalkin had disappeared.

TIME HAS NO MEANING in the wyldwood. Day and night don’t really exist here, just light and darkness, and they can be just as fickle and moody as everything else. A “night” can pass in the space of a blink, or go on forever. Light and darkness will chase each other through the sky, play hide-and-seek or tag or catch-me-if-you-can. Sometimes, one or the other will become offended over an imagined slight and refuse to come out for an indefinite amount of time. Once, light became so angry, a hundred years passed in the mortal realm before it deigned to come out again. And though the sun continued to rise and set in the human world, it was a rather turbulent period for the world of men, as all the creatures who lurked in darkness and shadow got to roam freely under the lightless Nevernever skies.

So it was still full dark when Puck and I started out again, following the cait sith into the endless tangle of the wyldwood. Grimalkin slipped through the trees like mist flowing over the ground, gray and nearly invisible in the colorless landscape around him. He moved swiftly and silently, not looking back, and it took all my hunter’s skills to keep up with him, to not lose him in the tangled undergrowth. I suspected he was testing us, or perhaps playing some annoying feline game, subtly trying to lose us without completely going invisible. But, with Puck hurrying after me, I kept pace with the elusive cait sith and didn’t lose him once as we ventured deeper into the wyldwood.

The light had finally decided to make an appearance when, without warning, Grimalkin stopped. Leaping onto an overhanging branch, he stood motionless for a moment, ears pricked to the wind and whiskers trembling. Around us, huge gnarled trees blocked out the sky, gray trunks and branches seeming to hem us in, like an enormous net or cage. I realized I didn’t recognize this part of the wyldwood, though that wasn’t unusual. The wyldwood was huge, eternal and constantly changing. There were many places I’d never seen, never set foot in, even in the long years of hunting beneath its canopy.

“Hey, we’re stopping,” Puck said, coming up behind me. Peering over my shoulder, he snorted under his breath. “What’s the matter, cat? Did you finally get lost?”

“Be quiet, Goodfellow.” Grimalkin flattened his ears but didn’t look back. “Something is out there,” he stated, twitching his tail. “The trees are angry. Something does not belong.” His eyes narrowed, and he crouched to leap off the branch.