“Oy, ice-boy! You sure you know where you’re going? ! ignore" Robin #oo"$e% ow &s we wo'e (hrough (he gr&y )urk o$ (he wy%"woo", *ushing $&r(her in(o (he soggy sw&)* known &s (he +one ,&rsh- ,u" sucke" &( )y $oo(s(e*s, &n" w&(er "ri**e" $ro) (wis(e" green (rees so co'ere" in )oss (hey &**e&re" she&(he" in s%i)e- ,is( coi%e" &roun" (he e.*ose" roo(s or *oo%e" in sunken &re&s, hi"ing wh&( %&y bene&(h, &n" e'ery so o$(en (here w&s & s*%&sh in (he s(i% w&(ers $&r(her ou(, re)in"ing us (h&( we were no( &%one- As i(s n&)e sugges(e", bones were sc&((ere" (hroughou( (he )&rsh, /u((ing ou( o$ (he )u", h&%$-hi""en in (&ng%es o$ wee"s or shi))ering bene&(h (he sur$&ce o$ (he w&(er, b%e&che" &n" whi(e- This w&s & "&ngerous *&r( o$ (he wy%"woo", )ore so (h&n )os(0 no( bec&use o$ (he c&(ob%e*&s &n" (he /&bberwocks &n" o(her )ons(ers (h&( c&% e" (he "&rk sw&)* (heir ho)e, bu( bec&use o$ (he resi"en( who %i'e" so)ewhere "ee* wi(hin (he )&rshThe one we were going (o see1o)e(hing $ %ew *&s( )y he&" $ro) behin", b&re%y )issing )e, &n" s*&((ere" &g&ins( & (runk & $ew $ee( &w&y- 1(o**ing bene&(h (he (ree, ! (urne" &n" g%&re" &( )y co)*&nion, si%en(%y "&ring hi) (o "o (h&( &g&in“Oh, hey, i( %i'es! Robin #oo"$e% ow (hrew u* his )u""y h&n"s in )ock ce%ebr&(ion- “! w&s &$r&i" i( h&" beco)e & 2o)bie or so)e(hing- He crosse" his &r)s &n" s)irke" &( )e, )u" s(re&king his re" h&ir &n" s*eck%ing his *oin(e" $&ce- “3i" you he&r )e, iceboy? !’'e been ye% ing &( you $or so)e (i)e now“Yes, ! s&i", re*ressing & sigh- “! he&r" you- ! (hink (he /&bberwocks on (he o(her si"e o$ (he sw&)* he&r" you“Oh, goo"! ,&ybe i$ we $igh( & cou*%e you’% s(&r( *&ying &((en(ion (o )e! Puck )&(che" )y g%&re be$ore ges(uring &roun" &( (he sw&)*- “This is cr&2y, he e.c%&i)e"- “How "o we e'en know he’s here? The +one ,&rsh isn’( e.&c(%y on )y %is( o$ $&'ori(e '&c&(ion ge(&w&ys, *rince- You sure your con(&c( knew wh&( he w&s (&%king &bou(? !$ (his (urns ou( (o be &no(her $&%se %e&" ! )igh( (urn (h&( *houk& in(o & *&ir o$ g%o'es“! (hough( you w&n(e" &n &"'en(ure, ! s&i", /us( (o &nnoy hi)- Puck snor(e"“Oh sure, "on’( ge( )e wrong- !’) &% $or (ro)*ing (o &% $i'e corners o$ (he Ne'erne'er, ge((ing ch&se" by &ngry 1u))er 4ueens, sne&king in(o &n ogre’s b&se)en(, $igh(ing gi&n( s*i"ers, *%&ying hi"e-&n"-seek wi(h & cr&nky "r&gon0goo" (i)es- He shook his he&", &n" his eyes g%e&)e", re%i'ing $on" )e)ories- “+u( (his is %ike (he si.(h *%&ce we’'e co)e (o %ook $or (h&( wre(che" c&(, &n" i$ he isn’( here !’) &%)os( &$r&i" o$ where we’re going ne.(“You "on’( h&'e (o be here, ! (o%" hi)- “5e&'e i$ you w&n(- !’) no( s(o**ing you“Nice (ry, *rince- Puck crosse" his &r)s &n" s)i%e"- “+u( you’re no( ge((ing ri" o$ )e (h&( e&si%y-

“Then %e(’s kee* )o'ing- !( w&s ge((ing "&rk, &n" his cons(&n( ch&((ering w&s ge((ing on )y ner'es- 6oking &si"e, ! "i" no( w&n( (o &((r&c( (he &((en(ion o$ & hungry /&bberwock &n" h&'e (o $igh( i( in (he )i""%e o$ (he sw&)*“Oh, $ine, Puck sighe", (ro)*ing &%ong behin" )e- “+u( i$ he’s no( here, ! re$use (o go (o (he 1*i"er 4ueen’s *&%&ce wi(h you, ice-boy- Th&(’s where ! "r&w (he %ine,y n&)e, )y $u% , True N&)e, is Ash&% &yn’"&rk)yr T&% yn, &n" ! &) (he %&s( son o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(There were (hree o$ us &( one (i)e, &% *rinces o$ 8in(er, )yse%$ &n" )y bro(hers, 1&ge &n" Row&n- ! ne'er knew )y sire, ne'er c&re" (o know hi), nor "i" )y sib%ings e'er s*e&k o$ hi)- ! w&sn’( e'en *osi(i'e we sh&re" (he s&)e sire, bu( i( "i"n’( )&((er- !n (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, ,&b w&s (he so%e ru%er, (he one &n" on%y 9ueen- H&n"so)e $ey &n" e'en w&yw&r" )or(&%s she )igh( (&ke (o her be", bu( ,&b sh&re" her (hrone wi(h no one8e were ne'er c%ose, )y bro(hers &n" !- As *rinces o$ 8in(er, we grew u* in & wor%" o$ 'io%ence &n" "&rk *o%i(ics- Our 9ueen encour&ge" (his, $&'oring (he son who e&rne" her goo" gr&ces whi%e *unishing (he o(hers- 8e use" e&ch o(her, *%&ye" 'icious g&)es &g&ins( one &no(her, bu( we were &% %oy&% (o our cour( &n" our 9ueen- Or so !’" (hough(There is & re&son (he 8in(er Cour( $ree2es ou( (heir e)o(ions, why $ee%ings &re consi"ere" & we&kness &n" & $o% y &)ong (he 7nsee%ie $eyE)o(ion corru*(s (he senses, )&kes (he) we&k, )&kes (he) "is%oy&% (o ki(h &n" cour(6e&%ousy w&s & "&rk, "&ngerous *&ssion (h&( &(e &( )y bro(her Row&n un(i% he "i" (he un(hink&b%e &n" (urne" on his cour(, be(r&ying us (o our ene)ies- 1&ge, )y e%"es( sib%ing, $e% (o Row&n’s (re&chery, &n" he w&s on%y (he $irs(- !n & bi" $or *ower, Row&n si"e" wi(h our gre&(es( ene)ies, (he !ron $ey, he%*ing (heir king ne&r%y "es(roy (he Ne'erne'er- ! ki% e" Row&n in (he en", &'enging 1&ge &n" (he res( o$ )y kin, bu( re(ribu(ion c&nno( bring ei(her o$ (he) b&ck- !(’s on%y )e now- ! &) (he %&s(, (he on%y re)&ining son o$ ,&b, 4ueen o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(An" !’) &%re&"y "e&" (o herRow&n w&s no( (he on%y one (o succu)b (o e)o(ion &n" *&ssion- ,y $&% beg&n, &s )&ny s(ories "o, wi(h & gir%- A gir% n&)e" ,egh&n Ch&se, (he h&%$-hu)&n "&ugh(er o$ our &ncien( ri'&%, (he 1u))er :ing- ;&(e brough( us (oge(her, &n" "es*i(e e'ery(hing ! "i" (o shie%" )y e)o(ions, "es*i(e (he %&ws o$ our *eo*%e &n" (he w&r wi(h (he !ron $ey &n" (he (hre&( o$ e(ern&% b&nish)en( $ro) )y ho)e, ! s(i% $oun" )yse%$ $&% ing $or her- Our *&(hs were wo'en (oge(her, our $&(es in(er(wine", &n" be$ore (he %&s( b&((%e ! swore ! wou%" $o% ow her (o (he en" o$ (he wor%", (o *ro(ec( her $ro) &% (hre&(s, inc%u"ing )y own kin, &n" (o "ie $or her i$ c&% e" (o "o so- ! bec&)e her knigh(, &n" wou%" h&'e g%&"%y ser'e" (his gir%, (his )or(&% who h&" c&*(ure" )y he&r(, un(i% (he %&s( bre&(h %e$( )y bo"y+u( ;&(e is & crue% )is(ress, &n" in (he en", our *&(hs were $orce" &*&r(, &s !’" $e&re" (hey wou%" be- ,egh&n bec&)e (he !ron 4ueen, &s w&s her "es(iny, &n" (ook (he (hrone in (he king"o) o$ (he !ron $ey- A *%&ce ! cou%" no( $o% ow, no( &s ! &)0& $&ery cre&(ure whose essence we&kens &n" burns &( (he (ouch o$ iron- ,egh&n herse%$ e.i%e" )e $ro) (he %&n"s o$ (he !ron $ey, knowing (h&( s(&ying wou%" ki% )e, knowing ! wou%" (ry &nyw&y+u( be$ore ! %e$(, ! swore &n o&(h (h&( ! wou%" $in" & w&y (o re(urn, (h&( so)e"&y we wou%" be (oge(her, &n" no(hing wou%" se*&r&(e us &g&in- ,&b (rie" (o con'ince )e (o

re(urn (o (he 8in(er Cour(0! w&s her on%y *rince now, &n" i( w&s )y "u(y (o co)e ho)e 0bu( ! b%un(%y s(&(e" (h&( ! w&s no %onger *&r( o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, (h&( )y ser'ice (o her &n" 8in(er w&s &( &n en"There is no(hing )ore (errib%e (h&n & s*urne" $&ery 9ueen, *&r(icu%&r%y i$ you "e$y her & secon" (i)e- ! esc&*e" (he 8in(er Cour( wi(h )y %i$e in(&c(, bu( /us( b&re%y, &n" ! won’( be re(urning &ny(i)e soon- Reg&r"%ess, ! $ee% %i((%e regre( &( (urning )y b&ck on )y 9ueen, )y ki(h &n" )y ho)e- Th&( *&r( o$ )y %i$e is "one- ,y %oy&%(y0&n" )y he&r(0 be%ongs (o &no(her 9ueen now! *ro)ise" !’" $in" & w&y $or us (o be (oge(her- ! in(en" (o kee* (h&( *ro)ise- E'en i$ i( )e&ns (rekking (hrough & s*r&w%ing, "e&"%y )&rsh in se&rch o$ & ru)or- E'en i$ i( )e&ns *u((ing u* wi(h )y $ierces( &n" )os( &nnoying ri'&%, Robin #oo"$e% ow, who0"es*i(e &% his &((e)*(s (o hi"e i(0is in %o'e wi(h )y 9ueen &s we% - ! "on’( know why ! h&'en’( ki% e" hi) ye(- ,&ybe bec&use Puck is ,egh&n’s c%oses( $rien", &n" she wou%" )ourn hi) (errib%y i$ he were gone <(hough ! c&n’( un"ers(&n" why=- Or, )&ybe, "ee* "own, !’) (ire" o$ being &%one!n &ny c&se, i( )&((ers %i((%e- 8i(h e'ery ruin we se&rch, e'ery "r&gon we s%&y, or e'ery ru)or we une&r(h, !’) one s(e* c%oser (o )y go&%- E'en i$ i( (&kes & hun"re" ye&rs, ! wi% be wi(h her in (he en"- Ano(her *iece o$ (he *u22%e %urks so)ewhere in (his "re&ry sw&)*%&n"- The on%y "i$$icu%(y %ies in $in"ing i(Th&nk$u% y, "es*i(e Puck’s cons(&n( gri*ing &n" co)*%&ining, (he /&bberwocks "eci"e" no( (o see wh&( (he r&cke( w&s &bou( &n" co)e s(&%king (hrough (he )&rsh (o $in" us- Th&( w&s /us( &s we% , bec&use i( (ook ne&r%y (he who%e nigh( (o $in" wh&( we were %ooking $orA( (he e"ge o$ & scu))y *on" s(oo" & house, $&"e" &n" gr&y %ike e'ery(hing e%se- A *icke( $ence )&"e o$ b%e&che" whi(e bones surroun"e" i(, n&ke" sku% s (o**ing (he *os(s, &n" & $ew scr&gg%y chickens )i% e" &bou( in wh&( *&sse" &s & y&r"- The hu( w&s o%" &n" woo"en, cre&king $&in(%y (hough (here w&s no win"- The )os( unusu&% (hing, howe'er, w&sn’( (he house i(se%$, bu( wh&( he%" i( u*- !( s(oo" on & *&ir o$ )&ssi'e bir" %egs, gn&r%e" &n" ye% ow, b%un( (&%ons "igging in(o (he )u"- The %egs were crouche" %ow, &s i$ s%ee*ing, bu( e'ery so o$(en (hey shi$(e" res(%ess%y, c&using (he who%e house (o shu""er &n" gro&n“8e’re heeeeere, Puck s&ng so$(%y- “An" c&n ! s&y (h&( (he o%" g&% h&sn’( go((en &ny %ess cree*y (h&n when ! s&w her %&s(! n&rrowe" )y eyes &( hi)- “6us( shu( u* &n" %e( )e "o (he (&%king (his (i)e- !( w&s b&" enough when you insu%(e" (he cen(&ur chie$“A% ! sugges(e" w&s (h&( we cou%"’'e use" & ri"e ou( o$ (he )e&"ow- ! "i"n’( )e&n $ro) hi)1ighing, ! o*ene" (he bone g&(e &n" crosse" (he wee"choke" y&r", sc&((ering chickens in $ron( o$ )e- +e$ore we re&che" (he s(e*s, howe'er, (he "oor cre&ke" o*en &n" &n o%" wo)&n e)erge" $ro) (he "&rkene" in(erior- T&ng%e" whi(e h&ir $r&)e" & %ine", wrink%e" $&ce, &n" sh&r* b%&ck eyes *eere" ou( &( us, brigh( &n" g%e&)ing- !n one gn&r%e" h&n" she he%" & b&ske(, in (he o(her & bu(cher kni$e, s(&ine" wi(h (he b%oo" o$ )&ny 'ic(i)s! s(o**e" &( (he $oo( o$ (he s(&irs, w&ry &n" &%er(- O%" &s she &**e&re", (he wi(ch o$ (his house w&s *ower$u% &n" un*re"ic(&b%e- !$ Puck s&i" so)e(hing s(u*i" or &cci"en(&% y

insu%(e" her, i( wou%" be '&s(%y &nnoying i$ we h&" (o $igh( our w&y ou(“8e% , (he wi(ch s&i", cur%ing b%oo"%ess %i*s (o s)i%e &( us- Crooke" ye% ow (ee(h $ %&she" in (he %igh( %ike /&gge" bi(s o$ bone- “8h&( "o we h&'e here? Two h&n"so)e $&ery boys, co)e (o 'isi( & *oor o%" wo)&n- An" i$ )y eyes "on’( "ecei'e )e, (h&(’s Robin #oo"$e% ow ! see be$ore )e- The %&s( ! s&w o$ you, you s(o%e )y broo) &n" (ie" )y house’s %egs so i( $e% o'er when we (rie" (o c&(ch you! ! re*resse" &no(her sigh- This w&sn’( s(&r(ing we% - ! shou%"’'e known Puck h&" &%re&"y "one so)e(hing (o e&rn her wr&(h- +u( &( (he s&)e (i)e, ! h&" (o $igh( (he urge (o s)i%e, (o %&ugh &( such & ri"icu%ous (hough(, (he house $&% ing on i(s $&ce in (he )u" bec&use (he #re&( Pr&nks(er h&" (ie" i(s $ee( (oge(her! ke*( )y e.*ression neu(r&%, &s i( w&s ob'ious (he wi(ch w&s no( &)use" in (he s%igh(es(“8h&( "o you h&'e (o s&y $or yourse%$, 'i% &in? she con(inue", sh&king her bu(cher kni$e &( Puck, who "ucke" behin" )e in & *&(he(ic &((e)*( (o hi"e, (hough ! cou%" he&r hi) (rying (o )u$$ %e his %&ugh(er- “3o you know how %ong i( (ook )e (o re*&ir )y ho)e? An" (hen you h&'e (he g&% , (he &bso%u(e g&% , (o %e&'e )y broo) &( (he e"ge o$ (he $ores(, /us( (o *ro'e you cou%" (&ke i(- !’'e h&%$ & )in" (o s(ick you in (he *o( &n" $ee" you (o )y chickens! “! &*o%ogi2e $or hi), ! s&i" 9uick%y, &n" (hose sh&r* b%&ck eyes su""en%y (urne" on )e- ! he%" )yse%$ (&% , un&$r&i" bu( s(i% *o%i(e, %es( she %u)* )e (oge(her wi(h (he bu$$oon &( )y b&ck- “E.cuse (his in(rusion, o%" )o(her, ! con(inue" $or)&% y- “! &) Ash o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(- An" ! nee" your he%*, i$ you wou%" he&r )eThe wi(ch b%inke"- “1uch )&nners- You were no( r&ise" in & b&rn %ike (h&( one, ! see1he s(&bbe" her kni$e in Puck’s "irec(ion, wrink%ing her %ong nose- “An" ! know who you &re, son o$ ,&b- 8h&( wou%" you h&'e o$ )e? +e 9uick &bou( i(“8e’re %ooking $or so)eone, ! s&i"- “He w&s ru)ore" (o be (r&'e%ing (hrough here, (hrough (he +one ,&rsh- 8e (hough( you )igh( know where he is"ge Oh? The wi(ch cocke" her he&", gi'ing )e & scru(ini2ing %ook- “An" wh&( )&kes you (hink ! know where (his *erson is? “No( & *erson, ! correc(e"- “A c&(- A c&i( si(h- !n so)e (&%es he’s known &s #ri)&%kinAn" in so)e (&%es he’s been ru)ore" (o kee* co)*&ny wi(h & *ower$u% wi(ch ou( in (he sw&)*s, whose house s(&n"s on chicken %egs in & $ence )&"e o$ bones“! see, s&i" (he wi(ch, (hough her $&ce &n" 'oice re)&ine" e.*ression%ess- “8e% , ! &")ire your (en&ci(y, young *rince- #ri)&%kin is no( e&sy (o $in" in (he bes( o$ (i)es- You )us( h&'e co)e 'ery $&r (o seek hi) ou(- 1he *eere" c%ose%y &( )e, n&rrowing her eyes“An" (his is no( (he $irs( *%&ce you h&'e se&rche"- ! c&n see i( on your $&ce- 8hy, ! won"er? 8hy "oes he co)e so $&r? 8h&( is i( (h&( he "esires so b&"%y, (o risk (he ire o$ (he +one 8i(ch? 8h&( is i( you w&n(, Ash o$ (he 8in(er Cour(? “8ou%" you be%ie'e (he c&( owes hi) )oney? Puck’s 'oice c&)e $ro) behin" )y shou%"er, )&king )e wince- The wi(ch scow%e" &( hi)“! "i" no( &sk you, Robin #oo"$e% ow, she sn&**e", /&bbing & c%&w%ike $inger &( hi)“An" you h&" bes( w&(ch your (ongue, %es( you $in" yourse%$ neck-"ee* in & *o( o$ boi%ing sn&ke 'eno)- Righ( now your $rien"’s ci'i%i(y is (he on%y (hing kee*ing )e $ro) skinning

you &%i'e, &n" you wi% be si%en( on )y %&n" or you wi% %e&'e- ,y 9ues(ion w&s $or (he *rince“! &) & *rince no %onger, ! s&i" so$(%y, in(erru*(ing her r&n(- “,y ser'ice (o (he 8in(er 4ueen is "one, &n" ,&b h&s c&s( )e $ro) her circ%e- ! &) "e&" (o her“Reg&r"%ess, (he wi(ch s&i", (urning b&ck (o )e wi(h her *iercing b%&ck eyes, “(h&( "oes no( &nswer )y 9ues(ion- 8hy &re you here, Ash-who-is-no-%onger-&-*rince? An" "o no( &((e)*( (o )is%e&" )e wi(h $&ery ri""%es &n" h&%$ (ru(hs, $or ! wi% know, &n" ! wi% no( be h&**y &bou( i(- !$ you wish (o see (his #ri)&%kin, you )us( &nswer )y 9ues(ion $irs(8h&( is i( you seek? “!> ;or & )o)en(, ! hesi(&(e", &n" no( bec&use Puck nu"ge" )e sh&r*%y in (he ribs- He knew (he re&son we were here, why ! w&n(e" (o $in" #ri)&%kin, bu( !’" ne'er 'oice" )y in(en(ions ou( %ou"- ,&ybe (he wi(ch knew (his, )&ybe she w&s /us( curious, bu( s&ying i( &%ou" su""en%y )&"e i( &% (he )ore re&%- “! w&n( (o beco)e>)or(&%, ! s&i" in & %ow 'oice- ,y s(o)&ch recoi%e", he&ring (hose wor"s $or (he $irs( (i)e- “! *ro)ise" so)eone> ! swore ! wou%" $in" & w&y (o sur'i'e (he !ron Re&%), &n" ! c&n’( go (here &s ! &)- The wi(ch r&ise" &n eyebrow, &n" ! "rew )yse%$ u*, $ her wi(h & co%" s(&re- “! w&n( (o beco)e hu)&n- An" ! nee" #ri)&%kin (o he%* )e $in" & w&y“8e% , s&i" & $&)i%i&r 'oice behin" us, “(h&( is &n in(eres(ing re9ues(8e whir%e" &roun"- #ri)&%kin s&( on &n o'er(urne" bucke(, & bushy gr&y c&( wi(h his (&i% cur%e" &roun" hi)se%$, w&(ching us %&2i%y“Oh, o$ course! Puck e.c%&i)e"- “There you &re- 3o you know wh&( we’'e been (hrough (o $in" you, c&(? H&'e you been (here (he who%e (i)e? “3o no( )&ke )e s(&(e (he ob'ious, #oo"$e% ow- #ri)&%kin (wi(che" his whiskers &( hi), (hen (urne" (o )e- “#ree(ings, *rince- ! h&'e he&r" (h&( you were %ooking $or )e“!$ you knew, why "i"n’( you co)e (o us? The c&i( si(h y&wne", cur%ing & *ink (ongue o'er sh&r* whi(e (ee(h- “! h&'e grown r&(her bore" o$ cour( *o%i(ics, he con(inue", b%inking go%" eyes“No(hing e'er ch&nges be(ween 1u))er &n" 8in(er, &n" ! "i" no( w&n( (o beco)e e)broi%e" in (he en"%ess bickering o$ (he cour(s- Or (he g&)es o$ cer(&in 3&rk ,usesPuck wince"- “You he&r" &bou( (h&(, huh? 8or" (r&'e%s $&s(- He shook his he&" &( )e &n" grinne"- “! won"er i$ Ti(&ni& h&s c&%)e" "own ye(, &$(er (h&( (rick we *%&ye" in (he 1u))er Cour(#ri)&%kin ignore" hi)- “! w&n(e" (o know why you were %ooking $or )e, (o see i$ ! wishe" (o )&ke )yse%$ known- Or no(- He sni$$e", cocking his he&" &( )e- “+u( (his re9ues( w&s "e$ini(e%y no( wh&( ! w&s e.*ec(ing o$ you, *rince- How 'ery>in(eres(ing“;oo%ish, i$ you &sk )e, (he wi(ch s(&(e", w&gg%ing her kni$e in )y "irec(ion- “3oes & crow beco)e & s&%)on si)*%y bec&use i( wishes (o? You "o no( know (he $irs( (hing &bou( )or(&%i(y, *rince-who-is-no(- 8hy wou%" you w&n( (o beco)e %ike (he)? “+ec&use, #ri)&%kin &nswere" be$ore ! cou%" s&y &ny(hing, “he is in %o'e“Ahhh- The wi(ch %ooke" &( )e &n" shook her he&"- “! see- Poor cre&(ure- Then you wi% no( he&r & wor" ! h&'e (o s&y- ! g&2e" &( her coo% y, bu( she on%y s)i%e"- “;&re ye we% ,

(hen, *rince-who-is-no(- An" #oo"$e% ow, i$ ! see you &g&in, i( wi% be (o h&ng your skin o'er )y "oor- Now, e.cuse )e1he g&(here" herse%$ u* &n" (ro)*e" "own (he s(e*s, (&king & swi*e &( Puck &s she *&sse", which he "e$(%y &'oi"e"! "i"n’( %ike (he w&y #ri)&%kin con(inue" (o s(&re &( )e, & hin( o$ %&ugh(er in his s%i((e" eyes, &n" ! crosse" )y &r)s- “3o you know & w&y $or & $&ery (o beco)e )or(&%, or no(? “! "o no(, #ri)&%kin s&i" si)*%y, &n" $or & )o)en( )y he&r( s&nk- “+u(, (here &re> ru)ors- 5egen"s o$ (hose who w&n(e" (o beco)e )or(&%- He %i$(e" & $ron( *&w &n" beg&n w&shing i(, scrubbing i( o'er his e&rs- “There is>one>who )igh( know (he w&y (o beco)ing hu)&n, he con(inue", )uch (oo nonch&%&n(%y- “A seer, in (he wi%"es( regions o$ (he Ne'erne'er- +u( (he w&y (o (he seer is (wis(e" &n" (&ng%e", &n" once you s(e* o$$ (he *&(h, you wi% ne'er $in" i( &g&in“Righ(, &n" you /us( h&**en (o know (he w&y, "on’( you? Puck in(er/ec(e", bu( #ri)&%kin ignore" hi)- “Co)e on, c&(, we &% know where (his is going- N&)e your *rice, so we c&n &gree &n" ge( on (he ro&" &%re&"y“Price? #ri)&%kin %ooke" u*, &n" his eyes g%e&)e"- “How we% you see) (o know )e, he )use" in & 'oice ! "i"n’( %ike &( &% - “You (hink (his is so)e si)*%e re9ues(, (h&( ! gui"e you (o (he seer &n" (h&( wi% be &% - You h&'e no i"e& wh&( you &re &sking, wh&( %ies &he&", $or &% o$ us- The c&( s(oo", w&'ing his (&i%, reg&r"ing )e wi(h & so%e)n go%" g&2e“! wi% n&)e no *rice, no( (o"&y- +u( (he (i)e wi% co)e, *rince, when ! &rri'e (o co% ec( (his "eb(- An" when (h&( "&y co)es, you wi% *&y i( in $u% The wor"s hung in (he &ir be(ween us, shi))ering wi(h *ower- A con(r&c(, &n" & *&r(icu%&r%y n&s(y one &( (h&(- #ri)&%kin, $or wh&(e'er re&son, w&s *%&ying $or kee*s- A *&r( o$ )e recoi%e", h&(ing being boun" in such & w&y- !$ ! &gree" (o (his, (he c&( cou%" &sk &ny(hing o$ )e, (&ke &ny(hing, &n" ! wou%" be $orce" (o co)*%y+u(, i$ i( )e&n( being hu)&n, being wi(h her in (he en"> “You sure &bou( (his, ice-boy? Puck c&ugh( )y g&2e, worrie" &s we% - “This is your 9ues(, bu( (here’s no b&cking ou( i$ you &gree (o "o (his- You c&n’( /us( *ro)ise hi) & nice s9ue&ky )ouse &n" be "one wi(h i(? ! sighe" &n" $&ce" (he c&i( si(h, who w&i(e" c&%)%y $or )y &nswer- “! wi% no( "e%iber&(e%y h&r) &nyone, ! (o%" hi) $ir)%y- “You wi% no( use )e &s & we&*on, nor wi% ! work e'i% &g&ins( (hose ! consi"er &% ies or $rien"s- This con(r&c( wi% in'o%'e no one e%se- 6us( )e“As you wish, #ri)&%kin *urre"“Then you h&'e & "e&%- ! $e%( & (ing%e in (he &ir &s (he b&rg&in w&s se&%e", &n" c%enche" )y $is(s- There w&s no b&cking ou( o$ i( now, no( (h&( ! h&" &ny in(en(ion (o "o so, bu( i( see)e" (h&( !’" )&"e )ore "e&%s, &cce*(e" )ore con(r&c(s, in & sing%e ye&r (hen ! h&" in )y en(ire %i$e &s & *rince o$ 8in(er! h&" (he $ee%ing !’" s&cri$ice )ore be$ore (he (ri* w&s o'er, bu( (here w&s no(hing $or i( now- !’" )&"e )y *ro)ise, &n" ! wou%" see i( (hrough“Then i( is "one- #ri)&%kin no""e" &n" %e&*e" o$$ (he bucke(, %&n"ing in & *&(ch o$ wee"s surroun"e" by )u"- “5e( us go- 8e w&s(e (i)e "&% ying here-

Puck b%inke"- “8h&(, /us( %ike (h&(? You’re no( going (o (e% (he o%" chicken *%ucker you’re %e&'ing? “1he &%re&"y knows, #ri)&%kin s&i", *icking his w&y &cross (he y&r"- “An" inci"en(&% y, ?(he o%" chicken *%ucker%" ce c&n he&r e'ery wor" you s&y, so ! sugges( we hurry- A$(er she is "one wi(h (he $ow%, she in(en"s (o co)e &$(er you &s we% - He re&che" (he $ence &n" %e&*e" u* on i(, so)ehow b&%&ncing hi)se%$ on & crooke" sku% , *eering b&ck wi(h g%owing ye% ow eyes- “You "i" no( (hink she wou%" %e( you go so e&si%y, "i" you? he &ske"“8e h&'e un(i% nigh($&% (o be c%e&r o$ (he )&rsh, be$ore she co)es ri"ing &$(er us wi(h &% o$ he% c%ose behin" her- 1o %e( us *ick u* (he *&ce, h))? Puck sho( )e & si"ew&ys %ook, grinning $eeb%y- “Er- Ne'er & "u% )o)en(, huh, ice-boy? “!’) going (o ki% you one "&y, ! (o%" hi) &s we hurrie" &$(er #ri)&%kin, b&ck in(o (he sw&)*y )&rsh%&n"- !( w&s no( &n i"%e (hre&(Puck /us( %&ughe"- “Ye&h- You &n" e'eryone e%se, *rince- 6oin (he c%ub-


Our e.i( $ro) (he +one ,&rsh w&s $&r )ore h&rrowing (h&n our /ourney (o $in" (he wi(chTrue (o #ri)&%kin’s *re"ic(ion, &s (he sun s&nk bene&(h (he wes(ern hori2on, & )&" how% &rose, see)ing (o echo $ro) (he sw&)* i(se%$- A shu""er *&sse" (hrough (he %&n", &n" & su""en win" s(o%e (he %&(e &$(ernoon w&r)(h“Perh&*s we shou%" )o'e $&s(er, #ri)&%kin s&i", &n" boun"e" in(o (he un"ergrow(h, bu( ! s(o**e" &n" (urne" (o $&ce (he how%ing win", "r&wing )y swor"- The bree2e, s)e% ing o$ ro(, s(&gn&n( w&(er &n" b%oo", whi**e" &( )y $&ce, bu( ! he%" )y b%&"e %oose%y &( )y si"e &n" w&i(e"“Oy, *rince- Puck circ%e" b&ck, $rowning- “8h&( &re you "oing? !$ you "i"n’( know &%re&"y, (he o%" chicken *%ucker is on her w&y, &n" she’s gunning $or 8in(er &n" 1u))er s(ew“5e( her co)e- ! w&s Ash&% &yn’"&rk)yr T&% yn, son o$ ,&b, $or)er *rince o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, &n" ! w&s no( &$r&i" o$ & wi(ch on & broo)“! wou%" &"'ise &g&ins( (h&(, #ri)&%kin s&i", so)ewhere in (he bushes- “These &re her %&n"s, &$(er &% , &n" she wi% be & $or)i"&b%e o**onen( shou%" you insis( on $igh(ing her here- The wiser course o$ &c(ion is (o $ %ee (o (he e"ge o$ (he sw&)*- 1he wi% no( $o% ow us (here- Th&( is where ! wi% be, shou%" you "eci"e (o co)e (o your senses- ! wi% no( w&s(e (i)e w&(ching you $igh( & co)*%e(e%y use%ess b&((%e b&se" on ri"icu%ous *ri"e-

“Co)e on, Ash, Puck s&i", e"ging &w&y- “8e c&n *%&y wi(h e.(re)e%y *ower$u% wi(ches so)e o(her (i)e- ;urb&% )igh( "is&**e&r, &n" ! "o no( w&n( (o (ro)* &% o'er (he Ne'erne'er %ooking $or hi) &g&in! g%&re" &( Puck, who sho( )e &n &rrog&n( grin &n" hurrie" &$(er (he c&(- 1he&(hing )y we&*on, ! s*rin(e" &$(er (he), &n" soon (he +one ,&rsh w&s & b%ur o$ )&%&chi(e )oss &n" b%e&che" bone- A c&ck%ing scre&) r&ng ou( so)ewhere behin" us, &n" ! %e&ne" $orw&r", &""ing s*ee" &n" cursing &% 1u))er $ey un"er )y bre&(h8e r&n $or &n hour or )ore, (he c&ck%e o$ our *ursuer ne'er see)ing (o g&in, bu( ne'er $&% ing behin"- Then (he groun" beg&n (o $ir) un"er )y $ee(, (he (rees s%ow%y g&ining bre&"(h &n" heigh(- The &ir ch&nge" &s we% , %osing (he &cri" o"or o$ (he bog &n" (urning (o so)e(hing swee(er, (hough )i.e" wi(h (he $&in(es( hin( o$ "ec&y! c&ugh( sigh( o$ & gr&y s(i% ness in one o$ (he (rees &n" ski""e" (o & h&%(, so su""en%y (h&( Puck s%&))e" in(o )e- ! (urne" wi(h (he i)*&c( &n" g&'e & %i((%e *ush- “Oy! Puck ye%*e" &s he c&reene" o$$ &n" %&n"e" in &n ungr&ce$u% s*r&w%- ! s)irke" &n" s(e**e" &roun" hi), "o"ging e&si%y &s he (rie" (o (ri* )e“Now is no( (he (i)e $or *%&ying, #ri)&%kin s&i" $ro) his *erch, w&(ching us "is"&in$u% y- “The wi(ch wi% no( $o% ow us here- Now is (he (i)e $or res(ing- Turning his b&ck on us, he %e&*e" higher in(o (he br&nches &n" "is&**e&re" $ro) sigh(1e((%ing &g&ins( & (runk, ! *u% e" )y swor" &n" %&i" i( &cross )y knees, %e&ning b&ck wi(h & sigh- 1(e* one, co)*%e(e- 8e’" $oun" #ri)&%kin, & (&sk h&r"er (h&n !’" (hough( i( cou%" be- The ne.( (&sk wou%" be (o $in" (his seer, &n" (hen> ! sighe"- Then e'ery(hing bec&)e $u22y- There w&s no c%e&r *&(h &$(er $in"ing (he seer- ! "i"ng (h@( know wh&( wou%" be re9uire" o$ )e, wh&( ! wou%" h&'e (o "o (o beco)e )or(&%- Perh&*s i( wou%" be *&in$u%- Perh&*s ! wou%" h&'e (o o$$er so)e(hing, s&cri$ice so)e(hing, (hough ! "i"n’( know wh&( ! cou%" o$$er &ny)ore, beyon" )y own )y eyes, ! shu( (hose (hough(s &w&y- !( "i"n’( )&((er- ! wou%" "o wh&(e'er i( (ook,e)ory (rick%e" in, seeking (o s%i* bene&(h )y "e$enses, (he icy w&% ! showe" (he wor%"! h&" once (hough( )y &r)or in'incib%e, (h&( no(hing cou%" (ouch )e>un(i% ,egh&n Ch&se h&" en(ere" )y %i$e &n" (urne" i( u*si"e "own- Reck%ess, %oy&%, *ossessing (he unyie%"ing s(ubbornness o$ & gr&ni(e c%i$$, she’" s)&she" (hrough &% (he b&rriers !’" erec(e" (o kee* her ou(, re$using (o gi'e u* on )e, un(i% ! $in&% y h&" (o &")i( "e$e&(- !( w&s o$$ici&%! w&s in %o'e- 8i(h & hu)&n! s)i%e" bi((er%y &( (he (hough(- The o%" Ash, i$ $&ce" wi(h such & sugges(ion, wou%"’'e ei(her %&ughe" scorn$u% y or re)o'e" (he o$$en"er’s he&" $ro) his neck- !’" known %o'e be$ore, &n" i( h&" brough( )e so )uch *&in (h&( ! h&" re(re&(e" behin" &n i)*ene(r&b%e w&% o$ in"i$$erence, $ree2ing ou( e'ery(hing, e'eryone- 1o i( h&" been shocking &n" une.*ec(e" &n" & %i((%e (erri$ying (o "isco'er ! cou%" s(i% $ee% &ny(hing, &n" !’" been re%uc(&n( (o &cce*( i(- !$ ! "ro**e" )y gu&r", ! w&s 'u%ner&b%e, &n" such we&kness w&s "e&"%y in (he 7nsee%ie Cour(- +u( )ore i)*or(&n(, ! h&"n’( w&n(e" (o go (hrough (he s&)e hur( & secon" (i)e, %owering )y "e$enses on%y (o h&'e )y he&r( (orn &w&y once )ore-

3ee* "own, !’" known (he o""s were s(&cke" &g&ins( us- ! knew & 8in(er *rince &n" (he h&%$-hu)&n "&ugh(er o$ (he 1u))er :ing "i"n’( h&'e )uch o$ & ch&nce (o be (oge(her in (he en"- +u( ! h&" been wi% ing (o (ry- !’" gi'en i( )y &% , &n" ! "i"n’( regre( &ny o$ i(, e'en when ,egh&n h&" se'ere" our bon" &n" e.i%e" )e $ro) (he !ron Re&%)!’" e.*ec(e" (o "ie (h&( "&y- ! h&" been re&"y- +eing or"ere" by )y True N&)e (o w&%k &w&y, %e&'ing ,egh&n (o "ie &%one in (he !ron :ing"o), h&" ne&r%y sh&((ere" )e & secon" (i)e- !$ i( h&"n’( been $or )y o&(h (o be wi(h her &g&in, ! )igh(’'e "one so)e(hing suici"&%, %ike ch&% enge Oberon (o b&((%e be$ore (he en(ire 1u))er Cour(- +u( now (h&( !’'e )&"e )y *ro)ise, (here is no (urning b&ck- Ab&n"oning )y 'ow wi% unr&'e% )e, bi( by bi(, un(i% (here is no(hing %e$(- E'en i$ ! w&sn’( "e(er)ine" (o $in" & w&y (o sur'i'e in (he !ron Re&%), !’" h&'e no choice bu( (o con(inue! wi% be wi(h her &g&in, or ! wi% "ie- There &ren’( &ny o(her o*(ions“Hey, ice-boy, you ok&y? You’'e go( your broo"ing $&ce on &g&in“!’) $ine“You’re so $u% o$ cr&*- Puck %ounge" in (he cr&"%e o$ & (ree, h&n"s behin" his he&", one $oo( "&ng%ing in (he &ir- “5igh(en u* &%re&"y- 8e $in&% y $oun" (he c&(0which we shou%" ge( & $re&king )e"&% $or, (he se&rch $or (he #o%"en ;%eece w&sn’( (his h&r"0&n" you %ook %ike you’re going (o eng&ge ,&b in sing%e co)b&( $irs( (hing in (he )orning“!’) (hinking- You shou%" (ry i( so)e(i)e“Ooh, wi((y- Puck snor(e", *u% e" &n &**%e ou( o$ his *ocke(, &n" bi( in(o i(- “1ui( yourse%$, ice-boy- +u( you re&% y shou%" (ry (o s)i%e so)e(i)es, or your $&ce wi% $ree2e %ike (h&( $ore'er- Or so !’'e been (o%"- He grinne" &n" crunche" his &**%e- “1o, whose (urn is i( $or $irs( w&(ch, yours or )ine? “Yours“Re&% y? ! (hough( i( w&s your (urn- 3i"n’( ! (&ke $irs( w&(ch &( (he e"ge o$ (he +one ,&rsh? “Yes- ! g%&re" &( hi)- “An" i( w&s in(erru*(e" when you $o% owe" (h&( ny)*h &w&y $ro) (he c&)*, &n" (h&( gob%in (rie" (o s(e&% )y swor"“Oh, ye&h- Puck snickere", (hough ! "i"n’( (hink i( w&s 'ery &)using- This swor" w&s )&"e $or )e by (he !ce Archons o$ 3r&gons’ Pe&kA )y b%oo", g%&)our &n" & (iny *iece o$ )y essence h&" gone in(o i(s cre&(ion, &n" no one (ouches i( bu( )e“!n )y "e$ense, Puck s&i", s(i% grinning $&in(%y, “she "i" (ry (o rob )e &s we% - !’'e ne'er he&r" o$ & ny)*h being in %e&gue wi(h & gob%in- Too b&" $or (he) (h&( you’re & %igh( s%ee*er, huh, ice-boy? ! ro% e" )y eyes, (une" ou( his incess&n( ch&((ering, &n" %e( )yse%$ "ri$(! &%)os( ne'er "re&)- 3re&)s &re $or )or(&%s, hu)&ns whose e)o(ions &re so s(rong, so consu)ing, (hey s*i% o'er in(o (heir subconscious )in"s- The $ey "o no( usu&% y "re&)A our s%ee* is un(roub%e" by (hough(s o$ (he *&s( or $u(ure, or &ny(hing e.ce*( (he now8hi%e hu)&ns c&n be (or)en(e" by $ee%ings o$ gui%(, %onging, worry &n" regre(, )os( $ey "o no( e.*erience (hese (hings- 8e &re, in )&ny w&ys, e)*(ier (h&n )or(&%s, %&cking (he "ee*er e)o(ions (h&( )&ke (he) so>hu)&n- Perh&*s (h&( is why (hey &re so $&scin&(ing

(o us!n (he *&s(, (he on%y (i)e ! h&" "re&)e" w&s righ( &$(er Arie% &’s "e&(h, horri$ic, gu(wrenching nigh()&res &bou( (h&( "&y ! %e( her "ie, (he "&y ! cou%"n’( s&'e her- !( w&s &%w&ys (he s&)eB !, Puck &n" Arie% & ch&sing (he go%"en $o., (he sh&"ows c%osing &roun" us, (he )ons(rous wy'ern re&ring u* ou( o$ nowhere- E&ch (i)e, ! knew Arie% & wou%" be hi(- E&ch (i)e, ! (rie" (o ge( (o her be$ore (he wy'ern’s "e&"%y s(inger $oun" i(s )&rk- ! $&i%e" e'ery sing%e (i)e, &n" she wou%" %ook &( )e wi(h (hose c%e&r b%ue eyes &n" whis*er )y n&)e, righ( be$ore she wen( %i)* in )y &r)s &n" ! /erke" )yse%$ &w&ke! %e&rne" (o $ree2e ou( )y e)o(ions (hen, (o "es(roy e'ery(hing (h&( )&"e )e we&k, (o beco)e &s co%" insi"e &s ! w&s ou(si"e- The nigh()&res s(o**e", &n" ! ne'er "re&)e" &g&in7n(i% now! knew ! s(oo" &( (he cen(er o$ Tir N& Nog, (he se&( o$ (he 7nsee%ie 4ueen, )y o%" ho)eThese were )y %&n"s, once- ! recogni2e" "is(inc( %&n")&rks, &s $&)i%i&r (o )e &s )y own $&ce, &n" ye( &% w&s no( we% - The /&gge" )oun(&ins, rising u* un(i% (hey '&nishe" in(o (he c%ou"s, were (he s&)e- The snow &n" ice (h&( co'ere" e'ery s9u&re inch o$ (he %&n" &n" ne'er re&% y )e%(e", (h&( w&s (he s&)eE'ery(hing e%se w&s "es(roye"- The gre&( swee*ing $ores(s o$ Tir N& Nog were gone, now b&rren, w&s(e" $ie%"s- A $ew (rees s(oo" here &n" (here, bu( (hey were corru*(, (wis(e" 'ersions o$ (he)se%'es, )e(&% ic &n" g%e&)ing- +&rbe"-wire $ences s%&she" (he %&n"sc&*e, &n" hu%ks o$ rus(e" )e(&% 'ehic%es %&y h&%$-burie" in (he snow- 8here &n icy ci(y once s(oo", i(s *ris(ine crys(&% (owers g%i((ering in (he sun, now b%&ck s)okes(&cks *u)*e" bi% owing "&rkness in(o (he o'erc&s( sky- 1kyscr&*ers o$ (wis(e" )e(&% (owere" o'er e'ery(hingA g%i((ering, ske%e(&% si%houe((es (h&( '&nishe" in(o (he c%ou"s;&eries ro&)e" &cross (he "&rkene" %&n"sc&*e, sw&r)s o$ (he), bu( (hey were no( )y 7nsee%ie bre(hren- They were o$ (he *oisone" re&%), (he !ron $eyA gre)%ins &n" bugs, wire)en &n" !ron knigh(s, (he $&eries o$ )&nkin"’s (echno%ogy- ! g&2e" &roun" &( )y ho)e%&n" &n" shu""ere"- No nor)&% $ey cou%" %i'e here- 8e wou%" &% "ie, (he 'ery &ir we bre&(he" burning us $ro) (he insi"e ou(, $ro) (he !ron corru*(ion (h&( hung (hick on (he &ir %ike & $og- ! cou%" $ee% i( se&ring )y (hro&(, s*re&"ing %ike $ire (o )y %ungs- Coughing, ! *u( )y s%ee'e (o )y nose &n" )ou(h &n" s(&ggere" &w&y, bu( where cou%" ! go i$ &% o$ Tir N& Nog w&s %ike (his? “3o you see? whis*ere" & 'oice behin" )e, &n" ! whir%e" &roun"- No one s(oo" (here, bu( $ro) (he corner o$ )y eye ! c&ugh( & shi))er, & *resence, (hough i( s%i" &w&y whene'er ! (rie" (o $ocus on i(- “5ook &roun" you- This is wh&( wou%" h&'e h&**ene" h&" ,egh&n no( beco)e (he !ron 4ueen- E'ery(hing, e'eryone you knew, "es(roye"- The !ron $ey wou%" h&'e corru*(e" (he en(ire Ne'erne'er, were i( no( $or ,egh&n Ch&se- An" she cou%" no( h&'e succee"e" h&" you no( been (here“8ho &re you? ! se&rche" $or (he owner o$ (he 'oice, bu( (he *resence s%i**e" &w&y, kee*ing (o (he 'ery e"ge o$ )y 'ision- “8hy &re you showing )e (his? This w&s no(hing new- ! w&s $u% y &w&re o$ wh&( wou%"’'e h&**ene" h&" (he !ron $ey been 'ic(orious- Though, e'en in )y wors( i)&ginings, ! h&" no( *ic(ure" 9ui(e (his )uch "es(ruc(ion-

“+ec&use, you nee" (o see, re&%%y see, (he secon" ou(co)e $or yourse%$- ! $e%( (he *resence )o'e c%oser, (hough i( s(i% ke*( in$uri&(ing%y ou( o$ sigh(“An" your /u"g)en( w&s i)*&ire", Ash o$ (he 8in(er Cour(- You %o'e" (he gir%- You wou%" h&'e "one &ny(hing $or her, reg&r"%ess o$ (he circu)s(&nces- !( s%i" &w&y, behin" )e, (hough !’" gi'en u* (rying (o se&rch $or i(- “! w&n( you (o %ook &roun" c&re$u% y, son o$ ,&b, &n" un"ers(&n" (he signi$ic&nce o$ your "ecision- H&" ,egh&n Ch&se no( sur'i'e" (o beco)e (he !ron 4ueen, (his wou%" be your wor%" (o"&yThe burning insi"e w&s growing unbe&r&b%e- E&ch bre&(h s(&bbe" %ike & kni$e, &n" )y skin w&s s(&r(ing (o b%is(er &s we% - !( re)in"e" )e o$ (he (i)e !’" been c&*(ure" by Cirus, one o$ (he !ron :ing’s %ieu(en&n(s, &n" h&" & sen(ien( )e(&% bug i)*%&n(e" in )e- The bug h&" (&ken o'er )y bo"y, (urning )e in(o Cirus’s s%&'e, )&king )e $igh( $or her- An" (hough !’" been $u% y &w&re o$ e'ery(hing ! "i", ! w&s *ower%ess (o s(o* i(- ! h&" $e%( (he )e(&% in'&"er, %ike & ho( co&% in )y )in", burning &n" se&ring, )&king )e ne&r%y b%in" wi(h *&in, (hough ! cou%"n’( show i(- This w&s worse! s&nk (o )y knees, $igh(ing (o s(&y u*righ(, &s )y skin b%&ckene" &n" *ee%e" $ro) )y bones- The *&in w&s e.cruci&(ing, &n" ! won"ere", (hrough )y "e%iriu), why ! h&"n’( woken ye(- This w&s & "re&)A ! re&%i2e" (h&( )uch- 8hy cou%"n’( ! sh&ke )yse%$ $ree? ! knew wi(h & su""en, gri) c%&ri(y- +ec&use (he 'oice w&sn’( %e((ing )e- !( w&s kee*ing )e here, (ie" (o (his nigh()&re wor%", "es*i(e )y e$$or(s (o w&ke- ! won"ere" i$ i( w&s *ossib%e (o "ie in & "re&)“!’) sorry, (he 'oice )ur)ure", see)ing (o co)e $ro) $&r &w&y now- “! know i(’s *&in$u%, bu( ! w&n( you (o re)e)ber (his when we )ee( &g&in- ! w&n( you (o un"ers(&n" (he s&cri$ice (h&( h&" (o be )&"e- ! know you "on’( un"ers(&n" now, bu( you wi% - 1oonAn", /us( %ike (h&(, i( w&s gone, &n" (he (ies ho%"ing )e (o (he 'ision were re%e&se"- 8i(h & si%en( g&s*, ! wrenche" )yse%$ ou( o$ (he "re&), b&ck in(o (he w&king wor%"!( w&s 'ery "&rk now, (hough (he ske%e(&% (rees g%owe" wi(h & so$( whi(e %u)in&nce (h&( %e$( (he) h&2y &n" e(here&%- 1e'er&% y&r"s &w&y, Puck s(i% s&( in (he br&nches, h&n"s behin" his he&", chewing (he en"s o$ & gr&ss s(&%k- One $oo( swung i"%y in (he &ir &n" he w&sn’( %ooking &( )eA !’" %e&rne" %ong &go how (o )&sk )y *&in &n" re)&in si%en(, e'en in s%ee*- You "on’( show we&kness in (he 7nsee%ie Cour(- Puck "i"n’( know ! w&s &w&ke, bu( #ri)&%kin crouche" in (he br&nches o$ & ne&rby (ree, &n" his g%owing ye% ow eyes were $i.e" in )y "irec(ion“+&" "re&)s? The (one o$ his 'oice w&sn’( e.&c(%y & 9ues(ion- ! shrugge"- “A nigh()&re- No(hing ! c&n’( h&n"%e“! wou%" no( be so sure o$ (h&(, were ! you! g%&nce" u* sh&r*%y, n&rrowing )y eyes- “You know so)e(hing, ! &ccuse", &n" #ri)&%kin y&wne"- “8h&( &ren’( you (e% ing )e? “,ore (h&n you w&n( (o know, *rince- #ri)&%kin s&( u*, cur%ing his (&i% &roun" hi)se%$“An" ! &) no( & $oo%- You know be((er (hen (o &sk such 9ues(ions- The c&( sni$$e", reg&r"ing )e wi(h (h&( unb%inking go%" g&2e- “! (o%" you be$ore, (his is no si)*%e (&skYou wi% h&'e (o "isco'er (he &nswers $or yourse%$-

! &%re&"y knew (h&(, bu( (he w&y #ri)&%kin s&i" i( soun"e" o)inous, &n" i( irri(&(e" )e (h&( (he c&i( si(h knew )ore (hen he w&s %e((ing on- !gnoring (he c&(, ! (urne" &w&y, s(&ring in(o (he (rees- A s(r&y so" e)erge" $ro) (he "&rkness, & (iny green $&ery wi(h & c%u)* o$ wee"s growing $ro) i(s b&ck- !( b%inke" &( )e, bobbe" i(s )ushroo) h&(, &n" 9uick%y s%i**e" b&ck in(o (he un"ergrow(h“This seer, ! &ske" #ri)&%kin, c&re$u% y )&rking (he *%&ce (he so" h&" '&nishe" so &s (o no( (re&" on i( when we %e$(- “8here is i( %oc&(e"? +u( #ri)&%kin h&" "is&**e&re"Ti)e h&s no )e&ning in (he wy%"woo"- 3&y &n" nigh( "on’( re&% y here, /us( %igh( &n" "&rkness, &n" (hey c&n be /us( &s $ick%e &n" )oo"y &s e'ery(hing e%se- A “nigh( c&n *&ss in (he s*&ce o$ & b%ink, or go on $ore'er- 5igh( &n" "&rkness wi% ch&se e&ch o(her (hrough (he sky, *%&y hi"e-&n"-seek or (&g or c&(ch-)e-i$-you-c&n- 1o)e(i)es, one or (he o(her wi% beco)e o$$en"e" o'er &n i)&gine" s%igh( &n" re$use (o co)e ou( $or &n in"e$ini(e &)oun( o$ (i)e- Once, %igh( bec&)e so &ngry, & hun"re" ye&rs *&sse" in (he )or(&% re&%) be$ore i( "eigne" (o co)e ou( &g&in- An" (hough (he sun con(inue" (o rise &n" se( in (he hu)&n wor%", i( w&s & r&(her (urbu%en( *erio" $or (he wor%" o$ )en, &s &% (he cre&(ures who %urke" in "&rkness &n" sh&"ow go( (o ro&) $ree%y un"er (he %igh(%ess Ne'erne'er skies1o i( w&s s(i% $u% "&rk when Puck &n" ! s(&r(e" ou( &g&in, $o% owing (he c&i( si(h in(o (he en"%ess (&ng%e o$ (he wy%"woo"- #ri)&%kin s%i**e" (hrough (he (rees %ike )is( $ %owing o'er (he groun", gr&y &n" ne&r%y in'isib%e in (he co%or%ess %&n"sc&*e &roun" hi)- He )o'e" swi$(%y &n" si%en(%y, no( %ooking b&ck, &n" i( (ook &% )y hun(er’s ski% s (o kee* u* wi(h hi), (o no( %ose hi) in (he (&ng%e" un"ergrow(h- ! sus*ec(e" he w&s (es(ing us, or *erh&*s *%&ying so)e &nnoying $e%ine g&)e, sub(%y (rying (o %ose us wi(hou( co)*%e(e%y going in'isib%e- +u(, wi(h Puck hurrying &$(er )e, ! ke*( *&ce wi(h (he e%usi'e c&i( si(h &n" "i"n’( %ose hi) once &s we 'en(ure" "ee*er in(o (he wy%"woo"The %igh( h&" $in&% y "eci"e" (o )&ke &n &**e&r&nce when, wi(hou( w&rning, #ri)&%kin s(o**e"- 5e&*ing on(o &n o'erh&nging br&nch, he s(oo" )o(ion%ess $or & )o)en(, e&rs *ricke" (o (he win" &n" whiskers (re)b%ing- Aroun" us, huge gn&r%e" (rees b%ocke" ou( (he sky, gr&y (runks &n" br&nches see)ing (o he) us in, %ike &n enor)ous ne( or c&ge- ! re&%i2e" ! "i"n’( recogni2e (his *&r( o$ (he wy%"woo", (hough (h&( w&sn’( unusu&%- The wy%"woo" w&s huge, e(ern&% &n" cons(&n(%y ch&nging- There were )&ny *%&ces !’" ne'er seen, ne'er se( $oo( in, e'en in (he %ong ye&rs o$ hun(ing bene&(h i(s c&no*y“Hey, we’re s(o**ing, Puck s&i", co)ing u* behin" )e- Peering o'er )y shou%"er, he snor(e" un"er his bre&(h- “8h&(’s (he )&((er, c&(? 3i" you $in&% y ge( %os(? “+e 9uie(, #oo"$e% ow- #ri)&%kin $ %&((ene" his e&rs bu( "i"n’( %ook b&ck- “1o)e(hing is ou( (here, he s(&(e", (wi(ching his (&i%- “The (rees &re &ngry- 1o)e(hing "oes no( be%ongHis eyes n&rrowe", &n" he crouche" (o %e&* o$$ (he br&nchRigh( be$ore he '&nishe"! g%&nce" &( Puck &n" $rowne"- “! guess we’" be((er $in" ou( wh&(’s going on#oo"$e% ow snickere"- “8ou%"n’( be &ny $un i$ we "i"n’( run in(o so)e sor( o$ c&(&s(ro*he- Pu% ing his "&gger, he w&'e" )e on- “A$(er you, your highness-

8e *rocee"e" c&u(ious%y (hrough (he (rees, sc&nning (he un"ergrow(h $or &ny(hing sus*icious- A( )y si%en( ges(ure, Puck s(e**e" &w&y &n" s%i" in(o (he (rees (o (he righ( o$ )e- !$ so)e(hing w&s %ying in &)bush, i( wou%" be be((er i$ we weren’( (oge(her when i( *ounce"!( w&sn’( %ong be$ore we s(&r(e" seeing e'i"ence (h&( so)e(hing w&s "eci"e"%y ou( o$ *%&ce here- P%&n(s were brown &n" "ying, (rees h&" s*o(s where (hey h&" been burne", &n" (he &ir beg&n (o s)e% o$ rus( &n" co**er, (ick%ing )y (hro&( &n" )&king )e w&n( (o g&g- ! w&s su""en%y re)in"e" o$ )y "re&), (he nigh()&re wor%" o$ (he !ron $ey, &n" gri**e" )y swor" hi%( e'en (igh(er“You (hink (here’s &n !ron $&ery here? Puck )u((ere", *oking & burne", "e&" %e&$ wi(h (he *oin( o$ his kni$e- !( "isin(egr&(e" &( his (ouch“!$ (here is, ! )u((ere", “i( won’( be here )uch %ongerPuck sho( )e & g%&nce, %ooking $&in(%y unsure- “! "on’( know, ice-boy- 8e’re su**ose" (o be &( *e&ce now- 8h&( wou%" ,egh&n s&y i$ we ki% e" one o$ her sub/ec(s? “,egh&n is & 9ueen- ! s(e**e" bene&(h & ro((ing br&nch, *ushing i( &w&y wi(h )y swor"“1he un"ers(&n"s (he ru%es, /us( %ike e'eryone e%se- +y %&w, no !ron $ey c&n se( $oo( in (he wy%"woo" wi(hou( *er)ission $ro) 1u))er or 8in(er- !( wou%" be & bre&ch o$ (he (re&(y i$ (he cour(s $oun" ou(, &n" &( wors( i( wou%" be seen &s &n &c( o$ w&r- ! r&ise" )y swor" &n" h&cke" (hrough & c%us(er o$ ye% owe", "ying 'ines (h&( s)e% e" o$ ro(- “!$ (here is &n !ron $&ery here, be((er we $in" i( (h&n scou(s o$ 1u))er or 8in(er“Ye&h? An" wh&( h&**ens (hen? 8e *o%i(e%y &sk i( (o go ho)e? 8h&( i$ i( "oesn’( %is(en (o us? ! g&'e hi) & b%&nk s(&reHe wince"- “Righ(- He sighe"- “;orgo( who ! w&s (&%king (o- 8e% (hen, %e&" on, iceboy8e *ushe" "ee*er in(o (he $ores(, $o% owing (he (r&i% o$ "ying *%&n(s, un(i% (he (rees (hinne" &n" (he groun" &bru*(%y "ro**e" &w&y in(o & rocky gorgeThe (rees in (his &re& were b%&ckene" &n" "e&", &n" (he &ir s)e% e" *oisonous &n" $ou%A$(er & )o)en(, ! re&%i2e" why1i((ing &g&ins( & (ree, his &r)or g%in(ing in (he sun, w&s &n !ron knigh(! *&use", )y $ingers (igh(ening &roun" (he hi%( o$ )y swor"- ! h&" (o re)in" )yse%$ (h&( (he knigh(s were no( our ene)ies &ny)ore, (h&( (hey ser'e" (he !ron 4ueen &n" $o% owe" (he s&)e *e&ce (re&(y &s (he res( o$ (he cour(s- +esi"es, (his one w&s c%e&r%y no (hre&( (o us- His bre&s(*%&(e h&" been s(&'e" in, &n" "&rk, oi%y b%oo" *oo%e" bene&(h hi)- His chin res(e" %i)*%y on his ches(, bu( &s we go( c%oser, he o*ene" his eyes &n" %ooke" u*+%oo" (rick%e" $ro) one corner o$ his )ou(h“Prince>Ash? He b%inke" se'er&% (i)es, &s i$ "oub(ing his own eyes- “8h&(>wh&( &re you "oing here? “! cou%" &sk you (he s&)e- ! "i"n’( &**ro&ch (he $&% en w&rrior, s(&n"ing se'er&% $ee( &w&y wi(h )y swor" &( )y si"e- “!(’s $orbi""en $or your kin" (o be here- 8hy &ren’( you in (he !ron Re&%) *ro(ec(ing (he 9ueen?

“The 9ueen- The knigh(’s eyes wi"ene", &n" he he%" & h&n" ou(- “You>you h&'e (o w&rn (he 9ueen0 ! (ook (wo %ong s(e*s $orw&r" &n" $&ce" (he knigh(, %oo)ing o'er hi)- “8h&(’s h&**ene" (o ,egh&n? ! "e)&n"e"- “8&rn her o$ wh&(? “There w&s>&n &((e)*( on her %i$e, (he knigh( whis*ere", &n" )y he&r( wen( co%" in $e&r &n" r&ge- “Ass&ssins>snuck in(o (he c&s(%e>(rie" (o ge( (o (he 9ueen- 8e )&n&ge" (o "ri'e (he) o$$ &n" $o% owe" (he) here, bu( (here were )ore (h&n>we $irs( (hough(:i% e" (he res( o$ )y s9u&"> He *&use" $or bre&(h, g&s*ing- !( w&s c%e&r he wou%"n’( %&s( )uch %onger, &n" ! kne%( (o he&r hi) be((er, ignoring (he n&use& (h&( c&)e $ro) being (his c%ose (o &n !ron $&ery- “You h&'e (o>w&rn her> he *%e&"e" &g&in“8here &re (hey now? ! &ske" in & %ow 'oiceThe knigh( )&"e & ges(ure o'er (he rise, b&ck in(o (he $ores(- “Their c&)*>on (he e"ge o$ & %&ke, he whis*ere"- “Ne&r & (ower> “! know (h&( s*o(, Puck s&i", s(&n"ing se'er&% $ee( b&ck $ro) (he !ron knigh(- “A wo)&n wi(h cr&2y %ong h&ir use" (o %i'e on (he (o* $ %oor, bu( i(’s e)*(y now“P%e&se> The knigh( r&ise" "ying eyes (o )e, $igh(ing (o ge( his %&s( wor"s ou(- “#o (o our 9ueen- Te% her>we> $&i%e">- Then his eyes ro% e" u* in his sku% , &n" he s%u)*e" $orw&r"! s(oo", (&king & s(e* b&ck $ro) (he "e&" !ron knigh(- Puck she&(he" his "&gger &s he s(e**e" u* besi"e )e, gi'ing (he !ron $&ery & "ubious %ook“8h&( now, *rince? 1hou%" we he&" (o (he !ron Cour(? “! c&n’(- ;rus(r&(ion b&((%e" co%" r&ge, &n" ! gri**e" )y swor" h&r" enough (o $ee% (he e"ges bi(e in(o )y *&%)- “!’) $orbi""en (o se( $oo( in (he !ron Re&%)- Th&(’s why we’re here, re)e)ber? Or "i" you $orge(? “3on’( $re&k ou(, ice-boy- Puck crosse" his &r)s wi(h & s)irk- “A% is no( %os(- ! c&n (urn in(o & r&'en &n" $ %y b&ck (o w&rn0 “3o no( be $oo%ish, #oo"$e% ow, #ri)&%kin in(erru*(e", co)ing ou( o$ nowhere, ho**ing on(o & s(one- “You h&'e no &)u%e( &n" no *ro(ec(ion $ro) (he corru*(ion o$ (he re&%)You wou%" *erish %ong be$ore you re&che" (he !ron 4ueenPuck snor(e"- “#i'e )e so)e cre"i(, ;urb&% - !(’s )e- 3i" you $orge( who you were (&%king (o? “!$ on%y ! cou%"“Enough! ! s(&re" co%"%y &( bo(h o$ (he)- #ri)&%kin y&wne", bu( &( %e&s( Puck %ooke" $&in(%y gui%(y- ;rus(r&(ion &n" &nger boi%e"A ! h&(e" (h&( ! cou%"n’( be wi(h ,egh&n, (h&( ! w&s $orce" (o kee* )y "is(&nce- +u( ! wou%" no( si( b&ck &n" "o no(hing- “,egh&n is s(i% in "&nger, ! con(inue", g&2ing u* (he hi% - “An" (he &ss&ssins &re c%ose- !$ ! c&n’( go b&ck (o w&rn her, (hen !’% (&ke c&re o$ (he (hre&( righ( herePuck b%inke", bu( he "i"n’( see) (errib%y sur*rise"- “Ye&h, ! (hough( you )igh( s&y (h&(He sighe"- “An" ! c&n’( %e( you h&'e &% (he $un, o$ course+u(, uh, you "o know (hey (ook ou( & who%e s9u&" o$ !ron knigh(s, righ(, ice-boy? He g%&nce" &( (he "e&" $&ery &n" wrink%e" his nose- “!’) no( s&ying we shou%"n’( "o i(, o$

course, bu( wh&( i$ we’re ch&rging in(o &n &r)y? ! g&'e hi) & bri((%e s)i%e- “Then (here wi% be & %o( o$ $&% en so%"iers be$ore (he "&y is "one, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, &n" w&%ke" ou( o$ (he gorgeOn (he b&nks o$ & %&ke, (he s%i), crooke" (ower wi(h i(s )ossy g&rgoy%es &n" $&"e" b%ue roo$ s(oo" (&% &n" *rou", e&si%y 'isib%e (hrough (he (rees- A( (he b&se, she%(ere" &)ong broken rocks &n" cru)b%ing s(ones, se'er&% si"he knigh(s )i% e" &roun" & s)o%"ering c&)*$ire, un&w&re o$ Puck &n" )e, crouche" in (he sh&"ows &( (he e"ge o$ (he (rees- The knigh(s wore sui(s o$ $&)i%i&r b%&ck &r)or, %ong s*ines bris(%ing $ro) (he shou%"ers %ike gi&n( (horns- Though once sh&r* &n" *rou", (he $&ces bene&(h (he he%)e(s were now r&'&ge" &s (hough "ise&se"A ch&rre", )e%(e" $ %esh, o*en sores &n" n&ke" bone g%e&)e" in (he $ %ickering c&)*$ire- 1o)e o$ (heir noses h&" $&% en o$$, o(hers h&" on%y one goo" eye- The bree2e shi$(e", &n" (he s(ench o$ burne", ro((ing $ %esh &ss&u%(e" our senses, w&shing o'er us- Puck s(i$ %e" & cough“Thorngu&r"s, he )u((ere", *u((ing & h&n" (o his nose- “8h&( (he heck &re (hey "oing here? ! (hough( (hey were &% ki% e" in (he %&s( w&r“A**&ren(%y, we )isse" & $ew- ! g&2e" o'er (he c&)* "is*&ssion&(e%y- The Thorngu&r"s once be%onge" (o )y bro(her Row&n, his e%i(e *erson&% gu&r"- 8hen Row&n /oine" (he !ron $ey, (he Thorngu&r"s $o% owe" hi), be%ie'ing his c%&i)s (h&( (hey cou%" beco)e i))une (o iron- They (hough( (he !ron $ey wou%" "es(roy (he Ne'erne'er, &n" (he on%y w&y (o sur'i'e w&s (o beco)e %ike (he)- To *ro'e (heir %oy&%(y, (hey wore & ring o$ iron bene&(h (heir g&un(%e(s, en"uring (he &gony &n" (he "es(ruc(ion i( wre&ke" on (heir bo"ies, be%ie'ing i$ (hey cou%" sur'i'e (he *&in, (hey wou%" be rebornThe Thorngu&r"s h&" been )is%e", "ecei'e", bu( (hey h&" s(i% chosen (o si"e wi(h (he !ron $ey &n" Row&n in (he recen( w&r, which )&"e (he) (r&i(ors (o (he cour(s o$ ;&ery- These $ew h&" gone e'en $ur(her, (hre&(ening ,egh&n &n" &((e)*(ing (o en" her %i$e- Th&( )&"e (he) )y *erson&% ene)ies, & 'ery "&ngerous *osi(ion, in"ee"“1o, Puck con(inue", w&(ching (he c&)*, “!’) coun(ing &( %e&s( & h&%$ "o2en b&" boys ne&r (he $ire, )&ybe & $ew )ore gu&r"ing (he *eri)e(erHow "o you w&n( (o "o (his, *rince? ! cou%" %ure (he) &w&y, one &( & (i)e- Or we cou%" sne&k &roun" &n" go &( (he) $ro) "i$$eren( *osi(ions0 “There &re on%y se'en o$ (he)- 3r&wing )y swor", ! s(e**e" ou( o$ (he (rees &n" s(&r(e" (ow&r" (he c&)*- Puck sighe"“Or we cou%" "o (he o%" kick-in-(he-"oor &**ro&ch, he )u((ere", $&% ing in(o s(e* besi"e )e- “1i% y )e, (hinking (here w&s &no(her w&y1hou(s o$ sur*rise &n" &%&r) echoe" (hrough (he c&)*, bu( ! w&sn’( (rying (o be s(e&%(hyToge(her, Puck &n" ! w&%ke" "own (he b&nk (o (he (ower, wr&**e" in & gri), ki% ing si%ence- One sen(ry c&)e &( us, how%ing, bu( ! b%ocke" his swor", *%unge" )y b%&"e (hrough his &r)or &n" s(e**e" &roun" hi), %e&'ing (he gu&r" (o cru)*%e in (he "ir(+y (he (i)e we re&che" (he cen(er o$ c&)*, si. Thorngu&r"s were w&i(ing $or us, s(&n"ing in $or)&(ion wi(h (heir we&*ons "r&wn- Puck &n" ! &**ro&che" c&%)%y &n" s(o**e" &( (he e"ge o$ (he $ire%igh(- ;or & )o)en(, nobo"y )o'e"“Prince Ash- The %e&" Thorngu&r" s)i%e" $&in(%y0 "i$$icu%( (o see bec&use he h&" no

%i*s, /us( & (hin, r&gge" s%&sh where his )ou(h wou%" be0 &n" s(e**e" $orw&r"- His eyes, & g%&2e", g%&ssy b%ue, $ %icke" b&ck &n" $or(h be(ween us“An" Robin #oo"$e% ow- 8h&( & sur*rise (o $in" you here8e’re honore", &ren’( we, boys? Though his 'oice (urne" )ocking, i( w&s s(i% ho*e$u%, &s he ges(ure" (ow&r" (he $ores( behin" us- “News o$ our "ee"s )us( h&'e s*re&" $&r &n" wi"e, $or (he )igh(y 8in(er *rince &n" (he 1u))er Cour( /es(er (o (r&ck us "own“No( re&% y- Puck s)irke" &( hi)- “8e were /us( in (he &re&His s)i%e $&%(ere", bu( ! s(e**e" $orw&r" be$ore he cou%" s&y &ny(hing )ore- “You &((&cke" (he !ron :ing"o), ! s&i" &s his &((en(ion sn&**e" (o )e“You %e" &n &ss&u%( on (he !ron 4ueen, &((e)*(ing (o en" her %i$e- +e$ore ! ki% you, ! w&n( (o know why- The w&r is o'er- The !ron Re&%) is no %onger & (hre&(, &n" (he cour(s &re &( *e&ce- 8hy wou%" you /eo*&r"i2e (h&(? ;or & )o)en(, (he Thorngu&r" s(&re" &( )e, his eyes &n" $&ce co)*%e(e%y b%&nk- Then, (he (hin )ou(h (wis(e" in(o & sneer- “8hy no(? He shrugge", &n" )o(ione" (o (he surroun"ing c&)*- “5ook &( us, *rince, he s*&( bi((er%y- “8e h&'e no(hing (o %i'e $orRow&n is "e&"- The !ron :ing is "e&"- 8e c&n’( re(urn (o 8in(er, &n" we c&n’( sur'i'e in (he !ron Re&%)- 8here "o we go now? There’s nowhere (h&( wou%" (&ke us b&ckHis (&%e soun"e" eeri%y $&)i%i&r, )uch %ike )y ownA b&nishe" $ro) )y own cour(, ye( un&b%e (o se( $oo( in (he !ron Re&%)“The on%y (hing %e$( w&s re'enge, (he Thorngu&r" wen( on, ges(uring &ngri%y (o his own $&ce- “:i% e'ery !ron b&s(&r" (h&( "i" (his (o us, s(&r(ing wi(h (heir h&%$-bree" 9ueen- 8e g&'e i( our bes( sho(, e'en )&"e i( &s $&r &s (he (hrone roo), bu( (he %i((%e bi(ch w&s s(ronger (hen we re&%i2e"- 8e were "ri'en b&ck &( (he %&s( )inu(e- His chin rose in & "e$i&n( ges(ure- “Though we "i" )&n&ge (o ki% se'er&% o$ her knigh(s, e'en (he ones (h&( c&)e &$(er us“You )isse" one, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, &n" his eyebrows rose- “The one you %e$( &%i'e (o%" us where you were &n" wh&( you h&" "one- You shou%"’'e )&"e sure &% your o**onen(s were "e&" be$ore )o'ing on- A beginner’s )is(&ke, !’) &$r&i"“Oh? 8e% , !’% be sure (o re)e)ber (h&(, ne.( (i)e- He s)irke" &( )e (hen, (wis(e" &n" bi((er- “1o, (e% )e, Ash, he wen( on, “"i" you (wo h&'e & nice %i((%e he&r(-(o-he&r( be$ore he "ie"? 1ince you’re bo(h so s)i((en wi(h (he new !ron 4ueen, so 'ery e&ger (o be wi(h her- 3i" he (e% you (he secre( o$ beco)ing %ike (he)? ! reg&r"e" (he Thorngu&r" co%"%y- His sneer wi"ene"- “3on’( *re(en" you "on’( know wh&( !’) (&%king &bou(, Ash- 8e’'e &% he&r" (he s(ory, h&'en’( we, boys? The )igh(y 8in(er *rince, *ining $or his %os( 9ueen, *ro)ises he’% $in" & w&y (o be wi(h her in !ron Re&%)- How 'ery (ouching- He snor(e" &n" %e&ne" $orw&r" so (h&( (he $ire%igh( w&she" o'er his burne", ruine" $&ce- !n (he "i) %igh(, i( w&s %ike g&2ing &( & cor*se“T&ke & goo" %ook, your highness, he hisse", b&ring ro((en, ye% ow (ee(h- His s(ench w&she" o'er )e, &n" ! $ough( (he urge (o s(e* b&ck- “T&ke & goo" %ook &roun", &( &% o$ usThis is wh&( h&**ens (o our *eo*%e in (he !ron Re&%)- 8e (hough( we cou%" be %ike (he)8e (hough( we’" $oun" & w&y (o %i'e wi(h iron, (o no( $&"e &w&y when hu)&ns s(o**e" be%ie'ing- Now %ook &( us- His "e&", r&'&ge" $&ce (wis(e" in & sn&r%- “8e’re )ons(ers,

/us( %ike (he)- The !ron $ey &re & b%igh( &n" & *%&gue on (he Ne'erne'er, &n" we’re going (o ki% &s )&ny &s we c&n in (he (i)e we h&'e %e$(- !nc%u"ing (heir 9ueen, &n" &ny sy)*&(hi2ers (o (he !ron Re&%)- !$ we c&n s(&r( &no(her w&r wi(h (he !ron $ey, &n" (heir king"o) is "es(roye" $or goo", e'ery(hing we en"ure" wi% be wor(h i(! n&rrowe" )y g&2e, i)&gining &no(her w&r wi(h (he !ron $ey, &no(her se&son o$ ki% ing &n" b%oo" &n" "e&(h, wi(h ,egh&n c&ugh( in (he cen(er“You’re s&"%y )is(&ken i$ you (hink !’) going (o %e( (h&( h&**enThe Thorngu&r" shook his he&", )o'ing b&ck & *&ce &n" "r&wing his swor"- “You shou%"’'e /oine" us, Ash, he s&i" regre($u% y, &s (he o(hers shi$(e" &n" r&ise" (heir we&*ons- “You cou%"’'e $ough( your w&y (o (he (hrone roo) &n" *u( your b%&"e (hrough (he !ron 4ueen’s he&r(- 3es(roye" your we&kness, &s & 8in(er *rince shou%" h&'e "one+u( you h&" (o $&% in %o'e wi(h her, "i"n’( you? An" now you’re %os( (o (he !ron Re&%), s&)e &s us- He g&'e )e &n &**r&ising %ook- “8e’re no( re&% y (h&( "i$$eren(, &$(er &% Puck sighe" 'ery %ou"%y- “1o, &re you guys going (o (&%k us (o "e&(h? he won"ere", &n" (he Thorngu&r" g%&re" &( hi)- “Or &re we &c(u&% y going (o ge( on wi(h (his? The %e&"er $ %ourishe" his we&*on, (he b%&ck, serr&(e" b%&"e g%in(ing in (he $ %&)esAroun" hi), (he res( o$ (he Thorngu&r"s "i" (he s&)e- “E.*ec( no )ercy $ro) us, your highness, he w&rne" &s (he s9u&" beg&n (o c%ose in- “You’re no %onger our *rince, &n" we’re no %onger *&r( o$ (he 8in(er Cour(- E'ery(hing we be%ie'e" in is "e&"Puck grinne" 'icious%y &n" (urne" so (h&( we s(oo" b&ck(o-b&ck &g&ins( (he &**ro&ching gu&r"s- ! r&ise" )y swor" &n" "rew g%&)our $ro) (he &ir, %e((ing (he co%" *ower o$ 8in(er swir% wi(hin- An" ! s)i%e"“,ercy is $or (he we&k, ! (o%" (he Thorngu&r"s, seeing (he) $or wh&( (hey re&% y wereB &bo)in&(ions (o be cu( "own, "es(roye"- “5e( )e show you how )uch o$ &n 7nsee%ie ! s(i% &)The Thorngu&r"s &((&cke" wi(h how%ing b&((%e cries, co)ing $ro) &% "irec(ions- ! *&rrie" one s%&sh &n" swi*e" &( &no(her, %e&*ing b&ck (o &'oi" & (hir"- +ehin" )e, Puck whoo*e" in unres(r&ine" g%ee, (he c%&sh o$ his "&ggers ringing in )y e&rs &s he "&nce" &roun" his o**onen(s- They $o% owe", s&'&ge &n" unre%en(ing- Row&n’s e%i(e gu&r"s were "&ngerous &n" we% (r&ine", bu( ! h&" been *&r( o$ (he 8in(er Cour( $or & 'ery %ong (i)e, obser'ing (heir s(reng(hs &n" we&knesses, &n" knew (heir $&(&% $ %&wsThe Thorngu&r"s were $or)i"&b%e &s & uni(, using grou* (&c(ics (o (hre&(en &n" h&rry, )uch %ike & *&ck o$ wo%'es- +u( (h&( w&s (heir gre&(es( $&i%ing &s we% - 1ing%e (he) ou(, &n" (hey $e% &*&r(- 1urroun"e" by & (rio o$ Thorngu&r"s, ! %e&*e" b&ck &n" $ %ung & h&i% o$ s(inging ice sh&r"s in(o (heir )i"s(, c&(ching (wo gu&r"s in (he "e&"%y &rc- They $ %inche" $or & brie$ secon", &n" (he (hir" %e&*e" $orw&r", &%one, )ee(ing )y swor" &s i( cu( &cross his neck- The w&rrior $r&ye" &*&r(, b%&ck &r)or s*%i((ing o*en &s "&rk br&)b%es eru*(e" $ro) (he s*o( where he "ie"- As wi(h &% $ey, "e&(h re(urne" hi) (o (he Ne'erne'er, &n" he si)*%y ce&se" (o“3uck, ice-boy! Puck ye%*e" behin" )e, &n" ! "i", $ee%ing & Thorngu&r" b%&"e hiss o'erhe&"- ! (urne" &n" s(&bbe" (he w&rrior (hrough (he ches( &s Puck hur%e" & "&gger in(o &no(her rushing )e $ro) behin"- ,ore br&)b%es s*re&" &cross (he s(ones-

Now (here were on%y (hree Thorngu&r"s %e$(- Puck &n" ! s(i% s(oo" b&ck-(o-b&ck, gu&r"ing e&ch o(her’s $ %&nks, )o'ing in *er$ec( unison- “You know, Puck s&i", *&n(ing s%igh(%y, “(his re)in"s )e o$ (he (i)e we were un"ergroun" &n" s(u)b%e" in(o (h&( 3uerg&r ci(y- Re)e)ber (h&(, ice-boy? ! *&rrie" & b%ow (o )y ribs &n" re(urne" wi(h & swi*e (o )y o**onen(’s he&", $orcing hi) b&ck & s(e*- “1(o* (&%king &n" kee* $igh(ing, #oo"$e% ow“Ye&h, ! (hink you s&i" (h&( (o )e (hen, (oo! b%ocke" & s(&b, %unge" $orw&r" &n" ri**e" )y b%&"e &cross (he gu&r"’s (hro&(, /us( &s Puck "&nce" wi(hin re&ch o$ his o**onen( &n" /&bbe" his kni$e be(ween his ribs- +o(h w&rriors s*%i( &*&r(, (heir we&*ons c%&nging &g&ins( (he rocks &s (hey "ie"- As (hey $e% , (he %&s( Thorngu&r", (he %e&"er who’" (&un(e" )e be$ore (he b&((%e, (urne" (o $ %ee! r&ise" )y &r), g%&)our swir%ing &roun" )e, &n" $ %ung & (rio o$ ice "&ggers &( (he w&rrior’s re(re&(ing b&ck- They s(ruck wi(h )u$$%e" (hunks, &n" (he Thorngu&r" g&s*e", *i(ching $orw&r"- 1(&ggering (o his knees, he %ooke" u* &s ! s(e**e" &roun" (o $&ce hi), his g%&ssy b%ue eyes $i% e" wi(h *&in &n" h&(e“#uess ! w&s wrong, he *&n(e", his ruine" )ou(h (wis(e" in & %&s( "e$i&n( sneer- “You &re s(i% 7nsee%ie, (hrough &n" (hrough- He %&ughe", bu( i( c&)e ou( &s & choke" cough“8e% , wh&( &re you w&i(ing $or, your highness? #e( on wi(h i(“You know ! won’( s*&re you- ! %e( (he e)*(iness o$ (he 8in(er Cour( s*re&" (hrough )e, $ree2ing &ny e)o(ion, s(i$ %ing &ny (hough(s o$ kin"ness or )ercy- “You (rie" (o ki% ,egh&n, &n" i$ ! %e( you go, you wi% con(inue (o bring h&r) (o her re&%)- ! c&n’( &% ow (h&(- 7n%ess you swe&r (o )e, on (his s*o(, (h&( you wi% &b&n"on your 9ues( (o h&r) (he !ron 4ueen, her sub/ec(s &n" her king"o)- #i'e )e (h&( 'ow, &n" !’% %e( you %i'eThe Thorngu&r" g&2e" &( )e & )o)en(, (hen choke" &no(her %&ugh- “An" where wou%" ! go? He sneere", &s Puck w&%ke" u* behin" hi), w&(ching so%e)n%y- “8ho wou%" (&ke )e b&ck, %ooking %ike (his? ,&b? Oberon? Your %i((%e h&%$bree" 9ueen? He coughe" &n" s*&( on (he s(ones be(ween us, (he s*i((%e & "&rk re"- “No, your highness- !$ you %e( )e go, ! wi% $in" )y w&y b&ck (o (he !ron 4ueen, &n" ! wi% *u( & swor" in her he&r( &n" %&ugh &s (hey cu( )e "own $or i(- An" i$ ! so)ehow sur'i'e, ! wi% "es(roy e'ery !ron $&ery ! co)e &cross, (e&r (he) %i)b $ro) %i)b, un(i% (he %&n" is s(&ine" wi(h (heir (&in(e" b%oo", &n" ! won’( s(o* un(i% e'ery one o$ (he) %ies "e0 He go( no $ur(her, &s )y b%&"e s%&she" &cross his neck &n" se'ere" his he&" $ro) his bo"yPuck sighe" &s br&)b%es eru*(e" $ro) (he "e&" Thorngu&r", crooke" $ingers c%&wing &( (he sky- “Ye&h, (h&( wen( &bou( &s we% &s ! e.*ec(e"- He wi*e" his "&ggers on his *&n(s &n" %ooke" b&ck &( (he (ower, &( (he new br&)b%es growing &roun" (he b&se- “You (hink &ny )ore &re h&nging &roun"? “No- ! she&(he" )y swor" &n" (urne" $ro) )y $or)er 7nsee%ie bre(hren- “They knew (hey were "ying- They h&" no re&son (o hi"e“C&n’( re&son wi(h )&")en, ! guess- 8rink%ing his nose, Puck she&(he" his we&*ons, sh&king his he&"- “Nice (o know (hey were /us( &s "e%usion&% &s be$ore, /us( wi(h & "i$$eren( $ %&'or o$ cr&2y-

3e%usion&%? ! b%inke" &s (he %e&"er’s wor"s c&)e b&ck (o )e, )ocking &n" o)inousYou’re %os( (o (he !ron Re&%), s&)e &s us- 8e’re no( re&%%y (h&( "i$$eren(, &$(er &%%8ere (he Thorngu&r"s (h&( "e%usion&%? They h&" on%y w&n(e" wh&( ! "i"B & w&y (o o'erco)e (he e$$ec(s o$ iron- They’" b&rg&ine" (heir %i'es &w&y, en"ure" (or)en( no nor)&% $&ery cou%" wi(hs(&n", ho*ing (o con9uer our e(ern&% we&kness- Ho*ing (o %i'e in (he !ron Re&%)8&sn’( ! "oing (he s&)e now, wishing $or (he i)*ossib%e? “You’'e go( your broo"ing $&ce on &g&in, ice-boy- Puck s9uin(e" &( )e- “An" ! c&n see your br&in going & )i%e & )inu(e- 8h&( &re you (hinking o$? ! shook )y he&"- “No(hing i)*or(&n(- 1*inning on & hee%, ! (urne" &n" w&%ke" &w&y, b&ck (ow&r" (he e"ge o$ (he (rees- Puck s(&r(e" (o *ro(es(, bu( ! hurrie" on, unwi% ing (o (hink &bou( i( &ny %onger- “8e’'e w&s(e" enough (i)e here, &n" (his isn’( ge((ing us &ny c%oser (o (he seer- 5e(’s goHe /ogge" &$(er )e- ! ho*e" he wou%" be 9uie(, %e&'e )e in *e&ce, bu( o$ course ! h&" on%y & $ew )o)en(s o$ si%ence be$ore he o*ene" his )ou(h“Hey, you ne'er &nswere" )y 9ues(ion, *rince, he s&i", kicking & *ebb%e o'er (he s(ones, w&(ching i( bounce (ow&r" (he $ores(- “8h&( were we %ooking $or in (h&( un"ergroun" ci(y, &nyw&y? A neck%&ce? A )irror? “A "&gger, ! )u((ere"“Ah&! 1o you "o re)e)ber, &$(er &% ! ! g%&re" &( hi)- He grinne" cheeki%y- “6us( checking, ice-boy- 8ou%"n’( w&n( you (o $orge( &% (he goo" (i)es we h&"- Hey, wh&(e'er h&**ene" (o (h&( (hing, &nyw&y? ! see) (o rec&% i( w&s & re&% y nice *iece o$ workA nu)bness s*re&" (hrough )y ches(, &n" )y 'oice wen( 'ery, 'ery so$(- “! g&'e i( (o Arie% &“>oh, Puck )ur)ure"An" s&i" no(hing &$(er (h&(#ri)&%kin w&s w&i(ing $or us &(o* & broken %i)b &( (he e"ge o$ (he (ree %ine, w&shing his *&w wi(h e.&gger&(e" nonch&%&nce- “Th&( (ook %onger (hen ! e.*ec(e"- He y&wne" &s we c&)e u*- “! w&s won"ering i$ ! shou%" (&ke & n&*, w&i(ing $or you- #i'ing his *&w & $in&% %ick, he %ooke" "own &( us, n&rrowing his go%"en eyes- “Anyw&y, i$ you (wo &re 9ui(e $inishe", we c&n )o'e on“3i" you know &bou( (he Thorngu&r"s? ! &ske"- “An" (heir &((&ck on (he !ron :ing"o)? #ri)&%kin snor(e"- ;%icking his (&i%, (he c&( rose &n" s&un(ere" &%ong (he s*%in(ere" br&nch wi(h no e.*%&n&(ion- Ho**ing %igh(%y (o &n o'erhe&" %i)b, he '&nishe" in(o (he %e&'es wi(hou( %ooking b&ck, %e&'ing Puck &n" )e hurrying (o c&(ch u*-


The wy%"woo" s(re(che" on, "&rk, (&ng%e" &n" en"%ess- ! "i"n’( coun( (he (i)es (he %igh( rose &n" $e% , bec&use (he $&r(her we wen( in(o (he un(&)e" wi%"erness, (he wi%"er &n" )ore un*re"ic(&b%e i( bec&)e- #ri)&%kin (ook us (hrough & g%en where (he (rees s%ow%y $o% owe" us un(i% we %ooke" b&ck, $ree2ing (he) in *%&ce, on%y (o h&'e (he) cree* $orw&r" &g&in when our b&cks were (urne"- 8e hike" u* &n enor)ous, )oss-co'ere" hi% , on%y (o "isco'er (h&( (he “hi% w&s &c(u&% y (he bo"y o$ & s%ee*ing gi&n( &s i( r&ise" & )&ssi'e h&n" (o scr&(ch (he i(ch on i(s cheek- 8e crosse" & ro% ing, win"y *%&in where her"s o$ wi%" horses s(&re" &( us wi(h co%" in(e% igence, (heir $ur(i'e con'ers&(ions b%own &w&y in (he win"3uring (his (i)e, Puck &n" ! "i"n’( (&%k, or i$ we "i", i( w&s /us( use%ess b&n(er, (hre&(s, insu%(s &n" (he %ike- ;igh(ing wi(h Robin #oo"$e% ow, si"e by si"e &g&ins( (he Thorngu&r"s, h&" brough( u* )e)ories ! "i" no( wish (o "e&% wi(h now, ones (h&( were $ro2en "ee* insi"e, )e)ories ! cou%"n’( (h&w ou( $or $e&r o$ (he *&in- ! "i"n’( w&n( (o re)e)ber (he hun(s, (he ch&% enges, (he (i)es we go( ourse%'es neck-"ee* in (roub%e &n" h&" (o $igh( our w&y ou(- ! "i"n’( w&n( (o re)e)ber (he %&ugh(er, (he e&sy c&)&r&"erie, be(ween )yse%$ &n" )y oncec%oses( $rien"- +ec&use re)e)bering Puck &s so)e(hing )ore (h&n & ri'&% on%y re)in"e" )e o$ )y 'ow, (he one s*oken in & $ %&sh o$ "es*&ir &n" r&ge, (he one (h&( h&" (urne" us in(o bi((er ene)ies $or ye&rs (o co)eAn", o$ course, ! cou%"n’( (hink o$ Puck (h&( w&y wi(hou( re)e)bering>herArie% &- The on%y "&ugh(er o$ (he !ce +&ron o$ #%&ssb&rrow, Arie% & $irs( c&)e (o (he 7nsee%ie Cour( "uring win(er e9uino., when ,&b w&s hos(ing (h&( ye&r’s E%ysiu)- As (r&"i(ion "ic(&(e", (wice & )or(&% ye&r, (he cour(s o$ 1u))er &n" 8in(er wou%" )ee( (o "iscuss *o%i(ics, sign new (re&(ies, &n" b&sic&% y &gree (o *%&y nice $or &no(her se&son- Or &( %e&s( (o re$r&in $ro) "ec%&ring &% -ou( w&r on (he o(her cour(- !( bore" )e (o (e&rs, bu( &s & 8in(er *rince &n" (he son o$ 4ueen ,&b, )y *resence w&s re9uire", &n" ! h&" %e&rne" (o "&nce (he "&nce &n" be & goo" %i((%e cour( )onkey!( w&s no( ye( (wi%igh(, &n" &s such (he 1u))er Cour( h&" no( ye( &rri'e"- As ,&b "is&**ro'e" o$ )y %ocking )yse%$ in )y roo) un(i% E%ysiu) beg&n, ! w&s in & "&rk corner o$ (he cour(y&r", rere&"ing & book $ro) )y co% ec(ion o$ )or(&% &u(hors &n" *oe(s!$ &nyone &ske", ! w&s o'erseeing (he &rri'&% o$ (he %&s( o$ (he gues(s, bu( )os(%y ! w&s &'oi"ing Row&n &n" (he curren( $ %ock o$ nob%es who wou%" surroun" )e wi(h coy, $ %&((ering, r&2or-sh&r* s)i%es- Their 'oices wou%" be (he so$(es( *urr, (he swee(es( song, &s (hey o$$ere" )e $&'ors co'ere" in honey &n" nec(&r bu( wi(h & core o$ 'i%es( *oison- ! w&s & *rince, &$(er &% , (he younges( &n" )os( $&'ore" o$ ,&b, &( %e&s( &ccor"ing (o so)e- ! su**ose (he co))on be%ie$ w&s (h&( ! w&s )ore n&i'e, e&sier (o (r&*, *erh&*s- ! "i"n’( know (he "&nce &s we% &s Row&n or 1&ge, who were &( cour( $&r )ore $re9uen(%y- +u( ! w&s & (rue son o$ 8in(er, &n" knew (he (wis(e" s(e*s o$ cour( be((er (h&n )os(- An" (hose

who sough( (o en(r&* )e in & web o$ honey &n" $&'ors soon $oun" (he)se%'es (&ng%e" in (heir own "&rk *ro)ises! knew (he "&nce- ! /us( "i"n’( re'e% in i(8hich w&s why ! w&s %e&ning &g&ins( &n ice-co'ere" w&% wi(h ,us&shi’s The ;i'e Rings, on%y h&%$-&w&re o$ (he bus(%e o$ c&rri&ges *u% ing u* (o (he g&(es &n" (he 8in(er gen(ry s(e**ing ou( in(o (he snow- ,os( o$ (he) ! knew, or h&" seen be$ore- The 5&"y 1now$ire, "resse" in & gown o$ s*&rk%ing icic%es (h&( chi)e" )usic&% y &s she w&%ke"- The new "uke o$ ;ros($e% 0h&'ing "is*ose" o$ (he o%" "uke by ge((ing hi) e.i%e" (o (he )or(&% re&%)0g%i"e" (hrough (he snow (r&i%e" by his gob%in s%&'es- The +&roness o$ (he !ceboun" He&r( g&'e )e & chi% y no" &s she s(ro"e *&s(, her (wo snow %eo*&r"s hissing &n" sn&r%ing &( (he en"s o$ (heir si%'er ch&insAn" (hen, she w&%ke" in! "i"n’( know her, &n" (h&( in i(se%$ *i9ue" )y curiosi(y- None cou%" &rgue her be&u(yB %ong si%'er h&ir, *&%e skin, & wi% owy bo"y (h&( w&s "e%ic&(e &n" s(rong &( (he s&)e (i)e+u(, &% o$ our kin" &re, i$ no( 'ery &((r&c(i'e, &( %e&s( s(riking in so)e w&y- +eing surroun"e" by be&u(y (en"s (o "u% your &**reci&(ion o$ i(, es*eci&% y i$ (he be&u(y on%y hi"es (he crue%(y bene&(h- !( w&sn’( her %ooks (h&( c&ugh( )y eye (h&( "&y, bu( (he w&y she g&2e" &( (he win(er *&%&ce, &we wri((en *%&in%y on her %o'e%y $e&(ures- !( w&s &n e)o(ion (h&( "i"n’( be%ongA )os( wou%" see i( &s & we&kness, so)e(hing (o be e.*%oi(e"- The nob%es cou%" sense e)o(ion %ike & sh&rk s)e% e" b%oo"A (hey wou%" "e'our her be$ore (he "&y w&s ou(A *&r( o$ )e (o%" )e no( (o c&re, (h&( i( w&s e'eryone $or (he)se%'es in (he 8in(er Cour(, &n" (h&( w&s how i( &%w&ys h&" been- Th&( (his gir%, new &n" un(rie", wou%" (&ke (he &((en(ion o$$ )e $or once- 3es*i(e (h&( 'oice, ! $oun" )yse%$ in(rigue"1n&**ing shu( (he book, ! s(&r(e" (ow&r" her1he w&s (urning in s%ow circ%es when ! w&%ke" u*, &n" /u)*e" when we c&)e $&ce-(o$&ce- “Oh, *&r"on )e! Her 'oice w&s c%e&r &n" %igh(, %ike (iny be% s- “! "i"n’( see you s(&n"ing (here“Are you %os(? !( w&sn’( so )uch & 9ues(ion, r&(her ! w&s (es(ing her, *robing her "e$enses- A")i((ing you were %os( w&s & gr&'e )is(&ke in (he 8in(er Cour(A you ne'er w&n(e" (o be c&ugh( un&w&re by &nyone- !( &nnoye" )e & bi( (h&( (he $irs( (hing ! $e% b&ck on w&s checking $or we&kness, *oking &( chinks in her &r)or- +u( in (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, you cou%" ne'er be (oo c&re$u%1he b%inke" &( (he 9ues(ion &n" (ook & s(e* b&ck, see)ing (o see )e $or (he $irs( (i)eC%e&r, b%ue-green eyes rose (o )ee( )y g&2e, &n" ! )&"e (he )is(&ke o$ %ooking righ( &( herHer g&2e c&*(ure" )ine, "r&wing )e in, &n" ! w&s su""en%y "rowning- ;%ecks o$ si%'er "o((e" her irises %ike (iny s(&rs, &s i$ ! w&s s(&ring &( & who%e uni'erse in her eyes- +ri% i&n( e)o(ion g&2e" ou( &( )e, *ure &n" c%e&n &n" un(&in(e" by (he "&rkness o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(;or & )o)en(, we /us( s(&re" &( e&ch o(her, nei(her wi% ing (o %ook &w&y7n(i% ! re&%i2e" wh&( ! w&s "oing &n" (urne", *re(en"ing (o w&(ch &no(her c&rri&ge *u% u*

(o (he g&(es, $urious wi(h )yse%$ $or "ro**ing )y gu&r"- ;or & brie$ )o)en(, ! won"ere" i$ (h&( h&" been her *%oy &% &%ong0*re(en" (o be n&i'e &n" innocen(, &n" %ure unsus*ec(ing *rinces righ( in(o her c%u(ches- 7nor(ho"o., bu( e$$ec(i'e;or(un&(e%y, i( see)e" (he gir% w&s /us( &s sh&ken &s ! w&s- “No, !’) no( %os(, she s&i" & %i((%e bre&(h%ess%y- Ano(her )is(&ke, bu( ! w&sn’( kee*ing (r&ck &ny)ore- “!(’s /us(>! )e&n>!’'e ne'er been here, is &% - 1he c%e&re" her (hro&( &n" s(r&igh(ene", see)ing (o reg&in her co)*osure- “! &) Arie% & Tu%&ryn o$ #%&ssb&rrow, she &nnounce" reg&% y, “&n" ! &) here on beh&%$ o$ )y $&(her, (he 3uke o$ #%&ssb&rrow- He is in"is*ose" &( (he )o)en( &n" sen"s his &*o%ogies $or no( being &b%e (o &((en"!’" he&r" &bou( (h&(- A**&ren(%y, (he "uke h&" run in(o so)e (roub%e whi%e hun(ing ice wyr)s in (he )oun(&ins o$ his (erri(ory- The cour( h&" been &bu22 wi(h who wou%" co)e (o re*resen( hi), &s he w&s ru)ore" (o h&'e on%y one "&ugh(er, who ne'er %e$( (he es(&(e1o, (his w&s sheArie% & s)i%e" &g&in, ner'ous%y brushing her h&ir b&ck, &n" ins(&n(%y %os( her reg&% be&ring- “! s&i" (h&( correc(%y, "i"n’( !? she &ske" wi(hou( & (r&ce o$ gui%e- “Th&( w&s (he *ro*er gree(ing, w&sn’( i(? !’) so new &( (his- !’'e ne'er been (o cour( be$ore, &n" ! "on’( w&n( (o u*se( (he 9ueenRigh( (hen, ! "eci"e"- This gir% nee"e" &n escor(, so)eone (o show her (he w&ys o$ 8in(er, o(herwise (he nob%es were going (o chew her u* &n" s*i( her ou(- The (hough( o$ (his gir%, broken &n" bi((er, her eyes $ro2en in w&ry con(e)*(, $i% e" )e wi(h & s(r&nge *ro(ec(i'eness ! cou%"n’( e.*%&in- !$ &nyone w&n(e" (o (oy wi(h Arie% & Tu%&ryn, (hey wou%" h&'e (o go (hrough )e $irs(- An" ! w&s no wi"e-eye" newco)er when i( c&)e (o (he 7nsee%ie Cour(“Co)e on, (hen, ! s&i", o$$ering her )y &r), which see)e" (o sur*rise her, bu( she (ook i( none(he%ess- “!’% in(ro"uce youHer bri% i&n( s)i%e w&s &% (he (h&nks ! nee"e";ro) (h&( )o)en( on, ! con(inue" (o $in" e.cuses (o be &roun" (he 3uke o$ #%&ssb&rrow’s "&ugh(er- ! (ook secre( hun(ing (ri*s (o (he #%&ssb&rrow ,oun(&ins, en(icing her &w&y- ! )&"e sure ,&b re9ues(e" bo(h (he "uke &n" Arie% &’s *resence &( E%ysiu)- ! s(o%e e'ery s*&re )o)en( ! cou%" (o be wi(h her, un(i% (he "&y c&)e when ! $in&% y con'ince" her (o %e&'e (he "uke’s es(&(e co)*%e(e%y &n" %i'e &( (he *&%&ce- 3uke #%&ssb&rrow w&s %i'i", bu( ! w&s (he 8in(er *rince, &n" he e'en(u&% y buck%e" un"er (he (hre&( o$ b&nish)en( or "e&(hRu)ors $ %ew, o$ course- As *&r( o$ (he roy&% $&)i%y, )y %i$e w&s un"er cons(&n( scru(iny, e'en when (here w&s no(hing in(eres(ing &bou( i(- 8hen i( c&)e (o )y s*en"ing so )uch (i)e wi(h & young "uchess-(o-be>we% , you’" (hink ,&b &n" Oberon h&" "eci"e" (o )&rry, (here w&s so )uch s*ecu%&(ion- Prince Ash w&s obsesse", Prince Ash h&" $oun" & new *%&y(hing &n", wors( o$ &% , Prince Ash w&s in %o'e- ! "i"n’( c&re- 8hen ! w&s wi(h Arie% &, ! cou%" $orge( (he cour(, )y res*onsibi%i(ies, e'ery(hing- 8hen ! w&s wi(h her, ! "i"n’( h&'e (o worry &bou( kee*ing )y gu&r" u*, cons(&n(%y w&(ching )y b&ck or )y wor"s- Arie% & "i"n’( c&re &bou( (he g&)es o$ (he 8in(er Cour(, so)e(hing (h&( $&scin&(e" )e- 8&s ! in %o'e? ! "i"n’( know- 5o'e w&s such &n unknown conce*(, so)e(hing (h&( e'eryone c&u(ione" &g&ins(- 5o'e w&s $or )or(&%s &n" we&k 1u))er $ey, i( h&" no *%&ce

in (he %i$e o$ &n 7nsee%ie *rince- None o$ (his sw&ye" )e- A% ! knew w&s, when we were (oge(her, ! cou%" %e&'e behin" (he in(rigues &n" *i($&% s o$ cour( &n" /us( be!( w&s high su))er when (he %&s( *erson ! w&n(e" (o $in" ou( &bou( us "i" so &nyw&yArie% & &n" ! hun(e" o$(en- !( w&s & ch&nce (o ge( &w&y $ro) (he cour( &n" be &%one (oge(her, wi(hou( (he whis*ers &n" (he s(&res &n" (he sni"e, *i(ying %ooks- 1he w&s &n e.ce% en( hun(ress, &n" our ou(ings usu&% y (urne" in(o $rien"%y co)*e(i(ions, seeing whose &rrow cou%" "ro* our 9u&rry $irs(- ! %os( &s o$(en &s ! won, which $i% e" )e wi(h &n o"" sor( o$ *ri"e- ! knew )y ski% w&s consi"er&b%eA (h&( Arie% & cou%" )&(ch i( brough( so)e b&ck in(o (he hun( &n" $orce" )e (o concen(r&(e8e were in (he wy%"woo" (h&( "&y, res(ing &$(er & success$u% hun( &n" /us( en/oying e&ch o(her’s co)*&ny- 8e s(oo" on (he b&nks o$ & c%e&r green *on", )y &r)s &roun" her w&is( &n" her he&" %e&ning &g&ins( )y ches(, w&(ching (wo *iskies (e&se &n enor)ous c&r* by "&r(ing c%ose (o (he sur$&ce, (hen 2i**ing &w&y &s (he $ish %unge" $or (he)- !( w&s ge((ing %&(e, bu( we were %o&(h (o go b&ck (o cour(A 8in(er $ey (en"e" (o be res(%ess &n" irri(&b%e "uring (he su))er )on(hs, which %e" (o & gre&( &)oun( o$ s9u&bb%ing &n" b&ckbi(ingHere in (he wy%"woo", i( w&s s(i% &n" 9uie(, &n" on%y (he )os( "es*er&(e or s&'&ge o$ wi%" $ey wou%" consi"er (&king on (wo *ower$u% 7nsee%ieAbru*(%y, (he *e&ce$u% si%ence w&s in(erru*(e"“There you &re! 6ee2, ice-boy, !’'e been %ooking $or you $ore'er- !$ ! "i"n’( know be((er, !’" (hink you were &'oi"ing )e! wince"- Or hi), o$ course- No(hing w&s s&cre" (o hi)Arie% & /erke" in sur*rise- “8ho0 1he (rie" %ooking b&ck, on%y (o $in" ! w&sn’( )o'ing or %e((ing go- #ro&ning, ! burie" )y $&ce in her h&ir- &g&3on’( (urn &roun", ! )u((ere"“3on’( &nswer hi), &n" )&ybe he’% go &w&y“H&h, &s i$ (h&( e'er works- The s*e&ker )o'e" c%oser, un(i% ! cou%" see hi) $ro) (he corner o$ )y eye, &r)s crosse" o'er & b&re ches(, *er*e(u&% s)irk s(re(ching his $&ce“You know, i$ you kee* ignoring )e, ice-boy, !’) /us( going (o *ush you in(o (he *on"! re%e&se" Arie% & &n" s(e**e" b&ck $ro) (he e"ge, g%&ring &( Puck &s he re(re&(e" wi(h & cheer$u% grin- “8h&( "o you w&n(, #oo"$e% ow? “1o nice (o see you &s we% , *rince- Puck s(uck his (ongue ou(, un$&2e" by )y g%&re“#uess (he ne.( (i)e ! $in" & /uicy ru)or, !’% /us( kee* i( (o )yse%$- ! (hough( you )igh( w&n( (o check ou( (hese co&(% sigh(ings in ,e.ico Ci(y, bu( ! see you’re o(herwise occu*ie"“#oo"$e% ow? Arie% & re*e&(e", s(&ring &( Puck wi(h un&b&she" curiosi(y- “Robin #oo"$e% ow? !( is you, isn’( i(? The Puck? Puck grinne" wi"e%y &n" bowe"- “The one &n" on%y, he s(&(e" gr&n"%y &s ! $e%( (he si(u&(ion s%i"ing $ur(her $ro) )y con(ro%- “An" who )igh( you be, %&"y who h&s s(o%en &% o$ ice-boy’s &((en(ion? +e$ore Arie% & cou%" &nswer, he sni$$e" &n" (urne" (o )e, *ou(ing- “Prince, !’) hur(- A$(er &% we’'e been (hrough, you cou%" &( %e&s( in(ro"uce )e (o your new %&"y $rien"“This is Arie% & Tu%&ryn, ! in(ro"uce", re$using (o rise (o Puck’s go&"ing- “Arie% &, (his is Robin #oo"$e% ow, who "es*i(e )y bes( e$$or(s, insis(s on h&nging &roun" when he isn’(

w&n(e"“You woun" )e, *rince- Puck %ooke" &ny(hing bu( hur(, &n" ! crosse" )y &r)s- “7), ! guess you’re s(i% )&" &bou( (h&( who%e h&r*y $i&sco- ! swe&r, ! (hough( (hose c&'es were e)*(y“How "i" you o'er%ook & hun"re" h&r*ies nes(ing in (h&( c&'e? 3i" (he gi&n( c&r*e( o$ bones no( (i* you o$$? “Oh, sure, co)*%&in now- +u( we $oun" (he (ro" (o A(hens, "i"n’( we? Arie% & b%inke", %ooking b&ck &n" $or(h be(ween us- “8&i(, w&i(, she s&i", ho%"ing u* her h&n"s- “You (wo know e&ch o(her? Tr&'e%e" (oge(her? 1he $rowne" &n" %ooke" &( us bo(h- “Are you $rien"s? ! snor(e"- “! wou%"n’( go (h&( $&r“Oh, bes( $rien"s, %&"y, Puck s&i" &( (he s&)e (i)e, gi'ing her & wink- “!ce-boy wi% "eny i( un(i% (he )oun(&ins cru)b%e, bu( you know how h&r" i( is $or hi) (o &")i( his $ee%ings, righ(? “+u(, you’re 1u))er- Arie% & g%&nce" b&ck &( )e, con$use"- “Robin #oo"$e% ow is *&r( o$ (he 1ee%ie Cour(, righ(? !sn’( i( &g&ins( (he %&w (o cons*ire wi(h 1u))er $ey? “Cons*ire? Puck grinne", %ooking &( )e- “Th&(’s & n&s(y wor"- 8e "on’( cons*ire, "o we, *rince? “Puck- ! sighe"- “1hu( u*- Turning &w&y $ro) hi), ! "rew Arie% & c%ose, ignoring (he w&y Puck’s eyes %i( u* g%ee$u% y- “The &nswer (o your 9ues(ion is yes, ! (o%" her 9uie(%y“!( is &g&ins( (he %&w- An" wi(hin (he bor"ers o$ Arc&"i& &n" Tir N& Nog, Robin #oo"$e% ow &n" ! &re ene)ies- 8e wi% bo(h re&"i%y &")i( (h&(- ! sho( Puck & %ook, &n" he no""e", s(i% grinning“+u(, ! con(inue", “here in (he wy%"woo", (he %&ws, (hough (hey’re no( co)*%e(e%y $ %e.ib%e, "on’( e.(en" 9ui(e &s $&r- Puck &n" ! h&'e been known (o>ben" (he ru%es & %i((%eNo( &%w&ys, &n" no( o$(en- +u(, he’s (he on%y one (h&( c&n kee* u* wi(h )e, &n" (he on%y one who "oesn’( c&re (h&( !’) *&r( o$ (he 8in(er Cour(Arie% & *u% e" b&ck &n" %ooke" &( )e, her se&-green eyes in(ense- “1o, you’re (e% ing )e (h&( you, & *rince o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, &re &")i((ing (o bre&king (he %&w &n" cons*iring wi(h (he 8in(er Cour(’s sworn ene)y on & regu%&r b&sis? ! he%" )y bre&(h- Though !’" known (his "&y wou%" co)e, !’" been ho*ing (o bring u* )y>&ssoci&(ion>wi(h Puck on )y own (er)s- Th&( (he 1u))er Cour( *r&nks(er h&" $orce" (he issue w&sn’( sur*rising, bu( wh&( ! $e&re" )os( w&s being $orce" (o choose where )y %oy&%(ies %&y- Arie% & w&s s(i% 7nsee%ie, brough( u* (o h&(e 1u))er &n" e'ery(hing in i(- !$ she "eci"e" Puck w&s (he ene)y &n" (h&( we h&" no business in'o%'ing hi) in &ny(hing (h&( w&sn’( & $igh( (o (he "e&(h> wh&( wou%" ! "o (hen? ! sighe" inw&r"%y- ! w&s & *rince o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(- ! wou%" &%w&ys si"e wi(h )y cour( &n" ki(h, (here w&s no 9ues(ion in )y )in"- !$ i( c&)e "own (o (h&( choice, ! wou%" (urn )y b&ck on Puck, (urn )y b&ck on our ye&rs o$ c&)&r&"erie, &n" choose 8in(er- +u( (h&(’s no( (o s&y i( wou%"n’( be h&r"Arie% & s(&re" &( us, &n" ! w&i(e" (o see wh&( she wou%" "o, how she wou%" re&c(- ;in&% y

she broke in(o & (e&sing s)i%e“8e% , &s !’'e seen how Ash (re&(s his ?&ssoci&(es’ &( (he 8in(er Cour(, !’" h&'e (o s&y you )us( be &n e.ce*(ion (o (he ru%e, Robin #oo"$e% ow- !’) 'ery *%e&se" (o )&ke your &c9u&in(&nce- 1he g%&nce" &( )e &n" winke"- “An" here ! w&s &$r&i" (h&( Ash "i"n’( h&'e &ny $rien"sPuck ro&re" wi(h %&ugh(er- “! %ike her, he &nnounce" &s ! crosse" )y &r)s &n" (rie" (o %ook bore" &n" &nnoye"- They bo(h gigg%e" &( )y e.*ense, bu( ! "i"n’( c&re- Arie% & h&" &cce*(e" )y “&ssoci&(ion wi(hou( reser'&(ion or /u"g)en(- ! "i"n’( h&'e (o choose- ! cou%" kee* (he bes( o$ bo(h wor%"s wi(hou( s&cri$icing ei(her! shou%"’'e known i( wou%" ne'er %&s(“Prince, s&i" Puck’s 'oice, "r&wing )e ou( o$ )y "&rk (hough(s, b&ck (o (he *resen(“Prince- Oy, ice-boy! ! b%inke" &n" g%&re" &( hi)- “8h&(? He s)irke" &n" no""e" (o (he sky, where & )&ssi'e w&% o$ b%&ck c%ou"s %oo)e" o'erhe&"- “There’s & n&s(y s(or) co)ing- ;urb&% sugges(s we %ook $or she%(er, since (his &re& h&s & re*u(&(ion $or $ %&sh $ %oo"s- Accor"ing (o hi), we shou%" re&ch (he seer so)e(i)e (o)orrow“;ine“8ow, &ren’( we ch&((y (o"&y- Puck shook his he&" &s ! s(ro"e *&s( hi), s%i"ing "own & w&she"-ou( gu% y (o where #ri)&%kin w&i(e" &( (he bo((o)Puck $o% owe" e&si%y, con(inuing (o (&%k- “Th&(’s (he )os( you’'e s&i" (o )e in (wo "&ys8h&(’s going on, ice-boy? You’'e been 'ery broo"y %&(e%y, e'en $or you“5e&'e i( &%one, Puck“An" here ! (hough( we were "oing so we% - Puck sighe" "r&)&(ic&% y &s he )&(che" )y *&ce "own (he s%o*e- “,igh( &s we% (e% )e, *rince- You shou%" know by now (h&( ! c&n’( %e&'e &ny(hing &%one- !’% *ry i( ou( o$ you so)ehow3ee* wi(hin, so)e(hing "&rk s(irre"- A s%ee*ing gi&n( sensing ch&nge in (he &ir, %ike & $orgo((en he&r(be&(, $&in( bu( s(i% &%i'e, beginning (o resur$&ce- !( w&s so)e(hing ! h&"n’( $e%(, h&"n’( &% owe" )yse%$ (o $ee%, in ye&rs- The *&r( o$ )e (h&( w&s *ure 7nsee%ie, *ure h&(e &n" "&rkness &n" b%oo"%us(- ! %os( )yse%$ (o i( once, (he "&y Arie% & "ie"- ! bec&)e so)e(hing consu)e" by r&ge, $i% e" wi(h & b%&ck h&(re" (h&( (urne" )e &g&ins( )y c%oses( $rien"- ! (hough( !’" burie" i( when ! $ro2e ou( )y e)o(ions, (r&ining )yse%$ (o beco)e nu)b, (o $ee% no(hing! cou%" $ee% i( in )e now, &n o%" )&"ness, &n &ncien( "&rkness rising (o (he sur$&ce, $i% ing )e wi(h &nger- An" h&(e- 8oun"s (h&( h&" ne'er re&% y c%ose", (e&ring o*en &g&in, see*ing *oison in(o )y he&r(- !( "is(urbe" )e, &n" ! sho'e" i( "own, b&ck in(o (he b%&ckness i( h&" co)e $ro)- +u( ! cou%" s(i% $ee% i(, *u%sing &n" bubb%ing /us( be%ow (he sur$&ce3irec(e" so%e%y &( Puck, who w&s, o$ course, s(i% (&%king“You know, i(’s no( he&%(hy (o kee* (hings bo((%e" u*, *rince- The who%e broo"ing (hing is re&% y o'err&(e"- 1o, co)e on, ou( wi(h i(- 8h&(’s bo(hering 0

“! s&i"0 8hir%ing &bru*(%y, ! c&)e $&ce-(o-$&ce wi(h Puck, c%ose enough (o see )y re$ %ec(ion in his s(&r(%e" green eyes- “5e&'e i( &%one, Puck;or &% his bu$$oonery, Robin #oo"$e% ow w&s no $oo%- 8e’" known e&ch o(her & %ong (i)e, bo(h &s $rien"s &n" ri'&%s, &n" he knew )e be((er (h&n &nyone, so)e(i)es be((er (h&n ! knew )yse%$- The irre'eren( s)irk '&nishe", &n" his eyes bec&)e h&r" &s s(one8e s(&re" &( e&ch o(her, inches &*&r(, whi%e (he win" *icke" u* &n" how%e" &roun" us, s(irring u* & cyc%one o$ %e&'es &n" "us(“H&'ing secon" (hough(s? Puck’s 'oice w&s so$( &n" "&ngerous, & $&r cry $ro) his nor)&% $ %i**&ncy- “! (hough( we’" *u( (his behin" us $or now“Ne'er, ! s&i", )&(ching his s(&re- “! c&n’( e'er (&ke i( b&ck, #oo"$e% ow- !’) s(i% going (o ki% you- ! swore (o her ! wou%"- 5igh(ning $ %ickere" &n" (hun"er ru)b%e" in (he "is(&nce &s we $&ce" e&ch o(her wi(h n&rrowe" eyes- “One "&y, ! s&i" so$(%y- “One "&y you’% %ook u*, &n" !’% be (here- Th&(’s (he on%y en"ing $or us- 3on’( e'er $orge(Puck s%ow%y cocke" his he&", reg&r"ing )e in(en(%y- “!s (his Ash (&%king? Or (he o&(h? “!( "oesn’( )&((er- ! s(e**e" b&ck, ho%"ing his g&2e, unwi% ing (o (urn )y b&ck on hi)“!( c&n ne'er be (he s&)e, Puck- 3on’( $oo% yourse%$ in(o (hinking (h&( i( is“!’'e ne'er $orgo((en, *rince- Puck w&(che" )e wi(h so%e)n eyes g%owing green in (he su""en "&rkness- 5igh(ning $ %&she" (hrough (he (rees &g&in, &n" (hun"er grow%e" &n &nswer- Puck’s ne.( wor"s were ne&r%y %os( in (he win"- “You’re no( (he on%y one wi(h regre(s! (urne" &n" w&%ke" &w&y $ro) hi), $ee%ing co%" &n" e)*(y, (he "&rkness coi%ing &roun" )y he&r(- A( (he bo((o) o$ (he s%o*e, #ri)&%kin s&( on & s(u)*, (&i% cur%e" o'er his $ee(, w&(ching us wi(h unb%inking go%"en eyes8e $oun" & c&'e, or r&(her, &n &nnoye", i)*&(ien( #ri)&%kin %e" us (o & c&'e, secon"s be$ore (he sky o*ene" u* &n" (he r&in *oure" "own- As (he %igh( r&*i"%y "is&**e&re", ! %e$( Puck *oking (he $ire &n" re(re&(e" (o & "&rk corner- 1i((ing wi(h )y b&ck &g&ins( (he w&% , ! *u% e" one knee (o )y ches( &n" g%owere" in(o (he "is(&n( $ %&)es“An" so i( begins#ri)&%kin &**e&re" besi"e )e, se&(e" on & rock, w&(ching Puck (en" (he c&)*$ire- The $ %&)es c&s( & burning or&nge h&%o &roun" (he c&(- ! g&'e hi) & si"ew&ys g%&nce, bu( he "i"n’( re(urn i(- “8h&( "o you )e&n? “! w&rne" you (his w&s no si)*%e 9ues(- ! (o%" you be$ore, you &n" #oo"$e% ow h&'e no i"e& wh&( %ies &he&"- He (wi(che" &n e&r &n" shi$(e" on (he rock, s(i% w&(ching (he $ire“You $ee% i(, "o you no(? The &nger- The "&rkness- ! b%inke" in sur*rise, bu( #ri)&%kin *&i" no hee"- “!( wi% on%y ge( worse (he $&r(her we go“8here &re we going? ! &ske" so$(%y- A su""en hiss $ro) (he c&)*$ire showe" Puck h&nging & skinne" r&bbi( o'er (he $ %&)es- 8here he’" go((en i(, ! "i"n’( e'en w&n( (o guess, &n" ! (urne" b&ck (o #ri)&%kin- “! know we’re going (o (he seer, bu( you s(i% h&'en’( (o%" us whereThe c&i( si(h *re(en"e" no( (o he&r- Y&wning, he s(re(che" %&ngui"%y, r&king his c%&ws o'er (he s(ones, &n" (ro((e" o$$ (o o'ersee "inner *re*&r&(ions-

Ou(si"e, (he s(or) how%e" &n" r&ge", ben"ing (rees &n" b%owing r&in &( & sh&r* &ng%e &cross (he )ou(h o$ (he c&'e- The $ire cr&ck%e" cheer$u% y, %icking &( (he r&bbi( c&rc&ss, &n" (he s)e% o$ ro&s(e" )e&( beg&n (o $i% (he ch&)berAn" ye(, so)e(hing w&sn’( righ(! rose &n" w&n"ere" (o (he c&'e )ou(h, g&2ing ou( &( (he s(or)- 8in" (ugge" &( )e, s*&((ering )y $&ce wi(h r&in"ro*s- +eyon" (he %i* o$ (he c&'ern, r&in ski((ere" o'er (he groun" in w&'es, %ike si%'er cur(&ins (osse" by (he win"1o)e(hing w&s ou( (here- 8&(ching us“Hey, ice-boy- Puck &**e&re" &( )y si"e, *eering in(o (he r&in wi(h )e- He &c(e" *er$ec(%y nor)&%, &s i$ (he wor"s be(ween us e&r%ier (h&( "&y h&" ne'er h&**ene"“8h&(ch& %ooking &(? “! "on’( know- ! se&rche" (he (rees, (he sh&"ows, )y g&2e cu((ing (hrough (he s(or), *ee%ing b&ck (he "&rkness, bu( cou%" see no(hing unusu&%- “!( $ee%s %ike we’re being w&(che"“Huh- Puck scr&(che" (he si"e o$ his $&ce- “! "on’( $ee% &ny(hing %ike (h&(- An" ;urb&% is s(i% here, so (h&(’s so)e(hing- You know i$ (here w&s &ny(hing "&ngerous co)ing he’" be gone $&s(er (hen you cou%" s&y *oo$- 1ure you’re no( being *&r&noi"? The r&in con(inue" (o $&% , &n" no(hing )o'e" beyon" in (he "&rkness &n" sh&"ow- “! "on’( know, ! s&i" &g&in- “,&ybe“8e% , you c&n s(&n" here &n" worry- !’) going (o e&(- !$ you see so)e(hing big &n" hungry co)ing &( us, /us( ye0 “#oo"$e% ow,y 'oice )&"e hi) *&use, (hen (urn b&ck, w&ry &n" gu&r"e"- 8e s(&re" &( e&ch o(her by (he )ou(h o$ (he c&'e, (he s(or) whi**ing &( us &n" )&king (he c&)*$ire $ %icker“8hy &re you here? He b%inke", )&"e & h&%$ he&r(e" &((e)*( &( hu)or- “7h> bec&use ! "on’( w&n( (o ge( we(? ! /us( w&i(e"- Puck sighe", %e&ning &g&ins( (he w&% &n" crossing his &r)s- “3o we re&% y h&'e (o go (hrough (his, iceboy? he s&i", &n" (hough (he wor"s were %igh(, his (one w&s &%)os( *%e&"ing- “! (hink we bo(h know (he re&son !’) here“8h&( i$ ! &ske" you (o %e&'e? “8hy wou%" you w&n( (o "o (h&(? Puck grinne", bu( i( 9uick%y $&"e"- “This is &bou( wh&( h&**ene" e&r%ier, isn’( i(? he s&i"- “8h&(’s going on, Ash? Two "&ys &go, you were $ine- 8e were $ ine! g%&nce" o'er (o where #ri)&%kin s&( w&(ching (he s*i((e" r&bbi( wi(h so)e(hing & bi( s(ronger (h&n curiosi(y- ! cou%" $ee% (he "&rkness in )e rising &g&in, "es*i(e )y &((e)*(s (o $ree2e i( ou(- “!’) going (o ki% you, ! s&i" so$(%y, &n" Puck’s eyebrows rose- “No( (onigh(- ,&ybe no( (o)orrow- +u( soon- Our *&s( is c&(ching u* (o us, #oo"$e% ow, &n" (his $eu" h&s gone on %ong enough- ! %ooke" b&ck &( hi), )ee(ing his so%e)n g&2e- “!’) gi'ing you (his ch&nce now (o %e&'e- Run- ;in" ,egh&n, (e% her wh&( !’) (rying (o "o- !$ !

"on’( co)e b&ck, (&ke c&re o$ her $or )e- ! $e%( )y ches( s9uee2e (igh( &( (he (hough( o$ ,egh&n, o$ ne'er seeing her &g&in- +u( &( %e&s( Puck wou%" be (here $or her i$ ! $&i%e"“#e( ou( o$ here, Puck- !( wou%" be be((er $or bo(h o$ us i$ you were gone“Huh- 8e% , you sure know how (o )&ke & guy $ee% w&n(e", *rince- Puck g%&re" &( )e, no( 9ui(e &b%e (o )&sk his &nger- Pushing hi)se%$ o$$ (he w&% , he (ook & s(e* $orw&r", ne'er %ooking &w&y- “Here’s & he&"s-u*, (hough0!’) no( going &nywhere, no )&((er how )uch you (hre&(en, bribe, coerce, or beg- 3on’( ge( )e wrong, !’) )os(%y here $or her, no( you, bu( !’) be((ing (his isn’( so)e(hing you c&n "o &%one- 1o you’re going (o h&'e (o suck i( u* &n" ge( use" (o )e, *rince, ’c&use un%ess you w&n( (h&( "ue% righ( here, righ( now, !’) no( %e&'ing- An" ! c&n be /us( &s s(ubborn &s youOu(si"e, %igh(ning $ %ickere", (urning e'ery(hing whi(e, &n" (he g&%e (osse" (he br&nches o$ (he (rees- Puck &n" ! g%&re" &( e&ch o(her un(i% we were in(erru*(e" by & %ou" *o* $ro) (he c&)*$ire- +re&king eye con(&c( &( %&s(, Puck g%&nce" o'er his shou%"er &n" %e( ou( & ye%*“Hey! 8hir%ing &roun", he s(&%ke" b&ck (ow&r" (he $ire, &n" i(s now-e)*(y s*i(, w&'ing his &r)s- “,y r&bbi(! #ri)&%kin, you sne&ky, gr&y>*ig! ! ho*e you en/oy (h&(, ’c&use (he ne.( (hing o'er (he $ire )igh( be you! As e.*ec(e", (here w&s no &nswer- ! s)i%e" (o )yse%$ &n" (urne" b&ck (o (he r&in- The 'io%ence o$ (he s(or) h&" no( &b&(e", nor h&" )y $ee%ing o$ being w&(che", (hough con(inue" se&rches o$ (he (rees &n" sh&"ows yie%"e" no(hing“8here &re you? ! )use" un"er )y bre&(h- “! know you c&n see )e- 8hy c&n’( ! $in" you? The s(or) see)e" (o )ock )e- ! s(oo", %ooking ou(, un(i% (he win" $in&% y "ie" "own &n" (he r&in s%owe" (o & "ri22%e- A% (hrough (he nigh(, ! s(oo" (here, w&i(ing- +u( wh&(e'er w&s w&(ching )e $ro) i(s )ys(erious %oc&(ion ne'er )&"e i(se%$ known-


The ne.( "&y "&wne" "i) &n" o)inous, wi(h & *ersis(en( $og (h&( c%ung (o (he groun" &n" wr&**e" e'ery(hing in o*&9ue si%ence- 1oun"s were &bsorbe" in(o (he surroun"ing whi(e, &n" i( w&s i)*ossib%e (o see )ore (h&n (en $ee( &he&"8e %e$( (he c&'e, $o% owing & s)ug #ri)&%kin in(o (he w&% o$ )is(- The wor%" %ooke" "i$$eren( $ro) (he nigh( be$ore, hi""en &n" %urking, (he (rees "&rk, crooke" ske%e(ons in (he )is(- No bir"s s&ng, no insec(s bu22e", no s)&% cre&(ures scurrie" (hrough (he un"ergrow(h- No(hing )o'e" or see)e" (o bre&(he- E'en Puck w&s &$$ec(e" by (he so)ber )oo" &n" o$$ere" %i((%e con'ers&(ion &s we g%i"e" (hrough (his s(i% , )u$$%e" wor%"The $ee%ing o$ being w&(che" h&" no( "issi*&(e" e'en now, &n" w&s )&king )e incre&sing%y unco)$or(&b%e- E'en )ore "is(urbing, ! h&" (he sense (h&( so)e(hing w&s $o% owing us, (r&cking us (hrough (he si%en( $ores(- ! sc&nne" (he surroun"ing (rees, (he sh&"ows &n" (he un"ergrow(h, w&(ching, %is(ening $or so)e(hing (h&( see)e" ou( o$ *%&ce- +u( ! cou%" see no(hingThe $og s(ubborn%y re$use" (o %i$(, &n" (he $&r(her we *ushe" in(o (he 9uie( woo", (he s(ronger (he $ee%ing bec&)e- ;in&% y, ! s(o**e", (urning (o g&2e behin" us- ,is( cre*( o'er (he groun" &n" s*i% e" on(o (he (iny $ores( *&(h we were $o% owing, &n" (hrough (he b%&nke( o$ whi(e, ! cou%" sense so)e(hing "r&wing c%oser“There’s so)e(hing ou( (here, ! )u((ere" &s Puck c&)e (o s(&n" besi"e )e, &%so *eering in(o (he $og“O$ course (here is, #ri)&%kin re*%ie" )&((er-o$-$&c(%y, %e&*ing on(o & $&% en (ree- “!( h&s been $o% owing us since %&s( nigh(- The s(or) s%owe" i( "own & bi(, bu( i( is co)ing $&s( now- ! sugges( we hurry i$ we "o no( wish (o )ee( i(- An" we "o no(, (rus( )e“!s i( (he wi(ch? Puck &ske", $rowning &s he s(&re" in(o (he bushes &n" (he (rees- “#ee2, (ie & house’s $ee( (oge(her &n" you’re )&rke" $or %i$e- The o%" g&% c&n sure ho%" & gru"ge, c&n’( she? “!( is no( (he wi(ch, #ri)&%kin s&i" wi(h & hin( o$ &nnoy&nce- “!( is so)e(hing $&r worse, ! &) &$r&i"- Now co)e, we &re w&s(ing (i)e- He %e&*e" o$$ (he br&nch, '&nishing in(o (he )is(, &s Puck &n" ! sh&re" & g%&nce“8orse (hen (he o%" chicken *%ucker? Puck )&"e & $&ce- “Th&(’s h&r" (o be%ie'e- C&n you (hink o$ &nyone you’" r&(her no( )ee( in & s*ooky o%" $ores(, *rince? “Ac(u&% y, ! c&n, ! s&i", &n" w&%ke" &w&y, $o% owing #ri)&%kin (hrough (he (rees“Hey! Puck scr&)b%e" &$(er us- “8h&(’s (h&( su**ose" (o )e&n, ice-boy? The $ores( s(re(che" on, &n" #ri)&%kin ne'er s%owe", we&'ing (hrough (rees &n" un"er gn&r%e" roo(s wi(hou( %ooking b&ck- ! resis(e" (he urge (o g%&nce con(inuous%y o'er )y shou%"er, h&%$ e.*ec(ing (he )is( (o *&r( &s wh&(e'er w&s $o% owing us %unge" on(o (he *&(h- ! h&(e" being hun(e", being (r&cke" by so)e unseen, unknown )ons(er, bu( #ri)&%kin see)e" "e(er)ine" (o ou(*&ce i(, &n" i$ ! *&use" ! cou%" %ose (he c&( in (he $og1o)ewhere behin" us, & $ %ock o$ crows (ook (o (he &ir wi(h $r&n(ic cries, *iercing%y %ou" in (he si%ence-

“!(’s c%ose, ! )u((ere", )y h&n" "ro**ing (o )y swor"- #ri)&%kin "i"n’( %ook b&ck“Yes, he s(&(e" c&%)%y- “+u( we &re &%)os( (here“A %)os( where? Puck chi)e" in, bu( &( (h&( )o)en( (he )is( (hinne" &n" we $oun" ourse%'es on (he e"ge o$ & gr&ygreen %&ke- 1ke%e(&% (rees %oo)e" ou( o$ (he w&(er, (heir e.*&n"ing web o$ roo(s %ooking %ike *&%e sn&kes in (he )urk- 1)&% , )ossy is%&n"s rose $ro) bene&(h (he %&ke, &n" ro*e bri"ges s*&nne" (he gu%$ be(ween (he), so)e s&gging %ow enough (o ne&r%y (ouch (he sur$&ce“There is & co%ony o$ b&% ybogs %i'ing on (he o(her si"e, #ri)&%kin e.*%&ine", ho**ing %igh(%y (o (he $irs( ro*e bri"ge- He *&use" (o g%&nce b&ck &( us, w&'ing his (&i%- “They owe )e & $&'or- Hurry u*1o)e(hing wen( cr&shing (hrough (he bushes behin" us0& *&ir o$ (erri$ie" "eer, $ %eeing in(o (he un"ergrow(h- #ri)&%kin $ %&((ene" his e&rs &n" s(&r(e" &cross (he bri"ge- Puck &n" ! $o% owe"The %&ke w&sn’( %&rge, &n" we re&che" (he o(her si"e & $ew )inu(es %&(er, $&cing #ri)&%kin’s &nnoye" g%&re &s we s(e**e" on(o (he )u""y b&nkPuck &n" ! h&" sys(e)&(ic&% y cu( (hrough e&ch o$ (he bri"ge ro*es &$(er e'ery crossing, so wh&(e'er w&s $o% owing us wou%" h&'e (o swi)Ho*e$u% y, (h&( wou%" s%ow i( "own & bi(, bu( i( &%so )e&n( (h&( we h&" burne" our bri"ges, so (o s*e&k, i$ we w&n(e" (o re(urn (he s&)e w&y“7h-oh, Puck )ur)ure", &n" ! (urne" &roun"A (iny 'i% &ge %&y in (he )u" &( (he e"ge o$ (he ri'er, (h&(ch &n" *e&( roo$s co'ering *ri)i(i'e hu(s bui%( in(o &n e)b&nk)en(, *eeking ou( be(ween (he roo(s o$ enor)ous (rees- 1*e&rs %&y in (he )u", so)e broken, &n" (he roo$s o$ se'er&% hu(s h&" been (orn o$$1i%ence hung (hick o'er (he 'i% &ge, (he )is( cree*ing u* $ro) (he %&ke (o s)o(her wh&( w&s %e$( o$ (he h&)%e(“5ooks %ike so)e(hing go( here be$ore us, Puck obser'e", *icking & sh&((ere" s*e&r ou( o$ (he )u"- “3i" & nu)ber on (he 'i% &ge, (oo- No one’s here (o we%co)e us, #ri)- 8e’% h&'e (o (ry so)e(hing e%se#ri)&%kin sni$$e" &n" /u)*e" &(o* (he b&nk, sh&king )u" $ro) his *&ws- “How incon'enien(- He sighe", %ooking &roun" in "is(&s(e- “Now ! wi% ne'er recei'e )y $&'or!n (he "is(&nce, so)ewhere beyon" (he )is( co)ing o$$ (he w&(er, (here w&s & s*%&shPuck %ooke" b&ck &n" gri)&ce"- “!(’s s(i% co)ing, *ersis(en( b&s(&r"! "rew )y swor"- “Then we )&ke our s(&n" herePuck no""e", *u% ing his "&ggers- “Though( you )igh( s&y (h&(- !’% $in" us so)e higher groun"- 8res(%ing in (he )u" /us( isn’( )y cu* o$ (e&, un%ess i( in'o%'es sc&n(i%y c%&"0 He s(o**e" &s ! sho( hi) & %ook- “Righ(, he )u((ere"- “Th&( hi% o'er (here %ooks *ro)ising- !’% check i( ou(#ri)&%kin $o% owe" )y s(&re, b%inking &s Puck s%oshe" his w&y (ow&r" & %u)*y )oun" o$ green )oss &n" $erns- “Th&( w&s no( (here (he %&s( (i)e ! w&s here, he )use" so$(%y, n&rrowing his g&2e- “!n $&c(> His eyes wi"ene"-

An" he "is&**e&re"! whir%e" b&ck, %unging $orw&r" &s Puck ho**e" on(o (he hi% , *u% ing hi)se%$ u* by & (wis(e" roo(- “Puck! ! shou(e", &n" he g%&nce" b&ck &( )e, $rowning- “#e( ou( o$ (here now! The hi% )o'e"- 8i(h & ye%*, Puck s(u)b%e", $ %&i%ing wi%"%y &s (he gr&ssy )oun" shi$(e" &n" %urche" &n" s(&r(e" (o rise ou( o$ (he )u"- Puck "o'e $orw&r", %&n"ing wi(h & s*%&( in (he )u", &n" (he hi% s(oo" u*, un$o%"ing %ong, c%&w-(i**e" &r)s &n" (hick, s(u)*y %egs- !( (urne", (wen(y $ee( o$ )u""y green sw&)* (ro% , )oss &n" 'ege(&(ion growing $ro) i(s bro&" b&ck, b%en"ing *er$ec(%y wi(h (he %&n"sc&*e- 3&nk green h&ir hung $ro) i(s sc&%*, &n" i(s be&"y re" eyes sc&nne" (he groun" in con$usion“Oh, Puck )use", g&2ing u* &( (he enor)ous cre&(ure $ro) (he )u"- “8e% , (h&( e.*%&ins & $ew (hingsThe sw&)* (ro% ro&re", s*i((%e $ %ying $ro) i(s o*en /&ws, &n" (ook & s(e* (ow&r" Puck, who bounce" (o his $ee(- !( swi*e" & (&%on &( hi) &n" he "ucke", running un"er i(s enor)ous bu%k, "&r(ing be(ween (he (ree-s(u)* %egs- The (ro% ro&re" &n" s(&r(e" (o (urn, &n" ! $ %ung & h&i% o$ ice "&ggers &( i(, s(icking i( in (he shou%"er &n" $&ce- !( be% owe" &n" %urche" (ow&r" )e, )&king (he groun" sh&ke &s i( ch&rge"- ! "o"ge", ro% ing ou( o$ (he w&y &s (he (ro% hi( (he e)b&nk)en( &n" ri**e" & huge g&sh (hrough (he hu(s, (e&ring (he) o*enAs (he (ro% *u% e" b&ck, ! %unge" &( i(, swi*ing &( i(s (hick &r)s, cu((ing & "ee* g&sh (hrough (he b&rk%ike skin- !( how%e", )ore in &nger (h&n *&in, &n" whir%e" on )eThere w&s )o'e)en( on i(s bro&" shou%"ers, &n" Puck &**e&re", c%inging (o i(s b&ck, & huge grin s*%i((ing his $&ce- “A% righ(, he &nnounce" gr&n"%y, &s (he (ro% /erke" &n" s*un &roun", (rying in '&in (o re&ch hi), “! c%&i) (his %&n" $or 1*&in- An" he *%&n(e" his "&gger in (he b&se o$ (he (ro% ’s (hick neckThe cre&(ure ro&re", & shri% , *&in$u% w&i%, &n" c%&we" "es*er&(e%y &( i(s b&ck- Puck scoo(e" &w&y, &'oi"ing (he (ro% ’s r&king (&%ons, &n" s(uck his "&gger on (he o(her si"e o$ i(s neck- !( screeche" &g&in, s%&**ing &n" (e&ring, &n" Puck scr&)b%e" &w&y- 8i(h &% i(s &((en(ion on Puck, ! %e&*e" $orw&r", '&u%(e" o$$ & s(u)*y %eg, &n" *%unge" )y swor" in(o (he (ro% ’s ches(!( s(&ggere", $&% ing (o i(s knees &n" wi(h & "ee* gro&n, (o**%e" in(o (he )u" &s ! "ucke" ou( o$ (he w&y- Puck s*r&ng o$$ i(s shou%"ers &s i( co% &*se", ro% e" &s he hi( (he groun" &n" c&)e (o his $ee(, grinning, (hough he %ooke" %ike so)e kin" o$ )u" )ons(er hi)se%$“Yes! he e.c%&i)e", sh&king his he&" &n" $ %inging )u" e'erywhere- “,&n, (h&( w&s $un- +e((er (h&n *%&ying 1(&y on (he 8i%" Peg&sus- C&n we "o i( &g&in? “!"io(- ! wi*e" & s*%&sh o$ )u" $ro) )y cheek wi(h (he b&ck o$ )y h&n"- “8e’re no( "one ye(- 8h&(e'er is $o% owing us is s(i% ou( (here“A%so, )&y ! re)in" you, #ri)&%kin s&i", *eering i)*erious%y $ro) (he br&nches o$ & (&% (ree, “(h&( sw&)* (ro% s, in *&r(icu%&r, h&'e (wo he&r(s &n" &cce%er&(e" he&%ing c&*&bi%i(ies? You wi% h&'e (o "o )ore (hen s(ick & swor" in i(s ches( i$ you wish (o ki% i( $or goo"Puck b%inke"- “1o, you’re s&ying (h&( our )ossy $rien" isn’( re&% y0

There w&s & we(, s%oshing soun" behin" us, &n" #ri)&%kin '&nishe" &g&in- Puck wince"“Righ(, (hen, he )u((ere" &s we s*un &roun"- The sw&)* (ro% %u)bere" (o i(s $ee(, i(s re" eyes b%&2ing &n" &ngry, $&s(ene" on us- “Roun" (woPuck sighe" &n" swe*( his h&n" "own in & cho**ing )o(ion- “;igh(! The (ro% ro&re"- E$$or(%ess%y, i( re&che" ou( &n" wr&**e" one c%&w &roun" (he (runk o$ & *ine (ree, *u% ing i( $ro) (he )u" &s e&si%y &s *icking & "&n"e%ion- 8i(h b%in"ing s*ee", i( s)&she" (he we&*on (ow&r" usPuck &n" ! %e&*e" &si"e in o**osi(e "irec(ions, &n" (he (ree s(ruck (he s*&ce be(ween wi(h &n e.*%osion o$ )u" &n" w&(er- A%)os( i))e"i&(e%y, (he (ro% swe*( (he (ree &cross (he groun", &s i$ i( w&s whisking &w&y "us( wi(h & broo), &n" (his (i)e Puck w&sn’( 9ui(e &b%e (o "o"ge 9uick%y enoughThe (runk hi( hi) &n" sen( his bo"y (u)b%ing (hrough (he &ir, s(riking his he&" on &no(her (ree &n" s%u)*ing in(o (he )u" se'er&% y&r"s &w&y- Re"-eye", (he (ro% (urne" b&ck (o )e, s(e**ing $orw&r" (hre&(ening%y- ! re(re&(e" un(i% )y b&ck hi( (he w&% o$ (he e)b&nk)en(, &n" ! (ense" &s (he huge (ro% %oo)e" o'er )e, r&ising i(s c%ub o'er i(s he&" &n" s)&shing i( "own %ike & b&((ering r&)1o)e(hing big &n" "&rk %unge" be(ween us wi(h & boo)ing sn&r%, &n" & )ons(rous sh&ggy (hing s%&))e" in(o (he (ro% , (ee(h $ %&shing- The (ro% screeche" &n" s(u)b%e" b&ck, i(s &r) c%&)*e" in (he /&ws o$ &n enor)ous b%&ck wo%$ (he si2e o$ & gri22%y be&r, who grow%e" &n" shook his he&", "igging his $&ngs in $&r(her- How%ing, (he (ro% $ %&i%e" &n" y&nke" b&ck, (rying "es*er&(e%y (o "is%o"ge (he )ons(er c%inging (o i(s &r), bu( (he wo%$ w&sn’( %e((ing go- ! c&ugh( )y bre&(h, recogni2ing (he cre&(ure, knowing who i( w&s, bu( (here w&s no (i)e (o won"er why he w&s here3o"ging (he wo%$, ! "ucke" bene&(h (he (ro% ’s %egs &n" (urne", s%&shing (he (hick (en"ons behin" i(s knees- 8i(h & shriek, (he (ro% ’s %egs buck%e", &n" ! %e&*e" on(o i(s b&ck, )uch &s Puck h&" "one, &s i( wen( "own- +u( (his (i)e, ! r&ise" )y swor" &n" "ro'e i(, *oin( $irs(, in(o (he (ro% ’s he&", righ( be(ween (he horns, burying (he we&*on (o (he hi%(A shu""er wr&cke" (he (ro% ’s bo"y- !( beg&n (o s(i$$en, i(s skin (urning gr&y &n" h&r"- ! y&nke" )y swor" $ree &n" '&u%(e" o$$ i(s b&ck &s (he (ro% cur%e" u* on i(se%$, )uch %ike & gi&n( insec( or s*i"er, &n" (urne" (o s(one- !n & $ew secon"s, on%y & (ro% -sh&*e" bou%"er s&( in (he )u" &( (he e"ge o$ (he 'i% &geThere w&s & "ee* chuck%e besi"e )e- “No( b&", %i((%e *rince- No( b&"1%ow%y, ! (urne", gri**ing )y we&*on, re&"y (o un%e&sh )y g%&)our in one 'io%en(, ch&o(ic burs(- A $ew y&r"s &w&y, (he enor)ous wo%$ o$ %egen" s(&re" &( )e, eyes g%owing ye% owgreen in (he g%oo), $&ngs b&re" in & 'icious s)i%e“He% o, *rince, ru)b%e" (he +ig +&" 8o%$- “! (o%" you be$ore- The ne.( (i)e we )ee(, you won’( e'er see )e co)ing! s(&re" &( (he 8o%$, kee*ing hi) in )y sigh(s &s he circ%e" )e, $&ngs b&re" in & s&'&ge grin, huge *&ws sinking in(o (he )u"- Aroun" &n" insi"e )e, g%&)our $ %&re", co%" &n" %e(h&%, re&"y (o be un%e&she"- ! cou%"n’( ho%" &ny(hing b&ck, no( wi(h hi)- This w&s *ossib%y (he )os( "&ngerous, &ncien( cre&(ure (o e'er w&%k (he wi%"s o$ (he Ne'erne'erHis s(ories ou(nu)bere" &% (he )y(hs &n" %egen"s e'er (o%", &n" his *ower grew wi(h

e'ery (e% ing, e'ery "ire w&rning &n" $&b%e (h&( whis*ere" his n&)e- His %egen"s were &% born o$ $e&rA he w&s (he consu))&(e 'i% &in, (he cre&(ure (h&( o%" wi'es w&rne" (heir chi%"ren &bou(, & )ons(er (h&( consu)e" %i((%e gir%s &n" bu(chere" en(ire her"s $or no re&son- His bre(hren in (he )or(&% wor%" h&" su$$ere" (errib%y $or (he $e&rs (h&( bir(he" hi)0(hey h&" been gunne" "own, (r&**e", &n" s%&ugh(ere" who%es&%e0bu( e&ch "e&(h rein$orce" (hose $e&rs &n" )&"e hi) )ore *ower$u% (h&n be$oreThe i))or(&% +ig +&" 8o%$- ,egh&n &n" ! h&" )e( hi) once be$ore, &n" he’" &%)os( succee"e" in ki% ing )eTh&( wou%"n’( h&**en &g&in“Pu( (h&( s(ick &w&y- The 8o%$ ’s 'oice, gu((ur&% &n" "ee*, he%" (r&ces o$ &)use)en(- “!$ ! w&n(e" you "e&", ! wou%"n’( h&'e bo(here" s&'ing your sorry c&rc&ss $ro) (he sw&)* (ro% - Th&(’s no( (o s&y ! won’( ki% you %&(er, bu( your si% y %i((%e (oy won’( s(o* )e (hen, ei(her, so you )igh( &s we% be ci'i% &bou( i(! ke*( )y swor" ou(, which ! cou%" see &nnoye" (he 8o%$, bu( ! w&s cer(&in%y no( going "own wi(hou( & $igh(- “8h&( "o you w&n(? ! &ske", kee*ing )y 'oice c&u(ious%y ci'i%, bu( %e((ing (he 8o%$ know ! wou%" "e$en" )yse%$ i$ nee"e"- ! w&s going (o w&%k &w&y $ro) (his- !( "i"n’( )&((er (h&( (he 8o%$ w&s i))or(&%- !( "i"n’( )&((er (h&( he’" &%)os( ki% e" )e %&s( (i)e we’" )e(- !$ i( c&)e "own (o & $igh(, ! w&s "e(er)ine" (o win (his (i)e, by &ny )e&ns necess&ry- ! wou%" no( "ie here, on (he b&nks o$ & g%oo)y %&ke, (orn &*&r( by (he +ig +&" 8o%$- ! wou%" sur'i'e (his encoun(er &n" kee* going,egh&n w&s w&i(ing $or )eThe 8o%$ s)i%e"- “,&b sen( )e $or you, he s&i" in & 'oice (h&( w&s &%)os( & *urr! ke*( )y e.*ression neu(r&%, (hough &n icy $is( gr&bbe" )y s(o)&ch &n" (wis(e"- No( in sur*rise, or e'en $e&r, /us( (he know%e"ge (h&(, &s she "i" wi(h &% her sub/ec(s, (he 8in(er 4ueen h&" $in&% y grown (ire" o$ )e- Perh&*s she w&s insu%(e" by )y re$us&% (o re(urn (o cour(- Perh&*s she’" "eci"e" (h&( & $or)er 8in(er *rince running &roun" $ree w&s (oo 'o%&(i%e, & (hre&( (o her (hrone- The whys "i"n’( )&((er- ,&b h&" sen( (he )os( $e&re" hun(er &n" &ss&ssin in (he en(ire Ne'erne'er (o ki% )e! sighe", su""en%y $ee%ing 'ery (ire"- “! su**ose ! shou%" be honore", ! (o%" hi), &n" he cocke" his enor)ous sh&ggy he&", s(i% grinning- T&king & $ur(i'e bre&(h, ! c&%)e" )y )in", (he g%&)our se((%ing in(o & %ow, (hrobbing *u%se- “8e won’( ge( &nywhere s(&n"ing &roun" %ooking &( e&ch o(her, ! (o%" hi), r&ising )y swor"- “5e(’s ge( on wi(h i(, (henThe 8o%$ chuck%e"- “As )uch &s !’" en/oy ri**ing your he&" o$$, %i((%e *rince, he s&i", &n" his eyes g%e&)e", “! &) no( here (o en" your %i$e- 4ui(e (he o**osi(e, in $&c(- ,&b sen( )e here (o he%* you! s(&re" &( hi), h&r"%y &b%e (o be%ie'e wh&( !’" /us( he&r"- “8hy? The 8o%$ shrugge", his huge shou%"ers ri**%ing wi(h (he )o'e)en(- “! "o no( know, he s&i", &n" y&wne", $ %&shing %e(h&% $&ngs- “Nor "o ! c&re- The 8in(er 4ueen knows o$ your 9ues(A she knows you wi% *rob&b%y h&'e (o /ourney $&r (o co)*%e(e i(- ! &) here (o )&ke sure you re&ch your "es(in&(ion wi(h your gu(s on (he insi"e- !n re(urn, she wi% owe )e & $&'or- He sni$$e" (he &ir &n" s&( "own, w&(ching )e wi(h h&%$-%i""e" eyes“+eyon" (h&(, ! h&'e no in(eres( in you- Or (he 1u))er *r&nks(er- 8ho, i$ he w&n(s his

he&" (o re)&in on his shou%"ers, wi% (hink %ong &n" h&r" &bou( /u)*ing )e $ro) behin"Ne.( (i)e, (ry s(&n"ing "ownwin", #oo"$e% ow“3&)n- Puck &**e&re" $ro) & c%u)* o$ ree"s, & ch&grine" s)i%e on his $&ce, g%&ring &( (he 8o%$- “! knew ! w&s $orge((ing so)e(hing- +%oo" c&ke" one si"e o$ his $&ce, bu( o(her (h&n (h&(, he see)e" $ine- +r&n"ishing his "&ggers, he s&un(ere" u* besi"e )e, $&cing (he huge *re"&(or- “8orking $or ,&b now, &re you, 8o%$)&n? he s)irke"- “5ike & goo" %i((%e &((&ck "og? 8i% you &%so ro% o'er &n" beg i$ she &sks? The 8o%$ rose, %oo)ing o'er bo(h o$ us, (he h&ir on his s*ine bris(%ing- ! resis(e" (he urge (o hi( #oo"$e% ow, e'en (hough ! knew wh&( he w&s "oingA (&un(ing &n o**onen( $or )ore in$or)&(ion- “! &) no( & "og, (he 8o%$ grow%e", his "ee* 'oice )&king (he *u""%es ri**%e- “An" ! work $or no one- He cur%e" his %i*s in & sneer- “The $&'or o$ (he 8in(er 4ueen is & subs(&n(i&% rew&r", bu( "o no( (hink you c&n or"er )e &roun" %ike (he we&k cre&(ures o$ )en- ! wi% see you (o (he en" o$ your 9ues( &%i'e- He grow%e" &g&in &n" b&re" his (ee(h- “The re9ues( s&i" no(hing &bou( who%e“You’re no( here $or & $&'or, ! s&i", &n" he b%inke", eyeing )e sus*icious%y- “You "on’( nee" one, ! con(inue", “no( $ro) ,&b, no( $ro) &nyone- You en/oy (he hun(, &n" (he ch&% enge, bu( (o &gree (o such & re9ues( wi(hou( & ki% &( (he en"? Th&(’s no( %ike youThe 8o%$ con(inue" (o s(&re &( us, his $&ce be(r&ying no(hing- “8hy &re you re&% y here? ! &ske"- “8h&( "o you w&n(? “The on%y (hing he re&% y c&res &bou(0 A "ise)bo"ie" 'oice c&)e $ro) o'erhe&", &n" #ri)&%kin &**e&re" in (he br&nches o$ & (ree, ne&r%y (wen(y $ee( o$$ (he groun"- “PowerThe h&ir on (he 8o%$ ’s b&ck &n" shou%"ers bris(%e", (hough he g&2e" &( #ri)&%kin wi(h & $&in(, e'i% s)i%e on his %ong )u22%e- “He% o, c&(, he s&i" con'ers&(ion&% y- “! (hough( ! c&ugh( your s(ench cree*ing (hrough (he &ir- 8hy no( co)e "own here &n" (&%k &bou( )e? “3o no( "e)e&n yourse%$ by s(&(ing (he ri"icu%ous, #ri)&%kin re*%ie" s)oo(h%y- “6us( bec&use )y s*ecies is '&s(%y su*erior "oes no( )e&n you shou%" $ %&un( your i"iocy so $ree%y- ! know why you &re here, "og“Re&% y, Puck c&% e", cr&ning his he&" (o %ook u* &( (he c&(- “8e% (hen, wou%" you %ike (o sh&re your (heory, ;urb&% ? #ri)&%kin sni$$e"- “3o you *eo*%e no( know &ny(hing? 1(&n"ing u*, he w&%ke" &%ong (he br&nch, (he 8o%$ ’s g&2e $o% owing hi) hungri%y- “He is here bec&use he wishes (o &"" his n&)e (o your (&%e- His *ower, his en(ire, co)es $ro) s(ories, $ro) )y(hs &n" %egen"s &n" &% (he "&rk, $righ(ening &n" &)using (&%es &bou( hi) (h&( hu)&ns h&'e in'en(e" o'er (he ye&rs- !( is how (he +ig +&" 8o%$ h&s sur'i'e" $or so %ong- !( is how you h&'e sur'i'e" $or cen(uries, #oo"$e% ow- 1ure%y you know (his“8e% , ye&h, o$ course ! knew (h&(, Puck sco$$e", crossing his &r)s- “+u( (h&( s(i% "oesn’( (e% )e why 8o%$)&n is being so he%*$u% &% o$ & su""en“You &re on & 9ues(, (he 8o%$ wen( on, $in&% y (e&ring his g&2e &w&y $ro) (he c&( (o %ook &( )e- “The 9ueen (o%" )e o$ (his- Th&( you, & sou% ess &n" i))or(&% being, wish (o beco)e hu)&n $or (he )or(&% you %o'e- He *&use" &n" shook his he&" in gru"ging &")ir&(ion, or *erh&*s *i(y- “Th&( is & s(ory- Th&( is & (&%e (h&( wi% en"ure $or gener&(ions, i$ you c&n sur'i'e (he (ri&%s, o$ course- +u( e'en i$ you "on’(, e'en i$ (his (&%e beco)es &

(r&ge"y, )y n&)e wi% s(i% be in i(, &""ing (o )y s(reng(h- He n&rrowe" his eyes, s(&ring )e "own- “O$ course, i( wou%" be & be((er (&%e i$ you )&n&ge (o re&ch your "es(in&(ion- ! c&n he%* you in (h&( res*ec(- !( wi% )&ke (he s(ory %onger &nyw&y“8h&( )&kes you (hink we nee", or w&n(, your he%*? #ri)&%kin &ske" %o$(i%yThe 8o%$ g&'e )e &n eerie s)i%e, &% $&ngs, &n" his eyes g%in(e" in (he sh&"ows- “! wi% be in (his (&%e one w&y or &no(her, %i((%e *rince, he w&rne"“Ei(her &s (he gre&( wo%$ (h&( *ro(ec(s &n" gui"es you (o your "es(in&(ion, or &s (he (ire%ess e'i% (h&( (r&cks you (hrough (he nigh(, h&un(ing your s(e*s &n" your "re&)s- ! h&'e been bo(h, &n" such ro%es &re e&sy $or )e (o s%i* in(o- ! %e&'e (he choice (o you8e s(&re" &( e&ch o(her $or & %ong )o)en(, (wo hun(ers si2ing e&ch o(her u*, checking s(reng(hs &n" we&knesses- ;in&% y, ! no""e" &n" c&re$u% y she&(he" )y b%&"e“A% righ(, ! s&i" &s Puck b%inke" &n" #ri)&%kin snor(e" in "isgus(- “!’% &cce*( your he%* $or now- +u( ! )&ke no *ro)ises &bou( our con(inue" &% i&nce“Nei(her "o !, boy- The 8o%$ reg&r"e" )e (he w&y & c&( wou%" obser'e & )ouse- “1o, now (h&( we h&'e &n un"ers(&n"ing, wh&( shou%" we "o $irs(? O'erhe&", #ri)&%kin sighe", 'ery %ou"%y- “7nbe%ie'&b%e, he s&i", &n" (he 8o%$ grinne" &( hi) &n" r&n & *ink (ongue o'er his /&ws- #ri)&%kin w&s no( i)*resse"- “,&y ! re)in" you, he con(inue" in (h&( s&)e bore", &nnoye" (one, “(h&( ou( o$ (his en(ire *&r(y, on%y ! know (he w&y (o (he seer- An" i$ & cer(&in "og $orge(s i(s )&nners, you wi% &% be u* (he ri'er wi(hou( & *&""%e, so (o s*e&k- Re)e)ber (h&(, *rince“You he&r" hi), ! (o%" (he 8o%$, who cur%e" & %i* &( )e- “No ch&sing or &((&cking our gui"e- 8e s(i% nee" hi) (o re&ch (he seer“P%e&se- #ri)&%kin sni$$e", &n" %e&*e" (o &no(her br&nch- “As i$ ! wou%" e'er &% ow (h&( (o h&**en- This w&y, &n" "o (ry (o kee* u*CHAPTER ;!CE

A$(er %e&'ing (he %&ke &n" (he "e&" b&% ybog 'i% &ge, we $o% owe" #ri)&%kin (hrough &no(her (&ng%e" $ores( &n" &cross & rocky *%&(e&u, (he gre&( b%&ck 8o%$ (r&i%ing noise%ess%y behin" us- The (wo &ni)&%s "i"n’( s*e&k (o e&ch o(her, bu( (he 8o%$ ke*( his "is(&nce $ro) (he c&(, e'en when (r&'e%ing &cross (he o*en *%&ins, so i( see)e" (h&( (hey h&" worke" ou( so)e sor( o$ (ruce- A b&si%isk s(irre" on & rocky she%$, eyeing us hungri%y &s we *&sse" bene&(h, bu( (he 8o%$ si%en(%y cur%e" his %i*, b&ring his $&ngs, &n" (he )ons(er &**e&re" (o %ose in(eres(A$(er we crosse" (he *%&(e&u, (he groun" (urne" sh&r*%y "ownhi% &n" (hick, (horny br&)b%es s(&r(e" &**e&ring, choking ou( (he (rees- 8hen we re&che" (he bo((o) o$ (he s%o*e, (he bri&rs rose &roun" us %ike & s*iny )&2e, r&gge" wis*s o$ $og c&ugh( be(ween (heir br&nches- The groun" w&s we( &n" s*ongy, s&(ur&(e" wi(h w&(er, )u" &n" so)e(hing e%se- 1o)e(hing "&rk h&" see*e" in(o (he e&r(h, (urning (he groun" b%&ck &n" *oisone"The &ir w&s s(i% , si%en( &s & gr&'eA no(hing )o'e" in (he sh&"ows or be(ween (he (horns, no( e'en insec(s“This is &s $&r &s ! go-

1(&r(%e", we bo(h (urne" (o #ri)&%kin, si((ing (igh(%y on & *&(ch o$ "ry groun", w&(ching us- “;ro) here, he s&i", reg&r"ing e&ch o$ us in (urn, “you &re on your own“8h&(? Puck e.c%&i)e"- “You )e&n you’re no( going (o 'en(ure in(o (he ho% ow o$ "e&(h wi(h us? 1hocking- 8h&( kin" o$ )ons(er "o you (hink %i'es here, ice-boy? !( h&s (o be *re((y n&s(y $or ;urb&% (o $ %&ke ou( on us- Oh, w&i(> #ri)&%kin $ %&((ene" his e&rs bu( o(herwise ignore" (he 1u))er $&ery- The 8o%$ sni$$e" (he &ir, grow%e" %ow in his ches(, &n" (he h&ck%es rose &%ong his s*ine- “This *%&ce, he )u((ere", cur%ing & %i*, “is no( righ(- He shook hi)se%$ &n" (ook & s(e* $orw&r"- “!’% scou( &he&", see i$ i(’s0 “No, #ri)&%kin s&i", &n" (he 8o%$ (urne" on hi) wi(h & grow%- The c&i( si(h $&ce" hi) serious%y, his ye% ow eyes in(ense- “You )us( re)&in hereThe '&% ey wi% no( (o%er&(e in(ru"ers- This *&r( o$ (he /ourney is $or (he), &n" (he) &%oneThe 8o%$ &n" (he c&( %ocke" eyes, s(&ring e&ch o(her "own- #ri)&%kin "i" no( b%ink, &n" so)e(hing in (he c&(’s s(e&"y g&2e )us( h&'e con'ince" (he )uch %&rger wo%$Re%uc(&n(%y, he no""e" &n" (ook & s(e* b&ck- “Cery we% , he grow%e"- “! wi% scou( &%ong (he *eri)e(er, (hen- He sho( & g%&re &( )e &n" Puck- “!$ you (wo nee" )y he%*, /us( scre&)He (urne" swi$(%y &n" (ro((e" &w&y, )e%(ing in(o (he sh&"ows &n" (he (rees- #ri)&%kin w&(che" hi) go &n" (urne" (o us“! h&'e brough( you &s $&r &s ! c&n, he s&i", rising gr&ce$u% y (o his $ee(, *%u)e" (&i% w&'ing- “The $in&% $ew s(e*s &re u* (o you- His g&2e n&rrowe", w&(ching us gri)%y“+o(h o$ youA coi% o$ )is( cur%e" &cross (he *%&ce where #ri)&%kin s&(, &n" he w&s gonePuck crosse" his &r)s, g&2ing *&s( (he e"ge o$ (he '&% ey in(o (he "&rkness &n" (horns“Ye*- He sighe"- “A re&% y, re&% y n&s(y )ons(er, in"ee"! g&2e" in(o (he ho% ow, w&(ching (he )is( wri(he (hrough (he (horns, cre&(ing sh&"ows &n" "r&gons where (here w&s no(hing- 1i%ence hung (hick on (he &irA no( & *e&ce$u%, serene si%ence, bu( (he si%ence o$ & (o)b, or (he &$(er)&(h o$ & b&((%e, where "e&(h &n" "&rkness (hri'e" &n" (he %i'ing h&" no *%&ce- ! cou%" he&r (he whis*ers o$ h&(e &n" $e&r (h&( hisse" (hrough (he br&)b%es, ghos(s on (he win"- ! cou%" he&r (he) c&% )y n&)e1o)e(hing in )e recoi%e", re%uc(&n( (o se( $oo( in (h&( "&rk '&% ey- !( w&s w&i(ing $or )e, so)ewhere beyon" (he )is(- 1(i% w&(ching;i% e" wi(h & $orebo"ing ! cou%"n’( e.*%&in, ! "rew b&ck, (hen s(o**e", &ngry wi(h )yse%$8hy (his su""en $e&r? ;e&r )e&n( no(hing (o )e- ;e&r w&s (he know%e"ge o$ *&in, (he &w&reness (h&( you cou%" be hur(, (h&( you cou%" "ie- Th&( w&s &% i( c&)e "own (o- ! knew *&in- !n(i)&(e%y- !’" we%co)e" i( &( (i)es, bec&use i( )e&n( ! cou%" s(i% $ee%, (h&( ! w&sn’( co)*%e(e%y $ro2en- 8h&( )ore cou%" &ny(hing "o (o )y bo"y (h&( ! h&"n’( &%re&"y %i'e" (hrough? No""ing (o Puck, ! "rew )y swor" &n" s(e**e" in(o (he ho% ow, $ee%ing (he )is( coi% &roun" )e &s we s%i**e" in(o (he $og-

A gr&y shrou" en'e%o*e" us ins(&n(%y, %i( by & $ %&(, e'en g%ow (h&( so)ehow )&n&ge" (o "&rken e'ery(hing- No(hing )o'e" in (he ho% owA &% %i$e h&" been sw&% owe" by (he (hick b%&ck bri&rs (h&( s*r&ng u* e'erywhere, choking e'ery(hing ou(- The groun" bene&(h us w&s we( &n" s*ongy, (hough (he wri(hing %&yer o$ )is( )&"e i( i)*ossib%e (o see wh&( we were s(e**ing onAs ! )o'e" (hrough (he br&)b%es, )y swor" he%" u* &n" re&"y, ! beg&n (o sense (he wrongness o$ (he '&% ey, righ( be%ow )y $ee(- The groun" *u%se" wi(h h&(e &n" b%oo" &n" "es*&irA ! cou%" $ee% i( c%&wing &( )e, (he "&rkness o$ (his *%&ce- ! cou%" $ee% )y 7nsee%ie n&(ure rise u* in res*onse, co%", ru(h%ess &n" &ngry“This *%&ce is curse", Puck )u((ere" &s ! s(rugg%e" (o con(ro% )yse%$, (o s(i$ %e (he "&rkness rising wi(hin- “8e nee" (o $in" (his seer &n" ge( ou( o$ here, soon“Ash, so)e(hing whis*ere" (hrough (he br&)b%es, r&ising (he h&ir on )y neck- ! whir%e", bu( no one w&s (here“!ce-boy? Puck s(e**e" $orw&r", eyes n&rrowe" in concern- “Ash- You &% righ(? An", $or /us( & )o)en(, ! w&n(e" (o ki% hi)- ! w&n(e" (o (&ke )y swor" &n" *%unge i( "ee* in(o his ches(, (o w&(ch (he %igh( $&"e $ro) his eyes righ( be$ore he cru)*%e" &( )y $ee(- Turning &w&y, ! s(rugg%e" (o co)*ose )yse%$, (o s(i$ %e (he co%" r&ge ebbing (hrough )e- The "e)on insi"e w&s s(irring, unwi% ing (o ho%" b&ck &ny %onger, &n" (he core o$ (he r&ge w&s "irec(e", %ike & s*e&rhe&", &( Puck“Ash, (he 'oice whis*ere" &g&in, &n" ! %ooke" u*1e'er&% y&r"s &w&y, b&re%y 'isib%e (hrough (he )is(, & ghos(%y, g%owing $igure w&%ke" (hrough & s*&ce be(ween (he bri&rs, c&(ching )y eye &n" (hen '&nishing $ro) sigh(- ,y bre&(h c&ugh( in )y (hro&(;orge((ing Puck, $orge((ing e'ery(hing (h&( h&" brough( us here, ! $o% owe" (he $igure in(o (he )is(- Coices hisse" &( )e (hrough (he br&)b%es, $&in( &n" inco)*rehensib%e, (hough e'ery so o$(en ! he&r" (he) whis*er )y n&)e- ! c&ugh( g%i)*ses o$ (he %one $igure (hrough (he br&nches, &%w&ys w&%king &w&y $ro) )e, /us( ou( o$ re&ch- 1o)ewhere in (he )is(, ! he&r" Puck c&% )y n&)e &s he (rie" (o $o% ow, bu( ! ignore" hi)- Ahe&" o$ )e, (he (horns $in&% y (hinne", &n" (he ghos(%y $igure s(ro"e *ur*ose$u% y $orw&r", ne'er g%&ncing b&ck- !( (urne" & corner, &n" ! hurrie" (o c&(ch u*>The br&)b%es $e% &w&y, &n" ! $oun" )yse%$ in & s)&% c%e&ring, (hick bri&rs he))ing )e in on ei(her si"e- +e$ore )e, rising ou( o$ (he )is(, & b%e&che"-whi(e ske%e(on %&y s*r&w%e" in (he )u" &n" s(&gn&n( w&(er o$ (he c%e&ring- The ske%e(on w&s huge, &n enor)ous re*(i%i&n cre&(ure wi(h (hick hin" %egs &n" & %ong, *ower$u% (&i%- 8ingbones %&y $o%"e" bene&(h i(, sn&**e" &n" broken, &n" (he huge /&ws were o*en in & %&s(, si%en( ro&r! s(&r(e" (o sh&ke- No( wi(h $e&r, bu( wi(h co)*%e(e, &% consu)ing $ury, &n" "es*&ir burne" )y (hro&( %ike bi%e- ! knew (his *%&ce- ! recogni2e" where we were &( %&s(- !( w&s here, on (his s*o(, (h&( Puck, Arie% & &n" ! h&" $ough( &n" ki% e" & )ons(rous wy'ern, s%&ying i( bu( %osing one o$ our own in (he *rocess- This w&s (he ho% ow where Arie% & "ie"- This w&s (he *%&ce where !’" 'owe" (o ki% Puck- !( h&" &% s(&r(e" righ( here!( wou%" en" here, &s we% “Ash! ;oo(s(e*s s*%&she" behin" )e, &s Puck c&)e in(o (he c%e&ring &n" s(u)b%e" (o &

h&%(, *&n(ing- “3&))i(, iceboy, wh&(’s go((en in(o you? Ne.( (i)e, gi'e )e & he&"s-u* (h&( you’re (&king o$$- 3on’( %e&'e & guy s(&n"ing in & cree*y, )is(-$i% e" ho% ow o$ "e&(h &% by hi)se%$con'er( *ower*oin( (o 'i"eo “3o you know where we &re? ! &ske" so$(%y, no( (urning &roun"- ! $e%( his *u22%e)en(, (hen he&r" his su""en in(&ke o$ bre&(h &s he re&%i2e"- ! gri**e" )y swor" &n" s*un s%ow%y (o $&ce hi), $ee%ing "&rkness s*re&" (hrough )e %ike & rush o$ ink- The 7nsee%ie "e)on w&s $u% y &w&ke now, (he icy b&rrier (h&( he%" i( &( b&y sh&((ere"- ,e)ories rose u*, $resh &n" *&in$u%B (he hun(, (he ch&se in(o (he ho% ow &( Puck’s insis(ence, (he ro&r o$ (he )ons(er &s i( ch&rge" wi(h %e(h&% s*ee"- R&ge &n" "es*&ir swir%e" &roun" )eA whe(her )ine or (he )e)ories o$ (his "&rk *%&ce, ! "i"n’( knowNor "i" ! c&re- ,ee(ing Puck’s eyes, ! s(&r(e" $orw&r"“Ash, Puck s&i", b&cking &w&y, his eyes w&ry &n" hoo"e", “w&i(- 8h&( &re you "oing? “! (o%" you- ! &"'&nce" s(e&"i%y, c&%)%y, (he swor" he&'y in )y h&n"- “! w&rne" you (h&( i( wou%" be soon- !(’s (i)e, Puck- To"&y“No( now- He *&%e", &n" "rew his "&ggers- ! "i"n’( s(o*, &n" he circ%e" wi(h )e, his we&*ons he%" u* &n" re&"y- “Ash, ge( & ho%" o$ yourse%$, he s&i", &%)os( *%e&"ing- “8e c&n’( "o (his now- You’re no( here $or her“5ook &( where we &re! ! ro&re", swee*ing )y b%&"e (ow&r" (he b%e&che" ske%e(on in (he )u"- “!$ no( now, when? This is (he *%&ce, Puck! This is (he *%&ce she "ie"- ! %os( Arie% & righ( here- +ec&use o$ you! ,y 'oice broke, &n" ! sucke" in & bre&(h &s Puck s(&re" &( )e wi(h wi"e eyes- !’" ne'er s&i" (hose wor"s (o hi)A i( w&s &%w&ys &n uns*oken $eu" (h&( "ro'e us (o $igh( e&ch o(her- 8e bo(h knew (he re&son, bu( !’" ne'er &ccuse" Puck ou( %ou", un(i% now“You know ! "i"n’( )e&n $or (h&( (o h&**en- Puck’s 'oice shook &s we con(inue" (o circ%e e&ch o(her, b%&"es b&re &n" g%i((ering in (he $&in( %igh(- “! %o'e" her, (oo, *rince“No( %ike )e- ! cou%"n’( s(o* )yse%$ now- The r&ge w&s & co%", &% -consu)ing $ire, $e" $ro) (he "&rkness o$ (he e&r(h, $ro) (he grie$ &n" h&(e &n" *&in$u% )e)ories (h&( h&" see*e" in(o (his s*o(- “An" (h&( "oesn’( ch&nge (he $&c( (h&( her "e&(h is on your he&"- !$ !’" ki% e" you when we $irs( )e(, %ike ! w&s su**ose" (o, she wou%" s(i% be &%i'e! “You "on’( (hink ! know (h&(? Puck w&s shou(ing now, green eyes $e'erish- “You "on’( (hink ! regre( wh&( ! "i", e'ery sing%e "&y? You %os( Arie% &, bu( ! %os( you bo(h! +e%ie'e i( or no(, ! w&s kin" o$ & )ess, (oo, Ash- !( go( (o & *oin( where ! &c(u&% y %ooke" $orw&r" (o our r&n"o) "ue%s, bec&use (h&( w&s (he on%y (i)e ! cou%" (&%k (o you- 8hen you were $re&king (rying (o ki% )e! “3on’( co)*&re your %oss (o )ine, ! sn&r%e"- “You h&'e no i"e& wh&( ! wen( (hrough, wh&( you c&use"“You (hink ! "on’( know *&in? Puck shook his he&" &( )e- “Or %oss? !’'e been &roun" & %o( %onger (h&n you, *rince! ! know wh&( %o'e is, &n" !’'e %os( )y $&ir sh&re, (oo- 6us( bec&use we h&'e & "i$$eren( w&y o$ h&n"%ing i(, "oesn’( )e&n ! "on’( h&'e sc&rs o$ )y own-

“N&)e one, ! sco$$e"- “#i'e )e one ins(&nce where you h&'en’(0 “,egh&n Ch&se! Puck ro&re", s(&r(%ing )e in(o si%ence- ! b%inke", &n" he sneere" &( )e“Ye&h, your highness- ! know wh&( %oss is- !’'e %o'e" (h&( gir% since be$ore she knew )e+u( ! w&i(e"- ! w&i(e" bec&use ! "i"n’( w&n( (o %ie &bou( who ! w&s- ! w&n(e" her (o know (he (ru(h be$ore &ny(hing e%se1o ! w&i(e", &n" ! "i" )y /ob- ;or ye&rs, ! *ro(ec(e" her, bi"ing )y (i)e, un(i% (he "&y she wen( in(o (he Ne'erne'er &$(er her bro(her- An" (hen you c&)e &%ong- An" ! s&w how she %ooke" &( you- An" $or (he $irs( (i)e, ! w&n(e" (o ki% you &s )uch &s you w&n(e" (o ki% )e“1o, here, *rince! he s&i", &n" wi(hou( w&rning, $ %i**e" his "&ggers &( )e- They s(ruck (he groun" &( )y $ee(, hi%(s u*, g%in(ing in (he "i) %igh(- “!’) (ire" o$ $igh(ing- You w&n( your re'enge? He s(r&igh(ene" &n" $ %ung his &r)s wi"e, g%&ring &( )e- “Co)e &n" (&ke i(! This is (he *%&ce where she "ie", where i( &% s(&r(e"- Here ! &), Ash0s(rike )e "own &%re&"y- ! won’( e'en $igh( you- 5e(’s en" (his, once &n" $or &% ! The r&ge in )e boi%e"- R&ising )y swor", ! wen( $or hi), swee*ing (he b%&"e "own &( his neck, & b%ow (h&( wou%" s%ice (hrough his co% &rbone &n" ou( (he o(her si"e- ! wou%" en" (his, righ( here- Puck "i"n’( )o'e, nor "i" his g&2e s(r&y $ro) )ine &s ! %unge" $orw&r"He "i"n’( $ %inch &s (he we&*on s%ice" "own in & b%ur o$ icy b%ue0 0&n" s(o**e",y h&n"s shook, &n" (he swor" (re)b%e" &g&ins( Puck’s co% &rbone, (he e"ge "r&wing (he $&in(es( %ine o$ re" &g&ins( his skin- ! w&s *&n(ing, bre&(hing h&r", bu( he s(i% w&(che" )e, his $&ce b%&nk, &n" ! cou%" see )y (or(ure" re$ %ec(ion in his eyes- 3o i(, (he r&ge whis*ere" &s ! s(rugg%e" (o )&ke )y &r)s )o'e, (o $inish wh&( !’" s(&r(e"- 1(rike hi) "own- This is wh&( you’'e &%w&ys w&n(e"- En" (he $eu", &n" kee* your *ro)isePuck (ook & "ee*, c&re$u% bre&(h &n" s*oke so$(%y, &%)os( & whis*er- “!$ you’re going (o "o i(, *rince, "o i( now- The &n(ici*&(ion is ki% ing )e! s(r&igh(ene", br&cing )yse%$ $or (he "ee"- Robin #oo"$e% ow wou%" "ie (o"&y- !( h&" (o en" %ike (his- !( "i"n’( )&((er (h&( Puck h&" %os( /us( &s )uch &s ! h&", (h&( his *&in w&s /us( &s gre&(, (h&( he %o'e" ,egh&n enough (o s(e* &si"e, (o bow ou( gr&ce$u% y- Ne'er )in" (h&( he %o'e" her so )uch he wou%" /oin his sworn ene)y on & se&rch $or (he i)*ossib%e, /us( (o ensure her h&**iness- He w&s here, no( bec&use o$ )e, bu( bec&use o$ herNone o$ (h&( )&((ere"- ! h&" sworn &n o&(h, here, on (his 'ery s*o(, &n" ! h&" (o see i( (hrough! gri**e" (he swor" h&n"%e, s(ee%ing )yse%$- Puck s(oo" rock-s(i% , w&i(ing- ! r&ise" (he swor" &g&in>&n" whir%e" &w&y wi(h & ro&r o$ $rus(r&(ion, $ %inging )y we&*on in(o (he ne&res( br&)b%e *&(chPuck cou%"n’( 9ui(e conce&% his sigh o$ re%ie$ &s ! s(&%ke" &w&y, re(re&(ing in(o (he )is( &n" ou( o$ sigh( be$ore ! $e% &*&r(- 3ro**ing (o )y knees, ! s%&))e" )y $is( in(o (he )u" &n" bowe" )y he&", wishing (he e&r(h wou%" o*en u* &n" sw&% ow )e who%e- ! shook wi(h &nger, wi(h grie$ &n" se%$%o&(hing &n" regre(- Regre( o$ wh&( cons*ire" here- Th&( ! h&" $&i%e"- Th&( ! h&" e'er )&"e (h&( 'ow (o ki% )y c%oses( $rien"-

!’) sorry, Arie%%&- ;orgi'e )e- !’) we&k- ! w&sn’( &b%e (o kee* )y *ro)iseHow %ong ! kne%( (here, ! "i"n’( know- Perh&*s on%y )inu(es, bu( be$ore ! cou%" re&% y co)*ose )yse%$, ! h&" (he su""en know%e"ge (h&( ! w&sn’( &%one- 8on"ering i$ Puck w&s re&% y $oo%ish enough (o bo(her )e now, ! r&ise" )y he&"!( w&sn’( PuckA robe" $igure s(oo" &( (he e"ge o$ (he )is(, *&%e &n" in"is(inc(, b%en"ing in(o (he surroun"ing $og- !(s cow% w&s r&ise", showing no(hing bu( "&rkness bene&(h (he hoo", bu( ! cou%" $ee% i(s eyes on )e, w&(ching! rose s%ow%y, )usc%es (ense" (o %e&* &w&y shou%" (he s(r&nger )&ke &ny )o'e (o &((&ck- ! wishe" ! h&" )y swor", bu( (here w&s no (i)e (o regre( (h&( now8&(ching (he s(r&nger, ! $e%( & g%i))er o$ recogni(ion- 8e’" )e( be$ore, recen(%y in $&c(This w&s (he s&)e *resence ! h&" $e%( in )y nigh()&re o$ (he !ron Re&%), (he one kee*ing /us( ou( o$ sigh(, ho%"ing )e (o (he "re&)wor%"- An" &s )y )e)ory re(urne" wi(h (he sh&((ere" *ieces o$ )y co)*osure, ! $in&% y rec&% e" why we were here, who we h&" co)e (o $in"“You &re>(he seer? ! &ske" so$(%y- ,y 'oice c&)e ou( sh&ky &n" w&s sw&% owe" by (he coi%ing $og, bu( (he robe" $igure no""e"- “Then>you know why !’'e co)eAno(her no"- “Yes, (he seer whis*ere", i(s 'oice so$(er (h&n (he )is( &roun" us- “! know why you &re here, Ash o$ (he 8in(er Cour(- The re&% 9ues(ion is>"o you? ! (ook & bre&(h (o &nswer, bu( (he seer s(e**e" $orw&r" &n" *ushe" b&ck i(s hoo"The wor%" $e% ou( $ro) un"er )e- ! s(&re", s(&ggere" &n" $ro2en in & w&y (h&( h&" no(hing (o "o wi(h win(er“He%%o, Ash, Arie%%& whis*ere"- “!(’s been & %ong (i)e-


! s(&re" &( (he $igure be$ore )e, h&r"%y &b%e (o wr&* )y )in" &roun" i(- !( %ooke" %ike Arie% &, soun"e" %ike her- E'en &$(er &% (hese ye&rs, ! knew (he e.&c( %i%( o$ her 'oice, (he sub(%es( (i%( o$ her he&"- +u(>i( w&sn’( her- !( cou%"n’( be- This w&s & (rick, or *erh&*s & )e)ory, brough( (o %i$e by (he "e*(h o$ e)o(ion &roun" us- Arie% & w&s "e&"- 1he h&" been $or & %ong (i)e“No, ! whis*ere", sh&king )y he&", (rying "es*er&(e%y (o reg&in )y sc&((ere" wi(s“This>(his isn’( re&%- You’re no( re&%- Arie% & is>gone- ,y 'oice broke, &n" ! shook )y he&" &ngri%y- “This isn’( re&%, ! re*e&(e", wi% ing )y he&r( (o be%ie'e i(- “8h&(e'er you

&re, %e&'e (his *%&ce- 3on’( (or)en( )e $ur(herThe robe" $igure g%i"e" $orw&r", coi%s o$ )is( *&r(ing $or her &s she c&)e (ow&r" )e- ! w&n(e" (o )o'e, (o "r&w b&ck, bu( )y bo"y w&sn’( working righ( &ny)ore- ! )igh( &s we% h&'e been $ro2en, he%*%ess, &s (he (hing (h&( %ooke" %ike Arie% & "rew 'ery c%ose, so c%ose ! cou%" see (he $ %ecks o$ si%'er in her eyes, s)e% (he $&in( scen( o$ c%o'es (h&( h&" &%w&ys surroun"e" herArie% & g&2e" &( )e & )o)en(, (hen r&ise" one *&%e, s%en"er h&n" &n" %&i" i(0coo% &n" so%i"0&g&ins( )y cheek“3oes (his $ee% %ike & )e)ory, Ash? she whis*ere" &s )y bre&(h hi(che" &n" )y knees ne&r%y buck%e"- ! c%ose" )y eyes, unwi% ing (o ho*e, (o h&'e i( ri**e" $ro) )e once )ore- T&king )y %i)* h&n", Arie% & gui"e" i( (o her ches( &n" (r&**e" i( (here, so ! cou%" $ee% (he he&r(be&( un"er )y $ingers- “3oes (his? 3isbe%ie$ cru)b%e"- “You’re &%i'e, ! choke" ou(, &n" she s)i%e" &( )e, & s&", *&in$u% s)i%e (h&( he%" &% (he ye&rs o$ %oss &n" "es*&ir ! knew so we% - Her grie$ h&" been /us( &s $ierce, /us( &s consu)ing, &s )ine- “You’re &%i'e, ! whis*ere" &g&in, &n" *u% e" her (o )eHer &r)s s%i" &roun" )y w&is(, "r&wing us e'en c%oser, &n" she bre&(he" )y n&)e- ! he%" her $ierce%y, h&%$-&$r&i" she wou%" "isso%'e in(o )is( in )y &r)s- ! $e%( her he&r(be&(, (hu""ing &g&ins( )ine, %is(ene" (o her bre&(h on )y cheek, &n" $e%( (he cen(uries-o%" grie$ "isso%'ing, )e%(ing %ike $ros( in (he sun%igh(- ! cou%" b&re%y be%ie'e i(A ! "i"n’( know how i( cou%" be, bu( Arie% & w&s &%i'e- 1he w&s &%i'e- The nigh()&re w&s $in&% y o'er!( see)e" %ike &n e(erni(y be$ore we $in&% y *u% e" b&ck, bu( )y shock w&s no %ess se'ereAn" when she %ooke" &( )e wi(h (hose s(&r-$ %ecke" eyes, )y )in" s(i% h&" (roub%e &cce*(ing wh&( w&s righ( in $ron( o$ )e- “How? ! &ske", unwi% ing (o %e( her go /us( ye(8&n(ing0nee"ing0(o $ee% her, so%i" &n" re&% &n" &%i'e, *resse" &g&ins( )e- “! w&(che" you "ieArie% & no""e"- “Yes, i( w&sn’( & 'ery *%e&s&n( e.*erience, she s&i", &n" s)i%e" &( )y bewi%"ere" e.*ression- “There &re>& %o( o$ (hings (h&( nee" e.*%&ining, she con(inue", &n" & sh&"ow "&rkene" her $&ce- “! h&'e so )uch (o (e% you, Ash- +u( no( here- 1he s%i" b&ck, ou( o$ )y &r)s- “! h&'e & *%&ce no( $&r $ro) here- #o co% ec( Robin #oo"$e% ow, &n" (hen ! c&n (e% you bo(hA s(r&ng%e" noise in(erru*(e" us- ! (urne" (o see Puck s(&n"ing se'er&% y&r"s &w&y, s(&ring &( Arie% & wi(h &n o*en )ou(h- His green eyes were wi"er (hen !’" e'er seen (he)“!’)>seeing (hings, he s(&))ere", &n" his g&2e $ %ickere" (o )e- ;or /us( & )o)en(, ! s&w ho*e $ %&re in (heir "e*(hs- “Ash? Te% )e you see her, (oo!ncre"ib%y, Arie% & s)i%e" &( hi)- “He% o, Puck- !(’s goo" (o see you &g&in- An", no> you’re no( seeing (hings- !(’s re&% y )e- 1he he%" u* her h&n" &s Puck (ook & bre&(h- “! know you bo(h h&'e )&ny, )&ny 9ues(ions, bu( (his is no( (he *%&ce (o &sk (he)- ;o% ow )e, &n" (hen ! wi% (ry (o e.*%&in e'ery(hingNu)b%y, ! co% ec(e" )y swor" $ro) where !’" $ %ung i( "iscour(eous%y in(o (he bri&rs, &n" we $o% owe" Arie% & (hrough (he )is( &n" br&)b%es, her s*ec(r&% $or) g%i"ing (hrough (he $og %ike & ghos(- E&ch (i)e (he )is( coi%e" &roun" her *&%e $igure, )y he&r( (wis(e" in

$e&r, cer(&in (h&( when (he (en"ri%s *u% e" &w&y she wou%" be gone- +ehin" )e, Puck w&s si%en(A ! knew he w&s /us( &s "&2e", (rying (o co)e (o (er)s wi(h wh&( we h&" /us( seen &n" he&r"- ! w&s s(i% ree%ing $ro) (he shock, $ro) 9ues(ions (h&( swir%e" )&""ening%y in )y he&", &n" Puck w&s (he %&s( *erson ! w&n(e" (o (&%k (o8e (r&i%e" Arie% & (hrough & (hick he"ge, where (he )is( c%e&re" &w&y &n" (he bri&rs $or)e" & *ro(ec(i'e w&% &roun" & snowy g%en- #%&)our $i% e" (he (iny s*&ce, cre&(ing (he i% usion o$ gen(%y $&% ing snow, o$ icic%es (h&( hung on br&nches &n" & chi% in (he &ir, bu( no( e'ery(hing w&s $&n(&sy- A c%e&r *oo% g%i))ere" in (he cen(er o$ (he c%e&ring, &n" & %one e%"er (ree s(oo" besi"e i(, i(s br&nches he&'y wi(h *ur*%e berries- 1he%'es $u% o$ /&rs, "rie" *%&n(s &n" si)*%e bone (oo%s h&" been worke" in(o (he br&)b%e, &n" & n&rrow be" s(oo" bene&(h &n o'erh&ng o$ wo'en (h&(ch &n" iceArie% & w&%ke" o'er (o & she%$ &n" brushe" i)&gin&ry "us( $ro) be(ween (wo /&rs, see)ing (o co% ec( her (hough(s- ! g&2e" &roun" (he c%e&ring in won"er- “!s>is (his where you %i'e? ! &ske"- “A% (his (i)e, you’'e been here? “Yes- Arie% & (ook & "ee* bre&(h &n" (urne" &roun", s)oo(hing b&ck her h&ir- 1he’" &%w&ys "one (h&( when she w&s ner'ous- “1i(, i$ you w&n(1he ges(ure" (o &n o%" %og, rubbe" s)oo(h &n" shiny wi(h use, bu( ! cou%"n’( bring )yse%$ (o si(- Nei(her cou%" Puck, &**&ren(%y“1o, how %ong h&'e you been here, Ari? he &ske", &n" ! ins(&n(%y bris(%e" &( (he c&su&% use o$ his o%" nickn&)e $or her- He h&" no righ( (o s*e&k (o her &s i$ no(hing h&" h&**ene"- As i$ e'ery(hing w&s &% righ( now- “H&'e you been here since>(h&( "&y? A% &%one? 1he no""e", s)i%ing (ire"%y- “!(’s no( (he 8in(er *&%&ce by &ny )e&ns, bu( ! )&ke "o!rri(&(ion boi%e" o'er in(o re&% &nger now- ! (rie" (o s(i$ %e i(, bu( i( rose u* &nyw&y &s (he b%&ckes( ye&rs o$ )y see)e" (o "escen" on )e &% &( once- 1he h&" been here &% &%ong, &n" ne'er (hough( (o see )e, (o %e( us know she w&s s(i% &%i'e- A% (hose ye&rs o$ $igh(ing, ki% ing, &% $or no(hing- “8hy "i"n’( you (e% )e? ! "e)&n"e", &n" she wince" &s (hough she’" been e.*ec(ing (h&( 9ues(ion“Ash, be%ie'e )e, ! w&n(e" (o0 “+u( you "i"n’(- ! s(&%ke" o'er (o (he e%"er (ree, bec&use ! cou%"n’( re)&in )o(ion%ess &ny %onger- Her g&2e $o% owe" )e &s ! whir%e" b&ck, ges(uring (o (he g%&"e- “You’'e been here $or ye&rs, Ari, &n" you ne'er c&)e b&ck, ne'er )&"e &ny &((e)*( (o see )e &g&inYou %e( )e (hink you were "e&"! 8hy? ! w&s ne&r shou(ing now, )y co)*osure sh&((ere", bu( ! cou%"n’( he%* i(- “You cou%"’'e sen( wor", %e( )e know you were &% righ(! A% (hose ye&rs o$ (hinking you were gone, (h&( you were "e&"- 3i" you know wh&( ! w&s going (hrough? 8h&( we bo(h were going (hrough? Puck b%inke", s(&r(%e" (h&( ! wou%" inc%u"e hi) &s we% - ! ignore" hi), howe'er, s(i% $&cing Arie% &, who w&(che" )e s&"%y bu( o$$ere" no &rgu)en(- ! %e( )y &r)s "ro*, &n" )y &nger '&nishe" &s 9uick%y &s i( h&" co)e- “8hy "i"n’( you (e% )e? ! whis*ere"“+ec&use, h&" ! re(urne", you wou%" h&'e ne'er )e( ,egh&n Ch&se! $ro2e &( (he soun" o$ her n&)e-

Arie% & sighe", & ges(ure (h&( see)e" (o &ge her & hun"re" ye&rs, &n" s)oo(he" b&ck her h&ir once )ore- “!’) no( e.*%&ining i( we% &( &% , she )use", &%)os( (o herse%$- “5e( )e s(&r( &g&in, $ro) (he beginning- The "&y>! "ie"“!’'e &%w&ys been & %i((%e bi( o$ & seer, Arie% & beg&n, g&2ing no( &( )e, bu( &( (he *oo% in (he cen(er o$ (he g%&"e, &s i$ she cou%" g%i)*se (he $u(ure wi(hin- “E'en be$ore (he> &cci"en(>! cou%" so)e(i)es *re"ic( (hings- 1)&% (hings, ne'er i)*or(&n(- Ne'er enough (o (hre&(en or co)*e(e wi(h (he $&c(ions &( cour(- ,y $&(her (rie" (o use )y gi$( (o rise (o *ower, bu( he soon g&'e u* when he re&%i2e" )y 'isions ne'er showe" )e &ny(hing use$u%“Th&( "&y in (he ho% ow, she con(inue", her 'oice growing e'en so$(er, “when (he wy'ern s(ruck )e, so)e(hing h&**ene"- ! $e%( )yse%$ "ie, )y essence $&"e, beco)ing *&r( o$ (he Ne'erne'er- There w&s "&rkness, &n" (hen ! h&" & "re&)> & 'ision>o$ (he !ron $ey, (he ch&os (h&( wou%" co)e- An" (hen>! "on’( know- ! $oun" )yse%$ w&king u*, &%one, in (he *%&ce where ! "ie"- An" ! knew wh&( w&s co)ing- The !ron $ey- They wou%" "es(roy us, e.ce*( $or her“One gir%- The h&%$ "&ugh(er o$ Oberon, ,egh&n Ch&se- 8hen (he (i)e c&)e, when (he !ron :ing se( his *%&ns in(o )o(ion &( %&s(, she wou%" s&'e us0i$ she cou%" sur'i'e (o $&ce (he ch&% enges &he&"Arie% & *&use", s)oo(hing b&ck her h&ir, her eyes on so)e(hing ! cou%" no( see- “! h&" )&ny 'isions o$ ,egh&n Ch&se, she wen( on in & "is(&n( 'oice- “! s&w her s(rugg%es &s c%e&r%y &s i$ (hey were h&**ening (o )e- The $u(ure is &%w&ys ch&nging0ne'er is (here & c%e&r *&(h (o (he en", &n" so)e o$ (he 'isions were (errib%e- ! s&w her "ie )&ny, )&ny (i)es- An" e&ch (i)e she *erishe", (he !ron $ey wou%" o'erco)e ;&ery- The !ron :ing (riu)*he" in (he en", "&rkness o'er(ook (he Ne'erne'er, &n" e'ery(hing we knew w&s "es(roye"“+u( she "i"n’( $&i%, Puck broke in- “1he won- 1he %e" &n &r)y o$ !ron $ey (o (he $&%se king’s $or(ress, kicke" "own (he "oor, (urne" (he o%" gee2er in(o & (ree, &n" bec&)e (he new 9ueen- +ec&use o$ her, (he !ron $ey &ren’( *oisoning (he Ne'erne'er &ny)ore, &s %ong &s (hey s(&y wi(hin (heir (erri(ory- 3e$ini(e%y no( (he Ar)&ge""on you *re"ic(e", AriArie% & no""e"- “Yes, &n" ! s&w (hose $u(ures &s we% , Robin #oo"$e% ow- +u( she w&s ne'er &%one- You were &%w&ys (here wi(h her, you &n" Ash bo(h- You ke*( her s&$e, he%*e" her succee"- !n (he en", she "e$e&(e" (he $in&% e'i% &n" c%&i)e" her "es(iny, bu( you were (he ones who en&b%e" her (o "o i(- 1he wou%" h&'e "ie" wi(hou( your he%*Arie% & sighe", $i""%ing wi(h (he br&nches o$ (he (ree, her g&2e "is(&n( &g&in- “! h&" )y own *&r( (o *%&y, o$ course, she con(inue" hesi(&n(%y, &s i$ (he (hings she’" "one were so)ehow "is(&s(e$u%- “! w&s (he *u**e( )&s(er, *u% ing (he s(rings, )&king sure &% (he *ieces were in *%&ce be$ore her &rri'&%- ! w&(che" $or (he signs o$ her co)ing- ! beg&n (he whis*ers (h&( 5e&n&nsi"he w&s *%&nning (o o'er(hrow (he cour(s, %e&"ing (o her e.i%e- ! sugges(e" (he gir% h&'e & gu&r"i&n (o w&(ch o'er her in (he )or(&% wor%"- An" ! )&"e sure (h&( & cer(&in c&( wou%" be on (he %ookou( $or (he h&%$hu)&n "&ugh(er o$ (he 1u))er :ing, shou%" she h&**en (o $&% in(o his (ree one "&y! $e%( bre&(h%ess, s(unne"- A% (he whi%e !’" been 'en(ing )y &nger &n" grie$ &g&ins( Puck, (he c&use o$ )y su$$ering h&" been *re*&ring $or so)e(hing $&r gre&(er- An" she h&"n’(

e'en been &b%e (o (e% )e &bou( i(Arie% & *&use" (hen, c%osing her eyes, her )ou(h (igh(ening- “! knew you wou%" $&% in %o'e wi(h her, Ash, she whis*ere"- “The 'isions showe" )e, ye&rs be$ore you wou%" see her $or (he $irs( (i)e- ! w&n(e" (o go (o you, (o %e( you know (h&( ! w&s &%i'e- ! knew wh&( you were going (hrough, ! he&r" o$ your o&(h &g&ins( Puck- ! w&n(e" (o (e% you so b&"%yHer 'oice w&'ere", )&king )y gu( (wis(- “+u( ! cou%"n’(- ! h&" (o %e( you )ee( her, $&% in %o'e wi(h her, beco)e her knigh(- +ec&use she nee"e" you- An" bec&use we &% nee"e" her (o succee"- ! be%ie'e ;&ery i(se%$ brough( )e b&ck (o ensure (he success o$ ,egh&n Ch&se- ! cou%"n’( %e( )y $ee%ings $or you s(&n" in (he w&y- !>! h&" (o %e( you go- 1he (ook & "ee* bre&(h, &n" her 'oice h&r"ene"- “! chose (o %e( you go“! knew you wou%" co)e here- Arie% & $&ce" )e, (he s(&rs g%i((ering in her (ur9uoise eyes- “E'en(u&% y, ! knew you wou%" co)e- ! know your 9ues(, Ash- An" ! know why you’re here- You w&n( (o beco)e hu)&n, (o be )or(&%, so you c&n go b&ck (o her- +u( (hings &ren’( so b%&ck-&n"-whi(e now, &re (hey? An" so ! wi% &sk & 9ues(ion o$ you- ! know wh&( you )us( "o (o beco)e )or(&%- +u( (he ro&" wi% be h&r", &n" so)e o$ us )igh( no( sur'i'e i(- 1o, (his is )y 9ues(ion- 3o you s(i% w&n( (o beco)e hu)&n? 3o you s(i% w&n( (o be wi(h ,egh&n Ch&se? ! (ook & s%ow bre&(h (o c&%) )y churning )in"- ! cou%"n’( &nswer, no( when (he %o'e "ec&"es "e&" w&s s(&n"ing no( $i'e y&r"s &w&y s(&ring &( )e- 8i(hou( & wor", ! (urne" &n" %e$( (he g%&"e, b&ck in(o (he )is(-shrou"e" ho% ow &n" (he si%ence o$ )y own (hough(s- ! $e%( Arie% &’s eyes on )e &s ! %e$(, bu( she "i" no( $o% owA%one, ! s(oo" in (he *%&ce where Arie% & "ie", (he gre&( wy'ern ske%e(on cur%e" &roun" (he e"ge, &n" (rie" (o *rocess &% (h&( h&" h&**ene"1he w&s &%i'e- A% (his (i)e, she h&" been &%i'e, knowing ! w&s ou( (here, w&(ching, ye( un&b%e (o con(&c( (o )e- 1he h&" been &%one $or so %ong- !( )us( h&'e been horrib%e $or her- !$ (he si(u&(ion h&" been re'erse", &n" ! w&s (he one w&(ching, knowing she wou%" $&% $or &no(her, i( wou%" h&'e "ri'en )e ins&ne- ! won"ere" i$ she h&" w&i(e" $or (his "&y, (he "&y ! $in&% y re(urne" (o (his s*o(, ho*ing (h&( we cou%" be (oge(her &g&in+u( (here w&s so)eone e%se now- 1o)eone who w&i(e" $or )e, who knew )y True N&)e &n" co))&n"e" )y %oy&%(y- 1o)eone !’" )&"e & *ro)ise (o! $e%( Puck’s *resence &( )y b&ck bu( "i"n’( (urn &roun"- “This is cr&2y, isn’( i(? he )u((ere", co)ing (o s(&n" besi"e )e- “8ho wou%"’'e (hough( she w&s here &% (his (i)e? !$ ! h&" known> He sighe", crossing his &r)s (o his ches(, %e((ing his 'oice (r&i% o$$“Things sure wou%"’'e (urne" ou( "i$$eren(%y, wou%"n’( (hey? “How "i" you know? ! &ske" wi(hou( (urning &roun", &n" $e%( his con$use" $rown &( )y b&ck- “How "i" you know ! wou%"n’( ki% you? “! "i"n’(, Puck s&i" wi(h $orce" cheer$u%ness- “! w&s re&% y, re&% y ho*ing you wou%"n’(Th&( wou%"’'e sucke" & %o(, ! (hink- He s(e**e" c%oser, /oining )e in s(&ring &( (he "e&" wy'ern- His ne.( wor"s, when (hey c&)e, were 'ery so$(- “1o, is (his (hing be(ween us $in&% y o'er? ! "i"n’( %ook &( hi)- “Arie% &’s &%i'e, ! )ur)ure"- “! (hink (h&( "isso%'es (he o&(h0! no %onger h&'e (o &'enge her "e&(h- 1o, i$ (h&(’s (rue, (hen>

yes- ! *&use", w&i(ing (o see i$ (he wor"s $e%( righ(, i$ ! cou%" s&y wh&( !’" w&n(e" (o s&y $or "ec&"es- !$ (he wor"s were & %ie, ! wou%" no( be &b%e (o s*e&k (he)- “!(’s o'er!(’s o'erPuck %e( ou( & sigh &n" %e( his he&" $&% b&ck, running his h&n"s (hrough his h&ir, & re%ie'e" grin crossing his $&ce- ! sho( hi) & si"ew&ys g%&nce“Th&( "oesn’( )e&n we’re &% righ(, ! w&rne", )os(%y ou( o$ h&bi(- “6us( bec&use !’) no( sworn (o ki% you &ny)ore "oesn’( )e&n ! won’(+u( i( w&s &n e)*(y (hre&(, &n" we bo(h knew i(- The re%ie$ o$ no( h&'ing (o ki% Puck, being $ree $ro) &n o&(h ! ne'er w&n(e", w&s (oo gre&(- ! w&sn’( $&i%ing &nyone by %e((ing hi) %i'e- ;or now, (he 7nsee%ie "e)on insi"e )e h&" been s&(e"Though !’" s*oken (he (ru(h when !’" s&i" we weren’( &% righ(- There w&s s(i% (oo )uch $igh(ing, (oo )uch &nger &n" h&(e &n" b&" b%oo" be(ween us8e bo(h h&" ye&rs o$ wor"s &n" &c(ions we regre((e", o%" woun"s (h&( wen( (oo "ee*“Puck, ! s&i" wi(hou( )o'ing, “(his ch&nges no(hing be(ween us- 3on’( ge( (oo co)$or(&b%e, (hinking ! won’( *u( & swor" (hrough your he&r(- 8e’re s(i% ene)ies- !( c&n’( e'er be (he w&y i( w&s“!$ you s&y so, *rince- Puck s)irke", (hen sur*rise" )e by (urning co)*%e(e%y serious“+u( righ( now, ! (hink you h&'e %&rger issues (o "e&% wi(h- He g%&nce" b&ck &( (he g%&"e, $rowning- “,egh&n &n" Arie% &0(h&(’s & choice !’" ne'er w&n( (o )&ke- 8h&( &re you going (o "o? ,egh&n &n" Arie% &- +o(h &%i'e- +o(h w&i(ing $or )e- The who%e si(u&(ion w&s co)*%e(e%y surre&%- ,egh&n w&s (he !ron 4ueen, $&r beyon" )y re&chArie% &0&%i'e, unch&nge" &n" who%e0w&i(e" /us( & $ew y&r"s &w&y- Possibi%i(ies &n" wh&(i$s sw&) (hrough )y he&"- ;or /us( & )o)en(, ! won"ere" wh&( wou%" h&**en i$ ! /us( s(&ye" here, wi(h Arie% &, $ore'erThe *&in w&s swi$( &n" i))e"i&(e- !( w&sn’( s(&bbing, or $iery, or unbe&r&b%e- ,ore %ike & $r&ying o$ )y inner se%$, & $ew (hre&"s (e&ring &w&y, '&nishing in(o (he e(her- ! wince" &n" s(i$ %e" & g&s*, ins(&n(%y &b&n"oning (h&( (r&in o$ (hough(- ,y 'ow, )y *ro)ise (o ,egh&n, w&s wo'en in(o )y 'ery essence, &n" bre&king i( wou%" unr&'e% )e, &s we% “,y *ro)ise s(i% s(&n"s, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, &n" (he g%i))ering (hre&"s o$ *&in '&nishe" &s swi$(%y &s (hey’" co)e- “!( "oesn’( )&((er wh&( ! w&n(, ! c&n’( gi'e u* now- ! h&'e (o kee* going“Pro)ises &si"e, (hen- Puck’s 'oice w&s h&r"er now, "is&**ro'ing- “!$ (here w&s no *ro)ise, Ash, no o&(h (h&( boun" you, wou%" you kee* going? 8h&( wou%" you "o righ( now, i$ you were $ree? “!> ! hesi(&(e", (hinking &bou( (he *&(hs (h&( h&" brough( )e here, (he i)*ossib%e choices, &n" (he (wo %i'es (h&( )e&n( e'ery(hing (o )e- “!>"on’( know- ! c&n’( &nswer (h&( righ( now“8e% , you’" be((er $igure i( ou( 9uick, *rince- Puck n&rrowe" his eyes, his 'oice $ir)“8e’'e screwe" bo(h (heir %i'es u* *re((y b&"- A( %e&s( you c&n )&ke i( righ( $or one o$ (he)- +u( you c&n’( h&'e i( bo(h w&ys, you know- Pre((y soon, you’re gonn& h&'e (o

)&ke & choice“! know- ! sighe", g%&ncing b&ck &( (he g%&"e, knowing she w&(che" )e, e'en now- “! knowArie% & w&s w&i(ing $or us when we re(urne", s(&n"ing un"er (he e%"er (ree, (&%king (o (he e)*(y br&nches- A( %e&s(, i( w&s e)*(y un(i% (wo go%"en eyes &**e&re" (hrough (he %e&'es, b%inking %&2i%y &s we c&)e in- #ri)&%kin y&wne" &s he s&( u*, cur%ing his (&i% &roun" his $ee(, &n" reg&r"e" us so%e)n%y“,&"e your "ecision, h&'e you? he *urre", "igging his c%&ws in(o (he br&nch ho%"ing hi) u*- “#oo"- A% (his &goni2ing w&s ge((ing r&(her (ri(e8hy "oes i( (&ke so %ong $or hu)&ns &n" gen(ry (o choose one *&(h or (he o(her? Puck b%inke" &( hi)- “Oh, %e( )e guess- You knew Arie% & w&s here &% &%ong“Your kin" "oes h&'e & $ %&ir $or s(&(ing (he ob'iousArie% & w&s w&(ching )e, her e.*ression unre&"&b%e- “8h&( is your "ecision, Ash o$ (he 8in(er Cour(? ! "rew c%ose enough (o see her $&ce, re&%i2ing i( h&"n’( ch&nge" in &% (he ye&rs she’" been gone- 1he w&s s(i% be&u(i$u%, her $&ce %o'e%y &n" *er$ec(, (hough (here were sh&"ows in her g&2e (h&( h&"n’( been be$ore- “You (o%" )e you knew (he w&y (o beco)ing )or(&%, ! s&i" so$(%y, w&(ching $or her re&c(ion- Her eyes (igh(ene" & bi(, bu( her e.*ression re)&ine" neu(r&% o(herwise- “! )&"e & *ro)ise, ! s&i" so$(%y- “! swore (o ,egh&n (h&( !’" $in" & w&y (o re(urn- ! c&n’( w&%k &w&y $ro) (h&(, e'en i$ ! w&n( (o- ! nee" (o know how (o beco)e )or(&%“Then i( is "eci"e"- Arie% & c%ose" her eyes $or & %ong )o)en(- 8hen she s*oke, her 'oice w&s %ow &n" "is(&n(, &n" i( r&ise" (he h&ir on (he b&ck o$ )y neck- “There is & *%&ce, she )ur)ure", “(h&( resi"es &( (he en" o$ (he Ne'erne'er- +eyon" (he +ri&rs (h&( surroun" ;&ery, beyon" (he 'ery e"ge o$ our wor%", (he &ncien( Tes(ing #roun"s h&'e s(oo" since (he beginning o$ (i)e- Here, (he #u&r"i&n &w&i(s (hose who wou%" esc&*e ;&ery $ore'er, who wish (o %e&'e (he wor%" o$ "re&)s &n" en(er (he hu)&n re&%)- +u( (o "o so, (hey )us( en"ure (he g&un(%e(- None who &cce*(e" (his ch&% enge re(urne" s&ne, i$ (hey re(urne" &( &% - +u( %egen" s(&(es (h&( i$ you c&n sur'i'e (he (ri&%s, (he #u&r"i&n wi% o$$er (he key (o beco)ing )or(&%The g&un(%e( wi% be your (es(, &n" (he *ri2e wi% be>your sou%“,y>sou%? Arie% & reg&r"e" )e so%e)n%y- “Yes- A sou% is (he essence o$ hu)&ni(y- !( is wh&( we %&ck (o beco)e )or(&%, &n" &s such, we c&nno( (ru%y un"ers(&n" hu)&ns- 8e were born $ro) (heir "re&)s, (heir $e&rs &n" i)&gin&(ions- 8e &re (he *ro"uc( o$ (heir he&r(s &n" )in"s8i(hou( & sou% we &re i))or(&%, ye( e)*(y- Re)e)bere", we ;orgo((en, we "ieAn" when we "ie, we si)*%y $&"e &w&y, &s i$ we ne'er" &( &% - To beco)e hu)&n is (o h&'e & sou%- !( is (h&( si)*%e! g%&nce" &( Puck &n" s&w hi) no""ing, &s i$ (his &% )&"e sense- “A% righ(, ! s&i", (urning b&ck (o Arie% &- “Then, ! nee" (o ge( (o (he Tes(ing #roun"s- 8here &re (hey? 1he s)i%e" s&"%y- “!( is no( & *%&ce you c&n /us( w&%k (o, Ash- No one who h&s gone (o (he

Tes(ing #roun"s h&s e'er sur'i'e"- Howe'er> Her eyes g%&2e" o'er, beco)ing &s "is(&n( &s (he s(&rs- “! h&'e seen i(, in )y 'isions- ! c&n show you (he w&y“C&n you? ! g&'e her & %ong, se&rching %ook- “An" wh&( wou%" you &sk in re(urn? 8h&( wou%" you h&'e )e swe&r? ! s(e**e" c%oser, "ro**ing )y 'oice so on%y she cou%" he&r“! c&n’( gi'e you b&ck (he *&s(, Arie% &- ! c&n’( *ro)ise i( wi% be (he s&)e- There’s> so)eone e%se now- A $&ce ri**%e" &cross )y )e)ory, "i$$eren( $ro) Arie% &’sA *&%eh&ire" &n" b%ueeye", s)i%ing &( )e- “This 9ues(, )y e&rning & sou%, is &% $or her“! know, Arie% & re*%ie"- “! s&w you (oge(her, Ash- ! know wh&( you $ee% $or her- You &%w&ys %o'e">so co)*%e(e%y- Her 'oice (re)b%e", &n" she (ook & "ee* bre&(h, )ee(ing )y g&2e- “A% ! &sk is (h&( you %e( )e he%* you- Th&(’s &% ! w&n(- 8hen ! s(i% hesi(&(e", she bi( her %i* &n" her eyes $i% e" wi(h (e&rs- “! h&'en’( seen you in ye&rs, Ash- ! w&i(e" $or (his "&y $or so %ong0*%e&se "on’( w&%k ou( &n" %e&'e )e behin"- No( &g&in#ui%( s(&bbe" &( )e, &n" ! c%ose" )y eyes- “A% righ(- ! sighe"- “! guess ! "o owe you (h&(- +u(, i( won’( ch&nge &ny(hing, Ari- ! h&'e (o kee* )y *ro)ise (o ,egh&n- ! won’( s(o* un(i% !’'e e&rne" & sou%1he no""e", &%)os( "is(r&c(e"- “!(’s & %ong w&y (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- Turning $ro) )e, she w&%ke" o'er (o (he she%'es, her ne.( wor"s &%)os( in&u"ib%e- “Any(hing c&n h&**en-


5e&'ing (he ho% ow wi(h Arie% &, Puck, &n" #ri)&%kin, ! w&s eeri%y re)in"e" o$ &no(her /ourney, one (h&( w&s "is(urbing%y si)i%&r (o (his- ! be%ie'e (he hu)&n s&ying w&s "E/F 'u, &n" i( "i" see) s(r&nge, (r&'e%ing wi(h 'ery ne&r%y (he s&)e co)*&nions &s be$ore,yse%$, #ri)&%kin, Robin #oo"$e% ow>&n" & gir%- !( w&s s(r&ngeA no( 'ery %ong &go, !’" (hough( ,egh&n re)in"e" )e o$ Arie% &, bu( now, w&(ching )y o%" %o'e g%i"e (hrough (he )is( &s she %e" us ou( o$ (he ho% ow, )y on%y re$ %ec(ion w&s how si)i%&r0&n" how "i$$eren(0Arie% & w&s (o ,egh&n! *ushe" (hose (hough(s &w&y, $ocusing on%y on (he (&sk &( h&n"- ! cou%" no( %e( )yse%$ be "is(r&c(e" $ro) )y go&%- ! cou%" no( s(&r( co)*&ring (he (wo, (he %o'e $ro) (he *&s( &n" (he gir% ! wou%" "o &ny(hing $or, bec&use i$ ! "i" ! wou%" go )&"The 8o%$ /oine" us &%)os( &s soon &s we %e$( (he ho% ow, )&(eri&%i2ing $ro) (he "&rkness wi(hou( & soun"- He sni$$e" Arie% & curious%y &n" wrink%e" his )u22%e &( her, bu( she

g&2e" &( hi) c&%)%y, &s i$ she h&" e.*ec(e" hi)- No in(ro"uc(ions were )&"e, &n" (he *&ir see)e" (o &cce*( e&ch o(her wi(hou( reser'&(ion5e&'ing (he ho% ow behin", we )&"e our w&y (hrough & $ores( o$ (horn (rees, bris(%ing &n" un$rien"%y, wi(h bi(s o$ bone, $ur &n" $e&(hers i)*&%e" be(ween (he)- No( on%y were (he (rees co'ere" in (horns, (he $ %owers, (he $erns, e'en (he rocks were &% *oin(e" &n" b&rbe", )&king i( i)*or(&n( (o w&(ch where we *u( our $ee(- 1o)e o$ (he (rees h&" (&ken o$$ense (o our *resence, or were si)*%y b%oo"(hirs(y, $or e'ery so o$(en (hey wou%" (&ke & swi*e &( us wi(h & g%e&)ing, bris(%ing br&nch- ! no(ice", wi(h & cer(&in &nnoy&nce, (h&( (hey %e$( (he 8o%$ co)*%e(e%y &%one, e'en )o'ing &si"e $or hi) (o *&ss be$ore (&king & sw&( &( )e i$ ! $o% owe"- A$(er "o"ging se'er&% o$ (hese &ss&u%(s, ! $in&% y grew (ire" o$ (he g&)e &n" "rew )y swor"- 8hen ! s%ice" (hrough (he ne.( (horny %i)b (h&( whi**e" ou( &( )y $&ce, (he (rees $in&% y %e$( us &%one- ;or (he )os( *&r(“8h&( is she %ike? Arie% & &ske" su""en%y, sur*rising )e- 1he h&" been 9uie( u* un(i% now, wor"%ess%y %e&"ing (he w&y un(i% (he c%oseness o$ (he (horns $orce" her (o e&se b&ck, (o %e( )e go $irs( wi(h )y we&*on- A %ongbow o$ g%e&)ing whi(e woo" %&y s(r&**e" (o her b&ck0she h&" &%w&ys been & "e&"%y &rcher0bu( (he on%y b%&"e she c&rrie" w&s & "&ggerC&ugh( o$$ gu&r" by her 9ues(ion, ! b%inke" &( her, con$use" &n" w&ry- “! (hough( you &%re&"y knew“! knew o$ (he gir%, yes, Arie% & re*%ie", "ucking & 'ine co'ere" in (hin, nee"%e%ike b&rbs“+u( on%y $ %&shes- The 'isions ne'er showe" )e )ore (h&n (h&(+ehin" us, Puck’s g%ee$u% whoo* r&ng ou( &s he "o"ge" &n &((&ck, $o% owe" by (he rus(%e o$ se'er&% (rees (h&( con(inue" (o swi*e &( hi) &s he "&nce" &roun"- He w&s ob'ious%y en/oying hi)se%$, &n" *rob&b%y s(irring (he $ores(’s ire (o e'en gre&(er heigh(s, bu( &( %e&s( his &((en(ion w&s e%sewhere- #ri)&%kin h&" %ong "is&**e&re" in(o (he (horny un"ergrow(h, s(&(ing he wou%" )ee( us on (he o(her si"e, &n" (he 8o%$ ’s "&rk $or) w&s *&""ing &he&", so i( w&s /us( )e &n" Arie% &7nco)$or(&b%e wi(h her scru(iny, ! (urne" &w&y, h&cking (hrough & sus*icious-%ooking br&nch be$ore i( cou%" %unge &( )e- “1he’s>& %o( %ike you, ! &")i((e", &s (he (ree r&((%e" in ou(r&ge- “4uie(, n&i'e, & %i((%e reck%ess &( (i)es- 1(ubborn &s &0 ! s(o**e", su""en%y se%$-conscious, $ee%ing Arie% &’s g&2e on (he b&ck o$ )y neck- “8hy &re you &sking )e (his? 1he chuck%e"- “! /us( w&n(e" (o see i$ you wou%" &nswer- Re)e)ber how "i$$icu%( i( w&s ge((ing &ny re&% &nswers ou( o$ you be$ore? 5ike *u% ing (ee(h- ! grun(e" &n" con(inue" c%e&ring (he w&y, &n" she $o% owe" c%ose behin"- “8e% , "on’( s(o* (here, Ash- Te% )e )ore &bou( (his hu)&n“Ari- ! *&use", &s )e)ories rose u*, bo(h b%iss$u% &n" *&in$u%- 3&ncing wi(h ,egh&nTe&ching her (o $igh(- +eing $orce" (o w&%k &w&y &s she %&y "ying bene&(h (he %i)bs o$ & gre&( iron o&k- A roo( (ook &"'&n(&ge o$ )y )o)en( o$ "is(r&c(ion &n" (rie" (o (ri* )e, bu( ! si"es(e**e" &n" )o'e" us bo(h &w&y- “! c&n’(>(&%k &bou( i( righ( now, ! (o%" Arie% &, whose sy)*&(he(ic g&2e re&" $&r (oo )uch- “Ask )e &g&in so)e o(her (i)eAs we %e$( (he $ores( o$ (horns, "&rkness $e% 'ery su""en%y, &s i$ we’" crosse" so)e in'isib%e b&rrier in(o Nigh(- One )o)en(, we were in (he *er*e(u&% gr&y (wi%igh( o$ (he

wy%"woo" &n" (he ne.(, i( w&s *i(ch-b%&ck e.ce*( $or (he s(&rs- An" & new soun" beg&n (o $i%(er (hrough (he si%ence o$ (he $ores(, $&in( &( $irs( bu( growing e'er s(ronger- A cons(&n( )ur)ur (h&( s%ow%y *rogresse" (o & "u% ro&r, un(i% we $in&% y e)erge" $ro) (he (rees (o s(&n" on (he b&nks o$ & gre&( b%&ck ri'er“8ow, Puck )use", s(&n"ing besi"e )e- “The Ri'er o$ 3re&)s- !’'e on%y seen i( & $ew (i)es be$ore, bu( i( ne'er ce&ses (o &)&2e )e! &gree" wi(h hi), &%bei( si%en(%y- The sur$&ce o$ (he ri'er w&s b%&ck &s nigh(, re$ %ec(ing (he s(&r-$i% e" sky &bo'e &n" s(re(ching on &n" on, un(i% you cou%"n’( (e% where (he w&(er en"e" &n" (he sky beg&n- ,oons, co)e(s &n" cons(e% &(ions ri**%e" on (he sur$&ce, &n" o(her, s(r&nger (hings $ %o&(e" u*on (he )is(y b%&ck w&(ers- Pe(&%s &n" book *&ges, bu((er$ %y wings &n" si%'er )e"&%s- The hi%( o$ & swor" s(uck ou( o$ (he w&(er &( &n o"" &ng%e, (he si%'er b%&"e (&ng%e" wi(h ribbons &n" s*i"erwebs- A co$$in bobbe" (o (he sur$&ce, co'ere" in "e&" %i%ies, be$ore sinking in(o (he "e*(hs once )ore- The "ebris o$ hu)&n i)&gin&(ion, $ %o&(ing (hrough (he "&rk w&(ers o$ "re&) &n" nigh()&re- 1w&r)s o$ $ire$%ies &n" wi% -o’-(he-wis*s $ %o&(e" &n" bobbe" &bo'e (he w&'es %ike )o'ing s(&rs, &""ing (o (he con$usion- This w&s (he %&s( $&)i%i&r bor"er o$ (he wy%"woo"- +eyon" (he ri'er w&s (he 3ee* 8y%", (he '&s(, unch&r(e" (erri(ory o$ (he Ne'erne'er, where %egen"s &n" *ri)e'&% )y(hs ro&)e" or s%e*(, where (he "&rkes( &n" )os( &ncien( cre&(ures %urke" in obscuri(yThe 8o%$ g&2e" &cross (he w&(er, c&%), unru$$ %e", &%)os( bore"- ! h&" (he $ee%ing he h&" seen (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s )&ny (i)es be$ore, &n" won"ere" how $&r "owns(re&) he h&" been, i$ he )&"e his ho)e in (he 3ee* 8y%" hi)se%$! %ooke" &( Arie% &- “8here (o now, Ari? The %igh(s o$ (he ri'er re$ %ec(e" in her eyes, &n" wi% -o’-(hewis*s "&r(e" &roun" her, burrowing in(o her h&ir- 1(&n"ing (here on (he ri'erb&nk, g%owing &n" wr&i(h%ike, she %ooke" &s insubs(&n(i&% &s )is(- R&ising & *&%e, "e%ic&(e h&n", she *oin(e" "owns(re&)“8e $o% ow (he ri'er- !( wi% (&ke us where we nee" (o go“!n(o (he 3ee* 8y%"“Yes“How $&r? The Ri'er o$ 3re&)s su**ose"%y r&n $ore'erA no one h&" e'er been (o (he en" o$ i(, &( %e&s(, no one who h&" sur'i'e" (o (e% (he (&%eHer eyes were &s "is(&n( &s (he s(&rs o'erhe&"- “7n(i% we re&ch (he e"ge o$ (he wor%"! no""e"- 8h&(e'er i( (ook, ! w&s re&"y, e'en i$ i( w&s i)*ossib%e- “5e(’s ge( going, (henA $&)i%i&r gr&y c&( s&( on & b&rre% h&%$-sub)erge" in (he )u" &( (he ri'er’s e"ge, %&2i%y sw&((ing &( $ire$ %ies (h&( bobbe" o'erhe&"- As we &**ro&che", & %&rge woo"en r&$(, co'ere" in &%g&e &n" (r&i%ing ribbons o$ wee", broke $ro) & c%us(er o$ br&nches &n" $ %o&(e" (ow&r" us, un)&nne"- The *%&nks were wi"e &n" s(ur"y, (he %ogs ho%"ing i( u* (hick &n" enor)ous, &n" i( w&s %&rge enough $or e'en &n enor)ous wo%$ (o si( co)$or(&b%y- A %ong woo"en *o%e res(e" &( (he b&ck, h&%$un"erw&(er“Oh, hey0%ook &( (h&(, Puck s&i" cheer$u% y, rubbing his h&n"s (oge(her- “1ee)s %ike (he ri'er knew we were co)ing- !’% "ri'e-

! *u( )y &r) ou( &s he s(&r(e" $orw&r"- “No( & ch&nce“Psh- You ne'er %e( )e "o &ny(hingThe 8o%$ cur%e" his %i* in "is(&s(e, eyeing (he r&$( &s i$ i( )igh( %unge &( hi)- “You e.*ec( (o re&ch (he En" o$ (he 8or%" on (h&(? 3o you know (he (hings (h&( %i'e in (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s? An" we’re no( e'en &( (he nigh()&re s(re(ch ye(“Aw, is (he +ig +&" 8o%$ie &$r&i" o$ & $ew n&s(y $ish? The 8o%$ g&'e hi) & b&%e$u% s(&re- “You wou%"n’( s&y (h&( i$ you’" seen so)e o$ (he $ish in (he 3ee* 8y%", #oo"$e% ow- +u( )ore i)*or(&n(, how wi% you e'er re&ch (he En" o$ (he 8or%" i$ ! bi(e your he&" o$$? “!(’s &% righ(, Arie% & s&i" 9uie(%y be$ore we cou%" res*on"- “!’'e seen us>$o% owing (he ri'er (o (he en"- This is (he w&y we nee" (o goThe 8o%$ snor(e"- “;oo%ish, he grow%e", bu( ho**e" %igh(%y on(o (he woo"en *%&nks- The r&$( rocke" un"er his weigh(, s*%&shing w&(er o'er (he e"ge, bu( he%"- “8e% ? He (urne", g%&ring b&ck &( us- “Are we going (o ge( (his &bsur"i(y un"er w&y, or no(? ! he%*e" Arie% & in(o (he bo&(, (hen s(e**e" on(o (he *%&($or) ne&r (he b&ck, gr&bbing (he %ong woo"en *o%e- As Puck en(ere", %ooking *ensi'e, ! no""e" &( #ri)&%kin, s(i% si((ing on (he b&rre%- “You co)ing or no(, c&i( si(h? He g&'e (he r&$( & "ubious g%&nce, cur%ing his whiskers- “! su**ose ! )us( i$ ! wish (o see you (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- 1(&n"ing, he (ense" his )usc%es (o %e&* o$$ (he b&rre%, bu( hesi(&(e", n&rrowing his eyes- “A%(hough, ! wi% issue (his one w&rning- !$ ! en" u* in (he ri'er bec&use so)e i"io( "eci"es (o rock (he bo&(0 He $ %&((ene" his e&rs &( Puck, who g&'e hi) & wi"e-eye" %ook o$ innocence “0! know se'er&% wi(ches who wou%" be h&**y (o bring "own & *&r(icu%&r%y *o(en( curse on s&i" i"io(’s he&"“8ow, i$ ! h&" & $&'or $or e'ery (i)e so)eone s&i" (h&( (o )e> #ri)&%kin "i" no( %ook &)use"- 1hoo(ing Puck one %&s( $e%ine g%&re, he %e&*e" (o (he e"ge o$ (he r&$(, w&%ke" gr&ce$u% y &%ong (he e"ge, &n" s&( &( (he bow, $&cing ou( %ike & h&ugh(y $igurehe&"- ! g&'e (he *o%e & *ush, &n" (he r&$( )o'e" s)oo(h%y in(o (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, g%i"ing (ow&r" (he En" o$ (he 8or%";or & whi%e, (he ri'er w&s s)oo(h- E.ce*( $or (he occ&sion&% bu)* o$ "re&) "ebris co% i"ing wi(h (he r&$(, we s%i" (hrough (he w&(er wi(h h&r"%y & ri**%e- ,ore s(r&nge ob/ec(s $ %o&(e" by usB %o'e %e((ers &n" wris(w&(ches, s(u$$e" &ni)&%s &n" %i)* b&% oons- Once, Puck re&che" "own &n" sn&(che" u* & $&"e" co*y o$ A ,i"su))er Nigh(’s 3re&), grinne" %ike &n i"io( &n" (osse" i( b&ck in(o (he ri'erHow %ong we $ %o&(e" "own (he ri'er, ! "i"n’( know- The nigh( sky, bo(h &bo'e &n" &roun" us, ne'er %igh(ene"- The 8o%$ %&y "own, *u( his he&" on his enor)ous *&ws &n" "o2e"- Puck &n" Arie% & s*oke 9uie(%y in (he cen(er o$ (he r&$(, c&(ching u* on )&ny ye&rs o$ se*&r&(ion- They soun"e" &( e&se wi(h e&ch o(her, co)$or(&b%e &n" con(en(, &n" Arie% &’s %&ugh(er $ %o&(e" u* occ&sion&% y, so)e(hing ! h&"n’( he&r" in & %ong, %ong (i)e- !( )&"e )e s)i%e, bu( ! "i"n’( /oin (he) in re)iniscing- Things were s(i% sh&ky be(ween Puck &n" )eA ! knew (he "&rk, %ingering )e)ories o$ (he ho% ow h&" *ushe" bo(h o$ us (o (he e"ge (h&( nigh(, &n" we h&", (e)*or&ri%y, *u( i( behin" us &g&in, bu( ! "i"n’( (rus( )yse%$ /us( ye(- +esi"es, ! w&s %os( in )y own (hough(s- Arie% &’s *re'ious 9ues(ion h&"

re)in"e" )e o$ (he gir% ! w&s "oing (his $or- ! won"ere" where she w&s, wh&( she w&s "oing &( (h&( 'ery )o)en(- ! won"ere" i$ she (hough( o$ )e, (oo“Prince- #ri)&%kin’s 'oice su""en%y "ri$(e" u* $ro) ne&r )y $ee(- ! %ooke" "own &( (he c&i( si(h, s(&n"ing besi"e )e- “! sugges( we s(o* $or & bi(, he s&i", w&'ing his (&i% (o kee* his b&%&nce &s (he r&$( bobbe" u* &n" "own in (he curren(- “! &) we&ry o$ si((ing in one *%&ce, &n" ! &) no( (he on%y one- He no""e" (o where Arie% & &n" Puck s&( (oge(her on (he *%&nks- Arie% & w&s s%u)*e" &g&ins( Puck’s shou%"er, "o2ing 9uie(%y- ! $e%( & (iny (winge o$ &nger, seeing (he) %ike (h&(, bu( Puck g%&nce" b&ck &( )e, o$$ere" & (iny, rue$u% shrug, &n" ! s9u&she" i( "own- !( w&s ri"icu%ous (o be /e&%ous, (o $ee% &ny(hing- Th&( *&r( o$ )y %i$e w&s gone- ! )igh( regre( i(, ! )igh( wish i( were "i$$eren(, bu( ! cou%" no( bring i( b&ck- !’" known (h&( $or & %ong (i)e! s(eere" (he r&$( (o (he b&nk, (ow&r" & s&n"y b&r bene&(h &ncien(, )oss-co'ere" (rees- As Puck &n" ! *u% e" i( (o shore, Arie% & woke, g&2ing &roun" b%e&ri%y“8here0 “Re%&., Ari- 8e’re /us( s(o**ing $or & bi(- Puck re%e&se" (he bo&( &n" s(re(che", r&ising %ong %i)bs o'er his he&"- “You know, i(’s &%w&ys r&$(s &n" skinny %i((%e *o%e bo&(s (h&( you h&'e (o su$$er (hrough on (hese (y*es o$ (ri*s- 8hy c&n’( we (r&'e% (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%" in & y&ch(? The 8o%$ %e&*e" o$$ (he r&$( &n" s(re(che", b&ring his $&ngs in &n enor)ous y&wn1h&king w&(er $ro) his $ur, he %ooke" &roun" &( (he enor)ous (rees &n" *&n(e" & grin“!’) o$$ (o hun(, he s(&(e" si)*%y- “!( shou%"n’( (&ke %ong- He g%&nce" b&ck &( )e, wrink%ing his %ong )u22%e- “!’" &"'ise you no( (o 'en(ure in(o (he $ores(, %i((%e *rinceYou’re in (he 3ee* 8y%" now, &n" !’" h&(e (o co)e b&ck (o $in" you &% e&(en- 8e% , e.ce*( $or (he c&(- He c&n ge( hi)se%$ e&(en &ny(i)e he w&n(s- 8i(h (h&(, he (urne" &n" boun"e" o$$, his b%&ck $or) )erging wi(h (he sh&"owsA $ew secon"s %&(er, we re&%i2e" #ri)&%kin h&" &%so '&nishe"- He’" *rob&b%y s%i**e" &w&y in(o (he $ores( &s soon &s (he bo&( h&" (ouche" groun", wi(h no e.*%&n&(ion &n" no hin( (o when he’" re(urn- Th&( %e$( (he (hree o$ us, &%one“You know, we cou%" /us( %e&'e (he), Puck sugges(e", grinning (o show he w&sn’( co)*%e(e%y serious- “8h&(? 3on’( gi'e )e (h&( %ook, Ari8o%$)&n is *rob&b%y righ( &( ho)e, &n" we cou%"n’( ge( ri" o$ ;urb&% e'en i$ we w&n(e" (o- 8e’" be h&%$w&y (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%" &n" $in" hi) s%ee*ing &( (he bo((o) o$ (he bo&(Arie% & con(inue" (o $rown "is&**ro'ing%y, &n" Puck (hrew u* his h&n"s- “;ine- #uess we’re s(uck here un(i% (heir $urry highnesses "eign (o show u* &g&in- He eye" e&ch o$ us in (urn, (hen sighe"- “Righ(, (hen- C&)*- ;oo"- ;ire- !’% ge( righ( on (h&(No( %ong &$(er, & cheer$u% $ire cr&ck%e" in & sh&% ow *i(, (rying '&%i&n(%y (o (hrow b&ck (he "&rkness, $&i%ing (o "o so- The sh&"ows see)e" (hicker ne&r (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, &s i$ Nigh( i(se%$ h&" (&ken o$$ense (o (he $ %ickering c&)*$ire &n" w&s crow"ing (he e"ges o$ (he %igh(, seeking (o sw&% ow i( who%e- 5igh( w&s &n in(ru"er here, )uch &s we wereArie% & s&( cross-%egge" in (he s&n", i"%y *oking (he $ire wi(h & s(ick, whi%e Puck &n" ! &((en"e" (o (he business o$ $in"ing $oo"- Puck h&" so)ehow $&shione" & *o%e $ro)

g%&)our, & s(ick, &n" & (&ng%e o$ s(ring $ro) his *ocke(, bu( $ishing in (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s w&s *ro'ing (o be & s(r&nge &n" $rus(r&(ing &$$&ir- He )&n&ge" (o *u% & cou*%e $ish ou( o$ (he ri'er e&r%y, bu( (hey were o"", unn&(ur&% (hingsB %ong &n" b%&ck %ike ee%s, wi(h o'ersi2e (ee(h (h&( sn&**e" &( us when we (rie" (o h&n"%e (he) &n" bi( (hrough (he s(icks we (rie" (o s*e&r (he) wi(h- 8e $in&% y "eci"e" i( w&sn’( wor(h (he h&ss%e o$ & %os( $inger &n" %e( (he) $ %o* b&ck in(o (he ri'er- His o(her c&(ches inc%u"e" & ye% ow boo(, & gi&n( (ur(%e (h&( &ske" us $or & *ocke( w&(ch, &n" wh&( %ooke" %ike & %&rge, nor)&% c&($ishTh&( is, un(i% i( s(&r(e" sobbing enor)ous (e&rs, begging us (o re(urn i( (o i(s $&)i%y- ! )igh(’'e ignore" (he w&i%ing $ish &n" s(uck i( o'er (he $ire &nyw&y, bu( (he so$(he&r(e" #oo"$e% ow %e( i( go“You re&%i2e you’'e /us( been "u*e" by & $ish, ! s&i", w&(ching (he c&($ish grin &( )e be$ore s%i**ing in(o (he "&rk w&(ers, %os( $ro) 'iew- Puck shrugge"“Hey, i( w&s going (o n&)e one o$ i(s gr&n"$ish &$(er )e, he s&i", (ossing (he %ine in(o (he w&(er &g&in- “Th&(’s one o$ )y ru%es, you know- ! re$use (o e&( &ny(hing (h&( n&)es i(s ki" &$(er )e“;ish "on’( h&'e chi%"ren, ! "e&"*&nne"- “;ish h&'e $ry“E'en so“;ine- ! ro% e" )y eyes &n" s(e**e" b&ck $ro) (he e"ge- “!’) "one wi(h (his- 5e( )e know i$ you )&n&ge (o c&(ch &ny(hing use$u%! w&n"ere" b&ck (o (he $ire, where Arie% & %ooke" u* &n" s)i%e" $&in(%y, &s i$ she knew e.&c(%y how (he $ishing h&" gone“Here, she s&i", &n" (osse" )e & roun", *inkish g%obe- ! c&ugh( i( &u(o)&(ic&% y, b%inking &s ! re&%i2e" wh&( i( w&s- A *e&ch, $u22y &n" so$( &n" ne&r%y (he si2e o$ )y $is(- ! g%&nce" besi"e her &n" s&w she h&" & who%e b&ske( o$ (he)“8here "i" you $in" (hese? ! &ske" in &)&2e)en(- 1he chuck%e"“The ri'er, she re*%ie", no""ing (o (he "&rk, g%i((ering w&(er- “You c&n $in" &%)os( &ny(hing & hu)&n wou%" "re&) o$, *ro'i"e" you know wh&( (o %ook $or- 8hi%e you &n" Puck h&'e been wres(%ing wi(h nigh()&res, ! /us( kee* &n eye on (he sur$&ce &n" %e( (he "re&) "ebris co)e“1oun"s %ike you’'e "one (his be$ore, ! s&i", (&king & se&( besi"e her“No( re&% y, she &")i((e"- “!’'e ne'er been (o (he ri'er in *erson- +u( &s & seer ! c&n so)e(i)es see in(o "re&)s, whe(her (hey be $&ery or )or(&%3re&)w&%king, ! be%ie'e i(’s c&% e"- An" so)e(i)es, ! c&n e'en sh&*e (hose "re&)s, )&ke & *erson see wh&( ! w&n( (he) (o“5ike you "i" wi(h )ine1he w&s si%en( & )o)en(, g&2ing b&ck in(o (he $ire- “Yes, she )ur)ure" $in&% y- “!’) sorry, Ash- +u( ! w&n(e" you (o see wh&( wou%"’'e h&**ene" i$ ,egh&n h&" %os(- ! w&n(e" you (o un"ers(&n" why ! chose wh&( ! "i", e'en (hough ! knew i( wou%" hur(“3i" you> ! *&use", g&(hering )y (hough(s- “3i" you see )y "re&)s>be$ore? +e$ore ! $oun" ,egh&n, be$ore ! %e&rne" (o $ree2e ou( )y e)o(ions0(he nigh()&res (h&( ke*( )e &w&ke &( nigh(, bec&use ! knew c%osing )y eyes wou%" $orce )e (o %i'e (h&( "&y

o'er &n" o'er &g&inArie% & shi'ere", "r&wing her knees (o her ches(, &n" no""e"- “! wishe" ! cou%" h&'e he%*e" you- 1he sighe", res(ing her chin on & knee- “+e(ween you &n" Puck, i( w&s &% ! cou%" "o no( (o %e( you know ! w&s s(i% &%i'e! $rowne"- Puck h&" h&" nigh()&res, (oo? ! *ushe" (h&( (hough( &w&y, unwi% ing (o "we% on i(- !$ he h&" been su$$ering %ike )e, goo"- He "eser'e" i(“1o, ! &ske", ch&nging (he sub/ec(, “wh&( co)es ne.(? Arie% & sighe"- “! "on’( know, she )ur)ure", &%)os( (o herse%$- “E'ery(hing is so h&2y now- !’'e ne'er been (his $&r in(o (he wy%"woo"“! h&'en’(, ei(her“+u( (h&( "oesn’( worry you, "oes i(? 1he hugge" herse%$ &n" g&2e" ou( o'er (he ri'er“You’% "o wh&(e'er i( (&kes, won’( you? You’'e &%w&ys been (h&( w&y- Co)*%e(e%y $e&r%ess- 1he shi'ere" &g&in &n" c%ose" her eyes, see)ing (o sink in(o herse%$- “! wish ! cou%" be %ike (h&(“!’) no( $e&r%ess, ! (o%" her- “There &re & %o( o$ (hings (h&( sc&re )e- ;&i%ure- ,y own s&'&ge, 7nsee%ie n&(ure- +eing un&b%e (o s&'e (hose ! h&" sworn (o *ro(ec(- H&'ing )y he&r( ri**e" $ro) )e once )ore- “!’) no( $e&r%ess, ! s&i" &g&in- “No( by & %ong sho(Arie% & g&'e )e & si"ew&ys g%&nce, &s i$ she knew wh&( ! w&s (hinking- “Yes, bu( you &ren’( &$r&i" o$ (he (hings (he res( o$ us &re &$r&i" o$, she s&i" wry%y- “The (hings (h&( shou%" (erri$y you "on’(“5ike wh&(? ! ch&% enge", )os(%y (o ge( her (&%king, (o &rgue wi(h )e &s she h&" be$oreThis new Arie% &, 9uie( &n" s&", bowe" un"er (he weigh( o$ (errib%e know%e"ge &n" coun(%ess secre(s, w&s )ore (hen ! cou%" (&ke- ! w&n(e" her (o %&ugh &g&in, (o s)i%e %ike she use" (o- #rinning, ! bi( in(o (he *e&ch, &"o*(ing & c&re%ess, "e$i&n( *os(ure- “N&)e so)e(hing you (hink ! shou%" be &$r&i" o$“3r&gons, Arie% & s&i" i))e"i&(e%y, )&king )e snor(- “#i&n(s, hy"r&s, )&n(icores- T&ke your *ick- No( on%y "o you %&ck & he&%(hy res*ec( $or (he), you go ch&rging in(o (heir %&irs (o ch&% enge (he) (o & $igh(“! h&'e & he&%(hy res*ec( $or )&n(icores, ! &rgue"- “An" ! &'oi" *icking $igh(s wi(h "r&gons- You’re %u)*ing )e (oge(her wi(h #oo"$e% ow“Reg&r"%ess0 Arie% & )ock-g%&re" &( )e “0i(’s no( (he s&)e- ! h&'e & he&%(hy res*ec( $or ke%*ies, bu( (h&( "oesn’( )e&n !’" e'er go swi))ing wi(h one- 1he wrink%e" her nose &( )e- “No( %ike you &n" Puck, seeing how %ong you cou%" s(&y on (h&( ke%*ie’s b&ck wi(hou( "rowning or ge((ing e&(en! shrugge"- “! know )y &bi%i(ies- 8hy shou%" ! $e&r so)e(hing (h&( *rob&b%y c&n’( ki% )e? Arie% & sighe"- “You’re )issing (he *oin(- Or, *erh&*s you’re )&king i( $or )e, !’) no( sure- 1he shook her he&", gi'ing )e & %o*si"e" s)i%e, &n" $or & )o)en(, i( w&s %ike o%" (i)es &g&in- ,e, Puck, &n" Arie% &, br&'ing unknown (erri(ory, no( knowing wh&( w&s (o co)e! w&s su""en%y &w&re o$ how c%ose Arie% & w&s, our shou%"ers b&re%y (ouching- 1he

see)e" (o re&%i2e i( &s we% , $or we g&2e" &( e&ch o(her, h&r"%y bre&(hing- The ri'er $ %owe" by us, &n" $&r(her "owns(re&) Puck w&s shou(ing so)e(hing, bu( $or & 9uie( he&r(be&( i( w&s /us( )e &n" Arie% & &n" no(hing e%seA ye% in(erru*(e" us- Puck w&s on (he b&nks o$ (he ri'er, *u% ing &n" y&nking &( his %ine, his $&ce in(ense- ;ro) (he %ooks o$ i(, wh&(e'er w&s on (he o(her en" w&s enor)ous, )&king (he s(ring %urch u* &n" "own &s i( $ough(- !n (he cen(er o$ (he ri'er, (he w&(er boi%e" u* %ike & geyser, &n" Puck y&nke" h&r"er on (he s(ring- Then, wi(h &n e.*%osion o$ "ebris &n" )is(, & huge ser*en(ine $or) rose $i$(een $ee( in(o (he &ir, (owering o'er Puck, ho%"ing (he %ine in & cur'e" (&%on- +%ue, green &n" si%'er sc&%es g%in(e" in (he )oon%igh( &s & "r&gon %owere" i(s )&ssi'e horne" he&"0)&ne &n" )ous(&che ri**%ing behin" i(0 (o g%&re &( Puck wi(h so)ber go%" eyes“Oh, Puck s&i" in & bre&(h%ess 'oice, s(&ring &( i( $ro) where he s&( in (he )u" &n" s&n"“7)- HeyThe eyes b%inke"- The so%e)n g&2e shi$(e" (o Puck’s %e$( h&n", n&rrowing- Puck %ooke" "own- “Oh, (he hook- He grinne" shee*ish%y- “Ye&h- 1orry ’bou( (h&(- No h&r) "one, righ(? The "r&gon snor(e", $i% ing (he bree2e wi(h (he scen( o$ $ish &n" cherry b%osso)sRi**%ing %ike se& w&'es, i( (urne" &n" coi%e" (hrough (he &ir, ski))ing (he sur$&ce o$ (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, be$ore i( s&nk bene&(h (he "e*(hs once )orePuck s(oo", "us(e" hi)se%$ o$$, &n" s&un(ere" (ow&r" us- “8e% , (h&( w&s>in(eres(ingHe grinne"- “#uess !’'e been o$$ici&% y s%&**e" on (he wris( $or $ishing in (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s wi(hou( & %icense- Hey, is (h&( & *e&ch? The 8o%$ &**e&re" so)e(i)e %&(er, g%i"ing $ro) (he "&rk wi(h no w&rning wh&(soe'er, *&cing u* (o (he $ire- Puck &n" Arie% & were bo(h &s%ee*, *e&ch *i(s sc&((ere" &bou(, &n" ! h&" (&ken $irs( w&(ch, si((ing on & %og wi(h )y swor" in )y %&*- #ri)&%kin h&" no( ye( re(urne", bu( no one w&s re&% y worrie"- !( w&s &n uns*oken know%e"ge &bou( (he c&i( si(hB he wou%" re&**e&r when i( w&s (i)e (o %e&'eThe 8o%$ *&""e" in(o (he $ %ickering %igh( &n" $ %o**e" "own &cross $ro) )e wi(h & hu$$A $ew $ee( &w&y, Puck s(irre", )u((ering so)e(hing &bou( *e&ches &n" "r&gons, bu( "i"n’( w&keThe 8o%$ &n" ! w&(che" e&ch o(her o'er (he "ying c&)*$ire $or se'er&% )inu(es- “1o, (he 8o%$ beg&n wi(h & $ %&sh o$ brigh( $&ngs, “(his 9ues( o$ yours- You ne'er (o%" )e )uch &bou( i(, %i((%e *rince- !( wou%" be nice (o know (he re&son behin" (his ins&ne /ourney "own (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s- ! know you w&n( (o re&ch (he En" o$ (he 8or%", bu( ! "on’( know why- 8h&( %ies &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%" (h&( is so i)*or(&n(? “The Tes(ing #roun"s, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, seeing no re&son (o hi"e (he $&c(- The 8o%$ *ricke" his e&rs“The Tes(ing #roun"s, he re*e&(e", unsur*rise", &n" no""e"- “! sus*ec(e" &s )uchThen, i$ you wish (o go (o (he Tes(ing #roun"s, you )us( be %ooking $or so)e(hing- He *&use", eyeing )e o'er (he $ %&)es, eyes g%owing in (he "&rkness- “1o)e(hing you %&ck1o)e(hing 'ery i)*or(&n(- Your N&)e? No- He shook his he&", (&%king )ore (o hi)se%$ (hen (o )e- “! h&'e & $ee%ing you &%re&"y know your True N&)e- 8h&(, (hen? You h&'e

*ower- You h&'e i))or(&%i(y, in & sense> He *&use", &n" his ye% ow-green eyes (urne" g%ee$u%- “Ahhh, yes, ! know why- There is on%y one (hing %e$(- He %ooke" u*, s)i%ing wicke"%y- “You’re here bec&use o$ (he gir%, &ren’( you? You’re ho*ing (o e&rn & sou%! g&'e hi) & co%" s(&re- “8h&( "o you know &bou( (h&(? The 8o%$ b&rke" & %&ugh, &n" Arie% & s(irre"- “! know you &re & $oo%, boy, he s&i", %owering his 'oice (o & %ow ru)b%e- “1ou%s &re no( )e&n( $or usThey (ie you (o (he wor%", )&ke you )or(&%, )&ke you %ike (he)- +eing hu)&n>i( wi% "ri'e you )&", %i((%e *rince- Es*eci&% y one %ike you“8h&( "o you )e&n? The 8o%$ b%inke" s%ow%y- “! cou%" (e% you, he s&i" 9uie(%y, “bu( i( wou%" no( sw&y you- ! c&n s)e% your "e(er)in&(ion- ! know you wi% see (his (hrough (o (he en"- 1o why w&s(e (he bre&(h? He y&wne" &n" s&( u*, (es(ing (he bree2e- “The c&( is c%ose- Pi(y he "i"n’( ge( %os(! (urne" /us( &s #ri)&%kin e)erge" $ro) (he bushes ne&rby, gi'ing )e & bore" %ook- “!$ you &re w&i(ing $or sunrise, *rince, you &re w&s(ing your (i)e, he &nnounce" wi(hou( *re&)b%e, &n" s(ro"e *&s( )e wi(h his (&i% in (he &ir- “The %igh( wi% no( *ene(r&(e (his $&r in(o (he 3ee* 8y%", &n" we h&'e &((r&c(e" (oo )uch &((en(ion si((ing &roun" here- He "i" no( %ook b&ck &s he (ro((e" in (he "irec(ion o$ (he r&$(- “8&ke (he o(hers, he co))&n"e", his 'oice "ri$(ing b&ck (o us- “!( is (i)e $or us (o goThe 8o%$ &n" ! sh&re" & %ook o'er (he $ %&)es“! cou%" e&( hi) now, he o$$ere" serious%y- ! bi( "own & s)irk“,&ybe %&(er, ! s&i", &n" go( u* (o rouse (he o(hersPuck woke e&si%y when ! kicke" hi) in (he ribs, ro% ing u*righ( wi(h & woun"e" ye%*, )&king (he 8o%$ grin wi(h &**reci&(ion- “Ow! he sn&r%e"“3&))i(, ice-boy, why "on’( you /us( s(ick & kni$e in )y ribs &n" be "one wi(h i(? “!’'e (hough( &bou( i(, ! re*%ie", &n" kne%( (o w&ke Arie% &, cur%e" u* on her c%o&k by (he $ire- Her knees were "r&wn u* (o her ches(, &n" she re)in"e" )e, &%w&ys, o$ & s%ee*ing c&(- 1he s(irre" &s ! (ouche" her shou%"er, o*ening (ur9uoise eyes (o b%ink u* &( )e s%ee*i%y“Ti)e (o go? she )ur)ure"An", 'ery su""en%y, )y bre&(h c&ugh(- 1he %ooke" 'u%ner&b%e, %ying (here in (he s&n", her h&ir & si%'er cur(&in &roun" her he&"- 1he %ooke" s%igh( &n" "e%ic&(e &n" bre&k&b%e, &n" ! w&n(e" (o *ro(ec( her- ! w&n(e" (o *u% her c%ose &n" shie%" her $ro) &% (he "&ngers in (he wor%", &n" (he re&%i2&(ion )&"e )y s(o)&ch churn“Co)e on, ! s&i", o$$ering & h&n" (o he%* her u*- Her $ingers were so$( &s ! "rew her (o her $ee(- “The &% -knowing c&i( si(h h&s re(urne", &n" we’'e been or"ere" (o )o'e ou(Th&( )&"e her s)i%e, &s !’" ho*e" i( wou%", &n" $or h&%$ & he&r(be&( we s(oo" (here, g&2ing &( e&ch o(her in (he s&n", our $&ces & bre&(h &*&r(Her $ingers (igh(ene" on )ine, &n" $or & )o)en(, i( w&s %ike no(hing h&" ch&nge", (h&(

Arie% & h&" ne'er "ie", (h&( we’" re(urne" (o & (i)e when we were bo(h h&**y, where (here were no b%oo" o&(hs be(ween $rien"s &n" no 'ow (h&( s(oo" be(ween us+u(, ye&rning $or (he i)*ossib%e "i"n’( )&ke i( so- #ui%(i%y, ! *u% e" &w&y, bre&king eye con(&c(, &n" Arie% & "ro**e" her h&n"s, & sh&"ow "&rkening her $&ce- 8i(hou( s*e&king, we $o% owe" Puck (ow&r" (he r&$(, where #ri)&%kin &%re&"y s&( on (he e"ge, (hu)*ing his (&i% wi(h i)*&(ience+ehin" us, (he 8o%$ (r&i%e" si%en(%y, bu( ! cou%" $ee% his &ncien(, knowing g&2e on )y b&ck7n"er #ri)&%kin’s i)*&(ien( g%&re, we c%i)be" &bo&r" (he r&$(, sho'e" o$$, &n" (he curren( )o'e" us ou( in(o (he ri'er once )ore- No one s*oke, (hough ! "i"n’( )iss (he co%", &ngry %ooks ! w&s recei'ing $ro) Puck, nor (he sub(%e g%&nces Arie% & w&s shoo(ing )y w&y- ! ignore" (he) bo(h, kee*ing )y g&2e s(r&igh( &he&" &n" )y eyes (r&ine" on (he ri'erNo( %ong &$(er (h&(, (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s *icke" u* s*ee"- No %onger s%ee*y &n" (r&n9ui%, i( rushe" &%ong &s i$ i( were $ %eeing so)e(hing, & "&rk &n" $&ce%ess (error (h&( ch&se" i( (hrough (he nigh(- The "ebris (h&( $ %o&(e" in (he w&(er &n" knocke" &g&ins( (he r&$( h&" (&ken on & )&c&bre $ee%Co$$ins bobbe" (o (he sur$&ce, kni'es &n" *%&s(ic "o% he&"s wen( s*inning by, hockey )&sks &n" c%own shoes (hu)*e" &g&ins( (he $ron( o$ (he bo&(“! "on’( %ike (he %ooks o$ (his, Puck )use", &s ! b&re%y &'oi"e" & co% ision wi(h & broken (o)bs(one (h&( %urche" ou( o$ (he w&(er- !( w&s (he $irs( (hing he’" s&i" $or se'er&% )i%es, which ! (hough( )igh( be so)e sor( o$ & recor"- “8h&( h&**ene" (o (he $ %owers &n" bu((er$ %ies &n" &% (he shiny, *re((y "re&) s(u$$? “8e’re ne&ring (he nigh()&re s(re(ch, (he 8o%$ ru)b%e" o)inous%y- “! (o%" you- You’re no( going (o %ike wh&( you see“;re&king $&n(&s(ic- Puck sho( hi) & %ook- “An", uh, "oes &nyone e%se he&r "ru)s? “Th&( isn’( $unny, Puck, Arie% & chi"e", bu( &( (h&( )o)en( &n &rrow (hunke" in(o one o$ (he %ogs, c&using e'eryone (o /erk u*righ(! %ooke" (o (he ri'erb&nk- 1)&% , *&%e (hings scurrie" (hrough (he bushes &n" un"ergrow(h, kee*ing *&ce wi(h (he r&$(- ! c&ugh( g%i)*ses o$ roun", re" eyes, shor(, bu%bous (&i%s &n" "&rk c%o&ks, bu( i( w&s "i$$icu%( (o see &ny(hing (hrough (he (rees &n" sh&"ows“Ok&y, n&(i'es "e$ini(e%y no( $rien"%y, Puck )use", "ucking &s &no(her &rrow sho( o'erhe&"- “Hey, c&(, &ny i"e& wh&( kin" o$ n&s(ies we’'e *isse" o$$ so roy&% y? #ri)&%kin, o$ course, h&" '&nishe"- ,ore "&r(s $i% e" (he &ir, %o"ging in(o (he *%&nks or $ %ying *&s( us in(o (he w&(er, so)e b&re%y )issing us“3&))i(, Puck sn&r%e", “we’re si((ing "ucks ou( here8i(h & sn&r%, (he 8o%$ rose &n" %&unche" hi)se%$, )&king (he r&$( s*in wi%"%y &s he %&n"e" %ike & bou%"er in (he ri'er- ;igh(ing (he curren(, he s(ruck *ower$u% y $or (he shore, ignoring (he "ebris (h&( s%&))e" in(o hi), (he w&(er rushing o'er his bo"y, $&i%ing (o "r&g hi) "own-

! s)&cke" &no(her &rrow "own wi(h )y swor" &n" *u% e" g%&)our $ro) (he &ir, $ee%ing i( swir% &roun" )e- 8i(h & sh&r* ges(ure, ! sen( & $ %urry o$ ice "&r(s in(o (he bushes %ining (he ri'erb&nk- The sh&r"s ri**e" (hrough (he %e&'es, shre""ing (he) &s (hey *&sse", &n" *&in$u% shrieks rose in(o (he &irArie% & s(oo", her bow in h&n", *u% ing b&ck (he s(ring- 1he "i"n’( h&'e & 9ui'er, bu( g%&)our shi))ere" &roun" her, &n" & g%e&)ing ice &rrow $or)e" be(ween her $ingers /us( &s she re%e&se" (he s(ring- !( $ %ew in(o (he bushes wi(h & (hu)*, &n" & s)&% , *&%e bo"y (u)b%e" ou( o$ (he $erns in(o (he ri'er“Nice sho(, Ari, Puck crowe" &s (he 8o%$ "rew c%ose (o shore- The h&i% o$ &rrows (hinne", &n" (he )&r&u"ers shrieke" &s (he 8o%$ "r&gge" his "ri**ing b%&ck $or) ou( o$ (he w&(er &n" shook 'igorous%y- Ye%*ing, (hey $ %e", sc&((ering in(o (he bushes, &n" (he 8o%$ %unge" &$(er (he) wi(h & ro&r“#o ge( ’e), 8o%$)&n! Puck cheere", &s (he &((&ckers '&nishe" in(o (he (rees- “5ooks %ike he sc&re" (he) o$$, wh&(e'er (hey were! s&w )o'e)en( on (he b&nks &he&" &n" n&rrowe" )y eyes- “3on’( be (oo sure &bou( (h&(1o)e(hing s)&% &n" *&%e %ike (he o(her $or)s scr&)b%e" on(o & rock /u((ing ou( o'er (he w&(er- 1een c%e&r%y, i( %ooke" %ike & s9u&(, bi*e"&% new( wi(h s%i)y whi(e skin &n" & $rog%ike )ou(h $u% o$ (ee(h- !(s be&"y eyes were $i%)y &n" b%ue, un%ike (he brigh( cri)son o$ (he o(hers, &n" i( wore & s(r&nge he&""ress on i(s n&ke" sku% R&ising & s(&$$ in bo(h c%&ws, i( s(&r(e" ch&n(ing“Th&( c&n’( be goo", Puck )u((ere"“Ari, ! c&% e", "ucking &s &no(her h&i% o$ "&r(s $ %ew &( us $ro) (he bush- The n&(i'es were "e$ini(e%y *ro(ec(ing (heir sh&)&n- “T&ke hi) "own now! Ari *u% e" b&ck &n" re%e&se" &n &rrow, & *er$ec( sho( (h&( wou%"’'e gone righ( (hrough (he sh&)&n’s ches( h&" &no(her cre&(ure no( %e&*e" in $ron( o$ hi), (&king (he %e(h&% b%ow i(se%$- ! $ %ung & h&i% o$ sh&r"s &( hi), bu( se'er&% new( cre&(ures s*r&ng u* &n" hu""%e" &roun" hi), shrieking &s (he "&r(s (ore in(o (he), bu( no( )o'ing- The ch&n(ing con(inue" &s (he r&$( "ri$(e" by, (&king us ou( o$ re&chAroun" us, (he w&(er s(&r(e" (o boi%! "rew )y swor" &s & )ons(rous coi% broke (he sur$&ce o$ (he ri'er, b%&ck &n" shiny &n" (hicker (h&n )y w&is(- Puck ye%*e", &n" Arie% & cringe" b&ck- A huge he&" re&re" ou( o$ (he w&(er wi(h & screech &n" &n e.*%osion o$ nigh()&re "ebris- No( & sn&ke or & "r&gonA (his )ons(er h&" & roun", %i*%ess )ou(h %ine" wi(h sh&r* (ee(h, bui%( $or sucking ins(e&" o$ bi(ing- A gi&n( %&)*rey, &n" where (here w&s one, (here were usu&% y )ore“Puck! ! ye% e", &s (he r&$( s*un wi%"%y &n" (wo )ore gi&n( ee%s rose ou( o$ (he w&(er- “!$ we en" u* in (he w&(er, we’re "e&"! 3on’( %e( (he) crush (he bo&(! The $irs( %&)*rey %unge" &( )e, sn&king in $or &n &((&ck- ! s(oo" )y groun" &n" s%&she" u*w&r" wi(h )y b%&"e, cu((ing (hrough i(s $ %eshy )&w- The %&)*rey scre&)e" &n" re&re" b&ck, )ou(h s*%i( in (wo, (hr&shing wi%"%y- ;ro) (he corner o$ )y eye, ! s&w Arie% & shoo( &n &rrow righ( in(o (he )ou(h o$ &no(her ee%, which con'u%se" $ierce%y &n" s&nk b&ck in(o (he "e*(hs- The (hir" %unge" $or Puck, )ou(h g&*ing, bu( &( (he %&s( )o)en( Puck %e&*e"

&si"e, &n" (he %&)*rey s(ruck (he bo&( ins(e&", r&2or (ee(h sinking in(o (he woo"- !( s(&r(e" (o *u% b&ck, bu( no( be$ore Puck’s "&gger $ %&she" "own, s(&bbing (he (o* o$ i(s he&"1hrieking, (he ee% coi%e" i(s en(ire bo"y &roun" (he r&$(, s9uee2ing h&r"- The *%&nks cre&ke" &n" s(&r(e" (o sn&* in *%&ces &s (he )or(&% y woun"e" %&)*rey c%ung (o i( wi(h (he s(reng(h o$ "e&(h- ! s*un &n" s%ice" (hrough & coi%, cu((ing i( in (wo, bu( wi(h & $in&% sn&*, (he r&$( s*%in(ere", $ %ying ou(w&r" in &n e.*%osion o$ woo" &n" "u)*ing )e in(o (he ri'erThe curren( c&ugh( )e ins(&n(%y, "r&gging )e "own- 1(i% c%u(ching )y swor", ! $ough( (o (he sur$&ce, c&% ing ou( $or Arie% & &n" Puck- ! cou%" see (he %&)*rey &s i( s&nk be%ow (he sur$&ce, coi%e" &roun" (he re)&ins o$ (he r&$(, bu( )y co)*&nions were nowhere (o be seen1o)e(hing s(ruck )e in (he b&ck o$ (he he&"- ,y 'ision wen( "&rk $or & )o)en(, &n" ! $ough( (o kee* )y he&" &bo'e w&(er, knowing (h&( i$ ! %os( consciousness now, ! wou%" "ie- +rie$ %y, ! ho*e" Puck, Arie% & &n" #ri)&%kin were &% righ(A (h&( (hey wou%" sur'i'e, e'en i$ ! "i" no(Then (he curren( *u% e" )e un"er &g&in, &n" (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s (ook )e &w&yCHAPTER E!#HT

! &woke on )y s(o)&ch, )y cheek *resse" in(o so)e(hing h&r", ri'er w&(er so&king )y c%o(hes- There w&s & "u% ro&r in )y e&rs, which ! 9uick%y "isco'ere" w&s (he ri'er behin" )e- ! %is(ene" $or o(her (hings, $or $&)i%i&r 'oices &n" (he rus(%e o$ )o'e)en(, $or & sni"e $e%ine 'oice &sking i$ ! w&s $in&% y &w&ke, bu( (here w&s no(hing- !( see)e" ! w&s &%one1%ow%y, ! *ushe" )yse%$ u*, (es(ing $or sh&r* *&in &n" broken bones, &ny(hing (h&( see)e" ou( o$ *%&ce- Though (here w&s & g&sh &cross )y $orehe&" &n" & (hrobbing &che in )y sku% , no(hing see)e" serious%y in/ure"- ! w&s %ucky (his (i)e- ! ho*e" (he o(hers were &s $or(un&(e,y swor" %&y in (he )u" & $ew $ee( &w&y- As ! re&che" $or i(, ! bec&)e &w&re (h&( ! w&s no( &%one &$(er &% “#oo", ru)b%e" (he 8o%$, so)ewhere &bo'e )e- “You’re s(i% &%i'e- !( wou%" be e.(re)e%y &nnoying i$ ! h&" (o (e% ,&b ! %e( her son "rown whi%e on (his ri"icu%ous 9ues(3r&gging your c&rc&ss ou( o$ (he ri'er isn’( so)e(hing !’" w&n( (o "o &g&in, *rince- ! ho*e i( "oesn’( beco)e & h&bi(He w&s %ying on (he b&nk & $ew y&r"s &w&y, w&(ching )e wi(h in(ense ye% ow-green eyesAs ! *u% e" )yse%$ u*, he no""e" &**ro'&% &n" rose, his *e%( s(i% s*iky &n" "&)* $ro) his *%unge in(o (he w&(er“8here &re (he o(hers? ! &ske", g&2ing &roun" $or (heir bo"ies- The 8o%$ snor(e"“#one, he s&i" si)*%y- “The ri'er (ook (he)! s(&re" &( hi), %e((ing (he wor"s sink in- 5oss w&s no(hing new (o )e- !’" shie%"e" )yse%$ $ro) (he wors( o$ (he *&inA no( c&ring $or &ny(hing ensure" ! wou%"n’( )iss i( when i( w&s gone- A((&ch)en(s, &s !’" %e&rne", h&" no *%&ce in (he 7nsee%ie Cour(- +u( ! cou%" no( be%ie'e (h&( Puck &n" Arie% & were gone-

“You "i"n’( (ry (o he%* (he)? 1h&king hi)se%$, (he 8o%$ snee2e" &n" %ooke" b&ck &( )e, unconcerne"- “! h&" no in(eres( in s&'ing (he o(hers, he s&i" e&si%y- “E'en i$ ! cou%" h&'e go((en (o (he) in (i)e, )y on%y in(eres( is kee*ing you &%i'e- ! w&rne" (he) $ %o&(ing "owns(re&) w&s & b&" i"e&- ! su**ose we’% h&'e (o $in" &no(her w&y (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“No, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, %ooking &cross (he $o&)ing ri'er- “They’re no( "e&"The 8o%$ cur%e" & %i*- “You "on’( know (h&(, *rince- You c&n’( be sure“!’" know, ! insis(e"- +ec&use i$ (hey were gone, !’" h&'e no w&y (o re&ch (he Tes(ing #roun"s )yse%$, no w&y (o honor )y 'ow (o ,egh&n- !$ Puck w&s "e&", )y wor%" wou%" beco)e &s co%" &n" %i$e%ess &s (he "&rkes( nigh( in (he 8in(er Cour(- An" i$ ! h&" %e( Arie% & "ie & secon" (i)e, i( wou%"’'e been be((er i$ (he 8o%$ h&" %e$( )e (o "rown, bec&use (he *&in wou%" "o )ore (hen crush )e (his (i)e0i( wou%" ki% )e! %e( ou( & bre&(h, r&king & h&n" (hrough )y we( h&ir- “8e’re going (o $in" (he), ! s&i", %ooking b&ck "own (he ri'er- The w&(er ro&re" &n" $o&)e", c%&wing &ngri%y &( (he rocks, rushing by &( & bre&kneck s*ee"- The 8o%$ w&s righ(0 i( w&s "i$$icu%( (o i)&gine &nyone sur'i'ing (h&(, once (he r&$( h&" s)&she" &*&r(, bu( Robin #oo"$e% ow w&s &n e.*er( &( sur'i'&%, &n" ! h&" (o be%ie'e Arie% & w&s s&$e wi(h hi)- #ri)&%kin ! w&sn’( e'en worrie" &bou(- “+e%ie'e wh&( you wi% , ! con(inue", g%&ncing &( (he 8o%$, “bu( #oo"$e% ow is s(i% &%i'e- He’s h&r"er (o ki% (h&n you )igh( (hink>*erh&*s e'en h&r"er (o ki% (h&n you“! 'ery )uch "oub( (h&(- +u( his 'oice w&s $ %&( wi(h resign&(ion, &n" he hu$$e" noisi%y, sh&king his he&"- “Co)e on, (hen- 8i(h & %&s( show o$ (ee(h, (he 8o%$ (urne" &n" s(&r(e" *&""ing "own (he ri'erb&nk- “8e w&s(e (i)e s(&n"ing &bou( here- !$ (hey sur'i'e", (hey wi% %ike%y be $&r(her "owns(re&)Howe'er> He *&use" &n" g%&nce" b&ck- “!$ we re&ch (he ;&% s o$ Ob%i'ion, you )igh( &s we% gi'e u*- No(hing c&n sur'i'e (h&( *%unge- No( e'en )eHe (urne" &n" con(inue" %o*ing &%ong (he ri'erb&nk, he&" %i$(e" (o (he win" (o *ick u* (he scen( o$ his *rey- 8i(h one %&s( %ook &( (he $o&)ing Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, ! $o% owe";or &n in"e$ini(e &)oun( o$ (i)e, we w&%ke" &%ong (he ri'erb&nk, se&rching $or &ny sign, &ny hin( o$ Puck or Arie% &- The 8o%$ %o*e" (ire%ess%y &%ong wi(h his )u22%e *oin(e" so)e(i)es &( (he groun" &n" so)e(i)es &( (he sky, (&s(ing (he win", whi%e ! se&rche" (he b&nk $or $oo(*rin(s, broken (wigs, o'er(urne" rocks, &ny sign o$ %i$e1o)e(hing ne&r (he e"ge o$ (he w&(er c&ugh( )y eye, &n" ! hurrie" o'er- A s*%in(ere" %eng(h o$ woo" %&y (r&**e" be(ween (wo rocks &( (he w&(er’s e"ge- !( w&s *&r( o$ (he r&$(, bobbing %i)*%y in (he w&'es, s)&she" &%)os( beyon" recogni(ion- ! s(&re" &( i( $or & )o)en(, re$using (o &cknow%e"ge wh&( (h&( cou%" )e&n, &n" (urne" &w&y (o con(inue (he se&rch;&r(her "owns(re&), (he 8o%$ su""en%y c&)e (o & s(o*- 5owering his he&", he sni$$e" &roun" (he rocks &n" )u", (hen s(r&igh(ene" wi(h & grow%, b&ring his (ee(h! hurrie" o'er- “3i" you $in" (he)? “No- +u( & gre&( )&ny cre&(ures were here recen(%y- 1)&% (hings, 'ery un*%e&s&n( s)e% 1%i)y- ;&in(%y re*(i%i&n-

! re)e)bere" (he *&%e, new(%ike cre&(ures, shoo(ing &( us "own (he ri'erb&nk- An" (heir sh&)&n, c&% ing u* ri'er nigh()&res (o crush (he bo&(“8h&( &re (hey? The 8o%$ shook his bushy he&"- “Hoby&hs“Hoby&hs, ! re*e&(e", rec&% ing (he (&%e o$ (he s)&% , un*%e&s&n( $ey- “Hoby&hs &re e.(inc(- A( %e&s(, (h&(’s wh&( (he s(ories c%&i)- ,uch %ike gob%ins or re"c&*s, (he hoby&hs were $ierce, $righ(ening cre&(ures (h&( %i'e" in "&rk $ores(s &n" )en&ce" hu)&ns- Though &**&ren(%y, (here h&" been on%y one (ribe o$ hoby&hs, &n" (hey h&" )e( & gris%y en"Accor"ing (o %egen", (he hoby&hs h&" (rie" (o ki"n&* & $&r)er &n" his wi$e &n" were e&(en by (he $&)i%y "og in (he en", so (here were no )ore hoby&hs in (he wor%" &ny)ore+u( (he 8o%$ snor(e"- “You’re in (he 3ee* 8y%" now, boy, he grow%e"- “This is (he *%&ce o$ o%" %egen"s &n" $orgo((en )y(hs- The hoby&hs &re &%i'e &n" we% here, &n" (here &re & %o( o$ (he), i$ you c&n’( guess by %ooking &( (he (r&cks#%&ncing "own, ! s&w he w&s righ(- Three-(oe" *rin(s were sc&((ere" h&*h&2&r"%y in (he )u" be(ween rocks0s)&% , %igh( (r&cks wi(h c%&ws on (he en" o$ (he (oes- Here &n" (here & b%&"e o$ gr&ss w&s crushe" or (r&)*%e", &n" & s(rong )usky o"or %ingere" in (he &irThe 8o%$ snee2e" &n" shook his he&", cur%ing his %i*s in "isgus(- “5e(’s kee* )o'ing- ! c&n’( (r&ck &ny(hing *&s( (his &bo)in&b%e s)e% “8&i(, ! or"ere", &n" "ro**e" (o & knee in (he gr&ss &( (he w&(er’s e"ge, brushing (he (r&)*%e" 'ege(&(ion- Hoby&h *rin(s were e'erywhere, bu( (here w&s & sh&% ow in"en(&(ion in (he gr&ss (h&( $&in(%y rese)b%e"> “A bo"y, ! )u((ere", &s (he 8o%$ *eere" o'er )y shou%"er- “There w&s & bo"y %ying here, on i(s s(o)&ch- No( & hoby&h, ei(her- ,y si2e“Are you sure? (he 8o%$ grow%e"- 5owering his )u22%e, he sni$$e" (he s*o( ! *oin(e" (o &n" snee2e" &g&in, sh&king his he&"- “P&h, ! c&n’( s)e% &ny(hing bu( hoby&h s(ink“They h&" i( surroun"e", ! )use", seeing (he scene in )y )in"- “!( )us( h&'e co)e ou( o$ (he w&(er, *u% e" i(se%$ on(o (he b&nk, (hen co% &*se" hereNo, no( /us( one- ! r&n )y $ingers o'er (he gr&ss- “There w&s &no(her one here- Two o$ (he)- The hoby&hs *rob&b%y $oun" (he) when (hey were *&sse" ou(“Hoby&hs &ren’( &nyone’s $rien"s, (he 8o%$ s&i" gr&'e%y- “An" (hey e&( &%)os( e'ery(hing- There )igh( no( be &ny(hing %e$( once we c&(ch u*! ignore" (he 8o%$, (hough & co%" r&ge burne" "ee* in )y s(o)&ch, )&king )e w&n( (o *u( )y swor" (hrough so)e cre&(ure’s he&"- As ! $o% owe" (he (r&cks $&r(her u* (he b&nk, )ore o$ (he scene *%&ye" ou( be$ore )e- “They "r&gge" (he) &w&y, ! con(inue", *oin(ing &( & s*o( where (he gr&ss w&s $ %&((ene" &n" ben( in one "irec(ion, “in(o (he $ores(“!)*ressi'e, (he 8o%$ grow%e", co)ing (o s(&n" besi"e )e- “An" un$or(un&(e, consi"ering (hose (wo &re now &( (he )ercy o$ b%oo"(hirs(y c&nnib&%s- He sni$$e" &n" g&2e" in(o (he "&rk (&ng%e o$ (rees- “! su**ose (his )e&ns we &re going &$(er (he)Re%ie$, swi$( &n" su""en, b%oo)e" (hrough )e- They were s(i% &%i'e- C&*(ure" *erh&*s, in "&nger o$ being (or(ure" or ki% e", bu( $or now, (hey were &%i'e- ! sho( (he 8o%$ & co%"

s(&re“8h&( "o you (hink? He b&re" his $&ngs &( )e- “+e c&re$u%, boy- !n so)e (&%es, (he hero ge(s e&(en by (he )ons(er &$(er &% Tr&cking (he hoby&hs (hrough (he "&rk, eerie $ores( *ro'e" e&sier (hen $o% owing (he ri'erThey "i"n’( bo(her (o co'er (heir (r&cks, &n" (heir gre&sy o"or c%ung (o e'ery %e&$ &n" (wig &n" b%&"e o$ gr&ss (hey s(e**e" on or brushe" byThe (r&i% %e" us "ee* in(o (he woo"s, un(i% &( %&s(, (he groun" s%o*e" &w&y &n" we were s(&ring "own in(o & sh&% ow b&sin $i% e" wi(h sw&)*y w&(er- Th&(ch hu(s s(oo" on woo"en s(i%(s o'er (he )urk, &n" %ong s*e&rs s(&n"ing *oin( u* in (he )u" he%" &n &ssor()en( o$ rib c&ges, ro((ing c&rc&sses &n" se'ere" he&"s1)&% , *&%e cre&(ures %ike (hose $ro) (he ri'erb&nk sw&r)e" (he 'i% &ge %ike &n(s whose nes( h&" been in'&"e"- They b&re%y c&)e u* (o )y knee- A%ong wi(h (heir "&rk c%o&ks &n" hoo"s, )&ny o$ (he) wore (hin s*e&rs (h&( %ooke" (o be )&"e o$ boneThe 8o%$ grow%e" &n" shi$(e" besi"e )e- “3isgus(ing (hings, hoby&hs- An" (hey (&s(e e'en worse (hen (hey %ook- He (urne" (o )e- “8h&( &re you going (o "o now, %i((%e *rince? “! h&'e (o $in" Puck &n" Arie% &, i$ (hey’re "own (here- “H))- Perh&*s (hey &re in (h&( *o(An enor)ous ke((%e hung on s(i%(s in (he )i""%e o$ (he c&)*, wi(h & cr&ck%ing $ire un"erne&(h- No.ious b%&ck $u)es c&)e $ro) wh&(e'er w&s in (he *o(, &n" ! shook )y he&"- “No, ! )use", "is)issing (h&( no(ion i))e"i&(e%y- “+o(h o$ (he) &re (oo s)&r( (o en" u* %ike (h&(“!$ you s&y so, (he 8o%$ )use" &s we circ%e" (he c&)*- “! ho*e your $&i(h in (hose (wo "oes no( ge( you ki% e"“There you &re! hisse" &n i)*&(ien( 'oice &bo'e )y he&"- “8here h&'e you been? ! w&s beginning (o (hink (he "og h&" e&(en you &$(er &% The 8o%$ sn&r%e" &n" s*un &roun", cr&ning his neck &( (he (ree, where #ri)&%kin *eere" &( us $ro) & br&nch s&$e%y ou( o$ re&ch- “!’'e grown (ire" o$ your insu%(s, c&i( si(h, he ch&% enge", eyes b%&2ing wi(h *ure h&(re"- “Co)e "own here &n" s&y (h&(- !’% ri* (h&( &rrog&n( (ongue righ( ou( o$ your he&"- !’% crush your sku% in )y (ee(h, (e&r (he hi"e o$$ your use%ess $e%ine ske%e(on &n" e&( your he&r(His 'oice w&s ge((ing %ou"er wi(h e&ch (hre&(- ! *u( & h&n" on his huge shou%"er &n" sho'e", h&r"- “4uie(! ! w&rne" &s he (urne" wi(h & sn&r%- “You’%% &%er( (he c&)*- There’s no (i)e $or (his now“A wise s(&(e)en(, #ri)&%kin re*%ie", gi'ing (he 8o%$ & %&2y, h&%$-%i""e" s(&re- “An" (he *rince is correc(, )uch &s ! wou%" en/oy w&(ching you ch&se your (&i% &n" b&rk &( (he )oon- The 8o%$ grow%e" &g&in, bu( (he c&( ignore" hi), %ooking &( )e- “#oo"$e% ow &n" (he seer &re being he%" in one o$ (he inner hu(s, s(i% unconscious, ! be%ie'e- The hoby&h sh&)&n is kee*ing (he) in & "rugge" s%ee*0so )uch e&sier (o *u( (he) in (he ke((%e when (he (i)e co)es- They h&'e been w&i(ing $or i( (o ge( ho( enough, bu( ! be%ie'e

i( is 'ery ne&r%y re&"y“Then we nee" (o )o'e $&s(- Crouching, ! %ooke" o'er (he c&)* &g&in bu( s*oke (o (he 8o%$- “!’) going (o sne&k &roun" (he b&ck- 3o you (hink you c&n cre&(e & big enough "i'ersion $or )e (o $in" (he o(hers &n" ge( ou( o$ (here? The 8o%$ b&re" his (ee(h in & s&'&ge grin- “! (hink ! c&n co)e u* wi(h so)e(hing“8&i( $or )y sign&%, (hen- #ri)&%kin0 ! %ooke" (o (he c&i( si(h, who b%inke" c&%)%y “0 show )e where (hey &re8e cre*( &roun" (he ou(skir(s o$ (he c&)*, )o'ing soun"%ess%y (hrough (he (rees &n" )&rshy un"ergrow(h, un(i% #ri)&%kin s(o**e" &( (he e"ge o$ (he b&sin &n" s&( "own“There, he s&i", no""ing (o (he %e$( si"e o$ (he c&)*- “The sh&)&n’s hu( is (he secon" one $ro) (he ro((ing (ree- The one wi(h (he (orches &n" (he chicken $ee( s(rung &cross (he en(r&nce“A% righ(, ! )ur)ure", s(&ring &( (he hu(- “!’% (&ke i( $ro) here- You shou%" hi"e0 +u( #ri)&%kin w&s &%re&"y gone! c%ose" )y eyes &n" "rew )y g%&)our (o )e, cre&(ing & c%o&k o$ sh&"ows (h&( (he %igh( wou%" shy &w&y $ro)- As %ong &s ! "i"n’( )&ke &ny noise or "r&w &((en(ion (o )yse%$, g%&nces wou%" s%i"e *&s( )e &n" (orch%igh( wou%" no( *ene(r&(e )y $&bric&(e" "&rkness8i(h (he g%&)our c%o&k in *%&ce, ! w&%ke" "own (he s%o*e in(o (he sw&)*y b&sinThe s)e% s here were $ou% &n" *o(en(A r&nci" w&(er, *u(ri" c&rc&sses, ro((ing $ish &n" (he oi%y, re*(i%i&n s(ench o$ (he hoby&hs (he)se%'es- They hisse" &n" sn&r%e" &( e&ch o(her in (heir g&rb%e", burb%e" %&ngu&ge, *unc(u&(e" by one recogni2&b%e wor"B hoby&h- Prob&b%y how (hey go( (heir n&)e- ,o'ing $ro) sh&"ow (o sh&"ow, being c&re$u% no( (o s%osh (he w&r) sw&)* w&(er (h&( so&ke" )y %egs, ! )&"e )y w&y (o (he sh&)&n’s hu(Ch&n(ing soun"s &n" & (hick, *ungen( s)oke "ri$(e" *&s( (he 'ei% o$ chicken $ee( &( (he "oorw&y- 1i%en(%y "r&wing )y swor", ! e&se" insi"eThe in(erior o$ (he (iny sh&ck reeke" o$ & $ou% incense, s(inging )y eyes &n" scr&(ching (he b&ck o$ )y (hro&(- A s9u&(, *o(be% ie" hoby&h s&( besi"e one w&% on & *i%e o$ &ni)&% skins, ch&n(ing &n" w&'ing & burning s(ick o'er & *&ir o$ %i)* $igures- Puck &n" Arie% &, s*r&w%e" ou( on (he "ir(y hu( $ %oor, (heir $&ces *&%e &n" s%&ck, h&n"s &n" $ee( boun" wi(h ye% ow 'ines- The sh&)&n /erke" his he&" u* &s ! c&)e in, &n" hisse" in &%&r)4uick &s %igh(ning, he %unge" $or his s(&$$, s(&n"ing in (he corner, bu( ! w&s $&s(er- 6us( &s his c%&w c%ose" on (he gn&r%e" woo", &n icic%e sh&r" hi( hi) $ro) behin"- !( shou%" h&'e ki% e" hi), bu( he (urne" &n" shrieke" so)e(hing &( )e, r&((%ing (he bones &(o* his s(&$$- ! $e%( & ri**%e o$ so)e "&rk g%&)our go (hrough (he &ir, &n" %unge" $orw&r", s%&shing wi(h )y b%&"e- The sh&)&n’s )ou(h o*ene", &n" he s*i( so)e(hing &( )e, &n &ci"ic ye% ow subs(&nce (h&( burne" )y skin where i( hi(, righ( be$ore (he b%&"e s(ruck ho)e- He scre&)e" & "e&(h cry &n" "isso%'e" in(o & *i%e o$ s9uir)ing sn&kes &n" $rogs- One "own, bu( (he o(her hoby&hs wou%" no( be $&r behin",y skin (ing%e" &n" w&s s(&r(ing (o go nu)b where (he sh&)&n’s s*i((%e h&" %&n"e", bu( ! cou%"n’( $ocus on (h&( now- :nee%ing besi"e Arie% &, ! cu( her bon"s &n" "rew her in(o )y &r)s-

“Ari, ! whis*ere" urgen(%y, (&**ing her cheek- Her skin w&s co%" (o (he (ouch, &n" e'en (hough (h&( w&s nor)&% $or 8in(er $ey, )y s(o)&ch (wis(e"“Ari, w&ke u*- Co)e on, %ook &( )e! *resse" (wo $ingers (o (he *u%se &( her (hro&(, bu( &( (h&( )o)en( she s(irre" &n" her eye%i"s $ %u((ere"- Re%ie$ sho( (hrough )e %ike &n &rrow, &n" ! resis(e" (he urge (o hug her c%ose- O*ening her eyes, she /erke" when she s&w )e, &n" ! *resse" )y $inger (o her %i*s“6us( )e, ! whis*ere", &s her eyes wi"ene"- “8e h&'e (o ge( ou( o$ here- 4uie(%yA shriek c&)e $ro) (he en(r&nce o$ (he hu(- A hoby&h s(oo" (here, re" eyes wi"e &s he s(&re" &( us- ! hur%e" &n ice "&gger &( hi), bu( he "&r(e" &w&y, hissing, &n" $ %e" in(o (he c&)*- Cries o$ &%&r) &n" r&ge echoe" beyon" (he "oor, &n" (hen c&)e (he soun" o$ )&ny bo"ies rushing (ow&r" us (hrough (he w&(er! curse" &n" %unge" u*righ(, gr&bbing )y swor"- “#e( Puck on his $ee(, ! c&% e" (o Arie% &, crossing (he $ %oor (o (he en(r&nce- “8e’re %e&'ing now! The $irs( hoby&h rushe" in(o (he sh&ck, s&w )e, &n" %unge" wi(h & how%, s(&bbing his s*e&r &( )y knee- ,y swor" $ %&she" "own &n" sen( (he hoby&h’s he&" ro% ing (ow&r" (he corner, be$ore bo(h *&r(s "isso%'e" in(o & *i%e o$ wri(hing s&%&)&n"ers- Ano(her "&r(e" (hrough &n" hur%e" i(s s*e&r &( )y $&ce- ! "ucke" (he *ro/ec(i%e &n" sen( one o$ )y own &( (he hoby&h- The ice sh&r" hi( i( s9u&re be(ween (he eyes &n" i( s%i(here" &w&y in & (&ng%e o$ sn&kes &n" %&)*reys1(e**ing ou(si"e, "e%iber&(e%y b%ocking (he en(r&nce (o (he hu(, ! r&ise" )y swor" &n" )e( (he hor"e o$ hoby&hs sw&r)ing )e $ro) e'ery "irec(ion“Hoby&h! (hey screeche" &s (hey rushe" )e- “Hoby&h hoby&h hoby&h! 1*e&rs $ %ew &( )e, (hough ! )&n&ge" (o "o"ge or b%ock )os( o$ (he), %&shing ou( &( &ny hoby&h (h&( go( (oo c%ose- The *i%e o$ new(s, $rogs &n" sn&kes grew &( )y $ee(, bu( (here were &%w&ys )ore &((&ckers, )ore hoby&hs "ro**ing $ro) (he (rees, eru*(ing $ro) (he w&(er, or c%i)bing o'er (he roo$ (o %e&* &( )y b&ckA huge b%&ck bir" su""en%y e.*%o"e" $ro) (he hu( behin" )e in & $ %urry o$ wings &n" $e&(hers- 8i(h &n enr&ge" c&w, i( *%unge" "own, s&nk i(s (&%ons in(o & hoby&h &n" c&rrie" i( high in(o (he (rees, (he hoby&h s(rugg%ing &n" how%ing in i(s gri*- The o(hers hisse" &n" sn&r%e", cr&ning (heir necks (o $o% ow i( &s Arie% & s(e**e" ou( besi"e )e“! &ssu)e (here’s & *%&n? she &ske", *&%e bu( c&%) &s & )&ss o$ $rogs &n" sn&kes su""en%y r&ine" "own $ro) (he (rees- Puck "ro**e" on(o (he roo$ o$ (he hu( wi(h & cr&sh, "&ggers &%re&"y in h&n"- ! s)i%e" &( Arie% &“A%w&ys- As (he sw&r) o$ hoby&hs beg&n e"ging $orw&r" &g&in, ! *u( (wo $ingers in )y )ou(h &n" b%ew ou( & *iercing whis(%eA su""en, h&un(ing how% echoe" i(- The hoby&hs cringe", s*inning &roun", (heir eyes going wi"e wi(h $e&rThe 8o%$ hur%e" hi)se%$ in(o (he )i"s( o$ (he hoby&hs wi(h & ro&r (h&( shook (he groun", &n" (he cre&(ures scre&)e" in *&nic- “3og! (hey shrieke", (hrowing u* (heir h&n"s &n" running &bou( in (error- “3og! 3og! The 8o%$ b&re" his (ee(h- “!- A) no(- A "og! he ro&re", &n" %unge" $or (he ne&res( hoby&h, gr&bbing i( by (he he&" &n" sh&king i( 'icious%y-

! (ook Arie% &’s h&n" &n" *u% e" her &w&y, Puck c%ose behin" &n" )u((ering curses- The hoby&hs "i"n’( (ry (o s(o* us- Toge(her, we $ %e" (he c&)*, he&ring (he 8o%$ ’s ro&rs &n" (he hoby&h’s s9ue&%s o$ *&nic echo behin" us“Ash, Arie% & s&i", gr&bbing )y &r), “w&i(! 8e’re no( being $o% owe"- 1(o* $or & )o)en(, *%e&se! s(&ggere" (o & h&%(, ignoring (he urge (o *u( )y h&n" &g&ins( (he ne&res( (ree (o s(o* (he groun" $ro) s*inning- The ch&os in (he hoby&h 'i% &ge h&" %ong $&"e" behin" us, bu( !’" w&n(e" (o ge( &s $&r $ro) (he cre&(ures &s *ossib%e, in c&se (hey "eci"e" (o co)e &$(er us once )ore- !$ (he 8o%$ %e$( &ny &%i'e,y ches( &n" shou%"er s(i% burne" where (he hoby&h sh&)&n h&" s*&( on )e- !gnoring (he *&in cr&w%ing "own )y b&ck, ! %e&ne" &g&ins( & coo%, )ossy (runk &n" g&2e" &roun", (rying (o ge( )y be&rings- The (rees here were gi&n(, &ncien( (hings, &n" you cou%" &%)os( $ee% (heir eyes on you, co%" &n" un&)use" by (he in(ru"ers in (heir )i"s(“8e% , (h&( w&s &% kin"s o$ $un- Puck b%ew ou( & bre&(h &n" r&ke" & h&n" (hrough his h&ir- “6us( %ike o%" (i)es- E.ce*( $or (he who%e ge((ing "rugge" &n" h&'ing (o be rescue" (hing- Th&(’s gonn& s(ing %&(er, ! /us( know i(- #ro&ning, he s&( on & ne&rby rock, rubbing & bruise on his shou%"er- “Nice o$ you (o co)e &$(er us, ice-boy, he "r&w%e"- “!$ ! "i"n’( know be((er by now, !’" &%)os( (hink you c&re"! $orce" & s)irk in his "irec(ion- “!( wou%"n’( be ne&r%y &s s&(is$ying i$ ! "i"n’( ge( (o ki% you )yse%$, ! re*%ie", &n" Puck grinne"A coo% h&n" (ouche" )y cheek- ! %ooke" u* in(o Arie% &’s concerne" g&2e- “Are you &% righ(? she &ske", *%&cing (he o(her *&%) on )y $orehe&"! c%ose" )y eyes &g&ins( (he so$(ness- “You’re burning u*- 8h&( h&**ene"? “You s)e% sick, *rince, (he 8o%$ grow%e", co)ing ou( o$ nowhere- “5ike we&kness- You won’( )&ke i( (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%" %ike (h&(“The sh&)&n, ! re*%ie"- “He>s*i( on )e- 3i" so)e(hing (o )e, ! (hink- The burning in )y ches( &n" shou%"er h&" gone nu)b &n" w&s now s*re&"ing (hroughou( )y bo"y- ! re&%i2e" ! cou%" no %onger $ee% )y &r)“Hoby&h 'eno) is h&% ucinogenic, (he 8o%$ con(inue", cur%ing his %i*- “You’re in $or &n in(eres(ing nigh(, %i((%e *rince, i$ you w&ke u* &( &% The (rees were beginning (o )o'e s(r&nge%y, cen(uries-o%" gi&n(s sw&ying %ike wi% ows- ! s9uee2e" )y eyes shu( (o c%e&r (he 'isions, &n" when ! o*ene" (he) &g&in, ! w&s %ying on )y b&ck whi%e (iny %igh(s "&nce" &n" swir%e" o'er )y he&"1o)eone’s $&ce ben( o'er )e, s(&r%igh( eyes $i% e" wi(h worry- 1he w&s be&u(i$u%, & 'ision co)e (o %i$e- +u( she w&s $&"ing, growing "i))er &n" "i))er, un(i% on%y her eyes were %e$(, s(&ring &( )e- Then (hey b%inke", &n" (he wor%" cu( ou( &%(oge(her-


8here &) !? ,is( surroun"e" )e, coi%ing &%ong (he groun" in r&gge" *&(ches, b%&nke(ing e'ery(hing in whi(e- The &ir w&s coo% &n" "&)*, ho%"ing (he 9uie( s(i% ness o$ e&r%y )orning- ! s)e% e" *ine &n" ce"&r &n" he&r" (he so$( s*%&sh o$ w&(er, so)ewhere u* &he&" in (he $og- ! "i"n’( recogni2e )y surroun"ings, bu( $or so)e re&son i( &% see)e" '&gue%y $&)i%i&r8i(h no(hing e%se (o "o, ! s(&r(e" w&%kingThe )is( s%ow%y c%e&re" &w&y, re'e&%ing & s)&% green *on" encirc%e" by *ine (rees- The $&in( b&bb%e o$ "ucks echoe" o'er (he s(i% ness, &n" se'er&% o$ (he green-&n"-brown bir"s g%i"e" (hrough (he w&(er (ow&r" & *&%e $igure s(&n"ing on (he b&nk- ! s(o**e" &n" "rew in & 9uie( bre&(h, &n" $or & )o)en( ! cou%"n’( )o'e, &$r&i" (h&( (he scene be$ore )e wou%" "isso%'e &n" !’" be %e$( ch&sing sh&"ows1he wore /e&ns &n" & whi(e shir(, &n" her %ong, *&%e h&ir w&s (ie" in & *ony(&i%, $&% ing so$(%y "own her b&ck- Her bo"y w&s s%en"er, )ore energe(ic (h&n gr&ce$u%, her $ingers 9uick &s she (ore bre&" crus(s &n" (osse" (he) in(o (he w&(er- There w&s & g%ow &bou( her now, & $ %ickering h&%o o$ %igh(, swir%ing wi(h g%&)our &n" *ower- Ag&ins( (he "&rkness o$ (he *on" &n" (rees, she %ooke" brigh( &n" 'i'i" &n" &%i'e, & %igh( burning &g&ins( (he sh&"ows;or & )o)en(, ! /us( w&(che" her, (ossing cru)bs in(o (he w&(er, s)i%ing &s (he "ucks sw&r)e" o'er (he)- ! knew (his w&sn’( re&%A (he re&% ,egh&n w&s b&ck in (he !ron Re&%) &s (he *ower$u% !ron 4ueen- ! knew (his w&s & "re&)A or *erh&*s ! h&" "ie" &n" $&"e" &w&y &n" "i"n’( know i( ye(- +u( seeing her s(i% )&"e )y he&r( be&( cr&2i%y, )&"e )e %ong (o *u% her c%ose &n" %e( (h&( %igh( consu)e )e- !$ i( burne" un(i% (here w&s no(hing %e$(, wou%" (h&( be such & (errib%e $&(e? 1he )us( h&'e he&r" )e, or sense" )y *resence, $or she (urne" &n" her b%ue eyes wi"ene"- “Ash? she whis*ere", &n" (he s)i%e (h&( cre*( o'er her $&ce w&r)e" )e %ike (he sun- “8h&( &re you "oing here? ! cou%"n’( he%* bu( s)i%e b&ck- “! "on’( know, ! (o%" her, (&king (he h&n" she o$$ere" &n" %e((ing her *u% )e c%ose- “! (hink>(his is & "re&)- Her &r)s s%i**e" &roun" )y w&is(, &n" ! he%" her (o )e, c%osing )y eyes- No burning $ire, no se&ring %igh( (h&( (urne" )e (o "us(, /us( (he $ee% o$ ,egh&n in )y &r)s- “Though !’" be h&**y i$ ! ne'er woke u*! $e%( her *u22%e" $rown, &n" she *u% e" b&ck (o %ook &( )e, cocking her he&"- “1(r&nge- ! (hough( (his w&s )y "re&)“,&ybe i( is- ! w&s h&'ing (roub%e (hinking- The sub(%e shi$( o$ her bo"y &g&ins( )ine, her h&n"s (r&cing circ%es &g&ins( )y b&ck, w&s "ri'ing )e (o "is(r&c(ion- “,&ybe !’) no( re&% y here, &n" (his wi% &% "is&**e&r when you w&ke u*, inc%u"ing )e- 1he he%" )e

(igh(er, &n" ! s)i%e"- “! wou%"n’( c&re ei(her w&y1o)e(hing n&gge" &( (he b&ck o$ )y )in", so)e(hing i)*or(&n( (h&( ! h&" $orgo((en, be&(ing &g&ins( )y subconscious %ike bir"s $ %u((ering &g&ins( & win"owsi% - !)*&(ien(%y, ! sho'e" i( b&ck, burying i( in & "&rk corner o$ )y )in"- 8h&(e'er i( w&s, ! "i"n’( w&n( (o re)e)ber- No( now- ! "i"n’( w&n( (o see, $ee% or (hink o$ &ny(hing e.ce*( (he gir% in $ron( o$ )eAs ! ben( (o kiss her, she s%i**e" her h&n" bene&(h )y shir(, (r&cing so$( $ingers o'er )y b&re skin, &n" $ro) (here i( w&s e&sy (o $orge( e'ery(hing5&(er, we %&y in (he coo% gr&ss &( (he e"ge o$ (he *on", ,egh&n %e&ning &g&ins( & (ree wi(h )y he&" in her %&*, g&2ing u* &( (he c%ou"s- Her $ingers (wir%e" i"%e *&((erns in )y h&ir, &n" ! "o2e" con(en(e"%y, $ee%ing no urge (o )o'e- !$ ! h&" "ie" &n" (his w&s, (hen so be i(- !$ ! w&s s%ee*ing s(i% , (hen ! h&" no in(en(ion o$ w&king u*“Ash? “,))? “8here h&'e you been &% (hese )on(hs? ! )e&n> 1he hesi(&(e", (wir%ing & s(r&n" o$ )y h&ir &roun" her $inger- “! know you c&n’( co)e in(o (he !ron Re&%), bu( no one h&s seen &ny sign o$ you, &nywhere- Or Puck, $or (h&( )&((er8h&( h&'e you (wo been "oing? “! w&s>%ooking $or so)e(hing, ! (hink- ! re&che" u* &n" (r&**e" her h&n" in )ine, bringing i( (o )y %i*s- “! c&n’( re)e)ber now1he $ree" her $ingers, s(roking )y cheek wi(h (he)- ! c%ose" )y eyes &n" %e( )yse%$ "ri$(“You "on’( (hink i( cou%" be i)*or(&n(? “,&ybe- Tru(h w&s, ! "i"n’( w&n( (o (hink &bou( i(- ! w&s con(en( here- 8h&(e'er %&y beyon" (his g%en, (his s)&% *ocke( o$ "re&)s or re&%i(y or wh&(e'er i( w&s, ! "i"n’( w&n( (o know &bou(- ! cou%"n’( re)e)ber )uch, bu( ! knew, beyon" & sh&"ow o$ & "oub(, (h&( i( in'o%'e" *&in- An" ! w&s (ire" o$ i(- 1o )uch o$ )y h&" been *&in, or e)*(iness, or %oss- ,egh&n w&s here- ! w&s h&**y- Th&( w&s &% ! nee"e" (o know,egh&n (&**e" )y $orehe&" in & *%&y$u% )&nner- “You "o know (h&( one o$ us h&s (o w&ke u*, "on’( you? she &ske", &n" ! grun(e", no( o*ening )y eyes- “! "on’( know i$ !’) & $ig)en( o$ your i)&gin&(ion or you’re & $ig)en( o$ )ine, bu( e'en(u&% y (his is going (o $&"e &w&y! ro% e" (o )y knees (o $&ce her, &n" she b%inke" &s ! %e&ne" in c%ose- “You c&n go i$ you h&'e (o, ! s&i", s)oo(hing her h&ir behin" one e&r- “!’) no( %e&'ing- !’% s(i% be here when you co)e b&ckcon'er( *"$ (o /*g “No, Ash, c&)e & new 'oice, sh&((ering (he *e&ce$u% )o)en(- “You c&nno( s(&y,egh&n &n" ! bo(h /erke" u*, s*inning (o $&ce (he in(ru"er in our *ri'&(e wor%"- Arie% & s(oo" & $ew y&r"s &w&y, shrou"e" in (he )is(, her $&ce gri) &s she w&(che" us“You were 'ery "i$$icu%( (o $in", Ash, she s&i" in & we&ry 'oice- “! &%)os( g&'e u* when ! cou%"n’( $in" you in nigh()&re- ! "i"n’( (hink (o %ook $or you in (he "re&)s o$ &no(her, bu( i( )&kes sense (h&( you shou%" co)e here-

“8h&( "o you w&n( here? ,egh&n rose wi(h (he reg&% gr&ce o$ & 9ueen, c&%) &n" unru$$ %e"- ! no(ice" she sub(%y )o'e" in $ron( o$ )e when $&cing Arie% &, & $&)i%i&r ges(ure (h&( c&ugh( )e o$$ gu&r"- The !ron 4ueen w&s *ro(ec(ing )e- “8ho &re you? “You know )e, ,egh&n Ch&se- Arie% & s(e**e" $orw&r", (he )is( *&r(ing $or her, (o s(&n" be$ore us c%e&r%y- “! &) (he one who w&s %e$( behin", (he one Ash knew be$ore you e'er c&)e in(o (he *ic(ure,egh&n "i"n’( )o'e, bu( ! s&w her "r&w in & s%ow bre&(h &s (he re&%i2&(ion hi(- “Arie% &, she bre&(he", &n" ! wince" &( (he churning e)o(ions in (h&( one 9uie( wor"- ,egh&n shook her he&", g%&nce" b&ck &( )e- “!s (his &no(her "re&), Ash? 3i" you bring her here? “No, Arie% & s&i" be$ore ! cou%" re*%y- “! &) no( & "re&)- No( & )e)ory- ! &) &s re&% &s you &re, !ron 4ueen- 3e&(h cou%" no( 9ui(e ho%" )e, &% (hose ye&rs &go“Enough, ! r&s*e", $in&% y sh&king (he $og $ro) )y )in"- ,e)ory re(urne" in & rushB (he /ourney (o $in" (he seer, (he $&(e$u% (ri* "own (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, (he 9ues( (o e&rn & sou%- 1(e**ing be(ween (he), ! $e%( (he he&( o$ bo(h (heir g&2es *iercing )e %ike & (hous&n" kni'es- “Ari, ! s&i", $&cing her, “wh&( &re you "oing here? 8h&( "o you w&n(? Arie% & n&rrowe" her eyes- “!’) here (o bring you ou( o$ (his "re&), she re*%ie" wi(h & brie$ g%&nce &( ,egh&n- “Your bo"y is 'ery sick, Ash, &n" (he curse (he hoby&h sh&)&n %&i" on you w&s kee*ing you (r&**e" in s%ee*- ! "on’( know how you $oun" your w&y here, bu( i( is (i)e $or you (o re(urn (o us+ehin" )e, ! cou%" $ee% ,egh&n’s s(&re burning in(o )y shou%"er b%&"es- “You’re>wi(h her now? she &ske" so$(%y, no( 9ui(e &ccusing0no( ye(“How>how %ong h&'e you known she w&s &%i'e? “No( %ong, Arie% & &nswere" $or )e- “8e h&'en’( h&" )uch (i)e (oge(her ye(“Ari! ! (urne" (o g%&re &( her- 1he g&2e" b&ck, unre*en(&n(, her si%'er-$ %ecke" eyes w&(ching )e s&"%y- !n (h&( )o)en(, ! s&w (he /e&%ousy she’" ne'er shown be$ore, (he hur( (h&( ! h&" chosen so)eone e%se, (hough she knew i( h&" (o be (h&( w&y- !( w&s *erh&*s (he $irs( (ru%y ug%y e)o(ion !’" e'er seen $ro) her, &n" )y &nger "issi*&(e" co)*%e(e%y- ! h&" "one (his (o her- 1he’" gi'en )e e'ery(hing, &n" ! h&" (urne" )y b&ck on her“! see, ,egh&n whis*ere" in & 'oice (h&( (re)b%e" on%y s%igh(%y- ! cou%" $ee% her $&"ing, her *resence %e&'ing (he "re&) surroun"ing us- “Then>!’% %e&'e you (wo &%one“Th&( is no( necess&ry, !ron 4ueen- Arie% & shook her he&"- “There is no nee"- ! c&)e here (o bring Ash ou( o$ his nigh()&res, bu( (his is your "re&), no( his- 8hen you w&ke, (he "re&) wi% $&"e, &n" he wi% re(urn (o us- !’) sorry (o h&'e in(ru"e" here- 8i(h & s%igh( no" (o us bo(h, she b&cke" u* & $ew s(e*s in(o (he )is(, &n" "is&**e&re"A%one wi(h (he !ron 4ueen &g&in, ! he%" )y bre&(h, w&i(ing $or (he e.*%osion, $or (he s(or) o$ 9ues(ions- +u( ,egh&n (ook & "ee* bre&(h &n" c%ose" her eyes- “8&s (h&( re&% y her? she &ske", s(i% no( %ooking u*- “Arie% &? !s she re&% y &%i'e? ! crosse" (he s*&ce se*&r&(ing us, re&ching $or her h&n"- 1he b%inke" &s ! (ook her $ingers, g&2ing u* &( )e in sur*rise- “!(’s no( wh&( you (hink, ! (o%" her- “P%e&se, he&r )e ou(,egh&n g&'e )e & s&" s)i%e- “No, Ash, she whis*ere"- “,&ybe>)&ybe (his is $or (he

bes(- An" (hough she "i"n’( )o'e, ! cou%" sense she w&s *u% ing b&ck, %e((ing )e go“,egh&n> “!’) (he !ron 4ueen, she s&i" $ir)%y- “No )&((er wh&( ! w&n(, (h&( wi% ne'er ch&ngeAn" you’re s(i% *&r( o$ (he 8in(er Cour(- E'en i$ you cou%" co)e in(o (he !ron Re&%), you wou%" "ie- 8e c&n’( be (oge(her, &n" (here’s no use in wishing $or (he i)*ossib%e- !(’s se%$ish o$ )e (o kee* ho*ing- Her 'oice shook on (he %&s( sen(ence, bu( she (ook & "ee*, s(e&"ying bre&(h &n" %ooke" u* &( )e- “Perh&*s>i(’s (i)e (o )o'e on, (o $in" h&**iness wi(h so)eone e%se! w&n(e" (o (e% her, (o e.*%&in wh&( ! w&s (rying (o "o- Th&( ! w&s (rying (o e&rn )y sou%- ! w&s going (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%" $or herA (h&( ! wou%" beco)e )or(&% i$ i( )e&n( we cou%" be (oge(her- ! w&n(e" (o (e% her so b&"%y, bu( &( (he s&)e (i)e, ! $e&re" ge((ing her ho*es u* on%y (o h&'e (he) "&she" i$ ! $&i%e"- ! "i"n’( w&n( her w&i(ing $or )e, worrying &n" cons(&n(%y %ooking (o (he hori2on $or so)eone who wou%" ne'er &**e&r“You h&'e & ch&nce (o be h&**y now, ,egh&n wen( on, &n" her b%ue eyes shone wi(h unshe" (e&rs, (hough she ne'er %ooke" &w&y- “Ash, (his is Arie%%&, (he %o'e you’'e been )issing $or "ec&"es- !$ she’s re&% y b&ck, (hen $&(e h&s gi'en you bo(h &no(her ch&nce, &n" !>!’) no( going (o s(&n" in your w&y- A (e&r s*i% e" o'er, running "own her cheek, bu( she s(i% s)i%e" &s she he%" )y g&2e- “8h&( we h&" w&s & "re&), &n" i( w&s be&u(i$u%, bu( i( w&s /us( & "re&)- !(’s (i)e $or us (o w&ke u*- ! (ook & bre&(h (o &rgue, bu( she %&i" her $ingers &g&ins( )y %i*s, si%encing )e- “C%ose your eyes! "i"n’( w&n( (o- ! w&n(e" (o s(&y in (his "re&) &%)os( &s )uch &s ! w&n(e" (o $in" & sou%, e'en (hough ! knew (his w&sn’( re&%- +u(, &%)os( &g&ins( )y wi% , ! $e%( )y eyes s%i* shu(, &n" & )o)en( %&(er her %i*s brushe" &g&ins( )ine, & $e&(her%igh( (ouch (h&( *u% e" )y s(o)&ch insi"e ou(- “#oo"bye, Ash, she whis*ere"- “+e h&**yAn" ! &woke! w&s %ying on )y b&ck, s(&ring u* &( & roo$ o$ br&nches, (iny *in*ricks o$ %igh( $i%(ering (hrough (he %e&'es- A $ire cr&ck%e" so)ewhere (o )y %e$(, &n" (he scen( o$ s)oke "ri$(e" on (he bree2e, (ick%ing (he b&ck o$ )y (hro&(“8e%co)e b&ck, s%ee*ing be&u(yPuck’s 'oice $i%(ere" (hrough (he h&2e in )y )in"- #ro&ning, ! s(rugg%e" in(o & si((ing *osi(ion, rubbing )y eyes- ,y skin $e%( co%" &n" c%&))y, )y bo"y "r&ine"- ,os(%y, ! $e%( ho% ow, e)*(y, (hough (he "u% &che in )y ches( re)in"e" )e why ! h&" c%ose" o$$ )y e)o(ions, $ree2ing e'eryone ou(- !( hur(, (he know%e"ge (h&( (he gir% ! %o'e" h&" %e( )e go once )oreArie% & &n" (he 8o%$ were nowhere (o be seen, bu( Puck s&( on & %og in $ron( o$ & s)&% c&)*$ire, ho%"ing & $&(, s*e&re" )ushroo) o'er (he $ %&)es, (urning i( s%ow%y- #ri)&%kin %&y o**osi(e hi) on & $ %&( rock, his $ee( (ucke" bene&(h hi), *urring in con(en()en(“’+ou( (i)e you woke u*, ice-boy, Puck s&i" wi(hou( (urning &roun"- “! w&s ho*ing $or so)e gro&ning &n" (hr&shing, bu( you /us( %&y (here %ike (he "e&"- An" you "i"n’( e'en (&%k in your s%ee* so ! cou%" (or)en( you &bou( i( %&(er- 8h&( $un is (h&(? ! s(rugg%e" (o )y $ee(, *&using & )o)en( (o %e( (he groun" s(o* sw&ying- “How %ong w&s ! ou(? ! &ske", )o'ing (ow&r" (he $ire-

“H&r" (o s&y- Puck (osse" )e & )ushroo) keb&b &s ! w&%ke" u*- “! h&'en’( seen (he sun in $ore'er- 8e )us( be $&r in(o (he 3ee* 8y%"“8here’s e'eryone e%se? “8o%$)&n is ou( hun(ing- Puck s(u$$e" &n en(ire )ushroo) in(o his )ou(h &n" sw&% owe" wi(hou( see)ing (o chew- “! guess )y hu)b%e whi(e-(ru$$ %e keb&bs weren’( goo" enough $or hi)- 3o you know how h&r" i( is (o $in" (hese (hings? ;urb&% (urne" u* his nose &s we% 0*icky, ungr&(e$u% &ni)&%s#ri)&%kin sni$$e" wi(hou( o*ening his eyes- “! "o no( e&( $ungi, #oo"$e% ow, he s&i" in & %o$(y 'oice- “An" i$ you &re so en&)ore" by (hese s*ores, $ee% $ree (o chew on (hose s*o((e" (o&"s(oo%s in (h&( *i%e o$ e%k "ung“Oh, we% , (h&(’s /us( gross! sw&% owe" (he )ushroo)s wi(hou( (&s(ing (he), )y bo"y recogni2ing (he nee" $or $oo" e'en (hough )y )in" w&s $&r &w&y- “8here’s Arie% &? ! &ske", (ossing (he s(ick b&ck in(o (he $irePuck no""e" (o (he e"ge o$ (he circ%e o$ $ire%igh(, where Arie% & s&( hunche" on & rock, her b&ck (o us- “1he w&%ke" &w&y & $ew )inu(es be$ore you c&)e (o, Puck s&i" so$(%y, w&(ching )e wi(h n&rrowe" eyes- “! (rie" $o% owing her, bu( she s&i" she w&n(e" (o be &%one $or & whi%e- ! $e%( his g&2e sh&r*en, cu((ing in(o )e- “8h&( "i" you s&y (o her, Ash? ! w&s such & )ess, *u% e" in so )&ny "irec(ions ! $e%( %ike ! wou%" sn&*- ! w&s s(i% ree%ing $ro) ,egh&n’s %&s( wor"s, $ro) (he $ %&sh o$ /e&%ousy in Arie% &’s eyes, $ro) (he s(r&in o$ w&%king (he %ine be(ween (he gir% ! h&" %os( &n" (he gir% ! w&n(e" bu( cou%" no( h&'e- +u( e'en (hough Ari h&" c%e&r%y been go&"ing ,egh&n b&ck in (he "re&)wor%", ! cou%" no( ignore her *&in3isreg&r"ing Puck, ! w&%ke" (o where Arie% & s&(, her he&" bowe", si%'er h&ir co'ering her $&ce %ike & shi))ering cur(&in- As ! s(e**e" c%oser, she r&ise" her he&" bu( "i"n’( %ook b&ck &( )e“1o, (h&( w&s her! *&use"- Her 'oice w&s $ %&(, no e)o(ion &( &% , no in"ic&(ion o$ wh&( she w&s $ee%ing7nsure how (o *rocee", ! &nswere" si)*%y- “YesA $ew he&r(be&(s o$ si%ence- 8hen she s*oke &g&in, ! cou%" he&r her s)i%e, bu( i( w&s &s bi((er &s (he $&"ing &u(u)n %e&'es- “! c&n see why you %o'e her so )uch! c%ose" )y eyes- “Ari0 1he s(oo" 9uick%y be$ore ! cou%" s&y )ore, (hough she "i"n’( (urn &roun"- “! know- !’) sorry, Ash- !> Her 'oice c&ugh(, &n" she *ushe" b&ck her h&ir, s*e&king )ore (o herse%$ (h&n (o )e- “! "i"n’( (hink i( wou%" be (his h&r"! w&(che" her, in (he $ %ickering sh&"ows- ! w&(che" (he $ire%igh( ri**%ing o$$ her si%'er h&ir, (he w&y her bo"y )o'e", gr&ce$u% &n" sure- An", ! w&s su""en%y re)in"e" why !’" $&% en in %o'e wi(h her, &% (hose ye&rs &go- 1he w&s &s be&u(i$u% &s (hose "&ys when ! w&s (h&( young, &rrog&n( *rince, &n" (i)e h&" no( "u% e" her *er$ec(ion- ! (hough( &bou( wh&( ,egh&n h&" (o%" )eB (h&( $&(e h&" gi'en us &no(her ch&nceA Arie% & w&s b&ck in )y %i$e,

&n" ! cou%" be h&**y nowCou%" ! be h&**y wi(h Arie% &? ! shook )y he&", 'eering $ro) (hose (hough(s be$ore (hey go( (oo (e)*(ing, $ee%ing &no(her (hre&" o$ )y essence unr&'e%- !( "i"n’( )&((er, ! re&%i2e" (hrough gri((e" (ee(h- ! cou%" no( &b&n"on )y 9ues(, reg&r"%ess o$ )y $ee%ings- ! swore (h&( ! wou%" $in" & w&y (o re(urn (o ,egh&n, &n" ! w&s boun" (o (h&( *ro)ise- ! cou%"n’( go b&ck on )y wor", e'en i$ wh&( ! se&rche" $or w&s i)*ossib%e- E'en i$ ,egh&n w&s no %onger w&i(ing $or )e, (h&( she h&" s&i" her goo"byes, (h&( she h&" %e( )e go- ! cou%" no( gi'e u*, e'en nowE'en i$ ! "ie", &n" (ook e'eryone wi(h )e“;in&% y &w&ke, &re you? The 8o%$ )e%(e" $ro) (he sh&"ows, & *iece o$ (he nigh( beco)ing re&%- “! w&s (e)*(e" (o ri* ou( your (hro&( whi%e you s%e*( &n" *u( you ou( o$ your )isery, %i((%e *rince- 8&(ching you s%ee* w&s beco)ing (iring- He %icke" his /&ws, where & "u% co&(ing o$ re" s*&((ere" his $ur, &n" b&re" his (ee(h- “8e’'e w&s(e" enough (i)e here, &n" ! &) ge((ing bore"- 3o you wish (o re&ch (he Tes(ing #roun"s or no(? “Yes, ! s&i" &s Puck /oine" us, c&rrying se'er&% )ushroo) keb&bs- “!(’s (i)e (o he&" ou(8here "o we go $ro) here? Arie% & c%ose" her eyes- “8e $o% ow (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, she )ur)ure", “*&s( (he +ri&rs, un(i% we re&ch (he $in&% b&rrier, &n" (hen (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- +eyon" (h&(, (he Tes(ing #roun"s &w&i(“You )&ke i( soun" so e&sy- Puck sighe", s(u$$ing &no(her (ru$$ %e in his )ou(h- “P&s( (he +ri&rs you s&y? An" (hen beyon" (he En" o$ (he 8or%"? How %ong is (h&( going (o (&ke us? “As %ong &s i( (&kes, ! s&i" $ir)%y- “As %ong &s ! h&'e (he bre&(h (o kee* going, ! wi% - +u( (h&( "oesn’( )e&n (he res( o$ you shou%" "o (he s&)e- ! g&2e" &roun" (he grou*, )ee(ing (he s(&res o$ )y co)*&nions- “;ro) here on ou(, ! beg&n, “i(’s going (o be e'en )ore "&ngerous- ! won’( &sk you (o s(&y wi(h )e- None o$ us know wh&( %ies beyon" (he +ri&rs, &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- !$ you w&n( (o go b&ck, "o so now- ! won’( ho%" i( &g&ins( you,y g&2e c&ugh( Arie% &’s &s ! s&i" (his- “! c&n go on &%one, i$ ! )us(, i$ being &roun" )e is (oo "&ngerous or h&r" or *&in$u% (o go on! wou%" s&'e you )y $&(e, i$ ! cou%"- ! wi%% no( w&(ch you "ie &g&in“H))- Hey, ice-boy, ho%" (hese $or & secon", wi% y&? Puck &ske", ho%"ing ou( (he )ushroo) keb&bs- ;rowning, ! (ook (he), &n" he s(ruck )e u*si"e (he he&", no( h&r", bu( so%i" enough (o rock )e $orw&r" & s(e*- “1(o* being so "&)ne" $&(&%is(ic, he s&i" &s ! (urne" on hi) wi(h & sn&r%- “!$ ! "i"n’( w&n( (o be here, ! wou%"n’( be- An" you know you c&n’( "o i( &% by your %oneso)e, ice-boy- 1ooner or %&(er, you’re going (o h&'e (o s(&r( (rus(ing us! %&ughe" &( hi) (hen, bi((er &n" se%$-)ocking- “Trus(, ! s&i" $ %&(%y- “Trus( re9uires (he $&i(h o$ bo(h *&r(ies, #oo"$e% ow“Enough, (he 8o%$ grow%e", b&ring his $&ngs &( us &% - “8e’re w&s(ing (i)e- Those who wish (o %e&'e, %e&'e- +u( ! be%ie'e (he consensus is (h&( e'eryone is s(&ying, is (h&( righ(?

No one "is&gree" wi(h hi), &n" he snor(e"- “Then %e( us go- ! h&'e no i"e& why (wo-%egs wish (o s(&n" &roun" &n" (&%k so )uch“;or once, ! &gree wi(h (he "og- #ri)&%kin’s 'oice c&)e $ro) &n o'erhe&" br&nch#o%"en eyes *eere" "own &( us, &n" (he 8o%$ grow%e", r&ising his h&ck%es- The c&( ignore" hi)- “!$ we &re (o re&ch (he +ri&rs by (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, we )us( $in" (he ri'er $irs(, he s&i", sh&r*ening his c%&ws on (he br&nch- “As (he "og knows (his (erri(ory bes(, *erh&*s i( shou%" "o so)e(hing use$u% &n" %e&" us (here- O(herwise ! see no re&son (o h&'e i( &%ong &( &% The 8o%$ sn&r%e", (ensing his )usc%es, &s i$ he wishe" he cou%" c%i)b (he (ree &$(er (he $e%ine- “One "&y ! wi% c&(ch you on (he groun", c&(, he s&i" (hrough b&re" (ee(h- “An" you won’( e'en know !’) (here un(i% ! (e&r your he&" o$$“You h&'e been s&ying (h&( since be$ore hu)&ns h&" $ire, "og, #ri)&%kin re*%ie", co)*%e(e%y un"is(urbe"- “You wi% h&'e (o $orgi'e )e i$ ! "o no( ho%" )y bre&(h- An" he "is&**e&re" in(o (he %e&'es-


“1o, !’) curious, Puck &nnounce", $&% ing in(o s(e* besi"e )e- 8e were $o% owing (he 8o%$ (hrough & $ores( (h&( w&s %&rger (h&n &ny !’" e'er seenB )&ssi'e (rees so (&% you cou%"n’( see (he (o*s o$ (he br&nches, wi(h (runks so wi"e & "o2en *eo*%e cou%"n’( encirc%e (he b&se- 5u)inescen( $ %owers &n" $ungi *o*u%&(e" (his *&r( o$ (he $ores(, *u%sing so$(%y in &% (he co%ors o$ (he s*ec(ru)- The e&r(h w&s co'ere" wi(h & (hick, s*ongy )oss (h&( g%owe" brigh( b%ue-&n"-green whene'er you s(e**e" on i(, %e&'ing $oo(*rin(s (h&( &((r&c(e" ghos(%y "r&gon$ %ies (o ho'er o'er (he in"en(ions- The 8o%$ %o*e" (ire%ess%y (hrough (his g%owing woo", *&using occ&sion&% y (o g%&nce b&ck, o$(en wi(h &n &nnoye" %ook (h&( we were (&king so %ong- Puck &n" ! (r&i%e" "ogge"%y &$(er hi), wi(h Arie% & bringing u* (he re&r, )o'ing &s 9uie(%y &s & sh&"ow3es*i(e &ssur&nces (h&( she w&s $ine, )y worry $or her gn&we" &( )y insi"es- A$(er (he who%e "re&) encoun(er &n" our s(&))ering, &wkw&r" con'ers&(ion, she see)e" "is(&n( &n" wi(h"r&wn, )ore so (h&n usu&%- 8i(h e'ery s(e*, she grew )ore sh&"ow%ike, )ore insubs(&n(i&%, un(i% ! $e&re" she wou%" $&"e &w&y %ike (he )is( in (he ho% ow- ! (rie" (&%king (o her, bu( (hough she s)i%e" &n" &nswere" )y 9ues(ions &n" (o%" )e she w&s $ine, her eyes see)e" (o s(&re righ( (hrough )e! cou%"n’( ge( ,egh&n ou( o$ )y he&", ei(her- ! wishe" ! h&" (o%" her wh&( ! w&s "oing- ! wishe" ! h&" s&i" )ore, &rgue" )ore- ,&ybe (hen ! wou%"n’( h&'e (his ho% ow &che in )y ches( whene'er ! (hough( o$ our *&r(ing wor"s- H&" she &%re&"y )o'e" on, $orgo((en )e?

!n her *osi(ion, wh&( she s&i" )&"e sense, bu( (he (hough( o$ her wi(h so)eone e%se )&"e )e wish ! h&" so)e(hing (o $igh(, (o ki% , /us( so ! cou%" $orge(- +e(ween ,egh&n &n" Arie% &, ! $e%( %ike ! w&s being (orn in (wo1o ! re&% y w&sn’( in (he )oo" (o (&%k when Puck &)bushe" )e, co)ing ou( o$ nowhere wi(h (h&( $&in( s)irk on his $&ce, %ooking $or (roub%e- ! knew ! w&sn’( going (o %ike his ne.( 9ues(ion, bu( he s(i% sur*rise" )e when he &ske", “1o, wh&( "i" ,egh&n s&y when she s&w Arie% &? ! g%&nce" &( hi) sh&r*%y, &n" he grinne"- “Co)e on, iceboy- !’) no( s(u*i"- ! c&n *u( (he *ieces (oge(her we% enough (o $igure ou( wh&( h&**ene"- 8h&( "i" she s&y? 8hen ! "i"n’( &nswer, he su""en%y re&che" ou( &n" gr&bbe" )y shou%"er, s*inning )e &roun"“Hey, !’) serious, *rince! ! "rew )y swor" in &n ins(&n(, cu((ing $or his he&" &s ! (urne"- Puck w&s &%re&"y bringing u* his "&gger (o b%ock, &n" (he (wo b%&"es )e( in & screech o$ s*&rksPuck g%&re" &( )e o'er (he crosse" b%&"es, eyes gone h&r" &n" co%", re$ %ec(ing )y own e.*ression- 3r&gon$ %ies bu22e" &roun" us, &n" (he $ores( (hrew o"" *&(ches o$ %igh( o'er his $orehe&", &%)os( %ike w&r *&in(- “You’re w&'ering, Ash, Puck s&i" 9uie(%y, his eyes g%owing %ike (he woo"s &roun" hi)- “!’'e seen how you %ook &( Arie% & o$ %&(e- You "on’( know wh&( you w&n(, &n" (h&( in"ecision is going (o "es(roy you, &n" (he res( o$ us &%ong wi(h i(“! g&'e you (he choice (o %e&'e, ! s&i", "e%iber&(e%y ignoring (he &ccus&(ion- “No one is kee*ing you here- You cou%"’'e gone b&ck (o Arc&"i&, Puck- You cou%" h&'e %e$( i$ you w&n(e"0 “No- Puck’s eyes n&rrowe" (o green s%i(s, &n" he s*oke (hrough c%enche" (ee(h- “!’) no( going b&ck (o e.*%&in (o ,egh&n (h&( ! %e$( you here &%one, (o (e% her ! "on’( know wh&( h&**ene" (o you- !$ ! go b&ck, i( wi% be (o (e% her (h&( you’re gone $or goo", or ! won’( go b&ck &( &% “! see- ! s)i%e" wi(hou( hu)or- “You w&n( )e (o $&i%- !$ ! "ie, (hen you’% be (here $or ,egh&n- You’re ho*ing ! ne'er co)e b&ck“Ash! Puck! Arie% &’s 'oice broke our s(&n"o$$ &s she rushe" u*, whi(e-$&ce" &n" $righ(ene"- “1(o* i(! 8h&( &re you "oing? “!(’s $ine, Ari, Puck s&i", no( (&king his eyes $ro) )e- “!ce-boy &n" ! &re /us( h&'ing & con'ers&(ion, isn’( (h&( righ(, *rince? ! he%" (he s(&nce & )o)en( %onger, (hen s(e**e" b&ck, she&(hing )y b%&"e- Puck grinne", bu( (he %ook in his eyes (o%" )e (his w&sn’( o'er ye(“!$ you (wo &re 9ui(e $inishe", (he 8o%$ grow%e", circ%ing b&ck, his 'oice (igh( wi(h irri(&(ion, “we’re &%)os( (hereThis $&r in(o (he 3ee* 8y%", (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s h&" wi"ene" in(o & wi"e, s%ee*y c&n&% o$ *i(ch-b%&ck w&(er re$ %ec(ing (he "&rkene" sky“! wou%"n’( s(&n" so c%ose (o (he e"ge i$ ! were you, (he 8o%$ w&rne" Puck, who w&s &bou( (o ski* & *ebb%e &%ong (he g%&ssy sur$&ce- “8e’re s(i% 'ery c%ose (o (he nigh()&re s(re(ch o$ (he ri'er, &n" we wou%"n’( w&n( you *u% e" in by so)e(hing n&s(y- !’" h&(e (o go in &$(er you &g&in-

Puck grinne" &n" $ %ung (he rock o'er (he )irror%ike sur$&ce- ! coun(e" $i'e /u)*s be$ore so)e(hing huge &n" sc&%y eru*(e" $ro) (he w&(er, sn&**ing u* (he *ebb%e in & $ine s*r&y be$ore sinking in(o (he "e*(hs once )ore8e )o'e" b&ck $ro) (he e"ge“How $&r is i( (o (he +ri&rs? ! &ske" Arie% &, who w&s si((ing on & rock se'er&% $ee( $ro) (he b&nk, %ooking e.h&us(e"- #ri)&%kin s&( besi"e her, w&shing & $ron( *&w- The 8o%$ wrink%e" his )u22%e &( (he c&( bu( "i"n’( %unge &( hi), so ho*e$u% y (hey h&" gone b&ck (o *re(en"ing (he o(her "i"n’(“!’) no( sure, she s&i", s(&ring "own (he ri'er &s i$ in & "&2e- “A %ong w&y, ! (hink- +u( &( %e&s( we won’( ge( %os(- 8e /us( h&'e (o $o% ow (he ri'er>(o (he en"“8ish we h&" & bo&(, Puck )u((ere", (ossing &no(her rock in(o (he curren(- Ano(her s*%&sh &n" & $ %&sh o$ sc&%es eru*(e" $ro) (he sur$&ce, )&king hi) wince- “Then &g&in, )&ybe no(- Our %&s( %i((%e (ri* "i"n’( work ou( so we% , wh&( wi(h (he gi&n( ee%s &n" &rrows &n" b%oo"(hirs(y new(s- #uess we’re w&%king (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%" &$(er &% , un%ess &nyone h&s & be((er i"e&The 8o%$ s&( "own, his "&rk $or) ou(%ine" by )oon%igh(, &n" g&2e" ou( (ow&r" (he w&(er“There is &no(her bo&(, he s&i" in & so%e)n 'oice- “!’'e seen i( so)e(i)es- A $erry, &%w&ys un)&nne", &%w&ys going in (he s&)e "irec(ion- !( ne'er &**e&rs (o s(o*, &n" (he ri'er nigh()&res see) un&w&re o$ i(s“,)), you &re s*e&king o$ (he ghos( $erry, #ri)&%kin s&i", *&using in his groo)ing (o %ook u*- “One o$ (he )ore co))on %egen"s, ! be%ie'e- There is & si)i%&r shi* (h&( h&un(s (he +roken #%&ss 1e&, & *ir&(e 'esse% )&"e o$ (he bones o$ )en- Or so)e(hing %ike (h&(He sni$$e" &n" shook his he&"- “Accor"ing (o cer(&in %egen"s, (he ghos( $erry &%w&ys &**e&rs when (here is nee"“8e% , (here’s nee" here, Puck s&i", g&2ing u* &n" "own (he "&rk ri'er- “8e nee" i(, bec&use ! "on’( w&n( (o go (ro)*ing "own (he ri'er $or who knows how %ong un(i% we re&ch (he +ri&rs or (he En" o$ (he 8or%" or wh&(e'er- He cu**e" his h&n"s (o his )ou(h &n" be% owe", “3o you he&r )e, $erry? Nee"! Here! 8e nee" you now! #ri)&%kin $ %&((ene" his e&rs, &n" (he 8o%$ ’s h&ck%es wen( u* &s he %ooke" &( )e- “How "i" he e'er sur'i'e so %ong wi(hou( so)e(hing (e&ring his (hro&( ou(? he grow%e"“+e%ie'e )e, !’'e won"ere" (he s&)e“The $erry wi% co)e (o us, Arie% & s&i", c&using e'eryone (o (urn &n" s(&re &( her- 1he g&2e" "own (he ri'er, her eyes g%&2e", "is(&n( &n" & )i% ion )i%es &w&y- “!’'e seen i(- !n )y 'isions- !( wi% &**e&r, when i( is (i)e“8hen wi% (h&( be? ! &ske"“! "on’( know- +u( i( wi% no( be here- !’'e seen (he bo&(, &n" & %ong, %ong *ier- Th&( is &% ! know“8e% > Puck sighe", gr&bbing &no(her *ebb%e- “! guess we’re %ooking $or so)e kin" o$ "ock- Anyone know where we c&n $in" one? There w&s no &nswer (o (h&(, &n" he sighe" &g&in- “#uess we’re hoo$ing i(, (henThe $ores( on our si"e o$ (he ri'er soon ch&nge", &%)os( &s &bru*(%y &s & "oor s%&))ing-

The %igh(s $&"e", &n" (he (rees bec&)e (wis(e", w&r*e" 'ersions o$ (he)se%'es, br&nches cre&king &n" gro&ning (hough (here w&s no win"- The s(&rs "is&**e&re", &n" (he ri'er (urne" e'en b%&cker, re$ %ec(ing no(hing bu( & sick%y re" )oon, *eering (hrough (he c%ou"s %ike & %one b%oo"sho( eye- ! $igure" we were s(i% in (he nigh()&re s(re(ch o$ (he ri'er, &n" ho*e" no(hing wou%" co)e %urching u* $ro) (hose "&rk w&(ers or ou( o$ (he (rees, bo(h )uch (oo c%ose $or co)$or(“3on’( s(&re in(o (he $ores( (oo %ong, *rince, (he 8o%$ grow%e", &s so)e(hing rus(%e" in (he bushes (o (he si"e- “3irec( eye con(&c( wi% "r&w &((en(ion (o yourse%$ $ro) (he (hings (h&( %i'e (here- An" (hey &ren’( *re((y, (rus( )e“You )e&n (hey’re e'en sc&rier (h&n you? Puck /oke", &n" (he 8o%$ g&'e hi) &n eerie s)i%e (h&( w&s &% (ee(h“! w&s born $ro) hu)&n $e&r &n" sus*icion, (he 8o%$ grow%e", soun"ing *rou" o$ (he $&c(- “Their s(ories, (heir %egen"s, g&'e )e *ower- +u( (hese &re cre&(ures o$ hu)&n nigh()&res, *ure, )in"%ess, scre&)ing (error- They co)e cr&w%ing ou( o$ (h&( ri'er &n" esc&*e in(o (he $ores(, &n" (he $ores( (wis(s &n" w&r*s in(o & %&n"sc&*e o$ wh&( hu)&ns $e&r (he )os(- !$ you w&n( (o )ee( so)e o$ (hese cre&(ures, $ee% $ree (o "r&w (heir g&2e6us( (ry no( (o go ins&ne when you $in&% y see onePuck snor(e"- “P%e&se- 8ho "o you (hink you’re (&%king (o? ! c&use" so)e o$ (hose hu)&n nigh()&res- !’'e seen i( &% , 8o%$)&n- There’s no(hing (h&( c&n $re&k )e ou( &ny0 who&! Puck %e&*e" b&ckw&r", &%)os( (ri**ing o'er hi)se%$- #ri)&%kin hisse" &n" '&nishe", &n" ! "rew )y swor"- On (he b&nks o$ (he ri'er, ho%"ing & $ishing *o%e in (wo whi(e, %ong$ingere" h&n"s, &n enor)ous, wi%"-h&ire" cre&(ure (urne" (o s(&re &( us! s(&re" &( i(- !( w&s $ey, i( h&" (o be, bu( !’" ne'er seen &ny(hing %ike i(- !( "i"n’( h&'e & bo"y, /us( & huge, bu%bous he&" co'ere" in sh&ggy whi(e h&ir (h&( hung "own (o i(s kneesNo, no( knees>knee- The gi&n( h&" one (hick s(u)* o$ & %eg en"ing in & )&ssi'e c%ubbe" $oo(, "ir(y ye% ow (oen&i%s gri**ing (he groun" %ike & gi&n( c%&w- Two %ong &r)s s*rou(e" where i(s e&rs shou%"’'e been, &n" & *&ir o$ huge, une'en eyes g&2e" "own &( us wi(h "e(&che" curiosi(y! (ense", re&"y (o &((&ck shou%" (he gi&n( %unge &( us- Th&( sing%e %eg, once (&ken ou(, wou%" )&ke i( e&sy (o bring (his huge cre&(ure "own- +u( (he gi&n( on%y b%inke" &( us s%ee*i%y, (hen (urne" (o g&2e &( (he ri'er &g&in, where (he s(ring o$ his $ishing *o%e )e( (he w&(erThe 8o%$ *&n(e", grinning &( Puck, who h&" %e&*e" (o his $ee(, $urious%y brushing )u" $ro) his *&n(s- Arie% & s(e**e" u* besi"e )e, her &*&(hy $orgo((en &s we g&2e" u* &( (he s(r&nge cre&(ure, con(inuing (o $ish &s i$ no(hing h&" h&**ene"- “8h&( is (h&(? she whis*ere", c%u(ching )y &r)“!’'e ne'er seen & cre&(ure %ike (his be$ore- !s (his so)e kin" o$ hu)&n nigh()&re? “!(’s no( & nigh()&re, (he 8o%$ s&i", si((ing "own (o w&(ch us- “!(’s $ey, /us( %ike you, bu( i( "oesn’( h&'e & n&)e- A( %e&s(, none (h&( &nyone c&n re)e)ber“! "i" no( (hink &ny s(i%", #ri)&%kin s&i", re&**e&ring on & *iece o$ "ri$(woo", his (&i% s(i% $ %u$$e" ou( (o (wice i(s si2e- He *eere" u* &( (he ob%i'ious gi&n( &n" sni$$e"- “This

)&y be (he 'ery %&s( one“8e% , en"&ngere" or no(, )&ybe i( c&n he%* us, Puck s&i", e"ging u* (o (he gi&n(’s (ree%ike %eg- “Oy, s(u)*y! Ye&h, you! he c&% e" &s (he gi&n(’s )&ssi'e he&" swi'e%e" &roun" (o s(&re &( hi)- “C&n you un"ers(&n" )e? The 8o%$ b%inke" &( Puck, &s(onishe", &n" Arie% & *resse" & %i((%e bi( c%oser (o )e- ! cou%" $ee% her so$( $ingers gri**ing )y &r), &n" c&su&% y re&che" $or )y swor" hi%(- “!’) no( &bou( (o scr&*e you o$$ (he bo((o) o$ i(s $oo(, #oo"$e% ow, ! w&rne"“Touche" (h&( you c&re, *rince, Puck c&% e" b&ck, re(re&(ing & $ew s(e*s (o )ee( (he gi&n(’s g&2e, cr&ning his he&" u*- “Hey (here, he gree(e", w&'ing cheer$u% y- “8e "on’( )e&n (o in(ru"e, bu( wou%" you be &b%e (o &nswer & cou*%e 9ues(ions? He b%inke" &s (he gi&n( con(inue" (o s(&re- “7h, bob once $or yes, (wice $or noThe $&ery shi$(e", &n" ! (ense", re&"y (o &((&ck i$ i( (rie" (o s(o)* Puck %ike &n irri(&(ing cockro&ch- +u( (he gi&n( on%y *u% e" his %ine ou( o$ (he ri'er &n" (urne" (o $&ce Puck s9u&re on“8h&(>"o>you>w&n(? i( &ske", 'ery s%ow%y, &s i$ i( w&s /us( re)e)bering how (o (&%k- Puck’s eyebrows sho( u*“Oh, hey, you c&n s*e&k, &$(er &% - E.ce% en(- He (urne" (o grin &( )e, &n" ! s(&re" b&ck, un&)use"- “8e were /us( won"ering, Puck con(inue", gi'ing (he gi&n( his bes( ch&r)ing s)i%e, “how )uch $&r(her (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"? 6us( &s & curiosi(y- 3o you know? You %ook %ike & %oc&%, you’'e been here &whi%e, righ(? 8h&( "o you (hink? “!>"o no( re)e)ber, (he gi&n( s&i", $rowning &s i$ such & (hough( *&ine" hi)- “! &) sorry- ! "o no( re)e)ber“You won’( ge( &ny(hing use$u% ou( o$ hi), #oo"$e% ow, (he 8o%$ grow%e", s(&n"ing u*“He "oesn’( e'en re)e)ber why he’s here“! w&s>%ooking $or so)e(hing, (he gi&n( )use", his %&rge eyes going g%&ssy- “!n>(he ri'er, ! (hink- ! $orgo( wh&( i( w&s, bu(>!’% know i( when ! see i(“Oh- Puck %ooke" "is&**oin(e", bu( on%y $or & )o)en(- “8e% , how &bou( & bo&(, (hen? he wen( on, un"&un(e"- “!$ you’'e been here &whi%e, you )us(’'e seen & bo&( $ %o&(ing "own (he ri'er once or (wiceThe 8o%$ shook his he&" &n" (urne" (o s(&%k "own (he ri'erb&nk, ob'ious%y $e" u* wi(h (he con'ers&(ion- +u( (he gi&n( $rowne", his huge brows kni((ing (oge(her, &n" no""e" (hough($u% y“A bo&(- Yes>! re)e)ber & bo&(- A%w&ys going in (he s&)e "irec(ion- He *oin(e" wi(h & *&%e whi(e $inger in (he "irec(ion we were he&"e"- “Th&( w&y- !( )&kes one s(o*, /us( one, &( (he "ock on (he ri'er’s e"ge! %ooke" u* sh&r*%y- “8here? The gi&n(’s $urrows "ee*ene"- “A (own? A se((%e)en(? ! (hink ! re)e)ber>housesO(hers>%ike )e- 5o(s o$ )is(> He b%inke" &n" shrugge", which %ooke" s(r&nge bec&use he h&" no shou%"ers- “! "on’( re)e)ber8i(h & $in&% b%ink, he (urne" &w&y, &s i$ $orge((ing we were (here, &n" none o$ Puck’s con(inue" *ro""ing see)e" (o re&ch hi)-

“3o you know &ny(hing &bou( (his (own? ! &ske" #ri)&%kin &s we con(inue" "own (he ri'erb&nk- ;&r(her &he&", (he 8o%$ h&" s(o**e" &g&in &n" w&s %ooking b&ck in &nnoy&nce! wou%"’'e &ske" hi), bu( he %ooke" re&"y (o sn&* so)eone’s he&" o$$“! on%y know %egen"s, *rince- #ri)&%kin *icke" his w&y o'er (he groun", &'oi"ing *u""%es &n" )incing his w&y (hrough (he )u"- “! h&'e ne'er been (o (his so-c&% e" (own )yse%$, bu( (here &re 'ery, 'ery o%" s(ories &bou( & *%&ce in (he 3ee*es( 8y%" where (he $ey go (o "ie! s(&re" &( (he c&(- “8h&( "o you )e&n? #ri)&%kin sighe"- “A)ong o(her (hings, (he (own is known &s Ph&e"- 3o no( bo(her (e% ing )e you h&'e ne'er he&r" o$ i(- ! &%re&"y know you h&'e no(- !( is & *%&ce $or (hose who) no one re)e)bers &ny)ore- 6us( &s s(ories, be%ie$ &n" i)&gin&(ion )&ke us s(ronger, (he %&ck o$ (he) s%ow%y ki% s, e'en (hose in (he Ne'erne'er, un(i% (here is no(hing %e$(- Th&( gi&n( we s&w? He is one o$ (he), (he ;orgo((en, c%inging (o by (he (hre&" o$ (hose who s(i% re)e)ber hi)- !( is on%y & )&((er o$ (i)e be$ore he is si)*%y no( (here &ny)ore! shi'ere", &n" e'en Puck %ooke" gr&'e- 3ee* "own, (h&( w&s so)e(hing we &% $e&re", being $orgo((en, $&"ing &w&y in(o no(hingness bec&use no one re)e)bere" our s(ories or our n&)es“3o no( %ook so serious, #ri)&%kin s&i", ho**ing o'er & *u""%e, *erching on & rock (o s(&re &( us- “!( is (he ine'i(&b%e en" $or &% o$ ;&ery- 8e &% )us( $&"e e'en(u&% y- E'en you, #oo"$e% ow- E'en (he gre&( &n" )igh(y 8o%$- 8hy "o you (hink he wishe" (o &cco)*&ny you, *rince? #ri)&%kin wrink%e" his nose, cur%ing his whiskers &( )e- “1o (h&( his s(ory wou%" go on- 1o (h&( i( wou%" s*re&" (o (he he&r(s &n" )in"s o$ (hose who wi% re)e)ber hi)- +u( e'ery(hing he "oes is on%y & "e%&y- 1ooner or %&(er, e'eryone win"s u* in Ph&e"E.ce*( c&(s, o$ course- 8i(h & sni$$, he %e&*e" "own &n" (ro((e" &%ong (he ri'erb&nk wi(h his (&i% he%" highA r&gge" )is( beg&n (o cur% &%ong (he groun", co)ing o$$ (he w&(er &n" cree*ing (hrough (he (rees- 1oon i( w&s so (hick i( w&s "i$$icu%( (o see )ore (hen & $ew $ee(, (he ri'er, (he woo"s, (he "is(&n( hori2on co)*%e(e%y obscure" by (he b%&nke( o$ whi(eThe 8o%$ su""en%y &**e&re", co)ing ou( o$ (he $og %ike & si%en( &n" "e&"%y sh&"ow“There &re %igh(s &he&", he grow%e", (he $ur &%ong his shou%"ers &n" neck bris(%ing %ike & be" o$ s*ikes- “!( %ooks %ike & (own, bu( (here’s so)e(hing s(r&nge &bou( i(- !( h&s no scen(, no s)e% - There &re (hings )o'ing &roun" u* &he&", &n" ! he&r" 'oices (hrough (he $og, bu( ! c&n’( s)e% &ny(hing- !(’s %ike i(’s no( e'en (here“Th&( is (he *rob%e) wi(h "ogs- #ri)&%kin sighe", ne&r%y in'isib%e in (he coi%ing )is(“A%w&ys (rus(ing wh&( (heir nose (e% s (he)- Perh&*s you shou%" *&y &((en(ion (o your o(her senses, &s we% The 8o%$ b&re" his (ee(h in & sn&r%- “!’'e been u* &n" "own (hese b&nks )ore (i)es (h&n ! c&n re)e)ber- There w&s ne'er & (own here- On%y $og8hy wou%" (here be one now? “Perh&*s i( &**e&rs &s (he $erry "oes, #ri)&%kin s&i" c&%)%y, *eering in(o (he )is(“Perh&*s i( on%y &**e&rs when (here is nee"- Or *erh&*s0 he g%&nce" &( )e &n" Arie% &

“0on%y (hose who h&'e "ie" or &re &bou( (o "ie c&n $in" (heir w&y (o Ph&e"The ri'erb&nk (urne" in(o & )u""y *&(h, which we $o% owe" un(i% "&rk sh&*es beg&n (o &**e&r (hrough (he )is(, (he si%houe((es o$ houses &n" (reesAs we go( c%oser, (he (own o$ Ph&e" &**e&re" be$ore us, (he *&(h cu((ing s(r&igh( (hrough (he cen(er- 8oo"en sh&n(ies s(oo" on s(i%(s &bo'e (he )&rshy groun", %e&ning "&ngerous%y (o (he si"e &s i$ (hey were "runk- Tire" gr&y ho'e%s s%u)*e" or were s(&cke" &(o* e&ch o(her %ike c&r"bo&r" on (he 'erge o$ $&% ing "own or co% &*sing wi(h & goo" kickE'ery(hing s&gge", "roo*e", cre&ke" or w&s so $&"e" i( w&s i)*ossib%e (o (e% i(s origin&% co%orThe s(ree( w&s $u% o$ c%u((er, o""s &n" en"s (h&( &**e&re" &s i$ (hey h&" been "ro**e" &n" ne'er *icke" u* &g&in- A $ishing *o%e, wi(h (he ske%e(on o$ & $ish on (he en" o$ (he %ine, %&y in (he )i""%e o$ (he ro&", c&using (he 8o%$ (o cur% his %i* &n" skir( &roun" i(- An e&se% wi(h & h&%$-$inishe" *&in(ing ro((e" in & *oo% o$ s(&gn&n( w&(er, *&in( "ri**ing in(o (he *oo% %ike b%oo"- An" books were sc&((ere" e'erywhere, $ro) chi%"ren’s nursery rhy)es (o huge (o)es (h&( %ooke" co)*%e(e%y &ncien(The $og here w&s (hicker, (oo, )u$$ %ing &% soun"- No(hing see)e" (o )o'e, or e'en bre&(he“Nice *%&ce, Puck )u((ere" &s we *&sse" &n o%" rocking ch&ir, cre&king in (he win"“Re&% ho)ey- ! won"er where e'eryone is“They co)e &n" go, s&i" (he rocking ch&ir behin" us- 8e &% /u)*e" &n" s*un &roun", "r&wing our we&*ons- A s(r&nge cre&(ure wi(h b%&nk whi(e eyes s(&re" &( us where no(hing h&" been be$oreAs wi(h (he gi&n(, ! "i"n’( recogni2e (his cre&(ure- !( h&" (he bo"y o$ & shri'e%e" o%" wo)&n, bu( her h&n"s were gn&r%e" bir" c%&ws &n" her $ee( en"e" in hoo'es- ;e&(hers s(uck ou( o$ her gr&y h&ir &n" r&n "own her skinny &r)s, bu( ! &%so s&w (iny horns cur%ing $ro) her brow- 1he reg&r"e" )e wi(h & "u% , (ire" e.*ression, &n" & $orke" (ongue $ %icke" ou( (o (ouch her %i*s“Oh, she s&i", &s ! (ook & "ee*, s%ow bre&(h &n" she&(he" )y we&*on, “newco)ers- ! h&'en’( seen & new $&ce in (own $or>co)e (o (hink o$ i(, !’'e ne'er seen & new $&ce1he *&use" & )o)en(, *eering &( us, (hen brigh(ene"- “!$ you’re new, (hen *erh&*s you’'e seen i(- H&'e you seen i(, by ch&nce? ! $rowne"- “!(? “Yes- !(! $e%( so)e(hing o"" in (he &ir &roun" her, & $&in( *u% ing sens&(ion, %ike w&(er being sucke" (hrough & s(r&w- “!(> wh&(? ! &ske" c&u(ious%y, $&cing (he o%" $&ery &g&in“8h&( &re you %ooking $or? “! "on’( know- 1he sighe" he&'i%y, see)ing (o shrink in on herse%$- “! "on’( re)e)ber- ! /us( know ! %os( i(- You h&'en’( seen i(, h&'e you? “No, ! (o%" her $ir)%y- “! h&'en’( seen i(“Oh- The o%" cre&(ure sighe" &g&in, shrinking "own & %i((%e )ore- “Are you sure? ! (hough( you )igh( h&'e seen i(-

“1o, &nyw&y, Puck broke in, be$ore (he con'ers&(ion cou%" go in &no(her circ%e- “8e’" %o'e (o s(&y &n" ch&(, bu( we’re sor( o$ in & hurry- C&n you *oin( us (ow&r" (he "ocks? The cre&(ure’s (ongue $ %icke" ou(, &s i$ (&s(ing (he &ir &roun" Puck- “You’re so brigh(, she whis*ere"- “A% o$ you &re so brigh(- 5ike %i((%e suns, you &re- Puck &n" ! sh&re" & g%&nce, &n" s(&r(e" (o b&ck &w&y- “Oh, "on’( %e&'e, (he $&ery *%e&"e", ho%"ing ou( & wi(here" c%&w- “1(&y- 1(&y &n" ch&( & bi(- !(’s so co%" so)e(i)es- 1o>co%"> 1he shi'ere" &n", %ike )is( "isso%'ing in (he sun%igh(, $&"e" &w&y- An e)*(y rocking ch&ir, s(i% cre&king b&ck &n" $or(h, w&s (he on%y (hing %e$( behin"Puck g&'e &n e.&gger&(e" shi'er &n" rubbe" his &r)s- “Ok&y, (h&( w&s *rob&b%y (he cree*ies( (hing !’'e seen in & whi%e, he s&i" wi(h $orce" cheer$u%ness- “8ho e%se is $or $in"ing (his bo&( &n" ge((ing (he he% ou((& 3o"ge? “Co)e on, (he 8o%$ grow%e", e&ger (o %e&'e &s we% - “! c&n s)e% (he ri'er- This w&y8i(hou( w&i(ing $or & re*%y, he (urne" &n" *&""e" "own (he s(ree(! %ooke" $or #ri)&%kin, no( sur*rise" (o $in" he h&" '&nishe" &s we% - ! ho*e" (h&( "i"n’( )e&n (here wou%" be (roub%e soon- “8h&( "o you (hink she w&s se&rching $or? ! &ske" Arie% & &s we con(inue" (hrough (he si%en( (own, $o% owing (he 8o%$ ’s huge si%houe((e (hrough (he $og- “The cre&(ure on (he ri'erb&nk w&s %ooking $or so)e(hing, (oo- ! won"er wh&( (hey %os( (h&(’s so i)*or(&n(? Arie% & shi'ere", her e.*ression h&un(e"- “Their n&)es, she s&i" 9uie(%y- “! (hink>(hey were se&rching $or (heir n&)es- 1he "ri$(e" o$$ $or & )o)en(, her eyes "is(&n( &n" s&"- ! $e%( & (winge o$ &%&r) &( how )uch she su""en%y rese)b%e" (he $&ery in (he rocking ch&ir“! cou%" $ee% (he e)*(iness insi"e, Arie% & con(inue" in & ne&r whis*er, “(he ho% ow *%&ces (h&( consu)e (he)- They’re %ike & ho%e, &n e)*(y s*o( where you’" e.*ec( so)e(hing (o be- Th&( cre&(ure in (he rocking ch&ir>she w&s &%)os( gone- ! (hink i( w&s /us( your &n" Puck’s g%&)our (h&( brough( her b&ck, i$ on%y $or & %i((%e whi%e;igures were s(&r(ing (o &**e&r (hrough (he )is( now, s(r&nge, un$&)i%i&r cre&(ures wi(h (he s&)e "e&" eyes &n" e)*(y $&ces- They s(u)b%e" (hrough (he (own in & "&2e, &s i$ s%ee*w&%king, b&re%y conscious o$ (heir surroun"ings- 1o)e(i)es (hey wou%" (urn (o s(&re &( us wi(h b%&nk eyes &n" "e(&che" curiosi(y, bu( none )&"e &n e$$or( (o &**ro&chA boo)ing ro&r broke (hrough (he )u$$ %e" si%ence, &n" & scu$$ %e &he&" in (he )is( )&"e )e "r&w )y swor" &n" hurry o'er- The 8o%$ s(oo", (ee(h b&re" &n" h&ck%es r&ise", o'er & $igure wi(h (iny h&n"s growing e'erywhere $ro) i(s bo"y- The cre&(ure’s &r)s, &s we% &s i(s "o2ens o$ h&n"s, were (hrown u* (o *ro(ec( i(, &n" i( cringe" b&ck &s (he 8o%$ b&re" his (ee(h &n" wen( $or i(s (hro&(! %unge" $orw&r", s%&))ing )y shou%"er in(o (he 8o%$ ’s he&", knocking hi) &si"e wi(h & $urious ye%*- He (urne" on )e wi(h & sn&r%, &n" su""en%y Puck w&s (here, "&ggers "r&wn, s(&n"ing besi"e )e- Toge(her, we $or)e" & w&% be(ween (he 8o%$ &n" his in(en"e" 'ic(i), who scurrie" &w&y on )u%(i*%e h&n"s &n" '&nishe" un"er & bui%"ingThe 8o%$ g%&re" &( us, eyes b%&2ing, (he h&ir on his s*ine s(&n"ing u*- “,o'e, he grow%e", n&rrowing his eyes- “!’) going (o $in" (h&( (hing &n" ri* i(s he&" o$$- #e( ou( o$ )y w&y“C&%) "own, ! or"ere", kee*ing )y b%&"e be(ween )yse%$ &n" (he &ngry 8o%$- “A((&ck one o$ (he) &n" (he who%e *%&ce )igh( co)e &$(er us- !(’s gone now, so you c&n’( "o

&ny(hing &bou( i(“!’% ki% (he) &% , (he 8o%$ grow%e", his 'oice gone "&ngerous%y so$(- “!’% ri* e'ery sing%e one o$ (he) (o b%oo"y shre"s- This *%&ce isn’( n&(ur&%- C&n’( you $ee% i(? !(’s %ike & s(&r'ing &ni)&%, c%&wing &( us- 8e shou%" ki% e'ery one o$ (he) now“! wou%" &"'ise &g&ins( (h&(, #ri)&%kin s&i", &**e&ring $ro) nowhere- He n&rrowe" his eyes &( (he 8o%$, who s(&re" b&ck )ur"erous%y- “You wou%" be sur*rise" how )&ny ;orgo((en in (his wor%", (he c&( wen( on- “,ore (hen you c&n i)&gine, ! &ssure youAn" s(rong e)o(ions %ike &nger &n" $e&r wi% on%y &((r&c( (he) %ike &n(s (o honey- 1o "o (ry (o kee* your (ee(h in your /&ws wi(hou( ri**ing so)eone’s he&" o$$- 8e )igh( &c(u&% y )&ke i( ou( o$ hereThe 8o%$ ’s b&%e$u% g%&re shi$(e" be(ween )e &n" #ri)&%kin be$ore he (urne" &w&y wi(h & sn&r%, sn&**ing &( (he &ir- As he "i", ! s&w (he $ur on his b&ck &n" shou%"ers, nor)&% y *i(ch-b%&ck, w&s s(re&ke" wi(h gr&y, bu( (hen he shook hi)se%$ &n" (he co%or $&"e" $ro) sigh(“#ee2, (his *%&ce is )&king e'en 8o%$)&n (wi(chy, Puck s&i" (o )e in & %ow 'oice, w&(ching (he 8o%$ *&ce b&ck &n" $or(h, grow%ing- +eyon" hi), & crow" w&s s%ow%y g&(hering, curious $&ces e)erging $ro) (he )is(, b%&nk eyes $i.e" on us- “5e(’s $in" (h&( bo&( &n" ge( ou( o$ here be$ore he s(&r(s (e&ring "own (he w&% s8e $o% owe" (he )u""y s(ree( un(i%, &( %&s(, i( re&che" (he b&nks o$ (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, s(i% shrou"e" in whi(e, "&rk w&(ers %&**ing so$(%y &g&ins( (he )u"- A sing%e woo"en "ock s(re(che" &w&y un(i% i( '&nishe" in(o (he $og, bu( no(hing )o'e" ou( on (he ri'er or (hrough (he )is(s- E'ery(hing w&s o'er%y 9uie( &n" s(i% “8e% , here’s (he "ock, Puck s&i", s9uin(ing &s he *eere" (hrough (he $og- “+u( ! "on’( see & bo&(- ,&ybe we h&'e (o buy & (icke(? “You won’( $in" wh&( you’re %ooking $or s(&n"ing (here, s&i" & so$( 'oice behin" us! (urne", s%ower (his (i)e, re$using (o /u)* &( e'ery cre&(ure (h&( *o**e" u* ou( o$ nowhere- +u( ! s(i% "rew )y we&*on, &n" ! s(i% *u( & h&n" on (he 8o%$ ’s shou%"er (o kee* hi) $ro) s*inning &n" bi(ing (he s*e&ker’s he&" o$$A( $irs(, ! "i"n’( see &nyone behin" us- The 'oice &**e&re" (o h&'e co)e $ro) no one, (hough (here w&s & %ong, %e&n sh&"ow on (he groun" (h&( see)e" &((&che" (o no(hing“1how yourse%$, (he 8o%$ grow%e", cur%ing b&ck his %i*s- “+e$ore ! %ose )y (e)*er &n" s(&r( (e&ring ou( your gu(s, in'isib%e or no(- ! c&n s)e% you we% enough, so you c&n s(o* hi"ing righ( now“Oh, &*o%ogies, s&i" (he 'oice &g&in, righ( in $ron( o$ us- “! kee* $orge((ing>- An", & (&% , i)*ossib%y (hin $igure (urne" ou( o$ nowhere, s(&n"ing in *ro$i%e so we cou%" see hi)- He w&s ne&r%y *&*er-(hin, %ike (he e"ge o$ & b%&"e, on%y 'isib%e when 'iewe" $ro) (he si"e- E'en in *ro$i%e he w&s s(i% i)*ossib%y %e&n &n" sh&r*, wi(h gr&y skin &n" & s(ri*e" gr&y business sui(- His $ingers, %ong &n" s*i"er%ike, w&'e" & gree(ing, )&king sure we cou%" see hi)“+e((er? he &ske", s)i%ing (o show (hin *oin(e" (ee(h in & %i*%ess )ou(h- A n&)e $ %ickere" (hrough )y )in", kee*ing /us( ou( o$ re&ch, be$ore i( w&s gone- “! &) (he c&re(&ker o$ (his (own, (he )&yor, i$ you wi% , (he (hin )&n con(inue", w&(ching us $ro)

(he corner o$ his eyes- “Nor)&% y, ! &) here (o gree( newco)ers &n" wish (he) & %ong &n" *e&ce$u% s(&y whi%e (hey w&i( $or (he en"- +u( you> His eyes n&rrowe", &n" he (&**e" (he en"s o$ his $ingers (oge(her- “You &re no( %ike (he res( o$ us- Your n&)es h&'e no( been $orgo((en- ! &) unsure how you e'en $oun" (his *%&ce, bu( i( )&((ers no(You "o no( be%ong here- You nee" (o %e&'e“8e wi% , ! s&i" &s (he 8o%$ ’s grow%s grew %ou"er, )ore (hre&(ening- “8e’re /us( w&i(ing $or (he $erry- 8hen i( co)es, we’% be ou( o$ your w&yThe (hin )&n (&**e" his $ingers- “The $erry "oes no( s(o* here o$(en- ,os( ci(i2ens o$ Ph&e" &re no( e'en &w&re o$ i(s +u(, e'ery once in & b%ue )oon, so)eone wi% grow (ire" o$ se&rching $or so)e(hing (h&( is c%e&r%y no( here- They co)e (o (he "ecision (h&( wh&( (hey seek is beyon" Ph&e", beyon" (he ri'er, &n" (hey e)b&rk on & /ourney (o $in" wh&( (hey h&'e %os(- On%y (hen "oes (he $erry &**e&r &( (he en" o$ (h&( *ier- He *oin(e" & %ong $inger (ow&r" (he "ock (h&( '&nishe" in(o (he )is(- “The $erry on%y goes in one "irec(ion, &n" when i( co)es b&ck &roun" $ro) where'er i( h&s been, i( is &%w&ys e)*(y- No one knows wh&( h&**ens (o (he *&ssengers (h&( s(e* &bo&r" (h&( shi*, bu( (hey ne'er co)e b&ck (o Ph&e"- !(’s %ike (hey '&nish o$$ (he e"ge o$ (he e&r(h“Th&(’s $ine, ! (o%" hi), ignoring (he )ock s*ooky %ooks Puck w&s gi'ing )e- “8e "on’( *%&n (o co)e b&ck, ei(her- 8hen "oes (he $erry &**e&r? The (hin )&n shrugge"- “7su&% y & "&y or (wo &$(er (he "ecision is )&"e (o %e&'e- !$ you (ru%y wish (o w&i( $or i(, ! sugges( you $in" yourse%$ & *%&ce (o s(&y un(i% (hen- The 8&ysi"e !nn is & goo" choice- 6us( $o% ow (he b&nk un(i% you see i(- !( re&% y c&n’( be )isse"An" wi(h (h&(, he (urne", beco)ing & s(r&igh(, ne&r%y in'isib%e %ine, &n" "is&**e&re"Arie% & sighe", *ressing c%ose (o )e- ! $e%( her shou%"er (ouch )ine &n" resis(e" (he urge (o *u( )y &r)s &roun" her- “5ooks %ike we’re s(&ying here & %i((%e whi%e, &$(er &% “On%y &s %ong &s (he $erry (&kes (o &rri'e- ! cou%" $ee% eyes in (he )is( &n" sh&"ows &roun" )e, &n" (h&( s(r&nge *u% (ugge" &( )y insi"es- “Co)e on- 5e(’s $in" (h&( inn &n" ge( ou( o$ (he s(ree(5ike (he (hin )&n *ro)ise", i( w&sn’( "i$$icu%( (o $in" (he inn, & %&rge, (wo-s(ory s(ruc(ure on s(i%(s (h&( %e&ne" o'er (he w&(er &s i$ i( )igh( (o**%e in(o (he ri'er &( &ny )o)en(- No( sur*rising%y, i( w&s e)*(y &s we w&%ke" (hrough (he "oor in(o & "&rk, g%oo)y $oyer, (he e'er-*resen( )is( coi%ing &%ong (he $ %oor &n" &roun" (he sc&((ere" (&b%es“Huh- Puck’s 'oice echoe" o$$ (he w&% s &s we 'en(ure" c&u(ious%y insi"e- His boo(s cre&ke" horrib%y &g&ins( (he woo"en $ %oor &s he circ%e" (he roo)- “He% oooooo, roo) ser'ice? +e% boys? C&n &nyone (&ke )y %ugg&ge (o )y sui(e? #uess (his inn is se%$ser'e“The roo)s &re u*s(&irs, whis*ere" & 'oice, &n" &n o%" wo)&n s%i(here" "own $ro) (he cei%ing- 1he w&s )ore s*i"erweb (h&n &ny(hing, $r&ying &( (he e"ges, (hough (he eyes in (he c%ou"y $&ce were sh&r* &n" b%&ck- “;i'e gues(s? #oo", goo"- You c&n e&ch choose one- E.ce*( $or hi)0 1he *oin(e" &( (he 8o%$, who cur%e" & %i* &( her- “He c&n (&ke (he big roo) on (he en"“#oo" enough, ! s&i", secre(%y re%ie'e" $or (he ch&nce (o res(- 8he(her ! w&s s(i% $ee%ing

(he e$$ec(s o$ (he hoby&h *oison or )y bo"y w&s si)*%y re&c(ing (o (he s(r&in o$ kee*ing e'eryone &%i'e, ! w&s (ire", )ore we&ry (hen ! h&" been in & whi%e- ! knew (he o(hers were $ee%ing i(, (oo- Arie% & %ooke" e.h&us(e", &n" #ri)&%kin h&" so)ehow $&% en &s%ee* in her &r)s, his nose burie" un"er his (&i%- E'en Puck %ooke" wornou( bene&(h his cons(&n( energy, &n" (he 8o%$ "i"n’( see) &s &%er( &s he nor)&% y w&s, (hough his (e)*er w&s "e$ini(e%y we&ring (hin7*s(&irs, (he roo)s were s)&% , e&ch con(&ining & (&b%e &n" & sing%e be" bene&(h & (iny roun" win"ow- #&2ing ou(, ! s&w (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s s(re(ching &w&y bene&(h )e, &n" (he %one%y "ock in (he "is(&nce, ne&r%y sw&% owe" u* by (he )is(;or /us( & )o)en(, ! cou%"n’( re)e)ber why ! w&n(e" (o go (o (he "ock, (hough ! knew i( w&s i)*or(&n(- 1h&king )y he&" &s )e)ory re(urne", ! s&( on (he (hin )&((ress, rubbing )y eyes- Tire"- ! w&s /us( (ire"- As soon &s (he $erry &rri'e", we cou%" %e&'e (his *%&ce, &n" con(inue (ow&r" (he e"ge o$ (he wor%"- An" (hen (he Tes(ing #roun"s, where ! wou%" $in&% y re&ch (he en" o$ )y 9ues(- An" (hen )y $&(e wou%" be "eci"e"- !’" re(urn (o ,egh&n &s & hu)&n wi(h & sou%, or ! wou%"n’( re(urn &( &% - Th&( si)*%e5ying b&ck, ! *u( &n &r) o'er )y $&ce, &n" e'ery(hing $&"e" &w&y! w&s knee%ing in & $ie%" o$ b%oo"y snow, coun(%ess bo"ies o$ 8in(er &n" 1u))er $ey surroun"ing )e! w&s s(&n"ing be$ore 4ueen ,&b, )y swor" *%unge" "ee* in her ches(, her "i))ing eyes $i% e" wi(h shock! w&s si((ing on & (hrone o$ ice wi(h )y 9ueen besi"e )e, & be&u(i$u% $&ery wi(h %ong si%'er h&ir &n" eyes o$ s(&r%igh(! w&s s(&n"ing on (he $ie%" o$ b&((%e once )ore, w&(ching )y &r)y (e&r (hrough (he ene)y $orces, $ee%ing & s&'&ge g%ee &s (hey ki% e" &n" )&i)e" &n" "es(roye" wi(hou( )ercy- The "&rkness in )e re'e%e" in (he b%oo", "r&nk in (he *&in, &n" s*re&" i( &s $&r &s i( cou%" go- +u( no )&((er how )uch *&in ! $e%(, (he e)*(iness sw&% owe" i(, "e)&n"ing )ore, &%w&ys )ore- ! w&s & b%&ck ho%e o$ "e&(h, nee"ing (o ki% , nee"ing (o $i% (he (errib%e no(hingness (h&(" insi"e- !’" beco)e & "e)on, sou% ess &n" wi(hou( *i(y, &n" no( e'en Arie% &’s *resence cou%" s&(e (he "es*&ir (h&( "ro'e )e (o s%&ugh(er e'ery(hing ! h&" once c&re" $or- On%y one (hing wou%" s(o* )e, &n" e'ery "e&(h, e'ery %i$e ! "es(roye", brough( )e (h&( )uch c%oser1he c&)e $or )e in (he en", &s ! knew she wou%"- !’" )&"e cer(&in i( wou%" be her- The (errib%e !ron 4ueen, her eyes $i% e" wi(h $ury &n" sorrow, $&cing )e &cross (he r&'&ge" $ie%"s o$ (he Ne'erne'er- The "&ys o$ her *%e&"ing wi(h )e, (rying (o re&son wi(h )e, were %ong gone- ! "i"n’( re)e)ber why ! w&n(e" (o see herA ! "i"n’( e'en re)e)ber )y own n&)e- +u( ! knew she w&s (he re&son $or )y e)*(iness- 1he w&s (he re&son $or e'ery(hing1he’" grown s(ronger "uring (he %ong ye&rs o$ (he w&r, in$ini(e%y )ore *ower$u%, & (rue 4ueen o$ ;&ery- !’" ki% e" so )&ny o$ her sub/ec(s, so )&ny $ey h&" "ie" by )y h&n"s, bu( i( w&s (he "e&(h o$ & cer(&in 1u))er Cour( /es(er (h&( $in&% y *ushe" her o'er (he e"ge- 8e $&ce" e&ch o(her, !ron 4ueen &n" 7nsee%ie :ing, &s (he co%" win" how%e" &roun" us, &n" knew (h&( wh&(e'er $ee%ings we’" once h&" $or e&ch o(her "i"n’( )&((er now-

8e’" chosen our *&(hs, &n" now, one w&y or &no(her, (his w&r wou%" en"- To"&y, one o$ us wou%" "ieThe !ron 4ueen r&ise" her swor", (he sick%y %igh( g%e&)ing "own (he e"ges o$ (he s(ee% b%&"e &s !ron g%&)our $ %&re" &roun" her, & )&e%s(ro) o$ "e&"%y *ower- ! s&w her %i*s )o'e, & n&)e on (he), *erh&*s )ine, &n" $e%( no(hing- ,y g%&)our rose u* (o )ee( hers, co%" &n" "&ngerous, &n" our *owers s%&))e" in(o e&ch o(her wi(h (he ro&r o$ "ue%ing "r&gons;%&shes o$ i)&ges, %ike broken )irror sh&r"s, $&% ing (o (he e&r(h- !ron &n" ice, c%&shing &g&ins( e&ch o(her- R&ge &n" h&(e, swir%ing in 'icious, ug%y co%ors &roun" us- #%&)our &n" *&in &n" b%oo",yse%$, "e%iber&(e%y $&i%ing (o s(o* (he b%ow (h&( wou%" ki% )e- The *oin( o$ & s&ber, *iercing )y ches(> ! b%inke", &n" (he wor%" s%owe"- ! %&y on )y b&ck, & "u% (hrobbing in (he 'icini(y o$ )y he&r(, co%" &n" nu)b &n" un&b%e (o )&ke )y bo"y )o'eAbo'e )e, (he !ron 4ueen’s $&ce $i% e" )y 'ision, be&u(i$u% &n" s(rong, (hough her $&ce w&s s(re&ke" wi(h (e&rs- 1he kne%(, s)oo(hing (he h&ir $ro) )y $orehe&", her $ingers (r&i%ing & %ine o$ he&( &cross )y skin! b%inke" &g&in, &n" $or /us( & )o)en(, ! w&s (he one knee%ing in (he "ir(, c%u(ching (he !ron 4ueen’s bo"y (o )y ches(, scre&)ing in(o (he win"Her $ingers %ingere" on )y cheek, &n" ! g&2e" u* &( her, )y 'ision s(&r(ing (o go $u22y &n" "&rk- A (e&r s*%&she" &g&ins( )y skin &n" in (h&( ins(&n(, (he o%" )e regre((e" e'ery(hingA e'ery(hing (h&( h&" brough( us here, e'ery(hing ! h&" "one- ! (rie" (o s*e&k, (o beg $orgi'eness, (o (e% her no( (o re)e)ber )e %ike (his, bu( )y 'oice $&i%e" )e &n" ! cou%"n’( $orce (he wor"s ou(;ro) (he corner o$ )y eye, ! sense" &no(her *resence, w&(ching us $ro) (he sh&"ows- !( see)e" (errib%y in'&si'e, un(i% ! re&%i2e" i( "i"n’( be%ong here, (h&( i( w&s so)ehow se*&r&(e $ro) (his re&%i(y,egh&n ben( "own, &n" (hough ! cou%"n’( he&r her, ! s&w her %i*s )ur)ur, “#oo"bye, Ash- Then (hose %i*s (ouche" )y $orehe&" &n" (he "&rkness $ %oo"e" in-



! gro&ne"“Prince- 1o)e(hing *&((e" )y chin- “8&ke u*- 1hi$(ing on (he )&((ress, ! s(rugg%e" (o o*en )y eyes- There w&s & so%i" weigh( si((ing on )y ches(, bu( e.h&us(ion w&s )&king )y %i"s he&'y &n" &wkw&r"- ! w&s (ire"A ! w&n(e" (o sink b&ck in(o ob%i'ion, "es*i(e (he "is(urbing "re&)s (h&( w&i(e" $or )e“H))- ;or such & we% -(r&ine", so)ewh&( *&r&noi" w&rrior, you &re cer(&in%y "i$$icu%( (o rouse- Cery we% - The weigh( on )y ches( s%i" o$$, )uch (o )y re%ie$, &n" ! he&r" & (hu)* &s i( "ro**e" (o (he $ %oor &n" w&%ke" &w&y- “8e sh&% h&'e (o resor( (o )ore "r&s(ic )e&sures6us( &s ! w&s won"ering wh&( “"r&s(ic )e&sures were, & *&((er o$ $oo(s(e*s sc&)*ere" (ow&r" (he be"- There w&s & brie$ *&use>&n" (hen (h&( so%i", he&'y weigh( %&n"e" s9u&re on )y s(o)&ch“Oo$! ! bo%(e" u*righ( wi(h & g&s*, (he bre&(h "ri'en $ro) )y %ungs in & *&in$u%, 'icious e.*u%sion- !ns(&n(%y &w&ke, ! c%u(che" )y ribs &n" g%&re" &( #ri)&%kin, si((ing on (he be" wi(h & s)ug, *%e&se" e.*ression on his $&ce“A% righ(, ! gri((e" ou(, bre&(hing s%ow%y (o "is*e% (he n&use&, “you h&'e )y &((en(ion8h&( "o you w&n(, c&(? “Ah, he *urre", &s i$ no(hing h&" h&**ene"- “There you &re- ! w&s beginning (o (hink you h&" "ie" in your s%ee*- He s(oo", w&'ing his (&i%- “8e h&'e (roub%e- The bo&( is here, &n" ! c&nno( w&ke &nyone u*“+o&(? The c&( ro% e" his eyes- “Yes- +o&(- The $erry (h&( you &re so e&ger (o (&ke (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"? 3i" you &cci"en(&% y hi( your he&" be$ore ! woke you? He *eere" &( )e, su""en%y serious- “There is so)e(hing s(r&nge going on, *rince, he )u((ere"- “! c&nno( w&ke &ny o$ (he o(hers, &n" i( is no( %ike you (o $orge( so)e(hing (his i)*or(&n(- How "o you $ee%? ! (hough( (he s(r&nges( occurrence w&s #ri)&%kin &sking &bou( )y he&%(h, bu( &$(er & )o)en( ! $rowne"- “Tire", ! &")i((e"- “A%)os( "r&ine"#ri)&%kin no""e"- “! (hough( &s )uch- 1o)e(hing &bou( (his *%&ce is si*honing your s(reng(h, you g%&)our, e'en your )e)ories- He b%inke" &n" shook hi)se%$- “E'en ! &) $in"ing i( h&r" (o kee* )y eyes o*en- Co)e- Turning su""en%y, he %e&*e" o$$ (he be"“8e )us( w&ke (he o(hers- !$ we "o no( )&ke i( (o (he $erry in (i)e, i( wi% %e&'e, &n" you wi% be s(uck here $ore'er! s(oo", $rowning &s (he roo) s*un &roun" )e- Rubbing )y eyes, ! s(&r(e" (o $o% ow #ri)&%kin, bu( & $&in( noise ou(si"e (he win"ow )&"e )e *&use+r&cing )yse%$ &g&ins( (he w&% , ! %ooke" (hrough (he g%&ss &n" "rew in & s%ow bre&(hThe inn w&s surroun"e" by ;orgo((en- Ho% ow-eye", $&"e" &n" $&)ishe" %ooking, (hey crow"e" (he )u""y ro&", shou%"er (o shou%"er, s(&ring u* &( )e wi(h s%&ck, o*en )ou(hsHow %ong h&" (hey s(oo" (here, sucking &w&y our g%&)our, our )e)ories? How %ong be$ore we bec&)e %ike (he), e)*(y &n" ho% ow, b%&ck ho%es "r&wing in e'ery %i((%e bi( o$ %i$e?

! s(u)b%e" b&ck $ro) (he win"ow &n" in(o (he h&% , where #ri)&%kin w&i(e" $or )e, %&shing his (&i%“Hurry, he hisse", &n" (ro((e" in(o (he ne.( roo)- ! shook (he cobwebs ou( o$ )y he&" &n" $o% owe"A gir% %&y on (he be", shi$(ing &n" )o&ning &s i$ in (he (hroes o$ & nigh()&re, her %ong si%'er h&ir s*re&" o'er (he *i% ow- ;or one he&r(-s(o**ing )o)en(, ! cou%"n’( re)e)ber her n&)e, (hough ! knew she w&s i)*or(&n( (o )e- The su""en worry &n" *ro(ec(i'eness ! $e%( when ! s&w her *ro'e" i( w&s (rue“#o (o her, #ri)&%kin s&i", b&cking &w&y- “8&ke her u*- ! wi% &((e)*( (o rouse #oo"$e% ow once )ore- Perh&*s he wi% w&ken i$ c%&ws &re &**%ie" in & s(r&(egic&% y i)*or(&n( &re&- Then you c&n &% (&ck%e (he "og- ! wi% cer(&in%y no( *&r(&ke in (h&( en"e&'or- He wrink%e" his nose &n" *&""e" $ro) (he roo)! kne%( "own besi"e (he be"- “Ari, ! )u((ere", gr&bbing (he "e%ic&(e shou%"ers &n" sh&king (he) gen(%y- “8&ke u*- 8e h&'e (o go, nowArie% & $ %inche" &w&y $ro) )e, r&ising her h&n"s in s%ee* &s i$ (o re&ch ou( $or so)eone“No, Ash>no, she whis*ere"- “3on’(>*%e&se, no“Ari! ! shook h&r"er, /os(%ing her (hin $r&)e, bu( she on%y whi)*ere" &n" s&nk "ee*er in(o s%ee*- ;in&% y, ! g&(here" her (o )e, %i$(ing her in )y &r)s1he w&s so %igh(, %ike (wigs he%" (oge(her by wis*y c%o(h- C%u(ching her (o )y ches(, ! s(u)b%e" $ro) (he roo)#ri)&%kin )e( )e &( (he "oor, $o% owe" by & y&wning Puck scr&(ching (he b&ck o$ his he&"- He g&'e )e & s%ee*y no" &s we *&sse"- Toge(her, we 'en(ure" in(o (he %&s( roo) "own (he h&% , where (he huge $or) o$ (he 8o%$ w&s cur%e" in & corner, his ru)b%ing snores 'ibr&(ing (he w&% s“Ok&y, Puck s&i", %e&ning &g&ins( (he "oor$r&)e, %ooking %ike he w&s $igh(ing (o s(&y on his $ee(, “! &gree (h&( we h&'e (o ge( ou( o$ here now, bu(> who w&n(s (o w&ke u* (he *u**y? ! no""e" (ow&r" & corner- “There’s & broo)- ! h&'e Arie% &0! (hink you shou%" (&ke c&re o$ (he 8o%$“H)), (h&(’s ok&y, ice-boy- !’) kin"& *&r(i&% (o no( h&'ing )y he&" bi((en o$$“#oo"$e% ow! #ri)&%kin s*&(, righ( be$ore he "is&**e&re", “Abo'e you! ! s*un, s(i% ho%"ing Arie% &, &s & ;orgo((en "ro**e" $ro) (he cei%ing0(he innkee*er $ro) be$ore, on%y now her eyes were b%&nk &n" g%&ssy, her )ou(h &n o*en ho%e &s she %urche" (ow&r" PuckThe 8o%$ ’s eyes sn&**e" o*en- 8i(hou( w&rning, he s*r&ng (o his $ee( wi(h & ro&r &n" %unge" (hrough (he "oorw&y, )&ssi'e /&ws c%&)*ing o'er (he ;orgo((en’s s*in"%y $r&)eThe $&ery w&i%e" &n" "isso%'e" %ike )is( in (he bree2e, &n" (he 8o%$ shook his he&", (urning b&ck (o g%&re &( us“!(’s i)*ossib%e (o s%ee* wi(h (he *&ir o$ you &roun", he grow%e", b&ring his (ee(h- “Now, &re we %e&'ing, or &re you (wo going (o s(&n" (here b&rking &( e&ch o(her &% nigh(?

;orgo((en were beginning (o "ri$( u* (he s(&irs %ike 2o)bies, $&ces s%&ck &n" )ou(hs o*enPuck &n" (he 8o%$ )e( (he) si"e by si"e, (ee(h &n" "&ggers $ %&shing in (he "i) %igh(, cu((ing & *&(h (o (he e.i(- Arie% & sighe" &n" )ur)ure" in )y &r)s, &n" ! he%" her c%ose, "e(er)ine" (h&( no ;orgo((en wou%" (ouch her8e burs( (hrough (he "oor o$ (he inn &n" s(o**e", s(&ring &( (he huge )ob o$ ;orgo((en surroun"ing (he bui%"ing- The ;orgo((en s(&re" b&ck, si%en( &n" )o(ion%ess, )ou(hs g&*ing %ike %&n"e" $ish- The 8o%$ sn&r%e" &n" %unge" $orw&r", sn&**ing &( (he &ir, &n" (he ;orgo((en "rew b&ck, o$$ering no resis(&nce- +u( (hey were so s(&r'e" $or g%&)our, $or )e)ory &n" e)o(ion &n" %i$e, (h&( (he 8o%$ s(u)b%e" &n" ne&r%y $e% , his s(reng(h si*hone" &w&yThe groun" %urche", &n" ! ne&r%y s&nk (o )y knees, $igh(ing (o s(&y u*righ(- “:ee* )o'ing! ! c&% e", &s Puck swi*e" &( se'er&% ;orgo((en (h&( *resse" c%oser, "ri'ing (he) b&ck- “#e( (o (he "ock! 8e h&'e (o )&ke i( (o (he $erry! The ;orgo((en *&r(e" $or us %ike w&'es, no( resis(ing, $orcing no con$ron(&(ion, bu( (heir hunger w&s & cons(&n( (hing, "r&ining our %i$e, )&king i( h&r"er &n" h&r"er (o )o'e- ! g%&nce" o'er &( Puck &n" s&w hi) (urning &s gr&y &n" w&she"-ou( &s (he ;orgo((en &roun" us, his once-brigh( re" h&ir "u% &n" co%or%ess- ! cou%"n’( see #ri)&%kin, &n" ho*e" (he c&( wou%"n’( si)*%y $&"e in(o no(hingness whi%e in'isib%e, which we wou%" ne'er knowThe "ock %oo)e" be$ore us, & %i$e%ine in (he "&rk, &n" on (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, ! s&w (he $&in( e"ges o$ & $errybo&( (hrough (he )is(- Puck &n" (he 8o%$, s(&ggering &n" ne&r%y %e&ning on e&ch o(her, re&che" i( $irs(, &n" Puck ye% e" &( )e (o hurry, be$ore '&nishing in(o (he $og6us( &s ! re&che" (he "ock, so)e(hing %&(che" on (o )y &r)- ! $e%( & s(&b o$ *&in, &n e)*(iness so s(rong i( w&s *hysic&%, &n" wen( (o )y knees &s (he sh&r* (hin )&n &**e&re" be$ore )e, his %ong $ingers gr&s*ing )y &r)“! $igure" i( ou(, he whis*ere", &s ! s(rugg%e" (o )&ke )y bo"y )o'e, res*on", &ny(hing+u( ! w&s nu)b, "r&ine", on%y b&re%y conscious, &s (he (hin )&n con(inue" (o "r&w ou( )y %i$e- ! $e%( )y g%&)our s%i**ing &w&y wi(h )y s(reng(h, sucke" in(o (he b%&ck ho%e (h&( w&s (he sh&r* (hin )&n- Arie% & s%u)*e" &g&ins( )y ches( &s )y gri* $&i%e", &n" his g&2e $o% owe" her“,y, you’re s(rong, he con(inue" in &n &)i&b%e 'oice- “1o )uch %i$e- 1uch *ower$u% )e)ories &n" g%&)our &n" e)o(ion- You "o no( be%ong hereNo( ye(- 7*se( (he b&%&nce, you h&'e- E'en (hose who &re ne&r%y $&"e" h&'e co)e b&ck, &n" now (hey wi% %inger e'en )ore- +ec&use o$ you“No(>ye(? ! cou%" b&re%y ge( (he wor"s ou(- The crow" o$ ;orgo((en h&" g&(here" &g&in, surroun"ing us wi(h o*en )ou(hs, (heir co)bine" *u% so s(rong ! ne&r%y co% &*se"The (hin )&n %ooke" &( )e, sur*rise"“You "o no( know? He (i%(e" his he&", &n" $or & )o)en(, i( '&nishe"- “Your essence is unr&'e%ing- +i( by bi(- 1oon, you wi% be un&b%e (o re)e)ber your n&)e, your *ro)ise, who you &re, &n" you wi% be consu)e" wi(h $i% ing (he e)*(iness insi"e- +u( i( wi% ne'er be enough- !n (i)e, you wi% $in" your w&y (o Ph&e", (o re)&in here wi(h (he ;orgo((en, &n" (he Pro)ise-bre&kers- He no""e", & sh&r* ges(ure in (he coi%ing $og- “+u( no( ye(-

“Then>you’% %e( us>go? “O$ course you wi% go, (he sh&r* (hin )&n s&i", &s i$ (h&( w&s ob'ious- “You wi% go, &n" %i$e wi% re(urn (o nor)&%- E'eryone wi% $orge(, &s is (heir w&yYou "o no( be%ong- +u(, her0 his g&2e sh&r*ene", s(&ring &( Arie% & “0she )us( s(&y1he is (he re&son you $oun" (his *%&ce- No essence- No %i$e1he is e)*(y, %ike we &re- 1he re)&ins! $e%( & $ %&re o$ &nger, bu( i( w&s i))e"i&(e%y "r&ine" &w&y by (he (hin )&n- “No, ! )u((ere", (rying (o $in" (he s(reng(h (o *u% b&ck, (o resis(- “!>nee" her“1he re)&ins, (he (hin )&n whis*ere" &g&in, &n" re&che" (o (&ke her $ro) )eNo! A $ierce *ro(ec(i'eness ro&re" (o %i$e, "rowning ou( e'ery(hing e%se- 1he wou%" no( be (&ken &w&y- No( &g&in- ! wou%" no( $&i% her &g&in8i(h (he %&s( o$ )y s(reng(h, ! %unge" (o )y $ee( &n" "rew )y b%&"e, *ressing i( (o (he (hin )&n’s neckHe see)e" sur*rise" (h&( ! cou%" s(i% )o'e- “1he "oes no( be%ong wi(h you, he s&i", w&(ching c&%)%y &s ! $ough( (o re)&in on )y $ee(, kee* (he b%&"e s(e&"y &n" ho%" (he gir% (o )yse%$ wi(h one &r)- “1he be%ongs here, wi(h us“! "on’( c&re, ! (o%" hi)- “!’) no( %e((ing her goA ro&r sh&((ere" (he s(i% ness, &n" (he 8o%$ c&)e boun"ing ou( o$ (he $og, sc&((ering ;orgo((en %ike wis*y bir"s- 1ho'ing his huge bo"y be(ween )yse%$ &n" (he (hin )&n, he b&re" his $&ngs &( (he crow" &n" sn&r%e"- “#e( going, *rince, he sn&**e", &s (he sh&r* (hin )&n (urne" (o (he si"e &n" "is&**e&re"- “The bo&( is &%re&"y %e&'ing- #o! 1he&(hing )y swor", ! g&(here" Arie% & in bo(h &r)s &n" s(&ggere" on(o (he "ock, where Puck )e( )e h&%$w&y- “#ee2, you %o'e (o w&i( (i% (he %&s( "r&)&(ic )o)en(, "on’( you, ice-boy? he )u((ere" &s we hurrie" o'er (he *%&nks- A( (he en" o$ (he "ock, & s)&% , $&"e" *&""%ebo&( co'ere" in )oss &n" 'ines w&s *u% ing &w&y, e&sing b&ck in(o (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s- #ri)&%kin s&( on (he r&i%ings, w&(ching us wi(h g%owing ye% ow eyes“Hurry! (he c&( urge" &s (he bo&( *u% e" $&r(her &w&y- “They &re co)ing! +ehin" us, ! he&r" (he 8o%$ ’s grow%s &s he b&cke" on(o (he "ock, &n" $e%( (he e)*(iness o$ (he ;orgo((en sucking &( )e, e'en $ro) (his "is(&nceAn" (hen (hey were cr&w%ing on(o (he "ock $ro) bene&(h (he w&(er, re&ching $or us wi(h ghos(%y $ingers, )ou(hs g&*ing %ike "e&" $ish- Puck s%&she" &( one, cu((ing (hrough i( %ike *&*er, &n" i( $r&ye" in(o coi%s o$ )is(, bu( (here were &%w&ys )ore, gr&s*ing $or us, s(&r'e" &n" re%en(%essThe $erry "rew $&r(her &w&yThu)*ing $oo(s(e*s shook (he "ock, &n" ! (urne" (o see (he 8o%$ hur% hi)se%$ ou( o$ (he $og, boun"ing (ow&r" us- 3o2ens o$ ;orgo((en c%ung (o hi), h&nging o$$ his b&ck &n" neck &s he sn&r%e" &n" grow%e" &n" sn&**e", sh&king hi)se%$ $ree on%y (o h&'e )ore (&ke (heir *%&ces- The ;orgo((en crow"ing &roun" our $ee( "rew b&ck, s%i**ing &w&y (ow&r" (he 8o%$- ! s(&r(e" (o go &$(er (he), bu( (he 8o%$ (urne", )ee(ing )y g&2e wi(h his burning green eyes, %i*s *ee%e" b&ck in & sn&r%-

“#e( going! he ro&re", &n" we wen(, hurrying &$(er (he $erry- Puck re&che" (he e"ge o$ (he "ock $irs( &n" %e&*e", $ %&i%ing his &r)s &s he hi( &n" gr&bbe" (he r&i%ing (o kee* $ro) $&% ing o$$- ! w&s righ( behin" hi), $ %inging )yse%$ o'er (he "&rk w&(ers, Arie% & $e&(her%igh( in )y &r)s- ! s(ruck (he e"ge o$ (he bo&( &n" ro% e", cur%ing )y bo"y &roun" (he gir% (o *ro(ec( her, wincing &s (he e"ge o$ & bench hi( )e in (he b&ck! s(&ggere" u*righ(, %&i" Arie% & on one o$ (he se&(s, &n" hurrie" (o (he si"e o$ (he bo&(, %ooking $or (he 8o%$- +u( (he $og h&" cur%e" &roun" (he "ock, hi"ing i( $ro) 'iew- ! s(i% he&r" (he so$( s*%&shes o$ (he ;orgo((en &s (hey hi( (he w&(er, &n" (he 8o%$, sn&r%ing (hrough (he )is(, bu( ! cou%"n’( see hi) &ny)ore“Pi(y, #ri)&%kin re)&rke", soun"ing &s i$ he &%)os( )e&n( i(- “! w&s ne&r%y use" (o his s)e% , (ooAn" (hen (he "&rk $or) o$ (he 8o%$ %e&*e" $ro) (he b%&nke( o$ $og, hur(%ing o'er (he ri'er- He %&n"e" ne.( (o (he $erry wi(h & s*%&sh, s*r&ying e'eryone wi(h w&(er, c&using #ri)&%kin (o hiss &n" $ %ee un"er (he benches- 1ur$&cing, (he 8o%$ %unge" ou( o$ (he w&(er, hooke" his huge *&ws o'er (he r&i%ing &n" *u% e" hi)se%$, "ri**ing &n" *&n(ing, on(o (he "eck! wince" &s he shook hi)se%$, sen"ing ri'er w&(er $ %ying, so&king us &% once )oreY&wning, he ignore" Puck’s in"ign&n( ye% &n" (urne" (o )e, go%"-green eyes n&rrowing“Th&( is (he secon" (i)e ! s&'e" your %i'es, *rince- +e sure (o re)e)ber (h&( *&r( o$ (he s(ory when you *&ss i( &%ongHe y&wne" &g&in, showing o$$ enor)ous c&nines, &n" *&""e" (ow&r" (he &$( "eck, we&'ing %igh(%y (hrough (he &is%es o$ n&rrow benches- Cur%ing u* ne&r (he b&ck, he %&i" his he&" on his *&ws, w&(ching us &% be$ore his eyes c%ose" &n" he &**e&re" (o $&% &s%ee*! shook w&(er ou( o$ )y c%o(hes &n" (ook & "ee* bre&(h, w&(ching (he "ock s%ow%y '&nish behin" us in (he $og- The $erry s%i" noise%ess%y (hrough (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, %e&'ing (he (own $&r behin"- A%re&"y, ! h&" $orgo((en i(s n&)e- The *eo*%e, (heir 'oices, e'ery(hing !’" seen &n" he&r", s%i**ing $ro) )e)ory- ! s(rugg%e" (o re)e)ber so)e(hing & (hin )&n h&" (o%" )e, so)e(hing i)*or(&n(- 1o)e(hing &bou( Arie% &> &n" )yse%$> The $erry &bru*(%y broke $ro) (he )is(, *unching (hrough i( %ike & w&% , re'e&%ing (he '&s( ri'er be$ore us &n" (he nigh( sky &bo'e- ! b%inke" &n" %ooke" &roun"- Puck w&s s(&n"ing &( (he bow o$ (he bo&(, g&2ing o'er (he w&(er, &n" Arie% & w&s &s%ee* on & bench! $rowne", $ee%ing %ike ! w&s )issing so)e(hing- ! re)e)bere" we h&" been %ooking $or (he $erry, w&%king &%ong (he ri'erb&nk se&rching $or i(, bu( (he )e)ory o$ us &c(u&% y bo&r"ing w&s h&2y- H&" so)e(hing been ch&sing us? ! '&gue%y rec&% e" & "ock, &n" c&rrying Arie% & &bo&r", bu( beyon" (h&(>no(hing- ! $e%( groggy &n" "isorien(e", &s i$ !’" /us( woken u* $ro) & "re&)0 The "re&)- ,y s(o)&ch (urne", &n" ! c%u(che" (he r&i%ing (o re)&in s(e&"y on )y $ee(- ! re)e)bere" (he "re&)- :i% ing ,&b- Ru%ing 8in(er- 8&ging w&r- +%oo" &n" "e&(h &n" 'io%ence, (he ho% ow, r&'enous 'oi" (h&( (hre&(ene" (o "r&g )e "own &n" sw&% ow )e who%e;igh(ing (he !ron 4ueen- 3ying by her h&n"!n & "&2e, ! w&%ke" (o (he bench in $ron( o$ Arie% & &n" s&( "own, w&(ching her- A$(er &

$ew )inu(es, her eye%i"s $ %ickere", &n" she o*ene" her eyes, b%inking &( )e %oo)ing &bo'e her“Ash? “8&s i( re&%? ! &ske", )y 'oice soun"ing ho&rse &n" "ry in )y e&rs- 1he $rowne" &n" s&( u* (o $&ce )e, brushing her h&ir $ro) her eyes“8h&( "o you )e&n? “8h&( ! s&w- ! %e&ne" $orw&r", &n" she "rew b&ck, & w&ry sh&"ow crossing her $&ce“Th&( w&s you, w&sn’( i(? 1howing )e (he $u(ure- :i% ing ,&b,&king )yse%$ (he 8in(er :ing- #oing (o w&r wi(h (he o(her cour(s0 ! s(u)b%e" (o & h&%(, no( w&n(ing (o re)e)ber beyon" (h&(, (o see (he %ook on (he !ron 4ueen’s $&ce &s she ki% e" )eArie% & wen( *&%e- “You s&w>? Oh, Ash- !’) so sorry- ! "i"n’( )e&n $or you (o see> 1he s(o**e"- Took & "ee* bre&(h- “!( )us( h&'e been (he hoby&h 'eno)- !( )&"e you hy*ersensi(i'e (o "re&)s &n" "re&)w&%king- !$ you were &s%ee*, you *rob&b%y0 “Ari- ,y 'oice w&s so$(, &n" she b%inke" &( )e- ! r&ke" & h&n" (hrough )y "&)* h&ir, $igh(ing (o s(&y c&%), (o ignore (he "&rkness c%&wing &( )y $ee(, (rying (o "r&g )e "own“8h&( ! s&w- !s (his>(he $u(ure? ,y $u(ure? A)>&) ! "es(ine" (o beco)e>(h&(? The "es(royer o$ (he cour(s, s%&ugh(ering e'ery(hing, e'eryone ! know? Arie% & w&s si%en(, &n" ! re&che" ou( (o (&ke her h&n", s9uee2ing &s i$ i( were & %i$e%ine, ho%"ing )e (o s&ni(y“Te% )e, ! s&i", $orcing ou( (he wor"s- “Te% )e, is (h&( wh&( ! beco)e? “! "on’( know, Ash- Her 'oice w&s & whis*er, on (he 'erge o$ (e&rs- “!(’s & $u(ure, one o$ se'er&%- Prob&b%y (he wors(, bu( no( (he )os( un%ike%y- You> you h&'e so )uch "&rkness in you, so )uch &nger &n" grie$- No( e'en ! cou%" re&ch you i$ you g&'e in (o "es*&ir, i$ you broke your *ro)ise- 1he (ook & "ee* bre&(h- “Your essence>when i(’s gone you’% $orge( e'ery(hing (h&( )&kes you>you- ,os( Pro)isebre&kers /us( $&"e &w&y, ne'er (o be seen &g&in- +u( & $ew, es*eci&% y (hose who &re s(rong, beco)e so)e(hing e%se en(ire%y“This is wh&( wi% h&**en, ! whis*ere", “i$ ! $&i%1i%ence $or & )o)en(- The $erry g%i"e" s(e&"i%y (hrough (he nigh(, (he on%y soun"s (he s*%&sh o$ w&(er &g&ins( (he si"es &n" (he 8o%$ ’s "ee* bre&(hing“No( necess&ri%y, Arie% & s&i" &( %&s(, &'oi"ing )y g&2e- “No(hing is cer(&in, &n" (h&( is on%y one *ossib%e $u(ure- +u(> yes- !$ you $&i% here, (here is & re&% *ossibi%i(y o$ %osing you (o (he "&rkness, &n" you beco)ing (he 8in(er :ing“1o i( w&sn’( /us( & nigh()&re, Puck’s 'oice broke in- ! (urne" (o see hi) s(&n"ing behin" us, h&n"s in his *ocke(s, w&(ching )e wi(h serious green eyes- “1orry, cou%"n’( he%* bu( o'erhe&r you guys, he con(inue", no( soun"ing (he %e&s( bi( &*o%oge(ic- “An" you know, ! w&s /us( (hinking, (h&( "re&) you were (&%king &bou(- !( soun"s &n &w$u% %o( %ike (he one ! /us( h&"- His )ou(h (wis(e" in(o & s)irk, &n" his g&2e n&rrowe"- “On%y, in (his 'ersion, ! "ie"- 1o)e 8in(er :ing b&s(&r" s(uck )e (hrough (he ches( whi%e we were $igh(ing- :in"& (r&u)&(ic, i$ you know wh&( ! )e&n- An" (h&( w&s &$(er he "es(roye" )os( o$ (he 1u))er Cour(-

! he%" his g&2e- Puck "i"n’( shy &w&y &n" con(inue" (o s(&re &( )e, h&%$ s)i%e $ir)%y in *%&ce- +u( beyon" (he s)irk, beyon" (he $ %i**&ncy &n" cheek &n" cocky se%$-&ssur&nce, ! cou%" sense (he in"ecision, (he $e&r he ne'er %e( &nyone see“3o you regre( i(? ! &ske", &n" he r&ise" & brow &( )e- “3o you regre( our $eu" is o'er, no( ki% ing )e when you h&" (he ch&nce? Puck sho( )e & *&in$u% s)i%e- “Oh, (here’s & *&r( o$ )e (h&( wi% &%w&ys )iss our %i((%e "ue%s, *rince, he s&i" cheer$u% y- “No(hing %ike & %i((%e &((e)*(e" )ur"er (o $ee% c%ose (o so)eone, righ(? He grinne", (hen & sh&"ow $e% o'er his $&ce, &n" he sobere", sh&king his he&"- “Tru(h is, !’) g%&" i(’s "one, he s&i" 9uie(%y, scrubbing (he b&ck o$ his he&"- “! ne'er w&n(e" i(, ! h&(e" (h&( ! &%w&ys h&" (o w&(ch )y b&ck, &n" ! knew you re&% y "i"n’( w&n( (o go (hrough wi(h i( ei(her, *rince- Es*eci&% y (ow&r" (he en"“+u(? ! *ro)*(e"“+u(, i$ ! see &ny signs o$ you beco)ing>(h&(- Puck shi'ere"- “!$ ! sus*ec( you’re &bou( (o go *os(&% on ,&b &n" (&ke & sho( &( (he 8in(er (hrone, ! won’( nee" & $or)&% "ue% in'i(&(ion (o )&ke )e show u* in Tir N& Nog- He crosse" his &r)s &n" s(&re" &( )e wi(h & )i. o$ regre( &n" "e(er)in&(ion- “!$ i( co)es (o (h&(, *rince, ! wi%% s(o* you! s(oo"- A bree2e b%ew &cross (he sur$&ce o$ (he ri'er, (ossing h&ir &n" (ugging &( c%o(hes- ! gri**e" (he r&i%ing &n" s(&re" ou( o'er (he w&(er, $ee%ing his eyes on )y b&ck- “!$ i( co)es (o (h&(, ! (o%" hi) 9uie(%y, “!’" w&n( you (oThe $erry con(inue" (hrough (he see)ing%y en"%ess w&(ers o$ (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s- The sun ne'er rose, (he nigh( ne'er w&ne"A i( w&s &% e(ern&% )i"nigh( (his $&r in(o (he 3ee* 8y%"- ;&r(her in, (he ri'er bec&)e crow"e" wi(h )ore "re&) "ebris, %&rger &n" wi%"er (h&n be$ore- A huge cherry (ree, s*ringing $ro) (he )i""%e o$ (he ri'er, she""ing *ink b%osso)s %ike $&% ing snow- A g%&ss co$$in wi(h & b%&ck-h&ire" *rincess insi"e, *&%e h&n"s $o%"e" on her s(o)&ch &s she s%e*(- A %ong (&b%e $ %o&(e" *&s(, co)*%e(e wi(h & $u% (e&*&r(y se(0 *o(, *%&(es, (e&cu*s- Puck sn&(che" & %&rge b&ske( o$ scones &s i( "ri$(e" byHow %ong (he $erry s%i" (hrough (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, ! w&sn’( sure- 8e (ook (urns &( gu&r" "u(y, &(e &n" s%e*( when we cou%", &n" (&%ke" &)ong ourse%'es- Puck 9uick%y grew res(%ess, &n" being (r&**e" in & s)&% &re& wi(h & bore" Robin #oo"$e% ow &n" & huge, 'o%&(i%e wo%$ w&s & scene $ro) & nigh()&re- A$(er one ho(-(e)*ere" e.*%osion (h&( rocke" (he bo&( &n" ne&r%y "u)*e" e'eryone in(o (he ri'er, ! sugges(e" Puck &"o*( his r&'en $or) &n" “scou( &he&", which he w&s h&**y (o "o, )uch (o e'eryone’s re%ie$A$(er Puck %e$(, (hings 9uie(e" "own- #ri)&%kin s%e*( &%)os( cons(&n(%y, &n" (he 8o%$ ei(her *&ce" (he "eck %ike & c&ge" (iger or %&y cur%e" u* &( (he s(ern, his burning eyes "is(&n( &n" $&r &w&y- He r&re%y s*oke (o &nyone, (hough (here were (i)es, when (he 8o%$ w&s on gu&r" "u(y &n" e'eryone w&s su**ose" (o be &s%ee*, (h&( ! s&w hi) &n" #ri)&%kin (&%king (oge(her, (heir 'oices &%w&ys (oo %ow (o he&r- Aw&ke, (hey s(u"ious%y ignore" e&ch o(her or sho( con(e)*(uous g%&nces in e&ch o(her’s "irec(ion, bu( (he nigh( ! s&w (he) &( (he bow o$ (he $erry, g&2ing o'er (he w&(er si"e by si"e, ! cou%"n’( he%* bu( won"er i$ (heir &ncien( w&r w&s /us( &no(her g&)e (hey %ike" (o *%&yArie% & &n" ! (&%ke" s*&ring%y, &n" when we "i", i( w&s o$(en o$ (he *resen(, o$ (he 8in(er &n" 1u))er Cour(s, o$ (he !ron $ey (h&( h&" so recen(%y in'&"e" our wor%"- 8e &'oi"e" (&%k o$ (he *&s(, (he o%" hun(s &n" %ong nigh(s in (he wy%"woo", (hough (he )e)ories ke*(

s*ringing u* whene'er we s*oke- +u( e'er since (he "re&) wi(h ,egh&n, Arie% & see)e" %ike & "i$$eren( *erson- 1he w&s so 9uie(, "r&wn in(o herse%$, broo"ing o'er & $u(ure ! cou%" no( see- Her s)i%es see)e" rigi" &n" $orce", her %&ugh(er (inge" wi(h )e%&ncho%yOnce, when ! &ske" i$ (he 'isions h&" shown her &ny(hing o$ herse%$, her eyes g%&2e" o'er &n" she s(&re" righ( (hrough )e be$ore she shook herse%$ &n" w&'e" i( o$$, s)i%ing- +u( $or & %ong (i)e &$(er, she s(&re" o'er (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, &n" (hough ! cou%" re&ch ou( &n" (ouch her, $ee% her so$( skin un"er )y $inger(i*s, i( see)e" ! w&s s(&ring &( & ghos(, &n echo o$ & *erson ! once knew“Here, she s&i" one nigh(, /oining )e &( (he bow- !( w&s )y (urn $or w&(ch, &n" ! w&s %e&ning &g&ins( (he r&i%ing s(&ring in(o (he *&ssing $ores(8hen Arie% & "ro**e" &n or&nge in(o )y h&n", ! b%inke" &n" %ooke" &( her curious%y- “E&( so)e(hing, she or"ere", *oin(ing (o (he $rui(- “! h&r"%y e'er see you e&(, &n" ! know e'en you ge( hungry $ro) (i)e (o (i)e“How "i" you ge( (his? 1he %ooke" e)b&rr&sse" $or & secon"- “Ne'er )in" (h&(6us( e&( i(, AshHer (one w&s $u% o$ w&rning, bu( ! cou%"n’( %e( i( go“8here0 “A grou* o$ winge" )onkeys (hrew i( &( )e- Arie% & crosse" her &r)s &n" g%&re", &n" ! h&" &n o"" )o)en( o$ "E/F 'u- “On )y %&s( w&(ch, we *&sse" &n orch&r" on (he b&nks, &n" (here were &( %e&s( & "o2en )onkeys %i'ing (here, s(&ring "own &( us- ! (hrew & rock &( (he) &n" (hey>(hrew (hings b&ck- An" no( /us( $oo" i(e)s, ei(her- 1he b%ushe" wi(h e)b&rr&ss)en( &n" g%owere", "&ring )e (o %&ugh- “1o you’" be((er e&( (h&( be$ore ! s(u$$ so)e(hing e%se "own your (hro&(, &n" i( won’( be & b&n&n&! %&ughe" &n" r&ise" )y h&n"s in surren"er- “As you wish, your highness, ! s&i" wi(hou( (hinking, bu( sobere" 9uick%yNow ! knew why (his $e%( so $&)i%i&r- ;or /us( & )o)en(, Arie% & h&" soun"e" /us( %ike ,egh&nAn", /u"ging $ro) (he %ook on Arie% &’s $&ce &s she *u% e" b&ck, she knew i(, (oo#ui%( *ierce" )e, sh&r* &n" *&in$u%- “Hey, ! s&i", c&(ching her wris( &s she s(&r(e" (o (urn &w&y, “Ari, %is(en- 8hen (his is &% o'er, when we co)e b&ck $ro) (his cr&2y 'en(ure, !’% )&ke sure you c&n go ho)e i$ you w&n( (o- 1he b%inke" &n" g&2e" u* &( )e, &s i$ such & (hough( h&" ne'er occurre"

(o her- “Your $&(her’s es(&(es &re s(i% s(&n"ing, ! wen( on“No one h&s (rie" (o c%&i) (he) ye(- Or you c&n re(urn (o cour(0! "on’( (hink ,&b wi% (ry (o s(o* you- !$ she "oes, ! c&n (&%k (o her- ! s(i% h&'e so)e in$ %uence in (he 8in(er Cour(, no )&((er wh&( ,&b (hinks o$ )e- ! w&n( you (o know (h&( you’% be (&ken c&re o$- ! c&n gi'e you (h&( )uch, &( %e&s(- 1he s)i%e" $&in(%y, (hough her g&2e w&s "is(&n( &n" unre&ch&b%e- “!$ ! h&" w&n(e" &ny o$ (hose (hings, ! wou%" &%re&"y h&'e (he), she re*%ie" in & gen(%e 'oice- “!’) gr&(e$u%, Ash, bu( i(’s $&r (oo %&(e $or )e (o re(urn (o (h&( %i$e- “! w&n( (o he%* you, ! (o%" her 9uie(%y- “Any(hing in )y *ower, &ny(hing ! c&n gi'e $ree%y is yours- 5e( )e (ry (o )&ke (his righ(- 6us( (e% )e wh&( (o "o1he s(e**e" c%oser, *%&cing & so$( h&n" on )y cheek, so ne&r ! cou%" see )y re$ %ec(ion in her s(&rry eyes- “;inish (his 9ues(, she whis*ere", &n" *u% e" &w&y, w&%king (o (he &$( o$ (he $erry wi(hou( %ooking b&ckAn in"e$ini(e (i)e %&(er, ! woke $ro) & "re&)%ess s%ee* &n" g&2e" &roun", re&%i2ing i( w&s ne&r%y )y (urn $or w&(ch &g&in- On (he o**osi(e bench, Arie% & s%e*( soun"%y, & *urring #ri)&%kin cur%e" u* besi"e her- A s(r&n" o$ si%'er h&ir $e% &cross her eyes, &n" ! r&ise" )y h&n" (o brush i( &w&y be$ore ! re&%i2e" wh&( ! w&s "oingC%enching )y $is(, ! (urne" &n" w&n"ere" (ow&r" (he bow o$ (he shi*, where (he 8o%$ s&( in (he )oon%igh(, g&2ing ou( o'er (he ri'er- His e&rs were *ricke", his nose r&ise" (o (he win", (he bree2e ru$$ %ing his g%ossy b%&ck *e%(“Ch&nge is co)ing, he ru)b%e" &s ! s(e**e" u* besi"e hi) &n" %e&ne" &g&ins( (he r&i%s, c&re$u% y b&%&ncing )y weigh(- E'en when (he 8o%$ w&s si((ing "own, (he (o* o$ )y he&" w&s b&re%y %e'e% wi(h his shou%"er, &n" where'er he wen(, (he bo&( (i%(e", 'ery s%igh(%y, (o (he si"e- “! c&n s)e% i(Ei(her so)e(hing is &**ro&ching us, or we’re 'ery ne&r%y (here! %ooke" "own, w&(ching & $ish (wice &s %ong &s (he $erry brush u* &g&ins( (he si"e, reg&r" us wi(h one enor)ous si%'er eye, &n" sink b&ck in(o (he "e*(hs- “3o you (hink we’% hi( &ny(hing be$ore we re&ch (he +ri&rs? “H&r" (o s&y, (he 8o%$ re*%ie"- “!’) sur*rise" we )&"e i( (his $&r wi(hou( &ny (roub%e- !$ you be%ie'e (he c&(, i(’s bec&use (he $erry is & *&r( o$ (he ri'er, &n" *&sses (hrough "re&)s wi(hou( "r&wing &ny &((en(ion (o i(se%$ or i(s *&ssengers- He snor(e" &n" cur%e" & %i*, &s i$ /us( re&%i2ing he h&" s*oken &bou( #ri)&%kin in & non'io%en( )&nner- “!$ you c&n be%ie'e &ny(hing he s&ys, &nyw&y- +esi"es, (h&( wi% *rob&b%y ch&nge once we hi( (he +ri&rs“How $&r? ! &ske"“Cou%"n’( (e% you- The 8o%$ r&ise" his he&" &n" sni$$e" &g&in- “+u( i(’s c%ose- The +ri&rs h&s & *&r(icu%&r s)e% , un%ike &ny(hing e%se in ;&ery- He (urne" &n" reg&r"e" )e wi(h burning, ye% ow-green eyes- “! ho*e your gir% knows (he w&y- !’'e s(&%ke" (he +ri&rs coun(%ess (i)es, &n" !’'e ne'er seen (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“1he’% ge( us (here, ! s&i" so$(%y- “! (rus( her-

“Re&% y? The 8o%$ snor(e", %ooking b&ck (ow&r" (he ri'er- “! wou%"n’(! (urne", n&rrowing )y g&2e- “8h&( "o you )e&n? “P&h, boy- C&n’( you s)e% i(? ! guess you wou%"n’(- The 8o%$ (urne" &s we% , %owering his he&" so we were $&ce-(o$&ce- “Your gir% is hi"ing so)e(hing, %i((%e *rince, he s&i" in & %ow grow%- “1he reeks o$ s&"ness, o$ in"ecision &n" gui%(- An" "esire, o$ course- !(’s e'en s(ronger (h&n yoursOh, "on’( *re(en" no( (o know wh&( !’) (&%king &bou(- +o(h o$ you s)e% %ike ru((ing "eer (h&( "on’( know whe(her (o $ %ee or /us( ge( on wi(h i(- He b&re" his $&ngs in & brie$ s)i%e &s ! g%&re"- “+u( ! wou%" be c&re$u% &roun" her, boy- There’s so)e(hing she h&sn’( (o%" you- ! "on’( know wh&( i( is, nor "o ! c&re, bu( she "oesn’( w&n( (his /ourney (o en"- You c&n see i( in her eyes! g%&nce" &( Arie% &, knowing (he 8o%$ w&s righ(- 1he w&s hi"ing so)e(hing, so)e(hing )ore (hen her e)o(ions or her 'isions or (he )&ny $u(ures ! knew she h&" seen- ! s&w (he g%e&) o$ go%"en eyes on (he bench &n" knew #ri)&%kin w&s w&(ching )e, bu( &( (h&( )o)en( ! he&r" (he $ %&**ing o$ wings, &n" & %&rge b%&ck bir" swoo*e" in (o *erch on (he "eck!( ch&nge" (o Puck in & swir% o$ $e&(hers, )&king (he 8o%$ wrink%e his nose &n" snee2e“He&"s-u*, Puck &nnounce", r&king $e&(hers $ro) his h&ir“8e’re co)ing u* on (he +ri&rs, &n" i( %ooks %ike (he ri'er goes righ( (hrough i(-


The +ri&rs rose be$ore us %ike (he b%&ck $&ce o$ & c%i$$, &n en"%ess w&% o$ (horns, 'ines &n" br&nches, c%&wing &( (he sky- ;ro) & "is(&nce, (hey &**e&re" (o )o'e, sw&ying &n" wri(hing, ne'er s(i% - O$ &% (he *%&ces in ;&ery, (he +ri&rs were (he )os( )ys(erious, &n" one o$ (he )os( $e&re"- !( w&s here %ong be$ore (he $irs( $&ery e)erge" $ro) hu)&n "re&)s, &n" w&s s&i" (o encirc%e (he en(ire Ne'erne'er- No one knew how i( c&)e (o be+u( e'eryone knew &bou( i(- 8i(hin (he (horns, (he (ro"s (o e'ery "oor &n" g&(ew&y in (he hu)&n wor%" %&y hi""en &n" we% *ro(ec(e", w&i(ing (o be "isco'ere"- ;in" (he righ( (ro", &n" you cou%" go &nywhere in (he wor%"- Th&( is, i$ you cou%" sur'i'e (he (hings (h&( %i'e" in (he (horns- An" (he +ri&rs (he)se%'es were &%w&ys hungryNo one h&" e'er (r&'e%e" &% (he w&y (hrough (he (hornsA (here were ru)ors (h&( (he )&2e

wen( on $ore'er- +u( i$ wh&( Arie% & s&i" w&s (rue, (he En" o$ (he 8or%" %&y beyon" (he +ri&rs, &n" so)ewhere beyon" (h&( %&y (he Tes(ing #roun"sThe $i'e o$ us0)yse%$, Arie% &, Puck, #ri)&%kin, &n" (he 8o%$0s(oo" si"e by si"e &( (he $ron( o$ (he bo&(, w&(ching (he +ri&rs %oo) be$ore usThe ri'er woun" s%ee*i%y (ow&r" (he w&% o$ (horns, in(o & (unne% o$ in(er%ocking br&nchesAs we "rew c%oser, we cou%" he&r (he +ri&rs )o'e, cre&king &n" s%i(hering, e&ger (o we%co)e us in(o i(s e)br&ce“4uick 9ues(ion- Puck’s 'oice broke (he si%ence- “3i" &nyone (hink (o bring & c&n o$ O$$? The 8o%$ g&'e hi) & con$use" %ook, &n" ! r&ise" &n eyebrow- “3o we e'en w&n( (o know? “,)), *rob&b%y no(Arie% & %e&ne" $orw&r", g&2ing u* &( (he %oo)ing e.*&nse o$ b%&ck (horns, &we wri((en *%&in%y on her $&ce- ;or & )o)en(, i( re)in"e" )e o$ (he $irs( (i)e ! h&" seen her, (h&( *re((y young gir% s(&ring &( (he win(er *&%&ce in &)&2e)en(, s(i% innocen( o$ (he w&ys o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(+u( she w&s "i$$eren( now, no( (he gir% ! h&" once knownArie% & c&ugh( )e %ooking &( her &n" s)i%e"- “!’'e ne'er seen (he +ri&rs, she s&i", g%&ncing b&ck &( (he w&% o$ (horns- “No( %ike (his- They’re so )uch bigger in *ersonThe 8o%$ snor(e", wrink%ing his nose- “! ho*e you know where you’re going, gir%, he s&i" in & "ubious 'oice- “!$ we ge( %os( in (here, you’% be (he $irs( one !’) going (o e&( (o kee* $ro) s(&r'ing- 8e% , &$(er (he c&(, &nyw&y! g%&re" &( (he 8o%$, bu( Arie% & shook her he&"- “8e won’( h&'e (o worry &bou( ge((ing %os(, she s&i" in & "is(&n( 'oice, no( e'en %ooking &( us- “The ri'er wi% (&ke us where we nee" (o go- To (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“#re&(, Puck s&i", grinning &n" rubbing his h&n"s- “1oun"s e&sy enough- 5e(’s /us( ho*e we "on’( $&% o$$ (he e"ge#ri**ing (he r&i%ing, ! s(&re" u* &( (he )o'ing w&% - This is i(- The %&s( b&rrier be$ore (he En" o$ (he 8or%", &n" one s(e* c%oser (o kee*ing )y *ro)ise- ,egh&n, !’) &%)os( (here8&i( $or )e /us( & %i((%e %ongerAs (he $erry s%i**e" bene&(h (he +ri&rs, wh&( %i((%e %igh( (here w&s "i))e" (o &%)os( no(hing, %e&'ing us in *i(ch "&rkness- E.(en"ing )y &r), ! "rew & (iny bi( o$ g%&)our $ro) (he &ir, &n" & g%obe o$ $&ery $ire &**e&re" in )y *&%), w&shing e'ery(hing in *&%e b%ue %igh(- ! sen( (he b&% &he&" o$ us, %igh(ing (he w&y "own (he ch&nne%, where i( bobbe" &n" we&'e" &n" c&s( weir" sh&"ows o'er (he bris(%ing (unne% w&% s#ri)&%kin sni$$e"- “! "o ho*e (h&( "oes no( &((r&c( &ny(hing, he )use", w&(ching (he bobbing %igh( &s i$ i( w&s & bir", /us( ou( o$ his re&ch- “8e &re no( wi% -o’-(he-wis*s, (rying (o ge( cre&(ures (o $o% ow us, &$(er &% - Perh&*s you shou%" *u( i( ou(? “No- ! shook )y he&"- “!$ so)e(hing co)es &( us in here, ! w&n( (o see i(“H))- ! su**ose no( e'eryone c&n h&'e & c&(’s *er$ec( nigh( 'ision, bu( s(i% >

Puck snor(e"- “Ye&h, your *er$ec( ki((y 'ision "oes us no goo" i$ you "on’( w&rn us (h&( so)e(hing is co)ing once in & whi%e- Poo$ing &w&y "oesn’( coun(- This w&y, we c&n &( %e&s( h&'e & he&"s-u*The c&( (hu)*e" his (&i%- “A""i(ion&% y, you c&n *&in( & neon sign o'er our he&"s (h&( s&ys, ?E&sy )e&%, $o% ow (he $%&shing %igh(s-’ “Or we cou%" use you $or b&i(>“3oes &nyone e%se he&r (h&(? Arie% & &ske"8e $ro2e, $&% ing si%en(The +ri&rs were ne'er s(i% , &%w&ys rus(%ing, s%i(hering or cre&king &roun" us, bu( o'er (he (horns &n" (he s%oshing o$ w&(er &g&ins( (he br&nches, ! cou%" he&r so)e(hing e%se- A $&in( chi((ering noise, %ike c%&ws c%icking o'er woo"- #e((ing c%oser> The 8o%$ grow%e" %ow in his ches(, (he $ur &%ong his s*ine beginning (o rise- “1o)e(hing is co)ing, he ru)b%e" righ( be$ore #ri)&%kin '&nishe"! "rew )y swor"- “Puck, ge( so)e %igh( b&ck (here now;&ery $ire e.*%o"e" o'erhe&", & $ %&sh o$ e)er&%"-green, %igh(ing (he *&ss&gew&y behin" us- !n (he $ %&re, hun"re"s o$ shiny, eigh(-%egge" cre&(ures scu((%e" b&ck $ro) (he su""en %igh(- The (unne% w&s $u% o$ (he), *&%e &n" bu%bous, wi(h bo"ies (he si2e o$ )e%ons &n" )u%(i*%e (hin %egs- +u( (heir $&ces, e%'en &n" be&u(i$u%, s(&re" "own &( us co%"%y, &n" (hey b&re" )ou(h$u%s o$ cur'e" b%&ck $&ngs“1*i"ers, Puck gro&ne", &n" "rew his kni'es &s (he 8o%$ ’s grow%s (urne" in(o sn&r%s“8hy "oes i( &%w&ys h&'e (o be s*i"ers? “#e( re&"y, ! )u((ere", "r&wing g%&)our (o )e in & co%" c%ou", $ee%ing Puck "o (he s&)e- “This cou%" ge( )essyHissing, (he sw&r) &((&cke", "ro**ing $ro) (he cei%ing wi(h )u$$%e" (hu)*s, %egs c%icking &s (hey scu((%e" o'er (he "eck- They were sur*rising%y 9uick, %e&*ing &( us wi(h b&re" $&ngs, %egs uncur%ing &s (hey $ %ew (hrough (he &ir! hur%e" & $ %urry o$ ice sh&r"s &( (he &((&cking sw&r), ki% ing se'er&% in )i"-%e&*, &n" r&ise" )y swor" &s (he res( c&)e on- ! cu( & s*i"er ou( o$ (he &ir, "ucke" &s &no(her $ %ew &( )y $&ce &n" s*e&re" & (hir" rushing &( )y %eg- Arie% & s(oo" behin" )e, $iring &rrows in(o (he sw&r), &n" (he 8o%$ ro&re" &s he boun"e" &n" s*un, ri**ing s*i"ers $ro) his *e%( &n" crushing (he) in his /&ws- Puck, co'ere" in b%&ck ichor, "o"ge" (he s*i"ers (h&( s*r&ng &( hi) &n" kicke" (he ones (h&( go( (oo c%ose, sen"ing (he) $ %ying in(o (he w&(ers be%ow“Aggressi'e %i((%e buggers, &ren’( (hey? he c&% e", y&nking & s*i"er $ro) his %eg &n" hur%ing i( o'er (he r&i%ing- “:in"& %ike re"c&* s*&wn, on%y ug%ierHe "ucke" &s & s*i"er $ %ew o'erhe&", hissing, on%y (o be sn&**e" ou( o$ (he &ir by (he 8o%$- “Hey, *rince, re)e)ber (h&( (i)e we s(u)b%e" in(o & hy"r& nes(, /us( &s &% (he eggs were h&(ching? ! "i"n’( know hy"r&s cou%" %&y u* (o si.(y eggs &( & (i)e! s%ice" (wo s*i"er cre&(ures $ro) (he &ir &( once, b%&ck ichor s*%&((ering )y $&ce &n" neck- “Now’s re&% y no( (he (i)e (o re)inisce, #oo"$e% owPuck ye%*e" &n" curse", s%&**ing &w&y & s*i"er on his neck, his h&n" co)ing &w&y

s(&ine" wi(h re"- “! w&sn’( re)iniscing, ice-boy, he sn&**e", &ngri%y kicking (he s*i"er &w&y- “Re)e)ber (h&( coo% %i((%e (rick we "i"? ! (hink we shou%" "o (h&( now! The s*i"ers’ nu)bers were incre&singA !’" cu( one "own on%y (o h&'e $our o(hers co)e &( )e $ro) &% si"es- They were e'erywhere now, cr&w%ing o'er (he r&i%ing &n" ski((ering &cross (he roo$- Arie% & &n" ! s(oo" b&ck-(o-b&ck, *ro(ec(ing e&ch o(her, &n" (he 8o%$ w&s going berserk, bucking &n" ro% ing &s s*i"ers cr&w%e" &% o'er hi) %ike )ons(er (icks“Co)e on, *rince! 3on’( (e% )e you’'e $orgo((en! ! h&"n’( $orgo((en- ! knew e.&c(%y wh&( he w&n(e" )e (o "o- !( w&s risky &n" "&ngerous &n" wou%" (&ke & %o( ou( o$ us bo(h, bu( i$ (he s*i"ers ke*( co)ing, we )igh( no( h&'e & choice“Ash! “A% righ(! ! ye% e" b&ck- “5e(’s "o i(- Ari, s(&y c%ose- E'eryone e%se, (&ke co'er now! ! s(o**e" $igh(ing $or &n ins(&n(, $ee%ing se'er&% o$ (he cre&(ures %&n" on )e, (heir s%en"er %egs scu((%ing u* )y c%o(hes- !gnoring (he), ! kne%( &n" "ro'e (he *oin( o$ )y swor" in(o (he woo"en $ %oorThere w&s & $ %&sh o$ b%ue, &n" ice s*re&" ou( $ro) )y b%&"e, co'ering e'ery(hing- !n &n ins(&n(, i( h&" co&(e" (he "eck, (he r&i%ings, (he benches, e'en so)e o$ (he s*i"er (hings, $ree2ing (he) in *%&ce- !( co'ere" (he br&nches o$ (he (horns &roun" us &n" s*re&" & (hin shee( o$ ice o'er (he w&(er &roun" (he bo&(- Though (he s*i"er (hings con(inue" (o *our ou( o$ (he br&)b%es, "ro**ing on(o (he "eck, $or & )o)en(, (here w&s &bso%u(e, $ro2en si%ence“Now, Puck )u((ere", &n" ! *u% e" u* )y b%&"eThe ice sh&((ere"- 8i(h (he soun" o$ bre&king g%&ss, i( $r&c(ure" in(o (hous&n"s o$ r&2orsh&r* e"ges, g%in(ing in (he "&rkness- An" &( (h&( ins(&n(, Puck un%e&she" (he whir%win"8i(h & ro&r o$ 1u))er g%&)our, Puck’s cyc%one whi**e" (hrough (he (horns &n" surroun"e" (he bo&(, shrieking &n" c&using (he s)&% cr&$( (o %urch si"ew&ys- !( *icke" u* "ebris in i(s w&ke, br&nches, s*i"er bo"ies &n" (hous&n"s o$ $r&c(ure" ice sh&r"s, s*inning (he) (hrough (he &ir wi(h (he $orce o$ & (orn&"o- ! gr&bbe" Arie% & &n" *u% e" her c%ose &s (he 8o%$ hunkere" "own besi"e us, hunching his shou%"ers &g&ins( (he win"8hen (he win"s $in&% y ce&se", we were surroun"e" by (wigs, br&nches, )e%(ing ice &n" s*i"er *&r(s, oo2ing o'er e'ery(hing- !cic%es s(uck ou( o$ (he benches &n" w&% s %ike crys(&% shr&*ne%, &n" b%&ck ichor w&s s*%&((ere" e'erywhere“Yes! Puck cheere" &s ! s&( "own on (he $ %oor, %e&ning &g&ins( (he r&i%ing- “Ho)e (e&), one0s*i"ers, 2ero! Arie% & %ooke" &( )e wi(h wi"e eyes- “! ne'er s&w you (wo "o (h&( be$ore“!( w&s & %ong (i)e &go, ! s&i" (ire"%y- “+e$ore we e'er )e(- 8hen Puck &n" !> ! (r&i%e" o$$, re)e)bering (he ye&rs when Robin #oo"$e% ow &n" Prince Ash (hough( (hey cou%" (&ke on (he wor%"- Reck%ess &n" "e$i&n(, s*urning (he %&ws o$ (he cour(s, (hey sough( ou( new &n" gre&(er ch&% enges, &%w&ys re&ching $or )ore, &n" go( in(o )ore scr&*es (hen &nyone h&" & righ( (o co)e ou( o$ &%i'e- ! shook )y he&", "isso%'ing (he )e)ories- “!( w&s & %ong (i)e &go, ! $inishe"-

“Reg&r"%ess- #ri)&%kin &bru*(%y )&(eri&%i2e", si((ing on & bench wi(h no( & h&ir ou( o$ *%&ce, his (&i% cur%e" &roun" hi)se%$- “!$ (he (wo o$ (he) h&'e &ny )ore (ricks %ike (h&(, (hey wou%" "o we% (o re)e)ber (he)- 1u))er &n" 8in(er g%&)our, when use" in con/unc(ion ins(e&" o$ &g&ins( e&ch o(her, c&n be & *ower$u% (hing- Th&nk$u% y, nei(her o$ (he cour(s h&s e'er $igure" (his ou(The 8o%$ shook hi)se%$, s*r&ying ichor &n" s*i"er *&r(s e'erywhere, )&king #ri)&%kin %&y b&ck his e&rs- “,&gic &n" *&r%or (ricks, (he 8o%$ snor(e", wrink%ing his )u22%e, “wi% no( ge( us (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“8e% , "uh, Puck sho( b&ck- “Th&(’s why we’re on & bo&(The 8o%$ g&'e hi) & sinis(er %ook, (hen s(&%ke" (o (he $ron( o$ (he bo&(, no( c&ring &bou( (he s*i"er *&r(s sc&((ere" &bou( (he "eck- ;or & )o)en(, he s(oo" (here, sni$$ing (he &ir, e&rs *ricke" $orw&r" $or &ny hin(s o$ (roub%e- ;in"ing none, he cur%e" u* in & re%&(i'e%y c%e&n s*o( &n" c%ose" his eyes, ignoring us &% Arie% & %ooke" "own &( )e, (hen &( Puck, who w&s y&wning &n" scrubbing (he b&ck o$ his he&"- “Th&( (ook & %o( o$ *ower, "i"n’( i(? she )use", &n" ! "i"n’( &rgue- Re%e&sing &n e.*%osion %ike (h&( wou%" %e&'e &nyone "r&ine"- Arie% & sighe" &n" shook her he&"- “#e( so)e res(, (he bo(h o$ you, she or"ere"- “#ri) &n" ! wi% (&ke %&s( w&(ch! "i"n’( (hink ! wou%" s%ee*, bu( ! "o2e" $re($u% y &s (he $erry )&"e i(s w&y (hrough (he en"%ess (&ng%e o$ br&)b%es- 3es*i(e &ssur&nces $ro) Arie% & &n" (he 8o%$ (h&( no(hing $o% owe" us, ! $oun" i( i)*ossib%e (o re%&.- O$(en, ! wou%" be /erke" &w&ke by & s*%&sh or & sn&**ing o$ (wigs so)ewhere in (he (horns, &n" e'ery once in & whi%e (he scre&) o$ so)e un$or(un&(e cre&(ure wou%" echo (hrough (he br&nches- E'en(u&% y, e'eryone g&'e u* (rying (o res( &n" s*en( (he /ourney in & cons(&n( &n" e.h&us(ing s(&(e o$ high &%er(E.ce*( #ri)&%kin, who '&nishe" $re9uen(%y &n" )&"e e'eryone ner'ous whi%e he w&s goneThe +ri&rs wen( on, ne'er ch&nging, ne'er s(i% - ! c&ugh( g%i)*ses o$ '&rious "oors (hrough (he (horns, (ro"s (o *%&ces in (he )or(&% wor%", "oorw&ys ou( o$ (he Ne'erne'erCre&(ures seen &n" unseen ski((ere" (hrough (he br&nches, $urry or shiny or )&ny-%i)be", *eering &( us (hrough (he (horns- A gi&n( cen(i*e"e, o'er (wen(y $ee( %ong, c%ung (o (he roo$ o$ (he (unne% &s we "ri$(e" bene&(h i(, c%ose enough (h&( we cou%" he&r (he s%ow c%icking o$ i(s huge )&n"ib%es- Th&nk$u% y, i( "i"n’( see) in(eres(e" in us, bu( Puck ke*( his "&ggers ou( $or se'er&% )i%es &$(erw&r", &n" #ri)&%kin "i"n’( re&**e&r $or & %ong, %ong (i)eHours *&sse"- Or "&ys0i( w&s i)*ossib%e (o (e% - The 8o%$ &n" ! were s(&n"ing &( (he re&r o$ (he bo&(, w&(ching &n enor)ous sn&ke g%i"e (hrough (he br&nches o'erhe&", when Arie% &’s we&ry 'oice $ %o&(e" u* $ro) (he $ron(“There i( is! (urne" &s (he (unne% o*ene" u* in(o &n enor)ous c&'ern )&"e o$ (horns, (he br&nches shu((ing ou( (he sky- Tiny %igh(s $i% e" (he c&'ern, $ %o&(ing in (he &ir &n" bobbing o'er (he "&rk w&(ers %ike err&(ic $ire$ %ies- Torches s(uck ou( o$ (he ri'er, so)e ben( or %e&ning &( o"" &ng%es, $ %ickering wi(h b%ue&n"-or&nge $ %&)es- They %i( (he w&y (o & )&ssi'e s(one (e)*%e %oo)ing &( (he en" o$ (he c&'ern- !( rose $ro) (he "&rk w&(ers *&s( (he cei%ing o$

(he c&'e, e.(en"ing (hrough (he br&nches $&r(her (hen we cou%" see- Cines, )oss &n" (horny cree*ers co'ere" (he cru)b%ing w&% s, win"ing %ike *ossessi'e (&%ons &roun" *i% &rs &n" %&ughing g&rgoy%es- E'en in & *%&ce &s &ge%ess &s (he Ne'erne'er &n" (he 3ee* 8y%", where (i)e "i"n’( &n" &ncien( w&s on%y & wor", (his (e)*%e w&s o%"es(! (ook & "ee*, s%ow bre&(h- “3i" we )&ke i(? ! &ske" so$(%y, un&b%e (o (&ke )y eyes $ro) (he )&ssi'e w&% o$ s(one (h&( %oo)e" be$ore us %ike (he si"e o$ & )oun(&in- “!s (his (he Tes(ing #roun"s? +esi"e )e, Arie% & shook her he&"- “No, she whis*ere", &%)os( in & "&2e- “No( ye(, (hough !’'e seen (his in )y 'isions- The Tes(ing #roun"s %ie beyon" (he (e)*%e- This is (he g&(e (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“+ig g&(e, Puck )u((ere", cr&ning his neck (o %ook u* &( i(- No one &nswere" hi)The Ri'er o$ 3re&)s con(inue", *&s( (he (e)*%e, in(o (he (horns (h&( surroun"e" (he c&'ern, bu( (he bo&( "ri$(e" %&2i%y un(i% i( bu)*e" &g&ins( (he huge s(one s(e*s (h&( %e" u* (o (he "oors, &n" s(o**e"“#uess (his is our s(o*, Puck s&i", &n" *r&c(ic&% y %e&*e" ou( o$ (he $erry on(o (he s(e*s“8hew, i(’s nice (o be b&ck on so%i" groun" &g&in, he )use", s(re(ching &s (he res( o$ us $o% owe", e&si%y crow"ing on(o (he *%&($or) &( (he bo((o)- #ri)&%kin &**e&re" $ro) un"er one o$ (he benches, )ince" (o (he bo((o) o$ (he s(e*s, &n" beg&n rigorous%y w&shing his (&i%#&2ing u* (he %ong $ %igh( o$ s(&irs (o (he (e)*%e, Puck shook his he&" &n" sighe"“1(&irs- He gri)&ce"- “! swe&r (here )us( be %ike so)e secre( co"e- A%% )ys(erious &ncien( (e)*%es )us( h&'e & )ini)u) o$ &( %e&s( se'en (hous&n" s(e*s (o (he $ron( "oor! $o% owe" his g&2e, $rowning &s ! re&%i2e" we weren’( &%one- “1o)eone is u* (here, ! s&i" 9uie(%y- “! c&n sense i(- !( $ee%s> %ike i(’s w&i(ing $or )eThe res( o$ (he grou*" g%&nces, e.ce*( $or Arie% &, who s(oo" & %i((%e &*&r(, s(&ring b&ck &( (he ri'er- “8e% , (hen0 Puck sighe" wi(h e.&gger&(e" cheer$u%ness “0! guess i( wou%" be ru"e (o kee* i( w&i(ingHe &n" (he 8o%$ &n" #ri)&%kin s(&r(e" u* (he s(&irs, bu( *&use" when ! "i"n’( $o% ow“7h, *rince, &ren’( you co)ing? Puck s&i", g%&ncing b&ck &( )e- “1eeing &s (his is, you know, your *&r(y &n" &% “:ee* going, ! s&i", w&'ing (he) on- “8e’% c&(ch u*- Ye% i$ so)e(hing co)es &( you“Oh, be%ie'e )e, ! wi% , Puck s&i", &n" con(inue" u* (he s(&irs, #ri) &n" (he 8o%$ %e&"ing (he w&y! (urne" (o Arie% &, who s(i% g&2e" ou( o'er (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, no( %ooking &( )e- “Ari, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, s(e**ing u* behin" her, “wh&( is i(? 1he w&s si%en( $or se'er&% he&r(be&(s, &n" ! w&s beginning (o won"er whe(her she’" he&r" )e &( &% , when she (ook & sh&ky bre&(h &n" c%ose" her eyes“8e’re &%)os( (here, she whis*ere", &n" & shi'er wen( (hrough her- “! "i"n’( (hink i( wou%" be so soon- ! guess> (here’s no (urning b&ck now“Ari- ! s(e**e" c%oser, *u((ing & h&n" on her &r)- “T&%k (o )e- ! w&n( (o he%* you, bu( ! c&n’( i$ you won’( %e( )e in- ! cou%"0

1he (urne" su""en%y, &n" be$ore ! cou%" re&c(, $r&)e" )y $&ce wi(h her h&n"s &n" *resse" her %i*s (o )ine! $ro2e, )os(%y in shock, bu( &$(er & )o)en( )y bo"y uncoi%e" &n" ! c%ose" )y eyes, re%&.ing in(o her- ! re)e)bere" (hisA (he $ee% o$ her %i*s on )ine, coo% &n" so$(, (he (ouch o$ her $ingers on )y skin- ! re)e)bere" her scen(, (hose %ong nigh(s when we wou%" %ie un"er (he co%", $ro2en s(&rs, "re&)ing in e&ch o(her’s &r)s;or & secon", )y bo"y re&c(e" ins(inc(i'e%y- ! s(&r(e" (o *u% us c%oser, (o wr&* )y &r)s &roun" her &n" re(urn (he kiss wi(h e9u&% *&ssion>bu(, (hen ! s(o**e"! re)e)bere" (his *er$ec(%yA e'ery shining )o)en( wi(h Arie% & w&s $ore'er e(che" in(o )y )in"- 8h&( we’" h&", wh&( we’" sh&re", e'ery(hing- !’" bui%( & shrine (o her in )y )e)ories, c&re$u% y (en"e" wi(h grie$ &n" &nger &n" regre(- ! knew e'ery inch o$ our re%&(ionshi*, (he *&ssion, (he $ee%ing o$ e)*(iness when we weren’( (oge(her, (he %onging &n", yes, (he %o'e- ! h&" been in %o'e wi(h Arie% &- ! re)e)bere" wh&( she’" )e&n( (o )e once, wh&( !’" $e%( $or her (hen> >&n" wh&( ! "i"n’( $ee% $or her now#en(%y, ! *u( )y h&n"s on her shou%"ers &n" *ushe" her b&ck, bre&king (he kiss- “Ari0 “! %o'e you, Ash, she )ur)ure" be$ore ! cou%" s&y &ny(hing )ore, &n" )y s(o)&ch "ro**e"- Her 'oice w&s 9uie(%y "es*er&(e, &s i$ she w&s rushing (o ge( i( ou( be$ore ! cou%" s*e&k- “! ne'er s(o**e"- Ne'er- E'en when ! knew you wou%" $&% $or ,egh&n, when ! w&s so &ngry ! wishe" we were bo(h "e&", e'en (hen ! cou%"n’( s(o* %o'ing you,y (hro&( c%ose"- ! sw&% owe" h&r" (o o*en i(- “8hy &re you (e% ing )e (his now? “+ec&use ! won’( ge( &no(her ch&nce, Arie% & wen( on, her eyes $i% ing wi(h (e&rs- “An" ! know, &$(er your *ro)ise (o ,egh&n, &$(er e'ery(hing we wen( (hrough (o ge( here, ! know you c&n’( (urn b&ck, bu(> 1he *resse" c%ose, g&2ing u* &( )e- “3o you s(i% %o'e )e? ! c&n’(>! nee" (o know, be$ore we go &ny $&r(her- ! "eser'e (o know (h&( )uch! c%ose" )y eyes- E)o(ions swir%e" wi(hin )e, gui%( &n" sorrow &n" regre(, bu( $or once, )y (hough(s were c%e&r- “Arie% &, ! )ur)ure", (&king her h&n"s in )ine, $ee%ing her *u%se r&ce- This wou%" be h&r" (o s&y, bu( ! nee"e" (o ge( i( ou(, &n" she nee"e" (o he&r i(E'en i$ she h&(e" )e in (he en"- “8hen ! %os( you (h&( "&y, )y %i$e en"e"- ! (hough( ! wou%" "ie- ! w&n(e" (o "ie, bu( on%y &$(er (&king Puck "own wi(h )e- The on%y (hing ! w&s %i'ing $or w&s re'enge, &n" ! ne&r%y "es(roye" )yse%$, bec&use ! cou%"n’( %e( you goE'en when ! )e( ,egh&n, ! $e%( ! w&s be(r&ying your )e)ory“+u( i(’s "i$$eren( now- ! o*ene" )y eyes, )ee(ing her s(&rry g&2e- “! regre( & %o( o$ (hings- ! wish ! cou%"’'e been (here $or you, &n" ! wish (h&( "&y h&" ne'er h&**ene"- +u( (he (hing ! "on’( regre(, (he one goo" (hing (h&( c&)e ou( o$ i( &% , is her“Ari>! wi% &%w&ys %o'e you- ! &%w&ys h&'e- No(hing wi% ch&nge (h&(- ! s9uee2e" her h&n", (hen gen(%y re%e&se" i(- “You’% &%w&ys be & *&r( o$ )e+u(>!’) no( in %o'e wi(h you>&ny)ore- An", "es*i(e )y *ro)ise, "es*i(e seeing you &g&in, ! "o (his bec&use ! w&n( (o be wi(h ,egh&n, no(hing e%se- Arie% &’s eyes g%&2e" o'er, &n" ! e&se" b&ck, s*e&king &s gen(%y &s ! cou%"- “! c&n’( be yours, Arie% &- !’) sorry;or & )o)en(, she s(&re" &( )e wi(h & co)*%e(e%y unre&"&b%e e.*ression- Then,

une.*ec(e"%y, & s&" s)i%e crosse" her %i*s“Th&(’s i(, (hen, she )ur)ure", )ore (o herse%$ (h&n )e- “;or us, &nyw&y- ! b%inke", &n" she g%&nce" u* &( )e, her s(&rry eyes c%e&r- “! "i"n’( w&n( you (o h&'e &ny "oub(s, in (he en"“!s (h&( wh&( you w&n(e"? ! s(&re" &( her, &gh&s(- “8ere you /us( $orcing )e in(o & "ecision? “No, Ash- No- Arie% & *u( & h&n" on )y &r)- “! )e&n( wh&( ! s&i"- !’'e &%w&ys %o'e" you, &n" ! w&n(e" you (o know be$ore> 1he shi'ere", hugging herse%$ &s she s(e**e" b&ck- “!’) h&**y $or you, she whis*ere", (hough her eyes were g%&ssy once )ore- “You know wh&( you w&n(, &n" (h&(’s goo"- !( wi% )&ke i( e&sier>“8h&( &re you (&%king &bou(? “Oy, ice-boy! Puck’s 'oice c&)e, rough wi(h "is&**ro'&%, $ro) $&r(her u* (he s(&irs- “! (hink you’" be((er ge( u* here now! ! scow%e" &( Puck, cursing his (i)ing, &n" g%&nce" &( Arie% &- 1he g&2e" u* (he s(e*s, her cheeks "ry, her e.*ression reso%'e"- ! sense" she w&s )&king *e&ce wi(h herse%$, co)ing (o so)e i)*or(&n( "ecision“Ari> “!(’s &% righ(, Ash- Arie% & r&ise" & h&n", no( )ee(ing )y eyes- “3on’( worry &bou( )e- ! knew, e'en(u&% y, i( wou%" co)e (o (his- 1he (ook & bre&(h, %e( i( ou( s%ow%y- “!(’s (i)e (o )o'e on, $or bo(h o$ us“1o, %e(’s go, she s&i", (urning &n" gi'ing )e & br&'e s)i%e- “8e’'e $in&% y co)e (o (he en"- 8e c&n’( s(o* nowPuck w&i(e" $or us ne&r (he (o* o$ (he s(&irc&se, (he 8o%$ grow%ing %ow in his ches( besi"e hi)- +u( #ri)&%kin w&s &%so (here, c&%)%y %icking & $ron( *&w in be(ween "is"&in$u% g%&nces &( (he 8o%$, so ! re%&.e" & bi(- 8hen (he c&( "is&**e&re", (hen ! wou%" worry1(i% , Puck %ooke" gr&'e &s we /oine" hi), no""ing (o (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs- “8e’'e go( co)*&ny, he )u((ere", &n" ! %ooke" u*A $igure s(oo" &( (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs, robe" &n" hoo"e", &n" ne&r%y eigh( $ee( (&% - !(s $&ce w&s hi""en in (he "&rkness o$ (he cow%, &n" & *&%e, bony h&n" c%u(che" & g%e&)ing s(&$$ o$ (wis(e" b%&ck woo"An", (hough ! cou%"n’( see i(s $&ce, ! $e%( i( w&s %ooking righ( &( )e“! know why you h&'e co)e, knigh( o$ (he !ron Cour(The "ee* 'oice shi'ere" in(o )e, co)ing $ro) e'erywhere, $ro) (he (horns &n" (he ri'er &n" (he (e)*%e i(se%$- !( echoe" in )y he&" &n" in )y bones, co%" &n" *ower$u% &n" o%"er (h&n (he s(&rs- !( (ook &% )y wi% *ower no( (o sink (o one knee be$ore (he robe" $igure, &n" by Puck’s %&ck o$ &n irre'eren( s)irk &n" (he h&ir s(&n"ing u* &%ong (he 8o%$ ’s s*ine, ! knew (hey $e%( i(, (oo“8ho &re you? ! &ske"“! &) (he #u&r"i&n &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%", (he $igure in(one"- “! &) (he kee*er o$ (he Tes(ing #roun"s, (he one you wi%% h&'e (o i)*ress (o e&rn your sou%-

“An" you c&)e ou( /us( (o s&y hi? Th&(’s &w$u% y consi"er&(e o$ you- Puck reg&ine" his grin &n" (urne" (o )e- “3on’( you $ee% s*eci&%, ice-boy? 8e "i"n’( e'en h&'e (o go (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- +e *o%i(e (o (he nice hoo"e" )&n, &n" )&ybe you’% ge( & sou%“+u( $irs(, (o re&ch (he En" o$ (he 8or%", (o *ro'e (h&( you &re wor(hy, you )us( run (he g&un(%e(“! knew i(- Puck shook his he&"- “There’s &%w&ys & c&(ch! ignore" Puck, (&king & s(e* (ow&r" (he hoo"e" $igure- “!’) re&"y, ! s&i", se&rching $or & $&ce behin" (h&( "&rk cow%, $in"ing no(hing- “8h&(e'er you (hrow &( )e0g&un(%e(s, (es(s, &ny(hing0i( won’( )&((er- !’) re&"y- 8h&( "o ! h&'e (o "o? The #u&r"i&n "i"n’( see) sur*rise"- “This (ri&% is no( on%y $or you, knigh(, i( s&i", swee*ing & robe" &r) &( (he grou* behin" us- “Anyone who wishes (o see (he En" o$ (he 8or%" )us( $irs( )&ke i( (hrough (he g&un(%e(- A%one, you wi%% $&i%- Toge(her, you )igh( h&'e & ch&nce (o o'erco)e (he ch&%%enges- +u( know (his0no( &%% who en(er (he (e)*%e wi%% %e&'e- O$ (h&(, you c&n be cer(&in,y s(o)&ch "ro**e"- ! "i"n’( "oub( his wor"s, )uch &s ! h&(e" (o &cce*( (he)- The #u&r"i&n w&s (e% ing us (h&( no( e'eryone wou%" sur'i'e (he g&un(%e(- Th&( one or )ore o$ us w&s going (o "ie“One (hing )ore- The #u&r"i&n r&ise" & h&n" in (he si%ence o$ (h&( re'e%&(ion- “You "o no( h&'e %ong (o $in" )e, knigh(- Once (he "oors o*en, &( bo(h en"s o$ (he g&un(%e(, (hey wi%% no( re)&in (h&( w&y $ore'er- !$ you &re s(i%% in (he (e)*%e when (hey c%ose, you wi%% be (r&**e" (here un(i% (he en" o$ (i)e, /oining (hose who h&'e &%re&"y $&i%e"- 3o you un"ers(&n"? “Yes, ! s&i" nu)b%y- The cow% no""e" once“Then ! wi%% see you &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%", knigh(- 8here, i$ you )&ke i( (hrough, your re&% (ri&% wi%% beginAn" /us( %ike (h&(, i( w&s gone- !( "i"n’( $&"e &w&y or '&nish in & *u$$ o$ s)oke or e'en "is&**e&r %ike #ri)&%kin, beco)ing in'isib%e- !( si)*%y w&sn’( (here &ny)oreCHAPTER T8E5CE

The +ri&rs rose be$ore us %ike (he b%&ck $&ce o$ & c%i$$, &n en"%ess w&% o$ (horns, 'ines &n" br&nches, c%&wing &( (he sky- ;ro) & "is(&nce, (hey &**e&re" (o )o'e, sw&ying &n" wri(hing, ne'er s(i% - O$ &% (he *%&ces in ;&ery, (he +ri&rs were (he )os( )ys(erious, &n" one o$ (he )os( $e&re"- !( w&s here %ong be$ore (he $irs( $&ery e)erge" $ro) hu)&n "re&)s, &n" w&s s&i" (o encirc%e (he en(ire Ne'erne'er- No one knew how i( c&)e (o be+u( e'eryone knew &bou( i(- 8i(hin (he (horns, (he (ro"s (o e'ery "oor &n" g&(ew&y in (he hu)&n wor%" %&y hi""en &n" we% *ro(ec(e", w&i(ing (o be "isco'ere"- ;in" (he righ( (ro", &n" you cou%" go &nywhere in (he wor%"- Th&( is, i$ you cou%" sur'i'e (he (hings (h&( %i'e" in (he (horns- An" (he +ri&rs (he)se%'es were &%w&ys hungryNo one h&" e'er (r&'e%e" &% (he w&y (hrough (he (hornsA (here were ru)ors (h&( (he )&2e wen( on $ore'er- +u( i$ wh&( Arie% & s&i" w&s (rue, (he En" o$ (he 8or%" %&y beyon" (he

+ri&rs, &n" so)ewhere beyon" (h&( %&y (he Tes(ing #roun"sThe $i'e o$ us0)yse%$, Arie% &, Puck, #ri)&%kin, &n" (he 8o%$0s(oo" si"e by si"e &( (he $ron( o$ (he bo&(, w&(ching (he +ri&rs %oo) be$ore usThe ri'er woun" s%ee*i%y (ow&r" (he w&% o$ (horns, in(o & (unne% o$ in(er%ocking br&nchesAs we "rew c%oser, we cou%" he&r (he +ri&rs )o'e, cre&king &n" s%i(hering, e&ger (o we%co)e us in(o i(s e)br&ce“4uick 9ues(ion- Puck’s 'oice broke (he si%ence- “3i" &nyone (hink (o bring & c&n o$ O$$? The 8o%$ g&'e hi) & con$use" %ook, &n" ! r&ise" &n eyebrow- “3o we e'en w&n( (o know? “,)), *rob&b%y no(Arie% & %e&ne" $orw&r", g&2ing u* &( (he %oo)ing e.*&nse o$ b%&ck (horns, &we wri((en *%&in%y on her $&ce- ;or & )o)en(, i( re)in"e" )e o$ (he $irs( (i)e ! h&" seen her, (h&( *re((y young gir% s(&ring &( (he win(er *&%&ce in &)&2e)en(, s(i% innocen( o$ (he w&ys o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(+u( she w&s "i$$eren( now, no( (he gir% ! h&" once knownArie% & c&ugh( )e %ooking &( her &n" s)i%e"- “!’'e ne'er seen (he +ri&rs, she s&i", g%&ncing b&ck &( (he w&% o$ (horns- “No( %ike (his- They’re so )uch bigger in *ersonThe 8o%$ snor(e", wrink%ing his nose- “! ho*e you know where you’re going, gir%, he s&i" in & "ubious 'oice- “!$ we ge( %os( in (here, you’% be (he $irs( one !’) going (o e&( (o kee* $ro) s(&r'ing- 8e% , &$(er (he c&(, &nyw&y! g%&re" &( (he 8o%$, bu( Arie% & shook her he&"- “8e won’( h&'e (o worry &bou( ge((ing %os(, she s&i" in & "is(&n( 'oice, no( e'en %ooking &( us- “The ri'er wi% (&ke us where we nee" (o go- To (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“#re&(, Puck s&i", grinning &n" rubbing his h&n"s- “1oun"s e&sy enough- 5e(’s /us( ho*e we "on’( $&% o$$ (he e"ge#ri**ing (he r&i%ing, ! s(&re" u* &( (he )o'ing w&% - This is i(- The %&s( b&rrier be$ore (he En" o$ (he 8or%", &n" one s(e* c%oser (o kee*ing )y *ro)ise- ,egh&n, !’) &%)os( (here8&i( $or )e /us( & %i((%e %ongerAs (he $erry s%i**e" bene&(h (he +ri&rs, wh&( %i((%e %igh( (here w&s "i))e" (o &%)os( no(hing, %e&'ing us in *i(ch "&rkness- E.(en"ing )y &r), ! "rew & (iny bi( o$ g%&)our $ro) (he &ir, &n" & g%obe o$ $&ery $ire &**e&re" in )y *&%), w&shing e'ery(hing in *&%e b%ue %igh(- ! sen( (he b&% &he&" o$ us, %igh(ing (he w&y "own (he ch&nne%, where i( bobbe" &n" we&'e" &n" c&s( weir" sh&"ows o'er (he bris(%ing (unne% w&% s#ri)&%kin sni$$e"- “! "o ho*e (h&( "oes no( &((r&c( &ny(hing, he )use", w&(ching (he bobbing %igh( &s i$ i( w&s & bir", /us( ou( o$ his re&ch- “8e &re no( wi% -o’-(he-wis*s, (rying (o ge( cre&(ures (o $o% ow us, &$(er &% - Perh&*s you shou%" *u( i( ou(? “No- ! shook )y he&"- “!$ so)e(hing co)es &( us in here, ! w&n( (o see i(“H))- ! su**ose no( e'eryone c&n h&'e & c&(’s *er$ec( nigh( 'ision, bu( s(i% > Puck snor(e"- “Ye&h, your *er$ec( ki((y 'ision "oes us no goo" i$ you "on’( w&rn us (h&(

so)e(hing is co)ing once in & whi%e- Poo$ing &w&y "oesn’( coun(- This w&y, we c&n &( %e&s( h&'e & he&"s-u*The c&( (hu)*e" his (&i%- “A""i(ion&% y, you c&n *&in( & neon sign o'er our he&"s (h&( s&ys, ?E&sy )e&%, $o% ow (he $%&shing %igh(s-’ “Or we cou%" use you $or b&i(>“3oes &nyone e%se he&r (h&(? Arie% & &ske"8e $ro2e, $&% ing si%en(The +ri&rs were ne'er s(i% , &%w&ys rus(%ing, s%i(hering or cre&king &roun" us, bu( o'er (he (horns &n" (he s%oshing o$ w&(er &g&ins( (he br&nches, ! cou%" he&r so)e(hing e%se- A $&in( chi((ering noise, %ike c%&ws c%icking o'er woo"- #e((ing c%oser> The 8o%$ grow%e" %ow in his ches(, (he $ur &%ong his s*ine beginning (o rise- “1o)e(hing is co)ing, he ru)b%e" righ( be$ore #ri)&%kin '&nishe"! "rew )y swor"- “Puck, ge( so)e %igh( b&ck (here now;&ery $ire e.*%o"e" o'erhe&", & $ %&sh o$ e)er&%"-green, %igh(ing (he *&ss&gew&y behin" us- !n (he $ %&re, hun"re"s o$ shiny, eigh(-%egge" cre&(ures scu((%e" b&ck $ro) (he su""en %igh(- The (unne% w&s $u% o$ (he), *&%e &n" bu%bous, wi(h bo"ies (he si2e o$ )e%ons &n" )u%(i*%e (hin %egs- +u( (heir $&ces, e%'en &n" be&u(i$u%, s(&re" "own &( us co%"%y, &n" (hey b&re" )ou(h$u%s o$ cur'e" b%&ck $&ngs“1*i"ers, Puck gro&ne", &n" "rew his kni'es &s (he 8o%$ ’s grow%s (urne" in(o sn&r%s“8hy "oes i( &%w&ys h&'e (o be s*i"ers? “#e( re&"y, ! )u((ere", "r&wing g%&)our (o )e in & co%" c%ou", $ee%ing Puck "o (he s&)e- “This cou%" ge( )essyHissing, (he sw&r) &((&cke", "ro**ing $ro) (he cei%ing wi(h )u$$%e" (hu)*s, %egs c%icking &s (hey scu((%e" o'er (he "eck- They were sur*rising%y 9uick, %e&*ing &( us wi(h b&re" $&ngs, %egs uncur%ing &s (hey $ %ew (hrough (he &ir! hur%e" & $ %urry o$ ice sh&r"s &( (he &((&cking sw&r), ki% ing se'er&% in )i"-%e&*, &n" r&ise" )y swor" &s (he res( c&)e on- ! cu( & s*i"er ou( o$ (he &ir, "ucke" &s &no(her $ %ew &( )y $&ce &n" s*e&re" & (hir" rushing &( )y %eg- Arie% & s(oo" behin" )e, $iring &rrows in(o (he sw&r), &n" (he 8o%$ ro&re" &s he boun"e" &n" s*un, ri**ing s*i"ers $ro) his *e%( &n" crushing (he) in his /&ws- Puck, co'ere" in b%&ck ichor, "o"ge" (he s*i"ers (h&( s*r&ng &( hi) &n" kicke" (he ones (h&( go( (oo c%ose, sen"ing (he) $ %ying in(o (he w&(ers be%ow“Aggressi'e %i((%e buggers, &ren’( (hey? he c&% e", y&nking & s*i"er $ro) his %eg &n" hur%ing i( o'er (he r&i%ing- “:in"& %ike re"c&* s*&wn, on%y ug%ierHe "ucke" &s & s*i"er $ %ew o'erhe&", hissing, on%y (o be sn&**e" ou( o$ (he &ir by (he 8o%$- “Hey, *rince, re)e)ber (h&( (i)e we s(u)b%e" in(o & hy"r& nes(, /us( &s &% (he eggs were h&(ching? ! "i"n’( know hy"r&s cou%" %&y u* (o si.(y eggs &( & (i)e! s%ice" (wo s*i"er cre&(ures $ro) (he &ir &( once, b%&ck ichor s*%&((ering )y $&ce &n" neck- “Now’s re&% y no( (he (i)e (o re)inisce, #oo"$e% owPuck ye%*e" &n" curse", s%&**ing &w&y & s*i"er on his neck, his h&n" co)ing &w&y s(&ine" wi(h re"- “! w&sn’( re)iniscing, ice-boy, he sn&**e", &ngri%y kicking (he s*i"er

&w&y- “Re)e)ber (h&( coo% %i((%e (rick we "i"? ! (hink we shou%" "o (h&( now! The s*i"ers’ nu)bers were incre&singA !’" cu( one "own on%y (o h&'e $our o(hers co)e &( )e $ro) &% si"es- They were e'erywhere now, cr&w%ing o'er (he r&i%ing &n" ski((ering &cross (he roo$- Arie% & &n" ! s(oo" b&ck-(o-b&ck, *ro(ec(ing e&ch o(her, &n" (he 8o%$ w&s going berserk, bucking &n" ro% ing &s s*i"ers cr&w%e" &% o'er hi) %ike )ons(er (icks“Co)e on, *rince! 3on’( (e% )e you’'e $orgo((en! ! h&"n’( $orgo((en- ! knew e.&c(%y wh&( he w&n(e" )e (o "o- !( w&s risky &n" "&ngerous &n" wou%" (&ke & %o( ou( o$ us bo(h, bu( i$ (he s*i"ers ke*( co)ing, we )igh( no( h&'e & choice“Ash! “A% righ(! ! ye% e" b&ck- “5e(’s "o i(- Ari, s(&y c%ose- E'eryone e%se, (&ke co'er now! ! s(o**e" $igh(ing $or &n ins(&n(, $ee%ing se'er&% o$ (he cre&(ures %&n" on )e, (heir s%en"er %egs scu((%ing u* )y c%o(hes- !gnoring (he), ! kne%( &n" "ro'e (he *oin( o$ )y swor" in(o (he woo"en $ %oorThere w&s & $ %&sh o$ b%ue, &n" ice s*re&" ou( $ro) )y b%&"e, co'ering e'ery(hing- !n &n ins(&n(, i( h&" co&(e" (he "eck, (he r&i%ings, (he benches, e'en so)e o$ (he s*i"er (hings, $ree2ing (he) in *%&ce- !( co'ere" (he br&nches o$ (he (horns &roun" us &n" s*re&" & (hin shee( o$ ice o'er (he w&(er &roun" (he bo&(- Though (he s*i"er (hings con(inue" (o *our ou( o$ (he br&)b%es, "ro**ing on(o (he "eck, $or & )o)en(, (here w&s &bso%u(e, $ro2en si%ence“Now, Puck )u((ere", &n" ! *u% e" u* )y b%&"eThe ice sh&((ere"- 8i(h (he soun" o$ bre&king g%&ss, i( $r&c(ure" in(o (hous&n"s o$ r&2orsh&r* e"ges, g%in(ing in (he "&rkness- An" &( (h&( ins(&n(, Puck un%e&she" (he whir%win"8i(h & ro&r o$ 1u))er g%&)our, Puck’s cyc%one whi**e" (hrough (he (horns &n" surroun"e" (he bo&(, shrieking &n" c&using (he s)&% cr&$( (o %urch si"ew&ys- !( *icke" u* "ebris in i(s w&ke, br&nches, s*i"er bo"ies &n" (hous&n"s o$ $r&c(ure" ice sh&r"s, s*inning (he) (hrough (he &ir wi(h (he $orce o$ & (orn&"o- ! gr&bbe" Arie% & &n" *u% e" her c%ose &s (he 8o%$ hunkere" "own besi"e us, hunching his shou%"ers &g&ins( (he win"8hen (he win"s $in&% y ce&se", we were surroun"e" by (wigs, br&nches, )e%(ing ice &n" s*i"er *&r(s, oo2ing o'er e'ery(hing- !cic%es s(uck ou( o$ (he benches &n" w&% s %ike crys(&% shr&*ne%, &n" b%&ck ichor w&s s*%&((ere" e'erywhere“Yes! Puck cheere" &s ! s&( "own on (he $ %oor, %e&ning &g&ins( (he r&i%ing- “Ho)e (e&), one0s*i"ers, 2ero! Arie% & %ooke" &( )e wi(h wi"e eyes- “! ne'er s&w you (wo "o (h&( be$ore“!( w&s & %ong (i)e &go, ! s&i" (ire"%y- “+e$ore we e'er )e(- 8hen Puck &n" !> ! (r&i%e" o$$, re)e)bering (he ye&rs when Robin #oo"$e% ow &n" Prince Ash (hough( (hey cou%" (&ke on (he wor%"- Reck%ess &n" "e$i&n(, s*urning (he %&ws o$ (he cour(s, (hey sough( ou( new &n" gre&(er ch&% enges, &%w&ys re&ching $or )ore, &n" go( in(o )ore scr&*es (hen &nyone h&" & righ( (o co)e ou( o$ &%i'e- ! shook )y he&", "isso%'ing (he )e)ories- “!( w&s & %ong (i)e &go, ! $inishe"“Reg&r"%ess- #ri)&%kin &bru*(%y )&(eri&%i2e", si((ing on & bench wi(h no( & h&ir ou( o$

*%&ce, his (&i% cur%e" &roun" hi)se%$- “!$ (he (wo o$ (he) h&'e &ny )ore (ricks %ike (h&(, (hey wou%" "o we% (o re)e)ber (he)- 1u))er &n" 8in(er g%&)our, when use" in con/unc(ion ins(e&" o$ &g&ins( e&ch o(her, c&n be & *ower$u% (hing- Th&nk$u% y, nei(her o$ (he cour(s h&s e'er $igure" (his ou(The 8o%$ shook hi)se%$, s*r&ying ichor &n" s*i"er *&r(s e'erywhere, )&king #ri)&%kin %&y b&ck his e&rs- “,&gic &n" *&r%or (ricks, (he 8o%$ snor(e", wrink%ing his )u22%e, “wi% no( ge( us (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“8e% , "uh, Puck sho( b&ck- “Th&(’s why we’re on & bo&(The 8o%$ g&'e hi) & sinis(er %ook, (hen s(&%ke" (o (he $ron( o$ (he bo&(, no( c&ring &bou( (he s*i"er *&r(s sc&((ere" &bou( (he "eck- ;or & )o)en(, he s(oo" (here, sni$$ing (he &ir, e&rs *ricke" $orw&r" $or &ny hin(s o$ (roub%e- ;in"ing none, he cur%e" u* in & re%&(i'e%y c%e&n s*o( &n" c%ose" his eyes, ignoring us &% Arie% & %ooke" "own &( )e, (hen &( Puck, who w&s y&wning &n" scrubbing (he b&ck o$ his he&"- “Th&( (ook & %o( o$ *ower, "i"n’( i(? she )use", &n" ! "i"n’( &rgue- Re%e&sing &n e.*%osion %ike (h&( wou%" %e&'e &nyone "r&ine"- Arie% & sighe" &n" shook her he&"- “#e( so)e res(, (he bo(h o$ you, she or"ere"- “#ri) &n" ! wi% (&ke %&s( w&(ch! "i"n’( (hink ! wou%" s%ee*, bu( ! "o2e" $re($u% y &s (he $erry )&"e i(s w&y (hrough (he en"%ess (&ng%e o$ br&)b%es- 3es*i(e &ssur&nces $ro) Arie% & &n" (he 8o%$ (h&( no(hing $o% owe" us, ! $oun" i( i)*ossib%e (o re%&.- O$(en, ! wou%" be /erke" &w&ke by & s*%&sh or & sn&**ing o$ (wigs so)ewhere in (he (horns, &n" e'ery once in & whi%e (he scre&) o$ so)e un$or(un&(e cre&(ure wou%" echo (hrough (he br&nches- E'en(u&% y, e'eryone g&'e u* (rying (o res( &n" s*en( (he /ourney in & cons(&n( &n" e.h&us(ing s(&(e o$ high &%er(E.ce*( #ri)&%kin, who '&nishe" $re9uen(%y &n" )&"e e'eryone ner'ous whi%e he w&s goneThe +ri&rs wen( on, ne'er ch&nging, ne'er s(i% - ! c&ugh( g%i)*ses o$ '&rious "oors (hrough (he (horns, (ro"s (o *%&ces in (he )or(&% wor%", "oorw&ys ou( o$ (he Ne'erne'erCre&(ures seen &n" unseen ski((ere" (hrough (he br&nches, $urry or shiny or )&ny-%i)be", *eering &( us (hrough (he (horns- A gi&n( cen(i*e"e, o'er (wen(y $ee( %ong, c%ung (o (he roo$ o$ (he (unne% &s we "ri$(e" bene&(h i(, c%ose enough (h&( we cou%" he&r (he s%ow c%icking o$ i(s huge )&n"ib%es- Th&nk$u% y, i( "i"n’( see) in(eres(e" in us, bu( Puck ke*( his "&ggers ou( $or se'er&% )i%es &$(erw&r", &n" #ri)&%kin "i"n’( re&**e&r $or & %ong, %ong (i)eHours *&sse"- Or "&ys0i( w&s i)*ossib%e (o (e% - The 8o%$ &n" ! were s(&n"ing &( (he re&r o$ (he bo&(, w&(ching &n enor)ous sn&ke g%i"e (hrough (he br&nches o'erhe&", when Arie% &’s we&ry 'oice $ %o&(e" u* $ro) (he $ron(“There i( is! (urne" &s (he (unne% o*ene" u* in(o &n enor)ous c&'ern )&"e o$ (horns, (he br&nches shu((ing ou( (he sky- Tiny %igh(s $i% e" (he c&'ern, $ %o&(ing in (he &ir &n" bobbing o'er (he "&rk w&(ers %ike err&(ic $ire$ %ies- Torches s(uck ou( o$ (he ri'er, so)e ben( or %e&ning &( o"" &ng%es, $ %ickering wi(h b%ue&n"-or&nge $ %&)es- They %i( (he w&y (o & )&ssi'e s(one (e)*%e %oo)ing &( (he en" o$ (he c&'ern- !( rose $ro) (he "&rk w&(ers *&s( (he cei%ing o$ (he c&'e, e.(en"ing (hrough (he br&nches $&r(her (hen we cou%" see- Cines, )oss &n"

(horny cree*ers co'ere" (he cru)b%ing w&% s, win"ing %ike *ossessi'e (&%ons &roun" *i% &rs &n" %&ughing g&rgoy%es- E'en in & *%&ce &s &ge%ess &s (he Ne'erne'er &n" (he 3ee* 8y%", where (i)e "i"n’( &n" &ncien( w&s on%y & wor", (his (e)*%e w&s o%"es(! (ook & "ee*, s%ow bre&(h- “3i" we )&ke i(? ! &ske" so$(%y, un&b%e (o (&ke )y eyes $ro) (he )&ssi'e w&% o$ s(one (h&( %oo)e" be$ore us %ike (he si"e o$ & )oun(&in- “!s (his (he Tes(ing #roun"s? +esi"e )e, Arie% & shook her he&"- “No, she whis*ere", &%)os( in & "&2e- “No( ye(, (hough !’'e seen (his in )y 'isions- The Tes(ing #roun"s %ie beyon" (he (e)*%e- This is (he g&(e (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"“+ig g&(e, Puck )u((ere", cr&ning his neck (o %ook u* &( i(- No one &nswere" hi)The Ri'er o$ 3re&)s con(inue", *&s( (he (e)*%e, in(o (he (horns (h&( surroun"e" (he c&'ern, bu( (he bo&( "ri$(e" %&2i%y un(i% i( bu)*e" &g&ins( (he huge s(one s(e*s (h&( %e" u* (o (he "oors, &n" s(o**e"“#uess (his is our s(o*, Puck s&i", &n" *r&c(ic&% y %e&*e" ou( o$ (he $erry on(o (he s(e*s“8hew, i(’s nice (o be b&ck on so%i" groun" &g&in, he )use", s(re(ching &s (he res( o$ us $o% owe", e&si%y crow"ing on(o (he *%&($or) &( (he bo((o)- #ri)&%kin &**e&re" $ro) un"er one o$ (he benches, )ince" (o (he bo((o) o$ (he s(e*s, &n" beg&n rigorous%y w&shing his (&i%#&2ing u* (he %ong $ %igh( o$ s(&irs (o (he (e)*%e, Puck shook his he&" &n" sighe"“1(&irs- He gri)&ce"- “! swe&r (here )us( be %ike so)e secre( co"e- A%% )ys(erious &ncien( (e)*%es )us( h&'e & )ini)u) o$ &( %e&s( se'en (hous&n" s(e*s (o (he $ron( "oor! $o% owe" his g&2e, $rowning &s ! re&%i2e" we weren’( &%one- “1o)eone is u* (here, ! s&i" 9uie(%y- “! c&n sense i(- !( $ee%s> %ike i(’s w&i(ing $or )eThe res( o$ (he grou*" g%&nces, e.ce*( $or Arie% &, who s(oo" & %i((%e &*&r(, s(&ring b&ck &( (he ri'er- “8e% , (hen0 Puck sighe" wi(h e.&gger&(e" cheer$u%ness “0! guess i( wou%" be ru"e (o kee* i( w&i(ingHe &n" (he 8o%$ &n" #ri)&%kin s(&r(e" u* (he s(&irs, bu( *&use" when ! "i"n’( $o% ow“7h, *rince, &ren’( you co)ing? Puck s&i", g%&ncing b&ck &( )e- “1eeing &s (his is, you know, your *&r(y &n" &% “:ee* going, ! s&i", w&'ing (he) on- “8e’% c&(ch u*- Ye% i$ so)e(hing co)es &( you“Oh, be%ie'e )e, ! wi% , Puck s&i", &n" con(inue" u* (he s(&irs, #ri) &n" (he 8o%$ %e&"ing (he w&y! (urne" (o Arie% &, who s(i% g&2e" ou( o'er (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, no( %ooking &( )e- “Ari, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, s(e**ing u* behin" her, “wh&( is i(? 1he w&s si%en( $or se'er&% he&r(be&(s, &n" ! w&s beginning (o won"er whe(her she’" he&r" )e &( &% , when she (ook & sh&ky bre&(h &n" c%ose" her eyes“8e’re &%)os( (here, she whis*ere", &n" & shi'er wen( (hrough her- “! "i"n’( (hink i( wou%" be so soon- ! guess> (here’s no (urning b&ck now“Ari- ! s(e**e" c%oser, *u((ing & h&n" on her &r)- “T&%k (o )e- ! w&n( (o he%* you, bu( ! c&n’( i$ you won’( %e( )e in- ! cou%"0 1he (urne" su""en%y, &n" be$ore ! cou%" re&c(, $r&)e" )y $&ce wi(h her h&n"s &n" *resse"

her %i*s (o )ine! $ro2e, )os(%y in shock, bu( &$(er & )o)en( )y bo"y uncoi%e" &n" ! c%ose" )y eyes, re%&.ing in(o her- ! re)e)bere" (hisA (he $ee% o$ her %i*s on )ine, coo% &n" so$(, (he (ouch o$ her $ingers on )y skin- ! re)e)bere" her scen(, (hose %ong nigh(s when we wou%" %ie un"er (he co%", $ro2en s(&rs, "re&)ing in e&ch o(her’s &r)s;or & secon", )y bo"y re&c(e" ins(inc(i'e%y- ! s(&r(e" (o *u% us c%oser, (o wr&* )y &r)s &roun" her &n" re(urn (he kiss wi(h e9u&% *&ssion>bu(, (hen ! s(o**e"! re)e)bere" (his *er$ec(%yA e'ery shining )o)en( wi(h Arie% & w&s $ore'er e(che" in(o )y )in"- 8h&( we’" h&", wh&( we’" sh&re", e'ery(hing- !’" bui%( & shrine (o her in )y )e)ories, c&re$u% y (en"e" wi(h grie$ &n" &nger &n" regre(- ! knew e'ery inch o$ our re%&(ionshi*, (he *&ssion, (he $ee%ing o$ e)*(iness when we weren’( (oge(her, (he %onging &n", yes, (he %o'e- ! h&" been in %o'e wi(h Arie% &- ! re)e)bere" wh&( she’" )e&n( (o )e once, wh&( !’" $e%( $or her (hen> >&n" wh&( ! "i"n’( $ee% $or her now#en(%y, ! *u( )y h&n"s on her shou%"ers &n" *ushe" her b&ck, bre&king (he kiss- “Ari0 “! %o'e you, Ash, she )ur)ure" be$ore ! cou%" s&y &ny(hing )ore, &n" )y s(o)&ch "ro**e"- Her 'oice w&s 9uie(%y "es*er&(e, &s i$ she w&s rushing (o ge( i( ou( be$ore ! cou%" s*e&k- “! ne'er s(o**e"- Ne'er- E'en when ! knew you wou%" $&% $or ,egh&n, when ! w&s so &ngry ! wishe" we were bo(h "e&", e'en (hen ! cou%"n’( s(o* %o'ing you,y (hro&( c%ose"- ! sw&% owe" h&r" (o o*en i(- “8hy &re you (e% ing )e (his now? “+ec&use ! won’( ge( &no(her ch&nce, Arie% & wen( on, her eyes $i% ing wi(h (e&rs- “An" ! know, &$(er your *ro)ise (o ,egh&n, &$(er e'ery(hing we wen( (hrough (o ge( here, ! know you c&n’( (urn b&ck, bu(> 1he *resse" c%ose, g&2ing u* &( )e- “3o you s(i% %o'e )e? ! c&n’(>! nee" (o know, be$ore we go &ny $&r(her- ! "eser'e (o know (h&( )uch! c%ose" )y eyes- E)o(ions swir%e" wi(hin )e, gui%( &n" sorrow &n" regre(, bu( $or once, )y (hough(s were c%e&r- “Arie% &, ! )ur)ure", (&king her h&n"s in )ine, $ee%ing her *u%se r&ce- This wou%" be h&r" (o s&y, bu( ! nee"e" (o ge( i( ou(, &n" she nee"e" (o he&r i(E'en i$ she h&(e" )e in (he en"- “8hen ! %os( you (h&( "&y, )y %i$e en"e"- ! (hough( ! wou%" "ie- ! w&n(e" (o "ie, bu( on%y &$(er (&king Puck "own wi(h )e- The on%y (hing ! w&s %i'ing $or w&s re'enge, &n" ! ne&r%y "es(roye" )yse%$, bec&use ! cou%"n’( %e( you goE'en when ! )e( ,egh&n, ! $e%( ! w&s be(r&ying your )e)ory“+u( i(’s "i$$eren( now- ! o*ene" )y eyes, )ee(ing her s(&rry g&2e- “! regre( & %o( o$ (hings- ! wish ! cou%"’'e been (here $or you, &n" ! wish (h&( "&y h&" ne'er h&**ene"- +u( (he (hing ! "on’( regre(, (he one goo" (hing (h&( c&)e ou( o$ i( &% , is her“Ari>! wi% &%w&ys %o'e you- ! &%w&ys h&'e- No(hing wi% ch&nge (h&(- ! s9uee2e" her h&n", (hen gen(%y re%e&se" i(- “You’% &%w&ys be & *&r( o$ )e+u(>!’) no( in %o'e wi(h you>&ny)ore- An", "es*i(e )y *ro)ise, "es*i(e seeing you &g&in, ! "o (his bec&use ! w&n( (o be wi(h ,egh&n, no(hing e%se- Arie% &’s eyes g%&2e" o'er, &n" ! e&se" b&ck, s*e&king &s gen(%y &s ! cou%"- “! c&n’( be yours, Arie% &- !’) sorry;or & )o)en(, she s(&re" &( )e wi(h & co)*%e(e%y unre&"&b%e e.*ression- Then, une.*ec(e"%y, & s&" s)i%e crosse" her %i*s-

“Th&(’s i(, (hen, she )ur)ure", )ore (o herse%$ (h&n )e- “;or us, &nyw&y- ! b%inke", &n" she g%&nce" u* &( )e, her s(&rry eyes c%e&r- “! "i"n’( w&n( you (o h&'e &ny "oub(s, in (he en"“!s (h&( wh&( you w&n(e"? ! s(&re" &( her, &gh&s(- “8ere you /us( $orcing )e in(o & "ecision? “No, Ash- No- Arie% & *u( & h&n" on )y &r)- “! )e&n( wh&( ! s&i"- !’'e &%w&ys %o'e" you, &n" ! w&n(e" you (o know be$ore> 1he shi'ere", hugging herse%$ &s she s(e**e" b&ck- “!’) h&**y $or you, she whis*ere", (hough her eyes were g%&ssy once )ore- “You know wh&( you w&n(, &n" (h&(’s goo"- !( wi% )&ke i( e&sier>“8h&( &re you (&%king &bou(? “Oy, ice-boy! Puck’s 'oice c&)e, rough wi(h "is&**ro'&%, $ro) $&r(her u* (he s(&irs- “! (hink you’" be((er ge( u* here now! ! scow%e" &( Puck, cursing his (i)ing, &n" g%&nce" &( Arie% &- 1he g&2e" u* (he s(e*s, her cheeks "ry, her e.*ression reso%'e"- ! sense" she w&s )&king *e&ce wi(h herse%$, co)ing (o so)e i)*or(&n( "ecision“Ari> “!(’s &% righ(, Ash- Arie% & r&ise" & h&n", no( )ee(ing )y eyes- “3on’( worry &bou( )e- ! knew, e'en(u&% y, i( wou%" co)e (o (his- 1he (ook & bre&(h, %e( i( ou( s%ow%y- “!(’s (i)e (o )o'e on, $or bo(h o$ us“1o, %e(’s go, she s&i", (urning &n" gi'ing )e & br&'e s)i%e- “8e’'e $in&% y co)e (o (he en"- 8e c&n’( s(o* nowPuck w&i(e" $or us ne&r (he (o* o$ (he s(&irc&se, (he 8o%$ grow%ing %ow in his ches( besi"e hi)- +u( #ri)&%kin w&s &%so (here, c&%)%y %icking & $ron( *&w in be(ween "is"&in$u% g%&nces &( (he 8o%$, so ! re%&.e" & bi(- 8hen (he c&( "is&**e&re", (hen ! wou%" worry1(i% , Puck %ooke" gr&'e &s we /oine" hi), no""ing (o (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs- “8e’'e go( co)*&ny, he )u((ere", &n" ! %ooke" u*A $igure s(oo" &( (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs, robe" &n" hoo"e", &n" ne&r%y eigh( $ee( (&% - !(s $&ce w&s hi""en in (he "&rkness o$ (he cow%, &n" & *&%e, bony h&n" c%u(che" & g%e&)ing s(&$$ o$ (wis(e" b%&ck woo"An", (hough ! cou%"n’( see i(s $&ce, ! $e%( i( w&s %ooking righ( &( )e“! know why you h&'e co)e, knigh( o$ (he !ron Cour(The "ee* 'oice shi'ere" in(o )e, co)ing $ro) e'erywhere, $ro) (he (horns &n" (he ri'er &n" (he (e)*%e i(se%$- !( echoe" in )y he&" &n" in )y bones, co%" &n" *ower$u% &n" o%"er (h&n (he s(&rs- !( (ook &% )y wi% *ower no( (o sink (o one knee be$ore (he robe" $igure, &n" by Puck’s %&ck o$ &n irre'eren( s)irk &n" (he h&ir s(&n"ing u* &%ong (he 8o%$ ’s s*ine, ! knew (hey $e%( i(, (oo“8ho &re you? ! &ske"“! &) (he #u&r"i&n &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%", (he $igure in(one"- “! &) (he kee*er o$ (he Tes(ing #roun"s, (he one you wi%% h&'e (o i)*ress (o e&rn your sou%“An" you c&)e ou( /us( (o s&y hi? Th&(’s &w$u% y consi"er&(e o$ you- Puck reg&ine" his

grin &n" (urne" (o )e- “3on’( you $ee% s*eci&%, ice-boy? 8e "i"n’( e'en h&'e (o go (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- +e *o%i(e (o (he nice hoo"e" )&n, &n" )&ybe you’% ge( & sou%“+u( $irs(, (o re&ch (he En" o$ (he 8or%", (o *ro'e (h&( you &re wor(hy, you )us( run (he g&un(%e(“! knew i(- Puck shook his he&"- “There’s &%w&ys & c&(ch! ignore" Puck, (&king & s(e* (ow&r" (he hoo"e" $igure- “!’) re&"y, ! s&i", se&rching $or & $&ce behin" (h&( "&rk cow%, $in"ing no(hing- “8h&(e'er you (hrow &( )e0g&un(%e(s, (es(s, &ny(hing0i( won’( )&((er- !’) re&"y- 8h&( "o ! h&'e (o "o? The #u&r"i&n "i"n’( see) sur*rise"- “This (ri&% is no( on%y $or you, knigh(, i( s&i", swee*ing & robe" &r) &( (he grou* behin" us- “Anyone who wishes (o see (he En" o$ (he 8or%" )us( $irs( )&ke i( (hrough (he g&un(%e(- A%one, you wi%% $&i%- Toge(her, you )igh( h&'e & ch&nce (o o'erco)e (he ch&%%enges- +u( know (his0no( &%% who en(er (he (e)*%e wi%% %e&'e- O$ (h&(, you c&n be cer(&in,y s(o)&ch "ro**e"- ! "i"n’( "oub( his wor"s, )uch &s ! h&(e" (o &cce*( (he)- The #u&r"i&n w&s (e% ing us (h&( no( e'eryone wou%" sur'i'e (he g&un(%e(- Th&( one or )ore o$ us w&s going (o "ie“One (hing )ore- The #u&r"i&n r&ise" & h&n" in (he si%ence o$ (h&( re'e%&(ion- “You "o no( h&'e %ong (o $in" )e, knigh(- Once (he "oors o*en, &( bo(h en"s o$ (he g&un(%e(, (hey wi%% no( re)&in (h&( w&y $ore'er- !$ you &re s(i%% in (he (e)*%e when (hey c%ose, you wi%% be (r&**e" (here un(i% (he en" o$ (i)e, /oining (hose who h&'e &%re&"y $&i%e"- 3o you un"ers(&n"? “Yes, ! s&i" nu)b%y- The cow% no""e" once“Then ! wi%% see you &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%", knigh(- 8here, i$ you )&ke i( (hrough, your re&% (ri&% wi%% beginAn" /us( %ike (h&(, i( w&s gone- !( "i"n’( $&"e &w&y or '&nish in & *u$$ o$ s)oke or e'en "is&**e&r %ike #ri)&%kin, beco)ing in'isib%e- !( si)*%y w&sn’( (here &ny)ore! s(oo" &( (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs, $ee%ing )y co)*&nions’ g&2es &( )y b&ck, &n" r&ise" )y he&"“Anyone who w&n(s (o (urn b&ck, shou%", ! s&i" 9uie(%y wi(hou( (urning &roun"- “You he&r" wh&( (he #u&r"i&n s&i"- No( &% o$ us wi% )&ke i( ou( o$ here- ! won’( ho%" &ny(hing &g&ins( you i$ you w&n( (o %e&'e! he&r" Puck’s snor( o$ "isgus( &s he c%i)be" (he %&s( o$ (he s(&irs &n" s(oo" be$ore )e, crossing his &r)s- “8h&(, &n" %e( you h&'e &% (he $un? You shou%" know )e be((er (h&n (h&(, ice-boy- Though, ! wi% &")i(, (he (hough( o$ being (r&**e" wi(h you $ore'er )&kes )y skin cr&w%- #uess we’% h&'e (o )&ke sure (h&( "oesn’( h&**en, huh? “!’'e co)e (his $&r, (he 8o%$ grow%e", *&""ing $orw&r" (o s(&n" behin" Puck- “No goo" (urning b&ck now- ! s&i" !’" see you (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%", &n" ! wi% - The c&( c&n %e&'e i$ i( w&n(s- Th&( wou%" be in (une wi(h i(s cow&r"ice- +u( (he s(ory )us( go on“P%e&se- #ri)&%kin (ro((e" u* (he s(e*s &n" (urne" (o g%&nce b&ck &( )e, (wi(ching his (&i%- “As i$ ! wou%" &% ow )yse%$ (o beco)e (r&**e" wi(h (he "og un(i% (he en" o$ (i)e-

He sni$$e" &n" cur%e" his whiskers- “;e&r no(, *rince- There is no "oub( (h&( ! wi% %e&'e i$ ! (hink (h&( you &re c%ose (o $&i%ure- +u( (hese g&un(%e(s &%w&ys h&'e so)e sor( o$ ri"icu%ous%y &i)%ess *u22%e or )in" g&)e (o so%'e, &n" you wi% %ike%y nee" so)eone wi(h in(e% igence be$ore i( is "one- +esi"es, you s(i% owe )e & $&'or! no""e" &( (he) &% &n" (urne" (o Arie% &, s(i% s(&n"ing & $ew s(e*s "own, g&2ing (hrough )e &( (he (e)*%e- “You "on’( h&'e (o "o (his, ! (o%" her gen(%y- “You go( us (his $&r0 you’'e "one )ore (hen ! cou%"’'e &ske" $or- You "on’( h&'e (o go &ny $&r(her1he s)i%e" (h&( s&" %i((%e s)i%e &n" (ook & "ee* bre&(h- “Yes, she whis*ere", )ee(ing )y g&2e- “! "o- C%i)bing (he s(&irs, she c&)e (o s(&n" besi"e )e, (&king )y &r)- “To (he en", Ash- !’% see you (o (he 'ery en"! *u( )y h&n" on hers &n" s9uee2e"- Puck grinne" &( us, &n" (he 8o%$ snor(e", sh&king his he&"- 8i(h #ri)&%kin %e&"ing (he w&y, (he $i'e o$ us &**ro&che" (he )&ssi'e s(one "oors (o (he (e)*%e- 8i(h &n e&r(h-sh&king ru)b%e, (hey s%ow%y o*ene", showering us wi(h *ebb%es &n" "ir(- +eyon" (he "oors, e'ery(hing w&s c%o&ke" in "&rkness8e "i"n’( s(o*- 8i(h Arie% & &n" Puck besi"e )e, (he 8o%$ %o*ing behin" us, &n" #ri)&%kin %e&"ing (he w&y, we crosse" (he (hresho%" &n" en(ere" (he g&un(%e(-


As ! e.*ec(e", (he (e)*%e, (hough huge $ro) (he ou(si"e, "i"n’( con$or) (o nor)&% s*&ceThe $irs( roo) we c&)e (o, *&s( (he %ong, n&rrow h&% w&y, w&s & %&rge, o*en cour(y&r", surroun"e" by w&% s &n" co'ere" in )oss- 1(r&nge be&)s o$ %igh( s%&n(e" "own $ro) so)ewhere &bo'e, &n" broken s(&(ues, *i% &rs &n" enor)ous s(ones were sc&((ere" (hroughou(- The ch&)ber %ooke" %ike & )ini&(ure %&byrin(h o$ cru)b%e" w&% s, &rchw&ys &n" co%u)ns, co'ere" in 'ines &n" sh&((ere" wi(h (he weigh( o$ (i)eAhe&" o$ us, & *&ir o$ huge "oub%e "oors s(oo" &(o* & *%&($or), gu&r"e" by (wo hu%king s(one cre&(ures, one on ei(her si"e- The s(&(ues %ooke" %ike & cross be(ween & %ion &n" so)e sor( o$ )ons(rous c&nine, wi(h bro&" he&"s, cur%ing )&nes &n" (hick, c%&we" $ore*&ws“;u "ogs, Puck )use" &s we &**ro&che" (he "oors, ho**ing o'er sh&((ere" *i% &rs &n" cru)b%ing &rchw&ys- “You know, ! )e( & ;u "og once in +ei/ing- Persis(en( b&s(&r" ch&se" )e &% o'er (he (e)*%e groun"s- 1ee)e" (o (hink ! w&s so)e kin" o$ e'i% s*iri(“!)&gine (h&(, #ri)&%kin )u((ere", &n" (he 8o%$ snor(e" wi(h %&ugh(er- Puck $ %icke" & *ebb%e &( hi)-

“These &ren’( %ike (he s(&n"&r" '&rie(y, Puck con(inue", )&king & $&ce &( (he s(one gu&r"i&ns- “They’re bigger, $or one- An" o%"er- #oo" (hing (hey’re no( re&% ;u "ogs, eh? 8e’" be in big (roub%e i$0 An" o$ course &( (h&( *oin(, & %ou" grin"ing soun" echoe" (hrough (he roo), &s bo(h s(&(ues (urne" (heir he&"s (o s(&re &( us! sighe"- “You shou%" know be((er by now, #oo"$e% ow“! know- ! /us( c&n’( he%* i(8i(h sn&r%ing ro&rs, (he *&ir o$ )&ssi'e s(one gu&r"i&ns %e&*e" $ro) (heir b&ses, %&n"ing wi(h "e&$ening boo)s on (he rocky $ %oor, sh&king (he groun"- Their eyes burne" wi(h &n e)er&%" $ire in (heir cr&ggy $&ces, (heir *&ws crushe" (he s(ones bene&(h (he) &n" (heir be% owing 'oices $i% e" (he ch&)ber- #ri)&%kin '&nishe", (he 8o%$ &""e" his own how%ing ro&r (o (he c&co*hony, &n" (he ;u "ogs %owere" (heir he&"s &n" ch&rge"As one ;u "og b&rre%e" *&s(, ! '&u%(e" &si"e, cu((ing &( i(s $ %&nk &s i( (hun"ere" by- ,y b%&"e screeche" o$$ (he s(ony hi"e, %e&'ing & (r&i% o$ $ros( &n" & sh&% ow scr&(ch, bu( (he )ons(er "i"n’( e'en no(ice- !( *%owe" he&"$irs( in(o & s(one *i% &r, s)&shing i( (o rubb%e, be$ore i( whir%e" &roun", co)*%e(e%y unh&r)e", &n" %owere" i(s he&" $or &no(her ch&rgeAn ice &rrow sh&((ere" o$$ (he bro&" )u22%e &s (he ;u "og g&% o*e" (ow&r" )e, &s Arie% & (rie" (o c&(ch i(s &((en(ion, bu( i( "i"n’( s%ow (he "og- ! "o"ge" &s i( ro&re" by, *%owing s(r&igh( (hrough & w&% %ike & $urious bu% , showering i(se%$ wi(h rocks- A 9uick g%&nce showe" Puck boun" on(o & *i% &r (o &'oi" (he secon" s(&(ue, which si)*%y r&))e" i(s he&" in(o (he s(one b&se (o knock (he *i% &r "own- Puck )&n&ge" (o ho* on(o & secon" co%u)n &s (he 8o%$ %unge" &( (he ;u "og, $&ngs $ %&shing $or i(s (hick neck- He bounce" o$$ (he s(ony hi"e wi(h & ye%* (h&( w&s )ore &nger (h&n *&in, &n" (he ;u "og whir%e" &roun" (o &((&ckThis w&sn’( working- An" we "i"n’( h&'e (i)e (o *%&y kee*-&w&y wi(h & *&ir o$ )ur"erous s(one gi&n(s- “Re(re&(! ! c&% e", "ucking behin" & he&"%ess s(&(ue (o &'oi" being (r&)*%e" by (he $irs( gu&r"i&n, which grun(e" &n" s*un &roun" be$ore hi((ing &ny(hing- “Puck, ge( (o (he "oors, we "on’( h&'e (i)e $or (his! “Oh sure, *rince! You )&ke i( soun" so e&sy! The ;u "og &((&cking )e ru)b%e" & grow% &n" s(&%ke" $orw&r"- A**&ren(%y i( h&" gi'en u* b%in"%y ch&rging $orw&r" in (he ho*es o$ s)&shing )e in(o *&s(e- ;ro) (he corner o$ )y eye, ! s*o((e" Arie% & *u% ing b&ck her bow $or &no(her sho(, &n" w&'e" her b&ck wi(hou( (&king )y &((en(ion $ro) (he "og“Ari, "on’( worry &bou( )e- 6us( go“Are you sure? “Yes! #e( (o (he "oors0!’% be righ( behin" youArie% & s%i**e" behin" & w&% &n" ou( o$ sigh(- The ;u "og g%&nce" her w&y, grow%ing, bu( ! hur%e" &n ice "&gger &( i(s $&ce, s)&shing i( righ( be(ween (he eyes, bringing i(s &((en(ion b&ck (o )e wi(h & ro&r!( %unge" $orw&r", (ee(h b&re", c%&ws r&king "ee* gouges in (he $ %oor- As i( *ounce", ! %e&*e" u*, '&u%(ing o$$ i(s snou( &n" %&n"ing on i(s bro&" shou%"ers- ;or & s*%i( secon", !

s&w & $ %&sh o$ go%" on i(s brigh( re" co% &r, bu( (hen ! w&s hur(%ing o$$ i(s b&ck &n" running (ow&r" (he "oors, where Puck &n" Arie% & w&i(e" $or )eThe 8o%$ w&s kee*ing (he o(her ;u "og busy, "&ncing &roun" &n" sn&**ing &( i(s b&ck $ee( &s i( whir%e" on hi)- As ! boun"e" u* (he s(&irs, (he gu&r"i&n (urne" on )e wi(h & sn&r%, bu( (he 8o%$ %unge" $orw&r" &n" s%&))e" his shou%"er in(o i(, rocking i( b&ck, kee*ing i(s $ocus on hi)- ! re&che" Puck &n" Arie% &, who %ooke" gr&'e &s (hey (urne" (o )e“No goo"- Puck $rowne" &n" *unche" (he s(one "oor, )&king & ho% ow (hu)*- “The sucker won’( bu"ge- ! (hink (here’s & key or so)e(hing (o o*en i(- 5ookHe *oin(e" (o (he "oors, where (wo in"en(&(ions si"e by si"e $or)e" *er$ec( h&%$ circ%es (h&( )e( where (he (wo "oors c&)e (oge(her, )&king & $u% s*here- A key o$ so)e sor(, which *rob&b%y )e&n( i( w&s %os( or hi""en so)ewhere in (he roo)- 8i(h (he (wo ;u "ogs- ! sighe" in $rus(r&(ion“The co% &rs, you $oo%s- #ri)&%kin &**e&re" on one o$ (he s(&(ue b&ses, e&rs b&ck, %&shing his (&i%- “5ook &( (heir co% &rs- ,us( ! "o e'ery(hing &roun" here? He '&nishe" &g&in, /us( &s & ;u "og ch&rge" u* (he s(e*s &n" %unge" &( us8e "o'e &si"e, &n" (he "og r&))e" in(o (he "oors wi(h & boo) (h&( shook (he cei%ing1h&king i(s he&", i( b&cke" o$$, &n" ! s&w (h&( s&)e $ %&sh o$ go%" &roun" i(s neck, %ike & (&g- Or & g%obe (h&( h&" been cu( in h&%$> ! g%&nce" &( Puck- “You (&ke one, !’% ge( (he o(her? “You’re on, ice-boy8e sc&((ere" (o "i$$eren( corners o$ (he roo), Arie% & $o% owing )e, Puck %e&*ing "own (o he%* (he 8o%$- As !’" ho*e", )y ;u "og s(&%ke" us *ersis(en(%y (hrough (he %&byrin(hine ruins, sh&((ering *i% &rs &n" burs(ing (hrough w&% s (o gi'e ch&se“8h&(’s (he *%&n?’ Arie% & whis*ere" &s we "ucke" &roun" & corner, *ressing our b&cks &g&ins( (he w&% - A $ew $ee( &w&y, (he ;u "og s(&%ke" *&s(, grow%ing, so c%ose ! cou%"’'e re&che" &roun" (he corner &n" (ouche" i(- 1e'er&% &is%es o'er, so)ewhere in (he )&2e, ! he&r" & cr&sh &n" s&w & c%ou" o$ "us( bi% ow in(o (he &irA (he secon" gu&r"i&n w&s c%ose“1(&y here, ! (o%" Arie% &- “#e( ou( o$ sigh(- ! w&n( (h&( (hing (o $ocus on )e &n" no(hing e%se- !$ Puck "oes wh&( he’s su**ose" (o, (his shou%" be o'er soon- A *i% &r (o**%e" o'er ne&rby, $o% owe" by & $rus(r&(e" sn&r%- “He&" (ow&r" (he "oor &n" w&i( $or us, ! con(inue"- “;in" #ri) &n" (he 8o%$ i$ you c&n- 8e’% be (here &s soon &s we c&n wi(h (he keys“How0 Arie% & beg&n, bu( wi(h & cr&sh &n" & sh&((ering o$ s(one, (he ;u "og burs( (hrough & ne&rby w&% &n" ro&re" &s i( s*o((e" )e! (ook o$$, s*rin(ing "ee*er in(o (he ruins, he&ring (he gu&r"i&n c%ose on )y hee%s- Rocks $ %ew &n" s(&(ues sh&((ere" in(o )&rb%e "us( &s (he )&ssi'e s(one cre&(ure hur%e" i(se%$ (hrough (he &is%es &$(er )e! (urne" (he corner o$ & "i%&*i"&(e" w&% , &n" su""en%y Puck w&s (here, running s(r&igh( &( )e $ro) (he o**osi(e "irec(ion- His green eyes wi"ene" &s we c%ose", bu( i( w&s wh&( ! w&s %ooking $or- 8e bo(h i))e"i&(e%y "o'e &si"e &s (he ;u "ogs (urne" (he corner &n" s%&))e" in(o e&ch o(her wi(h & cr&ck (h&( shook (he e&r(h-

The $orce rocke" (he (wo s(one gi&n(s b&ck, &n" $or & )o)en( (hey s(oo" s(i% , co)*%e(e%y "&2e"- ! s&w one h&" & broken nose, &n" (he o(her h&" & cr&ck running "own i(s $&ce %ike & /&gge" sc&r- 5ying on his s(o)&ch on (he o(her si"e o$ (he &is%e, Puck r&ise" hi)se%$ (o his e%bows &n" grinne" in (riu)*h“You know, no )&((er how o$(en ! see (h&(, i( ne'er ge(s o%"! scr&)b%e" (o )y $ee(- “#r&b (he key, ! sn&**e", &**ro&ching one ;u "og- 1(i% "&2e", i( "i"n’( no(ice )e &s ! s(e**e" u* &n" sn&(che" (he go%"en h&%$ orb $ro) &roun" i(s neckPuck "i" (he s&)e wi(h (he secon" one, *&using & )o)en( (o grin &( (he s(u*e$ie" gu&r"i&n“+e( (h&( s(ung, "i"n’( i(? he s&i", w&'ing (he orb in $ron( o$ (he "og’s $&ce- “Ye&h, (h&(’% gi'e you & he&"&che $or weeks- Th&(’s wh&( you ge( $or being so bu% he&"e"“Puck! ! (urne" (o g%&re &( hi)- “1(o* being &n i"io( &n" %e(’s ge( ou( o$ herePuck %&ughe" &n" s&un(ere" (ow&r" )e, (ossing (he h&%$ orb in one h&n"- “Ah, (he o%"ies &re &%w&ys (he goo"ies, he )u((ere", /oining )e &( (he corner- “Hey, re)e)ber when we *u% e" (h&( %i((%e s(un( on (he )ino(&urs? They were so ou( o$ i( (hey0 Two 'ery %ow, 'ery &ngry grow%s s(o**e" hi) )i"sen(ence- ! sho( Puck & "e&(h g%&re, &n" he g&'e & $eeb%e s)i%e“! know, ! know- You’re going (o ki% )e8e $ %e" (hrough (he ruins, (he s*heres c%u(che" (igh(%y in h&n", (he ;u "ogs cr&shing behin" us- No si"e (ri*s or %uring (he "ogs &roun" corners (his (i)eA we wen( s(r&igh( $or (he "oors, (&king (he shor(es( rou(e *ossib%e- ! s&w Arie% & &( (he $oo( o$ (he s(&irs, her bow *u% e" b&ck &n" &i)e" &( (he "ogs, her %i*s "r&wn in(o & (hin %ine o$ $rus(r&(ion- 1he knew her &rrows cou%" "o no )ore (hen )&ke (he ;u "ogs b%ink- The %&s( hun"re" y&r"s (o (he s(&irs w&s (he )os( "&ngerous, $ %&( &n" o*en, wi(h no(hing (o s%ow "own our *ursuers- ! $e%( (he groun" sh&ke wi(h (heir g&% o*ing $oo(s(e*s &s (hey c%ose" (he "is(&nceThen (he 8o%$ $ %ew o'er & broken w&% in & "&rk b%ur, s%&))ing in(o one o$ (he ;u "ogs, c&using i( (o c&reen in(o (he secon"- :nocke" o$$ b&%&nce, (he s(&(ues wen( cr&shing in(o & w&% , (u)b%ing o'er e&ch o(her wi(h (he grin"ing soun" o$ & "er&i%e" (r&in- P&n(ing (riu)*h&n(%y, (he 8o%$ boun"e" u* (he s(&irs wi(h us, /oining Arie% & &n" now #ri)&%kin, who &**e&re" &( (he "oor %&shing his (&i% wi(h i)*&(ience“4uick%y! he s*&(, &s Puck &n" ! s*rin(e" u*- “!nser( (he keys! “You know, you c&n’( /us( "is&**e&r &n" (hen *o* u* shou(ing or"ers when (he res( o$ us "i" &% (he work, Puck s&i" &s we re&che" (he "oors#ri)&%kin hisse" &( hi)“There is no (i)e (o &rgue your s(u*i"i(y, #oo"$e% ow- The gu&r"i&ns &re co)ing- The keys0 A ro&r "rowne" hi) ou( &s (he ;u "ogs re&che" (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs, sh&king (heir he&"s in $ury- Tr&**e" &g&ins( (he "oors, we cou%"n’( )o'e &w&y &s (hey %unge" $orw&r" wi(h e&ger how%s- The 8o%$ sn&r%e" in re(urn &n" %e&*e" $orw&r" (o )ee( (he) &s #ri)&%kin $ %&((ene" his e&rs &n" s*&( &( us“The keys )us( be inser(e" &( (he s&)e (i)e! 3o i(, now!

! g%&nce" &( Puck, no""e", &n" we s%&))e" (he orbs in(o (he in"en(ions, $ee%ing (he) c%ick &s (hey s%i" in(o *%&ce! %ooke" b&ck, re&"y (o "&r( &si"e, bu( (he secon" (he keys c%icke" in (he %ock, (he gu&r"i&ns $ro2e- As (he "oors swung o*en, (iny cr&cks &**e&re" &%ong (he "og’s s(ony hi"es, growing %&rger &n" s*re&"ing &cross (heir bo"ies un(i%, &s one, (hey s*%i( &*&r( &n" cru)b%e", s(rewing "ebris &n" rubb%e &%ong (he s(e*s! sighe" in re%ie$, (hen *ushe" )yse%$ o$$ (he $r&)e- There w&s no (i)e (o s&'or (his 'ic(ory- “Hurry, ! s&i", urging e'eryone (hrough (he "oorw&y- “!$ (h&(’s /us( (he $irs( ch&% enge, we "on’( h&'e &ny (i)e (o s*&re- The #u&r"i&n h&" no( s&i" e.&c(%y how %ong we h&" (o co)*%e(e (he g&un(%e(, bu( ! h&" (he "is(inc( i)*ression (h&( e'ery secon" wou%" *ro'e *recious“,&n, your hoo"e" $rien" re&% y "oesn’( be%ie'e in e&sing you in(o (his, Puck co))en(e" &s we "ucke" (hrough (he "oors &n" /ogge" "own & h&% w&y- 1(one "r&gon he&"s %ine" (he w&% e'ery $ew $ee(, /&ws $ro2en in *er)&nen( sn&r%s- “!$ (h&( $irs( ch&% enge w&s su**ose" (o be (he e&sies(, we cou%" be in & %o( o$ (roub%e“8h&( "i" you (hink (his wou%" be, #oo"$e% ow? #ri)&%kin s&i", boun"ing &%ong &he&" o$ us- “A *%e&s&n( w&%k in (he *&rk? They "o no( c&% i( (he #&un(%e( $or no(hing“Hey, !’'e run & $ew g&un(%e(s in )y (i)e, Puck sho( b&ck- “They’re b&sic&% y &% (he s&)e0you h&'e your *hysic&% ch&% enges, & *oin(%ess ri""%e or (wo, &n" (here’s &%w&ys & $ew n&s(y0 A gou( o$ $ %&)e eru*(e" $ro) one o$ (he s(one "r&gon’s /&ws, se&ring (he &ir o'er #ri)&%kin &s he *&sse" in $ron( o$ i(- ;or(un&(e%y, (he c&( w&s (oo shor( (o be h&r)e", bu( i( )&"e (he res( o$ us ski" (o & h&%(“0(r&*s, Puck $inishe", &n" wince"- “8e% , ! shou%"’'e seen (h&( co)ing“3o no( s(o*! #ri)&%kin c&% e" b&ck, s(i% s*rin(ing &he&"- “:ee* going, &n" "o no( %ook b&ck! “E&sy $or you (o s&y! Puck ye% e", bu( (hen (he "u% ro&r behin" us )&"e )e g%&nce o'er )y shou%"er &n" curse- A%% (he "r&gon he&"s we h&" /us( *&sse" were beginning (o s*ou( $ %&)e, &n" (hose $ %&)es were co)ing "own (he h&% (ow&r" us8e r&nThe h&% w&y see)e" (o go on $ore'er, &n" (here were & $ew c%ose c&% s (h&( in'o%'e" /u)*ing or "i'ing bene&(h /e(s o$ $ %&)e, &n" o$ course (here w&s (he ine'i(&b%e *i( &( (he 'ery en" (h&( we b&re%y )&n&ge" (o c%e&r, bu( we )&"e i( (hrough wi(h )ini)&% burnsArie% &’s s%ee'e c&ugh( $ire once, &n" (he en" o$ (he 8o%$ ’s (&i% w&s singe", bu( no one w&s serious%y hur(P&n(ing, we s(u)b%e" (hrough (he &rch in(o (he ne.( roo), where #ri)&%kin s(oo" on & broken *i% &r, w&i(ing $or us“7gh, Puck gro&ne", brushing cin"ers $ro) his shir(- “8e% , (h&( w&s $un, (hough & bi( on (he c%ichE" si"e- 8&y (oo Te)*%e o$ 3oo) $or )e- 1o, where &re we now? ! sc&nne" (he roo), which w&s '&s(, circu%&r &n" c&r*e(e" in $ine whi(e s&n", %ying in "unes &n" hi% s %ike & )ini&(ure "eser(- Co%u)ns &n" *i% &rs were sc&((ere" (hroughou( (he

ch&)ber, )os( broken or %ying on (heir si"es, h&%$-burie" in (he "us(- Cines "&ng%e" $ro) & '&s( "o)e" cei%ing, i)*ossib%y $&r &w&y, &n" roo(s sn&ke" (hrough (he cru)b%ing w&% s!n (he $&in( be&)s o$ %igh(, "us( )o(es $ %o&(e" in (he &ir- ! h&" (he i)*ression (h&( i$ ! "ro**e" & *ebb%e in (his roo), i( wou%" h&ng in (he &ir $ore'er, sus*en"e" in (i)e!n (he )i""%e o$ (he roo), &n enor)ous s(one "&is rose $ro) (he s&n", (he re)&ins o$ $our (hick )&rb%e *i% &rs s*&ce" e'en%y &%ong (he e"ge- On ei(her si"e o$ (he "&is, (wo e%eg&n( winge" s(&(ues crouche", *ri)%y $&cing one &no(her, (he (i*s o$ (heir s*re&" wings ne&r%y (ouching (he cei%ingThey h&" (he bo"ies o$ huge, s%eek c&(s, *&ws &n" $ %&nks res(ing in (he s&n", bu( (heir $&ces were o$ co%" ye( be&u(i$u% wo)en- Eyes c%ose", (he s* s&( )o(ion%ess, gu&r"ing & *&ir o$ s(one "oors beyon" (he)- C%i)bing on(o (he "&is, we s(o**e" &( (he e"ge, g&2ing u* &( (he enor)ous cre&(ures- Though (he "oors were on%y & $ew y&r"s beyon" (he s*’ )&ssi'e *&ws, no one )o'e" (o s(e* be(ween (he)“Huh- Puck %e&ne" b&ck, *eering u* &( (he s(&(ues’ i)*&ssi'e $&ces- “A s*hin. ri""%e, is i(? How *osi(i'e%y ch&r)ing- 3o you (hink (hey’% (ry (o e&( us i$ we ge( i( wrong? “You, #ri)&%kin s&i", %&cing b&ck his e&rs, “wi% re)&in si%en( in (his, #oo"$e% ow1* "o no( (&ke kin"%y (o $ %i**&ncy, &n" your i% -con(ri'e" re)&rks wi% no( be we% recei'e"“Hey, Puck sho( b&ck, crossing his &r)s, “!’% h&'e you know, !’'e (&ng%e" wi(h s* be$ore, c&(- You’re no( (he on%y one who knows his w&y &roun" & ri""%e“1hu( u*, (he 8o%$ grow%e" &( bo(h o$ (he), &n" *oin(e" his )u22%e skyw&r"“1o)e(hing is h&**ening8e he%" our bre&(h &n" w&i(e"- ;or & )o)en(, e'ery(hing w&s s(i% - Then, &s one, (he s*’ eyes o*ene", &% bri% i&n( b%ue-whi(e wi(h no irises or *u*i%s, s(&ring s(r&igh( &he&"- 1(i% , ! cou%" $ee% (heir &ncien(, c&%cu%&(ing g&2e on )e &s & w&r) bree2e hisse" (hrough (he roo) &n" (he s(&(ues s*oke, (heir 'oices 9ui'ering wi(h &ncien( wis"o) &n" *owerTi)e is (he cog (h&( (urns (he whee%- 8in(er %e&'es sc&rs (h&( "o no( he&%- 1u))er is & $ire (h&( burns insi"e- 1*ring & (errib%e bur"en (o hi"e- Au(u)n &n" "e&(h go h&n" in h&n"- One &nswer %ies wi(hin (he s&n"- +u( seek (he &nswer &%% &%one, 5es( (he s&n" c%&i) you &s i(s own“Er, sorry, Puck s&i" &s (he 'oices ce&se" &n" si%ence $e% o'er (he "unes &g&in- “+u( cou%" you re*e&( (h&(? A %i((%e s%ower (his (i)e? The s* s(oo" si%en(- Their b%ue eyes shu(, &s 9uick%y &s & "oor s%&))ing, &n" "i" no( s(ir &g&in+u(, so)e(hing w&s s(irring &roun" us- The s&n" w&s shi$(ing, )o'ing, &s i$ )i% ions o$ sn&kes wri(he" be%ow (he sur$&ce- An" (hen, (he s&n" eru*(e", &n" coun(%ess scor*ions, s)&% , b%&ck &n" shiny, s*i% e" $ro) bene&(h (he "unes &n" *oure" (ow&r" usPuck ye%*e" &n" (he 8o%$ sn&r%e", (he h&ir on his b&ck &n" neck s(&n"ing u*- 8e crow"e" (oge(her on (he *%&($or), "r&wing our we&*ons, &s (he groun" bec&)e & )&ss o$ wigg%ing bo"ies, cr&w%ing o'er one &no(her, un(i% we cou%"n’( see (he s&n" (hrough (he c&r*e( o$ %i'ing, wri(hing b%&ck-

“You know, ! (hink !’" r&(her be e&(en by (he s*, Puck e.c%&i)e"- He h&" (o shou( (o be he&r" o'er (he chi((ering (h&( $i% e" (he &ir, (he c%icking o$ )i% ions o$ (iny %egs ski((ering o'er e&ch o(her- “!$ &nyone h&s & *%&n, or &n i"e&, or & c&n o$ scor*ion re*e% &n(, !’" %o'e (o he&r &bou( i(“+u(, %ook- Arie% & *oin(e" o'er (he e"ge o$ (he *%&($or)- “They’re no( &((&ckingThey’re no( co)ing &ny c%oser! *eere" o'er (he e"ge &n" s&w i( w&s (rue- The scor*ions surge" &g&ins( (he s(one w&% , $ %owing &roun" i( %ike & rock in & s(re&), bu( (hey weren’( c%i)bing (he (hree $ee( i( wou%" (&ke (o ge( (o us“They wi% no( &((&ck us, #ri)&%kin s&i" c&%)%y, si((ing we% &w&y $ro) (he e"ge, ! no(e"“No( ye(- No( un%ess we &nswer (he ri""%e incorrec(%y- 1o, "o no( worry- 8e h&'e & %i((%e (i)e“Righ(- Puck "i"n’( %ook re&ssure"- “An" (his is (he *&r( where you (e% us you know (he &nswer, righ(? #ri)&%kin (hu)*e" his (&i%- “! &) (hinking, he s&i" %o$(i%y, &n" c%ose" his eyes- His (&i% (wi(che", bu( o(her (h&n (h&(, (he c&( "i"n’( )o'e, %e&'ing (he res( o$ us (o g&2e &roun" ner'ous%y &n" w&i(!)*&(ien( &n" res(%ess, ! scu$$e" & boo( o'er (he s(one $ %oor, (hen s(o**e"- !n $ron( o$ one o$ (he broken *i% &rs, h&%$-burie" in s&n", ! s&w %e((ers c&r'e" in(o (he s(one- ,-E-,-O-R:nee%ing "own, ! brushe" &w&y (he "ir( (o re'e&% (he en(ire wor",e)ory1o)e(hing s(irre" in )y )in", &n i"e& s(i% (oo h&2y (o )&ke ou(, %ike & $orgo((en n&)e kee*ing /us( ou( o$ re&ch- ! h&" so)e(hing here, ! /us( cou%"n’( bring i( (oge(her“5ook $or o(her wor"s, ! (o%" Puck, who’" co)e u* behin" )e, *eering o'er )y shou%"er (o see wh&( ! w&s "oing- “There h&'e (o be o(hers,e)ory, know%e"ge, s(reng(h &n" regre(- Those were (he wor"s we unco'ere", c&r'e" in(o (he s(one $ %oor in $ron( o$ e&ch broken *i% &r- 8i(h e&ch one we une&r(he", (he h&2y *u22%e *ieces s(&r(e" (o /oin, (hough s(i% no( enough (o $or) (he who%e *ic(ure“Ok&y- Puck "r&gge" his h&n"s "own his $&ce, scrubbing his eyes- “Think, #oo"$e% ow8h&( "o )e)ory, know%e"ge, s(reng(h, &n" regre( h&'e (o "o wi(h (he $our se&sons? “!(’s no( (he se&sons, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, &s (he *ieces s%i" in(o *%&ce- “!(’s usPuck $rowne" &( )e- “C&re (o e.*%&in (h&( %ogic, *rince? “8in(er %e&'es sc&rs (h&( "o no( he&%, ! reci(e", rec&% ing (he secon" %ine o$ (he ri""%e“3oesn’( )&ke )uch sense, "oes i(? ! *oin(e" (o & *i% &r“+u(, re*%&ce i( wi(h (h&( wor", &n" see wh&( you ge(“,e)ory %e&'es sc&rs (h&( "o no( he&%, Puck s&i" &u(o)&(ic&% y- He $rowne" &g&in, (hen his eyes wi"ene", %ooking &( )e- “OhThe 8o%$ grow%e", cur%ing & %i* &( (he *i% &r &s i$ i( w&s & w&i(ing "e)on "isguise" &s & rock- “1o, we &re (o be%ie'e (h&( (he &nswer (o (his ri""%e, (his &ncien( *u22%e (h&( h&s s(oo" here $or coun(%ess cen(uries, is us?

“Yes- !n (he cen(er o$ (he *%&($or), #ri)&%kin o*ene" his eyes- “The *rince is correc(- ! h&'e re&che" (he s&)e conc%usion- He g&2e" c&%)%y &roun" (he *%&($or), *&using &( e&ch o$ (he $our broken *i% &rs- “,e)ory, know%e"ge, s(reng(h, regre(- The se&sons re*resen( (he $our o$ us, so we )us( )&(ch (he righ( wor" (o (he correc( s(&n2&“+u(, (here &re $i'e o$ us, Arie% & *oin(e" ou(- “;i'e o$ us, bu( on%y $our *i% &rs- 8hich )e&ns one o$ us is )issing- Or, %e$( ou(“8e sh&% see, #ri)&%kin )use", unconcerne"- “;irs(, (hough, we )us( $igure ou( (he res( o$ (he *u22%e- ! be%ie'e (he *rince h&s &%re&"y $oun" his *%&ce- 8h&( &bou( you, #oo"$e% ow? He %ooke" &( Puck, (wi(ching his (&i%- “1u))er is & $ire (h&( burns insi"e- 8h&( wor" bes( "escribes you? :now%e"ge h&s ne'er been your s(rong sui(- 1(reng(h>*erh&*s“Regre(- Puck sighe", wi(h & 9uick g%&nce &( )e- “Regre( is & $ire (h&( burns insi"e- !(’s regre(, so shu( u* &n" ge( on wi(h (he o(hers- He )o'e" (ow&r" (he *i% &r o**osi(e )e, crossing his &r)s &n" %e&ning &g&ins( i(The scor*ions were ge((ing %ou"er, )ore $r&n(ic, &s i$ (hey knew we were sc&n( secon"s &w&y $ro) so%'ing (he ri""%e- Their %egs &n" c&r&*&ces scr&*e" &g&ins( (he rock, &n oce&n o$ noise surging &roun" us- #ri)&%kin sni$$e" &n" sh&re" & g%&nce wi(h (he 8o%$“! be%ie'e (he %&s( (wo &re $&ir%y ob'ious, &re (hey no(? he )use", s&un(ering (ow&r" (he *i% &r (h&( s&i" :now%e"ge- “! "o &gree, know%e"ge is so)e(i)es & (errib%e bur"en- The %&s( *i% &r is yours, "og- ! "o no( (hink we c&n &rgue your s(reng(h- Your in(e% igence, *erh&*s, bu( no( your s(reng(h“8h&( &bou( Arie% &? ! g%&nce" &( her, %ooking & bi( %os( on (he e"ge o$ (he *%&($or)“1he h&s (he bur"en o$ know%e"ge &s we% , no( /us( you, c&i( si(h“Arie% & is & 8in(er $ey, &n" we &%re&"y h&'e & 8in(er, #ri)&%kin re*%ie" e&si%y, ho**ing on(o (he broken *i% &r o$ :now%e"ge, *eering "own &( us &% - “An" ! (hink you wou%" be in $&'or o$ so%'ing (his 9uick%y, *rince- !n &ny c&se, ! be%ie'e we h&'e (o s(&n" on (he *i% &rs (oge(her- Th&( is gener&% y how (hese *u22%es workThe 8o%$ grow%e", %e&*ing &(o* (he broken s(one, huge *&ws c%ose (oge(her on (he e"ge“!$ (his "oes no( work, c&(, ! wi% )&ke sure (o e&( you $irs( be$ore (he scor*ions ge( (o us, he )u((ere", b&%&nce" *rec&rious%y on (he s)&% *%&($or)- #ri)&%kin ignore" hi)Puck &n" ! $o% owe" sui(, /u)*ing e&si%y on(o (he broken *i% &rs, &s (he se& o$ scor*ions chi((ere" &n" wri(he" be%ow us- ;or & $ew secon"s, no(hing h&**ene"- Then, (he s*’ eyes o*ene", se&ring b%ue, (heir 'oices echoing (hrough (he roo)“You0 (hey bre&(he", sen"ing & ri**%e o$ *ower o'er (he s&n" “0h&'e chosen> incorrec(%y“8h&(! Puck ye%*e", bu( i( w&s "rowne" by (he $urious bu22 o$ )i% ions o$ scor*ions, s(irre" in(o & $ren2y- “No, (h&( c&n’( be righ(- ;urb&% ’s ne'er wrong! 8&i(0 “You0 (he s* bre&(he" &g&in “0wi% "ie! "rew )y swor", (ensing (o "ro* "own &s (he scor*ions rushe" $orw&r", sc&%ing (he *%&($or) &n" s*i% ing o'er (he e"ge- Arie% & g&s*e" &n" s(u)b%e" b&ckw&r", &s (he %i'ing c&r*e( o$ c%&ws &n" %egs &n" s(ingers beg&n co'ering (he *%&($or)-

“1(&y where you &re! #ri)&%kin’s 'oice r&ng (hrough (he ch&)ber, boo)ing &n" s(ee%y wi(h &u(hori(y- 8e $ro2e, &n" (he c&( (urne" wi%" go%"en eyes on Arie% &, b&ring his (ee(h, &% his $ur s(&n"ing on en"- “Ti)e! he s*&(, $ %&((ening his e&rs- “Ti)e is (he $i$(h &nswer, (he cog (h&( (urns (he whee%! 1(&n" in (he cen(er now! ! c%enche" )y $is(s &s Arie% & r&n (o (he )i""%e o$ (he *%&($or), (he $ %oo" o$ scor*ions c%osing in $ro) &% si"es- They sw&r)e" u* (he *i% &rs, cr&w%ing o'er )y c%o(hes, %egs &n" *inchers "igging in(o )y $ %esh- ! %&she" ou( &n" sen( "o2ens o$ (he) $ %ying, bu( o$ course (here were &%w&ys )ore- They were no( s(inging>ye(- +u( ! $e%( (he secon"s (icking &w&y, &n" knew (h&( i$ (he cre&(ures be&( Arie% & (o (he he&r( o$ (he "&is, we were $inishe"- Puck ye% e" & curse, $ %&i%ing wi%"%y, &n" (he 8o%$ ro&re" in $ury &s Arie% & $in&% y re&che" (he cen(er o$ (he "&isAs soon &s she se( $oo( in (he )i""%e, & shi'er wen( (hrough (he &ir, s(&r(ing $ro) (he cen(er o$ (he "&is &n" s*re&"ing ou(w&r", %ike ri**%es on & *on"- The $ %oo" o$ scor*ions h&%(e", inches $ro) sw&r)ing Arie% &, &n" s(&r(e" $ %owing b&ckw&r", %e&'ing (he *%&($or) &n" cr&w%ing "own $ro) (he *i% &rs- ! shook (he %&s( o$ (he (iny *re"&(ors o$$ )e &n" w&(che" (he c&r*e( rece"e, "is&**e&ring bene&(h (he s&n"s once )ore- !n secon"s, (hey h&" '&nishe" co)*%e(e%y, &n" (he "unes were s(i% “You h&'e chosen>correc(%y, (he s* whis*ere", &n" c%ose" (heir eyes &g&inArie% & w&s sh&king- ! %e&*e" $ro) (he *%&($or) &n" wen( (o her, wor"%ess%y *u% ing her c%ose- 1he (re)b%e" in )y &r)s $or & )o)en(, (hen gen(%y $ree" herse%$ &n" "rew &w&y, s)oo(hing her h&ir b&ck“8ow, Puck )u((ere", "us(ing o$$ (he $ron( o$ his shir(, “now, (h&( w&s weir"- An" (o (hink, ! ne'er (hough( !’" %i'e (o see (he "&y>- He (r&i%e" o$$, grinning! eye" hi) we&ri%y- “;ine, !’% bi(e- You "on’( )e&n (he scor*ions or (he s*hin.- 8e’'e seen )uch s(r&nger (hen (h&(“No, ice-boy- ! ne'er (hough( !’" see (he "&y when #ri)&%kin w&s wrong#ri)&%kin, s(i% on his broken *i% &r, "i"n’( re&c(, bu( ! s&w his whiskers bris(%e &s he g%&nce" our w&y- “#oo"$e% ow, he s&i" wi(h &n enor)ous y&wn, “! $ee% ob%ige" (o *oin( ou( (h&(, h&" ! been wrong, you wou%" &% be $u% o$ (iny ho%es righ( now- Anyw&y, we &re w&s(ing (i)e- ! sugges( we )o'e ou(, 9uick%y- ! cer(&in%y "o no( wish (o be s(uck here un(i% (he en" o$ (i)e wi(h &ny o$ you- An" be$ore we cou%" re*%y, he %e&*e" "own &n" (ro((e" o$$ in (he "irec(ion o$ (he now-o*en "oor, *&ssing be(ween (he s* wi(h his (&i% he%" high! %ooke" &( Puck, s)irking- “! (hink you o$$en"e" hi), #oo"$e% owHe snor(e"- “!$ ! e'er worrie" &bou( (h&(, !’" ne'er o*en )y )ou(h-


The "oor *&s( (he s* o*ene" (o &no(her n&rrow corri"or, e)*(y o$ $ire-bre&(hing "r&gons (his (i)e, bu( no %ess s(r&nge- !( s(re(che" &w&y in(o (he "&rkness, %i( on%y by or&nge c&n"%e%igh(, $ %ickering &g&ins( w&% s- The $ %&)es see)e" (o $ %o&( in (he &ir, re$ %ec(ing o$$ (he sur$&ces o$ hun"re"s o$ $u% %eng(h )irrors %ining (he corri"or on bo(h si"es#%&ncing &( )y own i)&ge, ! *&use", $&in(%y sur*rise" &( (he s(r&nger in (he )irror- The *&%e, "&rk-h&ire" re$ %ec(ion s(&re" b&ck gri)%y, c%o(hes (&((ere" &roun" (he e"ges, eyes (ouche" wi(h e.h&us(ion- ! b&re%y recogni2e" )yse%$, bu( )&ybe (h&( w&s & goo" (hingA$(er &% , (h&( w&s why ! w&s hereA (o beco)e so)e(hing e%se, so)eone e%se- !$ &% wen( &s *%&nne", Ash&% &yn’"&rk)yr T&% yn, (hir" *rince o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, wou%" no %onger wi%% i( be %ike &s & hu)&n? ! won"ere" &( )y re$ %ec(ion- 8i%% ! s(i%% be )yse%$? 8i%% ! re)e)ber e'ery(hing &bou( )y %i$e in (he 8in(er Cour(, or wi%% &%% (hose )e)ories "is&**e&r? ! shook )y he&"- !( w&s use%ess (o won"er &bou( (h&( now, when we were so c%ose, bu( s(i% >“Co)e on, h&n"so)e- Puck *u( & h&n" on )y shou%"er, &n" ! brushe" i( o$$- “4ui( *reening- ! (hink we’re &%)os( (hereAs we s(&r(e" "own (he corri"or, w&ry o$ (r&*s &n" *i(s &n" &)bushes, ! (hough( o$ ,egh&n, b&ck in (he !ron :ing"o)- !( wou%" be "re&"$u% y ironic, ! )use", i$ once ! e&rne" & sou%, ! $orgo( e'ery(hing &bou( being $ey, inc%u"ing &% )y )e)ories o$ her- Th&( sor( o$ en"ing see)e" &**ro*ri&(e%y (r&gicA (he s)i((en $ey cre&(ure beco)es hu)&n bu( $orge(s why he w&n(e" (o in (he $irs( *%&ce- O%" $&iry (&%es %o'e" (h&( sor( o$ irony! won’( %e( (h&( h&**en, ! (o%" )yse%$, c%enching )y $is(s- !$ ! h&'e (o h&'e Puck (e%% )e e'ery(hing, e'en i$ he h&s (o go (hrough our en(ire his(ory, ! wi%% $in" & w&y (o )&ke i( b&ck (o her- ! wi%% no( beco)e hu)&n on%y (o $orge( i( &%%The h&% w&y wen( on- The $ %ickering c&n"%es c&s( s(r&nge %igh(s in (he o**osi(e )irrors, en"%ess rows o$ $ %&)e, s(re(ching (o in$ini(y- ;ro) (he corner o$ )y eye, ! s&w )y own "&rk re$ %ec(ion, w&%king &%ong besi"e )e- 1)irkingE.ce*(, ! w&sn’(! s(o**e" &n" s%ow%y (urne" (ow&r" (he )irror, "ro**ing )y h&n" (o )y swor"- !n (he g%&ss, )y re$%ec(ion "i" (he s&)e>bu( i( w&sn’( )e- !( w&s so)eone who %ooke" %ike )e, *&%e &n" (&% , wi(h "&rk h&ir &n" si%'er eyes- He wore b%&ck &r)or, & (&((ere" c&*e &n" & crown o$ ice res(e" on his brow- ! "rew in & s%ow bre&(h &n" ! recogni2e" hi)!( w&s )e, (he )e !’" seen in (he "re&), (he Ash who g&'e in (o (he "&rkness- 8ho ki% e"

,&b, c%&i)e" (he (hrone &n" cu( & b%oo"y *&(h (hrough (he Ne'erne'er &n" (he o(her cour(s- Ash (he 8in(er :ingHe w&s s)i%ing &( )e, (h&( s&)e co%", e)*(y s)irk (h&( showe" (he )&"ness behin" i(, bu( o(herwise our )o'e)en(s were (he s&)e, i"en(ic&%+&cking &w&y, ! %ooke" (o )y co)*&nions, who h&" &%so "isco'ere" (he new re$ %ec(ions in (he )irrors- +ehin" )e, Arie% & s(&re" in horror &( herse%$, *&%e &n" s(&(ues9ue in &n e%eg&n( cour( gown- Her s%en"er h&n"s gri**e" &n icy sce*(er- +u( her eyes were e)*(y &n" crue%, her $&ce wi(hou( e)o(ion- A circ%e( g%i((ere" on her $orehe&", no( un%ike (he crown o$ (he 7nsee%ie :ing- A 4ueen o$ 8in(er, she s(&re" wi(h co%", i)*&ssi'e eyes un(i% Arie% & (urne" &w&y wi(h & shu""er“Prince, Puck )ur)ure", co)ing u* besi"e )e, s(&n"ing so (h&( he $&ce" )y shou%"er, his b&ck (o (he )irror- His 'oice, (hough %igh(, w&s curious%y sh&ken- “Are you seeing wh&( !’) seeing, or is i( /us( )e? ! g%&nce" &( Puck in (he )irror behin" us &n" h&" (o s(i$ %e (he urge (o sho'e hi) &w&y &n" "r&w )y swor"- Puck’s he&" g&2e" o'er )y shou%"er, %i*s *u% e" in(o & 'icious grin (h&( w&s &%)os( &ni)&%is(ic, (ee(h g%e&)ing in (he $ire%igh(- His eyes were n&rrowe" g%ee$u% y, bu( i( w&s (he kin" o$ )&" g%ee (h&( sen( shi'ers (hrough you, (he (y*e o$ g%ee (h&( $oun" hu)or in "rowne" ki((ens &n" *oisone" c&((%e- This w&s (he *r&nks(er whose /okes h&" (urne" "e&"%y, who *u( &""ers in *i% owc&ses, %e( wo%'es in wi(h (he shee* &n" )&"e &% %igh( go &w&y &( (he e"ge o$ & c%i$$- He w&s shir(%ess, b&re$oo(e" &n" wi%" %ooking, (he Robin #oo"$e% ow !’" seen g%i)*ses o$ when he w&s (ru%y &ngry &n" ou( $or re'enge- The Robin #oo"$e% ow (h&( e'eryone worrie" &bou(, bec&use we &% knew Puck cou%" (urn in(o (his“You c&n see i( (oo, huh? Puck )ur)ure" when ! "i"n’( s&y &ny(hing righ( &w&y- ! no""e", once- “8e% , your re$ %ec(ion isn’( (oo encour&ging ei(her, ice-boy- !n $&c(, i(’s kin"& weir" seeing us %ike (his, bec&use you %ook %ike you re&% y, re&% y w&n( (o cu( )y he&" o$$! *ushe" hi) &w&y, &n" our i)&ges "i" (he s&)e- “!gnore (he), ! s&i", w&%king (ow&r" Arie% &- “They’re on%y re$ %ec(ions o$ wh&( cou%" be- They "on’( )e&n &ny(hing“8rong- #ri)&%kin &**e&re", (ro((ing u* &n" si((ing "own in $ron( o$ & )irror, cur%ing his (&i% &roun" his %egs- His go%"en eyes obser'e" )e %&2i%y- “!( is no( wh&( cou%" be, *rince- !( is wh&( &%re&"y is- You &% h&'e (h&( re$ %ec(ion insi"e you- You /us( choose (o su**ress i(- T&ke (he "og, $or e.&)*%e, he con(inue" &s (he 8o%$ c&)e %o*ing b&ck, his ru$$ s(&n"ing on en"- Arie% & g&s*e", shrinking &g&ins( )e, &n" Puck )u((ere" & curse un"er his bre&(hThe 8o%$ ’s re$ %ec(ion w&s enor)ous, $i% ing (hree )irrors si"e by si"e, & huge, sn&r%ing )ons(er wi(h b%&2ing eyes &n" $o&)ing /&ws- !( s(&re" &( us hungri%y, re" (ongue %o% ing be(ween huge $&ngs, eyes e)*(y o$ r&(ion&% (hough(“A be&s(, #ri)&%kin s&i" c&%)%y &s (he re&% 8o%$ cur%e" & %i* &( hi)- “A be&s( in i(s (rues(, s&'&ge n&(ure- 8i(h no in(e% igence, no c%e&r (hough(s, no )or&%s, /us( r&w &ni)&% ins(inc(s &n" (he "esire (o ki% - Th&( is wh&( your re$ %ec(ions show you0yourse%$ in your *ures( $or)- 3o no( "is)iss (he) &s h&'ing no )e&ning- You on%y "ecei'e yourse%$ i$ you "o- He s(oo" &n" cur%e" his whiskers &( us- “Now, hurry- 8e h&'e no (i)e (o s(&n"

&roun" "oing no(hing- !$ (he )irrors u*se( you, (he %ogic&% &nswer wou%" be no( (o %ook &( (he)- 5e( us goHe %&she" his (&i% &n" (ro((e" o$$, b&ck "own (he h&% w&y in(o (he "&rk- As he *&""e" &w&y, no( bo(hering (o g%&nce b&ck, ! no(ice" (h&( (he c&i( si(h’s re$ %ec(ion %ooke" no "i$$eren( $ro) (he re&% #ri)&%kin- 1o)ehow, ! w&sn’( sur*rise"As we hurrie" &$(er #ri)&%kin, ! g%&nce" &( )y re$ %ec(ion once )ore &n" recei'e" &no(her shock- !( w&sn’( (here &ny)ore, &n" nei(her were &ny o$ (he o(hers- The c&n"%es, (he $ %ickering $ %&)es, s(i% c&s( (heir re$ %ec(ions, s(re(ching &w&y in(o in$ini(y, bu( our i)&ges were gone“Hurry! c&)e #ri)&%kin’s 'oice, echoing ou( o$ (he "&rkness- “Ti)e is running ou(8e broke in(o & s*rin(, $oo(s(e*s echoing "own (he n&rrow corri"or, *&ssing hun"re"s o$ eeri%y e)*(y )irrors- ! cou%" see (he c&n"%es $ %ickering &roun" us, (hous&n"s o$ or&nge %igh(s re$ %ec(e" in (he g%&ssy w&% s- +u( o(her (h&n (he %igh(s &n" (he o**osi(e w&% s, (he )irrors showe" no(hing e%se- !( w&s %ike we weren’( e'en (here8e c&)e (o & crossing, where &no(her h&% w&y s(re(che" &w&y in o**osi(e "irec(ions, '&nishing in(o (he b%&ck- !n (he )i""%e s&( #ri)&%kin, c&%)%y w&shing & $ron( *&w- He b%inke" &s we s(o**e", g&2ing u* wi(h & be)use" e.*ression on his $&ce“Yes? “8h&( "o you )e&n, yes? Puck s&i"- “3i" your $e%ine br&in $in&% y sn&*? You s&i" (o hurry, &n" now you’re /us( si((ing here- 8h&(’s (he "e&%? “The e.i( is $&r(her "own- #ri)&%kin y&wne", cur%e" his (&i% &roun" his %egs, &n" s)i%e" &( us- “+u( ! "oub( you wi% e'er re&ch i(- ! $in" i( &)using (h&( you c&n s*e&k so $ree%y o$ in(e% igence, when you c&nno( (e% (he "i$$erence be(ween wh&( is re&% &n" wh&( is no(“8h&(? Puck %ooke" s(&r(%e", bu( (he 8o%$ su""en%y %e( ou( & sn&r% (h&( r&ise" (he h&ir on (he b&ck o$ )y neck- ! "rew )y swor" &n" %ooke" u*, se&rching $or hi""en &((&ckersRobin #oo"$e% ow s)i%e" &( )e $ro) (he )irror’s re$%ec(ion, &r)s crosse" (o his ches(, & "e)onic grin on his $&ce- ! s*&re" & 9uick g%&nce &( Puck, &n" s&w hi) b&cking &w&y, *u% ing his "&ggers, "i$$eren( &c(ions $ro) his i)&ge on (he w&% - His re$ %ec(ion w&'e" cheer$u% y> >&n" s(e**e" ou( o$ (he )irror“8here "o you (hink you’re going? #oo"$e% ow s)i%e", "r&wing his own we&*ons &s he $&ce" (he re&% Puck- “The *&r(y’s /us( ge((ing s(&r(e",o'e)en( ri**%e" behin" )e- ! s*un, (hrowing )yse%$ (o (he si"e &s (he )ons(rous he&" o$ (he o(her 8o%$ e.*%o"e" $ro) (he $r&)e &n" %unge" &( )e- ! $e%( i(s ho( bre&(h &n" he&r" (he sn&* o$ i(s )&ssi'e /&ws inches $ro) )y he&"- +&cking &w&y, ! "rew )y swor" &s i( s%i" ou( o$ (he )irror &n" in(o (he h&% , & )ons(rous cre&(ure wi(h burning green eyes, "roo% h&nging in ribbons $ro) i(s (ee(h- !( how%e", )&king (he )irrors (re)b%e, &n" crouche" (o s*ring &( )e, &n" (h&(’s when (he re&% 8o%$ hi( i( $ro) behin"! %e&*e" &si"e &s (he (wo gi&n( wo%'es c&reene" *&s(, ri**ing &n" (e&ring &( e&ch o(her, '&nishing "own (he si"e h&% w&y- The s)e% o$ b%oo" $i% e" (he &ir, (he ro&rs &n" sn&r%s &""ing (o (he "in o$ ch&os- ! (urne" (o see Puck %ocke" in b&((%e wi(h his (win &n" &

secon" Robin #oo"$e% ow s(e**ing ou( o$ (he )irror behin" hi), r&ising his b%&"eAn &rrow s(re&ke" (hrough (he &ir, s(riking (he secon" $&%se Puck in (he ches(, c&using hi) (o e.*%o"e in & swir% o$ %e&'es- Arie% &, gri)-$&ce" &n" "e(er)ine", r&ise" her bow &g&in, bu( & (&% , *&%e $igure s%i" ou( o$ (he )irror besi"e her- ! shou(e" &n" %unge" $orw&r", bu( (he $&%se Arie% & r&ise" her sce*(er &n" s(ruck her (win in (he b&ck o$ (he he&"- Arie% & cru)*%e" (o (he $ %oor, "&2e", &n" (he $&%se Arie% & %oo)e" o'er her wi(h & 'icious s)i%eRo&ring, ! $ %ew &( (he $&%se Arie% &, bu( (he !ce 4ueen r&ise" "e&", co%" eyes (o )e &n" s%i**e" b&ck in(o (he )irror- ! swung &( her re(re&(ing $or), &n" )y b%&"e s(ruck (he sur$&ce o$ (he g%&ss, sh&((ering i(- 1h&r"s $ %ew $ro) (he $orce o$ (he b%ow, g%in(ing in (he %igh(, &n" (he en(ire sur$&ce co% &*se" in & ringing c&co*hony, sc&((ering *ieces o'er (he $ %oor“,y %o'e- The $&%se Arie% & &**e&re" in &no(her $r&)e, e)*(y g&2e boring in(o )e- ! s%&she" &( her, sh&((ering &no(her )irror, bu( she s%i**e" in(o (he one besi"e i(, her eyes beseeching )ine- “8hy? she )ur)ure", $&"ing b&ck, &**e&ring in & $r&)e on (he o**osi(e w&% - “8hy w&s ! no( enough? 8hy cou%" ! no( kee* you $ro) gi'ing in (o "es*&ir? 1he s%i" &w&y, '&nishing $ro) sigh(, &n" ! (urne" w&ri%y, w&i(ing $or her (o &**e&r &g&in- “! %o'e" you, her 'oice whis*ere", gi'ing no in"ic&(ion o$ where she w&s“! wou%" h&'e gi'en e'ery(hing $or you- +u( you cou%"n’( s(o* (hinking o$ her- A hu)&n! You %e( & hu)&n re*%&ce )e- 1he $in&% y &**e&re" &g&in, her $&ce (wis(e" in(o & )&sk o$ bi((er h&(e, her eyes b%&2ing wi(h /e&%ous%y- “1o now you c&n "ie $or her! Too %&(e, ! re&%i2e" where she w&s %ooking &n" s*un, bringing u* )y swor"- No( $&s( enough- The *oin( o$ & b%&"e bi( )y shou%"er &s (he o(her Ash s(e**e" $ro) (he )irror behin" )e, s%&))ing )e &g&ins( (he w&% ! gri((e" )y (ee(h &s $ire b%oo)e" (hrough )y shou%"er, ne&r%y )&king )e "ro* )y swor"- The o(her Ash s)i%e" &s he *ushe" (he b%&"e in $&r(her, *inning )e (o (he w&% ;ocusing (hrough (he *&in, ! swi(che" )y we&*on (o )y o(her h&n" &n" s(&bbe" &( his ches(, bu( he y&nke" his swor" $ree &n" *&rrie" &s i$ he’" been e.*ec(ing i(8e circ%e" e&ch o(her, )o'e)en(s i"en(ic&%, &%)os( &s i$ ! w&s %ooking (hrough & )irror &g&in- O(her Ash s)i%e" &n" %unge", & $&)i%i&r &((&ck !’" "one (hous&n"s o$ (i)es- ! s*un &w&y &n" s%&she" &( his he&", bu( he w&s "ucking &%)os( be$ore ! h&" )o'e"- 8e surge" $orw&r" &n" )e( in (he cen(er o$ (he h&% , b%ue s*&rks $ %ying &s we cu( &n" b%ocke" &n" *&rrie", (he "in o$ swor"s ringing "own (he corri"orO(her Ash s%i" &w&y, %&shing ou( wi(h his swor"- “You c&n’( be&( )e, he s&i" &s ! *&rrie"- 8e wen( u* &n" "own (he h&% , b%&"es c%&shing, O(her Ash’s $&ce b%&nk bu( c&%)“! &) you- ! know &% your secre(s, &% your we&knesses- An" un%ike you, ! c&n kee* (his u* $ore'er- He (hrus( ou( & h&n", &n" &n ice s*e&r eru*(e" $ro) his *&%), s(&bbing &( )y ches(- ! (wis(e" &si"e &n" re(urne" wi(h & $ %urry o$ "&ggers- He s(e**e" b&ck in(o & )irror, &n" (he sh&r"s $r&c(ure" (he sur$&ce in(o & s*i"erweb o$ cr&cks! s*&re" & )o)en( w&i(ing $or hi) (o &**e&r &g&in- 8hen he "i" no(, ! broke &w&y &n" hurrie" (ow&r" Arie% &, s%u)*e" &g&ins( one o$ (he w&% sPuck s(i% $ough( wi(h (wo o$ his "o**e%gGngers, (he O(her Pucks grinning )&"%y &s (hey (ook (urns "&r(ing in- 1o)ewhere in (he sh&"ows beyon", (he sn&r%s &n" how%s o$ (he

8o%'es r&ng ou( e'en o'er (he c%&sh o$ b%&"es- A scre&)ing, high-*i(che" ye%* su""en%y echoe" (hrough (he "in, )&king )y s(o)&ch c%ench- !’" hun(e" o$(en enough (o know & "e&(h cry when ! he&r" i(“Ari! ! c&% e" &s ! &**ro&che" her, &n" she r&ise" her he&", & $ %icker o$ *&in crossing her $&ce- “3on’( )o'e, !’% be righ( (hereA $ %ock o$ screeching r&'ens su""en%y burs( ou( $ro) one o$ (he )irrors, surroun"ing )e &n" "i'ing &( )y $&ce, *ecking &n" c%&wing- 8incing, ! $ %ung u* one &r) &n" s%&she" &( (he) wi(h (he o(her, cu((ing (he) $ro) (he &ir- +%oo" &n" "is)e)bere" crows r&ine" "own on )e, be$ore (he %&s( one broke o$$, ch&nging (o & $&)i%i&r grinning $igure in &n e.*%osion o$ $e&(hers“8here y& going, ice-boy? O(her Puck s)i%e" &n" "o"ge" b&ck &s ! s(&bbe" &( hi)“You c&n’( %e&'e now, i(’s /us( ge((ing in(eres(ing“#e( ou( o$ )y w&y, #oo"$e% ow, ! (hre&(ene", bu( (he o(her Puck on%y %&ughe"“,y o(her h&%$ see)s & bi( *reoccu*ie" &( (he )o)en(, so ! (hough( !’" co)e s&y he% o5&-%&-%&-%ee, he s&ng, *u% ing his "&ggers, “which one is (he re&% )e? He g&'e )e (h&( "e)onic grin &n" (wir%e" his we&*ons- “You on%y ge( one ch&nce (o guess righ(, *rince“Oy, ice-boy, (he re&% Puck c&% e", s(i% $igh(ing his (wo "o**e%gGngers- “4ui( *%&ying &roun" wi(h )y e'i% (win0 you h&'e your own! ;rus(r&(e", ! g%&nce" &( Arie% &, beyon" (he Puck b%ocking )y w&y, &n" )y b%oo" r&n co%"- The !ce 4ueen, (he o(her Arie% &, w&s knee%ing o'er her (win’s bo"y, %ooking "own wi(h her (ee(h b&re" in & wicke" s)i%e, one h&n" *ressing Arie% &’s (hro&( (o (he $ %oorArie% & s(rugg%e" we&k%y, bu( her (win "i"n’( re%en(- 1%ow%y, she r&ise" & (hin, /&gge" kni$e o'er her he&", (he (wis(e" b%&"e g%e&)ing re" in (he c&n"%e%igh(, her eyes $i% e" wi(h h&(e“No! ! shou(e", &n" (rie" %unging *&s( O(her Puck- He b%ocke" )y w&y, grinning, swi*ing &( )e wi(h his "&gger- 8i(h & ro&r o$ $ury, ! gr&bbe" his wris( &n" /erke" hi) (o )e, *%unging )y b%&"e (hrough his ches(- His eyes bugge", &n" he e.*%o"e" in & sc&((ering o$ %e&'es, $ %u((ering &roun" )e8i(hou( s*&ring hi) & g%&nce, ! hur%e" )yse%$ &( (he !ce 4ueen, knowing i( w&s &%re&"y (oo %&(eA "i$$eren( ro&r echoe" (hrough (he h&% behin" her, &n" she (urne", her eyes going wi"e wi(h $e&r- 1cr&)b%ing o$$ Arie% &, she %e&*e" b&ck, '&nishing in(o & )irror, b&re%y &'oi"ing (he huge /&ws o$ (he 8o%$ &s he %unge" ou( o$ (he "&rkness- 1n&r%ing, (he 8o%$, our 8o%$, )e( )y eyes, his )u22%e co'ere" in b%oo" &n" gore, &n" shook hi)se%$ 'igorous%y“Ari0 ! *&n(e", $ %inging )yse%$ "own besi"e her- T&king her wris(, ! e&se" her in(o & si((ing *osi(ion, &s (he 8o%$ %oo)e" o'er us, grow%ing- “Are you &% righ(? C&n you s(&n"? “,&ybe in & )inu(e- Arie% & wince", ho%"ing her he&"- “!$ (he roo) wou%" kin"%y s(o* s*inning- #%&ncing &( )y worrie" e.*ression, she g&'e )e & we&k s)i%e- “3on’( worry &bou( )e, Ash- ! (hink !’) going (o si( here &n" shoo( &( &ny(hing (h&( co)es wi(hin (wen(y y&r"s o$ )e- #o he%* Puck- !’% be $ine! no""e" re%uc(&n(%y &n" g%&nce" &( (he 8o%$- “8h&( &bou( you? 8here’s (he o(her 8o%$?

Our 8o%$ b&re" his $&ngs“P&%e i)i(&(ions c&nno( ho*e (o (&ke )e "own, he sn&r%e"- +u( he $&'ore" his %e$( $ore*&w, &n" his sh&ggy co&( w&s s(re&ke" wi(h b%oo"- #%&ncing "own (he h&% , he n&rrowe" his eyes &( (he )e%ee behin" )e- “Too )&ny #oo"$e% ows $or )y (&s(e- He snor(e", &n" cur%e" & %i*- “1hou%" ! s(&r( bi(ing o$$ he&"s? “No- ! *u( & h&n" on his shou%"er, s(o**ing hi)- “You’re hur(- 1(&y here &n" gu&r" Arie% &- ,&ke sure no(hing h&**ens (o her- 3on’( %e&'e her si"e, no )&((er wh&( h&**ens (o )e, un"ers(&n"? The 8o%$ grow%e", bu( no""e"- ! g%&nce" o'er )y shou%"er &( PuckA he w&s s(i% h&nging on, surroun"e" by his (wins- “8&(ch ou( $or her re$ %ec(ion, ! s&i", b&cking &w&y $ro) (he 8o%$- “!(’s s(i% &roun" here so)ewhere“1o is yours, (he 8o%$ re*%ie"- “!n $&c(, !’" s&y i(’s w&i(ing $or you! %ooke" u*- O(her Ash s(oo" wi(hin & )irror & $ew y&r"s &w&y, g&2ing righ( &( )e- He g&'e )e & )ocking s&%u(e, (hen w&%ke" &w&y, (hrough (he )irrors, &roun" & corner &n" in(o (he o(her h&% w&y! rose, gri**ing )y swor" (igh(%y- “T&ke c&re o$ her, ! s&i" wi(hou( (urning &roun"- “!’) en"ing (his now! w&%ke" s(e&"i%y (o (he *%&ce where O(her Ash w&i(e", cu((ing "own &no(her Puck &s he %unge" ou( o$ & )irror- Two )ore Pucks s(e**e" ou( (o $&ce )e, grinning, bu( & *&ir o$ ice &rrows s(ruck (he) in (he ches(, one &$(er (he o(her, &n" (hey '&nishe" in & swir% o$ %e&'es &n" (wigs- Aroun" (he corner, ou( o$ re&ch o$ (he "e&"%y &rrows, Ash (he 8in(er :ing w&i(e" $or )e, (he w&% s &n" )irrors &roun" hi) co&(e" in $ros(,y re$%ec(ion reg&r"e" )e wi(h & %ook (h&( w&s &%)os( *i(ying, his swor" he%" &( his si"e“8h&( &re you "oing, Ash? he &ske" co%"%y, &n" ges(ure" &roun" (he h&% w&y- “8h&( &re we "oing here? +eco)ing hu)&n? #&ining & sou%? He chuck%e" wi(hou( hu)or, sh&king his he&"- “1ou%s &ren’( )e&n( $or us- 3o you (hink, wi(h &% (he b%oo" &n" "e&(h on our h&n"s, (h&( we cou%" e'er e&rn so)e(hing &s *ure &s & sou%? He n&rrowe" his eyes, see)ing (o s(&re righ( in(o )e- “1he’s %os( (o us, Ash, he whis*ere"- “8e were ne'er )e&n( (o be (oge(her- 5e( i( go- 5e( i( go, &n" gi'e yourse%$ (o (he "&rkness- !(’s (he on%y w&y we’% sur'i'e“1hu( u*, ! grow%e", &n" %unge" &( hi)He *&rrie" )y (hrus( e&si%y, cu((ing &( )y $&ce- ! "o"ge", &n" we circ%e" e&ch o(her in (he h&% , %ooking $or we&knesses- There weren’( )&ny ! cou%" e.*%oi(, howe'er- This o**onen( knew &% )y )o'es, )y $igh(ing (echni9ues, &n" (hough ! cou%" s&y (he s&)e o$ hi), i( "i"n’( he%* (h&( ! w&s $igh(ing &n ene)y who knew e.&c(%y wh&( ! w&s (hinking be$ore ! knew )yse%$“You c&n’( be&( )e- O(her Ash s)i%e", co%" &n" 'icious, re&"ing )y )in"- “An" your (i)e is running ou(- The "oors &re &bou( (o c%ose, &n" ! h&'e &% (he (i)e in (he wor%"! (ook & h&%$ s(e* b&ck &n" bu)*e" in(o Puck, re(re&(ing $ro) his own "o**e%gGngers“Hey, ice-boy, Puck gree(e" wi(hou( %ooking &( )e- ! cou%" $ee% hi) bre&(hing h&r" &g&ins( )y b&ck- “!’) ge((ing kin"& bore" o$ (his- 8&nn& (r&"e?

! b%ocke" O(her Ash’s /&b (o (he $&ce &n" s%&she" &( hi) in re(urn- “C&n’( you (&ke &ny(hing serious%y? “! &) serious! 3uck! "ucke" &s & "&gger $ %ew o'erhe&", b&re%y )issing )y e&r- A $&%se #oo"$e% ow whoo*e" wi(h %&ugh(er, &n" )y &nger $ %&re"- “A% righ(, ! sn&**e", swinging )y swor" in & wi"e &rc, $orcing O(her Ash b&ck & s(e*- “On (hree, (hen- One> (wo>(hree! 8e s*un, h&%$ circ%ing (o (he %e$(, (&king e&ch o(her’s *%&ces &n" (he re$ %ec(ions (h&( c&)e wi(h (he)- The (wo O(her Pucks b%inke" &( )e, sur*rise", &n" %e&*e" b&ck &s ! %unge" &( (he) wi(h & sn&r%- One *u% e" so)e(hing ou( o$ his *ocke( &n" (hrew i( &( )e, bu( !’" $ough( Puck on coun(%ess occ&sions &n" knew &% o$ his (ricks- The $urry b&% eru*(e" in(o & s9ue&%ing b&"ger, $ %ying &( )y $&ce, bu( ! w&s &%re&"y s%icing &( i(, cu((ing i( $ro) (he &ir!( sh&((ere" in & (&ng%e o$ (wigs &n" *ine nee"%es, &n" ! %unge" (hrough (he c&sc&"e, *%unging )y swor" in(o Robin #oo"$e% ow’s ches(He "isso%'e" in(o & swir% o$ &u(u)n %e&'es &s (he %&s( Puck %e&*e" (hrough (he cur(&in wi(h & how%, s(&bbing 'icious%y wi(h his "&gger“This see)s $&)i%i&r, ice-boy, O(her Puck s&i", grinning s&'&ge%y &s we *&rrie" &n" s%ice" &( e&ch o(her- “Think you’'e go( (he gu(s (o &c(u&% y go (hrough wi(h i( (his (i)e? ! res*on"e" by s%&shing &( his $&ce, b&re%y )issing hi) &s he "ucke"- “Oooh, (h&( h&" & bi( o$ (e)*er behin" i(- He sneere", eyes g%e&)ing &s he circ%e" b&ck- “+u( "on’( (hink !’% go e&sy on you, /us( bec&use o$ our his(ory- !’) no( %ike )y o(her h&%$0we&k, *&(he(ic, res(r&ine"> “5ou", obno.ious, i))&(ure, ! &""e"“Hey! (he re&% Puck c&% e" $ro) $&r(her "own, "o"ging &s O(her Ash s%&she" &( hi)“!’) s(&n"ing righ( here, you (wo! O(her Puck %&ughe", & crue% soun" (h&( )&"e )e bris(%e wi(h %o&(hing- “Th&(’s (he *rob%e) wi(h )y o(her h&%$, he s&i", %unging $orw&r" wi(h & series o$ 'icious cu(s (h&( $orce" )e b&ck & $ew s(e*s- “1o)ewhere in (he %ong cen(uries, he )&n&ge" (o grow & conscience &n" (urn co)*%e(e%y boring- !$ he "ies here, !’% be &% (h&(’s %e$(- As i( shou%" be“!n(eres(ing- #ri)&%kin &**e&re" in $ron( o$ & )irror- “! "o no( know which is )ore &nnoying, (he re&% #oo"$e% ow or (he re$ %ec(ion“8e% , consi"ering (hey &re one &n" (he s&)e, s&i" & secon", i"en(ic&% #ri)&%kin, )&(eri&%i2ing ne.( (o (he $irs(, “we shou%" be (h&nk$u% (h&( (here wi% be on%y one %e$( when (his is &% o'er“Agree"- Two #oo"$e% ows wou%" be )ore (h&n &nyone in (his wor%" cou%" (&ke“! shu""er (o (hink o$ (he i)*%ic&(ions“You &re so no( he%*ing, #ri)&%kin! (he re&% Puck c&% e", "ucking bene&(h & s&'&ge he&" s(rike- “An" we’re no( here (o h&'e (e& wi(h our e'i% "o**e%gGngers! 1hou%"n’( you (wo be (rying (o ki% e&ch o(her? The #ri)&%kins sni$$e"- “P%e&se, (hey s&i" &( (he s&)e (i)eO'er )y o**onen(’s shou%"er, ! s&w O(her Ash b%ock &n u*w&r" s(rike, (hen %&sh ou( wi(h

& kick (h&( sen( Puck s*r&w%ing on(o his b&ck- The re$ %ec(ion s(e**e" $orw&r", r&ising his swor", bu( Puck re&che" b&ck, gr&bbe" & h&n"$u% o$ (wigs &n" $ %ung i( &( his &ss&i%&n(They (urne" in(o & sw&r) o$ ye% ow /&cke(s, bu22ing &roun" (he $&ke *rince, un(i% & 'icious burs( o$ co%" sen( (he) *%u))e(ing (o (he groun", co&(e" in $ros(“Hey! O(her Puck s(&bbe" $orw&r" 'icious%y, )&king )e %e&* b&ck (o &'oi" hi)- “The $igh(’s here, ice-boy- 3on’( worry &bou( your boy$rien", worry &bou( yourse%$! b&cke" $&r(her in(o (he h&% , &n" O(her Puck $o% owe", s)i%ing "e)onic&% y- “Running &w&y? he (&un(e", &s ! "rew )y g%&)our (o )e, $ee%ing i( surge bene&(h )y skin“A%w&ys & cow&r", weren’( you, *rince? Ne'er h&" (he gu(s (o re&% y go $or (he ki% “You’re righ(, ! )ur)ure", s(&r(%ing hi)- He $rowne" in w&ry sur*rise, &n" ! s)i%e"- “! &%w&ys regre((e" )y wor"s &g&ins( Puck- There w&s &%w&ys & *&r( o$ )e (h&( "i"n’( w&n( (o go (hrough wi(h i(- ! %owere" )y b%&"e, (ouching (he (i* (o (he $ %oor- !ce s*re&" $ro) (he *oin( o$ (he we&*on, co&(ing (he groun" &n" (he w&% s, $ree2ing (he )irrors wi(h sh&r* crink%ing soun"s“+u(, wi(h you, ! con(inue", n&rrowing )y eyes, “i(’s "i$$eren(- You’re (he *&r( o$ hi) (h&( ! h&(e- The *&r( (h&( re'e%s in (he ch&os you c&use, (he %i'es you "es(roy- An" ! c&n s&y (his wi(h co)*%e(e cer(&in(y0ki% ing you wi% be & *%e&sureRobin #oo"$e% ow’s $&ce (wis(e" in(o & 'icious sneer- 1n&r%ing %ike & be&s(, he %unge" &( )e, "&gger g%e&)ing in (he icy h&% w&y- ! s(e**e" b&ck, r&ise" )y &r)s &n" brough( (he) $orw&r" wi(h & shou( &n" & burs( o$ g%&)our- The $ro2en )irrors sh&((ere", $ %ying ou(w&r" in &n e.*%osion o$ "e&"%y, r&2orsh&r* shr&*ne%, c&(ching Puck in (he 'ery cen(erThere w&s one high-*i(che" ye% o$ "is)&yAn" (hen (here w&s no(hing e.ce*( (he sh&r"s (ink%ing (o (he groun" &n" & $ew b%&ck $e&(hers s*ir&%ing "own (o (he $ %oor- O(her Puck w&s gone“Cery nice, Ash- ,y re$ %ec(ion’s 'oice echoe" (hrough (he h&% w&y- “+u( you’re s(i% (oo %&(e! %ooke" u*, )y s(o)&ch (igh(ening- O(her Ash s(oo" in $ron( o$ Puck, one h&n" on (he $&ery’s (hro&(, *inning hi) (o (he w&% - Puck "&ng%e" we&k%y, his $&ce co'ere" in b%oo", his "&ggers g%in(ing se'er&% $ee( &w&y“You "e$e&(e" #oo"$e% ow’s re$ %ec(ion, O(her Ash )use" &s ! s(&r(e" $orw&r", &%re&"y knowing ! wou%"n’( ge( (here in (i)e- “Congr&(u%&(ions- Now i(’s )y (urnHe r&ise" his swor", &n" "ro'e i( (hrough Puck’s ches(, s(&king hi) (o (he w&% - The )irror behin" Puck sh&((ere", r&ining (o (he $ %oor in & so$(er i)i(&(ion o$ (he h&'oc ! h&" /us( c&use"- Puck’s )ou(h g&*e"A he c%u(che" &( (he swor" in his ches(0 0&n" "is&**e&re", '&nishing in & shower o$ %e&'es- O(her Ash b%inke", s(&r(%e" $or /us( & )o)en(, (hen 9uick%y y&nke" his swor" ou( o$ (he w&% &n" s(e**e" b&ckThere w&s & b%ur o'er his shou%"er, &n" he s(i$$ene", /erking his he&" u*- As ! re&che" hi), his swor" $e% $ro) his h&n", c%&((ering (o (he groun", &n" he (urne" co%", h&(e$u% eyes on )e“You>wi% $&i%, he whis*ere" in & choke" 'oice, &n" "is&**e&re", %ike )is( in (he sun%igh(-

Puck s(oo" behin" hi), eyes hoo"e" &n" gri)- His "&gger, where i( h&" been s(uck in (he *rince’s b&ck, $ %o&(e" in (he &ir $or & s*%i( secon" be$ore *%u))e(ing (ow&r" (he groun"Puck c&ugh( i( &s i( $e% &n" s)oo(h%y s%i" i( b&ck in(o i(s she&(h, gi'ing (he broken )irror & rue$u% %ook“Ye&h, (wo c&n *%&y &( (h&( g&)e, ice-boy, he )u((ere", &n" shook his he&"- #%&ncing &( )e, he o$$ere" & wry, s%igh(%y *&ine" grin- “! $oun" (h&( o""%y (her&*eu(ic, how &bou( you? “!"io(, ! (o%" hi), (o hi"e (he re%ie$ on )y $&ce- His grin wi"ene" &s i$ he s&w i( &nyw&y, &n" ! scow%e", e)b&rr&sse"- “Co)e on, we’re no( ou( o$ here ye(“No, you c&n’( %e&'e! hisse" & 'oice behin" )e- ! s*un, bringing u* )y swor", &s O(her Arie% & %unge" ou( o$ (he )irror, her eyes b%&nk &n" (errib%e1o)e(hing s(re&ke" *&s( )y $&ce $ro) behin", &n" O(her Arie% & /erke", $ree2ing in *%&ce, &s (he sh&$( o$ &n &rrow /u((e" $ro) her ches(- 1he s%u)*e", re&ching ou( $or )e, (hen e'&*or&(e" $ro) sigh(, (he &rrow "ro**ing (o (he groun" &n" sh&((ering on (he $ %oor! (urne" &n" s&w Arie% & on her $ee( besi"e (he 8o%$, her bow r&ise" &n" (he s(ring s(i% 'ibr&(ing $ro) where i( h&" %oose" (he sh&$(- Her g&2e )e( )ine, eyes h&r", &n" she no""e"“8e% , (h&( w&s $un, Puck s(&(e" &s we hurrie" o'er, *&ssing (he (wo #ri)&%kins, w&(ching us wi(h i"en(ic&% be)use" e.*ressions- “!’'e &%w&ys w&n(e" (o see )yse%$ "ie in & horrib%e ice e.*%osion- You ne'er *u% e" (h&( s(un( whi%e we were "ue%ing, ice-boy“1&'e i( $or %&(er, ! s&i" 9uick%y- “8e h&'e (o kee* )o'ing“!( is (oo %&(e8e (urne" &s (he #ri)&%kins s(oo", w&'ing (heir (&%es- “You h&'e $&i%e", one o$ (he) s(&(e", reg&r"ing e&ch o$ us i)*erious%y- “Your (i)e is u*- The "oors &re ge((ing re&"y (o c%ose- An", in (rue #ri)&%kin $&shion, he '&nishe" wi(hou( & (r&ce“Ho%" on, Puck s&i", *oin(ing (o (he one re)&ining c&(- “8hich #ri)&%kin "is&**e&re">? “Puck, (here’s no (i)e! Co)e on! 8e (ore "own (he )irrore" h&% w&y, *&s( our re$%ec(ions, which were b&ck (o nor)&% &g&in- The corri"or $in&% y o*ene" in(o & %&rge circu%&r roo) wi(h *i% &rs so&ring u* in(o (he "&rkness o$ (he cei%ing- On (he o(her si"e, (hrough &no(her %ong corri"or, ! cou%" /us( see & (&% , rec(&ngu%&r s*&ce o$ %igh(An" i( w&s shrinkingAs we (ore &cross (he roo), 'oices su""en%y echoe" &roun" us, %ow )o&ns &n" w&i%ings, )&king (he c&n"%es $ %icker- ;ro) (he w&% s &n" (he $ %oors, *&%e, )is(y $igures beg&n e)erging, c%&wing &( us &s we *&sse"- A (ro% , co)ing u* (hrough & broken *i% &r, %&(che" on (o )y be%(, (rying (o "r&g )e "own- ! s(ruck ou( wi(h )y b%&"e, cu((ing (hrough i(s &r), "isso%'ing i( in(o )is(- 8i(h & w&i%, (he (ro% "rew b&ck, bu( i(s &r) re$or)e" &n" kni((e" i(se%$ b&ck on(o (he e%bow, co)ing &( )e &g&in- ! "o"ge" &n" con(inue" )y )&" rush (o (he "oorThe ch&)ber w&s r&*i"%y $i% ing wi(h wr&i(hs, gr&bbing $or us, sn&(ching &( c%o(hes &n"

%i)bs &s we *&sse"- They "i"n’( hur( us, on%y %&(che" on &n" he%" (igh( un(i% we cu( ourse%'es $ree- “1(&&&&&&y, (hey whis*ere", re&ching $or us wi(h ghos(%y h&n"s, "r&gging us "own- “You c&nno( %e&'e- 1(&y wi(h us, (hose who h&'e $&i%e"- Your essence c&n re)&in here wi(h us $ore'erThe 8o%$ g&'e & "e$i&n( grow% &n" surge" $orw&r" &he&" o$ us &% , bu( $or (he res( o$ us, i( w&s (oo %&(e- As we s*e" &cross (he roo) &n" "own (he corri"or, ! &%re&"y knew we wou%"n’( )&ke i(- The rec(&ng%e w&s /us( & (iny s9u&re now, (he s(one "oor s%ow%y grin"ing shu(- 1o c%ose- 8e were so c%ose, on%y (o run ou( o$ (i)e in (he en"The 8o%$ hi( (he "oor wi(h /us( enough roo) (o s%i"e ou(, %owering his he&" (o "&r( bene&(h (he o*ening- +u( ins(e&" o$ going (hrough, he s%&))e" his bro&" shou%"ers in(o (he bo((o) e"ge, s*%&ying his $ee( (o br&ce hi)se%$ in (he o*ening- P&n(ing, he %ocke" his %egs &g&ins( (he $r&)e &n" he&'e" u* &g&ins( (he ine'i(&b%e *ush o$ (he "oor, &n" &)&2ing%y, (he huge s(one rec(&ng%e groun" (o & h&%(- 8r&i(hs crow"e" &roun" hi), gr&bbing his %egs &n" $ur, %e&*ing on(o his b&ck- He sn&r%e" &n" sn&**e" &( (he), bu( "i"n’( )o'e $ro) his *osi(ion in (he "oorw&y, &n" (he ghos(%y $igures cou%" no( bu"ge hi)1%&shing &( wr&i(hs, ! re&che" (he "oorw&y $irs( &n" whir%e" &roun", w&i(ing $or Puck &n" Arie% &- 8r&i(hs $o% owe" (he), c%&wing &n" gr&bbing- One sn&gge" Arie% & by (he h&ir, y&nking her b&ck, bu( Puck’s "&gger s%ice" "own, cu((ing (hrough i(s h&n" &n" *ushing Arie% & on- 1he s(u)b%e" in(o )e, &n" ! c&ugh( her be$ore she cou%" $&% “Puck0 1he g&s*e", (urning in )y &r)s“!’) $ine, Ari! Puck how%e", %e&*ing b&ck $ro) (he crow"ing wr&i(hs- “6us( go! ! no""e" &n" re%e&se" her- “#o, ! re*e&(e", echoing Puck- “8e’re righ( behin" you1he ro% e" bene&(h (he "oor, b&re%y &'oi"ing & b&nshee (h&( %urche" ou( o$ (he $ %oor- ! s(&bbe" (he wr&i(h (hrough (he he&" &n" g%&nce" &( PuckHe w&s b&cking "own (he corri"or, s(&bbing &( h&n"s &n" "o"ging (he $ingers (h&( gr&bbe" $or hi)“#ee2, you guys- ! know !’) *o*u%&r &n" &% , bu( serious%y, you’re & bi( (oo co-"e*en"en( $or )e- !’) going (o nee" you (o s(e* &w&y $ro) )y *erson&% bubb%e- A wis*y 'inewo)&n cur%e" i'y (en"ri%s &roun" his &r), &n" he s%ice" (hrough (he) wi(h his "&gger“No! +&" wr&i(h! No (ouchie! “8i% you ge( o'er here? ! shou(e", s(&bbing & re"c&* c%inging (o )y %egPuck g&'e & $in&% swi*e wi(h his "&gger &n" %unge" (ow&r" (he "oor, scr&)b%ing (hrough (he o*ening- ! (urne" (o he%* (he 8o%$He w&s co'ere" in wr&i(hs, so )&ny (h&( ! cou%" b&re%y see hi) (hrough (he ghos(%y $igures- An" )ore were $ %o&(ing u*, rising ou( o$ (he $ %oor &n" co)ing (hrough (he w&% s, (rying (o "r&g us b&ck in(o (he roo)- An ogre %unge" (hrough (he w&% $ro) behin", re&ching $or )y &r), &n" ! (wis(e" &w&y“3on’( worry &bou( )e, (he 8o%$ sn&r%e"- “6us( go! ! s%ice" (hrough & ghos(%y si"he knigh( (h&( re)in"e" )e $&in(%y o$ Row&n- He "isso%'e" ins(&n(%y bu( beg&n re$or)ing &s soon &s )y b%&"e *&sse" (hrough his bo"y- “!’) no(

%e&'ing you here (o "ie“;oo%ish *rince! The 8o%$ g%&re" b&ck &( )e, b&ring his $&ngs- “This is your s(ory- You )us( re&ch (he en" o$ i(- This is why ! c&)e0(o ensure (he s(ory wou%" go on- He sn&**e" &( & gob%in ne&r his $&ce, &n" (he (hing eru*(e" in(o & )is(y c%ou"- “The wr&i(hs c&nno( %e&'e (he (e)*%e, i( see)s, bu( (hey &re no( %e((ing )e (hrough, ei(her- #o now, whi%e (here is s(i% (i)e! “Ash! Puck c&% e" $ro) (he o(her si"e o$ (he "oor- “Co)e on, ice-boy, wh&( &re you w&i(ing $or? ! g&'e (he 8o%$ one %&s( g%&nce, (hen "o'e (hrough (he o*ening, ro% ing (o )y $ee( on (he o(her si"e- The wr&i(hs w&i%e", crow"ing bene&(h (he "oor, re&ching ou( $or us, bu( (hey cou%" no( ge( *&s( (he (hresho%"The 8o%$ *&n(e", sh&king $ro) (he s(r&in o$ ho%"ing (he "oor &n" (he "o2ens o$ bo"ies (h&( (ugge" &n" y&nke" &( hi)- “#e( going, *rince, he grow%e", %ooking )e in (he eye“You c&nno( he%* )e now- ;inish your 9ues(, co)*%e(e (he s(ory, &n" "on’( $orge( (o )en(ion )e when you *&ss i( on- Th&( w&s our b&rg&in! s(&re" &( (he 8o%$, )y )in" churning, (rying (o (hink o$ & w&y (o he%* hi)- +u( (he 8o%$ w&s righ(A (here w&s no(hing we cou%" "o- R&ising )y swor", ! g&'e hi) & so%e)n s&%u(e“! won’( $orge( wh&( you’'e "one“P&h! The 8o%$, "es*i(e (he s(r&in, b&re" his (ee(h in & "is"&in$u% %&ugh- “You (hink (his wi% ki% )e, boy? You shou%" know be((er (h&n (h&(- No(hing in (his *i(i$u% g&un(%e( c&n h&r) )e- No(hing! serious%y "oub(e" (h&(- The 8o%$ w&s s(rong, &n" he w&s i))or(&%, bu( he cou%" be ki% e"- He cou%" "ie, s&)e &s &ny(hing e%se“Now, go, he (o%" us, & hin( o$ irri(&(ion cree*ing in(o his 'oice- “!’) ge((ing (ire" o$ w&(ching you g&*e %ike & her" o$ s(&r(%e" "eer- ! wi% ho%" (he "oor $or your re(urn, &ssu)ing we wi% h&'e (o co)e b&ck (he s&)e w&y- No(hing wi% )o'e )e un(i% we &re "one here $or goo"“How 'ery>"og%ike, s&i" #ri)&%kin, &**e&ring besi"e Arie% &, g&2ing &( (he 8o%$ in "is"&in- “+r&'e- 5oy&%- An" u%(i)&(e%y s(u*i"The 8o%$ *&n(e", b&ring his (ee(h- “You wou%"n’( un"ers(&n", c&(, he grow%e", cur%ing & %i* in his own show o$ con(e)*(- “Your kin" knows no(hing o$ %oy&%(y“As i$ (h&( is & b&" (hing- #ri)&%kin sni$$e" &n" (urne" &w&y, w&'ing his (&i%- “An" ye(, who is on (he correc( si"e o$ (he "oor? Co)e, *rince- He (wi(che" &n e&r &( )e- “8e "i" no( co)e &% (his w&y (o be s(o**e" &( (he $inish %ine- The "og h&s )&"e his choice- 5e( us )o'e on! g&'e (he 8o%$ one %&s( g%&nce- “!’% be b&ck, ! (o%" hi)- “Try (o h&ng on- 8hen !’) "one wi(h (his, !’) co)ing b&ck $or youHe snor(e"- 8he(her i( w&s bec&use he "i"n’( be%ie'e )e, or bec&use i( (ook (oo )uch s(reng(h (o (&%k, ! "i"n’( know- +u( ! (urne" )y b&ck on hi) &n" w&%ke" (he $in&% $ew *&ces ou( o$ (he (e)*%e#ri)&%kin w&s si((ing &( (he en" o$ (he h&% , si%houe((e" bene&(h & s(one &rchw&y, his (&i%

cur%e" *ri)%y &roun" hi)se%$- +eyon" hi), ! cou%" see & b%&ck sky %i((ere" wi(h s(&rs- +u( (hey were huge, g%owing (hings, &%)os( b%in"ing, &s i$ we were $&r c%oser (h&n we h&" been in (he Ne'erne'er- ! he&r" (he ro&r o$ w&(er &s ! &**ro&che" #ri)&%kin, &n" he&r" Puck’s s%ow e.h&%e &s we /oine" (he c&( &( (he en" o$ (he h&% The '&s( e)*(iness o$ s*&ce s(re(che" be$ore us, en"%ess &n" e(ern&%- 1(&rs &n" cons(e% &(ions g%i))ere" &bo'e &n" be%ow, $ro) (iny *in*ricks o$ %igh( (o huge *u%sing gi&n(s so brigh( i( hur( (o %ook &( (he)- Co)e(s s(re&ke" (hrough (he nigh( sky, &n" in (he "is(&nce, ! cou%" see (he g&*ing )&w o$ & b%&ck ho%e sucking in (he surroun"ing g&%&.y, bi% ions o$ )i%es &w&y- Huge chunks o$ rock &n" %&n" $ %o&(e", weigh(%ess, in e)*(y s*&ce- ! s&w & co((&ge *erche" on & bou%"er, s*inning en"%ess%y (hrough s*&ce, &n" & )&ssi'e (ree grew $ro) & (iny *%o( o$ gr&ss, i(s roo(s "&ng%ing (hrough (he bo((o)- +eyon" & s(re&) o$ /&gge" rocks, *&s( & (re&cherous-%ooking ro*e bri"ge o'er no(hing, &n enor)ous c&s(%e $ %o&(e" &)ong (he s(&rs+e%ow our $ee(, (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s $ %owe" $ro) bene&(h (he h&% &n" ro&re" o'er (he e"ge in(o e)*(y s*&ce, $&% ing in(o (he 'oi" un(i% we cou%"n’( see i( &ny)ore! "rew in & "ee*, s%ow bre&(h, $ee%ing )y co)*&nions’ &)&2e)en( )&(ch )y own8e h&" re&che" (he En" o$ (he 8or%"PART THREE


Arie% & $oun" (he s(&irs- 8e )&"e our w&y "own (he n&rrow, cru)b%ing *&(h (o (he bo((o) o$ (he c%i$$, g&2ing ou( in(o (he 'oi"- A rock $ %o&(e" *&s( )y $&ceA ! (&**e" i( &n" sen( i( s*inning &w&y in(o s*&ce“The en" o$ (he Ne'erne'er, Arie% & )use", her si%'er h&ir $ %o&(ing &roun" her %ike & brigh( c%ou"- 1he soun"e" s&" &g&in, &n" ! w&n(e" (o co)$or( her, bu( res(r&ine" )yse%$“How )&ny h&'e been here, ! won"er? How )&ny h&'e seen wh&( we’re seeing? “How )&ny h&'e "ro**e" o$$ (he e"ge &n" &re "ri$(ing (hrough s*&ce righ( now? Puck &""e", *eering o'er (he en" o$ (he c%i$$ whi%e h&nging on (o & sick%y (ree (runk growing $ro) (he rocks- “! kee* e.*ec(ing & ske%e(on (o $ %o&( by- Or )&ybe (hey /us( kee* $&% ing

$ore'er? “5e(’s no( $in" ou(, ! s&i", (urning (o (he c&s(%e, $ee%ing i( beckon )e %ike & "is(&n( siren c&% - “The Tes(ing #roun"s &re our go&%0we’re going (o re&ch i( wi(hou( &nyone $&% ing o$$ (he e"ge o$ (he wor%" or "ri$(ing (hrough s*&ce- 8&(ch ou( $or e&ch o(her, &n" be c&re$u%“Hey, "on’( worry &bou( )e, ice-boy- #r&'i(y isn’( so )uch o$ & *rob%e) when you’re & bir"- Puck g%&nce" &( )e &n" sighe" in )ock &ggr&'&(ion- “1o)e"&y, ! h&'e go( (o (e&ch you *eo*%e how (o $ %yA ri'er o$ $ %o&(ing rocks s(oo" be(ween us &n" (he c&s(%e- #ri)&%kin s(ro"e u* (o one &n" %ooke" b&ck &( us, (wi(ching his (&i%“! wi% )ee( you &( (he c&s(%e, he s(&(e", &n" ho**e" %igh(%y on(o one o$ (he rocks- !( s*un %&2i%y, e&si%y ho%"ing (he c&(’s weigh(- #ri)&%kin b%inke" &( us &s (he rock "ri$(e" &w&y- “! (rus( you c&n )&ke i( (o our "es(in&(ion wi(hou( )e $or once, he s&i", &n" he&"e" $or (he c&s(%e, %e&*ing $ro) rock (o rock wi(h (he inborn gr&ce o$ & c&(“You know, so)e(i)es ! /us( h&(e hi), Puck gru)b%e"- ! s(e**e" on(o one o$ (he rocks, br&cing )yse%$ &s i( (i%(e" s%igh(%y, bu( i( &**e&re" (o ho%" )y weigh( we% enough- “Co)e on, ! s&i", ho%"ing ou( & h&n" $or Arie% &- 1he (ook i(, &n" ! *u% e" her u* besi"e )e, (hough she "i"n’( )ee( )y eyes“8e’re &%)os( (here8e *icke" our w&y o'er (he (re&cherous (err&in, %e&*ing $ro) rock (o rock, (rying no( (o %ook "own- ! g%&nce" b&ck once &n" s&w (he "oor o$ (he (e)*%e /u((ing $ro) (he $&ce o$ & c%i$$, &n" (h&( c%i$$ s*r&ng $ro) & w&% o$ bri&rs, s(re(ching &w&y (o ei(her si"e, $&r(her (h&n ! cou%" see- !( e)*h&si2e" (he '&s( in$ini(y o$ (his *&r( o$ (he wor%" &n" )&"e )e $ee% 'ery s)&% “! won"er i$ &ny(hing %i'es ou( here, Puck )use" &s we crosse" & sh&((ere" s(one bri"ge, (wir%ing &i)%ess%y (hrough s*&ce- “! (hough( (he En" o$ (he 8or%" w&s su**ose" (o be $i% e" wi(h )ons(ers &n" here (here be "r&gons &n" (hings %ike (h&(- ! "on’( see &ny>oh! knew by (he (one o$ his 'oice (h&( ! w&sn’( going (o %ike wh&( ! s&w ne.(- “3on’( (e% )e- ! sighe" wi(hou( (urning &roun"- “There’s so)e sor( o$ huge )ons(er ou( (here, &n" now i(’s co)ing (ow&r" us“Ok&y, ! won’( (e% you- Puck soun"e" $&in(%y bre&(h%ess- “An", uh, you *rob&b%y "on’( w&n( (o %ook "own, ei(her! *eere" o'er (he si"e o$ (he bri"geA( $irs(, ! (hough( ! w&s %ooking &( & con(inen( $ %o&(ing bene&(h usA ! cou%" see %&kes &n" (rees &n" e'en & $ew houses sc&((ere" &bou(- +u( (hen (he con(inen( (wis(e" &roun" wi(h & $ %&sh o$ sc&%es &n" (ee(h &n" "ri$(e" (ow&r" us, & %e'i&(h&n so huge i( "e$ie" be%ie$- !( s*ir&%e" u* besi"e (he bri"ge, & )oun(&in o$ sc&%es &n" $ins &n" $ %i**ers, rising ou( o$ (he 'oi"- !(s eye w&s %ike & s)&% )oon, *&%e &n" &% -seeing, bu( we were insec(s bene&(h i(s g&2e, "us( )i(es, (oo )icrosco*ic $or i( (o know we were (here- An en(ire ci(y w&s *erche" on i(s b&ck, g%e&)ing whi(e (owers s(&n"ing &( (he e"ge o$ & g%is(ening %&ke1)&% er cre&(ures, &s big &s wh&%es, sw&) besi"e i(, %ooking %ike )innows co)*&re" (o i(s bu%k- As we s(oo" g&*ing &( i(, un&b%e (o )o'e or %ook &w&y, i( (wis(e" %&2i%y (hrough (he

&ir &n" con(inue" in(o (he e(here&%ness o$ s*&ce;or & %ong )o)en(, we cou%" on%y s(&re &$(er i(, h&r"%y &b%e (o *rocess wh&( we h&" seen;in&% y, Arie% & "rew in & sh&ky bre&(h &n" shook her he&" in "isbe%ie$- “Th&(>w&s> 1he see)e" un&b%e (o $in" (he righ( "escri*(ion“!ncre"ib%e, ! $inishe" so$(%y, s(i% g&2ing &$(er (he cre&(ure, &n" no one "is&gree" wi(h )e- No( e'en Puck“Here (here be "r&gons, he )ur)ure" in &n &we" 'oice#&(hering )y wi(s, ! (ook & s(e* b&ck- “Co)e on, ! s&i", g%&ncing &( (he o(hers, who see)e" & %i((%e "&2e"- “5e(’s $in" (he Tes(ing #roun"s &n" ge( (his o'er wi(h so we c&n go ho)e5e&*ing c&re$u% y $ro) rock (o rock, w&ry now o$ (he )ons(ers &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%", we $in&% y re&che" (he g&(es o$ (he c&s(%e- P&s( & cour(y&r" $i% e" wi(h s(&(ues &n" (wis(e" (rees o$ & kin" !’" ne'er seen be$ore, u* &no(her $ %igh( o$ s(e*s $ %&nke" by sn&r%ing g&rgoy%es, #ri)&%kin w&i(e" $or us &( (he h&% w&y in(o (he c&s(%eHe w&s no( &%one- A $&)i%i&r robe", hoo"e" $igure s(oo" besi"e hi), w&(ching us &s we w&%ke" u* (he s(&irs“You h&'e co)e $&r, (he #u&r"i&n in(one", no""ing his he&"- “;ew h&'e )&"e i( (o (his *oin(, &n" $ewer s(i% c&n kee* (heir s&ni(y in(&c( &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- +u( your /ourney is no( ye( o'er, knigh(- The Tri&%s &w&i(, &n" (hey wi% be )ore h&rrowing (h&n &ny(hing you h&'e encoun(ere" (hus $&rNo one h&s e'er sur'i'e" wh&( you &re &bou( (o $&ce- ! gi'e you one %&s( ch&nce (o "e*&r(, (o (urn &roun" &n" %e&'e (his *%&ce &%i'e &n" who%e- +u( know (his0i$ you %e&'e, you wi% re)e)ber no(hing o$ wh&( brough( you here- You wi% ne'er $in" (he En" o$ (he 8or%" &g&in- 8h&( is your "ecision? “!’'e co)e (his $&r, ! s&i" wi(hou( hesi(&(ion- “!’) no( b&cking ou( now- +ring on your (es(s- 8hen ! %e&'e (his *%&ce, i( wi% be &s & hu)&n wi(h & sou%, or no( &( &% The #u&r"i&n no""e"- “!$ (h&( is your choice- !( swe*( ou( &n &r), &n" & ri**%e o$ *ower wen( (hrough (he &ir, $ree2ing )e in *%&ce- “5e( i( be known, be$ore (hese wi(nesses, (h&( (he $or)er 8in(er *rince Ash h&s &cce*(e" (he (ri&%s o$ (he #u&r"i&n, (he *ri2e $or co)*%e(ing (he (es(s being & )or(&% sou%- !( %owere" i(s &r), &n" ! cou%" )o'e &g&in“Your $irs( (ri&% begins when "&wn (ouches (he ou(si"e wor%"- 7n(i% (hen, (he c&s(%e is yours- 8hen (he (i)e co)es, ! wi% $in" youAn" i( w&s gone#ri)&%kin y&wne" &n" %ooke" u* &( )e, c&( eyes b%inking- “! &) su**ose" (o show you your roo)s, he s&i" in & bore" 'oice, &s i$ (he 'ery i"e& we&rie" hi)- “;o% ow )e, (henAn" "o (ry (o kee* u*- !( wou%" be '&s(%y &nnoying i$ you bec&)e %os( in hereThe c&s(%e w&s "i) &n" e)*(y, wi(h (orches se( in(o br&cke(s, &n" c&n"%es $ %ickering &%ong (he w&% s- E.ce*( $or (he $ %&)es &n" c&n"%e%igh(, no(hing )o'e"A (here were no insec(s scu((%ing o'er (he $ %&gs(ones, no ser'&n(s *row%ing (he h&% s- !( $e%( $ro2en in (i)e, %ike & re$ %ec(ion on (he o(her si"e o$ & )irror0*er$ec(, bu( %i$e%esscon'er( *"$ (o /*g

An" i( w&s en"%ess, )uch %ike (he 'oi" (h&( $ %o&(e" /us( ou(si"e (he win"ows- ! go( (he "is(inc( $ee%ing, $o% owing #ri)&%kin "own i(s )&ny h&% s, (h&( ! cou%" w&n"er i(s ch&)bers &n" corri"ors $ore'er &n" no( see (he en(ire(y o$ (he c&s(%eReg&r"%ess, we $oun" (he gues( roo)s e&si%y enough, on &ccoun( o$ (he o*en "oors &n" (he cr&ck%ing $ire*%&ces &%ong e&ch w&% - These roo)s were $&ir%y we% %i(, wi(h $oo", "rink &n" & c%e&n be" &%re&"y %&i" ou( $or us, (hough (here were no ser'&n(s (o s*e&k o$- Puck &n" Arie% & e&ch '&nishe" in(o (heir se*&r&(e ch&)bers, (hough e&ch roo) w&s e&si%y big enough $or (he (hree o$ us &n" ! w&s w&ry o$ being se*&r&(e" in (his huge *%&ce- +u( Puck, &$(er *eering in(o & roo), whoo*e" when he s&w (he $oo"-%&"en (&b%e &n" '&nishe" (hrough (he "oor wi(h & h&s(y, “5&(er, ice-boy, s%&))ing (he "oor behin" hi)- Arie% & g&'e )e & (ire" s)i%e &n" s&i" she w&s going (o (urn in $or (he nigh(, "ec%ining )y o$$er o$ s(&ying (hrough "inner- #ri)&%kin, o$ course, (ro((e" "own (he h&% wi(hou( &ny e.*%&n&(ion o$ where he w&s going &n" '&nishe" in(o (he sh&"ows, %e&'ing )e &%oneTru(h$u% y, ! w&s re%ie'e"- There were so )&ny (hough(s swir%ing &roun" )y he&", &n" ! (hink (he o(hers recogni2e" )y nee" (o be &%one, (o *rocess &% (h&( h&" h&**ene" &n" (o *re*&re $or wh&( w&s (o co)e- Or *erh&*s (hey were we&ry o$ )e, &s we% ! &(e & %i((%e, *row%e" )y roo), &n" (rie" (o re&" so)e o$ (he huge (o)es on (he bookc&se in (he corner (o *&ss (he (i)e- ,os( were wri((en in s(r&nge, &ncien( %&ngu&ges ! "i"n’( recogni2e, so)e o""%y b%&nk, so)e wi(h runes &n" sy)bo%s (h&( )&"e )y eyes burn /us( $ro) %ooking &( (he)One book %e( ou( & chi% ing w&i% when ! (ouche" i(, &n" ! 9uick%y wi(h"rew )y h&n"- ! $in&% y "isco'ere", o$ &% (hings, & s)&% book o$ *oe)s by (he )or(&% &u(hor e-ecu))ings, &n" %e&$e" (hrough (h&( $or & whi%e, *&using &( (he *oe), “A% in green wen( )y %o'e ri"ing, one o$ )y $&'ori(es- ! s)i%e" wis($u% y &s ! $o% owe" (he s(&n2&s, re)in"e" o$ &% (he hun(s Arie% & &n" ! h&" been on &n" (heir su""en en"#ui%( gn&we" &( )e, (hough i( w&sn’( 9ui(e &s sh&r* &s be$ore- !’" $in&% y co)e (o (er)s wi(h wh&( ! $e%(, bo(h $or Arie% & &n" ,egh&n- ! wou%" &%w&ys %o'e Arie% &, &n" (here w&s s(i% & *&r( o$ )e (h&( %onge" $or (he *&s(, $or (hose "&ys when i( w&s )e &n" Ari &n" Puck be$ore0be$ore her "e&(h &n" )y o&(h &n" (he "ec&"es o$ "ue%s &n" $igh(ing &n" b%oo"she"- +u( (hose "&ys were gone- An" ! w&s (ire" o$ %i'ing in (he *&s(- !$ ! )&n&ge" (o sur'i'e here, ! wou%" &c(u&% y h&'e & ch&nce &( & $u(ure1(i% , ! cou%"n’( s%ee*A )y )in" worrie" &( (he si(u&(ion %ike & "og wi(h & bone &n" )y bo"y w&s (oo hy*e" u* (o re%&.- ! w&s si((ing in (he win"ow wi(h )y b&ck &g&ins( (he $r&)e, w&(ching (he s(&rs &n" bi(s o$ rock "ri$( by, &%)os( c%ose enough (o (ouch, when )y "oor cre&ke" o*en &n" $oo(s(e*s *&""e" in(o (he roo)“3on’( you e'er knock? ! &ske" Puck wi(hou( (urning &roun"- He snor(e"“Hi, !’) Robin #oo"$e% ow, h&'e we )e(? 8&%king u* besi"e )e, he %e&ne" &g&ins( (he $r&)e &n" crosse" his &r)s, s(&ring ou( &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%"- A$(er & )o)en(, he shook his he&"- “You know, ou( o$ &% (he *%&ces we’'e seen, &n" we’'e seen so)e weir" *%&ces, (his *rob&b%y (&kes (he c&ke $or ,os( Cr&2y 5&n"sc&*e E'er- No one wi% be%ie'e (he s(ories when we ge( ho)e- He sighe" &n" sho( )e & si"ew&ys g%&nce- “Are you sure you’re u* $or (his, ice-boy? he &ske"- “! know you (hink you c&n h&n"%e &ny(hing, bu(

(his is so)e serious s(u$$ you’re going (o $&ce- Cr&2y Ash /us( "oesn’( h&'e (he s&)e ring &s 3on’(-bo(her-)e-or-!’% -ki% -you Ash! s)irke" &( hi)- “You’re &w$u% y concerne" $or &n &rchne)esis“Psh, ! /us( "on’( w&n( (o h&'e (o (e% ,egh&n (h&( you (urne" in(o & 'ege(&b%e whi%e (rying (o g&in & sou%- ! "on’( see how (h&( wou%" (urn ou( we% $or )e1)i%ing, ! g&2e" ou( (he win"ow &g&in- !n (he $&r "is(&nce, so)e(hing %ike & gi&n( )&n(& r&y so&re" %&2i%y by, $ins ri**%ing %ike w&(er- “! "on’( know, ! &")i((e" so$(%y, w&(ching i( '&nish behin" &n &s(eroi"- “! "on’( know i$ !’) re&"y- +u( i(’s no( /us( ,egh&n (h&( !’) "oing (his $or now- ! g%&nce" "own &( )y h&n"s, res(ing in )y %&*- “! (hink>(his is who !’) su**ose" (o be>i$ (h&( )&kes &ny sense“No*e, (h&(’s /us( screwe" u*- ! sho( hi) &n &nnoye" %ook, &n" Puck grinne" (o so$(en (he wor"s- He r&ise" his h&n"s- “+u(, i$ (h&(’s (he w&y you $ee%, (hen )ore *ower (o youA( %e&s( you know wh&( you w&n(- 6us( (hough( !’" )&ke sure- 8i(h & grun(, he sho'e" hi)se%$ o$$ (he w&% , (&**ing )y shou%"er &s he *&sse"- “8e% , goo" %uck (o you, *rinceThere’s & bo((%e o$ *%u) wine &n" & $ %u$$y "own *i% ow c&% ing )y n&)e- You nee" )e, !’% be in )y roo), ho*e$u% y we% in(o & s(u*or“Puck, ! c&% e" be$ore he cou%" %e&'e (he roo)He (urne" in (he "oor$r&)e- “Ye&h? “!$ !>"on’( )&ke i( b&ck> ! $e%( hi) no"- “!’% (&ke c&re o$ her, he *ro)ise" 9uie(%y- “+o(h o$ (he)- An" (he "oor c%icke" so$(%y behin" hi)! "i"n’( s%ee*- ! s(&ye" in (he win"ow &n" w&(che" (he s(&rs, (hinking o$ ,egh&n, &n" Arie% & &n" )yse%$- Re)e)bering (hose brigh(, shining )o)en(s wi(h e&ch o$ (he)>in c&se ! "i"n’( see (he) &g&in-


“!( is (i)eThe #u&r"i&n’s 'oice cu( (hrough (he si%ence, &n" ! /erke" )y he&" (ow&r" (he robe" $igure in (he )i""%e o$ (he roo)- !( s(oo" e.*ec(&n(%y, gri**ing i(s s(&$$, w&(ching )e (hrough (he "&rkness o$ (he cow%- The "oor behin" i( w&s s(i% c%ose"“Are you re&"y? i( &ske" wi(hou( *re&)b%e- ! (ook & "ee* bre&(h &n" no""e"“Then $o% ow )ePuck &n" Arie% & /oine" us &s soon &s we %e$( (he roo)- Toge(her, we (r&i%e" hi) (hrough (he '&s( h&% s o$ (he c&s(%e un(i% he %e" us ou(si"e, in(o &n ice-co'ere" g&r"en- 1ke%e(&% (rees s(oo" enc&se" in crys(&%, s*&rk%ing wi(h icic%es, &n" & $oun(&in in (he )i""%e s*ou(e" $ro2en w&(er- ;or & )o)en(, i( re)in"e" )e o$ ho)e, o$ (he 8in(er Cour(, be$ore ! shook (h&( (hough( &w&y- Tir N& Nog w&s no( )y ho)e &ny %ongerAbo'e us, &cross & s(one bri"ge o'er no(hing, & huge /&gge" )oun(&in rose u* $ro) (he "e*(hs, (he *e&k b&re%y 'isib%e (hrough (he h&2e (h&( surroun"e" i(- 8re&(he" in ice, i( g%i((ere" in (he co%" %igh(s o$ (he s(&rs, s%ick &n" sh&r* &n" (re&cherousThe #u&r"i&n (urne" (o )e- “Your $irs( (ri&% begins now- ;ro) here on, you )us( "o (his &%one- H&'e you *re*&re" yourse%$ ? “YesThe cow% no""e" once- “Then )ee( )e &( (he (o*- An" i( w&s gone, %e&'ing us (o s(&re &( (he )oun(&in $or & $ew )o)en(s o$ si%ence“8e% , Puck re)&rke", g&2ing u* &( (he %oo)ing obs(&c%e wi(h his h&n"s on his hi*s- “As (es(s go, c%i)bing & )oun(&in isn’( (h&( b&"Arie% & shook her he&"- “! serious%y "oub( (h&(’s &% (here is (o i(- 1he g%&nce" &( )e, worrie" &n" so%e)n- “+e c&re$u%, Ash! g%&re" u* &( (he obs(&c%e be$ore )e- The $irs( (hing (h&( s(oo" be(ween )e &n" & sou%- ! c%enche" )y $is(s &n" s)i%e"“!’% be b&ck soon, ! )u((ere", &n" s*rin(e" &cross (he bri"ge- 5e&*ing on(o (he b&se o$ (he )oun(&in, ! s(&r(e" (o c%i)bPu% ing )yse%$ on(o & n&rrow %e"ge, ! s&( "own wi(h )y b&ck &g&ins( (he w&% (o c&(ch )y bre&(h- ! "i"n’( know how %ong !’" been c%i)bing, bu( i( $e%( %ike "&ys- An" ! w&s s(i% & goo" w&y $ro) (he (o*;&r be%ow, (he c&s(%e %ooke" co)ic&% y s)&% , %ike & chi%"’s (oy, e'en &s %&rge &s i( w&sThe )oun(&in w&s *ro'ing h&r"er &n" )ore (re&cherous (o c%i)b (hen !’" e.*ec(e"- The /&gge" obsi"i&n rocks were &s sh&r* &s & kni$e’s e"ge in *%&ces, &n" (he ice re$use" (o honor )y 7nsee%ie heri(&ge- ! h&" ne'er s%i**e" or s(u)b%e" on ice be$ore, bu( here, i( see)e" &% be(s were o$$- ,y h&n"s were cu( o*en $ro) gri**ing (he rock, (rying (o b&%&nce )yse%$, &n" ! %e$( s)e&rs o$ b%oo" &g&ins( (he )oun(&insi"e where ! *&sse"! shi'ere", rubbing )y &r)s- !( w&s &%so $ree2ing u* here, which w&s & co)*%e(e shock $or )e, &s ! ne'er go( co%"- The sens&(ion w&s so &%ien &n" un$&)i%i&r ! "i"n’( know wh&( i( w&s &( $irs(- ,y (ee(h ch&((ere", &n" ! crosse" )y &r)s, (rying, $or (he $irs( (i)e in )y

%i$e, (o conser'e he&(- 1o (his w&s wh&( i( w&s %ike $or )or(&%s &n" 1u))er $ey in (he 7nsee%ie re&%)- !’" &%w&ys won"ere" why (hey %ooke" so unco)$or(&b%e in (he 8in(er *&%&ce- Now ! knew! %icke" "ry, cr&cke" %i*s &n" *ushe" )yse%$ (o )y $ee(, s(&ring u* &( (he (o*- !( w&s s(i% so $&r &w&y- ! s(&r(e" c%i)bing &g&inThe /&gge" c%i$$s wen( on- ! %os( (r&ck o$ (i)e- ! %os( )ore b%oo" &s (he bi((er co%" &(e in(o )y %i)bs &n" (urne" (he) he&'y &n" c%u)sy- E'en(u&% y, ! w&sn’( (hinking &ny)ore, )y bo"y )o'ing on i(s own, /us( *u((ing one %i)b in $ron( o$ (he o(her- E.h&us(e", b%ee"ing, &n" sh&king wi(h co%", ! $in&% y *u% e" )yse%$ on(o & %e"ge, on%y (o $in" (here w&s no )oun(&in %e$(- A $ %&( e.*&nse o$ rock &n" ice s(re(che" ou( be$ore )e- ! h&" $in&% y re&che" (he (o*The #u&r"i&n w&i(e", *&(ien( &n" )o(ion%ess, in (he cen(er o$ (he *%&(e&u- P&n(ing, ! *ushe" )yse%$ (o )y $ee( &n" w&%ke" (ow&r" i(, $orcing )yse%$ no( (o shi'er, (o ignore (he co%"- !( "i"n’( )o'e or s&y & wor" &s ! c&)e (o s(&n" be$ore i(, (he b%oo" $ro) )y h&n"s "ri**ing s%ow%y (o (he groun"“!’) here, ! r&s*e" in(o (he si%ence- “! *&sse" (he $irs( o$ your (es(sA "ee* chuck%e- “No, (he #u&r"i&n s&i", )&king )y s(o)&ch sink- !( %i$(e" i(s s(&$$ & $ew inches in(o (he &ir, &n" & ri**%e o$ *ower eru*(e" $ro) (he (i*, s*re&"ing ou(w&r" in(o s*&ce- “You h&'e on%y $oun" (he %oc&(ion o$ (he $irs( (es(ing groun"- 8e &re no( "one ye(, knigh(- The re&% (es( begins> now!( brough( (he s(&$$ "own, s(riking (he *oin( on (he rocks- Cr&cks &**e&re" $ro) (he (i*, s*re&"ing ou(w&r", &s & ru)b%ing shook (he groun"- ! "o'e &w&y &s *&r( o$ (he e&r(h co% &*se" bene&(h )e, re'e&%ing g&*ing ho%es "ee* in(o (he )oun(&in- A he% ish re" g%ow s*i% e" ou( o$ (he cr&(ers, &n" & wi%" shrieking $i% e" (he &ir, &%ong wi(h (he soun" o$ wings“1ur'i'e, (he #u&r"i&n (o%" )e, &n" "is&**e&re"Cre&(ures *oure" $ro) (he o*ening in & )&" rush o$ wingsA sc&%y, $urry, $e&(here" &n" s)oo(h- They %ooke" %ike "r&gons, or wy'erns, or )ons(rous bir"s, & ch&o(ic )&ss o$ wings &n" c%&ws &n" (ee(h, none o$ (he) (he s&)e- E.ce*( $or one (hing- Their ches( c&'i(ies were o*en, &n" where (heir he&r(s wou%" %ie, (here w&s on%y & 'oi", & b%&ck ho%e $i% e" wi(h s(&rs &n" b%&ck s*&ces o$ (heir own- The beings e.*%o"e" $ro) (he g&sh, w&i%ing in 'oices (h&( see)e" (o echo &cross (he e)*(iness o$ (i)e, &n" "ro**e" $ro) (he sky (o &((&ck! "rew )y swor", s(&r(%e" by how co%" (he hi%( w&s, &n" s%&she" &( (he $irs( cre&(ure, cu((ing (hrough & s*in"%y neck- !( shrieke" &n" co% &*se" on i(se%$, (he ho%e in i(s ches( see)ing (o "r&w i( in- Crying, i( w&s sucke" in(o i(s own b%&ck ho%e, &n" ! %e&*e" b&ck &s (he res( o$ (he $ %ock "escen"e" on )e &% &( once! s(u)b%e", )y %i)bs he&'y wi(h co%", &n" one o$ (he cre&(ures s(ruck ou( wi(h & $urry (&%on, c&(ching )y shou%"er &n" ri**ing & g&sh "own )y ches(P&in eru*(e" (hrough )e, gre&(er (h&n &ny !’" $e%( be$ore, &n" ! c%enche" )y (ee(h (o kee* $ro) scre&)ing- ,y bo"y w&sn’( )o'ing &s i( shou%", (oo c%u)sy &n" &wkw&r", &s i$ i( be%onge" (o so)eone e%se- Ano(her cre&(ure s%&she" &( )e &s ! re(re&(e", s(riking )y $&ce

&n" %e&'ing "ee* c%&w )&rks &cross )y cheekH&%$-b%in"e" by *&in, ! %urche" b&ckw&r", bringing u* )y &r) (o un%e&sh & h&i% o$ ice "&ggers in(o (he sw&r)- !$ &ny(hing, i( wou%" &( %e&s( s%ow (he) "own- +u( &s ! swe*( )y h&n" ou( &s ! h&" "one (hous&n"s o$ (i)es be$ore, no(hing h&**ene"- On%y & $ew s*i(s o$ ice, ins(e&" o$ (he "e&"%y $ %urry ! w&s use" (o- 1(unne", ! o*ene" )yse%$ u* (o )y g%&)our, (rying (o "r&w i( $ro) (he &ir &s !’" &%w&ys "oneNo(hing- No g%&)our, no )&gic, no swir%ing e)o(ions or co%ors- ! $e%( & "ee* s(&b o$ (error &n" %oss &s ! b&cke" &w&y, (rying (o (hink- H&" & bin"ing been *%&ce" on )e, %ocking &w&y )y g%&)our? 8&s (here & se&% o'er (he &re&, *re'en(ing )&gic use? ! re&%i2e" wi(h horror (h&( i( w&s none o$ (hese- E'en (hrough & bin"ing or & se&%, ! wou%" h&'e been &b%e (o sense )y g%&)our- ! $e%( on%y e)*(iness- As i$ ! h&" ne'er h&" )&gic in (he $irs( *%&ce!n (he s*%i( secon" )y gu&r" w&s "own, one o$ (he cre&(ures *ounce" on )e wi(h & sn&r%, "ri'ing us bo(h (o (he groun"- ! $e%( (ee(h in )y shou%"er be$ore ! *%unge" )y b%&"e (hrough i(s (hro&( &n" i( w&s sucke" in(o ob%i'ion- +u( (he o(her cre&(ures sw&r)e" &roun" )e, shrieking, c%&wing, bi(ing &n" kicking- ! s(ruck ou( wi(h )y we&*on, s%&shing wi%"%y $ro) )y b&ck, &n" se'er&% cre&(ures '&nishe" in(o (he)se%'es- +u( (here were &%w&ys )ore, (e&ring &n" ri**ing, &%)os( $r&n(ic &s (hey *resse" in, (heir shri% 'oices echoing &% &roun" )e- ! $e%( /&ws crush )y &r), hooke" (&%ons in )y s(o)&ch, gouging i( o*en- ! $e%( )y $ %esh being (orn &w&y, )y b%oo" )is(ing in (he &ir &n" s(re&)ing (o (he groun"- ! (rie" (o ge( u*, (o )&ke one %&s( s(&n", (o %i'e, bu( (he *&in su""en%y "rew & re"&n"-b%&ck cur(&in o'er )y 'ision, &n" ! knew no(hing )oreAn" (hen, i( w&s o'er- ! w&s %ying on (he co%" s(one $ %oor o$ (he c&s(%e, who%e &n" in(&c(, (he #u&r"i&n g&2ing "own &( )e- ;ro) (he corner o$ )y eye, ! s&w Puck &n" Arie% & *eering on &n.ious%y, bu( (he *&in s(re&)ing $ro) e'ery *&r( o$ )y bo"y )&"e i( "i$$icu%( (o $ocus on &ny(hing“! $&i%e"- The wor"s were bi((er in )y )ou(h, (he weigh( in )y ches( (hre&(ening (o crush )e- +u( (he #u&r"i&n shook i(s cow%e" he&"“No- You were ne'er )e&n( (o sur'i'e (h&(, knigh(- E'en h&" you ki% e" (he $irs( w&'e, (hey wou%" h&'e ke*( co)ing- No )&((er wh&( you "i", or how %ong you s(oo" &g&ins( (he), (hey wou%" h&'e (orn you &*&r( in (he en"! w&n(e" (o &sk why- 8hy !’" been s*&re"- 8hy ! w&sn’( "e&" ye(- +u(, (hrough (he *&in &n" (he con$usion &n" (he shock o$ s(i% being &%i'e, )y )in" w&s s(i% ree%ing $ro) e'ery(hing (h&( h&" /us( h&**ene"- The s(r&ngeness o$ )y own bo"y, su""en%y we&k &n" &wkw&r", re$using (o )o'e &s i( shou%"- The b%in"ing *&in, (he &gony ! cou%"n’( shu( ou( &s ! use" (o- An" (he co)*%e(e e)*(iness ! $e%( when ! (rie" (o use g%&)our w&s wors( o$ &% “This is wh&( & )or(&% bo"y $ee%s %ike, (he #u&r"i&n con(inue", &s i$ re&"ing )y (hough(s- “!( is *hysic&% y i)*ossib%e $or & hu)&n (o )o'e &s you "o- Their bo"ies &re c%u)sy &n" (ire e&si%y- They &re susce*(ib%e (o co%", we&kness &n" *&in- They c&nno( "r&w on &ny )&gic (o &i" (he)- They &re, in (he en", 9ui(e unre)&rk&b%e- 1(reng(h is (he $irs( (hing you )us( gi'e u* i$ you wish (o g&in & sou%The #u&r"i&n *&use", &% owing (i)e $or (h&( s(&(e)en( (o sink in- ! cou%" on%y %ie (here,

*&n(ing, &s )y )in" reco'ere" $ro) (he shock o$ being (orn &*&r(- “The $irs( (ri&% is o'er, (he #u&r"i&n in(one"- “Pre*&re yourse%$, knigh(- The secon" begins &( "&wn8hen i( "is&**e&re", Arie% & hurrie" o'er &n" kne%( besi"e )e- “C&n you s(&n"? 8incing, ! s(rugg%e" (o & si((ing *osi(ion- ,y woun"s were gone, ! w&s &%i'e, bu( )y bo"y s(i% b%&2e" wi(h *&in- T&king her h&n", ! %e( her *u% )e (o )y $ee(, c%enching )y /&w (o kee* (he g&s* $ro) esc&*ing- “! "i"n’( re&%i2e>how $r&gi%e hu)&ns re&% y &re“8e% , "uh- Puck s(ro% e" o'er, no( 9ui(e &b%e (o )&sk (he worry on his $&ce- “! cou%"’'e (o%" you (h&(- Though so)e &re s(ronger (hen o(hers- Or )ore s(ubborn- He crosse" his &r)s, gi'ing )e &n &**r&ising %ook- “You ok&y, ice-boy? ! "i"n’( &nswer- Turning $ro) Arie% &, ! ignore" her o$$ere" &r) &n" %i)*e" &w&y, "own (he %ong corri"ors, b&ck (o )y roo)- They $o% owe" si%en(%y, &( & "is(&nce, bu( ! "i"n’( (urn (o %ook b&ck- ,ore (h&n once, ! ne&r%y $e% bu( $orce" )yse%$ (o kee* going, wi(hou( he%*!n )y roo) ! co% &*se" on (he be", cursing )y s(r&nge, un$&)i%i&r bo"y &n" (he we&kness (h&( c&)e wi(h i(How &) ! going (o *ro(ec( her %ike (his? How c&n ! *ro(ec( &nyone %ike (his? Puck &n" Arie% & ho'ere" in (he "oorw&y- A *&r( o$ )e w&n(e" (o (e% (he) (o %e&'e, h&(ing (h&( (hey s&w )e we&k &n" he%*%ess- +u(, )y who%e %i$e, ! h&" *ushe" o(hers &w&y, c%osing )yse%$ o$$ (o (he wor%" &n" e'eryone &roun" )e- !( h&" brough( )e no(hing bu( )ore *&in, "es*i(e )y &((e)*(s (o $ree2e e'ery(hing ou(- Th&( w&s why ! w&s here, &$(er &% A ! w&s (rying (o beco)e so)eone e%se! shi$(e" (o )y b&ck &n" *u( &n &r) o'er )y $&ce, c%osing )y eyes- “!’) no( going (o (hrow icic%es i$ you s(e* (hrough (he "oor- ! sighe"- “1o you c&n s(o* %urking &n" co)e in &%re&"y! $e%( (he) *&use, i)&gine" (he) g%&nces, bu( (hen $oo(s(e*s *&""e" in(o (he roo)- Arie% & *erche" on (he e"ge o$ (he )&((ress, %&ying & so$( h&n" on )y &r)- “Are you in & %o( o$ *&in? she &ske"“1o)e, ! &")i((e", re%&.ing un"er her (ouch- “!(’s ge((ing be((er, (hough- An" i( w&s, (he $ire bene&(h )y skin ebbing &w&y, &s i$ )y bo"y $in&% y re&%i2e" i( w&s who%e &n" he&%(hy, no( (orn &*&r( on & "eso%&(e *e&k“8h&( h&**ene" u* (here, ice-boy? “8h&( "o you (hink h&**ene"? ! %owere" )y &r) &n" s&( u*, scrubbing & h&n" o'er )y eyes- “! %os(- ! c&n’( use g%&)our, ! c&n’( )o'e %ike ! use" (o,y he&" w&s (e% ing )e (o )o'e & cer(&in w&y, (o go $&s(er, &n" ! cou%"n’(- ! go( co%", Puck- 3o you know wh&( (h&( w&s %ike, when ! $in&% y re&%i2e" wh&( w&s h&**ening? ! %e&ne" $orw&r", r&king )y h&n"s (hrough )y h&ir, sho'ing i( b&ck- “! wou%"’'e "ie", ! s&i" so$(%y, re%uc(&n( (o &")i( i(- “!$ (he #u&r"i&n h&" %e$( )e (here, ! wou%" h&'e "ie"Those (hings wou%"’'e (orn )e &*&r(“+u( you’re no( "e&", Puck *oin(e" ou(- “An" (he #u&r"i&n "i"n’( s&y you $&i%e"- A( %e&s(, we weren’( (osse" ou( on our e&rs- 1o wh&(’s (he *rob%e), ice-boy? ! "i"n’( &nswer, bu( Arie% &, who w&s w&(ching )y $&ce, "rew in & 9uie( bre&(h-

“,egh&n, she guesse", )&king )e wince- “You’re worrie" &bou( ,egh&n, how she’% re&c( (o seeing you %ike (his“! c&n’( *ro(ec( her %ike (his, ! s&i" bi((er%y, c%enching & $is(, $igh(ing (he urge (o *unch (he )&((ress- “!’) use%ess0& %i&bi%i(y- ! "on’( w&n( her (o $ee% she h&s (o cons(&n(%y w&(ch ou( $or )e, (h&( ! c&n’( ho%" )y own &ny)ore- ! sighe" in $rus(r&(ion &n" %e&ne" b&ck, (hu)*ing )y he&" &g&ins( (he w&% - !( w&s s&(is$ying%y *&in$u%- “! guess ! "i"n’( re&%i2e wh&( being hu)&n re&% y )e&n(You "o no( know (he $irs( (hing &bou( )or(&%i(y, *rince-who-isno(- The +one 8i(ch’s 'oice echoe" in )y he&", )ocking )e wi(h i(s s)ugness- 8hy wou%" you w&n( (o be %ike (he)? Puck snor(e"- “An" wh&(, you (hink (h&( i$ you’re hu)&n you c&n’( *ro(ec( &nyone? he &ske", crossing his &r)s &n" g%&ring &( )e- “Th&(’s & %o&" o$ cr&*- How "i" you (hink you were going (o *ro(ec( her whi%e she w&s in (he !ron :ing"o), *rince? ! (hough( we were here (o ge( you & sou%, so you cou%" be wi(h her wi(hou( your skin )e%(ing o$$- Are you (e% ing )e, now (h&( you’re )ore hu)&n, you "on’( w&n( (o be wi(h her? ! g%&re" &( hi)- “You know (h&(’s no( wh&( ! )e&n(“3oesn’( )&((er- Puck %oo)e" o'er )e &s i$ "&ring )e (o &rgue- “The w&y ! see i(, (here &re on%y (wo o*(ions here, iceboy- You c&n be & hu)&n &n" be wi(h ,egh&n, or you c&n be $ey &n" no(- An" you’" be((er $igure ou( wh&( you w&n( re&% $&s(, or we’'e w&s(e" our (i)e hereArie% & s(oo"- “Co)e on, she (o%" Puck, $&% ing b&ck in(o &n o%" (r&"i(ion- 1ince (he (hree o$ us h&" known e&ch o(her, she h&" &%w&ys been (he *e&cekee*er- “5e(’s %e( hi) res(Ash, i$ you nee" us, we’% be c%osePuck %ooke" "e$i&n(, bu( Arie% & *u( & h&n" on his &r) &n" gen(%y bu( $ir)%y *u% e" hi) $ro) (he roo)- As (he "oor c%ose", ! c%enche" )y $is(s &n" s(&re" &( (he w&% - Throwing ou( )y &r), ! (rie" sen"ing & $ %urry o$ ice "&r(s &( (he "oor, bu( no(hing h&**ene"- No( e'en & co%" win"! h&" no g%&)our &ny)ore- ,y )&gic w&s goneA cen(uries o$ $ee%ing (he *u%se o$ (he e&r(h, seeing (he swir% o$ e)o(ion &n" "re&)s &n" *&ssion &% &roun" )e, in e'ery %i'ing cre&(ure, &% '&nishe" in & he&r(be&(- Cou%" ! ge( use" (o (his? Any o$ (his? ! cou%"n’( )o'e %ike ! use" (o, ! w&sn’( &s s(rong, &n" )y bo"y w&s susce*(ib%e (o *&in &n" sickness &n" co%"- ! w&s we&ker now- ! w&s>)or(&%! *unche" (he )&((ress in $rus(r&(ion, $ee%ing (he b%ow r&((%e (he $r&)e- The +one 8i(ch w&s righ(- ! "i"n’( know (he $irs( (hing &bou( )or(&%i(yThe *&in h&" &%)os( $&"e" now, /us( & "u% , r&gge" (hrobbing &roun" (he e"ges o$ )y )in"- 8e&rie" by (he b&((%e &n" (he co%" &n" (he shock o$ being (orn &*&r(, )y he&" "ro**e" (o )y ches(, &n" ! $e%( )yse%$ "ri$(ing>“There you &re, Arie% & s&i", s)i%ing &( )e in )y "re&)s- “! knew you h&" (o $&% &s%ee* sooner or %&(er- You were e.h&us(e"! b%inke", s(e**ing bene&(h (he boughs o$ & huge, snowco'ere" cy*ress, e'ery %e&$ ou(%ine" in $ros(- “!s (his so)e(hing ! shou%" e.*ec( e'ery (i)e ! $&% &s%ee*? ! &ske" (he $igure si((ing bene&(h (he (runk-

Arie% & s(oo" &n" w&%ke" $orw&r", brushing &w&y g%i((ering cur(&ins o$ %e&'es- “No, she s&i", (&king )y h&n" &n" "r&wing )e $orw&r"- “,y (i)e &s (he seer is co)ing (o &n en"1oon, ! won’( be &b%e (o "re&)w&%k &ny)ore, so be&r wi(h )e $or & %i((%e whi%e- ! w&n( (o show you so)e(hingAs she s*oke, (he scene &roun" us ch&nge"- !( b%ew &w&y, %ike "us( in & s(or), un(i% we were s(&n"ing on & %ong gr&'e% "ri'ew&y, g&2ing u* &( &n o%" green house“3o you recogni2e (his? ! no""e"- “,egh&n’s o%" house, ! s&i", g&2ing &( (he we&(here", $&"e" s(ruc(ure- “8here her $&)i%y %i'esA b&rk in(erru*(e" )e- The $ron( "oor cre&ke" o*en, &n" ,egh&n e)erge", $o% owe" by & s)&% chi%" o$ &bou( $our or $i'e, &n enor)ous #er)&n she*her" (r&i%ing (he) bo(h! "rew in & bre&(h &n" s(e**e" $orw&r", bu( Arie% & *u( & h&n" on )y &r)“1he c&nno( see us, she w&rne"- “No( (his (i)e- This is )ore & %&(en( )e)ory (h&n & (rue "re&)- ,egh&n’s consciousness is no( here0you wou%" no( be &b%e (o s*e&k (o her! (urne" b&ck, w&(ching ,egh&n &n" E(h&n si( on (he o%" *orch swing, sw&ying gen(%y b&ck &n" $or(h- E(h&n’s $ee( "&ng%e" o'er (he e"ge, kicking s*or&"ic&% y, &s ,egh&n *&sse" hi) & s)&% b%ue bo. wi(h & s(r&w s(icking ou( o$ i(- +e&u, (he #er)&n she*her", *u( his huge *&ws on (he swing &n" (rie" scr&)b%ing u* &s we% , c&using E(h&n (o shriek wi(h %&ugh(er &n" ,egh&n (o ye% &( hi) (o ge( "own“1he "re&)s o$ (he) o$(en, Arie% & s&i"- “Her $&)i%y- Es*eci&% y hi), (he s)&% one“Her bro(her, ! )ur)ure", un&b%e (o (&ke )y eyes $ro) her- H&'ing success$u% y or"ere" +e&u o$$ (he swing, she *&((e" her %&* &n" scr&(che" (he big "og behin" (he e&rs, kissing his )u22%e &s he c&)e u*- Arie% & no""e"“Yes- The chi%" who s(&r(e" i( &% , in & w&y- 8hen he w&s ki"n&**e" by (he !ron :ing &n" (&ken in(o (he Ne'erne'er, she "i"n’( hesi(&(e (o go &$(er hi)- An" she "i"n’( s(o* (here8hen her )&gic w&s se&%e" by ,&b, %e&'ing her "e$ense%ess in (he 8in(er Cour(, she so)ehow )&n&ge" (o sur'i'e, e'en when she (hough( you h&" (urne" on her- 8hen (he 1ce*(er o$ (he 1e&sons w&s s(o%en by (he !ron $ey, she wen( &$(er i(, "es*i(e h&'ing no )&gic &n" no we&*on wi(h which (o "e$en" herse%$- An" when (he cour(s &ske" her (o "es(roy (he $&%se king, she &cce*(e", e'en (hough (he 1u))er &n" !ron g%&)ours wi(hin her were )&king her sick, &n" she cou%"n’( use ei(her o$ (he) e$$ec(i'e%y- 1he s(i% wen( in(o (he !ron :ing"o) (o $&ce & (yr&n( she "i"n’( know i$ she cou%" o'erco)e“Now, Arie% & $inishe", (urning (ow&r" )e, “"o you s(i% be%ie'e hu)&ns &re we&k? +e$ore ! cou%" &nswer, (he scene $&"e"- 3&rkness $e% , ,egh&n &n" her bro(her '&nishe" be$ore )e, &n" e'ery(hing wen( b%&ck- ! o*ene" )y eyes (o $in" )yse%$ &%one in )y roo), si((ing on (he be" wi(h )y b&ck (o (he w&% 3o you s(i%% be%ie'e hu)&ns &re we&k? ! s)i%e" rue$u% y- The h&%$-b%oo" "&ugh(er o$ Oberon w&s one o$ (he s(ronges( hu)&n beings !’" e'er encoun(ere"- E'en when her )&gic w&s se&%e", or when i( w&s )&king her horrib%y sick, she’" )&n&ge" (o "e$e&( e'ery(hing ;&ery (hrew &( her (hrough sheer s(ubborn "e(er)in&(ion- 1he h&" brough( &n en" (o (wo $&ery w&rs, &n" when i( w&s &%

o'er, she h&" beco)e & 9ueenNo, ! (o%" )yse%$- Hu)&ns weren’( we&k- ,egh&n Ch&se h&" *ro'en (h&(, )&ny (i)es o'er- An" i( "i"n’( )&((er i$ ! h&" no )&gic, or i$ ! w&sn’( &s s(rong &s be$ore- ,y 'ow (o (he !ron 4ueen, (he one !’" sworn when ! bec&)e her knigh(, s(i% s(oo";ro) (his "&y $or(h, ! 'ow (o *ro(ec( ,egh&n Ch&se, "&ugh(er o$ (he 1u))er :ing, wi(h )y swor", )y honor &n" )y %i$e- 1hou%" e'en (he wor%" s(&n" &g&ins( her, )y b%&"e wi%% be &( her si"e- An" shou%" i( $&i% (o *ro(ec( her, %e( )y own be $or$ei(! cou%"n’( *ro(ec( her in (he !ron Re&%), no( &s Ash (he 8in(er *rince- A% (he g%&)our in (he wor%" cou%"n’( he%* her i$ ! w&sn’( (here- ! h&" (o beco)e hu)&n (o s(&n" besi"e her;or & )o)en(, !’" %os( sigh( o$ (h&(Th&( wou%"n’( h&**en &g&in- The %oss o$ )y g%&)our wou%"n’( "e(er )e- ! w&s s(i% & knigh(, her knigh(- An" !’" re(urn (o (he gir% !’" sworn (o *ro(ec(! rose, *re*&re" (o $in" Puck &n" Arie% & &n" (e% (he) ! w&s $ine, (h&( ! w&s *re*&re" (o con(inue (he (ri&%s- +u( be$ore ! cou%" )o'e, & "&rk sh&*e" &**e&re" in (he corner o$ )y eye, &n" (he #u&r"i&n s(oo" besi"e )e- No w&rning, no ri**%e o$ *ower or )&gic (o &nnounce i(s &rri'&%- !( w&s /us( (here“!( is (i)e, (he hoo"e" $igure s(&(e" &s ! s(i$ %e" (he urge (o s(e* ou( o$ i(s co%", "&rk sh&"ow- “You h&'e )&"e your "ecision, so %e( us con(inue“! (hough( ! h&" (i% "&wn“!( is "&wn- The #u&r"i&n’s 'oice w&s co%", )&((er-o$-$&c(- “Ti)e )o'es "i$$eren(%y here, knigh(- A sing%e "&y c&n *&ss in & he&r(be&(, or & %i$e(i)e!( )&((ers no(- The secon" (es( is u*on us- Are you re&"y? “How wi% ! know i$ !’'e *&sse"? “There is no *&ss or $&i%- Th&( co%", in$or)&% (one ne'er ch&nge"- “There is on%y en"ure1ur'i'eEn"ure- 1ur'i'e- ! cou%" "o (h&(- “A% righ(, (hen, ! s&i", br&cing )yse%$- “!’) re&"y“Then %e( us begin- R&ising i(s s(&$$, i( (&**e" i( once &g&ins( (he s(one $ %oor- There w&s & $ %&sh, &n" e'ery(hing "is&**e&re"-


“Nice sho(, %i((%e bro(her- ,&ybe ne.( (i)e, we c&n $in" so)e(hing (h&( *u(s u* )ore o$ & $igh(- ! w&s &bou( (o $&% &s%ee* in (he s&""%e! ignore" Row&n &n" &**ro&che" (he s(&g where i( %&y, s(i% (hr&shing in (he gr&ss- A whi(e &rrow /u((e" behin" i(s $ron( %egs, s(r&igh( (hrough i(s he&r(, &n" (he be&s(’s )ou(h &n" nos(ri%s were s*&((ere" wi(h b%oo"y $o&)- !( ro% e" i(s eyes &( )e &n" (rie" (o rise, bu( $e% , kicking we&k%y, no( 9ui(e re&%i2ing i( w&s "e&"- ! "rew )y hun(ing kni$e, &n" one 9uick s%&sh (o (he (hro&( ce&se" i(s s(rugg%es $ore'er! she&(he" (he b%&"e, g&2ing "own &( (he (wi(ching cre&(ure, so)ehow s)&% er in "e&(h (h&n in %i$e- “Too e&sy, ! )u((ere", cur%ing & %i* in "is"&in“These )or(&% be&s(s &re no ch&% enge &( &% - !(’s no $un hun(ing so)e(hing (h&( "ies so e&si%yRow&n snickere" &s ! y&nke" )y &rrow $ree &n" w&%ke" b&ck (o )y horse, %e&'ing (he *&(he(ic cre&(ure (o b%ee" ou( in (he "ir(- “You’re /us( no( hun(ing (he righ( 9u&rry, he s&i" &s ! swung in(o (he s&""%e- “You kee* ch&sing (hese &ni)&%s, ho*ing (hey c&n sur'i'e )ore (h&n &n &$(ernoon- !$ you w&n( & ch&% enge, )&ybe you nee" (o ch&nge (&c(ics“5ike wh&(? T&%k (he) (o "e&(h? !’% %e&'e (h&( u* (o you- “Oh, h&r h&r- Row&n ro% e" his eyes- “,y %i((%e bro(her is &roun" & $ew "ec&"es &n" (hinks he knows e'ery(hing- 5is(en (o so)eone who’s %i'e" & $ew cen(uries- !$ you w&n( & re&% ch&% enge, you nee" (o s(o* ch&sing (hese &ni)&%s &n" *ursue & 9u&rry (h&( c&n &c(u&% y (hink“You’re (&%king &bou( hu)&ns, ! )u((ere" &s we ro"e (hrough (he $ores(, b&ck (ow&r" (he (ro" (h&( h&" brough( us here- “!’'e hun(e" (he) be$oreThey’re %ess o$ & ch&% enge (h&n shoo(ing "e&" go&(s“Oh, %i((%e bro(her- Row&n shook his he&" &( )e- “You h&'e such & one-(r&ck )in"There &re o(her w&ys (o ?hun(’ hu)&ns, o(her (hen ri"ing (he) "own &n" *u((ing &n &rrow in (heir sku% s- They’re & )uch )ore in(eres(ing 9u&rry &%i'e (hen "e&"- You shou%" (ry i( so)e(i)e“You )e&n how you hun( (he)? ! snor(e"- “Th&(’s %ess hun(ing &n" )ore (oying wi(h your *rey, %ike & c&(“3on’( be so s)ug, Ash- Row&n s)irke" &( )e, & si%en( ch&% enge- “Pursuing & )or(&%’s he&r(, )&king her $&% $or you, s%ow%y en(&ng%ing her (o (he *oin( where she wou%" *ro)ise you &ny(hing, (&kes )uch )ore ski% (hen si)*%y s(icking &n &rrow (hrough so)eone’s ches(- The hu)&n he&r( is (he )os( "i$$icu%( 9u&rry o$ &% - His s)irk grew wi"er, (urning in(o & %eer- “!n $&c(, !’) no( sure you cou%" "o i(“8ho s&i" !’" w&n( (o? ! ignore" his b&i(ing- “!’'e seen )or(&%s ?in %o'e’ be$ore- They’re b%in" &n" $oo%ish, &n" (heir he&r(s &re so $r&gi%e- 8h&( wou%" ! "o wi(h such & (hing i$ ! h&" i(? “8h&(e'er you w&n(, %i((%e bro(her- 8h&(e'er you w&n(- Row&n g&'e )e (h&( s)ug, su*erior grin (h&( )&"e )e bris(%e- “+u(, ! un"ers(&n" i$ you’re &$r&i"- !$ you "on’( (hink you c&n "o i(- ! /us( (hough( (h&( you’" w&n( & )ore in(eres(ing hun(, bu( i$ i(’s (oo ch&% enging $or you>

“A% righ(- ! sighe"- “You’% gi'e )e no *e&ce o(herwise- Poin( )e (o & )or(&% &n" !’% )&ke i( $&% in %o'e wi(h )eRow&n %&ughe"- “,y %i((%e bro(her is growing u*- He sneere", &s we (urne" our )oun(s (ow&r" (he e"ge o$ (he $ores(Once we were c%ose (o our *rey, i( "i"n’( (&ke us %ong (o $in" & %ike%y (&rge(- As we &**ro&che" (he cru"e woo"en $ence (h&( se*&r&(e" (he hu)&n’s g%&"e $ro) (he res( o$ (he $ores(, $&in(, o$$-key singing su""en%y re&che" our e&rs, &n" we *u% e" our )oun(s (o & h&%(“There- Row&n *oin(e"- ! $o% owe" his $inger, &n" )y eyebrows rose in sur*rise+eyon" (he $ence &n" (he e"ge o$ (he (rees, & s(re&) b&bb%e" i(s w&y &cross & rocky $ie%", where & g&(hering o$ (h&(che" hu(s s(oo" in & %oose se)icirc%e &roun" & %&rge $ire *i(- One o$ (he )&ny s)&% hu)&n se((%e)en(s in (he &re&, (his one (e)*(e" $&(e by si((ing on (he 'ery e"ge o$ (he $ores(- They r&re%y 'en(ure" c%ose (o (he (rees, &n" ne'er %e$( (heir houses &$(er "&rk, $or goo" re&son- #ob%ins s(i% consi"ere" (his (heir (erri(ory, &n" ! knew o$ )ore (h&n one *houk& (h&( ro&)e" (hese woo"s &( nigh(- ! "i"n’( know )uch &bou( (hese hu)&ns e.ce*( (h&( (hey were & s)&% "rui"ic (ribe, &((e)*(ing (o %i'e in *e&ce wi(h (he %&n" &n" (he $ores( /us( ou(si"e (heir 'i% &ge w&% s- !( w&s risky &n" $oo%ish, &s &% hu)&ns (en"e" (o be, bu( &( %e&s( (hey showe" (he *ro*er res*ec(1o i( w&s sur*rising (o see one o$ (he) &%one on (he b&nks o$ (he s(re&), hu))ing &s she *icke" (he wi%"$ %owers (h&( grew c%ose (o (he $ores(- 1he w&s young &s hu)&ns wen(, "resse" in & si)*%e shi$(, b&re$oo( &n" b&re$&ce"- Her "&rk h&ir g%e&)e" in (he sunshineRow&n s)i%e" his (oo(hy wo%$-s)i%e &n" (urne" (o )e“A% righ(, %i((%e bro(her- There’s your (&rge(“The gir%? “No, $oo%- H&'en’( you been %is(ening (o )e? ,y bro(her ro% e" his eyes- “Her he&r(- Her bo"y &n" )in" &n" sou%- ,&ke her %o'e you- Ensure (h&( she gi'es herse%$ (o you co)*%e(e%y, (h&( she c&n (hink o$ no(hing e%se bu( you- !$ you c&n "o (h&(, (hen you’% be & hun(er &)ong hun(ers- He sneere" &n" %ooke" "own his nose- “!$ you’re u* (o (he ch&% enge, (h&( is! %ooke" b&ck (o (he gir%, s(i% hu))ing &s she *icke" h&n"$u%s o$ $orge(-)e-no(s, &n" $e%( & s)i%e s(re(ching )y $&ce- !’" ne'er *ursue" & )or(&% he&r( be$oreA (his cou%" be> in(eres(ing- “!s (here & (i)e in which ! h&'e (o "o (his? ! &ske"Row&n *on"ere" (h&( 9ues(ion- “8e% , (he bes(-%&i" *%&ns &re no( concei'e" in & "&y, he )use", w&(ching (he gir%- “+u(, i( shou%"n’( be "i$$icu%( $or you (o win & )or(&%’s &$$ec(ions, es*eci&% y one &s young &s (h&(- 5e(’s s&y, (he ne.( $u% )oon- #e( her (o $o% ow you (o (he s(one circ%e &n" *%e"ge her un"ying %o'e- !’% be (here, w&i(ing $or you bo(h“!’% be (here, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, re'e%ing in & wor(hy ch&% enge, “wi(h (he hu)&n- 5e( )e show you how i(’s "oneRow&n g&'e )e & )ocking s&%u(e, (urne" his horse &n" '&nishe" in(o (he $ores(3is)oun(ing, ! &**ro&che" (he hu)&n si%en(%y, using g%&)our (o )&sk )y *resence un(i% ! s(oo" &( (he 'ery e"ge o$ (he $ores(, (he gir% on%y & s(one’s (hrow &w&y- ! "i"n’( re'e&% )yse%$ (o her &( $irs(- 5ike &% *ursui(s, ! beg&n by s(u"ying )y 9u&rry, obser'ing i(s

s(reng(hs &n" we&knesses, %e&rning i(s h&bi(s &n" *&((erns- !$ ! /us( &**e&re" ou( o$ (he (rees, ! )igh( s*ook her &n" she )igh( no( re(urn (o (he &re&, so c&u(ion w&s necess&ry &( $irs(1he w&s s%en"er &n" gr&ce$u%, 'ery "eer%ike in so)e w&ys, which )&"e (he hun( &% (he )ore in(riguing &n" $&)i%i&r- Her "&rk eyes were 9ui(e %&rge $or & hu)&n, gi'ing her & cons(&n( s(&r(%e" e.*ression, bu( she )o'e" $ro) bush (o bush wi(h & gener&% un&w&reness, &s i$ & be&r cou%" co)e %u)bering ou( o$ (he (rees &n" she wou%"n’( e'en no(ice1he swoo*e" "own &bru*(%y, *%unging her h&n" in(o (he s(re&) &n" e)erge" c%u(ching & s)oo(h (ur9uoise *ebb%e, which she (urne" o'er in ob'ious "e%igh(- A( once ! s)i%e", w&(ching her "ro* (he s(one in(o her *ocke(, knowing (he b&i( (h&( wou%" %ure )y *rey (o )e1o, you %ike shiny (hings, "o you, %i((%e )or(&%? Crouching, ! *icke" u* & *%&in gr&y *ebb%e &n" co'ere" i( in )y $is(, "r&wing & (iny bi( o$ g%&)our $ro) (he &ir- 8hen ! o*ene" )y h&n", (he once "u% s(one w&s now & g%i((ering s&**hire, &n" ! (osse" (he g%&)oure" i(e) in(o (he s(re&)1he $oun" i( &%)os( i))e"i&(e%y, &n" *ounce" wi(h & s9ue&% o$ "e%igh(, ho%"ing i( u* so i( s*&rk%e" in (he sun- ! s)i%e" &n" "rew &w&y, w&%king b&ck (o )y )oun( wi(h & $ee%ing o$ s&(is$&c(ion, knowing she wou%" be (here (o)orrow! %e$( her & si%'er ch&in (he ne.( "&y, w&(ching her coo o'er i( wi(h (he s&)e "e%igh( (he g%&)oure" ge) h&" gi'en her, &n" (he ne.( &$(ernoon she &")ire" (he go%"en ring on her $inger $or & %ong, %ong (i)e, be$ore "ro**ing (he (re&sure in(o her *ocke(- ! "i"n’( h&'e &ny $e&r o$ her showing i( (o &nyone e%seA )uch %ike crows &n" )&g*ies, she "i"n’( w&n( &nyone (o s(e&% her (re&sures, or 9ues(ion where she go( (he)- An" (he g%&)our on (he i(e)s e'en(u&% y $&"e", %e&'ing rocks &n" %e&'es in (heir *%&ce- ! knew she won"ere" wh&( h&" beco)e o$ (he)A *erh&*s she (o%" herse%$ (h&( she "ro**e" or )is*%&ce" her (re&sures, choosing (o ignore (he ob'ious &nswer- Perh&*s she sus*ec(e" (he (ru(h &n" knew she shou%" be w&ry, bu( ! &%so knew her gree" wou%" kee* her co)ing b&ckThe $o% owing "&y, ! "i"n’( %e&'e her &ny(hing, bu( w&(che" her $ %oun"er &bou( in (he s(re&) $or hours, se&rching &n" growing "es*on"en(, un(i% e'ening $e% &n" she %e$( on (he 'erge o$ (e&rs- An" ! s)i%e" (o )yse%$, &%re&"y *%&nning (he ne.( s(&ge- !( w&s (i)e (o )o'e in $or (he ki% The ne.( &$(ernoon, ! *u( & sing%e whi(e rose on & $ %&( rock ne&r (he s(re&), $&"e" in(o (he woo"s &n" w&i(e"1he w&sn’( %ong in co)ing, &n" when she s&w (he rose she g&s*e" &n" *icke" i( u* &%)os( re'eren(%y, ho%"ing i( &s i$ i( w&s )&"e o$ *ures( crys(&%As she s(r&igh(ene" &n" g&2e" &roun", eyes shining wi(h ho*e, ! "ro**e" (he g%&)our &n" s(e**e" ou( o$ (he (rees1he /u)*e" %ike & s(&r(%e" "eer bu(, &s ! h&" *re"ic(e", )&"e no )o'e (o run- ! %e( her s(&re &( )e, w&i(ing $or (he shock (o $&"e- :nowing hu)&ns $oun" us be&u(i$u%, !’" "resse" (he *&r( o$ (he *rince in b%&ck-&n"-si%'er, )y c&*e $&% ing o'er one shou%"er &n" )y swor" &( )y w&is(- 1he g&*e" &( )e %ike & %&n"e" $ish, her "&rk eyes wi"e wi(h $e&r, bu( &%so wi(h & %i((%e won"er &n"

Cery c&re$u% y, ! %e( )y g%&)our se((%e o'er her, (&king &w&y her $e&r, %e&'ing on%y (he &we behin"- Hu)&n e)o(ions were $ick%e (hings, e&sy (o in$ %uence- ! cou%" h&'e ench&n(e" her, )&"e her $&% co)*%e(e%y in %o'e &( $irs( sigh(, bu( (h&( wou%" be che&(ing, &ccor"ing (o Row&n- Th&( w&s $&bric&(e" %o'e, where (he )or(&% w&s no )ore (h&n & $&wning, g%&ssy-eye" s%&'e- To co)*%e(e%y own her, bo"y &n" sou%, (ook c&re$u% )&ni*u%&(ion &n" (i)e1(i% , (here w&s no re&son ! cou%"n’( %e'e% (he $ie%" & bi(“;orgi'e )e, ! s&i" in & coo%, soo(hing 'oice &s (he gir% con(inue" (o s(&re- “! "i"n’( )e&n (o s(&r(%e you- !’'e been w&(ching you $or so)e (i)e, &n" ! cou%"n’( s(&y &w&y &ny %onger- ! ho*e you "i"n’( $in" )y gi$(s i% -)&nnere"The gir% o*ene" her )ou(h, bu( no soun"s esc&*e"- ! w&i(e" (wo he&r(be&(s, (hen (urne" &w&y, bowing )y he&"“8h&( &) ! s&ying? ! con(inue" be$ore she cou%" res*on"- “Here ! &), &c(ing %ike &n unci'i%i2e" b&rb&ri&n, s(&%king you $ro) (he woo"s- O$ course, you "on’( w&n( (o see )e %ike (his0! shou%" go“No, w&i(! (he gir% crie", /us( &s ! h&" *%&nne"- ! (urne" b&ck wi(h & “"&re ! ho*e e.*ression, &n" she s)i%e" &( )e &cross (he w&(er- “! "on’( )in", she s&i", su""en%y b&sh$u% &n" coy, (wis(ing her h&n"s behin" her b&ck- “You c&n s(&y> i$ you w&n(! hi" )y s)i%e- E&sier (h&n ! (hough(The gir%’s n&)e, she (o%" )e, w&s +rynn&, &n" she w&s (he "&ugh(er o$ (he "rui" *ries(ess who %e" (he 'i% &ge- Her gr&n")o(her w&s & 'ery *ower$u% sh&)&n, &n" 'ery s(ric(, $orbi""ing &nyone (o go in(o (he $ores( or e'en ne&r i(s bor"ers, $or $e&r o$ (he #oo" Neighbors (h&( %urke" wi(hin (he (rees- +u( (he $ %owers (h&( grew &%ong (he e"ge o$ (he $ores( were (he )os( be&u(i$u%, &n" +rynn& %o'e" be&u(i$u% (hings, so she w&i(e" un(i% her gr&n")o(her w&s n&**ing be$ore she s%i**e" ou( o$ (he 'i% &ge &n" "own (o (he s(re&)“An" why "oes your gr&n")o(her h&(e (he #oo" Neighbors so? ! &ske", s)i%ing &( (he )or(&%s’ o"" n&)e $or us, which (hey use" bec&use, su**ose"%y, 'oicing our re&% n&)es )igh( "r&w our &((en(ion- ! s)i%e" &( (he gir%, $eigning curiosi(y whi%e (in(ing (he &ir wi(h g%&)our, sub"uing &ny $e&rs she )igh( h&'e“1he>she "oesn’( h&(e (he), +rynn& wen( on, ner'ous%y *ushing her h&ir b&ck- “1he $e&rs (he)- 1he’s &$r&i" o$ wh&( (hey )igh( "o0ki% our %i'es(ock, s(e&% our chi%"ren, )&ke (he wo)en un$er(i%e“An", &re you &$r&i" o$ (he)? ! &ske" in & %ow 'oice, c%osing (he $in&% $ew $ee( be(ween us- Cery gen(%y, ! re&che" $or her rough, work-c&% use" h&n"s, ho%"ing (he) (o )y ches(“Are you &$r&i" o$ )e? 1he g&2e" u* &( )y $&ce, "&rk eyes shining wi(h $oo%ish (rus(, &n" shook her he&"“!’) g%&"- ! s)i%e" &n" kisse" (he b&ck o$ her h&n"- “,&y ! see you &g&in (o)orrow? ! knew (he &nswer e'en be$ore she no""e"!( w&s e&sy &$(er (h&(, (hough ! (ook )y (i)e wi(h her, w&n(ing (o *%&y (he g&)e righ(E'ery &$(ernoon, righ( be$ore (wi%igh(, ! )e( her &( (he s(re&)-

1o)e(i)es wi(h (rinke(s, so)e(i)es wi(h $ %owers, &%w&ys wi(h so)e sor( o$ gi$( (h&( wou%" kee* her re(urning (o )e- ! showere" her wi(h co)*%i)en(s &n" (en"er kisses, *%&ying (he s)i((en $oo%, s)i%ing &s she )e%(e" un"er )y (ouch- ! ne'er *ushe" (oo $&r, being sure (o en" e&ch )ee(ing be$ore i( go( ou( o$ h&n"- 8hen ! e'en(u&% y (ook her, &( (he s(one circ%e on (he nigh( o$ (he $u% )oon, ! w&n(e" (here (o be no "oub(s in her )in"As (he g&)e *rogresse", ! e'en $oun" )yse%$ en/oying (hese %i((%e encoun(ers- Hu)&ns, ! "isco'ere", %o'e" so *&ssion&(e%y, wi(hou( reser'&(ion, &n" (he s(ronger (he e)o(ion (he brigh(er (heir g%&)our bec&)e- The g%&)our &ur& o$ & )or(&% in %o'e ou(shone &ny(hing !’" e'er seen be$ore, so *ure &n" in(ense i( w&s &%)os( &""ic(i'e- ! cou%" see why (he 1u))er Cour( *ursue" (hese e)o(ions wi(h such *&ssionA (here w&s no(hing %ike (he) in &ny o$ (he cour(s1(i% , i( w&s on%y & g&)e- ! )igh(’'e )i)icke" (he wor"s &n" ges(ures o$ & )&n in %o'e, bu( e)o(ion, &s (he 8in(er Cour( (&ugh( )e, w&s & we&kness- An" when (he $u% )oon rose o'er (he (rees on (he %&s( nigh( o$ (he g&)e, ! knew she w&s )ine1he &**ro&che" e&ger%y (hrough (he gr&ss un"er (he *&%e %igh( o$ (he $u% )oon, so e&ger in her h&s(e (o re&ch (he s(re&) she (ri**e" & $ew (i)es &n" wen( s*r&w%ing- 1he "i"n’( s*&re &ny g%&nces b&ck &( (he 'i% &ge, "es*i(e (he unusu&% (i)e !’" re9ues(e" (o )ee(- A $ew "&ys &go, she )igh(’'e b&%ke" &( (he (hough( o$ )ee(ing & 'ir(u&% s(r&nger &%one in (he woo"s in (he "e&" o$ nigh(- +u( now she hurrie" e&ger%y $orw&r", no "oub(s in her )in"1he (rus(e" her *rince, co)*%e(e%y &n" wi(hou( reser'&(ion- 8h&( %o'e wi% "o (o & )or(&%! hung b&ck & $ew )inu(es, obser'ing her &s she re&che" (he s(re&), g&2ing &roun" $or )y sh&"ow- 1he wou%"n’( see )e, o$ course, e'en (hough ! w&s s(&n"ing bu( & $ew y&r"s &cross (he s(re&)- #%&)oure" &n" in'isib%e, /us( &no(her sh&"ow in (he (rees, ! w&(che" her- Though her e&gerness soon (urne" (o concern &( )y &bsence, &n" she beg&n w&%king u* &n" "own (he s(re&), %ooking $or )e, her con$i"ence ne'er w&'ere", ne'er (urne" (o "oub(- 1he w&s cer(&in her *rince wou%" be (here, or (h&( so)e(hing h&" "e(&ine" hi) $ro) co)ing- ;oo%ish )or(&%;in&% y, &s she ho'ere" on (he 'erge o$ (e&rs, ! she" )y g%&)our &n" s(e**e" ou( o$ (he (rees- 1he g&s*e" &n" brigh(ene" ins(&n(%y, %o'e $i% ing her eyes &n" )&king (he) shine, bu( ! "i"n’( cross (he s(re&) &n" go (o her- ;eigning sorrow, ! s(oo" on (he o**osi(e b&nk, wi(h (he woo"s &( )y b&ck, &n" g&'e her & gen(%e s)i%e“;orgi'e )e $or being so %&(e, ! s&i", *u((ing (he righ( &)oun( o$ re)orse in )y 'oice“+u( ! w&n(e" (o see you one %&s( (i)e- !’) &$r&i" (his wi% be our %&s( )ee(ing- !’'e co)e (o re&%i2e we &re $ro) (wo "i$$eren( wor%"s, &n" ! c&nno( gi'e you (he kin" o$ %i$e you’" w&n(- You &re be&u(i$u% &n" kin", &n" ! wou%" on%y (&ke (h&( &w&y- 1o, i( is bes( (h&( ! %e&'e- A$(er (onigh(, you wi% no( see )e &g&inThe resu%( w&s "e'&s(&(ing, &s ! knew i( wou%" be- Her eyes $i% e" wi(h (e&rs, &n" her h&n"s $ %ew (o her $&ce, co'ering her )ou(h in horror- “No! 1he g&s*e", & (hre&" o$ *&nic in her 'oice- “Oh, no! P%e&se, you c&n’(! 8h&(>wi% ! "o> i$ you &re gone? An" she co% &*se" in(o sh&king sobs! hi" & s)i%e &n" crosse" (he s(re&), g&(hering her in(o )y &r)s- “3on’( cry, ! whis*ere", s(roking her h&ir- “Tru%y, i(’s be((er (his w&y- Your *eo*%e wou%" ne'er &cce*( )e0(hey wou%" "ri'e )e &w&y wi(h iron &n" (orches &n" "o (heir bes( (o ki% )e- They

wou%" "o i( (o *ro(ec( you- ! &) on%y being se%$ish, )ee(ing you %ike (his+rynn& sni$$ %e" &n" g&2e" u* &( )e, ug%y b%&ck "es*&ir swir%ing wi(h $ierce "e(er)in&(ion- “! "on’( c&re wh&( &nyone s&ys! T&ke )e &w&y wi(h you- !’% "o &ny(hing, &ny(hing you w&n(- 6us( *%e&se "on’( %e&'e- !’% "ie i$ you go! 8e e)br&ce", (he gir% res(ing &g&ins( )y ches(, her g%&)our &ur& shi))ering &roun" us;in&% y, ! "rew b&ck, g&2ing in(o her eyes- “3o you %o'e )e, +rynn&? 1he no""e" wi(hou( hesi(&(ion- “8i(h )y who%e he&r(- “8ou%" you "o &ny(hing $or )e? “Yes- 1he c%u(che" &( )y shir(- “! wou%", )y %o'e- Ask )e- Any(hing! "rew b&ck, beyon" (he $ence, un(i% (he sh&"ows o$ (he (rees $e% o'er )y $&ce- “Co)e, (hen, ! )ur)ure", ho%"ing ou( & h&n" (o her- “Co)e wi(h )e- An" ! w&i(e"- 8&i(e" (o see i$ ye&rs o$ u*bringing, o$ $e&rs &n" c&u(ion&ry (&%es &n" coun(%ess w&rnings &bou( $o% owing & be&u(i$u% *rince in(o (he $ores(, wou%" be $orgo((en in & he&r(be&(1he "i"n’( hesi(&(e- 8i(hou( e'en & b&ckw&r" g%&nce &( her 'i% &ge, she s(e**e" $orw&r" &n" *u( her h&n" in )ine, s)i%ing u* &( )e wi(h chi%"%ike (rus(- ! s)i%e" b&ck, &n" %e" her in(o (he $ores(“8here &re we going? she &ske" & bi( %&(er, s(i% ho%"ing )y h&n" &s we hurrie" (hrough (he (rees- 1h&"ows c%&we" &( us, &n" br&nches re&che" ou(, (rying (o sn&g her c%o(hes wi(h (wiggy (&%ons- They knew & hu)&n in (he $ores( "i"n’( be%ong, bu( +rynn& re)&ine" b%iss$u% y un&w&re, on%y h&**y (o be wi(h her *rince e'en &s he "r&gge" her (hrough & "&rk woo" where (he 'ery (rees (ook o$$ense &( her *resence- “You’% see, ! re*%ie", "e$(%y *u% ing her si"ew&ys (o &'oi" & (hornbush (h&( %urche" in(o her *&(h- An", bec&use ! knew she wou%" con(inue (o *es(er )e un(i% ! g&'e in, ! &""e", “!(’s & sur*riseA wi% -o’-(he-wis* (r&i%e" behin" us, bobbing (hrough (he (rees, &((e)*(ing (o c&(ch her &((en(ion- ! g%&re" &( i( &n" i( s*un &w&y, $&in( %&ugh(er echoing (hrough (he br&nches- A gob%in r&ise" & w&r(y he&" &n" g%&re" &( us (hrough (he bushes, running & b%&ck (ongue o'er /&gge" (ee(h, bu( "i"n’( "&re &**ro&ch- +rynn& see)e" b%in" (o &ny o$ (his, hu))ing so$(%y &s she $o% owe" )e (hrough (he woo"sThe $ores( o*ene" in(o & (iny, roun" c%e&ring, where s(one *i% &rs s(oo" in & circ%e &roun" & )&rb%e &%(&r- !( w&s use" $or )&ny (hings0"&ncing, b%oo"%e((ing, s&cri$ices0&n" (onigh( i( wou%" be use" $or so)e(hing e%se- +rynn& c&s( one curious g%&nce &( (he circ%e o$ s(one be$ore (urning her &((en(ion b&ck (o )e, s)i%ing- 1he sus*ec(e" no(hingRow&n s(oo" ne&rby, %e&ning &g&ins( one o$ (he *i% &rs wi(h his &r)s crosse", s)irking &( )e- He w&s g%&)oure", in'isib%e (o )or(&% eyes, &n" (he sigh( o$ hi) $i% e" )e wi(h reso%'e- !’" co)e (his $&r- !( w&s (i)e (o $inish (he g&)e#en(%y, ! "rew +rynn& (ow&r" (he &%(&r, &n" she $o% owe" wi(hou( hesi(&(ion, s(i% (rus(ing her *rince (o kee* her s&$e- 5i$(ing her u*, ! s&( her on (he &%(&r, (&king her h&n"s in )ine, g&2ing in(o her eyes“3o you %o'e )e? ! &ske" &g&in, )y 'oice 'ery, 'ery so$(- 1he no""e" bre&(h%ess%y-

“Then, *ro'e i(, ! )ur)ure"- “! w&n( your bo"y, &n" your sou% &n" e'ery(hing you h&'e- ! w&n( i( &% - Tonigh(1he hesi(&(e" $or & )o)en(, *u22%e", bu( (hen un"ers(&n"ing "&wne" in her eyes- 8i(hou( & wor", she %e&ne" b&ck &n" s%i**e" ou( o$ her "ress, b&ring young, n&ke" skin (o (he )oon%igh(- Re&ching b&ck, she *u% e" ou( (he (ie (h&( he%" her h&ir b&ck, %e((ing i( $&% &bou( her shou%"ers in & "&rk c&sc&"e- ! %e( )y eyes ro&) "own her s%i), *&%e bo"y, so $r&gi%e &n" un(&in(e" &n" s(e**e" u* besi"e her5ying b&ck on (he co%" s(one, she we%co)e" )e wi(h o*en &r)s, &n" ! (ook e'ery(hing she o$$ere", e'ery(hing she cou%" gi'e, &s Row&n s(oo" ne&rby &n" w&(che" wi(h & 'icious s)i%e8hen i( w&s o'er, she %&y "re&)ing &n" s*en( in )y &r)s- 8i(hou( w&king her, ! s(oo", s%i**e" noise%ess%y o$$ (he &%(&r &n" in(o )y c%o(hes, *on"ering wh&( h&" /us( h&**ene"“8e% , congr&(u%&(ions, %i((%e bro(her- Row&n &**e&re" besi"e )e, s(i% hi""en $ro) hu)&n senses, grinning %ike & wo%$ wi(h & %&)b- “You brough( "own your 9u&rry- The g&)e is &%)os( $inishe"“A%)os(? !’" g%&)oure" )yse%$ (o re)&in unseen &n" unhe&r", &s +rynn& s%e*( on“8h&( "o you )e&n, &%)os(? ! h&'e her he&r(- 1he g&'e i( (o )e $ree%y &n" wi% ing%y- 1he %o'es )e0(h&( w&s (he g&)e“No( 9ui(e- Row&n g%&nce" &( (he s%ee*ing gir% wi(h & sneer- “To (ru%y $inish (he g&)e, you h&'e (o bre&k her- +o"y &n" sou%- Crush her he&r(, &n" )&ke i( so she c&n ne'er $in" (rue %o'e &g&in, bec&use no(hing wi% co)*&re (o wh&( she h&" wi(h you“!sn’( (h&( & %i((%e e.cessi'e? ! w&'e" & h&n" &( (he )or(&% on (he &%(&r- “! brough( her here- 1he g&'e herse%$ (o )e- !(’s "one- !’% %e&'e her wi(h her 'i% &ge &n" won’( see her &g&in- 1he’% $orge(, e'en(u&% y“3on’( be so n&H'e- Row&n shook his he&"- “You know (hey c&n’( $orge( us- No( when we’'e gone (hrough &% (he (roub%e o$ e&rning (heir %o'e- !$ you %e&'e wi(hou( bre&king her he&r(, she’% be &( (h&( s(re&), %ooking $or you, un(i% (he "&y she "ies- 1he )igh( e'en 'en(ure in(o (he $ores( in her "es*&ir &n" ge( e&(en by (ro% s or wo%'es or so)e(hing horrib%e- 1o, i(’s &c(u&% y & kin"ness (h&( you se( her $ree- He crosse" his &r)s &n" %e&ne" b&ck, gi'ing )e & )ocking %ook- “Re&% y, %i((%e bro(her- 3i" you (hink (his wou%" h&'e & h&**i%ye'er-&$(er? +e(ween & )or(&% &n" & $ey? How "i" you (hink (his w&s going (o en"? His grin (urne" $&in(%y s&'&ge- “;inish wh&( you s(&r(e", Ash, un%ess you’" %ike )e (o ki% her now, so you won’( h&'e (o! g%&re" &( hi)- “Cery we% , ! sn&**e"- “+u( you’% s(&y hi""en un(i% i(’s "one- This is )y g&)e s(i% , e'en nowHe grinne"- “O$ course, %i((%e bro(her, he s&i", &n" b&cke" &w&y, ges(uring (o (he &%(&r“1he’s &% yours! (urne" b&ck (o +rynn&, w&(ching her s%ee*- ! "i"n’( c&re wh&( Row&n s&i"A bre&king her w&s no( *&r( o$ (he g&)e- ! cou%" e&si%y (&ke her b&ck (o (he 'i% &ge &n" %e&'e her (here, &n" she wou%" ne'er know wh&( h&" beco)e o$ her *rince- +re&king & )or(&%’s he&r( w&s Row&n’s g&)eA so)e(hing he re'e%e" in, &$(er using hu)&ns so co)*%e(e%y (hey were e)*(y husks- ! w&sn’( %ike Row&nA e'ery(hing he (ouche", he )&"e sure (o "es(roy-

1(i% , *erh&*s i( w&s be((er (o ensure she ne'er c&)e &$(er )e- 1he w&s on%y & )or(&%, bu( !’" grown so)ewh&( $on" o$ her in our (i)e (oge(her, %ike & $&'ori(e "og or horse- !( wou%"n’( bo(her )e i$ she go( herse%$ hur( or e&(en w&n"ering &i)%ess%y (hrough (he $ores(, bu( i( wou%"n’( *%e&se )e, ei(her! %e( her s%ee* un(i% "&wn, gi'ing her one %&s( nigh( o$ *e&ce, her "re&)s who%e &n" in(&c(As (he )oon w&ne" &n" (he s(&rs beg&n (o $&"e $ro) (he sky, ! co'ere" (he &%(&r wi(h & (hin shee( o$ $ros(, &n" (he co%" w&s enough (o w&ke her+%inking, she s&( u*, shi'ering &n" con$use", (&king in her surroun"ings- 1eeing )e s(&n"ing besi"e one o$ (he *i% &rs, she brigh(ene" &n" (he s%ee*iness "ro**e" $ro) her $&ce- ;in"ing her shi$(, she 9uick%y s%i**e" i( on &n" (ro((e" u*, &r)s o*en (o e)br&ce )e! "i"n’( s)i%e &s she c&)e u*, $ her wi(h & co%" g%&re, $i% ing (he &ir wi(h g%&)our so (he &ir &roun" )e (urne" $rigi"- 1he s(u)b%e" (o & h&%( & $ew $ee( &w&y, & $ %icker o$ con$usion crossing her $&ce“,y %o'e? 5ooking "own &( her, ! re&%i2e" i( wou%" be e&sy- 1he w&s so $r&gi%e, her he&r( %ike & (hin g%&ss b&% in )y $is(, $i% e" wi(h e)o(ion &n" ho*es &n" "re&)s- A $ew wor"s, (h&( w&s &% i( wou%" (&ke, (o (urn (his brigh(, e&ger cre&(ure in(o & broken, ho% ow she% - 8h&( Row&n s&i" c&)e b&ck (o )e, (&un(ing )y ignor&nce- 3i" you (hink (his wou%" h&'e & h&**i%y e'er &$(er? +e(ween & )or(&% &n" & $ey? How "i" you (hink (his w&s going (o en"? ! )e( her eyes, s)i%e" co%"%y &n" sh&((ere" (he i% usion- “#o ho)e, hu)&n1he $&%(ere", her %i* (re)b%ing- “8-wh&(? “!’) bore" wi(h (his- Crossing )y &r)s, ! %e&ne" b&ck &n" g&'e her & "is"&in$u% %ook“You’'e beco)e boring, &% (h&( (&%k o$ %o'e &n" "es(iny &n" )&rri&ge“+u(>bu(, you s&i">! (hough(> “Th&(, wh&(? 8e’" ge( )&rrie"? Run &w&y (oge(her? H&'e & broo" o$ h&%$-hu)&n chi%"ren? ! sneere", sh&king )y he&", &n" she wi%(e" e'en $ur(her- “! ne'er in(en"e" (o )&rry you, hu)&n- This w&s & g&)e, &n" (he g&)e is o'er now- #o ho)e- ;orge( &% o$ (his, bec&use !’) going (o "o (he s&)e“! (hough(>! (hough( you %o'e" )e>“! "on’( know wh&( %o'e is, ! (o%" her (ru(h$u% y- “On%y (h&( i(’s & we&kness, &n" i( shou%" ne'er be &% owe" (o consu)e you- !( wi% bre&k you in (he en"1he w&s sh&king her he&", whe(her in *ro(es( or "isbe%ie$, ! cou%"n’( (e% - Nor "i" ! c&re“None o$ (his w&s re&%, hu)&n- 3on’( (ry (o $in" )e, bec&use you wi% no( see )e &g&in8e *%&ye", you %os(- Now, s&y goo"bye1he s&nk (o her knees in & "&2e, &n" ! (urne" &w&y, s(ri"ing in(o (he (rees- A $ew )o)en(s %&(er, & horri", gu(-wrenching scre&) ren( (he &ir, sen"ing $ %ocks o$ bir"s $ %ying- ! "i"n’( %ook b&ck- As (he scre&)s con(inue", e&ch one )ore (errib%e (hen (he %&s(, ! con(inue" "ee* in(o (he $ores(, (he sense o$ &chie'e)en( o'ersh&"owe" by & (iny bi( o$ "oub(As ! &**ro&che" (he (ro" b&ck (o 8in(er, ! su""en%y re&%i2e" ! w&sn’( &%one- A $igure w&(che" )e (hrough (he (reesA (&% , "&rk, we&ring & %oose robe &n" cow% (h&( co'ere" i(s

$&ce- As ! wen( $or )y swor", i( r&ise" & gn&r%e", (wis(e" s(&$$ &n" *oin(e" i( &( )e> >! /erke" u* on (he s(one $ %oor o$ (he (e)*%e, g&s*ing, &s (he *resen( c&)e $ %oo"ing b&ck- The #u&r"i&n %oo)e" o'er )e, co%" &n" i)*&ssi'e! s(rugg%e" (o )y $ee( &n" %e&ne" &g&ins( (he w&% , (he )e)ory o$ (h&( "&y $ %&shing be$ore )e, brigh( &n" c%e&r &n" *&in$u%+rynn&- The gir% whose %i$e !’" "es(roye"- ! re)e)bere" seeing her once &$(er our %&s( )ee(ing, w&n"ering &%ong (he s(re&), her eyes g%&2e" o'er &n" b%&nk- ! ne'er s&w her &$(er (h&(, ne'er (hough( &bou( her, un(i% &n o%" "rui" *ries(ess $oun" )e one "&y- 1he in(ro"uce" herse%$ &s +rynn&’s gr&n")o(her, (he high *ries(ess o$ (he c%&n, &n" "e)&n"e" (o know i$ ! w&s (he one who h&" ki% e" her gr&n""&ugh(er- The gir% h&" $&% en in(o & "ee* "e*ression, re$using (o e&( or s%ee*, un(i% one "&y her bo"y si)*%y g&'e ou(- +rynn& h&" "ie" o$ & broken he&r(, &n" (he *ries(ess h&" co)e (o e.&c( her re'enge! curse you, "e)on! 1ou%%ess one- ;ro) (his "&y $or(h, %e( e'eryone you %o'e be (&ken $ro) you- ,&y you su$$er (he s&)e &gony &s (he gir% you "es(roye", )&y your he&r( know *&in un%ike &ny o(her, $or &s %ong &s you re)&in sou%%ess &n" e)*(y!’" %&ughe" &( her (hen, c%&i)ing (h&( ! h&" no c&*&ci(y (o %o'e, &n" her *&(he(ic curse wou%" be w&s(e" on )e- 1he on%y b&re" her ye% ow (ee(h in & s)i%e &n" s*&( in )y $&ce, righ( be$ore ! cu( o$$ her he&"! s&nk (o (he $ %oor &s (heir $&ces crow"e" )y )in", "&rk eyes g%&ring &( )e in &ccus&(ion,y bre&(h c&)e in shor( g&s*s- ! c%ose" )y eyes, bu( ! cou%"n’( esc&*e her $&ce0(he gir% ! h&" ki% e"0bec&use she h&" $&% en in %o'e,y eyes burne"- Te&rs r&n "own )y $&ce &n" $e% (o (he co%" $%oor, )&king )y 'ision b%urry- “8h&(>h&'e you "one (o )e? ! g&s*e", c%u(ching &( )y ches(, h&r"%y &b%e (o bre&(he0i( $e%( so he&'y- The #u&r"i&n reg&r"e" )e wi(hou( e.*ression, &n un)o'ing sh&"ow in (he roo)“Conscience, i( in(one", “is *&r( o$ being hu)&n- Regre( is so)e(hing no )or(&% c&n esc&*e $or %ong- !$ you c&nno( co)e (o (er)s wi(h (he )is(&kes o$ your *&s(, (hen you &re no( $i( (o h&'e & sou%! *u% e" )yse%$ in(o & si((ing *osi(ion, s%u)*ing &g&ins( (he be"- “,is(&kes, ! s&i" bi((er%y, (rying (o co)*ose )yse%$- “,y %i$e h&s been $u% o$ )is(&kes“Yes, (he #u&r"i&n &gree", r&ising i(s s(&$$- “An" we wi% re'isi( (he) &% “No, *%e&se0 Too %&(e- There w&s & b%in"ing $ %&sh o$ %igh(, &n" ! w&s so)ewhere e%se-


! r&ise" )y he&" $ro) where ! kne%( be$ore ,&b’s (hrone, $in"ing (he 9ueen s)i%ing "own &( )e- “Ash, ,&b *urre", ges(uring $or )e (o rise, “)y $&'ori(e boy- 3o you know why ! c&% e" you here? ! s(oo" w&ri%y- !’" %e&rne" ne'er (o (rus( ,&b when she use" (he wor" $&'ori(e- !’" seen her c&% so)eone her $&'ori(e righ( be$ore she $ro2e (he) &%i'e, “(o re)e)ber (he) &%w&ys %ike (his- ,ore o$(en, i( w&s & *%oy (o )&ke )y bro(hers /e&%ous, (o "ri'e us (o co)*e(e wi(h one &no(her- This en(er(&ine" her gre&(%y bu( )&"e %i$e "i$$icu%( $or )e- Row&n (ook gre&( o$$ense e&ch (i)e ! w&s (he $&'ore" son, &n" *unishe" )e $or i( whene'er he cou%"! cou%" $ee% Row&n’s g%&re &s ! s(oo", bu( ! ignore" hi) whi%e $&cing (he 9ueen- “! know no(, 4ueen ,&b, bu( wh&(e'er your re&sons, ! wi% co)*%yHer eyes g%i((ere"- “A%w&ys so $or)&%- 8ou%" i( hur( you (o s)i%e $or )e once in & b%ue )oon? Row&n is no( &$r&i" (o %ook )e in (he eyeRow&n w&s &( cour( & %o( )ore (h&n ! w&s, being groo)e" &s her counci%or &n" con$i"&n(, &n" he sh&re" her 'icious sense o$ hu)or- +u( (here w&s no w&y ! cou%" (e% her (h&(, so ! )&n&ge" & s)&% s)i%e, which see)e" (o *%e&se her- 1he se((%e" b&ck on her (hrone &n" reg&r"e" )e in &n &%)os( &$$ec(ion&(e )&nner, (hen ges(ure" (o so)e(hing behin" )eA *&ir o$ 8in(er knigh(s in icy-b%ue &r)or s(e**e" $orw&r", "r&gging so)e(hing be(ween (he), (hrowing i( &( ,&b’s $ee(- A woo" ny)*h, brown-skinne" &n" "e%ic&(e, wi(h & sh&r* *oin(e" $&ce &n" br&)b%es in her %ong green h&ir- One o$ her %egs w&s broken, sn&**e" %ike & "ry (wig &n" h&nging &( &n o"" &ng%e- 1he )o&ne", on%y b&re%y conscious, "r&gging herse%$ &cross (he $ %oor, &w&y $ro) (he $oo( o$ (he (hrone“This cre&(ure, ,&b s&i", g&2ing "own &( (he broken, *&(he(ic bo"y, “&n" se'er&% o$ i(s $rien"s &((&cke" &n" ki% e" one o$ )y knigh(s whi%e (hey were *&(ro% ing (he bor"er o$ (he wy%"woo"- The knigh(s were &b%e (o sub"ue (his one, bu( (he res( $ %e" in(o (he wy%"woo" &n" esc&*e"- 1uch &n &((&ck c&nno( go unch&% enge", bu( i( re$uses (o "isc%ose (he where&bou(s o$ i(s ho)e g%&"e- ! w&s ho*ing (h&( you, wi(h (he '&s( &)oun( o$ (i)e you s*en" hun(ing (here, wou%" know where (o $in" (he)! %ooke" "own &( (he ny)*h, who h&" "r&gge" herse%$ &cross (he $ %oor &n" w&s re&ching ou( $or )e- “,-)ercy, i( whis*ere", c%u(ching &( )y boo(s- “,ercy, )y %or", we were on%y (rying (o s&'e our sis(er- The knigh(>(he knigh( w&s> &ss&u%(ing her- P%e&se>)y $rien"s>)y $&)i%y- The 9ueen wi% ki% (he) &% ;or /us( & )o)en(, ! hesi(&(e"- ! "i" no( "oub( her wor"sA (he knigh(s were co%" &n" 'io%en(, (&king wh&( (hey w&n(e", bu( (o &((&ck (he ser'&n(s o$ (he 8in(er Cour( w&s & cri)e *unish&b%e by "e&(h- ,&b wou%" ki% (he ny)*h’s en(ire $&)i%y i$ she $oun" (he),

/us( $or *ro(ec(ing (heir own- ! cou%" no( %ie, o$ course, bu( (here were o(her w&ys (o ben" (he (ru(h- “Prince Ash- ,&b’s 'oice h&" ch&nge"- No %onger in9uiring &n" $rien"%y, i( now he%" & "&ngerous un"er(one o$ w&rning- “! be%ie'e ! &ske" you & 9ues(ion, she con(inue", &s (he ny)*h gr&bbe" &( )y co&( he), *%e&"ing $or )ercy- “3o you know (he %oc&(ion o$ (hese cre&(ures, or no(? 8h&( &re you "oing, Ash? C%enching )y $is(, ! sho'e" (he ny)*h &w&y wi(h )y boo(, ignoring her cry o$ *&in- ,ercy w&s $or (he we&k, &n" ! w&s (he son o$ (he 7nsee%ie 4ueen- There w&s no )ercy in )y b%oo"- “Yes, your )&/es(y, ! s&i", &s (he ny)*h co% &*se", sobbing, (o (he icy groun"“!’'e seen (his (ribe be$ore- They h&'e & co%ony on (he e"ge o$ (he +r&)b%ewoo",&b s)i%e"- “E.ce% en(, she r&s*e"- “Then you wi% %e&" & $orce (here (onigh(, &n" "es(roy i(- :i% (he) &% , cu( "own (heir (rees, &n" burn (heir g%&"e (o (he groun"- ! w&n( no(hing %e$( s(&n"ing, no( & sing%e b%&"e o$ gr&ss- 1e( &n e.&)*%e $or (hose who wou%" "e$y (he 8in(er Cour(, is (h&( c%e&r? ! bowe" )y he&" &s (he ny)*h’s w&i%s &n" shrieks rose in(o (he &ir- “As you s&y, )y 9ueen, ! )ur)ure", b&cking &w&y- “!( wi% be "oneThe $ores( e%$ s(&re" &( )e, c%u(ching his s(&$$, $e&r wri((en *%&in%y on his wrink%e" $&ceThe s)&% e%'en (ribe (h&( %i'e" here, on (he ou(skir(s o$ (he wy%"woo" &n" Tir N& Nog, were si)*%e hun(er-g&(herers- They "i"n’( ge( )&ny 'isi(ors, es*eci&% y no( $ro) (he 7nsee%ie Cour(- Es*eci&% y no( & *rince o$ (he 8in(er Cour( hi)se%$“Prince Ash? He bowe" s(i$$ %y, &n" ! no""e" once- “This is>& sur*rise- To wh&( "o we owe (his honor, your highness? “!’) here on beh&%$ o$ 4ueen ,&b &n" & w&rrior n&)e" H&w(horn, ! re*%ie" $or)&% y, &n" his bushy eyebrows rose- “!s (his n&)e $&)i%i&r (o you? “H&w(horn? The e%"er’s brow $urrowe"- “Yes- H&w(horn w&s on & w&rrior 9ues(, (o beco)e (he s(ronges( woo" e%$ in (he wy%"woo"- 8hy "o you know hi)? ! sighe"- “H&w(horn $oun" his w&y (o (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, ! wen( on, &s (he e%"er’s brow wrink%e" $ur(her- “He c&)e be$ore 4ueen ,&b, begging her (o &% ow hi) (o be *&r( o$ her gu&r", (h&( he wou%" be honore" (o ser'e &s one in her cour(- 8hen ,&b re$use", he "e)&n"e" & "ue%, (o *ro'e hi)se%$ (he s(ronges( w&rrior- He swore on (he %i'es o$ his kin &n" (ribe (h&( he wou%" be 'ic(orious, &n" (h&( i$ he won, he wou%" be &% owe" (o ser'e her- ,&b w&s &)use", &n" &% owe" hi) (o $igh( one o$ her w&rriors“! "on’( un"ers(&n0 “H&w(horn w&s "e$e&(e", ! con(inue" so$(%y, &s (he e%"er’s $&ce wen( $ro) "ee* brown (o (he co%or o$ (o&" s(oo%s- He s(u)b%e" b&ck, $&% ing (o his knees, )ou(h working soun"%ess%y- 3r&wing )y swor", ! s(&r(e" $orw&r", &s g&s*s &n" scre&)s beg&n (o rise $ro) (he hu(s &roun" )e- “The %i'es o$ his kin &n" (ribe &re $or$ei( shou%" he %ose- ! &) here (o co% ec( on (h&( "eb(“,ercyThe hu)&n s(&re" u* &( )e $ro) where he kne%( in (he snow, &n &rrow *iercing his c&%$, "ri**ing brigh( )or(&% b%oo" on(o (he groun"- Tre)b%ing, he c%&s*e" his h&n"s (oge(her &n" r&ise" (he) beseeching%y &( )e, eyes $i% ing wi(h (e&rs- P&(he(ic hu)&n-

“P%e&se, %or" o$ (he $ores(, h&'e )ercy- ! "i"n’( )e&n (o (res*&ss! s)i%e" &( hi) co%"%y- “The $ores( is $orbi""en0your *eo*%e know (his- Cen(ure wi(hin our (erri(ories, &n" we h&'e %e&'e (o hun( you "own- Te% )e, hu)&n, why shou%" ! be )erci$u%? “P%e&se, gre&( %or"! ,y wi$e, )y wi$e is 'ery sick- 1he is h&'ing>bir(hing "i$$icu%(ies- ! nee"e" (o (&ke & shor(cu( (hrough (he $ores( (o re&ch (he "oc(or in (he (own“+ir(hing "i$$icu%(ies? ! n&rrowe" )y eyes, &**r&ising hi)- “Your wi$e wi% be "e&" be$ore you ge( ho)e- You wi% ne'er re&ch her in (i)e, no( wi(h (h&( woun"e" %eg- You’'e ki% e" (he) bo(h by (res*&ssing hereThe hu)&n beg&n (o sob- His g%&)our &ur& $ %ickere" b%ue&n"-b%&ck wi(h "es*&ir“P%e&se! he crie", *oun"ing (he snow- “P%e&se, s*&re (he)- ! c&re no(hing $or )yse%$, bu( s&'e )y wi$e &n" chi%"- !’% "o &ny(hing- P%e&se! He co% &*se", crying so$(%y, in (he snow, )ur)uring “*%e&se o'er &n" o'er &g&in- ! w&(che" hi) $or & )o)en(, (hen sighe"“Your wi$e is %os(, ! s(&(e" b%un(%y, )&king hi) )o&n &n" co'er his $&ce in ho*e%ess &gony- “1he c&nno( be s&'e"- You chi%", howe'er, )igh( s(i% h&'e & ch&nce- 8h&( wi% you gi'e )e i$ ! s&'e i(s %i$e? “Any(hing! (he )&n crie", g&2ing u* &( )e in e&rnes(- “T&ke &ny(hing you w&n(, /us( s&'e )y chi%"! “1&y (he wor"s, ! (o%" hi)- “1*e&k (he) ou( %ou", &n" %e( (he (rees wi(ness your re9ues(!( )us( h&'e "&wne" on hi) (hen, wh&( w&s h&**ening, $or his $&ce wen( e'en *&%er &n" he sw&% owe" h&r"- +u( he %icke" his %i*s &n" con(inue" in & sh&ken bu( c%e&r 'oiceB “!, 6ose*h ,&c%e&ry, &) *re*&re" (o o$$er &ny(hing $or (he %i$e o$ )y chi%"- He sw&% owe" &g&in &n" %ooke" s(r&igh( &( )e, &%)os( "e$i&n(- “T&ke wh&( you wish, e'en )y own %i$e, &s %ong &s )y chi%" %i'es &n" grows u* he&%(hy &n" s(rong! s)i%e" &( hi) &s (he in'isib%e s(rings o$ )&gic wo'e &roun" us, se&%ing (he b&rg&in- “!’) no( going (o ki% you, hu)&n, ! s&i", s(e**ing b&ck- “! h&'e no in(eres( in (&king your %i$e nowRe%ie$ crosse" his $&ce, $or /us( & )o)en(, be$ore &%&r) $ %ickere" in his eyes- “Then, wh&( is i( you w&n(? 1(i% s)i%ing, ! $&"e" $ro) sigh(, %e&'ing (he hu)&n (o g&2e &roun" (he e)*(y woo"s &%one- ;or & )o)en(, he kne%( (here, con$use"- Then, wi(h & g&s*, he whir%e" &n" beg&n %i)*ing b&ck (he w&y he c&)e, %e&'ing & s*eck%e" (r&i% o$ b%oo" in his w&ke- ! %&ughe" si%en(%y, sensing his *&nic &s he re&%i2e" wh&( he h&" *ro)ise"- He wou%" ne'er ge( ho)e in (i)e#%&)oure" &n" in'isib%e, ! (urne" )y s(e*s in (he "irec(ion o$ & s)&% sh&n(y on (he e"ge o$ (he woo"sThe 1&)h&in $es(i'&% &rri'e" &( (he 8in(er Cour(, &n" wi(h i( (he gi$(s &n" $&'ors &n" goo"wi% b%essings $or (he 8in(er 4ueen- ,&b w&s e.(re)e%y *%e&se" wi(h )y gi$( (h&( ye&rA & "&rk-h&ire" b&by boy, &n" (he %ook on Row&n’s $&ce when ! *resen(e" (he chi%" (o

her w&s un$orge((&b%e- The boy grew u*, he&%(hy &n" s(rong, in (he 8in(er Cour(, ne'er 9ues(ioning his *&s( or his heri(&ge, beco)ing & $&'ori(e *e( o$ (he 9ueen- E'en(u&% y, when he go( & %i((%e o%"er &n" we&ker &n" no( so h&n"so)e &ny)ore, ,&b *%&ce" hi) in &n en"%ess s%ee* &n" enc&se" hi) in ice, $ree2ing hi) &s he w&s $ore'er- An" so (he b&rg&in )&"e in (he snow (he nigh( o$ his bir(h w&s $u%$i% e"“Enough! 1%&))e" b&ck in(o (he *resen(, ! %urche" &w&y $ro) (he #u&r"i&n, (he $&ces o$ (he %i'es ! h&" "es(roye" s(&ring &( )e $ro) (he sh&"ows o$ (he roo)- Hi((ing (he w&% , ! s9uee2e" )y eyes shu(, bu( ! cou%" no( esc&*e (he )e)ories, (he &ccusing eyes, boring in(o )eThe scre&)s &n" w&i%s, (he s(ench o$ burning woo", (he b%oo" &n" (error &n" sorrow &n" "e&(hA ! re)e)bere" i( &% &s i$ i( w&s yes(er"&y“No )ore, ! whis*ere", )y $&ce s(i% (urne" (o (he w&% , $ee%ing we(ness &g&ins( )y skin- ,y (ee(h were c%enche" so h&r" )y /&w &che"- “No )ore- ! c&n’(>re)e)ber>(he (hings !’'e "one- ! "on’( w&n( (o re)e)ber“You wi% - The #u&r"i&n’s 'oice w&s c&%), ru(h%ess- “E'ery(hing- E'ery sou% you "es(roye", e'ery %i$e you (ook- You wi% re)e)ber, knigh(- 8e h&'e on%y /us( begun!( wen( on $ore'erE&ch (i)e, ! w&s (here, w&(ching (he scenes *%&y be$ore )e &s (he he&r(%ess 7nsee%ie *rince, co%", 'io%en( &n" unc&ring- ! hun(e" )ore hu)&ns (hrough (he $ores(, (&s(ing (heir $e&r &s ! r&n (he) "own- ! s%&ugh(ere" &( (he 9ueen’s whi), whe(her i( w&s & sing%e cre&(ure (h&( e&rne" her wr&(h, & $&)i%y $or her en(er(&in)en( or &n en(ire 'i% &ge (o se( &n e.&)*%e- ! co)*e(e" wi(h )y bro(hers $or ,&b’s $&'or, *%&ying )y own 'icious, cour(%y g&)es (h&( o$(en en"e" in be(r&y&% &n" b%oo"- ! se"uce" e'en )ore hu)&n $e)&%es &n" broke (heir he&r(s, %e&'ing (he) e)*(y &n" ho% ow, wri(hing in (heir %ossE&ch (i)e ! %i'e" (hese &(roci(ies, ! $e%( no(hing- An" e&ch (i)e, (he #u&r"i&n wou%" *u% )e ou(, $or /us( & )o)en(, &n" (he horror o$ wh&( !’" "one wou%" (hre&(en (o crush )eCri)e &$(er cri)e s(&cke" u*on one &no(her, weighing )e "own, &""ing new )e)ories &n" sh&)e (o (he nigh()&res o$ )y %i$e- E&ch (i)e, ! w&n(e" (o cur% u* &n" "ie wi(h )y gui%(, bu( (he #u&r"i&n g&'e )e on%y & )o)en(’s re$ %ec(ion be$ore hur%ing )e in(o (he ne.( )&ss&cre;in&% y, &$(er wh&( see)e" %ike ye&rs, cen(uries, i( w&s o'er- ! %&y on (he $ %oor g&s*ing, )y &r)s &roun" )y he&", br&cing )yse%$ $or (he ne.( horror- On%y (his (i)e, no(hing h&**ene"- ! he&r" (he #u&r"i&n s*e&king &bo'e )e, i(s 'oice "is(&n( &n" )&((er-o$-$&c(B “The $in&% (ri&% begins &( "&wn- Then i( '&nishe", %e&'ing )e &%one,y (hough(s, now )y own &g&in, re&che" ou( (en(&(i'e%y, *robing (he si%ence- An" in (he su""en c&%), e'ery sing%e )e)ory, (he cri)es o$ )y *&s(, e'ery nigh()&re &n" horror &n" "e*r&'i(y co))i((e" by (he 7nsee%ie *rince, &% rose u* &n" "escen"e" on )e wi(h scre&)s &n" cries &n" &nguishe" how%s, &n" ! $oun" )yse%$ scre&)ing, (oo-

Puck &n" Arie% & burs( (hrough (he "oor, we&*ons "r&wn, sc&nning (he roo) $or &((&ckers1eeing )e, knee%ing on (he $ %oor, )y $&ce we( &n" (or)en(e", (heir e.*ressions wen( b%&nk wi(h shock- “Ash? Arie% & whis*ere", w&%king (ow&r" )e- “8h&( h&**ene"? 8h&(’s wrong? ! %urche" &w&y $ro) her- 1he cou%"n’( know0nei(her o$ (he) cou%" e'er know0(he horrors !’" co))i((e", (he b%oo" s(&ining )y h&n"s- ! cou%"n’( $&ce (heir shock &n" con(e)*( &n" "isgus( when (hey $oun" ou( who ! re&% y w&s“Ash? “#e( b&ck, ! r&s*e" &( her, &n" her eyes wi"ene"- “1(&y &w&y $ro) )e- +o(h o$ you6us(>%e&'e )e &%oneArie% & s(&re" &( )e>&n" $or & )o)en(, ! s&w +rynn&’s $&ce when !’" (o%" her e'ery(hing w&s &% & g&)e- !( w&s )ore (h&n ! cou%" be&r!gnoring (heir c&% s, ! rushe" *&s( (he), esc&*ing in(o (he h&% s o$ (he c&s(%e;&ces $o% owe" )e "own (he corri"ors, (heir co%", &ccusing eyes boring in(o )e, crow"ing )y )in"“Ash, +rynn& whis*ere", hugging herse%$ in &n &%co'e, w&(ching )e *&ss, “you s&i" you %o'e" )e“,y sis(ers, (he ny)*h s&i", &**e&ring $ro) &roun" & corner, g%&ring &( )e wi(h burning b%&ck eyes- “,y $&)i%y- You ki% e" (he) &% - E'ery sing%e one“3e)on, whis*ere" (he o%" $&r)er, his eyes g%&2e" o'er wi(h (e&rs, *oin(ing &( )e wi(h & (re)b%ing h&n"- “You (ook )y chi%" &w&y- A% ! h&" %e$(, &n" you (ook hi) $ro) )e,ons(er!’) sorry, ! c&% e" (o (he), bu( o$ course (hey wou%"n’( he&r- They were %ong "e&", (heir grie$ &n" h&(e unreso%'e", &n" no(hing ! s&i" or "i" cou%" )&ke &ny o$ i( righ(! cou%" he&r Puck &n" Arie% &’s 'oices "own (he h&% , c&% ing )y n&)e, se&rching $or )e- ! "i"n’( "eser'e (heir concern- ! "i"n’( "eser'e (o know (he), (wo brigh( s*o(s in & %i$e o$ "&rkness &n" b%oo" &n" "e&(h- !’" "es(roye" e'ery(hing ! (ouche", e'en (hose ! %o'e"- ! wou%" en" u* "es(roying (he), (oo“,ur"erer, Row&n whis*ere", &**e&ring $ro) & "oorw&y, &n" ! shie" &w&y $ro) hi), ne&r%y b%in"e" by (e&rs &n" no( w&(ching where ! w&s goingThe $ %oor su""en%y g&'e w&y bene&(h )e- ! $e% "own & %ong $ %igh( o$ s(e*s, (he wor%" s*inning )&"%y, un(i% ! %&n"e" wi(h & g&s* &( (he bo((o), *&in s(&bbing (hrough )y &r) &n" si"e#ri((ing )y (ee(h, ! s(rugg%e" u*righ(, *ressing & h&n" (o )y bruise" shou%"er, &n" %ooke" &roun"- !( w&s "&rk here, sh&"ows choking e'ery(hing, (he on%y %igh( co)ing $ro) & "ying c&n"%e in (he )ou(h o$ & s(one g&rgoy%e- +esi"e (he %eering cre&(ure s(oo" & )&ssi'e s(one "oor, %ike (he en(r&nce (o & cry*(, s(&n"ing *&r(i&% y o*en- Co%", "ry &ir w&$(e" $ro) (he cr&ck bene&(h i(! s(&ggere" $orw&r", s9uee2e" (hrough (he o*ening, &n" *u( )y unin/ure" shou%"er (o (he s(one, *ushing wi(h &% )y )igh(- The )&ssi'e "oor c%ose" wi(h & ru)b%ing gro&n, shu((ing ou( (he $eeb%e %igh( &n" *%unging )e in(o co)*%e(e "&rkness-

! "i"n’( know wh&( surroun"e" )e, &n" ! "i"n’( c&re- ;ee%ing )y w&y $orw&r", ! e&se" in(o & corner, *u( )y b&ck (o (he w&% &n" s%i" (o (he $ %oor- ! w&s co%", e'en s(&r(ing (o sh&ke, bu( ! we%co)e" (he "isco)$or(- The "&rkness s)e% e" o$ "us(, %i)es(one, &n" "e&(h- +u( ! cou%"n’( esc&*e (he 'oices, (he whis*ers (h&( hisse" &ccus&(ions in )y e&rs, $urious, h&(e$u%, co)*%e(e%y /us(i$ie",ons(er3e)on,ur"erer! shi'ere", wi(h co%" &n" wi(h sh&)e, &n" burie" )y $&ce in )y knees, %e((ing (he &ccus&(ions swir% &roun" )e1o, (his w&s wh&( we re&% y were- 8h&( ! re&% y w&s3&wn, (he #u&r"i&n h&" (o%" )e- ,y $in&% (es( beg&n &( "&wn- !$ ! "i"n’( show u* $or i(, ! wou%" $&i%- An" i$ ! $&i%e", !’" re)&in here $ore'er, &%oneAs i( shou%" beTi)e s%i**e" &w&y- ! %os( )yse%$ in (he "&rkness, %is(ening (o (he 'oices- 1o)e(i)es (hey sobbe", so)e(i)es (hey r&i%e" &( )e, crue%, 'icious wor"s $i% e" wi(h grie$ &n" h&(eO(her (i)es (hey wou%" on%y &sk 9ues(ions- 8hy? 8hy h&" ! "one (his? 8hy h&" ! "es(roye" (he), (heir %i'es, (heir $&)i%ies? 8hy? ! cou%"n’( &nswer- No(hing ! o$$ere" wou%" bring (he) *e&ce, no &*o%ogy wou%" su$$ice $or wh&( !’" "one- ,y wor"s were ho% ow, e)*(y- How cou%" ! h&'e been so b%in" &s (o w&n( & sou%? !( w&s %&ugh&b%e now, (o (hink (h&( & sou% cou%" %i'e insi"e )e wi(hou( being (&in(e" by (he cen(uries o$ b%oo" &n" e'i% &n" "e&(hThe 'oices &gree", %&ughing &( )e, )ocking )y 9ues(- ! "i"n’( "eser'e & sou%A ! "i"n’( "eser'e h&**iness, or *e&ce- 8hy shou%" ! ge( )y h&**y en"ing, when !’" %e$( & sw&(h o$ horror &n" "es(ruc(ion behin" )e where'er ! wen(? ! h&" no &nswer $or (he)- ! w&s & )ons(er- ! w&s born in "&rkness, &n" ! wou%" "ie here, &s we% - !( w&s be((er (his w&y- Ash, (he "e)on o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, wou%" $in&% y *erish &%one, )ourning (he %i'es o$ (hose he’" "es(roye"A $i((ing en", ! (hough(, gi'ing in (o (he 'oices, %e((ing (he) r&i% &n" %&ugh &( )e- ! wou%" no( hur( &nyone &ny %onger- ,y 9ues( en"e" here, in (his ho%e o$ "&rkness &n" regre(An", i$ ! "i"n’( "ie here, i$ ! %i'e" on $ore'er, %is(ening (o (he 'oices o$ (hose !’" wronge" un(i% (he en" o$ (i)e, *erh&*s ! wou%" s(&r( (o &(one $or wh&( ! h&" "one“Here you &re! r&ise" )y he&" &s (he 'oice s%i**e" ou( o$ (he "&rkness, "i$$eren( $ro) (he o(hers surroun"ing )e (h&( were whis*ering (heir 'enge&nce &n" h&(e- !( w&s ne&r%y *i(ch-b%&ck in (he cry*(, &n" ! cou%" b&re%y )o'e )ore (h&n & $ew $ee( $ro) where ! s&(- +u( ! recogni2e" (he 'oice, &s (he g%e&) o$ go%"en eyes, &**e&ring ou( o$ (he "&rkness, $ %o&(e" c%oser (o )e“#ri)&%kin- ,y 'oice soun"e" r&s*y in )y e&rs, &s i$ ! h&"n’( use" i( $or )on(hs, (hough ! "i"n’( know how )uch (i)e h&" *&sse" "own herePerh&*s i( h&" been se'er&% )on(hs- “8h&( &re you "oing here?

“! (hink, #ri)&%kin s&i", b%inking so%e)n%y &s he c&)e in(o 'iew, “(h&( is wh&( ! shou%" be &sking you- 8hy &re you hi"ing ou( wi(h (he "e&" when you shou%" be *re*&ring $or (he $in&% (es(? ! hunche" )y shou%"ers, c%osing )y eyes &s (he 'oices s(&r(e" &g&in, &ngry &n" *&in$u%“5e&'e )e, c&i( si(h“You c&nno( s(&y "own here, (he c&( wen( on &s i$ ! h&"n’( s*oken- “8h&( goo" is i( (o si( here &n" "o no(hing? You he%* no one i$ you re)&in here &n" be)o&n (he *&s(Anger $ %ickere", &n" ! r&ise" )y he&" (o g%&re &( hi)- “8h&( wou%" you know &bou( i(? ! whis*ere"- “You h&'e no conscience- You (hink o$ e'ery(hing in (er)s o$ b&rg&ins &n" $&'ors, c&ring no(hing $or (hose you h&'e )&ni*u%&(e"- ! si)*%y c&n’( $orge(>wh&( !’'e "one“No one is &sking you (o $orge(- #ri)&%kin s&( "own &n" cur%e" his (&i% &roun" hi)se%$, g&2ing &( )e- “Th&( is (he who%e *oin( o$ & conscience, &$(er &% 0(h&( you "o no( $orge( (hose you h&'e wronge"- +u( &nswer )e (his0how "o you e.*ec( (o &(one $or (he cri)es o$ your *&s( i$ you "o no(hing? 3o you (hink your 'ic(i)s c&re now, whe(her you %i'e or "ie? ! h&" no &nswer $or hi)- #ri)&%kin sni$$e" &n" s(oo" u*, w&'ing his (&i%- His ye% ow eyes reg&r"e" )e knowing%y“They "o no(- An" (here is no *oin( in obsessing &bou( wh&( c&nno( be- They &re "e&", &n" you %i'e- An" i$ you $&i% (his (es(, no(hing ch&nges- The on%y w&y (o ensure (h&( you "o no( beco)e (h&( which you "es*ise is (o $inish (he 9ues( you h&'e s(&r(e"The 'oices hisse" &( )e, soun"ing "es*er&(e, re)in"ing )e o$ )y cri)es, (he b%oo" on )y h&n"s, (he %i'es !’" "es(roye"- An" (hey were righ(- ! cou%" "o no(hing $or (he) now+u( ! h&" been so)eone e%se (hen- 7nc&ring &n" sou% ess- A "e)on, %ike (hey s&i"- +u(> )&ybe ! cou%" s(&r( &g&in#ri)&%kin $ %icke" &n e&r &n" beg&n (o (ro( &w&y in(o (he sh&"ows- “E&rn your sou%, knigh(, he c&% e", his gr&y $or) $&"ing in(o (he "&rk- “Pro'e (h&( you c&n %e&rn $ro) your )is(&kes- On%y (hen c&n you beco)e hu)&nHis wor"s re)&ine" wi(h )e %ong &$(er he w&s gone- ! s&( in (h&( co%" corner &n" (hough( &bou( )y *&s(, (he *eo*%e !’" hur(, )&ni*u%&(e", "es(roye"#ri) w&s righ(- !$ ! "ie" here, who wou%" re)e)ber (he)? !$ ! $&i%e" &n" re(urne" ho)e wi(hou( & sou%, ! wou%" con(inue (o $ee% no(hing $or )y *&s(, no re)orse, no gui%(, no conscience+rynn&’s 'oice, broken &n" $i% e" wi(h h&(e, whis*ere" in(o )y he&"- ! %o'e" you- ! %o'e" you so )uch, &n" you ki%%e" )e- ! wi%% ne'er $orgi'e you! know, ! (o%" her )e)ory, &n" $in&% y *u% e" )yse%$ (o )y $ee(- ,y %i)bs scre&)e" in *ro(es(, bu( ! br&ce" )yse%$ &g&ins( (he w&% &n" s(&ye" u*righ(An" you shou%"n’(- ! "on’( w&n( $orgi'eness- ! "on’( "eser'e (o be $orgi'en $or )y *&s(+u( ! wi%% )&ke i( righ(- 1o)ehow, ! wi%% &(one $or (hose )is(&kes, ! swe&r i(! w&s (ire", )y bo"y s(i$$ &n" sore &n" e.h&us(e"A i( (ook &% )y s(reng(h (o *ush o*en (he s(one "oors &n" c%i)b (he %ong $ %igh( o$ s(e*s ou( o$ (he cry*(- +u( wi(h e'ery s(e*, e'ery

/o%( o$ *&in (hrough )y bones, ! $e%( %igh(er, $reer so)ehow, (he 'oices si%ence" &n" %e$( b&ck in (he (o)b- ! cou%" no( $orge( (he), or (he cri)es o$ )y *&s(, bu( ! no %onger w&n(e" (o "ie!( w&s w&i(ing $or )e &( (he (o* o$ (he s(&irs, s(&$$ in h&n", w&(ching )e behin" i(s cow%- ! $e%( i(s &ncien( g&2e swee* (hrough )y bruise", b&((ere" bo"y- !( no""e", &s i$ i( h&" "isco'ere" wi(hin )e so)e(hing (h&( *%e&se" i(- “The $in&% (ri&% is u*on us, knigh(, i( s&i" &s ! c%i)be" (he %&s( s(e* &n" s(oo" be$ore (he #u&r"i&n- “You h&'e sur'i'e" hu)&n we&kness &n" & conscience- One %&s( (hing re)&ins $or you (o e&rn & sou%“8here &re Puck &n" Arie% &? ! &ske", $ee%ing gui%(y (h&( !’" been gone $or so %ongThey’" be worrie" &bou( )e by now- ! ho*e" (hey "i"n’( (hink ! w&s "e&"“They se&rch $or you, (he #u&r"i&n s&i" si)*%y- “+u( (his is no( (heir (es(- The (ri&% begins now, knigh(- Are you re&"y, or no(? ! (ook & bre&(h- Puck &n" Arie% & wou%" h&'e (o w&i(- ! ho*e" (hey wou%" un"ers(&n", bec&use (he #u&r"i&n w&sn’( gi'ing )e (i)e (o (hink &bou( i(“Yes, ! re*%ie", $ee%ing )y s(o)&ch kno(- The %&s( (ri&%- The on%y (hing be(ween )e &n" & sou%- An" ,egh&n- “!’) re&"y- 5e(’s ge( (his o'er wi(hThe #u&r"i&n no""e" &n" r&ise" i(s s(&$$ once )ore- CHAPTER N!NETEEN H7,AN R&in *oun"e" )y b&ck, &n" ! o*ene" )y eyes! %&y on )y s(o)&ch on (he h&r" groun", )y cheek *resse" &g&ins( wh&( $e%( %ike cobb%es(ones, w&(er so&king )y h&ir &n" c%o(hes- ;ro) )y "renche" s(&(e &n" (he $ee% o$ (he s)&% , roun" s(ones *ressing in(o )y $&ce, ! )us( h&'e been %ying (here $or so)e (i)e8incing, ! *ushe" )yse%$ (o )y e%bows, *eering (hrough (he r&in (o "e(er)ine where ! w&sA green-&n"-si%'er g&r"en s(re(che" ou( be$ore )e, %ush wi(h 'ege(&(ion &n" b%urry (hrough (he r&in- Cobb%es(one *&(hs (wis(e" &roun" s)&% bushes &n" shrubs, &n" %&rger (rees hugge" (he e"ges o$ (he high s(one w&% surroun"ing i(- A $ew $ee( &w&y, & )&rb%e $oun(&in s*i% e" w&(er in(o & sh&% ow b&sin, (he soun" o$ (rick%ing w&(er "rowne" ou( by (he %&rger "e%ugeAroun" )e, (he (rees shi))ere" in (he r&in, (hous&n"s o$ %e&'es $ %&shing %ike kni'es &s (he win" (osse" (heir br&nches- A( )y $ee(, wires s%i(here" o'er (he groun" in s(r&nge *&((erns &n" cur%e" &roun" (ree (runks, g%owing %ike neon signs- 5&)**os(s, g%i))ering ye% ow in (he (wi%igh(, grew righ( ou( o$ (he groun" &n" %ine" (he n&rrow *&(hs- ! (urne" &n" s&w &n enor)ous c&s(%e o$ s(one, g%&ss &n" s(ee% %oo)ing &bo'e )e, s*ires &n" (owers s(&bbing &( (he c%ou"s! b%inke", (rying (o (&ke i( &% in- ! w&s b&ck in (he !ron :ing"o)- The (wis(e" )e(&% ic (rees, (he wires s%i(hering o'er (he groun", (he c&s(%e o$ s(one &n" s(ee%0(hey cou%"n’( be%ong &nywhere e%se- An" (he r&in>)y he&r( ski**e" & be&(, &n" ! (urne" )y $&ce (o (he sky- The w&(er w&s c%e&r &n" *ure, no( (he &ci"ic, $ %esh-e&(ing r&in (h&( h&" swe*( (hrough (he !ron Re&%) be$ore ,egh&n bec&)e 9ueen+u(, i$ (h&( w&s (he c&se>i$ ! w&s in (he !ron :ing"o)>

! (ook & "ee* bre&(h, bre&(hing in (he coo%, "&)* &ir, "r&wing i( in(o )yse%$ &n" ho%"ing i( (here, w&i(ingNo(hing- No sickness, no *&in- ! s(e**e" bene&(h & w&r*e" iron (ree &n" *%&ce" )y *&%) &g&ins( (he (runk, br&cing )yse%$ ou( o$ h&bi(- The )e(&% w&s co%" &n" we( bene&(h )y $ingers, no( burning &( &% ! cou%"n’( he%* (he s)i%e s(re(ching )y $&ce &s ! whir%e" &roun", (&king in (he g&r"en, (he es(&(e, e'ery(hing- Throwing b&ck )y he&", ! r&ise" )y &r)s &n" how%e" & 'ic(ory cry in(o (he r&in, he&ring i( echo o$$ (he c&s(%e w&% s- ! w&s in (he !ron :ing"o) wi(h no &)u%e(, no *ro(ec(ion, &n" ! s(i% $e%( no(hing- !ron h&" no *ower o'er )e, now- ! w&s hu)&n- ! h&" won! A (hun"erous b&rk behin" )e )&"e )e s*in &roun", &s & %e&n, $urry cre&(ure c&)e boun"ing (ow&r" )e ou( o$ (he r&in- ;or & )o)en(, ! (hough( i( w&s & wo%$- Then ! s&w i( w&s & "og, & huge #er)&n she*her" wi(h enor)ous *&ws &n" & (hick, sh&ggy *e%( s*ike" u* wi(h r&in- !( ski""e" (o & s(o* & $ew $ee( $ro) )e &n" grow%e", %owering i(s )u22%e &n" b&ring sh&r* whi(e $&ngs! s)i%e" &n" crouche" "own so (h&( we were &( eye %e'e%, "es*i(e (he (ee(h $ %&shing in )y "irec(ion- “He% o, +e&u, ! gree(e" 9uie(%y- “Nice (o see you, (ooThe "og b%inke", swi'e%ing i(s %ong e&rs &( (he soun" o$ )y 'oice- Eyeing )e sus*icious%y, &s i$ i( w&s /us( beginning (o recogni2e (he in(ru"er in (he g&r"en, i( g&'e & (en(&(i'e (&i% w&g“+e&u! c&% e" & 'oice, echoing ou( o$ (he r&in, )&king )y he&r( /u)* (o )y (hro&( &n" *oun" wi%"%y- ! s(oo" &s (he 'oice "ri$(e" c%oser- “8here &re you, boy? Ch&sing gre)%ins &g&in? +e&u b&rke" h&**i%y &n" (urne", boun"ing in (he "irec(ion o$ (he 'oice, s*%&shing noisi%y (hrough (he *u""%es- An" (hen, she &**e&re" un"er (he g&(e &rch, sc&nning (he cour(y&r" $or (he )issing "og, &n" ! s(o**e" bre&(hingRu%ing & king"o) h&"n’( ch&nge" her- 1he s(i% wore $&"e" /e&ns &n" & T-shir(, her *&%e h&ir %ong &n" unboun"- +u( *ower g%owe" &roun" her, &n" e'en (hrough (he r&in, she %ooke" re&% &n" so%i" &n" %&rger (h&n %i$e, &n" co)*%e(e%y be&u(i$u%- +e&u c&)e s*%&shing u* (o her, &n" she "ro**e" (o her knees, scr&(ching (he "og’s e&rs- Then +e&u %ooke" b&ck &( )e, w&gging his (&i%, &n" she g%&nce" u*- Our eyes )e(8e bo(h $ro2e- ! s&w )y n&)e on her %i*s, bu( no soun" esc&*e" her- +e&u %ooke" b&ck &n" $or(h be(ween us, whine", &n" nu"ge" ,egh&n’s h&n", sn&**ing her ou( o$ (he s*e% 1he rose &n" w&%ke" (ow&r" )e, unc&ring o$ (he r&in, un(i% we were inches &*&r(- ,y he&r( *oun"e", &n" ! %ooke" "own in(o (he in(ense s&**hire eyes o$ (he !ron 4ueen“Ash- The wor" w&s hesi(&n(, &s i$ she w&sn’( 9ui(e sure whe(her ! w&s re&% or no(“You’re here- How> 1he b%inke", &n" her 'oice bec&)e s(ronger &s she (ook & s(e* b&ck- “No, you c&n’(>you shou%"n’( be here- ! (o%" you ne'er (o co)e b&ck- The iron> ! re&che" ou( &n" (ook her h&n", si%encing her- “!( c&n’( hur( )e, ! *ro)ise"- “No( &ny)ore- 1he g&2e" u* &( )e, ho*e &n" uncer(&in(y w&rring in her eyes, &n" ! so$(%y (ouche" her cheek, her (e&rs )ing%ing wi(h (he r&in- “! s&i" !’" be b&ck, ! (o%" her, “&n" $ro) now on, !’% ne'er %e&'e your si"e-

No(hing wi% kee* )e $ro) you &g&in“How>? she whis*ere", bu( ! ben( "own &n" kisse" her, cu((ing o$$ &ny *ro(es(s- 1he g&s*e", &n" her &r)s s%i" &roun" )y w&is(, *u% ing us (oge(her- ! hugge" her c%ose, w&n(ing (o $ee% her &g&ins( )y bo"y, (o *ro'e (h&( (his w&s re&%- ! w&s in (he !ron Re&%), &n" ,egh&n w&s in )y &r)s+e&u b&rke" &n" "&nce" &roun" us, &n" (he r&in *oure" "own, "renching us co)*%e(e%y, bu( we $e%( no urge (o )o'e $or & %ong, %ong (i)e8hen ! &woke ne.(, ! w&s &$r&i" (o o*en )y eyes, &$r&i" e'en (o )o'e- +%&ckness *resse" &g&ins( )y %i"s, &n" ! ke*( (he) shu(, $e&r$u% (h&( when ! o*ene" )y eyes, e'ery(hing wou%" h&'e "is&**e&re"- ! wou%" be b&ck &( (he Tes(ing #roun"s, (he #u&r"i&n %oo)ing o'er )e, i(s boo)ing 'oice (e% ing )e ! h&" $&i%e"- Or worse, (h&( (his w&s &% & "re&), &n" ! h&" ye( (o co)*%e(e (he (es(s &( &% Cery c&u(ious%y, ! *eeke" (hrough )y %i"s, br&cing )yse%$, h&%$ e.*ec(ing (o see (he s(one w&% s o$ (he c&s(%e, (o $ee% & su""en s(&b o$ *&in &s )y )in" c&ugh( u* (o re&%i(yA whi(e-w&% e" roo) gree(e" )e &s ! o*ene" )y eyes, h&2y cur(&ins "r&wn &cross & %&rge g%&ss win"ow on (he o**osi(e w&% - 1un%igh( s%&n(e" in (hrough (he cr&ck, s*i% ing &cross (he c&r*e(e" $ %oor, (ouching & *i%e o$ "&)* c%o(hes %ying in & he&* ne.( (o (he be"- The be" ! w&s %ying in- ! b%inke", )e)ories o$ (he *re'ious nigh( beginning (o sur$&ce %ike wis*s o$ s)oke, $oggy &n" unre&%There w&s & sigh behin" )e, &n" so)e(hing shi$(e" &g&ins( )y b&ckC&re$u% y, &$r&i" (h&( (his en(ire scene )igh( sh&((er in(o re&%i(y, ! (urne"- ,egh&n %&y besi"e )e un"er (he co'ers, her eyes c%ose", her *&%e h&ir s*i% ing o'er her $&ce- ! (ook & s%ow, r&gge" bre&(h (o c&%) )y r&cing he&r(, (&king & )o)en( /us( (o w&(ch her- !( w&s re&%- This w&s re&%- ! gen(%y brushe" her h&ir $ro) her cheek &n" w&(che" her s(ir un"er )y $ingers, o*ening her eyes- Her s)i%e brigh(ene" (he who%e roo)“! w&s &$r&i" i( w&s & "re&), she whis*ere"“You h&'e no i"e& how "es*er&(e%y ! w&s ho*ing i( w&sn’(- Cu**ing (he b&ck o$ her neck, ! "rew her c%ose &n" kisse" her &g&in- 1he (r&i%e" her $ingers o'er )y b&re ches(, &n" ! shi'ere", &%)os( $righ(ene" by how )uch ! %o'e" (his gir%- +u( (hen, !’" gone (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%", en"ure" (ri&%s no cre&(ure shou%" e'er $&ce, $or her- ! wou%" "o i( &g&in i$ ! h&" (oAn" co)*&re" (o (h&(, (he 9ues(ion on )y )in" shou%"’'e been e&sy- +u( &s ,egh&n *u% e" b&ck (o %ook &( )e, ! $oun" )y )in" h&" gone b%&nk, &n" ! w&s )ore ner'ous (hen ! h&" been in &% )y ye&rs &s & 8in(er *rinceThe 9ues(ion s(&ye" on )y )in" &s we %ingere" un"er (he co'ers $or (he res( o$ (he )orning, $ee%ing %&2y &n" con(en( &n" re%uc(&n( (o %e&'e e&ch o(her’s &r)s- !( con(inue" (o *%&gue )e when we $in&% y go( u* in (he )i""%e o$ (he &$(ernoon, &$(er (he ser'&n(s knocke" )eek%y on (he "oor &sking i$ we were &% righ(- ,egh&n or"ere" (he) (o bring "ry c%o(hing, &n" ! s%i**e" in(o "&rk /e&ns &n" & T-shir(, $ee%ing s(r&nge &n" s%igh(%y &wkw&r" in hu)&n c%o(hes- ! $i"ge(e", s(i% *on"ering how ! w&s going (o &sk her- !( )&"e )y s(o)&ch (wis( e'ery (i)e ! (hough( o$ i(“Hey- ,egh&n’s $ingers on )y &r) ne&r%y )&"e )e /u)* ou( o$ )y skin- 1he s)i%e" u*

&( )e, (hough her eyes were *u22%e"- “You see) &w$u% y ner'ous (his )orning- !s so)e(hing wrong? Now or ne'er, Ash- ! (ook & "ee* bre&(h- “No, ! re*%ie", (urning (o her, “no(hing’s wrong, bu( ! "i" w&n( (o &sk you so)e(hing- Co)e here & )o)en(T&king bo(h her h&n"s, ! b&cke" &w&y (o (he )i""%e o$ (he $ %oor, (o &n o*en s*&ce in $ron( o$ (he cur(&ins- 1he $o% owe", s(i% we&ring & be)use" e.*ression, &n" ! *&use" & )o)en( (o g&(her )y (hough(s“! "on’(>know how i(’s "one in your wor%", ! beg&n, &s she (i%(e" her he&" &( )e- “!’'e seen i( be$ore>bu(, !’) no( sure how (o &sk- !( ne'er re&% y co)es u* in (he 8in(er Cour(,egh&n b%inke", $rowning s%igh(%y- “8h&( "o you )e&n? “! know )y ro%e here, ! con(inue"- “8h&(e'er h&**ens, !’) s(i% your knigh(, &n" no(hing wi% ch&nge (h&(- You &re 9ueen o$ (his re&%), &n" ! h&'e no "esire (o ru%e- Th&( s&i", ! w&n( (o "o (his hu)&n (hing righ(- !’% s(i% be &( your si"e, $igh(ing your ene)ies, s(&n"ing wi(h you no )&((er wh&( co)es &( us- +u( !’) no %onger s&(is$ie" wi(h /us( being your knigh( &n" *ro(ec(or- ! w&n( so)e(hing )ore- ! s(o**e" &n" (ook & "ee* bre&(h, (hen s%ow%y re%e&se" her h&n"s, s(e**e" b&ck &n" s&nk (o one knee- “8h&( !’) (rying (o &sk is> ,egh&n Ch&se, wi% you "o )e (he honor o$ )&rrying )e? ,egh&n’s eyes go( big &n" roun", (hen & bri% i&n( s)i%e broke o'er her $&ce- The res( o$ (he "&y *&sse" in & b%ur, $&ces $ %&shing by, uni)*or(&n(, &n" "isbe%ie$ (hick on (he &ir- A% ! re)e)bere" c%e&r%y w&s (h&( one )o)en(, (h&( one si)*%e wor" (h&( wou%" ch&nge )y %i$e $ore'er“YesThe we""ing o$ (he !ron 4ueen (urne" ou( (o be )uch )ore e.(r&'&g&n( (h&n ei(her o$ us e.*ec(e"- ,&rri&ge wi(hin $ey socie(y w&s &%)os( unhe&r" o$0(he )os( $&)ous /oining w&s Oberon &n" Ti(&ni&’s, &n" (hey were $ro) (he s&)e cour(- E'en ! h&" no i"e& why (he (wo 1u))er )on&rchs chose (o we", bu( ! sus*ec(e" i( in'o%'e" *ower, )uch %ike e'ery(hing e%se- +u( once i( w&s &nnounce" (h&( (he !ron 4ueen w&s ge((ing )&rrie" (o (he $or)er *rince o$ (he 8in(er Cour(, (he news sen( (he en(ire Ne'erne'er in(o &n u*ro&rThe o(her cour(s were scr&)b%ing o'er one &no(her (o $in" ou( wh&( w&s going onRu)ors beg&n (o sur$&ce, s*re&"ing %ike wi%"$ireB ,egh&n &n" ! were )&king & bi" $or *ower, (he !ron Re&%) w&s (rying (o g&in )ore (erri(ory, ! w&s & s*y sen( by ,&b (o /oin !ron wi(h (he 8in(er Cour( &g&ins( 1u))er- None o$ (he o(her ru%ers were *%e&se" wi(h (he )&rri&ge- Oberon e'en (rie" (o s(o* (he we""ing, s(&(ing (h&( (he %&ws o$ 1u))er &n" 8in(er $orb&"e & )&rri&ge be(ween cour(s- O$ course, when ,egh&n he&r" (his, she c&%)%y (o%" (he 1u))er )on&rch (h&(, &s 4ueen o$ (he !ron Re&%), she cou%" "o wh&( she *%e&se" wi(hin her own %&n"- Nor w&s ! & *rince o$ 8in(er &ny %onger, so he cou%" (&ke his %&ws &n" si( on (he)Reg&r"%ess, (he &c(u&% we""ing w&s &n enor)ous &$$&ir, wi(h re*resen(&(i'es $ro) &% (hree cour(s *resen(- ,egh&n’s hu)&n $&)i%y wou%" no( be (here, o$ course- ! "oub( &ny o$ (he) wou%"’'e sur'i'e" wi(h (heir s&ni(y in(&c(, bu( ! &gree" (o & s)&% er *ri'&(e cere)ony wi(h her $&)i%y in (he hu)&n wor%"- ! "i"n’( re&% y see (he *oin( o$ (wo we""ings, bu( ,egh&n insis(e" her $&)i%y wou%" see her )&rrie" &s we% , so ! h&" no

choice bu( (o conce"eThe re&% we""ing w&s he%" in (he wy%"woo", &s (he o(her cour(s cou%"n’( 'en(ure in(o (he !ron Re&%) wi(hou( *oisoning (he)se%'es- An" wi(hin & gro'e c&r*e(e" in wi%"$ %owers, where (hree cour(s o$ ;&ery g&(here" bene&(h (he (runk o$ & (ru%y )&ssi'e (ree, ,egh&n &n" ! were we" be$ore 1u))er, 8in(er, !ron &n" (he en(ire Ne'erne'erHu)&n we""ings h&'e no(hing on $ey we""ings, &( %e&s( no( (he ones !’'e seen o'er (he ye&rs- ! wore (he b%&ck-&n"si%'er uni$or) o$ & 8in(er *rince, &s ! h&" when ! $irs( s&w ,egh&n &( E%ysiu), so %ong &go- Though ! w&s no %onger *&r( o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, ! w&n(e" e'eryone (o re)e)ber (h&( ! w&s s(i% Ash, (h&( ! s(i% be%onge" here, in (he Ne'erne'er- ,&b &n" (he 8in(er Cour( s(oo" behin" )e, &n" ! cou%" $ee% (heir chi% &g&ins( )y b&ck, (he $ros( co&(ing (he $ %owers &roun" )e- On (he o**osi(e si"e, Oberon, Ti(&ni& &n" (he 1u))er Cour( %oo)e" (&% &n" *rou", g%&ring &( 8in(er o'er (he &is%e se*&r&(ing (he)- An" surroun"ing us &% , (he !ron $ey, (he (hir" cour( o$ ;&ery, %ooke" on#re)%ins &n" woo" ny)*hs sc&)*ere" (hrough (he gr&ss &n" (he (rees, sn&r%ing &n" hissing &( e&ch o(her- !ron knigh(s, (heir &r)or *o%ishe" (o & b%in"ing )e(&% ic sheen, s(oo" &( &((en(ion "own (he &is%e, o**osi(e (he si"he knigh(s o$ (he 1u))er &n" 8in(er cour(s, &w&i(ing (he *rocession- ;or & )o)en(, ! )&r'e%e" &( (he i)*ossibi%i(y o$ i( &% A no( %ong &go, (he !ron $ey were (he "e&"%ies( (hre&( (he Ne'erne'er h&" seen, &n" no one wou%" (o%er&(e (he) (o %i'e, )uch %ess sh&re s*&ce wi(hin (he wy%"woo"- +u( g&2ing &roun" &( (he g&(here" $&ces o$ 1u))er, 8in(er &n" !ron, ! $e%( & $ %icker o$ ho*e- !( h&" (&ken & "e(er)ine", h&%$hu)&n 1u))er *rincess &n" &n &ncien( *ro*hecy (o )en" (he ri$( be(ween (he (hree cour(s, bu( she h&" "one i(- !( wou%" be h&r", &n" i( wou%" (&ke & %o( o$ work, bu( )&ybe we cou%" %i'e in *e&ce wi(h e&ch o(her, &$(er &% ,o'e)en( in (he crow" c&ugh( )y &((en(ion- 3irec(%y o**osi(e o$ )e, on (he 1ee%ie si"e, & $&)i%i&r re"he&" *oke" his he&" $ro) (he crow" &n" s&%u(e", gi'ing )e & "e'i%ish grin! su**resse" & wince- Puck &n" ! h&"n’( s*oken )uch since (he we""ing &nnounce)en(, &n" (hough he’" ne'er show i(, ! sus*ec(e" (his "&y w&s going (o be h&r" $or hi)- ! &%so h&" (he sne&king sus*icion (h&( (he #re&( Pr&nks(er h&" & $ew sur*rises in s(ore $or us, &n" (h&( (he &$(er-*&r(y w&s going (o ge( & %i((%e wi%"- ! ho*e" (h&(, wh&(e'er h&**ene", (he *&r(y wou%"n’( (urn in(o & rio( &n" (hen & b%oo"b&(h+u( when (he )usic s(&r(e", ! $orgo( &bou( &% o$ (h&(- ! "i"n’( (hink o$ (he crow" &n" (he cour(s &n" (heir en"%ess s9u&bb%es- ! "i"n’( see Puck &n" ,&b, Oberon &n" Ti(&ni&, or (he !ron $ey- ! "i"n’( see &nyone bu( her,egh&n w&s s(unning in her %ong whi(e gown, brigh( gr&y e)broi"ery sc&((ere" &bou( %ike s(&rs, c&(ching (he %igh(- Her h&ir h&" been *inne" u* bene&(h (he 'ei%, wi(h & $ew wis*y, si%'er-b%on" s(r&n"s h&nging "own (o brush her b&re shou%"ers- A s&(in (r&in bi% owe" behin" her, & ri**%ing ri'er o$ whi(e, c&rrie" o'er (he gr&ss by & (rio o$ *&ckr&(sHer &"o*(i'e hu)&n $&(her, P&u%, s(oo" besi"e her, his young-o%" $&ce be&)ing wi(h *ri"e &n" & %i((%e $e&r- As (he (ru)*e(s b%&re" &n" (he knigh(s r&ise" (heir swor"s, (he $&eries &roun" us how%e", r&ising (heir 'oices in & /oy$u% c&co*hony, (he (u)u%( echoing o'er (he (rees &n" )&king (he &ir shi'er- As )y bri"e(o-be "rew c%oser, our eyes )e( (hrough (he 'ei%, &n" ! ne&r%y s(o**e" bre&(hing- This w&s i(- This w&s re&% y h&**ening! cou%"n’( kee* (he s)i%e $ro) )y $&ce &s she re&che" (he $ron(, (&king her *%&ce &( )y si"e- ,egh&n s)i%e" b&ck, &n" $or & )o)en(, we /us( s(oo" (here, %os( in e&ch o(her’s

g&2e- The how%ing $ey, (he s(&res o$ 1u))er, 8in(er &n" !ron, (he b%&ring (ru)*e(s, &% (h&( $&"e" &w&y un(i% i( w&s /us( )e &n" ,egh&n &n" no(hing e%seThen #ri)&%kin %e&*e" on(o (he o%" s(u)* be(ween us &n" sighe"“! s(i% "o no( see (he *oin( o$ )y *resi"ing o'er (his ri"icu%ous s*ec(&c%e, bu( 'ery we% The c&i( si(h y&wne" &n" s&( "own- “O$ &% (he $&'ors ! h&'e gr&n(e", (his is by $&r (he )os( (ireso)e- 1h&% we ge( i( o'er wi(h (hen? #ri)&%kin s&( u* s(r&igh(er &n" r&ise" his 'oice, so)ehow being he&r" o'er (he crow"- “8e &re g&(here" (o"&y, he beg&n in & %o$(y (one, “(o wi(ness (he /oining o$ (hese (wo in (he co)*%e(e%y use%ess, os(en(&(ious cere)ony o$ )&rri&ge- ;or re&sons beyon" )e, (hey h&'e "eci"e" (o )&ke (heir %o'e o$$ici&%, &n"0 “#ri)&%kin- ,egh&n sighe", (hough she wore & $&in(, e.&s*er&(e" s)i%e- “6us( (his once, cou%" you *%e&se no( be &n &ss? The c&( (wi(che" &n e&r- ! cou%" sense he w&s secre(%y &)use"- “! )&ke no *ro)ises, !ron 4ueen- He sni$$e", &n" %ooke" &( )e- “You h&'e your own 'ows, (hen? 8e bo(h no""e"“Th&nk (he he&'ens- 7n"er ,egh&n’s g%&re, he b%inke" &n" no""e" s&ge%y- “Cery we% 5e( us ge( on wi(h i(- You )&y *rocee" when re&"y, *rince! re&che" $or ,egh&n’s h&n", e.h&%ing s%ow%y &s ! )&"e )y o&(h- “,egh&n Ch&se, ! beg&n, g&2ing in(o her eyes, “$ro) (his "&y $or(h, ! 'ow (o be your husb&n" &n" your knigh(, (o s(&n" wi(h you when no o(hers wi% , (o *ro(ec( you &n" your king"o) wi(h e'ery(hing ! h&'e $or (he res( o$ )y %i$e- ! swe&r ! wi% be $&i(h$u%, &n" ! wi% %o'e you un(i% (he 'ery %&s( bre&(h %e&'es )y bo"y- +ec&use you h&'e )ore (h&n )y he&r( &n" )y )in" 0you &%so own )y sou%,egh&n g&'e )e & bri% i&n( s)i%e, her eyes going )is(y behin" (he 'ei%- “Ash, she )ur)ure", &n" e'en (hough she "i"n’( s&y i( ou( %ou", ! he&r" (he echo o$ )y True N&)e in her 'oice- “!(’s bec&use o$ you (h&( ! c&n be here (o"&y- You h&'e &%w&ys been (here, ne'er w&'ering, *ro(ec(ing )e wi(h no (hough( $or yourse%$- You’'e been )y (e&cher, )y knigh( &n" )y on%y %o'e- Now, i(’s )y (urn (o )&ke (h&( *ro)ise- 1he s9uee2e" )y h&n", her 'oice so$( bu( ne'er $&%(ering- “To"&y, ! 'ow (h&( we wi% ne'er be &*&r( &g&in- ! *ro)ise (h&( ! wi% be $ore'er by your si"e, &n" ! wi% be re&"y (o $&ce e'ery(hing (he wor%" h&s (o o$$er us“Cery (ouching, re)&rke" #ri)&%kin, scr&(ching behin" &n e&r- 8e bo(h ignore" hi), &n" he s&( u* wi(h & sni$$- “8e% , (hen- 1h&% we en" (his e.ercise &" n&use&)? !$ (here &re &ny here who ob/ec( (o (his /oining, %e( (he) s*e&k now or $ore'er ho%" (heir *e&ce- An" i$ you "o ob/ec(, *%e&se h&'e & '&%i" re&son $or (he ob/ec(ion so ! "o no( h&'e (o s(&y here whi%e you "eb&(e (he *rob%e)! cou%" sense (he ru%ers o$ bo(h cour(s w&n(ing (o s&y so)e(hing, &rgu)en(s &n" ob/ec(ions re&"y (o burs( $or(h- +u( wh&( cou%" (hey o$$er? ! w&sn’( *&r( o$ (he 8in(er Cour(, & )ere )or(&%, &n" ,egh&n w&s & 9ueen- There w&s no(hing (hey cou%" s&y (h&( w&s & '&%i" &rgu)en(- #ri)&%kin knew i( &s we% , $or &$(er on%y & )o)en( or (wo o$ s(r&ine" si%ence, he s(oo" u* &n" r&ise" his 'oice“Then %e( i( be known, be$ore (hese wi(nesses &n" (he cour(s, (h&( (hese (wo &re /oine"

$ore'er &s husb&n" &n" wi$e, &n" %e( no $orce in (he )or(&% wor%" or ;&ery (e&r (he) &*&r(- ! now *resen( (o you (he 4ueen &n" Consor( o$ (he !ron Cour(- He y&wne" &n" %ooke" &( us &$$ec(ion&(e%y- “! su**ose now is (he *&r( where you kiss (he0we% , ne'er )in", (hen! h&" &%re&"y r&ise" ,egh&n’s 'ei% &n" "r&wn her c%ose- An" bene&(h (he gre&( (ree, in (he )i"s( o$ & ro&ring, hoo(ing $&ery crow", ! kisse" )y new bri"e un(i% e'ery(hing &roun" us $&"e" &w&yTi)e *&sse", &n" ! s%ow%y &"/us(e" (o %i$e in (he !ron Cour(- ! bec&)e use" (o (he gre)%ins scurrying &roun" (he c&s(%e, (r&i%ing ,egh&n %ike $&i(h$u% "ogs ye( s(i% )&n&ging (o wreck h&'oc where (hey *&sse"- ! no %onger wen( $or )y swor" when & s9u&" o$ !ron knigh(s &**ro&che" ,egh&nThe curious, sus*icious s(&res when ! *&sse" grew %ess &n" %ess $re9uen(, un(i% ! bec&)e /us( &no(her *resence in (he c&s(%eThe !ron $ey, ! "isco'ere", were & )uch )ore s(ruc(ure" grou* (h&n (he $&eries o$ 1u))er &n" 8in(er- E.ce*( $or (he e'er-ch&o(ic gre)%ins, (hey we%co)e" or"er, un"ers(oo" r&nk &n" hier&rchy &n" (he ch&in o$ co))&n"- ! w&s *rince consor( (o (heir 9ueen, secon" on%y (o ,egh&n herse%$B (here$ore, ! w&s (o be obeye"- E'en #%i(ch, ,egh&n’s ;irs( 5ieu(en&n(, r&re%y 9ues(ione" )e- An" (he !ron knigh(s obeye" )y or"ers wi(hou( $&i%- !( w&s s(r&nge, no( h&'ing (o cons(&n(%y w&(ch )y b&ck $or $e&r so)eone )igh( s(ick & kni$e in i(- O$ course, (here were &%w&ys s9u&bb%es &n" *o%i(ics wi(hin (he !ron Cour(, &s (here were in &ny cour( o$ ;&ery- +u( $or (he )os( *&r(, (he $ey here were )ore s(r&igh($orw&r" &n" business%ike, no( seeking (o (r&* )e in & "e&"%y g&)e o$ wor"s /us( $or (he $un o$ i(Once ! $igure" (h&( ou(, ! beg&n (o &**reci&(e (he !ron Re&%) & %o( )oreEs*eci&% y when, &s & )or(&%, ! cou%" "o (hings ! ne'er wou%"’'e "re&)e" o$ "oing &s & $eyNo( %ong &$(er (he we""ing, ! &woke &%one in (he be", wi(h %igh( co)ing $ro) (he roo) &"/&cen( (o us0,egh&n’s o$$ice- Rising, ! w&n"ere" in(o (he roo) (o $in" ,egh&n si((ing &( her "esk wi(h (he s)&% , $ %&( screen she c&rrie" &roun" %ike & (&b%e(- !( w&s & (ru%y $oreign "e'ice (o )eA wi(h & )ere (ouch o$ (he screen’s $&ce, she cou%" *u% u* “$i%es &n" “e)&i%, )&ke *ic(ures bigger or s)&% er, or whisk (he) &w&y wi(h & $ %ick o$ her h&n"- !, o$ course, (hough( i( w&s !ron g%&)our (h&( &% owe" such )&gic, (hough when ! )en(ione" (his (o 3io"e, & h&cker e%$ in ch&rge o$ (he c&s(%e’s co)*u(er sys(e)s, he %&ughe" so hys(eric&% y he cou%"n’( &nswer )e, &n" ! %e$( in &nnoy&nce“Hey, ! )ur)ure", s%i**ing )y &r)s &roun" her $ro) behin"- “8h&( &re you "oing? 1he *&use" & )o)en(, res(ing her he&" &g&ins( )y &r), (hen re&che" u* &n" *u% e" & *&ir o$ (hin whi(e wires $ro) her e&rs- “Checking (he i(iner&ry $or (he "&y- 1ee)s (he Cog 3w&r'es h&'e been h&'ing (roub%e wi(h "is&**e&r&nces in (he 7n"erci(y- !’% h&'e (o ge( #%i(ch (o see wh&(’s going on "own (here- 3io"e w&n(s )e (o b&n &% gre)%ins $ro) (he securi(y roo)s, s&ying he c&n’( (hink wi(h (he) running &roun" ge((ing in(o e'ery(hing1he sighe" &n" %e&ne" b&ck in (he ch&ir, %&cing &n &r) &roun" )y neck whi%e (he o(her h&n" s(i% he%" (he (&b%e(- “An" (here &re & (on o$ re9ues(s $ro) (he nor(hern (erri(ories, s&ying knigh(s $ro) (he 8in(er Cour( &re c&using (roub%e, h&r&ssing (he %oc&%s on (his si"e

o$ (he bor"er5ooks %ike ,&b &n" ! nee" (o h&'e & (&%k- Th&(’s going (o be & $un con'ers&(ion1he sighe" &n" %&i" (he (&b%e( $ %&( on (he "esk- ! s(&re" &( (he wor"s $ %&shing &cross (he screen, & co)*%e(e%y $oreign 'oc&bu%&ry (o )e, e'en i$ ! un"ers(oo" (he %&ngu&ge,egh&n g%&nce" u* &( )e, &n" & )ischie'ous s)i%e crosse" her $&ce“Here- Rising, she *%ucke" (he screen o$$ (he "esk(o* &n" sho'e" i( (ow&r" )e- “T&ke i(!’% show you how i( works! b&%ke", (&king & s(e* b&ckw&r", eyeing (he (&b%e( &s i$ i( w&s & 'eno)ous sn&ke- “8hy? “Ash, you’re hu)&n now- ,egh&n s)i%e" &n" con(inue" (o ho%" (he screen (ow&r" )e“You "on’( h&'e (o be &$r&i" o$ (his &ny)ore- !( c&n’( hur( you“! "on’( h&'e !ron g%&)our, ! (o%" her- “!( won’( work $or )e1he %&ughe"- “You "on’( nee" g%&)our (o work (his- !(’s no( )&gic, /us( (echno%ogyAnyone c&n use i(- Now, co)e on- 1he w&gg%e" i( in )y "irec(ion- “6us( gi'e i( & (ry! sighe"- Cery c&u(ious%y, ! re&che" ou( &n" (ook i(, s(i% h&%$ e.*ec(ing (o $ee% & se&ring *&in in )y h&n"s &s )y $ %esh re&c(e" (o (he )e(&%- 8hen no(hing h&**ene", ! he%" i( ginger%y in bo(h h&n"s &n" s(&re" &( (he screen, no( knowing wh&( (o "o,egh&n s%i**e" besi"e )e, w&(ching o'er )y shou%"er- “Touch (he screen here, she or"ere" so$(%y, "e)ons(r&(ing wi(h gr&ce$u% $ingers- “1ee? You c&n &ccess $i%es here, *u% u* *ic(ures, )&ke (he) bigger %ike (his- Try i(! "i", &n" (o )y sur*rise, (he (&b%e( res*on"e" (o )y c%u)sy &((e)*(s, working e.&c(%y &s i( h&" $or ,egh&n- ! "r&gge" & *ic(ure on(o (he screen, )&"e i( bigger, shr&nk i( &n" whiske" i( &w&y, $ee%ing & $oo%ish grin cree* &cross )y $&ce- ! "isco'ere" &n en(ire %ibr&ry wi(hin (he $i%es o$ (his s(r&nge "e'ice, )ore books (h&n ! h&" (hough( *ossib%e, &% con(&ine" in (his (iny screen- 8i(h (he (ouch o$ & $inger, )usic $i% e" (he &ir, one o$ (he (hous&n"s o$ songs ,egh&n h&" “"own%o&"e" $ro) (he “web- ! )us(’'e *%&ye" wi(h (he (hing $or &( %e&s( (wen(y )inu(es, be$ore ,egh&n %&ughing%y (ook i( b&ck, s&ying she s(i% h&" work (o "o“1ee, now, she (o%" )e, &s ! re%uc(&n(%y g&'e i( u*, “being hu)&n isn’( &% b&", is i(? ! w&(che" &s she s&( "own &n" beg&n working &g&in, $ingers $ %ying &cross (he screen, eyes h&%$-c%ose" in concen(r&(ion- E'en(u&% y, she bec&)e &w&re o$ )e s(&ring &( her &n" %ooke" u*, r&ising & 9ui22ic&% eyebrow- “Yes? “! w&n( one, ! (o%" her si)*%y- 1he %&ughe" &n" (his (i)e, ! grinne" b&ckTh&( w&s (he beginningHu)&ni(y "i"n’( co)e e&si%y $or )e, or &% &( once- ! s(i% )isse" )y g%&)our, (he e&sy w&y )y bo"y use" (o )o'e, (he 9uickness &n" (he s(reng(h o$ )y 7nsee%ie heri(&ge- To kee* u* )y ski% s, #%i(ch &n" ! wou%" s*&r "&i%y in (he (r&ining y&r" &s (he !ron knigh(s %ooke" on, &n" (hough ! re)e)bere" how (o wie%" & swor", ! ne'er see)e" (o )o'e $&s( enoughThe )&neu'ers (h&( use" (o be secon" n&(ure were e.(re)e%y "i$$icu%( (o i)*ossib%e nowTrue, ! h&" been $igh(ing $or & 'ery %ong (i)e, &n" )y e.*erience w&s such (h&( none o$ (he knigh(s cou%" (ouch )e in & one-on-one )&(ch- +u( ! %os( (o #%i(ch )ore o$(en (h&n no(, &n" i( w&s $rus(r&(ing- ! h&" been be((er once-

,y *hysic&% %i)i(&(ions weren’( )y on%y worries- ! w&s o$(en *%&gue" wi(h nigh()&res o$ )y *&s(, where ! wou%" w&ke in (he nigh( g&s*ing, co'ere" in co%" swe&(, ghos(%y $&ces ebbing in(o re&%i(y- Coices h&un(e" )y s%ee*, &ccusing, h&(e$u% 'oices, "e)&n"ing (o know why ! w&s h&**y when (hey h&" "ie"- ,y "re&)s were $i% e" wi(h b%oo" &n" "&rkness, &n" (here were )&ny nigh(s when ! cou%"n’( s%ee*, s(&ring &( (he cei%ing, w&i(ing $or "&wn- #r&"u&% y, howe'er, (he nigh()&res "i)inishe", &s ! beg&n (o $orge( (h&( *&r( o$ )y %i$e &n" $ocus on )y new one- The "re&)s ne'er ce&se" co)*%e(e%y, bu( (he "e)on &( (he he&r( o$ (hose nigh()&res w&sn’( )e &ny %onger- ! w&s no %onger Ash (he 7nsee%ie *rince- ! h&" )o'e" on+u(, e'ery once in & gre&( whi%e, ! wou%" h&'e (he surre&% $ee%ing (h&( ! w&s )issing so)e(hing- Th&( )y %i$e wi(h ,egh&n w&sn’( wh&( i( &**e&re" (o be- Th&( ! h&" $orgo((en so)e(hing i)*or(&n(- ! wou%" sh&ke i( o$$, con'incing )yse%$ ! w&s si)*%y &"/us(ing (o being hu)&n, bu( i( &%w&ys re(urne", (&un(ing )e, & )e)ory kee*ing /us( ou( o$ re&chReg&r"%ess, (i)e )o'e" on in (he !ron Re&%)- ,egh&n ru%e" wi(hou( o**osi(ion, )&neu'ering (he %&byrin(h o$ $ey *o%i(ics &s i$ she h&" been born $or i(- ! i))erse" )yse%$ in (echno%ogyA %&*(o*s, ce% *hones, co)*u(er g&)es, so$(w&re- An" gr&"u&% y, ! grew &ccus(o)e" (o being hu)&n, s%ow%y $orge((ing )y $&ery si"e0)y g%&)our, s*ee" &n" s(reng(h0 un(i% ! cou%"n’( re)e)ber wh&( i( $e%( %ike &( &% -


A $r&n(ic bee*ing "r&gge" )e ou( o$ & co)$or(&b%e s%ee*- #roggi%y, ! r&ise" )yse%$ u*, being c&re$u% no( (o "is(urb ,egh&n, &n" re&che" $or (he *hone on (he en" (&b%e- The g%owing b%ue nu)bers on (he screen *roc%&i)e" i( IBJI &-)-, &n" (h&( #%i(ch w&s going (o "ie $or w&king )e u* %ike (his! *resse" (he bu((on, *u( (he *hone (o )y e&r &n" grow%e"B “1o)eone be((er be "e&"“1orry, highness- #%i(ch’s 'oice hisse" in )y e&r, whis*ering %ou"%y- “+u( we h&'e & *rob%e)- !s (he 9ueen s(i% &s%ee*? ! w&s ins(&n(%y &w&ke- “Yes, ! )ur)ure", (hrowing b&ck (he co'ers &n" rising $ro) (he

be"- The !ron 4ueen w&s & so)ewh&( he&'y s%ee*er, o$(en e.h&us(e" by (he "e)&n"s o$ ru%ing & king"o), &n" (en"e" (o be cr&nky when woken u* in (he )i""%e o$ (he nigh(A$(er ge((ing sn&r%e" &( se'er&% (i)es $or & )i""%e-o$-(he-nigh( e)ergency, #%i(ch s(&r(e" "irec(ing &% )i"nigh( *rob%e)s (o )e- +e(ween us, we were usu&% y &b%e (o h&n"%e (he si(u&(ion be$ore (he 9ueen knew so)e(hing w&s wrong“8h&(’s going on? ! &ske", shrugging in(o )y c%o(hes whi%e s(i% *ressing (he *hone (o )y e&r wi(h & shou%"er- #%i(ch g&'e & h&%$ &ngry, h&%$ $e&r$u% sigh“:ierr&n h&s run o$$ &g&in“8h&(? “His roo) w&s e)*(y, &n" we (hink he )&n&ge" (o s%i* o'er (he w&% - ! h&'e $our s9u&"s ou( %ooking $or hi), bu( ! (hough( you shou%" know your son h&s *u% e" &no(her '&nishing &c(! gro&ne" &n" scrubbe" & h&n" &cross )y $&ce- “#e( (he g%i"ers re&"y- !’% be righ( (here#%i(ch )e( )e on (he highes( (ower, (he %igh(ning in his h&ir sn&**ing &ngri%y, his *ur*%e eyes g%owing in (he "&rkness- “8e’'e &%re&"y se&rche" his usu&% hi"eou(s, he in$or)e" )e &s ! c&)e u*- “He’s no( in &ny o$ (he), &n" we’'e been %ooking since )i"nigh(- 8e (hink he )&n&ge" (o ge( ou( o$ (he ci(y (his (i)e“How "i" he ge( o'er (he w&% ? ! &ske", g%owering &( (he $irs( %ieu(en&n(, who gri)&ce"“One o$ (he g%i"ers is )issing, he s&i", &n" ! grow%e" & curse- :ierr&n, b%ue-eye" &n" si%'er-h&ire", w&s ne&r%y eigh( in hu)&n ye&rs, &n" h&" /us( enough $&ery b%oo" (o )&ke hi) &s (roub%eso)e &s & *houk&- ;ro) (he (i)e he cou%" w&%k, (he househo%" s(&$$ h&" been un&b%e (o kee* u* wi(h hi)- Ni)b%e &s & s9uirre%, he sc&%e" (he w&% s, c%i)be" ou( win"ows &n" *erche" on (he highes( (owers, grinning in "e%igh( whi%e e'eryone scr&)b%e" &bou( (o co&. hi) "own- His "&ring &n" curiosi(y on%y incre&se" wi(h &ge, &n" i$ you (o%" hi) he cou%" no( "o so)e(hing, you *re((y )uch ensure" (h&( he w&s going (o (ryHis )o(her w&s going (o ki% )e#%i(ch %ooke" $&in(%y &sh&)e"- “He w&s &sking &bou( (he) (his )orning- ! shou%"’'e *icke" u* on i( (hen- Any i"e& where he )igh(’'e gone? Thinking b&ck, ! sighe"- :ierr&n h&" been obsesse" wi(h (he o(her (erri(ories o$ %&(e, &sking &bou( (he 1u))er &n" 8in(er cour(s &n" (he wy%"woo"- Th&( &$(ernoon, we h&" been *r&c(icing &rchery in (he cour(y&r", &n" he’" &ske" wh&( (y*e o$ (hings ! h&" hun(e"8hen ! (o%" hi) &bou( (he "&ngerous cre&(ures in (he wy%"woo", &bou( gi&n(s &n" chi)er&s &n" wy'erns (h&( cou%" ri* you &*&r( or sw&% ow you who%e, he’" &%)os( g%owe" wi(h“8i% you (&ke )e hun(ing so)e"&y, ;&(her? !n (he wy%"woo"? ! %ooke" &( hi)- He g&2e" b&ck innocen(%y, "i&)on"-b%ue eyes s*&rk%ing bene&(h %ong si%'er b&ngs, gri**ing his bow (igh(%y in bo(h h&n"s- The (i*s o$ his *oin(e" e&rs *eeke" ou( o$ his h&ir, & cons(&n( re)in"er (h&( he w&sn’( 9ui(e hu)&n- Th&( (he b%oo" o$ (he !ron 4ueen $ %owe" (hrough hi), )&king hi) $&s(er, s(ronger, )ore "&ring (h&n & nor)&% chi%"- He h&" &%re&"y "e)ons(r&(e" & (&%en( $or g%&)our, &n" he *icke" u* &rchery &n" swor" $igh(ing $&s(er (h&n he h&" & righ( (o- 1(i% , he w&s on%y eigh(, s(i% & chi%", &n"

innocen( (o (he "&ngers o$ (he res( o$ ;&ery“8hen you’re o%"er, ! (o%" hi)- “No( ye(- +u( when you’re re&"y, !’% (&ke youHe grinne", %igh(ing u* his who%e $&ce- “Pro)ise? “Yes- ! kne%( besi"e hi) &n" s(r&igh(ene" ou( (he bow, *oin(ing i( (he righ( w&y- “Now, (ry (o hi( (he (&rge( &g&inHe gigg%e", &**&ren(%y s&(is$ie", &n" "i"n’( bring i( u* &g&in- An" ! "i"n’( gi'e i( &no(her (hough( (he res( o$ (he &$(ernoon- ! shou%"’'e known be((er“! h&'e &n i"e&- ! sighe", &n" whis(%e" $or one o$ (he g%i"ers h&nging $ro) (he w&% - !( (urne" i(s insec(%ike he&" &n" bu22e" s%ee*i%y- “H&'e (he knigh(s se&rch (he wy%"woo", *&r(icu%&r%y &roun" (he bor"ers o$ (he cour(s- An" %e(’s ho*e he’s no( $oun" his w&y in(o Tir N& Nog“The o(her cour(s won’( %ike i(, #%i(ch )u((ere"- “8e’re no( re&% y su**ose" (o go in(o (he wy%"woo" wi(hou( (heir *er)ission“This is )y son- ! $i.e" hi) wi(h & *iercing g%&re, &n" he %ooke" &w&y- “! "on’( c&re i$ we h&'e (o (e&r u* (he en(ire wy%"woo"- ! w&n( hi) $oun", is (h&( un"ers(oo"? “Yes, sire! no""e" cur(%y &n" s(e**e" (o (he e"ge o$ (he b&%cony, s*re&"ing )y &r)s- The g%i"er s*ir&%e" "own $ro) (he w&% &n" cr&w%e" u* )y b&ck, un$ur%ing i(s wings- ! %ooke" b&ck &( #%i(ch, w&(ching us so%e)n%y, &n" sighe"“8&ke (he 9ueen, ! (o%" hi)- “Te% her (he si(u&(ion- This is so)e(hing she nee"s (o know righ( &w&y- He wince", &n" ! "i"n’( en'y hi) (he /ob- “Te% her !’% be b&ck wi(h :ierr&n soonAn" wi(h (h&(, ! *ushe" )yse%$ o$$ (he e"ge &n" swoo*e" in(o e)*(y s*&ce- The &ir curren(s c&ugh( (he g%i"er’s wings, be&ring us &%o$(, &n" we so&re" in (he "irec(ion o$ (he wy%"woo"! "i"n’( h&'e (o se&rch $&r- On%y & $ew )i%es &$(er ! crosse" (he bor"er o$ (he !ron Re&%) &n" en(ere" (he wy%"woo", ! s*o((e" (he g%in( o$ & g%i"er’s wing in (he )oon%igh( &n" *ushe" )y own g%i"er (o %&n" ne&rby- 5e&'ing (he (wo iron cre&(ures (o bu22 &( e&ch o(her"%y, ! c%icke" on & $ %&sh%igh( &n" s(u"ie" (he groun" &roun" (he %&n"ing si(e3es*i(e )y hu)&n 'ision, cen(uries o$ hun(ing &n" (r&cking (hrough (he wy%"woo" cou%" no( be $orgo((en in & $ew shor( ye&rs, &n" ! soon $oun" & se( o$ s)&% $oo(*rin(s, %e&"ing o$$ in(o (he (&ng%e" un"ergrow(h- #ri)%y, *r&ying no(hing wou%" $in" hi) be$ore ! "i", ! $o% owe"A $ew )i%es in, (he (r&cks (ook on &n o)inous c&s(, &s so)e(hing %&rge &n" he&'y /oine" (he s)&% er *rin(s (hrough (he $ores(- 1(&%king (he)1oon &$(er (h&(, (he s(ri"e be(ween (he *rin(s %eng(hene", s(re(ching ou( (o & run, /oine" by sn&**e" br&nches &n" (wigs, &n" )y b%oo" r&n co%"8hen ! $oun" his bow, broken &n" s*%in(ere", "re&" s9uee2e" )y ches( un(i% ! cou%" h&r"%y bre&(he, &n" ! s(&r(e" (o runA scre&) sh&((ere" (he s(i% ness o$ (he nigh(- !( (urne" )y b%oo" (o ice, &n" ! ch&rge" b%in"%y in (h&( "irec(ion, "r&wing )y swor" &s ! wen(- The icy $ey we&*on se&re" )y

h&n"s wi(h co%", bu( ! w&s (oo $&r gone (o no(ice“:ierr&n! ! shou(e", burs(ing (hrough (he un"ergrow(h- A ro&r &nswere" )e- 1o)e(hing huge &n" (errib%e c%ung (o & (ree & $ew y&r"s &w&y, be&(ing b&(%ike wings $or %e'er&ge &n" c%&wing &( (he br&nches- !(s bo"y w&s bony &n" %eonine, wi(h b%oo"-re" $ur &n" & )&((e" b%&ck )&ne- !(’s %ong (&i% en"e" in & s*iky b&% , bris(%ing %ike & huge se& urchin &n" %e&'ing s*ines in (he &"/&cen( (rees &s i( (hr&she" in $rus(r&(ionHigh o'erhe&", & s)&% , brigh( $igure *resse" b&ck in(o (he %i)bs o$ (he (ree, (rying (o scr&)b%e higher, &w&y $ro) (he 'icious be&s( swi*ing &( hi) & $ew $ee( &w&y- His (e&r$u% b%ue eyes )e( )ine, bu( his cry w&s "rowne" ou( by (he be% owing o$ (he )ons(er be%ow“Hey! ! ro&re", &n" (wo burning re" eyes sn&**e" (o )e- “#e( &w&y $ro) hi) now! The )&n(icore how%e" &n" %e&*e" o$$ (he (ree, %&n"ing wi(h & boo)ing cr&sh on (he groun"- 5&shing i(s (&i%, i( s(&%ke" (ow&r" )e, i(s shocking%y hu)&n $&ce *u% e" in(o &n &ni)&%is(ic sn&r%, b&ring *oin(e" (ee(h- ! gri**e" (he swor", ignoring (he nu)bing chi% (h&( s*re&" u* )y &r), &n" (ook & "ee* bre&(hThe )&n(icore %unge", hooke" (&%ons swi*ing &( )y $&ce, /&ws g&*ing (o (e&r in(o )y (hro&(- ! "o"ge", %&shing ou( wi(h (he swor", cu((ing & g&sh in (he )ons(er’s shou%"er- !( scre&)e", &n o""%y hu)&n w&i%, &n" s*un wi(h b%&2ing re" eyes- !(s (&i% $ %icke" ou(, &%)os( (oo 9uick (o see, &n" ! $e%( so)e(hing (hw&* &g&ins( )y %egs+%in"ing *&in c&)e secon"s %&(er, ne&r%y "ro**ing )e (o )y knees- ! re&che" "own wi(h one h&n" &n" $e%( (he %ong b%&ck s*ines o$ (he )&n(icore’s (&i% sunk "ee* in(o )y %eg:nowing i( wou%" con(inue (o *u)* 'eno) in(o )e (he %onger ! %e$( i(, ! gr&s*e" (he s*ine &n" ri**e" i( &w&y, c%enching )y /&w (o kee* $ro) scre&)ing- The s*ine w&s b&rbe" &( (he en", &n" (ore & g&*ing ho%e in )y %eg, bu( )&n(icore 'eno) wou%" 9uick%y *&r&%y2e &n" ki% i(s 'ic(i) i$ %e$( in (he bo"yO'erhe&", :ierr&n crie" ou( in (error- The )&n(icore grow%e" &n" s(&%ke" c%oser (o )e, re" eyes g%owing in (he "&rkness! cou%" $ee% (he *oison burning i(s w&y (hrough )y %eg, &n" $ough( (o re)&in s(e&"y on )y $ee(, w&(ching &s (he )ons(er circ%e" )e, (wi(ching i(s "e&"%y (&i%- 8&i(ing $or (he 'eno) (o (&ke e$$ec(- C&su&% y, i( $ %icke" i(s (&i% &g&in, &n" ! $e%( &no(her b&rb s%&) in(o )y shou%"er, )&king )e g&s*- ! "i"n’( h&'e )uch (i)e %e$(- Nu)bness w&s cree*ing (hrough )y %eg, &n" soon )y &r) wou%" $o% ow- +u( ! h&" (o s&'e :ierr&n- ! wou%" &( %e&s( )&ke sure :ierr&n go( ho)e s&$e;eigning we&kness, ! s(&ggere" &n" $e% (o )y knees, %e((ing (he (i* o$ )y b%&"e s(rike (he e&r(h- !( w&s wh&( (he )&n(icore w&s w&i(ing $or- The )ons(er s*r&ng &( )e wi(h & how%, going in $or (he ki% , /&ws g&*ing- ! $e% b&ckw&r", bringing )y swor" u* &s (he )&n(icore %unge" o'er )e, sinking )y b%&"e "ee* in(o i(s sh&ggy ches(The cre&(ure scre&)e" &n" co% &*se" on (o* o$ )e, *inning )e (o (he e&r(h- !(s bo"y s)e% e" o$ b%oo" &n" ro((en )e&(- ! (rie" sho'ing i( o$$ &s i( (wi(che" &n" kicke" in i(s "e&(h (hroes, bu( i( w&s (oo he&'y &n" ! w&s in (oo )uch *&in (o )o'e i(- An" so ! %&y (here, *inne" un"er & "e&" )&n(icore, knowing ! *rob&b%y wou%"n’( w&%k &w&y $ro) (his- ! cou%" $ee% (he 'eno) working i(s w&y (hrough )y %eg, (he s*ine s(i% *iercing )y shou%"erAsh (he 8in(er *rince wou%" h&'e he&%e" $ro) such woun"s, his $ey bo"y ins(inc(i'e%y "r&wing in g%&)our (o (hrow o$$ (he sickness, re*&iring i(se%$ wi(h &n unen"ing su**%y o$

)&gic- +u( ! w&s on%y )or(&%, &n" h&" no such *owerAs ! $ough( $or consciousness, ! bec&)e &w&re o$ :ierr&n, grun(ing &n" crying &s he (rie" *u% ing (he "e&" )&n(icore o$$ )e- “#e( u*, ! he&r" hi) sni$$ %e- “;&(her, ge( u*“:ierr&n, ! c&% e" so$(%y, bu( he "i"n’( see) (o he&r )e- ! (rie" &g&in, bu( & shou( echoe" (hrough (he (rees, &n" :ierr&n /erke" his he&" u*- “O'er here! he crie", w&'ing bo(h &r)s- “#%i(ch, we’re o'er here! ;&)i%i&r 'oices surroun"e" us- #%i(ch’s 'oice, $r&n(ic &n" &ngry- The c%&nking o$ (he !ron knigh(s &s (hey *u% e" (he )&n(icore &w&y- :ierr&n’s sobs &s he (rie" e.*%&ining wh&( h&" h&**ene"- ! (rie" &nswering (he 9ues(ions (h&( bu22e" &roun" )y he&", bu( )y 'oice w&s &s nu)b &s (he res( o$ )e, &n" (he sh&*es crow"ing )y 'ision were b%urry &n" in"is(inc(“Th&( %eg %ooks *re((y b&", ! he&r" so)eone )ur)ur (o #%i(ch &s (hey ben( o'er )e“8e’% (ry (o s&'e i(, bu( he is & )or(&%, &$(er &% “3o wh&( you c&n, #%i(ch )u((ere" b&ck- “!’) /us( g%&" we $oun" hi) &%i'e- The 9ueen is no( going (o be h&**yTheir 'oices bec&)e g&rb%e" &$(er (h&(, b%en"ing in(o (he b&ckgroun"- E'en(u&% y, soun"s, *eo*%e, 'oices, &% b%urre" (oge(her %ike ink, &n" (urne" in(o "&rkness! (hough( ! wou%" "ie, bu( ! %i'e",y %eg w&s ne'er (he s&)e- The 'eno) h&" "&)&ge" i( (oo b&"%y- 5ucki%y $or )e, (he b&rb in )y shou%"er h&" *&sse" c%e&n (hrough &n" co)e ou( (he o(her si"e, %e&'ing no(hing behin" bu( & *uckering sc&r- +u( $ore'er &$(er (h&( $igh(, ! w&%ke" wi(h & %i)*, &n" i$ ! s(oo" on (he %eg (oo %ong or *u( (oo )uch weigh( on i(, i( wou%" gi'e ou( $ro) un"er )e- The s*&rring )&(ches wi(h #%i(ch &n" (he knigh(s c&)e (o & h&%(, &n" ! h&" (o %e&n on & c&ne when (r&'e%ing or w&%king &ny "is(&nce! "i"n’( )in">(oo )uch- ! s(i% h&" )y son, )y wi$e &n" )y he&%(h, (hough (h&( %&s( $igh( "e)ons(r&(e" ye( &g&in how $r&gi%e )or(&%i(y w&s- A $&c( ,egh&n )&"e *&in$u% y c%e&r once ! w&s on )y $ee( &g&in- The !ron 4ueen h&" been %i'i", b%ue eyes $ %&shing &s she ri**e" in(o )e, "e)&n"ing (o know wh&( !’" been (hinking, going in(o (he wy%"woo" &%one“You’re hu)&n now, Ash, she s&i", $in&% y c&%)ing "own & bi(- “! know you (hink you c&n (&ke on (he wor%", bu( (h&( isn’( (he c&se &ny)oreP%e&se, *%e&se, *ro)ise )e you’% be )ore c&re$u%“! "on’( re&% y h&'e )uch o$ & choice now, "o !? ! sighe", gr&bbing )y c&ne (o %i)* ou( o$ (he roo)- Her g&2e $o% owe" )e, s&" &n" concerne", &n" ! *&use" in (he "oorw&y“3on’( worry, your )&/es(y- !’) &w&re o$ )y %i)i(&(ions- ! (rie" (o kee* (he bi((erness &n" *&in $ro) )y 'oice, bu( i( s%i**e" ou( &nyw&y- “! won’( be $igh(ing &ny(hing $or & %ong (i)e- ! c&n *ro)ise you (h&(“Th&(’s no( wh&( concerns )e, ,egh&n re*%ie" so$(%y, bu( ! w&s &%re&"y ou( (he "oorTi)e *&sse", &n" in (he !ron Re&%), (he gre&( c%ock (ower in (he cen(er o$ (he ci(y ke*( (r&ck o$ i(s )&rch- :ierr&n grew in(o & $ierce w&rrior, "e&"%y, %igh( on his $ee(, *ossessing & s*ee" unn&(ur&% in & hu)&n- An" when he re&che" & cer(&in *oin( in his %i$e, /us( *&s( his se'en(een(h bir(h"&y, he si)*%y> s(o**e" &ging- As i$ he’" "eci"e" (h&( he w&s

h&**y &s he w&s &n" re$use" (o grow u* &ny )ore,egh&n ne'er ch&nge"A (hough she )&(ure" wi(h (he *&ssing o$ (i)e, beco)ing shrew" &n" wise &n" & (ru%y $or)i"&b%e 9ueen, her bo"y re)&ine" &s young &n" be&u(i$u% &s (he res( o$ ;&eryAn" !, &s & hu)&n in (he !ron Re&%), where (i)e "i" *&ss &n" secon"s (icke" by (he ye&rs, "i" no(“8h&( were you (hinking? ! (urne" )y he&" &( (he soun" o$ ,egh&n’s 'oice, seeing (he !ron 4ueen *&use" in (he "oorw&y, her &r)s crosse" in $ron( o$ her- Though she w&s s(unning in & %ong e'ening gown, her h&ir h&nging in g%i((ering cur%s "own her b&ck, she "i" no( %ook *%e&se"“Thinking? ! &ske", ho*ing (o "er&i% her by &c(ing bewi%"ere" &n" innocen(7n$or(un&(e%y, (h&( r&re%y worke" wi(h (he !ron 4ueen, &n" (onigh( w&s no e.ce*(ion“3on’( gi'e )e (h&(, Ash- ,egh&n c&)e in(o (he be"roo), g%owering &( )e- “You know wh&( !’) (&%king &bou(8hy "i" you (e% :ierr&n he cou%" go (o E%ysiu) (his ye&r? The %&s( (hing we nee" is hi) *icking & $igh( wi(h & 8in(er gen(ry, or se"ucing so)eone in )y $&(her’s cour(- They’re &%re&"y %eery enough o$ hi) &s i( is“He’s been &sking (o go $or ye&rs, ! (o%" her, swir%ing )y c%o&k &roun" )y shou%"ers- “! (hink he’s o%" enough (o see wh&( i(’s %ike- 8e c&n’( she%(er hi) $ore'er- He’s going (o h&'e (o %e&rn &bou( (he o(her cour(s, &s *rince o$ (he !ron Re&%)- ,egh&n g%&re" &( )e & )o)en( %onger, (hen re%en(e" wi(h & sigh- “Oh, $ine- ! know you’re righ(, she s&i", gi'ing )e &n e.&s*er&(e" s)i%e- “!(’s /us(>he s(i% see)s so young (o )e, s(i% /us( & ki", ge((ing in(o (roub%e- 8here "oes (he (i)e go? 1he crosse" (o (he win"ow, g&2ing ou( &( Tir N& Nog- The sun w&s se((ing, &n" (he huge c%ock (ower in (he 'ery cen(er o$ (he ci(y w&s si%houe((e" b%&ck &g&ins( (he e'ening sky“Twen(y ye&rs, Ash, she )ur)ure"- “!(’s h&r" (o be%ie'e i(’s been )ore (h&n (wen(y ye&rs since we be&( (he $&%se king- !( $ee%s %ike yes(er"&y;or you, *erh&*s, ! (hough(, g%&ncing &( (he re$%ec(ion in (he )irror- #r&y eyes in & worn, %ine" $&ce s(&re" b&ck &( )e8rink%es crouche" un"er )y eyes &n" &( (he corners o$ )y )ou(h, )&rring )y skin, &n" & sc&r (r&ce" i(s w&y $ro) )y

%e$( cheek (o un"er )y /&w, & (ro*hy $ro) & cock&(rice hun( in (he wy%"woo"- 5&(e%y, )y (e)*%es h&" beco)e (ouche" wi(h gr&y &n" )y shou%"er0(he one (h&( h&" (&ken (he )&n(icore s(ing0s(i% &che", & "u% , *ersis(en( (hrob, whene'er i( r&ine"Twen(y ye&rs h&" %e$( i(s )&rk, &n" ! w&s &% (oo &w&re o$ (he *&ssing o$ (i)eAn" ,egh&n, )y be&u(i$u%, h&%$-$&ery wi$e, w&s unch&nge"“The c&rri&ge is here, ,egh&n &nnounce", *eering o'er (he win"owsi% - “An" (here’s :ierr&n, w&i(ing $or us by (he g&(e- ! guess we shou%" go- 1he (urne" (o )e, & $ %icker o$ worry *&ssing (hrough her eyes- “3o you nee" he%* ge((ing "own (he s(&irs? “!’) $ine, ! (o%" her 9uie(%y- “You go on &he&"- !’% be righ( (here“Are you sure? ! no""e", &n" ,egh&n "rew b&ck, s(i% worrie"- “A% righ(, bu( ! w&n( you (o c&% $or & ser'&n( i$ you0 “,egh&n, !’% be $ine, ! in(erru*(e", &n" she $rowne" &( )e- ! $orce" & s)i%e (o so$(en (he wor"s- “T&ke :ierr&n on &he&"- !’% ri"e wi(h #%i(ch &n" (he gu&r"s- 6us( go- P%e&se- Her eyes $ %&she", &n" $or & )o)en( ! (hough( she wou%" &rgue wi(h )e, s%i* in(o (he $ir), no-nonsense !ron 4ueen *erson& (h&( h&" e'eryone (erri$ie"- +u( &$(er & *&use, she si)*%y no""e" &n" %e$( (he roo), %e&'ing )e &%one wi(h )y (hough(sAno(her E%ysiu)- Ano(her g&(hering o$ (he cour(s, co)ing (oge(her (o *re(en" (hey go( &%ong, when &% (hey w&n(e" w&s (o ri* e&ch o(her in(o b%oo"y s(ri*s- As & $&ery *rince, ! h&"n’( %ike" E%ysiu), &n" &s & hu)&n ! "es*ise" i(- Those who re)e)bere" )e &s Prince Ash0 (he co%", "&ngerous ice *rince who, $or cen(uries, "e)&n"e" $e&r &n" &we &n" res*ec(0 s&w on%y & hu)&n now- A we&k, cri**%e" hu)&n who grew o%"er &n" we&ker e'ery ye&r, re%ying )ore &n" )ore on (he *ro(ec(ion o$ his 9ueen- ! s&w (he %ooks o$ hunger &n" *i(y &n" con(e)*( (h&( wen( &roun" (he cour(y&r" when ,egh&n w&%ke" in wi(h )e %i)*ing besi"e her- ! &%so "i"n’( )iss (he sub(%e %ooks o$ in(eres( be(ween (he nob%es o$ 1u))er &n" 8in(erA

i$ ! w&s (he we&kes( %ink in (he !ron Cour(, how cou%" (hey use i( (o (heir &"'&n(&ge? ;&ery *o%i(ics &n" *ower *%&ysA (hey wou%" ne'er "o &ny(hing (h&( wou%" $orce & he&"-on con$ron(&(ion wi(h (he !ron 4ueen, &n" ye( ! h&(e" being (hough( o$ &s e.*%oi(&b%e8i(h & sigh, ! re&che" $or (he c&ne si((ing &g&ins( (he w&% &n" *ushe" )yse%$ u*righ(, (&king & %&s( g%&nce in (he )irrorThe b%&ck c%o&k *&r(i&% y hi" (he c&ne bu( cou%" no( 9ui(e conce&% (he %i)* or (he s(i$$ness o$ )y righ( %eg- ! s(i% c&rrie" )y swor", howe'er, re$using (o &b&n"on i(, e'en i$ ! "i"n’( "r&w i( o$(en- The "&y ! w&s un&b%e (o use )y we&*on w&s (he "&y ! wou%" gi'e $in&% y i( u*#%i(ch )e( )e &( (he bo((o) o$ (he s(&irs, kee*ing his e.*ression c&re$u% y neu(r&% &s ! %i)*e" *&in$u% y "own (he %&s( s(e*- “Her ,&/es(y &n" Prince :ierr&n h&'e &%re&"y %e$( $or E%ysiu), he in$or)e" )e wi(h & s%igh( bow- “1he (o%" )e (h&( you w&n(e" (he) (o go on &he&"- !s &ny(hing wrong, sire? “No- ! ignore" his o$$ere" &r) &n" ke*( w&%king, s%ow%y, *&in$u% y, "own (he h&% - ,y %eg (hrobbe", bu( ! gri((e" )y (ee(h &n" con(inue" %urching $orw&r", re$using (o *&use or %ook b&ck- #%i(ch $e% in(o s(e* besi"e )e, re&"y (o gr&b )y &r) i$ ! s(u)b%e", bu( s&i" no(hing (hrough (he %ong, &goni2ing /ourney (o (he w&i(ing c&rri&ge8e re&che" (he 7nsee%ie *&%&ce wi(hou( s*e&king, &n" ! (urne" (o #%i(ch &s (he c&rri&ge *u% e" u* &( (he en(r&nce“8&i( here, ! (o%" hi), w&(ching his eyebrows &rch in sur*rise- “You "on’( h&'e (o &cco)*&ny )e- ! know (his c&s(%e %ike (he b&ck o$ )y h&n"- !’) going on &%one“1ire, ! re&% y "on’( (hink0 “Th&(’s &n or"er, #%i(chHe %ooke" re%uc(&n(, bu( (he !ron $ey h&" &%w&ys bowe" (o r&nk, &n" $in&% y he no""e"- “A% righ(- 6us(>be c&re$u%, Ash,egh&n wi% ki% )e i$ &ny(hing h&**ens (o you- He )e&n( we% , bu( (he resen()en( insi"e on%y grew s(ronger- #ri**ing )y c&ne, ! (urne" )y b&ck on (he ;irs( 5ieu(en&n( &n" w&%ke" in(o (he icy, $ro2en h&% s o$ (he win(er *&%&ce &%one! re&% y shou%" h&'e known be((er, bu( *ri"e h&" &%w&ys been )y "own$&% , e'en be$ore ! bec&)e hu)&n- 1&'e $or & $ew bru(ish ogre gu&r"s, (he $rigi" h&% s o$ (he win(er *&%&ce were )os(%y "eser(e", )e&ning e'eryone w&s &%re&"y &( (he g&(hering in (he b&% roo)-

+u( &s ! (urne" & corner, & snicker cre*( $ro) &n o*en "oorw&y, &n" & )o(%ey o$ re"c&*s s*i% e" in(o (he h&% , b%ocking )y *&(h! s(u)b%e" (o & h&%(, obser'ing (he si(u&(ion- 5ike )os( re"c&*s, (hese were shor(, s(ocky &n" s&'&ge %ooking, (heir woo% h&(s so&ke" in (he b%oo" o$ (heir 'ic(i)s &n" (heir eyes & 'icious ye% ow- A% o$ (he) wore /&gge" grins (h&( showe" o$$ (heir r&2or%ike $&ngs, &n" )os( h&" cru"e we&*ons (ucke" in(o (heir be%(s- Re"c&*s were s(u*i" &n" 'io%en(, &n" (heir "&ngerous re*u(&(ions s(e))e" $ro) (he $&c( (h&( (hey 'iewe" e'ery(hing in (er)s o$ *re"&(or &n" *rey- Any conce*( o$ r&nk, (i(%e, &n" hier&rchy w&s %os( on (he)- !( "i"n’( )&((er i$ you were & king or & *rince or & nob%eA i$ you were we&k, i$ (hey (hough( (hey cou%" (&ke you &*&r(, (hey wou%", reg&r"%ess o$ (he conse9uences! curse" )y s(ubbornness &n" $&ce" (he re"c&*s wi(h & c&%), b%&nk e.*ression- Any sign o$ we&kness on )y *&r( wou%" (rigger &n &((&ck- Re"c&*s )igh( be cr&ss &n" s(u*i", bu( (here w&s & re&son (hey were $e&re" (hroughou( (he Ne'erne'er- Ash (he 8in(er *rince h&" no(hing (o $e&r $ro) & re"c&* )o(%ey, bu( ! h&"n’( been hi) $or & %ong (i)e“8e% , we% - The %e&"er grinne", cr&cking his (hick knuck%es- “5ook who i( is, boys- ;&ncy )ee(ing you here, *rince- Es*eci&% y wi(hou( (he 9ueen’s skir( (o hi"e behin"The o(her re"c&*s snickere" &n" e&se" $orw&r", c%osing (he circ%e %ike hungry wo%'es- “3i" (he 9ueen $in&% y ge( (ire" o$ her %i((%e hu)&n *e( &n" (urn you ou( in(o (he co%"? ! (ook one c&re$u% s(e* $orw&r", )ee(ing (he %e&"er’s eyes“!$ you (hink (his wi% be e&sy, ! s&i" in & so$(, %ow 'oice, “you’re s&"%y )is(&ken- ! )igh( no( be your *rince &ny %onger, bu( (here’s s(i% enough o$ hi) %e$( (o (urn (he %o( o$ you in(o & $ew s)e&rs on (he $ %oorThe %e&"er’s grin $&%(ere"- The o(her re"c&*s eye" e&ch o(her &n" shi$(e" ner'ous%y, bu( "i"n’( b&ck "own- ;or /us( & )o)en(, ! wishe" Ash (he 8in(er *rince were hereA /us( (he chi% he cou%" *ro"uce when &ngry or (hre&(ene" w&s enough (o sen" )os( wou%"-be ch&% engers runningThe re"c&* %e&"er shook hi)se%$ (hen, &n" his %eer c&)e cree*ing b&ck- “Pre((y bo%" wor"s, %i((%e )&n- He sneere"-

“+u( your scen( s&ys o(herwise- You s)e% co)*%e(e%y, u((er%y hu)&n- There’s no(hing %e$( o$ (he 8in(er *rince, no( &ny)ore- He b&re" his $&ngs, running & b%&ck (ongue o'er sh&r* ye% ow (ee(h- “An" !’) be((ing you (&s(e e.&c(%y %ike hu)&ns, (ooThe re"c&*s (ense", re&"y (o $ %ing (he)se%'es &( )e, (heir eyes g%owing wi(h e&ger b%oo"she"- ! re&che" bene&(h )y c%o&k &n" gri**e" (he swor" hi%(, ignoring (he chi% (h&( burne" )y $ingers- ! )igh( no( sur'i'e (his, bu( !’" (&ke &s )&ny o$ (he b%oo"(hirs(y cre&(ures wi(h )e &s ! cou%"- An" ho*e (h&( )y son or )y 9ueen wou%" &'enge )y "e&(h- “;&(her! The shou( echoe" "own (he corri"or, %ou" &n" c%e&r, )&king (he icic%es (re)b%e on (he cei%ing- The re"c&*s sn&r%e" &n" whir%e" &roun", br&n"ishing we&*ons &( (he in(ru"er who wou%" ruin (heir $un:ierr&n s(oo" &( (he en" o$ (he h&% w&y, (&% &n" i)*osing in & uni$or) o$ b%&ck-&n"-gr&y, his eyes $ %&shing %ike &ngry s(&rs in (he sh&"ows- His *&%e h&ir w&s (ie" behin" hi), )&king hi) %ook o%"er, )ore se'ere (hen !’" seen be$ore- 1h&r* cheekbones %e" u* (o his %ong, *oin(e" e&rs, which were usu&% y hi""en by his h&ir, )&sking his (rue n&(ure- +u( (onigh(, s(&n"ing )o(ion%ess &n" *rou" &( (he e"ge o$ (he %igh(, he %ooke" inhu)&n, be&u(i$u% &n" co)*%e(e%y $eyThe re"c&* %e&"er b%inke" &( (he su""en &rri'&% o$ (he !ron *rince- “Prince :ierr&n, he grow%e", soun"ing ner'ous“8h&( & sur*rise (o see you here- 8e were /us(>&h> “! know wh&( you were "oing:ierr&n’s 'oice w&s co%", )&king )e b%ink &( how )uch he soun"e" %ike & cer(&in 8in(er *rince, %ong &go- “Thre&(ening (he consor( o$ (he !ron 4ueen is & cri)e *unish&b%e by "e&(h- 3o you (hink, /us( bec&use he is hu)&n, (h&( ! wi% s*&re &ny o$ your %i'es? His wor"s s(ung- 6us( & hu)&n6us( & )or(&%, we&k &n" uni)*or(&n(- :ierr&n w&sn’( %ooking &( )e, howe'er- His icy g&2e $&s(ene" on (he re"c&*s, who sn&r%e" &n" b&re" (heir $&ngs &( hi)- The re"c&* %e&"er "rew hi)se%$ u* wi(h & sneer- “A% righ(, boy, /us( %ook0 A $ %&sh o$ )e(&%, &s :ierr&n’s &r) whi**e" ou(, $&s(er (hen &nyone cou%" see- The %e&"er b%inke", going si%en( )i"sen(ence, )ou(h o*en &s i$ he h&" /us( %os( his (r&in o$ (hough(The o(her re"c&*s $rowne" in con$usion, un(i% (he %e&"er’s

he&" &bru*(%y (u)b%e" $ro) his shou%"ers, s(riking (he groun" wi(h & (hu)*How%s &n" shrieks $i% e" (he &ir, &n" (he )o(%ey (urne" (o $ %ee- +u( :ierr&n w&s &%re&"y %unging in(o (heir )i"s(, iron b%&"e $ %&shing in shor(, "e&"%y &rcs- ! knew wh&( & %e(h&% $igh(er he w&sA !’" (r&ine" hi) )yse%$, &n" his %essons h&" no( gone (o w&s(e- 8&(ching )y son s%&ugh(er (he re"c&* g&ng0 wi(hou( e$$or(, wi(hou( )ercy0! $e%( & n&s(y g%ow o$ *ri"e, &s we% &s & bi((er %u)* se((%e in )y ches(- Th&( w&s )e once- !( ne'er wou%" be &g&in!( w&s o'er in secon"s- :ierr&n w&s(e" no e$$or( or (i)e "es(roying (he )o(%ey, s(riking wi(h %igh(ning s*ee" &n" *recision- !’" (r&ine" (he boy we% - The %&s( re"c&* w&s s(i% (u)b%ing (o (he $ %oor in *ieces when :ierr&n s%&))e" his b%&"e ho)e wi(h & $ %ourish, (hen (urne" (o grin &( )e“;&(her- :ierr&n bowe", &n" & )ischie'ous s)i%e cre*( o'er his $&ce- A)&2ing how he cou%" go $ro) & co%", icy ki% er (o & ch&r)ing young *rince in no (i)e &( &% - A( (he !ron Cour(, :ierr&n w&s (he "&r%ing o$ e'eryone, es*eci&% y (he %&"ies, wi(h & "e'i%ish s(re&k & )i%e wi"e“:ierr&n- ! no""e" b&ck, no( re&% y %iking (h&( g%ee$u% %ook- “8h&( &re you "oing here? ,y son grinne" &( )e- “The 9ueen w&s ge((ing worrie" (h&( you h&"n’( &rri'e" ye(- ! o$$ere" (o go %ook $or you, in c&se you go( in(o (roub%e- 1he s&i" you wou%" be &% righ(, bec&use #%i(ch wou%" be (here wi(h you, bu( ! s&i" !’" )&ke sure- 1o> He )&"e & gre&( show o$ %ooking u* &n" "own (he h&% - “8here is #%i(ch, &nyw&y? 3i" you %e&'e hi) &( ho)e? ! be( he’s no( h&**y &bou( (h&(“He’s b&ck in (he c&rri&ge- ! )o(ione" :ierr&n $orw&r", (&king his &r) &s he he%*e" )e "own (he c&rn&ge-s(rewn h&% w&y- A%re&"y (he bo"ies were "is&**e&ring, "isin(egr&(ing in(o )u" &n" %eeches &n" o(her n&s(y (hings- Re"c&*s %e$( no(hing *%e&s&n( behin" when (hey "ie"- “An" you’% s&y no(hing o$ (his (o your )o(her, un"ers(&n"? “O$ course no(, :ierr&n re*%ie", bu( he w&s s(i% grinning- Toge(her we en(ere" (he b&% roo), *&cke" w&% (o icy w&% wi(h 1u))er &n" 8in(er $ey- !ron $ey were *resen( &s we% ,

bu( on%y & sc&((ering here &n" (here, kee*ing we% b&ck $ro) (he crow"s &n" (he hos(i%e g%&res $ro) 1u))er &n" 8in(er,usic *%&ye", "&rk &n" "r&)&(ic, &n" in (he cen(er o$ (he $ %oor, "o2ens o$ $ey gen(ry s*un &n" "&nce" wi(h e&ch o(her- +esi"e )e, :ierr&n w&s sc&nning (he roo), his b%ue eyes c%e&r%y se&rching $or so)eone- His g&2e s(o**e" on & wi% owy 1u))er gir% wi(h %ong ches(nu( h&ir &n" green eyes, s(&n"ing in & corner (&%king (o & "ry&"- 1he g%&nce" &( hi), s)i%e" shy%y &n" 9uick%y %ooke" &w&y, $eigning "isin(eres(+u( her g&2e ke*( s(r&ying b&ck, &n" :ierr&n $i"ge(e" &( )y si"e- “:eirr&n, ! w&rne", &n" he grinne" shee*ish%y, &s i$ he’" been c&ugh( wi(h his h&n" in (he cookie /&r- “3on’( ge( &ny i"e&s- You know (he ru%es hereHe sighe", beco)ing sober in &n ins(&n(- “! know, he )ur)ure", (urning &w&y $ro) (he gir%- “An" i(’s no( $&ir8hy shou%" in"i'i"u&%s h&'e (o ben" (o (he *re/u"ices be(ween (he cour(s? “!( is wh&( i( is, ! re*%ie" &s we )&"e our w&y (hrough (he roo), we&'ing (hrough r&nks o$ $ey gen(ry- They )o'e" &si"e wi(h %ooks o$ "is"&in &n" con(e)*(- “An" you won’( be ch&nging i(, no )&((er how h&r" you (ry- !(’s been (his w&y since (he beginning o$ ;&ery“!( ne'er s(o**e" you, :eirr&n s&i"- His 'oice w&s c&%) &n" )&((er-o$-$&c(, bu( ! c&ugh( (he hin( o$ & ch&% enge be%ow (he sur$&ce- Th&( wou%" h&'e (o en", here &n" now- ! "i" no( w&n( )y son ge((ing i"e&s in(o his he&" (h&( )igh( ki% hi)- ! s(o**e", *u% ing hi) (o & h&%(, &n" %e&ne" c%ose- ,y 'oice w&s %ow &n" rough &s ! )e( his eyes- “3o you re&% y w&n( (o be %ike )e? He )e( )y g&2e $or & $ew secon"s, be$ore %owering his eyes“;orgi'e )e, ;&(her, he )u((ere"- “! s*oke ou( o$ (urn- He "i"n’( %ook &( )e, bu( ! con(inue" (o s(&re &( hi) un(i% he bowe" &n" (ook & s(e* b&ck- “! wi% co)*%y wi(h your wishes, &n" (he %&ws o$ (his re&%)- ! wi% no( eng&ge (he 1u))er or 8in(er cour(s in &ny(hing beyon" "i*%o)&cy- He $in&% y %ooke" u*, his b%ue eyes h&r" &s he )e( )y g&2e- “Now, i$ you wi% e.cuse )e, ;&(her, ! wi% re(urn (o (he 9ueen &n" in$or) her o$ your &rri'&%-

! no""e"- !( w&s & 'ic(ory, bu( & ho% ow one- :eirr&n bowe" once )ore &n" s%i**e" &w&y, '&nishing in(o (he crow", (he chi% $ro) his *&ssing )&king )e shi'erA%one in & crow"e" roo), ! $oun" &n iso%&(e" corner &n" %e&ne" &g&ins( (he w&% , w&(ching (he be&u(i$u%, "&ngerous &n" 'o%&(i%e cre&(ures &roun" )e wi(h (he b&res( (winge o$ nos(&%gi&- No( %ong &go, ! h&" been one o$ (he)Then, (he crow" *&r(e" & bi(, &n" (hrough (he se& o$ bo"ies, ! s&w (he "&nce $ %oor,egh&n, )y be&u(i$u%, unch&nge" $&ery 9ueen, swir%e" &roun" (he roo), &s e%eg&n( &n" gr&ce$u% &s (he gen(ry surroun"ing her- Ho%"ing her in his &r)s, &s h&n"so)e &n" ch&r)ing &s he h&" been (wen(y ye&rs &go, w&s Puck- ,y s(o)&ch (igh(ene", &n" ! gri**e" )y c&ne so h&r" )y &r) s*&s)e"- ! cou%"n’( c&(ch )y bre&(h- Puck &n" ,egh&n g%i"e" &roun" (he $ %oor, $ %&shes o$ co%or &)ong (he o(her "&ncers, (heir eyes on%y on e&ch o(her- They were %&ughing &n" s)i%ing, ob%i'ious (o (he crow" w&(ching &n" )y s%ow "e&(h in (he corner! *ushe" )yse%$ $ro) (he w&% &n" w&%ke" $orw&r", shou%"ering )y w&y (hrough (he crush, ignoring (he grow%s &n" curses (hrown )y w&y- ,y h&n" re&che" un"er )y c%o&k &n" gr&s*e" (he swor" hi%(, we%co)ing (he se&ring *&in- ! "i"n’( know wh&( ! wou%" "o, nor "i" ! c&re- ,y )in" h&" shu( o$$, &n" )y bo"y w&s on &u(o*i%o(, re&c(ing ins(inc(i'e%y- !$ i( h&" been &nyone bu( Puck>bu( i( w&s Puck, &n" he w&s "&ncing wi(h )y 9ueen- R&ge (in(e" )y 'ision re", &n" ! s(&r(e" (o "r&w )y swor"- ! cou%"n’( be&( Robin #oo"$e% ow in & $igh(, &n" )y subconscious knew ! cou%"n’(, bu( e)o(ion h&" (&ken o'er &n" &% ! cou%" see w&s Puck’s he&r( on (he en" o$ )y b%&"eHowe'er, &s ! ne&re" (he $ %oor, Puck s*un ,egh&n &roun", %ong si%'ery h&ir swir%ing &bou( her, &n" she (hrew b&ck her he&" &n" %&ughe"- Her chi)ing 'oice hi( )e %ike & brick w&% , &n" ! s(u)b%e" (o & h&%(, )y gu( c%enching so h&r" ! $e%( n&useous- How %ong h&" i( been since !’" he&r" (h&( %&ugh, seen (h&( s)i%e? As ! w&(che" (he) (oge(her, )y $or)er bes( $rien" &n" )y $&ery wi$e, (he sick $ee%ing s*re&" (o e'ery *&r( o$ )y bo"y- They %ooke">n&(ur&%>(oge(herA (wo o(herwor%"%y, e%eg&n( $ey, $ore'er young, gr&ce$u% &n" be&u(i$u%- They %ooke" %ike (hey be%onge"-

!n (h&( )o)en( o$ "es*&ir, ! re&%i2e" ! cou%"n’( gi'e her &ny o$ (h&(- ! cou%"n’( "&nce wi(h her, *ro(ec( her, o$$er her e(erni(y- ! w&s hu)&n- 3es(ine" (o &ge, wi(her &n" e'en(u&% y "ie- ! %o'e" her so )uch, bu( wou%" she $ee% (he s&)e when ! w&s o%" &n" "o""ering &n" she w&s s(i% &s &ge%ess &s (i)e? ,y h&n" s%i**e" o$$ (he hi%( o$ )y swor"- Puck &n" ,egh&n were s(i% "&ncing, %&ughing, s*inning &bou( (he roo)- Their 'oices s(&bbe" &( )e, & (hous&n" nee"%es *iercing )y ches(- ! (urne" &n" )e%(e" b&ck in(o (he crow", %e$( (he b&% roo) &n" %i)*e" "own (he "&rk, icy corri"ors o$ (he *&%&ce un(i% ! re&che" (he c&rri&ge- #%i(ch (ook one %ook &( )y $&ce &n" si%en(%y c%i)be" ou( o$ (he se&(, %e&'ing )e in (he sh&"ows1%u)*ing $orw&r" on (he bench, ! *u( )y $&ce in )y h&n"s &n" c%ose" )y eyes, $ee%ing co)*%e(e%y &n" u((er%y &%oneE'en )ore (i)e *&sse"3ro**ing )y h&n"s, ! r&ise" )y b%e&ry eyes (o &n e)*(y h&% , s9uin(ing (o see (hrough (he g%oo)- The %igh( s(re&)ing in (he win"ows behin" )e "i" %i((%e (o ch&se b&ck (he sh&"ows, bu( ! w&s &%)os( sure ! h&" he&r" so)eone co)e in- One o$ (he ser'&n(s, *erh&*s, co)e (o check on (he wi(here", gr&y-h&ire" hu)&n, (o )&ke sure he h&"n’( $&% en $ro) his ch&ir- Or (o he%* hi) (o((er b&ck (o his roo), (o cur% u* in his sing%e be", &%one &n" *ushe" &si"e,egh&n w&s gone- 8&r h&" co)e (o (he !ron :ing"o) &( %&s(, "es*i(e )&ny ye&rs o$ *e&ce, &n" (he !ron 4ueen h&" gone (o he%* (he 1u))er :ing in (he b&((%e &g&ins( 8in(er#%i(ch w&s (here besi"e her, co))&n"ing her &r)y &n" :ierr&n h&" beco)e & )ons(er on (he b&((%e$ie%", c&r'ing (hrough ene)y r&nks wi(h (he icy swor" (h&( h&" once be%onge" (o )e- ,os( o$ (he c&s(%e h&" gone (o w&r, $o% owing (heir 9ueen in(o b&((%e- E'en (he gre)%ins h&" gone, (heir cons(&n( ch&((er &n" bu22ing 'oices )issing $ro) (he w&% s, %e&'ing (he *&%&ce si%en(, co%" &n" e)*(y- On%y ! h&" been %e$( behin"- 8&i(ing $or e'eryone (o re(urn- ;orgo((enR&in *%inke" &g&ins( (he win"ow*&nes, &n" ! s(irre"- Ou(si"e, %igh(ning b%&2e" in (he sky, &n" (hun"er ru)b%e" in (he "is(&nce- ! won"ere" where ,egh&n w&s, wh&( she &n" :ierr&n were "oing righ( now5igh(ning $ %ickere" &g&in, &n" in (he $ %&sh, & $igure &**e&re" besi"e )e, & "&rk, robe" $igure in & hoo" &n" cow%, s(&n"ing si%en(%y &( )y &r)H&" ! been younger, ! )igh(’'e %e&*e" u*, "r&wn )y swor"- Now ! w&s si)*%y (oo (ire"! b%inke" &n" s(&re" &( (he in(ru"er, *eering (hrough )y $i%)y 'ision- The robe" $igure g&2e" b&ck, i(s $&ce hi""en in sh&"ow, no( &((&cking or (hre&(ening, /us( w&(ching8&i(ing- A )e)ory s(irre" (o %i$e, rising $ro) (he cobwebs o$ (he *&s(, %ike & %ong $orgo((en "re&)- “!>re)e)ber youThe #u&r"i&n no""e"- “8e &re &( (he en" o$ your (ri&%s, knigh( o$ (he !ron Cour(, i( s&i",

&n" (hun"er ru)b%e" ou(si"e, sh&king (he win"ows“An" you h&'e "isco'ere" (he $in&% (ru(h &bou( being hu)&n- No )&((er how s(rong, no )&((er how br&'e, )or(&%s c&nno( esc&*e (he )&rch o$ (i)eAs & hu)&n in (he !ron Cour(, you wi% grow o%", whi%e e'eryone &roun" you wi% re)&in &s (hey &re, $ore'er- Th&( is (he *rice o$ )or(&%i(y- You wi% "ie, &n" you wi% "ie &%oneAs i( s&i" (hese wor"s, & co%" h&n" (ouche" )y shou%"er, &n" & s*&s) wen( (hrough one si"e o$ )y bo"y- ! /erke", n&use& &n" "i22iness $ %oo"ing (hrough )e, &n" (rie" (o s(&n", gro*ing $or (he "oor- ,y b&" %eg cru)*%e" &n" ! $e% , s(riking )y he&" on (he co%" $ %oor, (he bre&(h knocke" $ro) )y %ungs- #&s*ing, ! "r&gge" )yse%$ &cross (he roo) wi(h one &r), )y %e$( si"e nu)b &n" "e&", bu( (he roo) s*un 'io%en(%y, &n" "&rkness cr&w%e" &%ong (he e"ge o$ )y 'ision- ;igh(ing *&in &n" n&use&, ! (rie" c&% ing $or he%*, bu( )y 'oice %e$( )y (hro&( in & ho&rse r&s*, &n" (here w&s no one (o he&rE.ce*( (he #u&r"i&n, which h&"n’( )o'e" $ro) where i( s(oo" w&(ching )e s(rugg%e8&(ching )e "ie- “3e&(h, i( "rone", co%" &n" i)*&ssi'e in (he $ %ickering %igh(s, “co)es $or &% )or(&%s- !n (he en", i( wi% co)e $or you &s we% ! )&"e one %&s( e$$or( (o ge( u*, (o kee* %i'ing, (hough & *&r( o$ )e won"ere" why ! wou%" e'en resis(- +u( i( "i"n’( )&((er- ! w&s so (ire"- ,y he&" (ouche" (he co%" $ %oor, "&rkness co'ere" )e %ike & so$(, coo% b%&nke( &n" ! $e%( (he %&s( bre&(h esc&*e )y %i*s &s )y he&r(0$in&% y &n" irre'ersib%y0 s(o**e" $igh(ing-


Co%"E'ery(hing w&s co%"! w&s $ %ying "own & "&rk (unne%, w&(ching $r&g)en(s o$ )y %i$e $ %&sh be$ore )e, un&b%e (o s(o*- Ri"ing wi(h ,egh&n (hrough (he wy%"woo"-

8&(ching :eirr&n &n" #%i(ch *r&c(ice in (he cour(y&r"- The bir(h o$ )y son- 3&ncing wi(h ,egh&n in (he b&% roo)- Our we""ing> #&s*ing, ! bo%(e" u*righ( on & co%", h&r" $ %oor, )y he&r( s%&))ing &g&ins( )y ribs, *&nicke", %ou" &n" &%i'e- C%u(ching )y ches(, ! g&2e" &roun", no( knowing where ! w&s1(one w&% s surroun"e" )e, c&n"%es $ %ickering in (he &%co'es, c&s(ing e'ery(hing in sh&"ow- The (&% hoo"e" $igure s(oo" ne&rby, si%en(%y w&(ching, &n" wi(h & /o%(, e'ery(hing c&)e $ %oo"ing b&ckThe Tes(ing #roun"s- The (ri&%s- ! h&" co)e here in (he "es*er&(e nee" (o e&rn & sou%, (o be wi(h ,egh&n in (he !ron Re&%)- ! hunche" $orw&r", ho%"ing )y he&" in )y h&n"s- ! cou%"n’( (hink s(r&igh(- ,y )in" $e%( %ike & (&ng%e o$ o%" s(ring, (rying (o sor( ou( wh&( w&s re&% &n" wh&( w&s i)&gine"! cou%" $ee% (he co%" s(&re o$ (he #u&r"i&n, weighing )e, w&(ching wh&( ! wou%" "o“8&s i( re&%? ,y 'oice c&)e ou( ho&rse &n" r&s*y, un$&)i%i&r (o )e- “8&s &ny o$ i( re&%? The #u&r"i&n w&(che" )e, un)o'ing- “!( cou%" be“Ash! ;oo(s(e*s *oun"e" (ow&r" )e &n" Puck c&)e in(o 'iew- ;or & )o)en(, ! $e%( & s(&b o$ h&(re" &s ! g&2e" &( )y o%" ne)esis, (he )e)ory o$ hi) &n" ,egh&n "&ncing &n" %&ughing (oge(her r&ging in )y )in">bu( (hen ! *&use"- Th&( h&"n’( h&**ene"- None o$ i( h&" h&**ene"- ,y en(ire hu)&n %i$e0 )y )&rri&ge, )y wi$e &n" son0(h&( w&s &% &n i% usion“3&))i(, ice-boy0 Puck *&n(e" &s he /ogge" u*- “8e were %ooking e'erywhere $or you- 8h&( h&**ene"? 3i" we )iss (he (es(? !s i( "one &%re&"y? ! g&2e" &( hi) in "isbe%ie$- 1econ"s- On%y & $ew secon"s h&" *&sse", bu( (o )e, i( h&" been & %i$e(i)e- #inger%y, ! s(oo", "r&wing in & s%ow bre&(h,y %eg w&s s(r&igh( &n" he&%(hy, )y eyesigh( c%e&r &n" un"i))e"- 8hen ! %ooke" &( )y h&n"s, *&%e, s)oo(h skin gree(e" )y sigh(, when !’" beco)e use" (o seeing wrink%es &n" &ge s*o(s- ! c%enche" )y $is( &n" $e%( (he s(reng(h in )y %i)bs, “!( is "one, (he #u&r"i&n in(one"- “The (ri&%s &re co)*%e(e- You h&'e *&sse" (he g&un(%e(, knigh( o$ (he !ron Cour(- You h&'e seen wh&( i( (&kes (o beco)e hu)&n0 we&kness o$ (he $ %esh, conscience &n" )or(&%i(y- 8i(hou( (hese (hings, & sou% wou%" wi(her &n" "ie insi"e you- You h&'e co)e $&r, $&r(her (h&n &nyone be$ore you- +u( (here is s(i% one $in&% 9ues(ion- One %&s( (hing you )us( &sk yourse%$, be$ore you &re re&"y $or & sou%“3o you (ru%y w&n( one? “8h&(? Puck, co)ing (o s(&n" besi"e )e, g%&re" &( (he #u&r"i&n- “8h&( kin" o$ 9ues(ion is (h&(? 8h&( "o you (hink he’s been "oing &% (his (i)e, *icking "&isies? You cou%"n’( s*ring (h&( 9ues(ion be$ore you *u( hi) (hrough he% ? ! gro*e" $or his shou%"er, *u((ing & h&n" on i( (o s(o* hi)- Puck bris(%e", &ngry &n" in"ign&n(, bu( ! knew wh&( (he #u&r"i&n w&s &sking- +e$ore, ! "i"n’( know wh&( being hu)&n )e&n(- ! cou%"n’( un"ers(&n"- No( &s ! w&s-

! "i" nowThe #u&r"i&n "i"n’( )o'e- “The Ensou%)en( Cere)ony begins &( "&wn- Once s(&r(e", i( c&nno( be s(o**e"- ! o$$er you (his one $in&% choice, knigh(1hou%" you wish i(, ! c&n un)&ke e'ery(hing (h&( h&**ene" (o you0&% )e)ories o$ (his *%&ce, e'ery(hing you h&'e %e&rne", &s i$ (he (ri&%s ne'er h&**ene"- You c&n re(urn (o 8in(er wi(h your $rien"s, no "i$$eren( (h&n you were be$ore, &n i))or(&%, sou% ess $ey“Or, you c&n c%&i) your sou% &n" kee* e'ery(hing (h&( co)es wi(h i(0conscience, hu)&n we&kness, )or(&%i(y- The #u&r"i&n $in&% y )o'e", swi(ching i(s s(&$$ (o (he o(her h&n", *re*&ring (o "is&**e&r- “8h&(e'er your "ecision, i( con(inue", “when you %e&'e (his *%&ce, you wi% ne'er re(urn1o choose wise%y- ! wi% re(urn when you h&'e "eci"e" which *&(h you w&n( (o (&keChoice! "rew in & s%ow bre&(h, $ee%ing (he *ro)ise (h&( boun" )e, (h&( o&(h ! h&" )&"e (o ,egh&n, "isso%'e- !’" ke*( )y 'owB ! h&" $oun" & w&y (o re(urn (o her, (o be &( her si"e wi(hou( $e&r- ! w&s $reeAn" ! h&" & choice! "i"n’( go b&ck (o )y roo), (hough ! '&gue%y re)e)bere" where i( w&s- !ns(e&", ! sough( ou( (he cour(y&r", $oun" & s(one bench bene&(h & wi(here" (ree, &n" w&(che" (he s(&rs $ %o&( (hrough (he En" o$ (he 8or%",or(&% or $&ery? Righ( now ! w&s no(hing, b&%&nce" on (he e"ge o$ hu)&ni(y &n" sou% essness, nei(her hu)&n nor $ey- ! w&s so c%ose (o h&'ing & sou%, (o $inishing )y 9ues( &n" being wi(h ,egh&n- +u( i$ (he $u(ure (he #u&r"i&n h&" shown )e w&s (rue>i$ ! w&s "es(ine" (o "ie, $orgo((en &n" &%one, (hen w&s i( wor(h (h&( *&in? ! "i"n’( h&'e (o go b&ck (o (he !ron Re&%)- ,y 'ow h&" been $u%$i% e"A ! w&s $ree (o "o &s ! wishe"- There w&s no gu&r&n(ee ,egh&n wou%" be w&i(ing $or )e (o co)e b&ck, no &ssur&nce she w&n(e" )e (o co)e b&ck- ! cou%" re(urn (o (he 8in(er Cour(, wi(h Arie% &- !( cou%" be &s i( w&s be$ore>!$ (h&( w&s wh&( ! re&% y w&n(e"“Hey- Arie% &’s so$( 'oice broke (hrough )y )usings, &n" she /oine" )e on (he bench, so c%ose our shou%"ers were (ouching- “Puck (o%" )e &bou( (he %&s( (es(, &n" (he cere)ony in (he )orning- ! (&ke i( you h&'en’( co)e (o & "ecision ye(- ! shook )y he&", &n" her so$( $ingers brushe" & cur% $ro) )y $orehe&"- “8hy &re you s(i% &goni2ing, Ash? she &ske" gen(%y- “You’'e co)e so $&r- You know wh&( you h&'e (o "o- This is wh&( you w&n(e"“! know- ! s%u)*e" $orw&r", res(ing )y e%bows on )y knees- “+u(, Ari, (h&( %&s( (es(> C%osing )y eyes, ! %e( (he )e)ories o$ &no(her %i$e w&sh o'er )e- “! s&w )y $u(ure, wi(h ,egh&n, ! s&i", o*ening )y eyes (o s(&re &( )y h&n"s- “! bec&)e hu)&n &n" wen( b&ck (o (he !ron Re&%) (o be wi(h her, /us( %ike ! w&n(e"- An", &( $irs( we were h&**y>! w&s h&**y- +u( (hen> ! (r&i%e" o$$, w&(ching & b%ue co)e( so&r %&2i%y (hrough (he sky &bo'e“1he ne'er ch&nge", ! )ur)ure" &( %&s(- “1he &n" )y son, (hey ne'er ch&nge"- An" !>! cou%"n’( kee* u* wi(h (he)- ! cou%"n’( *ro(ec( her, cou%"n’( $igh( besi"e her- An" in (he en", ! w&s &%one-

Arie% & w&s si%en(, w&(ching )e- ! r&ke" )y h&n"s (hrough )y h&ir wi(h & sigh- “! w&n( (o be wi(h (he), ! &")i((e" so$(%y- “,ore (h&n &ny(hing, ! w&n( (o see (he) &g&in- +u(, i$ (h&(’s )y $u(ure, i$ ! c&n’( &'oi" wh&( %ies &he&"> “You’re wrong, Arie% & s&i", sur*rising )e- ! s&( u*, b%inking &( her, &n" she s)i%e"“Th&(’s & $u(ure, Ash- On%y one- Trus( & seer on (his- No(hing is cer(&in- The $u(ure is cons(&n(%y ch&nging, &n" no one c&n *re"ic( wh&( wi% h&**en ne.(- +u( %e( )e &sk you (his- !n (his $u(ure, you s&i" you h&" & son? ! no""e", $ee%ing & ho% ow &che in )y ches( &( (he (hough( o$ :ierr&n“3o you )iss hi)? ! %e( ou( & bre&(h &n" no""e", s%u)*ing $orw&r" &g&in- “!(’s s(r&nge, ! )ur)ure", $ee%ing & %u)* rise (o )y (hro&(- “He isn’( e'en re&%, &n" ye(>! $ee% %ike he’s (he one who "ie"His w&s &n i% usion, bu( ! knew hi)- ! re)e)ber e'ery(hing &bou( hi)- An" ,egh&n- The %u)* grew bigger, &n" ! $e%( )y eyes s(inging, )ois(ure cr&w%ing "own )y cheeks- ! cou%" see :ierr&n’s s)i%e, $ee% ,egh&n’s bre&(h &g&ins( )e &s we s%e*(- An" (hough )y he&" knew (hose )e)ories were i% usions, )y he&r( 'io%en(%y re/ec(e" (h&( (hough(- ! knew (he)- E'ery *&r( o$ (he)- ! re)e)bere" (heir /oys, (heir sorrows, (heir (riu)*hs &n" hur(s &n" $e&rs- They were re&% (o )e“,y $&)i%y- The &")ission w&s & )ere whis*er, &n" ! co'ere" )y eyes wi(h & h&n"“,egh&n, :eirr&n- ! )iss (he)> (hey were e'ery(hing- ! w&n( (he) b&ckArie% & *u( & h&n" on )y shou%"er, e&sing )e c%ose- “An" e'en i$ (h&( $u(ure c&)e (o *&ss, she )ur)ure" in )y e&r, “wou%" you w&n( (o )iss i(? 8ou%" you ch&nge &ny(hing, knowing how i( wi% en"? ! *u% e" b&ck (o %ook &( her, re&%i2&(ion s%ow%y "&wning on )e &s we g&2e" &( e&ch o(her“No, ! )u((ere", sur*rising )yse%$- +ec&use &% (he hur(, &% (he *&in &n" %one%iness &n" w&(ching e'eryone %e&'e )e behin" w&s o'ersh&"owe" by (he /oy &n" *ri"e ! $e%( $or :eirr&n, (he "ee* con(en()en( in ,egh&n’s &r)s, &n" (he b%in"ing, &% -enco)*&ssing %o'e ! h&" $or )y $&)i%yAn" )&ybe, (h&( w&s wh&( being hu)&n w&s &% &bou(Arie% & s)i%e" b&ck, (hough (here w&s & hin( o$ s&"ness in her eyes- “Then you know wh&( you h&'e (o "o! *u% e" her c%ose &n" gen(%y kisse" her $orehe&"- “Th&nk you, ! whis*ere", (hough i( w&s h&r" $or )e (o s&y, &n" ! cou%" (e% i( sur*rise" Arie% &, &s we% - The $ey ne'er s&y (h&nkyou, $or $e&r i( wi% *u( (he) in &no(her’s "eb(- The o%" Ash wou%" ne'er h&'e %e( such & *hr&se esc&*e his %i*sA *erh&*s (his w&s /us( & sign o$ how hu)&n ! w&s beco)ing! s(oo", *u% ing her u* wi(h )e- “! (hink !’) re&"y, ! s&i", g&2ing b&ck &( (he c&s(%e- ,y he&r( be&( $&s(er in &n(ici*&(ion, bu( ! w&sn’( &$r&i"- “! know wh&( ! h&'e (o "o“Then, s&i" (he #u&r"i&n, &**e&ring behin" us, “%e( us no( w&s(e &no(her )o)en(- H&'e you )&"e your "ecision, knigh(? ! *u% e" &w&y $ro) Arie% & &n" $&ce" (he #u&r"i&n s9u&re%y- “Yes“An" wh&( h&'e you "eci"e"? “,y sou%- ! $e%( & gre&( weigh( %i$(e" o$$ )y shou%"ers &s ! s&i" (his- No )ore "oub(s- No

)ore &goni2ing- ! knew )y *&(h, wh&( ! h&" (o "o- “! choose hu)&ni(y, &n" &% (h&( co)es wi(h i(- 8e&kness, conscience, )or(&%i(y, e'ery(hingThe #u&r"i&n no""e"- “Then we co)e (o (he en" &( %&s(- An" you wi% be (he $irs( (o c%&i) wh&( you h&'e &%w&ys sough(, knigh(- ;o% ow )ePuck /oine" us &( (he "oor, &n" (oge(her we $o% owe" (he #u&r"i&n "own (he sh&"owe" h&% w&ys, u* & (wis(ing s*ir&% s(&irc&se, (o (he %&n"ing o$ (he highes( (ower- Through (he "oor, (he roo$ "is&**e&re" in(o o*en sky- Here, bene&(h (he s(&rs &n" cons(e% &(ions, where s*&rk%ing bi(s o$ )oon rock "ri$(e" by, (r&i%ing si%'er "us(, (he #u&r"i&n w&%ke" (o (he cen(er o$ (he *%&($or) &n" (urne", beckoning )e wi(h & *&%e h&n"“You h&'e en"ure" &% (he (ri&%s, i( s&i" &s ! s(e**e" $orw&r"- “You h&'e &cce*(e" wh&( i( )e&ns (o be hu)&n, (o be )or(&%, &n" wi(hou( (h&( know%e"ge & sou% cou%" no( %i'e wi(hin you $or %ong- You h&'e *&sse", knigh(- You &re re&"y“+u(, (he #u&r"i&n con(inue" in & so%e)n 'oice &s )y gu( (wis(e" ner'ous%y, “so)e(hing &s *ure &s sou% c&nno( grow ou( o$ no(hing- One $in&% s&cri$ice re)&ins, (hough i( is no( yours (o )&ke- ;or & sou% (o be born wi(hin you, & %i$e )us( be gi'en, $ree%y &n" wi(hou( reser'&(ion- 8i(h (his unse%$ish &c(, & sou% c&n b%oo) $ro) (he s&cri$ice o$ one who %o'es you- 8i(hou( i(, you wi% re)&in e)*(y;or & s*%i( secon" o$ b%iss$u% ignor&nce, (he (rue )e&ning o$ wh&( (he #u&r"i&n s&i" esc&*e" )e- Then (he re&%i2&(ion hi( &% &( once, &n" &n icy $is( gri**e" )y he&r(, %e&'ing )e nu)b- ! s(&re" &( (he #u&r"i&n $or se'er&% he&r(be&(s, horror s%ow%y (urning (o &nger“1o)eone h&s (o "ie $or )e, ! whis*ere" &( %&s(- The #u&r"i&n "i"n’( )o'e, &n" ! $e%( & g&*ing ho%e (e&r o*en wi(hin, "ro**ing )e in(o b%&ckness- “Then &% (his w&s $or no(hingE'ery(hing you (hrew &( )e, &% ! wen( (hrough, w&s $or no(hing! 3es*&ir now /oine" (he swir% o$ r&ge- !’" been (hrough so )uch, en"ure" so )uch, /us( (o (hrow i( &w&y in (he en"- +u( (his w&s so)e(hing ! cou%" no( &% ow- “Ne'er, ! gri((e" ou(, b&cking &w&y- “!’% ne'er %e( (h&( h&**en“!(’s no( your s&cri$ice (o )&ke, Ash1(unne", ! (urne" &s Arie% & w&%ke" *&s( )e, co)ing (o s(&n" be$ore (he #u&r"i&n- Her 'oice (re)b%e" & bi(, bu( she he%" her he&" high- “!’) here, she )ur)ure"- “He h&s )e!’) wi% ing (o )&ke (h&( choice“Ari, Puck bre&(he" behin" )eNo! ! s(&ggere" (ow&r" her, *&nicke" by wh&( she w&s o$$ering- ,y ches( c%enche" in horror, in he%*%ess "es*er&(ion- !( w&s (he s&)e $ee%ing !’" h&" when ! s&w (he wy'ern s(rike her in (he he&r(, when she %&y "ying in )y &r)s, &n" ! cou%" on%y w&(ch &s she s%i**e" &w&y- This, ! cou%" s(o*- This, ! wou%" s(o*- “Ari, no, ! r&s*e", s(e**ing in $ron( o$ her- “You c&n’( "o (his! !$ you "ie &g&in> “This is why !’) here, Ash- Te&rs $i% e" her eyes &s she (urne" (o %ook &( )e, (hough she s(i% (rie" (o s)i%e- “This is why ! c&)e- ! w&s re(urne" (o %i$e $or (his )o)en(, )y $in&% (&sk, be$ore ;&ery (&kes )e b&ck“! won’( &cce*( (h&(! 3es*er&(e%y, ! gr&bbe" her &r), &n" she )&"e no )o'e (o *u% &w&y- The #u&r"i&n w&(che" us, si%en( &n" un)o'ing, &s ! $&ce" her, *%e&"ing- “3on’( "o

(his, ! whis*ere"- “3on’( (hrow your %i$e &w&y- No( $or )e- No( &g&inArie% & shook her he&"- “!’) (ire", Ash, she )ur)ure", g&2ing righ( (hrough )e, &( so)e(hing ! cou%"n’( see- “!(’s been>%ong enough+ehin" )e, Puck b%ew ou( & sh&ky bre&(h, &n" ! ho*e" he wou%" *ro(es( &s we% , kee* her $ro) (his ins&ne *%&n- +u( Robin #oo"$e% ow sur*rise" )e &g&in, his 'oice sub"ue" bu( c&%)- “!’) g%&" ! go( (o see you &g&in, Ari, he s&i", &n" $ro) (he (re)or bene&(h (he sur$&ce, ! cou%" (e% he w&s ho%"ing b&ck (e&rs- “An" "on’( worry0!’% (&ke c&re o$ hi) $or you“You were & goo" $rien", Puck- Arie% & s)i%e" &( hi), (hough her eyes were sh&"owe", $&r &w&y- “!’) h&**y ! cou%" gi'e you (wo &no(her ch&nce;ee%ing be(r&ye", ! gri**e" her shou%"ers, h&r" enough (o )&ke her wince, (hough she s(i% "i"n’( %ook &( )e- “! won’( %e( you go, ! sn&r%e", (hough )y 'oice w&s beginning (o cr&ck- “You c&n’( "o (his- !’% kee* you &%i'e by $orce i$ ! h&'e (o! “Prince- #ri)&%kin’s coo%, s(ern 'oice broke (hrough )y "es*er&(ion- The wor" %&nce" in(o )e, shi))ering wi(h *ower, co)*e% ing )e (o %is(en, (o obey- ! c%ose" )y eyes, $igh(ing (he co)*u%sion, $ee%ing )y *&nic grow- The c&i( si(h w&s c&% ing in his $&'or“3on’(, #ri)&%kin- ,y wor"s were & ho&rse r&s* (hrough gri((e" (ee(h- “! wi% ki% you i$ you or"er )e, ! swe&r ! wi% “! wou%" no( $orce you, #ri)&%kin s&i" in (h&( s&)e 9uie(, c&%) 'oice- “+u( (his is no( your "ecision, *rince- !( is hers- A% ! &sk is (h&( you %e( her )&ke (h&( choice- 5e( her choose her own *&(h, &s you h&'e "one,y co)*osure broke- ! $e% (o )y knees wi(h & sob, c%u(ching &( Arie% &’s "ress, bowing )y he&"- “P%e&se, ! choke", (e&rs s(re&)ing "own )y $&ce“Ari, *%e&se- !’) begging you, "on’( go- ! c&n’( w&(ch you "ie &g&in“! w&s &%re&"y gone, Ash- Arie% &’s 'oice shook, (oo, her h&n" res(ing &g&ins( (he b&ck o$ )y he&"- “A% we h&" w&s borrowe" (i)e- ! sobbe", knee%ing be$ore her, &s her $ingers s(roke" )y h&ir- “5e( )e "o (his, Arie% & )ur)ure"- Her $ingers s%i**e" un"er )y /&w, gen(%y (urning )y $&ce (o hers- “5e( )e go! cou%"n’( s*e&k- 1h&king, ne&r%y b%in"e" by (e&rs, ! %e( )y h&n"s $&% (o )y %&*- Arie% & *u% e" &w&y, bu( her *&%) %ingere" &g&ins( )y cheek $or & si%en( )o)en(- ! c&ugh( (he (i*s o$ her $ingers &( (he en", $e%( (he) s%i* $ro) )y gr&s*- “Re)e)ber )e, she whis*ere"Then she (urne" &n" s(e**e" (ow&r" (he #u&r"i&n, who r&ise" & h&n" (o gui"e her $orw&r"- “!( wi% no( (&ke %ong, i( s&i", &n" ! (hough( ! he&r" & no(e o$ &")ir&(ion in (he i)*&ssi'e 'oice- Arie% & no""e", (&king & sh&ky bre&(h &s (he #u&r"i&n r&ise" & h&n" (o her $orehe&", brushing b&ck her si%'er h&ir“8i% i( hur(? she whis*ere", so $&in( ! b&re%y c&ugh( i(- The #u&r"i&n shook i(s cow%e" he&"“No, i( s&i" gen(%y, &n" & %igh( beg&n (o $or) un"er i(s $ingers, growing brigh(er wi(h e&ch *&ssing secon"- “There wi% be no *&in, Arie% & Tu%&rynNe'er &g&in- C%ose your eyes-

1he g%&nce" &( )e- ;or & )o)en(, she %ooke" e.&c(%y &s she h&" when ! $irs( )e( her, unbowe" by sorrow, her eyes shining wi(h /oy- 1he s)i%e", & re&% s)i%e o$ %o'e &n" h&**iness &n" $orgi'eness, &n" (hen (he %igh( grew (oo brigh( (o %ook &( &n" ! h&" (o (urn &w&y3ee* wi(hin )e, so)e(hing s(irre"- The "&rkness (h&( !’" ke*( %ocke" &w&y, (he *&r( o$ )e (h&( w&s &% 7nsee%ieB h&(e, 'io%ence &n" b%&ck r&ge, rushe" (o (he sur$&ce wi(h & ro&r, seeking (o o'erwhe%) )e- +u( i( w&s )e( by so)e(hing brigh( &n" *ure &n" in(ense, & )i&s)& o$ %igh( (h&( se&re" &w&y (he "&rkness, $i% ing e'ery corner &n" e.*&n"ing ou(w&r", un(i% (here w&s no *%&ce %e$( $or (he b%&ckness (o hi"e- ! shi'ere", ree%ing $ro) (he $ %oo" o$ %igh( &n" co%or &n" e)o(ion, no( knowing how e)*(y ! h&" been un(i% (h&( )o)en(The brigh(ness $&"e"- ! w&s knee%ing on &n e)*(y *%&($or) &( (he En" o$ (he 8or%", )oon"us( &n" rock swir%ing &roun" )e- The #u&r"i&n s(oo" & $ew $ee( &w&y, &%one, %e&ning on i(s s(&$$ &s i$ win"e"Arie% & w&s goneThe #u&r"i&n s(r&igh(ene", g&2ing &( )e (hrough (he "&rkness o$ i(s cow%- “T&ke & $ew )o)en(s $or your grie$, i( s&i", co%" &n" $or)&% once )ore“8hen you &re re&"y, )ee( )e &( (he g&(es o$ (he Tes(ing #roun"s- ! h&'e one %&s( (hing (o gi'e you be$ore we *&r(! b&re%y no(ice" when (he #u&r"i&n %e$(- Nu)b%y, ! g&2e" &( (he s*o( where Arie% & h&" s(oo" secon"s be$ore- #ri)&%kin h&" &%so "is&**e&re", (he *&r&*e( (h&( he%" hi) e)*(y &n" b&re, &s i$ he’" c%e&re" ou( (he secon" (he cere)ony w&s $inishe"- ! (rie" (o be &ngry &( (he c&(, bu( i( w&s $u(i%eE'en i$ he h&"n’( co)e, Arie% & wou%" s(i% h&'e )&"e her "ecision- ! knew her we% enough (o know she wou%"’'e $oun" & w&y- ! cou%"n’( )us(er &ny r&ge (hrough (he nu)bing grie$ weighing )e "own %ike & he&'y b%&nke(- Arie% & w&s gone- 1he w&s gone- ! h&" %e( her go, &g&inA *resence s(e**e" u* besi"e )e, bu( i( w&sn’( (he #u&r"i&n- “!( w&sn’( your $&u%(, Ash, Puck s&i" 9uie(%y- “!( ne'er w&s- 1he )&"e her choice & %ong (i)e &go! no""e", s(i% no( (rus(ing )yse%$ (o s*e&k- Puck sighe", crouching ne.( (o )e, g&2ing &roun" (he (ower- “! "on’( know &bou( you, he s&i", co)*%e(e%y serious, “bu( !’) &bou( re&"y (o go ho)e- 5e(’s ge( ;urb&% , check (o see i$ (he 8o%$ is s(i% &%i'e, &n" ge( ou( o$ here“Ye&h, ! )u((ere" wi(hou( ge((ing u*- “6us(>gi'e )e & $ew )inu(es“Righ(, Puck s&i", &n" ! e.*ec(e" hi) (o %e&'e- He "i"n’(, bu( se((%e" on (he groun" besi"e )e, crossing his %ong %egs- An" we g&2e" &( (he s*o( where Arie% & h&" s)i%e" &( )e &n" "is&**e&re" in & bri% i&n( burs( o$ %igh(, &s $i((ing &n en" &s ! cou%" (hink o$- A$(er & )o)en(, Puck *u( & h&n" on )y shou%"erThis (i)e, ! "i"n’( brush i( o$$-


Puck &n" ! "i"n’( s*e&k &s we w&%ke" (hrough (he e)*(y, "&rk corri"ors o$ (he Tes(ing #roun"s (oge(her, %os( in our own (hough(s- ! g%&nce" o'er once &n" s&w hi) h&s(i%y wi*e his eyes be$ore 9uick%y (urning & corner- The h&% w&ys see)e" e)*(ier now, (he sh&"ows "ee*er, &s we n&'ig&(e" (he h&% s wi(h one %ess (h&n when we h&" s(&r(e" ou(Arie% & w&s gone- ! "i"n’( know how she’" "one i(, &cco)*&nying us, he%*ing us, knowing &% &%ong (h&( she w&sn’( co)ing b&ck- This w&s (wice ! h&" %os( her, (wice !’" been $orce" (o w&(ch her "ie- +u( &( %e&s( she h&" chosen her *&(h (his (i)e- 1he h&" )&"e her choice %ong &go, &n" i$ ;&ery brough( her b&ck, (hen sure%y i( wou%" no( %e( her "is&**e&r &s i$ she h&" ne'er"- A %i$e &s brigh( &s hers )us( %inger on so)ewhereA Arie% & Tu%&ryn w&s $&r (oo %o'e" &n" cherishe" (o si)*%y $&"e &w&y &n" be $orgo((en- !( w&s & s)&% co)$or(, bu( ! c%ung (o i( wi(h )y re)&ining co)*osure &n" ho*e" (h&(, where'er she w&s, wh&(e'er s(&(e she" in, she w&s h&**yOu(si"e, (he (&% $igure o$ (he #u&r"i&n w&i(e" &( (he bri"ge, (he s(&rs &n" (he "&rk, h&2y ou(%ine o$ (he "is(&n( +ri&rs $%o&(ing behin" hi)“This is where we *&r(, i( &nnounce" &s we /oine" i( &( (he e"ge- “Your 9ues( is $inishe", knigh(, your /ourney co)*%e(e- You wi% no( see )e, or (he En" o$ (he 8or%", e'er &g&inNor wi% you re)e)ber (he *&(h you (ook (o ge( here- +u(, &s you &re (he $irs( (o e&rn your sou% &n" sur'i'e, ! o$$er you one %&s( gi$( $or (he /ourney ho)e!( e.(en"e" &n &r), "ro**ing so)e(hing s)&% &n" g%i((ering in(o )y *&%)- !( w&s & g%obe o$ "&rkene" crys(&%, &bou( (he si2e o$ &n or&nge, (he g%&ss $r&gi%e &n" w&r) &g&ins( )y skin“8hen you &re re&"y, (he #u&r"i&n s&i", “bre&k (he g%obe, &n" you wi% be (r&ns*or(e" ou( o$ ;&ery, b&ck (o (he hu)&n wor%"- ;ro) (here, you )&y "o &s you wish“+&ck (o (he hu)&n wor%"?’ Puck *eere" o'er )y shou%"er &( (he g%&ss- “Th&(’s kin" o$ ou( o$ (he w&y- C&n’( you gi'e us so)e(hing (h&( wi% (&ke us (o (he wy%"woo" or Arc&"i&? “!( "oes no( work (h&( w&y, Robin #oo"$e% ow, (he #u&r"i&n s&i", s*e&king (o hi) $or

*erh&*s (he 'ery $irs( (i)e- “You )&y choose (o re(urn (o (he wy%"woo" (he w&y you c&)e, bu( i( is & %ong w&y u* (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, &n" you wi% no( h&'e (he $erry (o *ro(ec( you“!(’s &% righ(, ! (o%" Puck, be$ore he cou%" &rgue- “! c&n ge( (o (he !ron Re&%) (hrough (he )or(&% wor%"- !$>you c&n o*en & (ro" $or )e, (h&( isPuck g%&nce" &( )e, un"ers(&n"ing in his eyes, &n" no""e"- “1ure, ice-boy- No( & *rob%e)“+u(, ! &""e", %ooking &( (he #u&r"i&n, “(here’s one )ore (hing we h&'e (o check on be$ore we %e&'e- 8e %e$( & $rien" behin" &( (he (e)*%e when we c&)e here- !s he s(i% (here? C&n we s&'e hi)? The #u&r"i&n s(r&igh(ene"- “The 8o%$, i( s&i"- “Yes, he is s(i% &%i'e, (hough his s*&rk h&s grown we&k- He re)&ins (r&**e" bene&(h (he "oor, &n" you wi% h&'e (o $ree hi) be$ore you c&n (&ke hi) (o (he )or(&% wor%" wi(h you“You c&n’( o*en (he "oor? Puck &ske", scow%ing“The g&un(%e( w&s ne'er c%ose", (he #u&r"i&n s&i" $ %&(%y- “As %ong &s your $rien" re)&ins in (he "oor, kee*ing i( o*en, (he g&(ew&y is s(i% in e$$ec(The "oor )us( se&% co)*%e(e%y be$ore i( c&n be o*ene" once )ore“! sugges( you hurry, #ri)&%kin s&i", &**e&ring on & $ %o&(ing rock ne&r (he e"ge, w&(ching us "is"&in$u% y- “!$ you insis( on he%*ing (he "og, "o i( 9uick%y so (h&( we )&y go- !, $or one, wou%" %ike (o ge( ho)e so)e(i)e (his cen(uryHo)e, ! (hough( wi(h & sh&r* %onging in )y ches(- Yes, i( w&s (i)e (o go ho)e- !( h&" been (oo %ong- 8&s ,egh&n s(i% w&i(ing $or )e? Or, &s she’" sugges(e" in (he "re&), h&" she )o'e" on, $oun" h&**iness wi(h so)eone e%se? 8ou%" ! re(urn on%y (o $in" her in (he &r)s o$ &no(her? Or, e'en worse, &s & (errib%e $ey 9ueen %ike ,&b, un)erci$u% in her *ower, ru%ing (hrough $e&r? ! w&s &$r&i", ! cou%" &")i( (h&(- ! "i"n’( know wh&( w&i(e" $or )e &( (he en" o$ )y 9ues(+u( "es*i(e wh&( ! )igh( $in", e'en i$ ,egh&n h&" $orgo((en )e, ! wou%" re(urn (o her, no )&((er wh&(“:nigh(, (he #u&r"i&n s&i" &s we s(&r(e" (o cross (he bri"ge- Puck %ooke" b&ck, &n" ! w&'e" hi) on- He )&"e & $&ce &n" %e$( us- “3o no( "iscoun( (he gi$( you h&'e been gi'en, (he #u&r"i&n con(inue" in & %ow 'oice, &s Puck $o% owe" #ri)&%kin o'er (he bri"ge- “The sou% o$ & 8in(er $ey resi"es wi(hin you- You &re no %onger *&r( o$ ;&ery, bu( nei(her &re you co)*%e(e%y )or(&%- You &re>uni9ue- The #u&r"i&n "rew b&ck, (he $&in(es( hin( o$ &)use)en( bene&(h i(s i)*&ssi'e 'oice- “8e sh&% h&'e (o see where i( (&kes you! bowe" (o (he robe" $igure &n" crosse" (he bri"ge, $ee%ing &ncien( eyes on )e (he who%e w&y- 8hen ! re&che" (he o(her si"e &n" (urne" b&ck, howe'er, (he #u&r"i&n w&s goneThe enor)ous bu%k o$ (he Tes(ing #roun"s w&s $ %o&(ing &w&y, growing r&*i"%y s)&% er &n" %ess "is(inc(, un(i% i( '&nishe" in(o (he En" o$ (he 8or%";o% owing #ri)&%kin "own (he corri"or b&ck (o (he (e)*%e, we re&che" (he he&'y s(one "oor o$ (he g&un(%e(- ;or & )o)en(, ! $e&re" we were (oo %&(e- The 8o%$ %&y in (he "oorw&y, un)o'ing, his huge he&" res(ing on his *&ws- +%oo"y $o&) s*&((ere" his )ou(h

&n" nos(ri%s, his $ur w&s "u% &n" $ %&( &n" his ribs s(oo" ou( sh&r*%y &g&ins( his b%&ck *e%(Through (he o*ening, (he s*iri(s s(i% c%&we" &( hi), (rying (o "r&g hi) b&ck in(o (he (e)*%e, %os( &n" (r&**e" $ore'er- +u( e'en co% &*se" &n" &**&ren(%y %i$e%ess, he w&s s(i% &s un)o'&b%e &s & )oun(&in“Pi(y, #ri)&%kin re)&rke" &s we "rew c%ose- “No( (he en" ! wou%" i)&gine $or (he +ig +&" 8o%$, crushe" un"er & "oor, bu( ! su**ose he is no( in'incib%e &$(er &% The 8o%$ ’s eyes o*ene", b%&2ing green- 1eeing us, he g&'e & $eeb%e cough &n" r&ise" his he&" $ro) his *&ws, s(&ring &( )e- +%oo" "ri**e" $ro) his nose &n" )ou(h“1o, you )&"e i( &$(er &% , he s(&(e"- “! su**ose ! shou%" congr&(u%&(e you, bu( ! $in" ! c&re 'ery %i((%e &( (he )o)en(- He *&n(e", his eyes $ %ickering be(ween )e, Puck &n" #ri), &n" *ricke" his e&rs- “8here’s (he gir%? Puck %ooke" &w&y, &n" ! (ook & bre&(h, r&king & h&n" (hrough )y h&ir- “1he’s goneThe 8o%$ no""e", unsur*rise"- “Then, i$ you wish (o %e&'e by (his rou(e, !’) sure you c&n s%i"e un"er (he s(one- These s*iri(s &re &nnoying, bu( (hey shou%" no( *ose & *rob%e) &ny)ore“8h&( &bou( you? The 8o%$ sighe", res(ing his he&" on his *&ws &g&in- “! h&'e no s(reng(h %e$(- C%osing his eyes, he shi$(e" *&in$u% y on (he rocks- “Nor "o you h&'e (he s(reng(h (o )o'e (his "oor5e&'e )e! c%enche" )y $is(s- The )e)ory o$ Arie% &’s s&cri$ice w&s s(i% & *&in$u% burning in )y ches(- “No, ! s&i", )&king (he 8o%$ cr&ck o*en &n eye%i"- “!’'e &%re&"y w&(che" one $rien" "ie (o"&y- ! wi% no( %ose &no(her- Puck> ! s(e**e" $orw&r" &n" *u( )y shou%"er &g&ins( (he bo((o) o$ (he s%&b- “Co)e on- He%* )e )o'e (hisPuck %ooke" "ubious, bu( he s(e**e" u* &n" br&ce" hi)se%$ &g&ins( (he rock, wincing &s he (es(e" i(- “Oo$, &re you sure &bou( (his, ice-boy? ! )e&n, you’re hu)&n now>He (r&i%e" o$$ &( (he %ook on )y $&ce- “Righ(, (hen- On (hree? Hey, 8o%$)&n, you’re gonn& he%* ou(, (oo, righ(? “You c&nno( $ree )e, (he 8o%$ s&i", eyeing e&ch o$ us in (urn- “You &re no( s(rong enough- Es*eci&% y i$ (he *rince is & )ere )or(&%“How 'ery s&"- #ri)&%kin s(ro"e u*, s(o**ing /us( shy o$ (he 8o%$ ’s )u22%e, b&re%y ou( o$ sn&**ing r&nge- “Th&( (he gre&( "og )us( re%y on & hu)&n (o s&'e hi), bec&use he is (oo we&k (o )o'e- ! sh&% si( righ( here &n" w&(ch, (o re)e)ber (his "&y &%w&ysThe 8o%$ grow%e", (he h&ir rising &%ong his b&ck- P%&n(ing his $ee(, he br&ce" his shou%"ers &g&ins( (he s%&b &n" (ense", b&ring his $&ngs- “#o8e *ushe"- The s(one resis(e" us, s(ubborn &n" un)o'&b%e- E'en wi(h (he co)bine" e$$or(s o$ Puck &n" (he e.h&us(e" 8o%$, i( w&s (oo he&'y, (oo )&ssi'e, $or (he (hree o$ us (o )o'e“This isn’( working, *rince, Puck s&i" (hrough gri((e" (ee(h, his $&ce re" $ro) (he s(r&in! ignore" hi), "igging )y shou%"er in(o (he rocky s%&b, *ushing wi(h &% )y )igh(- !( scr&*e" *&in$u% y in(o )y skin, bu( "i"n’( )o'e- On ins(inc(, ! o*ene" )yse%$ u* (o (he g%&)our &roun" )e, $orge((ing ! w&s on%y hu)&n-

! $e%( & shi'er go (hrough (he &ir, & rush o$ co%" &n" su""en%y, (he s%&b )o'e"- On%y & $r&c(ion o$ &n inch, bu( we &% $e%( i(- Puck’s eyes wi"ene", &n" he (hrew hi)se%$ &g&ins( (he rock, *ushing wi(h &% his )igh(, &s (he 8o%$ "i" (he s&)e- The s*iri(s shrieke" &n" w&i%e", c%&wing &( (he 8o%$ &s i$ sensing he w&s s%i**ing $ro) (heir gr&s*- C%osing )y eyes, ! ke*( )yse%$ o*en (o (he co%", $&)i%i&r s(reng(h $ %owing (hrough )e &n" sho'e" (he s(one b%ock &s h&r" &s ! cou%"8i(h & $in&%, s(ubborn gro&n, (he s%&b g&'e w&y &( %&s(, rising & )ere $ew inches, bu( i( w&s enough- The 8o%$ g&'e & sn&r% o$ (riu)*h &n" ski((ere" ou( $ro) bene&(h i(, ri**ing hi)se%$ $ro) (he gr&s* o$ (he s*iri(s s(i% c%inging (o hi), %e&'ing (he) in (he "oorw&yPuck &n" ! /erke" b&ck &s we% , &n" (he "oor s%&))e" shu( wi(h & ho% ow boo), crushing & $ew s*iri(s in(o )is(P&n(ing, (he 8o%$ s(&ggere" (o his $ee(, (hen g&'e hi)se%$ & 'io%en( sh&ke, sen"ing $ur &n" "us( $ %ying- #%&ncing &( )e, he g&'e & gru"ging no"“;or & )or(&%, he grow%e", he&'ing in gre&(, r&s*y bre&(hs, “you &re re)&rk&b%y s(rongA%)os( &s s(rong &s> He *&use", n&rrowing his eyes“Are you sure you recei'e" wh&( you c&)e $or, %i((%e *rince? !( wou%" be &nnoying i$ we c&)e &% (his w&y $or no(hing- +e$ore ! cou%" &nswer, he sni$$e" (he &ir, nose (wi(ching“No, your scen( is "i$$eren(- You &re "i$$eren(- You "o no( s)e% %ike you "i" be$ore, bu( nei(her "o you s)e% >en(ire%y hu)&n- ;%&((ening his e&rs, he grow%e" &g&in &n" s(e**e" b&ck- “8h&( &re you? “!’)>no( re&% y sure )yse%$“8e% - The 8o%$ shook hi)se%$ &g&in, see)ing (o grow & bi( )ore s(e&"y on his $ee(“8h&(e'er you &re, you "i" no( %e&'e )e behin", &n" ! wi% no( $orge( (h&(- !$ you &re in nee" o$ & hun(er or so)eone (o crush your ene)y’s (hro&(, you h&'e on%y (o c&% - Now> He snee2e" &n" b&re" his $&ngs, g%&ring &roun"- “8here is (h&( wre(che" $e%ine? #ri)&%kin, o$ course, h&" "is&**e&re"- The 8o%$ snor(e" in "isgus( &n" beg&n (o s(&%k &w&y, bu( wi(h & shi'er &n" & %ou" grin"ing noise, (he s(one "oor s(&r(e" (o rise8e (ense", &n" ! "ro**e" & h&n" (o )y swor", bu( (he s*iri(s on (he o(her si"e o$ (he "oor h&" "is&**e&re"- 1o h&" (he en(ire roo)- !ns(e&", & %ong, n&rrow h&% w&y s(re(che" ou( beyon" (he $r&)e, e)*(y &n" "&rk, $&"ing in(o (he b%&ck- The cobwebs %ining (he w&% s &n" (he "us( on (he $ %oor were (hick &n" un"is(urbe", &s i$ no one h&" w&%ke" (his w&y in cen(uriesThe 8o%$ b%inke" s%ow%y- “,&gic &n" *&r%or (ricks- He sighe", cur%ing & %i*- “! wi% be g%&" (o be "one wi(h i(- A( %e&s( in )y (erri(ory, (hings &re hones( &bou( (rying (o ki% youHe shook his gre&(, sh&ggy he&" &n" (urne" (o )e- “This is where we *&r( w&ys, *rince3o no( $orge( )y *&r( in (he s(ory- ! )igh( h&'e (o hun( you "own i$ you h&**en (o $orge(, &n" ! h&'e & 'ery %ong )e)ory“!(’s & %ong w&y b&ck (o (he wy%"woo", ! (o%" hi), *u% ing ou( (he s)&% g%&ss orb- The swir%s o$ )&gic wi(hin %e$( $&in(, (ing%ing sens&(ions &g&ins( )y *&%) &s ! he%" i( u*“Co)e wi(h us- 8e’% re(urn (o (he )or(&% re&%), &n" $ro) (here you c&n e&si%y $in" & (ro" (o (he Ne'erne'er“The )or(&% wor%"- The 8o%$ sni$$e" &n" b&cke" u* & s(e*- “No, %i((%e *rince- The hu)&n

re&%) is no( $or )e- !( is (oo crow"e", (oo $ence" in- ! nee" (he '&s( s*&ces o$ (he 3ee* 8y%" or ! sh&% 9uick%y su$$oc&(e- No, (his is where we s&y goo"bye- ! wish you %uck, (hough- !( w&s 9ui(e (he &"'en(ureThe 8o%$ *&""e" (ow&r" (he "&rk, e)*(y h&% w&y, & %e&n b%&ck sh&"ow (h&( see)e" (o $&"e in(o (he "&rk“You sure, 8o%$)&n? Puck c&% e" &s (he 8o%$ *&use" in (he $r&)e, sni$$ing (he &ir $or &ny re)&ining $oes- “5ike iceboy s&i", i(’s & %ong w&y b&ck (o (he wy%"woo"- You sure you "on’( w&n( & $&s(er w&y ho)e? The 8o%$ %ooke" b&ck &( us &n" chuck%e", $ %&shing & (oo(hy grin- “! &) ho)e, he s&i" si)*%y, &n" boun"e" (hrough (he "oor, )e%(ing in(o sh&"owHis eerie how% rose in(o (he &ir, &s (he +ig +&" 8o%$ '&nishe" $ro) our %i'es &n" re(urne" (o %egen"#ri)&%kin &**e&re" &%)os( i))e"i&(e%y &$(er (he 8o%$ h&" gone, %icking his *&ws &s i$ no(hing h&" h&**ene"- “1o, he )use", reg&r"ing )e wi(h go%"en, h&%$-%i""e" eyes, “&re we re(urning (o (he )or(&% re&%) or no(? ! r&ise" (he g%obe bu( (hen %owere" i(, g&2ing &( (he c&i( si(h, who s(&re" b&ck c&%)%y“3i" you know? ! &ske" in & %ow 'oice, &n" (he c&( b%inke"“3i" you know (he re&son Arie% & w&s here? 8hy she c&)e &%ong? #ri)&%kin (urne" (o groo) his (&i%, &n" )y 'oice h&r"ene"- “You knew she w&s going (o "ie“1he w&s &%re&"y "e&", *rince- #ri)&%kin *&use" &n" %ooke" b&ck &( )e, n&rrowing his eyes- “1he *erishe" (he "&y you swore your o&(h &g&ins( #oo"$e% ow- ;&ery brough( her b&ck, bu( she &%w&ys knew how i( wou%" en"“You cou%" h&'e (o%" us, Puck chi)e" in, his 'oice $ %&( &n" s(r&nge%y sub"ue"#ri)&%kin snee2e" &n" s&( u* (o $&ce )e, his go%"en eyes knowing- “!$ ! h&", wou%" you h&'e %e( her go? Nei(her o$ us &nswere", &n" (he c&( no""e" &( our si%ence- “8e &re w&s(ing (i)e, he con(inue", w&'ing his (&i% &s he s(oo"- “5e( us re(urn (o (he )or(&% wor%" so (h&( we )&y be "one wi(h (his- #rie'e $or your %oss, bu( be gr&(e$u% $or (he (i)e (h&( you h&"- 1he wou%" h&'e w&n(e" i( (h&( w&y- He sni$$e" &n" %&she" his (&i%- “Now, &re you going (o use (h&( g%obe, or shou%" ! wish $or wings (o $ %y b&ck (o (he wy%"woo"? ! sighe" &n" r&ise" (he g%&ss, w&(ching (he )&gic swir% wi(hin- T&king i( in bo(h h&n"s, ! g&2e" *&s( i( (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%", &( (he bri% i&n( 'oi" (h&( ne'er ce&se" (o &)&2e8i(h & "ee* bre&(h, ! brough( )y h&n"s (oge(her &n" crushe" (he g%&ss be(ween (he), re%e&sing (he )&gic in(o (he &ir- !( e.*&n"e" ou(w&r" in & burs( o$ %igh(, engu%$ing us, &n" $or & )o)en( e'ery(hing wen( co)*%e(e%y whi(eThe %igh( $&"e", &n" (he soun"s o$ (he hu)&n wor%" beg&nB c&r engines &n" s(ree( (r&$$ic, honking horns &n" (he shu$$ %e o$ $ee( o'er *&'e)en(- ! b%inke" &n" g&2e" &roun", (rying (o ge( )y be&rings- 8e were in & n&rrow &% eyw&y be(ween (wo %&rge bui%"ings, o'er$ %owing 3u)*s(ers &n" he&*s o$ (r&sh %ining (he w&% s- A r&gge" %u)* in & c&r"bo&r" bo. s(irre", )u)b%e" s%ee*i%y, &n" (urne" i(s b&ck on us, $righ(ening & %&rge r&( (h&( wen( scurrying o'er (he w&% -

“Oh, o$ course- Puck wrink%e" his nose, s(e**ing b&ck $ro) & *i%e o$ r&gs cr&w%ing wi(h )&ggo(s- “8i(h &% (he )e&"ows &n" $ores(s &n" big sw&(hs o$ wi%"erness (h&( ! know s(i% in (he hu)&n wor%", where "o we en" u*? A $i%(hy, r&(-in$es(e" &% eyw&y- Th&(’s /us( gre&(#ri)&%kin %e&*e" &(o* & 3u)*s(er, %ooking sur*rising%y n&(ur&% in (he urb&n en'iron)en(, %ike & %&rge &% ey c&( *row%ing (he s(ree(s- “There is & (ro" no( $&r $ro) here, he s(&(e" c&%)%y, *icking his w&y &cross (he ri)- “!$ we hurry, we shou%" re&ch i( be$ore nigh($&% ;o% ow )e“8&i(, you &%re&"y know where you &re? Puck "e)&n"e" &s we e"ge" (ow&r" (he )ou(h o$ (he &% ey, s(e**ing o'er (r&sh &n" *i%es o$ "ebris“How "oes (h&( work, c&(? “,os( ci(ies &re 'ery )uch (he s&)e, #oo"$e% ow- #ri)&%kin re&che" (he e"ge o$ (he si"ew&%k &n" *eere" b&ck, w&'ing his (&i%- “Tro"s &re e'erywhere, i$ you know where (o %ook- A%so, ! &) & c&(- An" he (ro((e" o$$ "own (he s(ree(“Ho%" i(, ice-boy, Puck s&i" &s ! s(&r(e" (o $o% ow- “You’re $orge((ing so)e(hing- He *oin(e" (o )y swor", h&nging &( )y si"e- “Nor)&% hu)&ns "on’( w&%k &roun" ci(y s(ree(s wi(h big, *oin(y we&*ons- Or i$ (hey "o, (hey (en" (o "r&w unw&n(e" &((en(ion- +e((er gi'e i( (o )e $or now- A( %e&s( un(i% we re&ch (he wy%"woo"! hesi(&(e", &n" Puck ro% e" his eyes- “! swe&r !’) no( going (o %ose i(, or "ro* i( in (he gu((er, or gi'e i( (o & ho)e%ess guy- Co)e on, Ash- This is *&r( o$ being hu)&n- You h&'e (o b%en" in! h&n"e" (he be%( &n" she&(h o'er re%uc(&n(%y, &n" Puck %oo*e" i( &roun" one shou%"er“There, (h&( w&sn’( so b&", w&s i(? “!$ you %ose (h&(> “Ye&h, ye&h, you’% ki% )e- O%" news, ice-boy- Puck shook his he&" &n" )o(ione" )e $orw&r"- “A$(er you8e e)erge" $ro) (he &% eyw&y on(o & si"ew&%k bus(%ing wi(h *eo*%e, rushing by wi(h b&re%y & g%&nce- O'erhe&", huge (owers o$ g%&ss &n" s(ee% %oo)e" &g&ins( (he sky, $ %&shing in (he e'ening sun- C&rs honke" &n" s%i" (hrough (he s(re&)s o$ (r&$$ic %ike gi&n( )e(&% $ish, &n" (he s)e% o$ &s*h&%(, s)oke, &n" e.h&us( $u)es hung (hick on (he &irThe ch&nges were sub(%e, bu( ! cou%" s(i% see & "i$$erence- The wor%" w&sn’( 9ui(e &s sh&r* &s i( h&" been- E"ges were "u% , co%ors no( 9ui(e so brigh( &ny)ore- 1oun"s were )u(e"A (he )ur)ur o$ 'oices &roun" )e h&" )erge" in(o & b&bb%e o$ hu)&n noise, &n" ! cou%" no %onger *ick ou( con'ers&(ions /us( by %is(ening (o (he)! (ook & s(e* $orw&r", &n" so)eone r&n in(o )e, knocking )e b&ck & *&ce- “8&(ch where you’re going, /&ck&ss, (he hu)&n sn&**e", shoo(ing )e & g%&re wi(hou( bre&king s(ri"e- ! b%inke" &n" /oine" (he $ %ow o$ s(ree( (r&$$ic, $o% owing #ri)&%kin &s he e.*er(%y wo'e his w&y (hrough (he )u%(i(u"e o$ $ee( &n" swinging %egs- No one see)e" (o no(ice hi), or Puck, w&%king righ( besi"e )e, g%&)oure" &n" in'isib%e- E'en on & crow"e" si"ew&%k, (hey swer'e" &roun" hi) or s(e**e" ou( o$ his w&y, o$(en &( (he %&s( secon", wi(hou( e'en knowing (here w&s & $&ery in (heir )i"s(- +u( ! c&ugh( se'er&% g%&nces0 curious, &**reci&(i'e, or ch&% enging0&s ! )&neu'ere" )y w&y (hrough (he crow", /os(%ing &n"

bu)*ing in(o )e- !( w&s & goo" (hing Puck s(i% h&" )y swor"A o(herwise ! )igh(’'e been (e)*(e" (o "r&w i( (o ge( (he) &% ou( o$ )y w&yAs ! swer'e" ou( o$ (he *&(h o$ ye( &no(her hu)&n, ! brushe" &g&ins( & wrough(-iron $ence encirc%ing (he b&se o$ & s)&% (ree on (he e"ge o$ (he si"ew&%k &n" ins(inc(i'e%y recoi%e", /erking b&ck $ro) (he )e(&%- +u( (he we&kness &n" *&in o$ being so c%ose (o iron "i"n’( co)e, (hough ! "i" e&rn & $ew s(r&nge %ooks $ro) '&rious *&ssersby- C&u(ious%y, ! re&che" ou( &n" (ouche" (he $ence, re&"y (o y&nk )y h&n" b&ck &s cen(uries o$ $ey sur'i'&% scre&)e" &( )e (o s(o*- +u( (he iron, once &kin, $or )e, (o (ouching %i'e co&%s whi%e being 'io%en(%y i% , w&s co%" &n" h&r)%ess bene&(h )y $ingers- ! %ooke" u* (he s(ree( &( (he %ong %ine o$ (rees si)i%&r%y enc&se" in iron, &n" grinne"“8i% you s(o* "oing (h&(? Puck hisse" & )o)en( %&(er, shu""ering &s ! (r&i%e" )y $ingers &%ong e'ery $ence (h&( we *&sse"- “You’re $re&king )e ou(- ! ge( chi% s e'ery (i)e we *&ss one o$ (hose (hings! %&ughe" bu( )o'e" &w&y $ro) (he $ences &n" (he iron, b&ck (o (he cen(er o$ (he w&%k where (r&$$ic w&s (hickes(- Now (h&( ! knew (hey wou%"n’( /us( swer'e &roun" )e, i( w&s e&sier (o "o"ge &n" we&'e (hrough (he unen"ing )&sses- “3oes (his )e&n ! c&n *u( & $ence &roun" )y y&r" &n" you’% %e&'e )e &%one? ! &ske", grinning b&ck &( Puck- He snor(e"“3on’( ge( cocky, ice-boy- !’'e been *%&ying wi(h hu)&ns since %ong be$ore you e'er (hough( o$ beco)ing oneThe crow"s (hinne" &s i( go( %&(er, &n" #ri)&%kin %e" us $&r(her "own(own- 1(ree(%igh(s $ %ickere" (o %i$e, &n" (he bui%"ings %ining (he s(ree(s grew )ore run-"own &n" sh&bby+roken win"ows &n" gr&$$i(i were co))on*%&ce, &n" ! cou%" sense eyes on )e $ro) sh&"ows &n" "&rk corri"ors“Th&(’s & $&ncy /&cke(, boy! s(o**e" &s $our hu)&ns )e%(e" ou( o$ &n &% ey, we&ring hoo"ies &n" b&n"&nn&s, si"%ing u* (o b%ock )y *&(h- The bigges(, & )e&n-%ooking (hug wi(h & sh&'e" he&" co'ere" in (&((oos, s&un(ere" $orw&r", %eering &( )e- ! g&'e hi) &n" his co)*&nions & 9uick onceo'er, se&rching $or horns or c%&ws or sh&r*, *oin(e" (ee(h- No(hing- No( h&%$-bree"s, (henNo( e.i%es $ro) (he Ne'erne'er, scr&*ing ou( & %i'ing in (he )or(&% wor%"- They were hu)&n (hrough &n" (hrough“,y boy Rico here- He w&s /us( (hinking (h&( he nee"e" & $&ncy co&( %ike (h&( one- The (hug %e&"er s)i%e", showing o$$ & go%" (oo(h- “1o, why "on’( you h&n" i( o'er, boy? Th&(, &n" %e&'e your w&% e( on (he groun", (oo- 8ou%"n’( w&n( (o h&'e (o b&sh your *re((y he&" in, now, wou%" we? +esi"e )e, Puck sighe", sh&king his he&"- “No( (errib%y brigh(, &re (hey? he &ske", g&2ing &( (he %e&"er, who *&i" hi) no &((en(ion- 1(e**ing &w&y, he s%i**e" &roun" behin" (he), grinning &n" cr&cking his knuck%es- “! guess we h&'e (i)e $or one %&s( )&ss&cre;or o%" (i)e’s s&ke“Hey, you "e&$, *unk? The (hug %e&"er sho'e" )e, &n" ! (ook & s(e* b&ck- “Or &re you so sc&re" you *isse" your *&n(s? The o(hers snickere" &n" "rew $orw&r", surroun"ing )e %ike hungry "ogs- ! "i"n’( )o'e- There w&s & $ %&sh o$ )e(&%, &n" (he %e&"er br&n"ishe" & kni$e, ho%"ing i( be$ore )y $&ce- “!’% &sk nice%y one %&s( (i)e- #i))e (h&(

co&(, or !’) gonn& s(&r( $ee"ing you your $ingers! )e( his eyes- “8e "on’( h&'e (o "o (his, ! (o%" hi) so$(%y- +ehin" (he), Puck s)i%e" wicke"%y, (ensing his )usc%es- “You c&n s(i% w&%k &w&y- !n eigh( secon"s, you’re no( going (o be &b%e (oHe r&ise" &n eyebrow, r&n & (ongue o'er his (ee(h- “;ine, he no""e"- “8e’% "o (his (he h&r" w&y- An" he s%&she" &( )y $&ce! /erke" b&ck, %e((ing (he b%&"e whi2 by )y cheek, (hen s(e**e" $orw&r" &n" s%&))e" & $is( in(o (he %e&"er’s nose, $ee%ing i( bre&k un"er )y $ingersHe ree%e" b&ck wi(h & shriek, &n" ! whir%e" (ow&r" (he secon" (hug, who w&s %unging &( )e $ro) (he si"eTi)e see)e" (o s%ow- !n )y *eri*her&% 'ision, ! s&w Puck %oo) u* behin" (he (wo re)&ining (hugs &n" knock (heir he&"s (oge(her, "ro**ing his g%&)our &s (hey s(&ggere" &n" (urne" &roun"- His )ocking %&ugh(er r&ng ou( o'er (he how%s &n" curses o$ his o**onen(s- ! "o"ge" (he kni$e o$ )y secon" $oe &n" kicke" hi) in (he knee, he&ring i( sn&* &s he cr&she" (o (he groun"The (hug %e&"er w&s s(i% ben( o'er, ho%"ing his nose- 1u""en%y he circ%e", "ro**ing (he kni$e, re&ching $or so)e(hing &( (he s)&% o$ his b&ck- ! %unge" $orw&r" &s he brough( u* (he gun, & "u% b%&ck *is(o%, c&(ching (he insi"e o$ his wris( /us( &s & ro&r o$ gun$ire ne&r%y "e&$ene" )e- A (wis(, & sn&*, &n" (he (hug scre&)e", (he "e&"%y we&*on c%&((ering (o (he groun"- 1%&))ing hi) in(o & w&% , ! *u( )y &r) (o his (hro&( &n" sho'e" h&r", seeing his eyes wi"en &n" his )ou(h g&*e $or &ir- ,y &"ren&%ine w&s u*A )y e&rs r&ng $ro) (he gun$ire, &n" (he su""en brush wi(h "e&(h )&"e )y sou% cry ou( $or b%oo"- This hu)&n h&" (rie" (o ki% )e- He "eser'e" no %ess hi)se%$- ! %e&ne" h&r"er &g&ins( his (hro&(, in(en"ing (o crush his win"*i*e, w&(ching &s his $&ce (urne" b%ue &n" his eyes s(&r(e" (o ro% u* in his he&">An" (hen, ! s(o**e"! w&sn’( $ey &ny %onger- ! w&s no %onger Ash, *rince o$ (he 7nsee%ie Cour(, ru(h%ess &n" un)erci$u%- !$ ! ki% e" (his hu)&n, ! wou%" on%y be &""ing his "e&(h (o )y %ong %is( o$ sins, on%y (his (i)e, ! h&" & sou% (h&( cou%" be (&in(e" by nee"%ess ki% ing &n" b%oo"she"Re%e&sing (he *ressure on (he (hug’s neck, ! s(e**e" b&ck &n" %e( hi) s%u)*, g&s*ing, (o (he ce)en(- A 9uick g%&nce in Puck’s "irec(ion showe" (he re"-h&ire" $ey surroun"e" by (wo )o&ning hu)&ns, cr&"%ing (heir he&"s, whi%e Puck %ooke" on s)ug%y- 1&(is$ie", ! (urne" b&ck (o (he %e&"er“#e( ou( o$ here, ! s&i" 9uie(%y- “#o ho)e- !$ ! see you &g&in, ! won’( hesi(&(e (o ki% youCr&"%ing his broken wris(, (he (hug $ %e", his (hree co)*&nions %i)*ing &$(er hi)- ! w&(che" (he) un(i% (hey "is&**e&re" &roun" & corner, (hen (urne" b&ck (o PuckHe grinne", rubbing & h&n" o'er his knuck%es- “8e% , (h&( w&s $un- No(hing %ike & goo" b&re-$is(e", knock-"own, "r&gou( br&w% (o ge( (he b%oo" *u)*ing- Though ! wi% &")i(, ! (hough( you were gonn& ki% (he guy &$(er he sho( &( you- You $ee%ing &% righ(, ice-boy? “!’) $ine- ! %ooke" &( )y h&n"s, s(i% $ee%ing (he hu)&n’s b%oo" *u)*ing un"er )y $ingers, knowing ! cou%"’'e en"e" his %i$e, &n" s)i%e"- “Ne'er be((er-

“Then, i$ you (wo &re 9ui(e $inishe" s(&r(ing r&n"o) br&w%s in (he )i""%e o$ (he s(ree(0 #ri)&%kin &**e&re" on (he hoo" o$ & c&r, s(&ring &( us re*ro&ch$u% y- “Perh&*s we c&n )o'e onHe %e" us "own &no(her %ong &% ey, un(i% we c&)e (o & $&"e" re" "oor in (he bricks- +esi"e (he "oor, & sign on & b&rre", gri)y win"ow re&", Ru"y’s P&wn 1ho*- #uns- #o%"- O(herA br&ss be% (ink%e" &s we *ushe" our w&y insi"e, re'e&%ing & (iny sho* cr&))e" $ %oor (o cei%ing wi(h /unk- 1(ereos s&( on "us(y she%'es ne.( (o r&cks o$ (e%e'isions, c&r r&"ios &n" s*e&kers- One who%e w&% w&s "e"ic&(e" (o guns, *ro(ec(e" by high coun(ers &n" & b%inking securi(y c&)er&- R&cks o$ 'i"eo g&)es were "is*%&ye" *ro)inen(%y, &n" & g%&ss c&se ne&r (he $ron( s*&rk%e" wi(h & $or(une’s wor(h o$ go%"B neck%&ces, rings, &n" be%( buck%esA %one, *u"gy $igure w&s %e&ning &g&ins( (he g%&ss c&se, *%&ying so%i(&ire &n" %ooking bore", bu( he g%&nce" u* when we c&)e in- P&%e r&)’s horns cur%e" b&ck $ro) (he si"es o$ his he&", &n" his &r)s, g&(hering u* (he c&r"s, were e.ce*(ion&% y sh&ggy- ;or & hu)&n, &nyw&y, bu( no( $or & s&(yrOr & h&%$ s&(yr, ! re&%i2e" &s we "rew c%oser- He wore & s(&ine" T-shir( &n" (&n shor(s, &n" his skinny %egs, (hough h&iry, were "eci"e"%y hu)&n“+e righ( wi(h y&, he grun(e" &s we &**ro&che" (he coun(er- “6us( gi))e & secon" (o0 He s(o**e", re&% y %ooking &( us- Puck grinne" &( hi), &n" he *&%e", bre&(hing ou( &n e.*%e(i'e- “Oh- Oh, sorry your>&h>your roy&%ness? ! "i"n’( re&%i2e>! "on’( ge( )&ny $u% -b%oo"s (hrough here- ! )e&n> He sw&% owe", going e'en *&%er &s Puck con(inue" (o s)i%e &( hi), ob'ious%y en/oying hi)se%$- “8h&( c&n ! "o $or you (o"&y, sir? “He% o, Ru"y- #ri)&%kin %e&*e" on(o (he coun(er, &n" (he h&%$ s&(yr ye%*e", s(u)b%ing b&ck- “! see you &re s(i% %i)*ing &%ong wi(h (his $ire h&2&r" you c&% & s(ore“Oh, won"er$u%- Ru"y g&'e (he c&( & sour %ook, gr&bbing & c%o(h $ro) be%ow &n" wi*ing (he coun(er(o*- “5ook who’s here- +&ck (o *%&gue )e &g&in, &re you? You know (h&( in$or)&(ion you (r&"e" ne&r%y go( )e ki% e"? “You w&n(e" (he %oc&(ion o$ (he gi&n( ruins- ! g&'e i( (o you- ,y en" o$ (he b&rg&in w&s u*he%"“! (hough( (hey were "eser(e"! You "i"n’( s&y (hey were s(i% occu*ie"“You "i" no( &sk i$ (hey were8hi%e (hey were (&%king, ! (ook (he )o)en( (o %ook &roun" (he s(ore, $&scin&(e" by &% (he )or(&% i(e)s h&nging on r&cks &n" $ro) (he she%'es- ! knew wh&( (hey were, o$ course, bu( (his w&s (he $irs( (i)e ! cou%" re&% y (ouch (he) wi(hou( $e&ring (he burn o$ )e(&%8&n"ering behin" (he we&*ons coun(er, ! g&2e" &( &% (he "i$$eren( guns &n" $ire&r)s %ining (he w&% s- 1o )&ny "i$$eren( (y*es- There w&s so )uch ! "i"n’( know &bou( (he )or(&% wor%"- ! wou%" h&'e (o re)e"y (h&( soon#ri)&%kin sni$$e", his 'oice "ri$(ing b&ck $ro) (he coun(er- “!$ one is going (o go (r&i*sing &roun" &ncien( gi&n( ruins hun(ing $or (re&sure, one shou%" $irs( )&ke sure (hey &re &b&n"one"- !n &ny c&se, i( )&((ers no(- ! be%ie'e we s(i% h&'e un$inishe" business“;ine- Ru"y w&'e" his &r) "is)issi'e%y- “;ine, %e(’s ge( i( o'er wi(h- ! &ssu)e you w&n(

so)e(hing $ro) (he b&ck, is (h&( i(? Hey! he ye%*e" su""en%y, &s ! gr&bbe" & *is(o% $ro) (he r&ck o$ guns, (he s&)e kin" (h&( h&" been $ire" &( )e be$ore- “C&re$u% wi(h (h&(! #ee2, since when c&n $&eries h&n"%e guns, &nyw&y? “!ce-boy- Puck gri)&ce" &( )e, %ooking ner'ous- “Co)e on- 5e(’s no( $re&k ou( (he nice gun "e&%er- 8e’re &%)os( ho)e! re*%&ce" (he gun &n" w&%ke" b&ck (o (he $ron(, where Ru"y eye" )e sus*icious%y- “7h, righ(- 1o, you nee" so)e(hing $ro) (he ?s*eci&% roo),’ is (h&( i(? !’'e go( )onkey *&ws &n" hy"r& *oison &n" & *&ir o$ cock&(rice eggs c&)e in yes(er"&y0 “1*&re us your "e&%ings wi(h (he gob%in )&rke(, #ri)&%kin in(erru*(e"- “8e nee" (o use (he "oor (o (he wy%"woo"“3oor? Ru"y sw&% owe", %ooking &( e&ch o$ us in (urn- “!, uh, "on’( know o$ &ny "oor“5i&r, #ri)&%kin s(&(e", n&rrowing his eyes- “3o no( seek (o "ecei'e us, h&%$-bree"- 8ho "o you (hink you &re s*e&king (o? “!(’s /us(> Ru"y %owere" his 'oice- “!’) no( su**ose" (o h&'e "irec( &ccess (o (he Ne'erne'er, he &")i((e"- “You know how (he cour(s &re- !$ (hey $in" ou( (h&( & s(inkin’ h&%$bree" owns & (ro", (hey’% (urn )e in(o & go&( &n" $ee" )e (o (he re"c&*s“You owe )e, #ri)&%kin s&i" b%un(%y- “! &) co% ec(ing (h&( "eb( now- Ei(her gi'e us &ccess (o (he (ro", or ! wi% (urn Robin #oo"$e% ow %oose in your s(ore &n" (hen we wi% see how )uch o$ i( is %e$( (o *ro(ec(“#oo"$e% ow? Ru"y’s $&ce (urne" (he co%or o$ o%" g%ue- He g%&nce" &( Puck, who grinne" &n" w&'e" cheer$u% y- “1-sure, he whis*ere", )o'ing &w&y $ro) (he coun(er in & "&2e- “;o% ow )eHe un%ocke" & "oor &n" %e" us in(o &n e'en s)&% er, )ore crow"e" roo)- Here, (he )erch&n"ise %ining (he w&% s &n" *i%e" in corners w&s e'en s(r&nger (hen (he s(ock ou(si"e, bu( )ore $&)i%i&r (o )e- +&si%isk $&ngs &n" wy'ern s(ingers- #%owing *o(ions &n" (o&"s(oo%s o$ e'ery co%or- A huge (o)e o$ *uckere" $ %esh res(e" bene&(h & he&""ress )&"e o$ gri$$in $e&(hers- Ru"y )&neu'ere" (hrough (he c%u((er, kicking (hings ou( o$ (he w&y, un(i% he c&)e (o (he b&ck w&% &n" *ushe" b&ck & cur(&in- A si)*%e woo"en "oor s(oo" on (he o(her si"e“O*en i(, #ri)&%kin or"ere"1ighing, Ru"y un%ocke" (he "oor &n" *ushe" i( o*en- A co%" bree2e, s)e% ing o$ e&r(h &n" crushe" %e&'es, $ %u((ere" in(o (he s)&% roo), &n" (he gr&y, )urky e.*&nse o$ (he wy%"woo" c&)e in(o 'iew (hrough (he $r&)ePuck b%ew ou( & %ong bre&(h- “There she is- He sighe", soun"ing wis($u%- “Ne'er (hough( !’" be so h&**y (o see her &g&in#ri)&%kin w&s &%re&"y (hrough (he "oor, (&i% he%" s(r&igh( u* &s he '&nishe" in(o (he )is(“Hey, Ru"y c&% e", $rowning (hrough (he "oorw&y- “No )ore $&'ors, ok&y, c&(? 8e’re e'en now, righ(? He sighe" &n" eye" us &s we s(&r(e" (o $o% ow- “!, uh, !’" &**reci&(e i( i$ (his "i"n’( ge( ou(, your highnesses- 1eeing &s ! he%*e" you &n" &% >uh> He (r&i%e" o$$ &s Puck g&'e hi) &n &**r&ising %ook in (he "oor- “Th&( is, i$ i(’s ok&y wi(h you“! "on’( know- Puck $rowne" &n" crosse" his &r)s- “3i"n’( you he&r Oberon s&ying

so)e(hing &bou( & cer(&in *&wnsho*, ice-boy? An" re"c&*s? Or w&s (h&( so)e(hing e%se? Ru"y %ooke" $&in(, un(i% Puck s%&**e" hi) on (he shou%"er wi(h & %&ugh, )&king hi) /u)* (hree $ee( in (he &ir- “You’re & goo" guy- He grinne", w&%king b&ckw&r" (hrough (he $r&)e- “! )igh( co)e b&ck (o 'isi( so)e"&y- Hurry u*, *rince“Prince? The h&%$ s&(yr b%inke" &s ! s(e**e" $orw&r"- “Robin #oo"$e% ow &n" & *rince, co)e (o )y sho*? He s(&re" h&r" &( )e, (hen his eyebrows sho( u* &s so)e(hing c%icke" in(o *%&ce- “Then>you )us( be>&re you Prince Ash? The wy%"woo" bree2e w&s coo% &g&ins( )y $&ce- ! *&use" in (he "oorw&y &n" g%&nce" o'er )y shou%"er, gi'ing )y he&" & s)&% sh&ke“No, ! (o%" hi), &n" w&%ke" (hrough (he "oor- “!’) no(- CHAPTER T8ENTY-THREE THE !RON :N!#HT The wy%"woo" w&s e.&c(%y &s ! re)e)bere" i(0gr&y, "&rk, )is(y, wi(h huge (rees b%ocking ou( (he sky0&n" ye(, i( w&s '&s(%y "i$$eren(- ! use" (o be & *&r( o$ (his wor%", *&r( o$ (he )&gic &n" (he energy (h&( $ %owe" (hrough &% %i'ing cre&(ures in (he Ne'erne'er- ! w&sn’( now- ! w&s &*&r(, se*&r&(e- An in(ru"er+u( now (h&( ! w&s b&ck in (he Ne'erne'er, ! cou%" $ee% (he g%&)our swir%ing wi(hin )e, $&)i%i&r &n" s(r&nge &( (he s&)e (i)e- 8in(er g%&)our, bu( "i$$eren(- As i$>&s i$ i( w&sn’( )y )&gic &ny)ore, bu( ! cou%" s(i% re&ch i(, s(i% use i(- Perh&*s i( w&s *&r( o$ (his sou% ! h&" g&ine", (he *&r( (h&( Arie% & h&" gi'en u*, $ree%y &n" wi(hou( reser'&(ion- An", i$ (h&( w&s (rue, (hen in so)e s)&% w&y, she w&s s(i% wi(h )e! $oun" (h&( (hough( 'ery co)$or(ing“1o- #ri)&%kin &**e&re" ou( o$ (he )is(, /u)*ing on(o & $&% en %og, his *%u)e" (&i% w&'ing behin" hi)- “Here we &re &( %&s(- ! (rus( (he (wo o$ you c&n )&n&ge (he res( o$ (he w&y wi(hou( )e? “Running o$$ &g&in, c&(? Puck crosse" his &r)s, bu( his grin w&s &n &$$ec(ion&(e one“An" here ! w&s /us( ge((ing use" (o h&'ing you &roun"“! c&nno( %ook o'er your shou%"er e'ery s(e* o$ (he w&y, #oo"$e% ow, #ri)&%kin re*%ie" in & bore" (one- “!( w&s & goo" &"'en(ure, bu( now i( is "oneAn", &s "i$$icu%( &s i( is (o be%ie'e, ! h&'e (hings o$ )y own (o &((en" (o“Ye&h, (h&( n&* )us( be (errib%y *ressing- How "o you sur'i'e? #ri)&%kin ignore" hi) (his (i)e, (urning (o )e- “;&rewe% , knigh(, he s&i" $or)&% y, s(&r(%ing )e wi(h (he (er) he’" ne'er use" be$ore- “! wish you %uck on your /ourney, $or ! $e&r i( wi% no( be e&sy- +u( you h&'e been (hrough )uch, )ore (hen &nyone cou%" re&son&b%y h&'e ho*e" (o sur'i'e- ! sus*ec( you wi% be &% righ( in (he en"! bowe" (o (he c&(, who b%inke" bu( see)e" *%e&se" wi(h (he ges(ure- “Cou%"n’( h&'e "one i( wi(hou( you, #ri), ! s&i" 9uie(%y, &n" he sni$$e"“O$ course no(, he re*%ie", &s i$ i( were ob'ious- “#i'e (he !ron 4ueen )y reg&r"s, bu( (e% her no( (o c&% on )e (oo soon- ! $in" *u% ing you bo(h ou( o$ s(icky si(u&(ions incre&sing%y (ireso)e-

1o)e(hing rus(%e" in (he bushes & $ew y&r"s &w&y, "r&wing )y &((en(ion $or & s*%i( secon"- 8hen ! g%&nce" b&ck &( (he %og, #ri)&%kin w&s gonePuck sighe"- “C&( sure knows how (o )&ke &n e.i(, he )u((ere", sh&king his he&"“8e% , co)e on, ice-boy- 5e(’s ge( you (o (he !ron Re&%)- You’re no( ge((ing &ny youngerThe /ourney (ook us (wo "&ys, )os(%y "ue (o (he gob%in bor"er skir)ish we r&n in(o in (he #n&shwoo"- +ec&use, &s no(hing e'er c&)e e&si%y in (he wy%"woo", (he gob%in (ribes were &( w&r &g&in &n" were e'en )ore in(o%er&n( o$ (res*&ssers (hrough (heir (erri(oryPuck &n" ! h&" (o $ %ee $ro) se'er&% &ngry w&r *&r(ies, e'en(u&% y $igh(ing our w&y (hrough (he %ines (o re&ch (he ou(skir(s o$ gob%in %&n"s- ;or & whi%e, i( w&s %ike o%" (i)es &g&in, (he (wo o$ us, $igh(ing si"e by si"e &g&ins( )uch gre&(er o""s- ,y bo"y $e%( %ike )y own &g&in, )y swor" $ %ui" &n" n&(ur&% in )y h&n"s- A *oisone" gob%in &rrow hi( )e once in (he (high, &n" ! s*en( &n e'ening in *&in (rying (o s(&'e o$$ (he e$$ec(s, bu( ! w&s &b%e (o sh&ke i( o$$ by )orning &n" con(inue+u( "es*i(e (he (hri% o$ b&((%e &n" (he o$ si)*%y being &%i'e, ! w&s &n.ious (o ge( (o (he !ron Re&%)- ! cou%" $ee% (he secon"s (icking &w&y, %ike gr&ins $&% ing (hrough (he hourg%&ss, e&ch "&y (h&( brough( )e c%oser (o )y ine'i(&b%e en"- 8he(her i( w&s &n or"in&ry )or(&% %i$e s*&n, or i$ ! w&s s(i% $&ery enough (o s%ow (he &"'&nce o$ (i)e, ! w&n(e" (o s*en" (he "&ys ! h&" %e$( wi(h ,egh&n- 8i(h )y $&)i%yThe %&s( nigh( be$ore we re&che" (he bor"er o$ (he !ron Re&%), Puck &n" ! c&)*e" on (he e"ge o$ & s)&% %&ke, h&'ing $in&% y esc&*e" (he #n&shwoo" &n" (he (erri(ory o$ &ngry, b%oo"(hirs(y gob%ins- 8e were so c%ose0! cou%" $ee% i(, &n" i( w&s "i$$icu%( $or )e (o re%&., )uch (o Puck’s &)use)en(- ! $in&% y "o2e", %e&ning b&ck &g&ins( & (ree, $&cing (he w&(er1o)e(i)e "uring (he nigh(, ! "re&)e"- Arie% & s(oo" on (he b&nks o$ (he w&(er s)i%ing &( )e, her si%'er h&ir g%owing in (he s(&r%igh(- 1he "i"n’( s*e&k, &n" ! "i"n’( s&y &ny(hing, h&'ing no 'oice in (his "re&), bu( ! (hink she w&n(e" )e (o know (h&( she w&s h&**yTh&( her 9ues( w&s $u%$i% e", &n" (h&( ! cou%" $in&% y %e( her go- ! cou%" *u( her )e)ory (o res( &( %&s(- ! woke wi(h b%urry eyes &n" &n &che in )y ches(, bu( $or (he $irs( (i)e since (h&( $&(e$u% "&y, ! $e%( %igh(er- ! wou%" ne'er $orge( her, bu( ! no %onger $e%( gui%(y (h&( ! h&" )o'e" on, (h&( ! cou%" be h&**y wi(h so)eone e%se- ! $in&% y knew (h&(’s wh&( she wou%" w&n(A( %&s(, $or(y-eigh( hu)&n hours &$(er we’" en(ere" (he wy%"woo", Puck &n" ! s(oo" &( (he e"ge o$ (he !ron Re&%), g&2ing &( (he )e(&% (rees s(re(ching (o ei(her si"e &s $&r &s one cou%" see- !( see)e" (he Ne'erne'er i(se%$ h&" "one i(s bes( (o se*&r&(e $ro) (he !ron :ing"o), $or & gre&( ch&s) r&n be(ween (he wy%"woo" &n" (he !ron 4ueen’s (erri(ory, (he e&r(h h&'ing $&% en &w&y- A woo"en bri"ge h&" been h&s(i%y cons(ruc(e" (o s*&n (he gu%$, bu( (he wy%"woo" w&s s%ow%y &((e)*(ing (o "es(roy (h&( &s we% , $or 'ines &n" wee"s were &%re&"y wr&**e" &bou( (he *%&nks, &s i$ (rying (o "r&g i( "ownPuck &n" ! s(o**e" &( (he e"ge o$ (he bri"ge- “8e% , here we &re- The 1u))er /es(er sighe", scrubbing (he b&ck o$ his he&" whi%e eyeing (he $ores(- “Ho)e swee( ho)e $or you, iceboy, s(r&nge &s i( is (o (hink &bou( (h&(- 1ure you c&n )&ke i( (o ,&g Tuire"h on your own? ! re&% y "on’( know where i(’s %oc&(e" $ro) here“!( "oesn’( )&((er, ! s&i", g&2ing in(o (he g%i))ering $ores( o$ s(ee%- No( %ong &go, (he

sigh( o$ i( h&" )&"e )y s(o)&ch recoi%- Now i( churne" wi(h “!’% $in" i(“Ye&h, !’'e no "oub( you wi% - Puck sighe", crossing his &r)s- “Anyw&y, you *rob&b%y won’( see )e $or & whi%e, iceboy- The (hough( o$ re(urning (o 1u))er /us( isn’( &s &**e&%ing &s i( once w&s- ,&ybe i(’s (i)e $or & ro&" (ri*- He $ %ung ou( his &r)s "r&)&(ic&% y- “The win" in )y $&ce, (he o*en ro&" s(re(ching ou( be$ore )e, &n" &"'en(ure /us( &roun" (he ne.( ben"“Huh- ! eye" hi) shrew"%y- “Oberon "i"n’( gi'e you *er)ission (o go (ro)*ing (hrough (he 3ee* 8y%" wi(h )e, "i" he? “No( so )uch- Puck gri)&ce"- “Anyw&y, ! (hink i(’s (i)e $or & '&c&(ion, %e( 5or" Poin(y E&rs coo% "own $or & bi(- #i'e ,egh&n & hug $or )e, wi% y&? ,&ybe !’% see you bo(h in & $ew "ec&"es“8here &re you going? Robin #oo"$e% ow shrugge", uncer(&in &n" c&re$ree- “8ho knows? ,&ybe !’% (ry (o $in" (he En" o$ (he 8or%" &g&in- ,&ybe !’% (r&'e% (he )or(&% re&%) $or & whi%e- !( re&% y "oesn’( )&((er where ! go, or where ! en" u*- There’s & who%e huge wor%" ou( (here, &n" i(’s high (i)e $or us (o ge( re&c9u&in(e"- He %ooke" &( )e, &n" his eyes g%e&)e"- “!’) g%&" we h&" one %&s( %i((%e &"'en(ure, ice-boy, bu( i(s (i)e $or )e (o s(rike ou( on )y own- Try no( (o h&'e (oo )uch $un wi(hou( )e, ok&y? “Puck, ! s&i", s(o**ing hi) &s he s(&r(e" (o %e&'e- Turning b&ck, he r&ise" &n eyebrow, & $&in(, w&ry s)i%e crossing his $&ceT&king & "ee* bre&(h, ! s(e**e" $orw&r" &n" he%" ou( & h&n"Puck b%inke", (hen 'ery serious%y re&che" ou( &n" gri**e" )y *&%), s9uee2ing h&r", &s ! "i" (he s&)e- “#oo" %uck, ! s&i" 9uie(%y, )ee(ing his eyes- He grinne", no( one o$ his %eering, )ocking s)i%es, bu( & re&% one“You, (oo, Ash“!$ you’re e'er in Tir N& Nog, s&y hi (o ,&b $or )ePuck %&ughe", sh&king his he&" &s he b&cke" &w&y- “Ye&h- !’% be sure (o "o (h&(- On (he o(her si"e o$ (he bri"ge, he r&ise" one h&n" in & s&%u(e &s g%&)our shi))ere" (hrough (he &ir- “1ee you &roun", ice-boyA ri**%e o$ )&gic, &n" Puck’s $or) (wis(e" &n" shr&nk in(o & huge, b%&ck r&'en, be&(ing (he &ir wi(h *ower$u% wings- 8i(h & r&ucous c&w, he rose &bo'e )e, she""ing g%&)our &n" $e&(hers, &n" s*ir&%e" &w&y o'er (he (rees, un(i% he bec&)e & (iny b%&ck "o( on (he hori2on &n" "is&**e&re"! s)i%e", (urne" )y b&ck on (he wy%"woo" &n" crosse" (he bri"ge, s%i**ing in(o (he !ron :ing"o) &%oneEP!5O#7E THE !RON 47EEN ,y n&)e is ,egh&n Ch&se, )on&rch o$ ,&g Tuire"h, so'ereign o$ (he !ron (erri(ories, &n" 9ueen o$ (he !ron $ey, &n" whoe'er s&i" kings &n" 9ueens h&" i( e&sy cer(&in%y "i"n’( know wh&( (hey were (&%king &bou(The (hrone roo) o$ (he !ron *&%&ce w&s $i% e" (o c&*&ci(y &g&in, &n" (he )ur)ur o$ 'oices &%ong (he w&% s w&s & cons(&n( bu22 in )y )in"- To"&y w&s going (o be &no(her %ong "&y-

As so%e ru%er o$ (he !ron Re&%), i( w&s u* (o )e (o reso%'e "is*u(es, )&n&ge resources, %is(en (o co)*%&in(s &n" so)ehow kee* )y own %&n"s &n" *eo*%e s&$e $ro) (he o(her $ey cour(s (h&( w&n(e" (he) "e&", &% whi%e (rying (o rebui%" &n" es(&b%ish )y own king"o)- ! w&sn’( co)*%&ining, bu( i( see)e" & %o( (o &sk o$ & once-nor)&% se'en(een-ye&r-o%" who h&" on%y recen(%y inheri(e" &n en(ire re&%) o$ !ron $ey- An", &")i((e"%y, so)e "&ys were )ore (rying (h&n o(hers! shi$(e" on )y (hrone, & gre&( )ons(rosi(y o$ woo" &n" iron, )&"e no )ore co)$or(&b%e by (he (hick cushions ! w&s si((ing on- A( $irs(, !’" /oking%y sugges(e" using & 5&-K-+oy rec%iner $or (hese %ong he&rings, bu( (h&( w&s r&(her $er'en(%y 'e(oe" by bo(h #%i(ch &n" )y chie$ &"'iser, & *&ckr&( n&)e" ;i.- The !ron 4ueen h&" (o &**e&r s(rong &n" i)*osing, (hey s&i", e'en whi%e si((ing "own- A( %e&s( in *ub%ic, (he !ron 4ueen h&" (o see) in'u%ner&b%e- ! su**ose, (o (he), in'u%ner&b%e )e&n( rigi" &n" unco)$or(&b%e- A( %e&s(, (h&(’s wh&( )y b&ck (hough(This is (he !ron :ing"o), ! (hough( "uring & shor( bre&k in (he he&rings- This "oesn’( h&'e (o be so o%"-$&shione"- ! be( ! c&n ge( 3io"e (o se( i( u* so (h&( so)e o$ (hese *e(i(ions co)e in by e)&i% or so)e(hingAno(her *e(i(ioner &**ro&che", & wire ny)*h whose (erri(ory res(e" 'ery c%ose (o Tir N& Nog &n" (he 8in(er Cour(- ! %is(ene" *&(ien(%y &s she *oure" ou( (he %&(es( "e'e%o*)en(B grou*s o$ 8in(er knigh(s (errori2ing (he (ribes (h&( s&( c%oses( (o (he bor"er- !’" h&'e (o s*e&k (o ,&b &bou( (h&(, )&ke sure her cour( w&s $o% owing (he (re&(y &gree)en(, &s we% Th&( w&s going (o be %o&"s o$ $un- The 8in(er 4ueen &%re&"y h&(e" )e $or being Oberon’s "&ugh(er, &n" now (h&( ! w&s & 9ueen &s we% , (he %ook in her eyes whene'er she s&w )e w&s "ownrigh( sc&ry- 1(i% , ! w&s 9ueen- ! ru%e" & cour(, &n" by ;&ery %&w, (he 8in(er )on&rch wou%" h&'e (o he&r )e ou(, whe(her she %ike" i( or no(“A%k&%i&, ! s&i", )&king sure (o re)e)ber (he ny)*h’s n&)e- “You were righ( (o bring (his (o )y &((en(ion- !’% s*e&k (o 4ueen ,&b &bou( i( &s soon &s ! &) &b%e“8e &re 'ery gr&(e$u%, your )&/es(y, (he wire ny)*h s&i", bowing &s she w&s ushere" &w&y- ! no""e" &( ;i., &n" he *unche" (he re9ues( in(o )y *%&nner, &""ing i( (o (he &%re&"y %eng(hy %is( o$ (hings (h&( nee"e" "oing“5e(’s (&ke & bre&k, ! s&i", &n" s(oo" u*, $ee%ing )y b&ck *o* &s ! s(re(che"- ;i. chi((ere" & 9ues(ion, (he /unk on his b&ck sw&ying &s he (urne" (o )e- “8e’'e been here ne&r%y $our hours, ! re*%ie"- “!’) hungry, ! h&'e & he&"&che &n" )y bu(( h&s gone nu)b $ro) si((ing on (h&( (or(ure "e'ice5e(’s *ick b&ck u* in &n hour, yes? ;i. w&rb%e" &n &gree)en(, bu( &( (h&( )o)en(, (he "oors o$ (he (hrone roo) swung o*en wi(h & gro&n, &n" #%i(ch w&%ke" in- 1cores o$ !ron $ey scurrie" &si"e &s (he ;irs( 5ieu(en&n( )&rche" "own (he &is%e (o (he $oo( o$ (he (hrone, his sh&r* $&ce in(ense+ehin" hi), & robe", hoo"e" $igure )&(che" his s(e*s, c%o&k (orn &n" "us(y $ro) (r&'e%, & "&rk cow% hi"ing i(s $&ce“,&/es(y- #%i(ch bowe" &( (he $oo( o$ (he "&is, &n" (hough his 'oice w&s so%e)n, ! cou%" sense )y ;irs( 5ieu(en&n( w&s (rying h&r" no( (o s)i%e“This (r&'e%er h&s co)e $&r (o re9ues( &n &u"ience wi(h you- ! know you &re 'ery busy &( (he )o)en(, bu( &s he h&s co)e & gre&( "is(&nce, *erh&*s you cou%" he&r hi) ou(-

#%i(ch bowe" &g&in &n" b&cke" &w&y, )e%(ing in(o (he crow"- ! sho( hi) & %ook, bu( he w&s s(&ring s(r&igh( &he&", gi'ing no(hing &w&y- The ;irs( 5ieu(en&n( nor)&% y "i"n’( (&ke i( u*on hi)se%$ (o show *e(i(ioners (o (he (hrone roo), h&'ing o(her "u(ies (h&( ke*( hi) busy, %ike )&n&ging (he &r)y- !$ he )&"e &n e.ce*(ion $or (his (r&'e%er, he )us(’'e (hough( i( w&s 'ery i)*or(&n(! $rowne" &n" %ooke" &( (he s(r&nger in (he )i""%e o$ (he h&% , w&i(ing $or )e (o &cknow%e"ge hi)- “Co)e $orw&r", ! s&i"- He &**ro&che" (he $oo( o$ (he (hrone &n" s&nk (o one knee, bowing his cow%e" he&"“8here h&'e you co)e $ro), (r&'e%er? “! h&'e co)e $ro) (he En" o$ (he 8or%", s&i" & 9uie( 'oice (h&( )&"e )y he&r( s(o* be&(ing- “;ro) (he Ri'er o$ 3re&)s, (hrough (he g&un(%e( &n" (he +ri&rs &n" (he 3ee* 8y%", in or"er (o s(&n" be$ore you (o"&y- ! h&'e bu( one re9ues(0(o (&ke )y *%&ce &( your si"e- To resu)e )y "u(y &s your knigh(, &n" (o *ro(ec( you &n" your king"o) $or &s %ong &s ! "r&w bre&(h- He r&ise" his he&" &n" *ushe" b&ck (he hoo", &n" & g&s* wen( &roun" (he (hrone roo)- “! &) s(i% yours, )y 9ueen, Ash s&i", %ooking )e s(r&igh( in (he eye- “!$ you’% h&'e )e;or & )o)en(, (he shock he%" )e i))obi%e- He cou%"n’( be hereA i( w&s i)*ossib%e- No nor)&% $ey cou%" se( $oo( in (he !ron Re&%) &n" %i'e- An" ye(, here he w&s, %ooking (ire" &n" "us(y &n" s%igh(%y r&gge", bu( co)*%e(e%y $ine- “Ash, ! whis*ere", s(e**ing (ow&r" hi) in & "&2e- He "i"n’( )o'e, g&2ing u* &( )e wi(h (hose in(ense si%'er eyes ! knew so we% - Re&ching "own, ! "rew hi) (o his $ee(, (&king in (he %e&n, )uscu%&r $r&)e, (he unru%y b%&ck h&ir, co'ere" in "us( $ro) his (r&'e%s, (he w&y he w&s %ooking &( )e, &s i$ (he en(ire cour( h&" "is&**e&re", &n" we were (he on%y (wo *eo*%e in (he wor%"“You’re here, ! )ur)ure", re&ching ou( (o (ouch hi), h&r"%y be%ie'ing (his w&s re&%“You c&)e b&ck- Ash’s bre&(h hi(che", &n" he *u( his h&n" o'er )ine“! c&)e ho)eOur $r&gi%e co)*osure sh&((ere"- ! s(e**e" in(o hi), ho%"ing hi) (igh(, &n" he hugge" )e c%ose &s (he roo) &roun" us e.*%o"e" wi(h noiseA**%&use &n" cheers rose in(o (he &ir, bu( ! b&re%y he&r" &ny o$ i(- Ash w&s re&%- ! cou%" $ee% his bre&(h on )y neck, $ee% his he&r( *oun"ing wi(h )ine- ! "i"n’( know how he cou%" be hereA i( shou%"’'e been i)*ossib%e, bu( ! "i"n’( w&n( (o $&ce (h&( now- !$ (his w&s & "re&), ! w&n(e" (o h&'e one *er$ec( )o)en( o$ h&**iness, be$ore re&%i(y in(ru"e" &n" !’" h&'e (o %e( hi) go;in&% y, ! *u% e" b&ck (o %ook &( hi), running & *&%) o'er his cheek, &s he g&2e" &( )e wi(h (hose eyes ! cou%" %ose )yse%$ in- An" ! $in&% y 'oice" (he 9ues(ion (h&( ! h&" been "re&"ing, no( sure ! w&n(e" (o know (he &nswer- “How? A)&2ing%y, Ash s)i%e"- “! (o%" you !’" $in" & w&y, "i"n’( !? He chuck%e" &( )y "isbe%ie$, &n" ! cou%" sense (he secre( *ri"e0(he know%e"ge (h&( he h&" se( ou( (o "o so)e(hing i)*ossib%e &n" h&" succee"e"- T&king )y h&n", he gui"e" i( (o his ches(, where ! cou%" $ee% his he&r(be&( (hu""ing &g&ins( )y *&%)- “! bec&)e hu)&n- ! wen( (o (he en"s o$ (he Ne'erne'er &n" $oun" )y sou%“8h&(? ! *u% e" b&ck (o %ook &( hi), re&% y %ook &( hi)- He "i" see) & %i((%e "i$$eren(

(h&n be$ore- ,&ybe his $e&(ures were & %i((%e %ess sh&r*, &n" he w&sn’( 9ui(e &s co%", bu( he s(i% h&" (hose in(ense si%'er eyes, (h&( s&)e unru%y h&ir- He )igh( h&'e been hu)&n now, bu( he w&s s(i% Ash, s(i% (he s&)e *erson !’" $&% en in %o'e wi(h, %o'e" s(i% wi(h )y en(ire he&r(- An" i$ he h&" re&% y $oun" & sou% &n" beco)e hu)&n> 8e c&n be (oge(her- 8e c&n be (oge(her wi(hou( $e&r o$ &ny(hing now- He re&%%y "i" i(Ash b%inke" un"er )y scru(iny- “3o ! *&ss? he &%)os( whis*ere"“8&i( & )inu(e- ;rowning s%igh(%y, ! re&che" u* &n" brushe" his h&ir b&ck, re'e&%ing & gr&ce$u%, *oin(e" e&r- “!$ you’re hu)&n, how "o you e.*%&in (h&(? Ash grinne"- His eyes s*&rk%e", &n" ! cou%" su""en%y see (he sou% shining (hrough, brigh( &n" *ure &n" be&u(i$u%- “A**&ren(%y, ! h&'e & %i((%e $ey )&gic s(i% %e$( in )e, he s&i", running his $ingers (hrough )y h&ir, s(roking )y cheek wi(h his (hu)b- “Enough (o kee* u* wi(h (he res( o$ ;&ery, &nyw&y- ,&ybe enough (o kee* $ro) growing o%"- He %&ughe" so$(%y, &s i$ (he 'ery i"e& (hri% e" hi)- “+e((er ge( use" (o (his $&ce, your )&/es(y- ! *%&n (o be here & %ong, %ong (i)e- Prob&b%y $ore'er,y eyes )is(e" o'er, &n" (here w&s & b&% oon in )y ches(, swe% ing wi(h h&**iness, *ushing &w&y (he "&rkness un(i% (here w&s no roo) $or &ny(hing bu( /oy- +u( &% ! cou%" (hink (o s&y w&s, “Aren’( you &%re&"y cen(uries o%"? Ash %owere" his he&", "r&wing us e'en c%oser- “! wen( (o (he En" o$ (he 8or%" $or you, &n" &% you h&'e (o s&y is how we% !’'e &ge"? +u( his eyes "&nce", &n" he w&s s(i% s)i%ing- ! "eci"e" ! %ike" (his AshA (his %igh(, $ree cre&(ure, &s i$ & sou% h&" un%ocke" & *&r( o$ hi) (h&( h&"n’( been &% owe" (o sur$&ce in (he chi% o$ (he 8in(er Cour(- !( )&"e )e $ee% ! cou%" (e&se hi) & %i((%e )ore“! "i"n’( s&y &ny(hing &bou( &ging we%%0 +u( &( (h&( )o)en(, &)i" (he cheers &n" whis(%es o$ (he !ron Cour(, Ash&% &yn’"&rk)yr T&% yn gen(%y (ook )y $&ce in his h&n"s &n" co'ere" )y )ou(h wi(h his own, beginning (he $irs( "&y o$ our $ore'er e.&c(%y &s he shou%"A w&r) win" how%e" (hrough (he br&nches o$ & cer(&in ho% ow, rus(%ing (he %e&'es, whis(%ing (hrough (he ske%e(on o$ &n enor)ous re*(i%e in (he cen(er o$ (he g%&"e- 1*r&w%e" in (he gr&ss in (he cen(er o$ (he ho% ow, i( see)e" e.(r&or"in&ri%y ou( o$ *%&ce, & (oken o$ "e&(h in (he )i"s( o$ so )uch %i$e- ;%owers c&r*e(e" (he once )u""y groun", bir"s (wi((ere" in (he br&nches, &n" (he sun shone $u% &n" brigh( (hrough (he c%ou"s, s%ow%y burning &w&y (he )is( (h&( s(i% c%ung (o s)&% *&(ches o$ br&)b%e (hroughou( (he g%en- The ske%e(on, wi(h i(s b%e&che" whi(e bones &n" sn&r%ing )&w, %ooke" *&%e &n" insigni$ic&n( &)ong (he rio( o$ co%or, bu( n&(ure w&s s%ow%y "oing i(s work- ,oss &n" wee"s were &%re&"y cree*ing u* (he "e&" gi&n(, &n" (iny $ %owers were /us( beginning (o s*rou( (hrough i(s rib c&ge, coi%ing "e%ic&(e 'ines &roun" (he bones- !n & $ew se&sons, i( wou%" be unrecogni2&b%eA sh&"ow )e%(e" ou( o$ (he br&)b%es, b%inking &s i( s(e**e" in(o (he sun, & %&rge gr&y c&( wi(h g%owing ye% ow eyes- !( *&""e" i(s w&y &cross (he ho% ow, *&s( (he s%ow%y "is&**e&ring ske%e(on, un(i% i( re&che" (he (runk o$ & gre&( (ree, whi(e b%osso)s $u% y in b%oo)- 1i((ing "own &( (he (runk, i( cur%e" i(s bushy (&i% &roun" i(se%$ &n" c%ose" i(s eyes, %is(ening (o (he soun" o$ (he win" in (he (rees- A *&ir o$ b%osso)s swir%e" &roun" i(, (e&sing i(s %ong whiskers, &n" i( &**e&re" (o s)i%e-

“! &) h&**y (h&( you h&'e $in&% y $oun" *e&ceThe br&nches &bo'e i( rus(%e", soun"ing sus*icious%y %ike %&ugh(er- 1(&n"ing, (he c&( r&ise" i(s he&", %e((ing (he bree2e (oss i(s co&(, w&(ching & *e(&% "&nce on (he win"- Then, wi(h & $ %ick o$ i(s (&i%, i( boun"e" in(o (he un"ergrow(h, & s(re&k o$ gr&y $ur in (he sun, &n" (he %igh( sw&% owe" i( co)*%e(e%yLLLLL AC:NO85E3#,ENT1 Ah, (he Acknow%e"g)en(s *&ge- Once )ore, we co)e (o (he en" o$ & no'e%, &n" once )ore, ! h&'e )&ny, )&ny *eo*%e (o (h&nk- ,y *&ren(s, $or wi(hou( (he), ! wou%"n’( be (he s(ubborn, i"e&%is(ic "&y"re&)er ! &) (o"&y- ,y &gen(, 5&urie ,c5e&n, who is &%w&ys (here (o $ie%" 9ues(ions &n" c&%) &u(hor%y *&nic &((&cks, so)e(i)es we% &$(er business hours- ,y won"er$u% e"i(ors, N&(&shy& 8i%son &n" A"&) 8i%son, &n" (he (&%en(e", &)&2ing s(&$$ &( H&r%e9uin TEEN- This ye&r es*eci&% y h&s been & wi%" &n" cr&2y ri"e, &n" ! cou%" no( h&'e been in be((er co)*&nyTo &% (he &weso)e b%oggers o$ (he YA wor%", &n" (he $&ns o$ Te&) Ash, (his book is es*eci&% y $or you- !( is *&r(i&% y bec&use o$ you (h&( & cer(&in 7nsee%ie *rince go( his own s(ory, (h&( his /ourney en"e" &s i( "i"- Th&nk youAn", o$ course, )y "ee*es( gr&(i(u"e goes (o )y $irs( e"i(or, soun"ing bo&r", *roo$re&"er, *rob%e) so%'er &n" &)&2ing husb&n", Nick- You &re )y knigh( in shining &r)or17RC!CA5 #7!3E TO THE NECERNECER 17RC!CA5 #7!3E TO THE NECERNECER 3!1C5A!,ER This gui"e is in(en"e" (o gi'e in(re*i" (r&'e%ers in(o (he re&%) o$ (he $ey & )ini)&% ch&nce &( sur'i'ing (he cre&(ures &n" "eni2ens (h&( "we% wi(hin- P%e&se no(e, (he &u(hor o$ (his gui"e is in no w&y res*onsib%e $or %os( or "&)&ge" sou%s, ensn&re)en(, or &cci"en(&% or in(en(ion&% "e&(hEn(ering (he re&%)s o$ $ey c&n, &n" %ike%y wi% , be h&2&r"ous (o your he&%(h &n" is no( reco))en"e"- You h&'e been w&rne"Pre*&r&(ions One c&n ne'er *re*&re &"e9u&(e%y $or en(ry in(o (he Ne'erne'er- There &re, howe'er, & $ew ru%es (h&( one c&n $o% ow (o he%* incre&se (he ch&nces o$ sur'i'ing8h&( 1hou%" ! 8e&r? 3ressing $or (he Ne'erne'er )e&ns b%en"ing u(i%i(y wi(h co)$or(- !$ you h&'e 9ues(ions &bou( whe(her or no( &n i(e) is &**ro*ri&(e, &sk yourse%$ (he $o% owingB !$ running $or )y %i$e, wou%" (his s%ow )e "own? An"B !$ c&ugh( whi%e running $or )y %i$e, wou%" (his *ro(ec( )e? !$ (he &nswer (o (he $irs( 9ues(ion is yes, &n" (he secon" 9ues(ion is no, (hen (he i(e) is in&**ro*ri&(e- Here &re & $ew sugges(e" i(e)s (o we&r (o he%* you )&ke i( ou( o$ (he Ne'erne'er &%i'eM A %igh( *&ck <ei(her & b&ck*&ck or %&rge s&(che%= c&n be he%*$u% $or s(oring necess&ry i(e)s- ,&ke sure (o &'oi" %&rge, bu%ky, or he&'y *&cks, &s (hey wi% s%ow you "own when <no( i$ = you nee" (o run $or your %i$e-

M Co)$or(&b%e c%o(hing (h&( co'ers (he &r)s &n" %egs <(he +ri&rs h&'e (horns, &$(er &% =- +e sure (o we&r )u(e" co%ors, &s brigh( or $ %&shy co%ors wi% &((r&c( (he $ey- 5&yers &re &%so s(rong%y reco))en"e", &s (he (e)*er&(ure c&n '&ry 9ui(e "r&s(ic&% y $ro) one *&r( o$ (he Ne'erne'er (o (he ne.(M A *ro(ec(i'e ch&r) )&y re"uce (he ch&nces o$ being e&(en- Co%" iron b%esse" by (he "rui"s "uring & new )oon works bes(, bu( i$ (h&( is no( &'&i%&b%e, & (wis( o$ 1(- 6ohn’s 8or(, & $our-%e&$ c%o'er, or & r&bbi(’s $oo( )igh( he%*- !$ you h&'e none o$ (he &bo'e, we&ring your c%o(hing insi"e ou( )&y work in & *inchM A high-9u&%i(y *&ir o$ cross-(r&iners or running shoes- Re)e)ber, buying (he shoes is no( enough- A s(rong c&r"io *rogr&) is high%y reco))en"e" be$ore crossing in(o (he Ne'erne'er8h&( 1hou%" ! P&ck? !( is & co))on )is(&ke (o (&ke & %&rge nu)ber o$ g&"ge(ry <c&)er&s, ce% *hones, *or(&b%e co)*u(ers, e(c>-= in(o (he Ne'erne'er- The secon" *rob%e) wi(h (hese "e'ices is (h&( (hey wi% no( work we% <i$ &( &% = in ;&ery- The $irs( &n" %&rger *rob%e) is (h&( &ny $ey you ch&nce &cross wi% no( (&ke kin"%y (o (he *resence o$ so )uch )or(&% (echno%ogy, which, in (urn, cou%" %e&" (o & si(u&(ion where (he running shoes )en(ione" &bo'e &re nee"e"+e((er (o s(ick wi(h & $ew si)*%e i(e)sM ;oo"- Any (y*e o$ s)&% , high-c&%oric, *or(&b%e $oo" i(e)s wi% su$$ice- Energy b&rs, c&n"y b&rs, (r&i% )i., "ehy"r&(e" $oo"s, e(c-, wi% e.(en" (he &)oun( o$ (i)e you c&n s*en" in (he Ne'erne'er- <No(eB E.(en"ing (he &)oun( o$ (i)e s*en( in (he Ne'erne'er is no( reco))en"e"-= !( is reco))en"e" (h&( you "o no( e&( &ny(hing you $in" or &re o$$ere" whi%e in (he Ne'erne'er- 1i"e e$$ec(s o$ $&ery $oo" inc%u"e bu( &re no( %i)i(e" (oB )oo" swings, inebri&(ion, )e)ory %oss, sh&*e ch&nging, obsession, co)&, in&bi%i(y (o %e&'e (he Ne'erne'er, &n" "e&(hM 8e&*on o$ s(ee% or co%" iron- ,o"ern s(ee% <e-g-, & kni$e, swor", or o(her i)*%e)en( o$ "e&(h= is ser'ice&b%e in (his reg&r", bu( co%" iron <e-g-, & s*ike $ro) & wrough(-iron $ence, & %eng(h o$ *ig iron, e(c>-= is *re$er&b%e &s i( h&s & )ore "irec( i)*&c( on (he $ey- +e$ore en(ering ;&ery, &n in(ense (r&ining *rogr&) wi(h your chosen we&*on is s(rong%y encour&ge"- 1e'er&% ye&rs o$ (r&ining shou%" be enough (o &"e9u&(e%y *ro(ec( yourse%$ $ro) (he we&kes( $ey- !$ you wish (o *ro(ec( yourse%$ $ro) (he s(ronges( $ey, you wi% nee" se'er&% )or(&% %i$e(i)esM #i$(s $or (he $ey- !$ you encoun(er cre&(ures o$ (he Ne'erne'er, )&ny c&n be won o'er by o$$ering gi$(s, $ree o$ ob%ig&(ion- 1ugges(e" i(e)s inc%u"e /&rs o$ honey, b&gs o$ c&n"y, bron2e we&*ons &n" young chi%"ren- P%e&se check wi(h (he %&ws o$ your ho)e coun(ry be$ore *rocuring &ny o$ (hese i(e)sM 8&(er- 8hi%e )os( o$ (he w&(er in (he Ne'erne'er is "rink&b%e wi(hou( "irec( si"e e$$ec(s, i( is &%so (he ho)e o$ )&ny &9u&(ic $ey o$ (he n&s(ier '&rie(y, &n" "rinking i( or 'en(uring (oo ne&r i( )&y resu%( in nu)erous in"irec( si"e e$$ec(sB n&use&, 'o)i(ing, su""en b%oo" %oss, ine.*%ic&b%e nee" (o $ %ee &n" "e&(hEn(ering (he Ne'erne'er This gui"e wi% no( %&y ou( e.*%ici( "irec(ions on how (o en(er (he Ne'erne'er- The *ub%ishers consu%(e" wi(h (heir %eg&% (e&)s &n" "e(er)ine" (h&( (he &ssoci&(e" %i&bi%i(y o$

such &n &c( w&s, &s one &((orney *u( i(, “Cer(&in (o %e&" (o $in&nci&% ruin $or (his co)*&ny, re*ris&%s $ro) (he 1u))er &n" 8in(er cour(s, &n", 9ui(e *ossib%y, (he en" o$ (he wor%" &s we know i(- 1u$$ice i( (o s&y, one en(ers ;&ery (hrough (ro"s, *&(hs be(ween (he )or(&% re&%) &n" (he re&%) o$ (he $ey- ;in"ing (hose (ro"s is, *er 5eg&%, u* (o youThe #eogr&*hy o$ (he Ne'erne'er The Ne'erne'er is & "i'erse &n" wi%" re&%) *o*u%&(e" by s(r&nge cre&(ures &n" &ncien( *owers- The %&n" i(se%$ is s&i" (o h&'e & consciousness &n" & so)e(i)es )&%icious wi% 8hen (r&'e%ing (hrough (he Ne'erne'er, (here &re $our *ri)&ry re&%)s wi(h which one )&y h&'e (o con(en"M Arc&"i&, (he 1u))erN1ee%ie Cour(- Thick $ores(s, &ncien( hi% s, &n" $ %owering gr&ss%&n"s "o)in&(e Arc&"i&, ho)e o$ (he 1u))er $eyNewco)ers (o (he %&n" o$ (he 1u))er :ing )igh( $&%se%y be%ie'e (h&( 1ee%ie (erri(ory is no( &s "&ngerous &s (he res( o$ (he Ne'erne'er, bu( "o no( be "ecei'e"- Arc&"i& is sunny &n" be&u(i$u% ye&r roun", bu( i( is no( s&$e- 1&(yrs, "ry&"s &n" (ro% s ro&) (he $ores(s o$ Arc&"i&, &n" (he %&kes (ee) wi(h )er)&i"s &n" ni.ies- The 1ee%ie Cour( res(s bene&(h &n enor)ous $&ery )oun", where :ing Oberon &n" 4ueen Ti(&ni& ru%e wi(hou( o**osi(ionM Tir N& Nog, (he 8in(erN7nsee%ie Cour(- The (erri(ory o$ ,&b, (he 8in(er 4ueen, is &s hos(i%e &n" icy &s (he $ey (h&( "we% (here- 1now co'ers e'ery(hing, &n" (he $ro2en woo"s, $ie%"s, s(re&)s &n" %&kes &% res( bene&(h se'er&% inches o$ ice- A% sor(s o$ 'icious cre&(ures c&% (he 8in(er Cour( ho)e, $ro) gob%ins &n" re"c&*s (o bogey)en &n" ogres- The win(er *&%&ce %ies bene&(h &n enor)ous c&'ern, ho)e o$ (he (errib%e 8in(er 4ueen;ew )or(&%s who se( eyes on (he 7nsee%ie Cour( &n" ,&b e'er %i'e (o (e% o$ i(M The wy%"woo"- The "&rk, (&ng%e" $ores( c&% e" (he wy%"woo" is (he %&rges( (erri(ory in (he Ne'erne'er, co)*%e(e%y encirc%ing bo(h cour(s &n" e.(en"ing in(o (he 3ee* 8y%"- !( is neu(r&% (erri(oryA nei(her 1u))er nor 8in(er ho%" sw&y here, &n" (he wy%"woo" "eni2ens owe &% egi&nce (o no one- The woo" is '&s( &n" en"%ess, &n" (he cre&(ures (h&( ro&) (here co)e $ro) e'ery corner o$ (he i)&gin&(ion- No( on%y "oes (his )&ke (he wy%"woo" one o$ (he )os( "&ngerous *%&ces in (he Ne'erne'er, bu( one o$ (he )os( )ys(erious &s we% M The !ron Cour(- 7n(i% recen(%y, no( )uch w&s known &bou( (he )ys(erious e)ergence o$ & new cour( wi(hin (he boun"s o$ ;&ery- One wou%" (hink (h&( & re&%) c&% e" (he !ron :ing"o), born $ro) (he 'ery subs(&nce )os( h&r)$u% (o (he $ey, wou%" be & ru)or &( bes( &n" 9uick%y e.(er)in&(e" &( wors(- +u( such & cour( "oes, &n" is now ru%e" by & young $&ery 9ueen c&% e" ,egh&n Ch&se- The !ron 4ueen is s&i" (o be h&%$ $&ery &n" h&%$ hu)&n, &n" i( is wi(hin her re&%) (h&( you wi% $in" (he s(r&nge &n" won"rous s*ecies known &s (he !ron $ey- These $&eries0$or (hey &re in"ee" (rue $ey0&re (hough( (o h&'e e'o%'e" $ro) )&nkin"’s %o'e o$ (echno%ogy &n" *rogress- Curren(%y, howe'er, no( )uch in$or)&(ion is known &bou( (he)Encoun(ering 3eni2ens o$ (he Ne'erne'er !$ you &re wise, you wi% "o &s %i((%e &s *ossib%e (o "r&w (he &((en(ion o$ (he $ey1o)e(i)es, e'en i$ you &re & 9uie( obser'er, (he $ey wi% $in" you- !$ (his occurs, (here &re & $ew s(e*s you c&n $o% ow (h&( )&y &% ow you (o esc&*e wi(h your $ree wi% &n", i$ you &re %ucky, your %i$e-

M A%w&ys be *o%i(e- 3iscour(esy is & "ee* insu%( (o (he $ey &n" wi% no( be we% recei'e", no )&((er how coo% you (hink i( wi% )&ke you %ookM 3o no( be "ecei'e" by (he *o%i(eness o$ (he $ey- ;ey &re &%)os( &%w&ys *o%i(e- This "oes no( )e&n (hey wi% no( h&**i%y re)o'e your he&"- They wi% , howe'er, be gr&(e$u% $or (he en(er(&in)en( you *ro'i"e"- Or, i$ you &re 'ery un%ucky, (he sus(en&nceM There is no such (hing &s & $ree %unch- !n (he Ne'erne'er, (here is no “$ree- Acce*( no gi$(s, no )&((er how sure you &re (h&( (here &re no s(rings &((&che"- There &re &%w&ys enough s(rings &((&che" (o (ie you u* in & *re((y bow &n" "e%i'er you (o so)eone who wi% be gr&(e$u% $or (he sus(en&nceM #i'e gi$(s $ree%y- The $ey wi% ei(her (hink you &re & )&s(er$u% )&ni*u%&(or &n" res*ec( you )ore, or be co)*%e(e%y be$u""%e" by (he no(ion o$ & gi$( wi(h no ob%ig&(ionsM Ne'er, e'er, un"er &ny circu)s(&nces, en(er in(o & con(r&c( wi(h (he $ey- !( &%w&ys en"s b&"%y &n" o$(en $&(&% y- !n (he r&re c&ses where i( "oes no( en" b&"%y, (h&( is bec&use i( "oes no( en"- You wi% be boun" $or e(erni(yM !$ you h&'e (o run, 2ig &n" 2&g- ,&ny $&eries c&rry bows &n" &rrowsM !$ you ch&nce u*on & big, gr&y c&(, you *rob&b%y owe hi) & $&'or- E'en i$ you "o no( re)e)ber (he $&'or, "o i( &nyw&y- !n (he %ong run, you wi% "o i(, bu( i( wi% be $&r %ess *&in$u% i$ you "o i( u* $ron(How 3o ! 5e&'e ;&ery? The bes( &nswer (o (his 9ues(ion is, 9uick%y- 1*en"ing & %o( o$ (i)e wi(hin (he re&%)s o$ (he Ne'erne'er c&n %e&" (o )&ny s(r&nge e$$ec(s- A $ew )inu(es in ;&ery )&y be ye&rs in (he )or(&% re&%), or (he re'erse )&y be (rue- !$ you %e&'e by & "i$$eren( (ro" (h&n you en(ere", e'en one on%y & $ew $ee( &w&y, you )&y $in" yourse%$ on (he o(her si"e o$ (he wor%", or &( (he bo((o) o$ (he oce&n- Here &re & $ew (hings (o re)e)ber when &((e)*(ing (o %e&'e (he Ne'erne'erM A%w&ys kee* (r&ck o$ how (o re(urn (o (he (ro" $ro) which you en(ere"M Ne'er, e'er &sk $or "irec(ions or & w&y ou(- ,os( $ey wi% he%* you, bu( (hey wi% ch&rge & s(ee* *rice, )os( co))on%y your (ongue, &s (hey "o no( w&n( you (o sh&re (his in$or)&(ion- No(eB !$ (hey e'er c&(ch on (o (e.(ing, (hey )&y s(&r( &sking $or (hu)bs, &s we% M !$ you c&nno( $in" your w&y b&ck (o your origin&% (ro", *urch&se & w&y ou( by using (he gi$(s )en(ione" e&r%ier in (his gui"e- !$ you en(er in(o (his (y*e o$ b&rg&in, )&ke sure (o *hr&se (hings &**ro*ri&(e%y- “!’) %os( &n" c&n’( ge( ho)e, is sure (o %e&" (o (roub%e- Try so)e(hing "i$$eren(, %ike, “!’% *&y (wo /&rs o$ honey (o & $ey who wi% (&ke )e (o (he )or(&% re&%), &%i'e &n" who%e, wi(h )y )in" &n" sou% in(&c(, nei(her *hysic&% y or )en(&% y h&r)e", (o be *%&ce" on so%i" groun" &( &n &%(i(u"e &n" in &n en'iron)en( (h&( c&n re&"i%y sus(&in hu)&n %i$e, no $&r(her (h&n & )i%e $ro) & hu)&n se((%e)en(, &( & (i)e no( )ore (h&n (hir(y )inu(es $ro) now- E'en (hen, be c&re$u%Conc%usion The &bo'e *roce"ures shou%" &$$or" you (he b&res( ch&nce &( sur'i'&% in (he Ne'erne'erThere &re, o$ course, no gu&r&n(ees &n" &ny &n" &% in(er&c(ions wi(h (he "eni2ens o$ ;&ery )us( be h&n"%e" wi(h (he gre&(es( o$ c&re- !$, howe'er, you *rocee" &ccor"ing (o (he

&bo'e, you wi% h&'e & %eg u* on (he o(her )or(&%s who w&n"er $ro) (i)e (o (i)e (hrough (he +ri&rs &n" in(o (he he&r( o$ ;&ery- You h&'e been w&rne"- Procee" &( your own risk4OA 8!TH 675!E :A#A8A, P571 A ;E8 7NEDPECTE3 #7E1T1 4OA 8!TH 675!E :A#A8A, P571 A ;E8 7NEDPECTE3 #7E1T1 J- You’'e (&ken $&ery %ore &n" cre&(e" & uni9ue s*in on i(0 (he !ron $ey- How "i" you co)e u* wi(h (he i"e& $or iron $&eries? 6u%ieB ! &%w&ys %o'e" $&eries <(he "&rk "&ngerous kin", no( (he g%i((ery Tinkerbe% kin"=, bu( when i( c&)e (o wri(ing The !ron :ing, ! s(&r(e" (hinking0wh&( &re (he $ey &$r&i" o$? The &nswer in (r&"i(ion&% )y(hos is iron, so wh&( i$ (here w&s & (y*e o$ $ey who h&" e'o%'e" $ro) (he 'ery (hing $&eries "re&"? Then ! re)e)bere" we &%re&"y h&'e “)ons(ers %i'ing in )&chinesB gre)%ins, bugs, 'iruses &n" so on- An" $ro) (h&( (hough( (he !ron $ey were bornPuckB Ye&h, &n" s*e&king $or &% o$ us nor)&% $ey, ! w&n( (o (h&nk you $or cre&(ing &no(her s*ecies (h&( &c(s %ike our kry*(oni(e, he&'y s&rc&s)AshB ;or once, ! &gree wi(h #oo"$e% ow6u%ieB 8here "i" you (wo co)e $ro)? I- 8ho is your $&'ori(e ch&r&c(er in (he series? Or>i$ (h&(’s (oo h&r", why "o you %ike e&ch one &n" who "ri'es you cr&2y? PuckB 8e% , she %ikes )e bes(, o$ course- !’) (he h&n"so)e, ch&r)ing oneAshB Yes, (h&(’s why she g&'e you your own book- Oh, w&i(PuckB No one &ske" you, ice-boy6u%ieB ! %ike (he) &% in "i$$eren( w&ys- +u( ! wi% s&y (h&( Ash w&s (he h&r"es( ch&r&c(er (o wri(e so)e(i)es- !(’s so h&r" (o ge( hi) (o (&%k! !’% be *ushing hi) (o o*en u* &n" s&y so)e(hing &n" he /us( crosses his &r)s &n" &c(s s(ubbornAshB > 6u%ieB 1ee? P- 8h&( is your $&'ori(e *&r( o$ (he Ne'erne'er? 8here wou%" you %i'e i$ you were & $&ery? 6u%ieB ! w&s going (o s&y (he wy%"woo", bu( on secon" (hough(, ! (hink !’" %i'e in (he !ron Re&%) wi(h ,egh&n &n" AshAshB 1ee? 1he *re$ers )y co)*&ny (o yours6u%ieB No( re&% y- !(’s /us( h&r" (o $in" & wire%ess sign&% in (he wy%"woo"PuckB LsnickerL Q- Origin&% y, (he !ron ;ey w&s )e&n( (o be & (ri%ogy- How "i" The !ron :nigh( co)e &bou(? 6u%ieB The !ron :nigh( c&)e &bou( bec&use ! %o'e 7%(i)&(e Nob%e 1&cri$ice en"ings, &n" )y e"i(or <who is $&n(&s(ic, by (he w&y= %ike" HEAs <H&**i%y E'er A$(ers=- ! h&" & 'ery s*eci$ic ch&r&c(er &rc in )in" $or ,egh&n, &n" !ron 4ueen w&s su**ose" (o be (he en" o$

her /ourney, her &cce*(ing res*onsibi%i(y e'en &( gre&( cos(- +u( )y e"i(or con'ince" )e (h&( we cou%"n’( %e&'e ,eg &n" Ash &*&r(, &n" so ! s(&r(e" work on The !ron :nigh(R- 3o you h&'e & wri(ing rou(ine? Any(hing you )us( h&'eNno( h&'e in or"er (o work? PuckB Here we go6u%ieB ,y rou(ineB 8&ke u*- #e( )orning s(u$$ "one- Turn on %&*(o*- Curse ’c&use i(s no( *icking u* (he rou(er sign&% &g&in- 8&i( (wo )inu(es un(i% i( "oes- Check e)&i%- Check Twi((er- Check o(her e)&i% &ccoun(- Check b%ogs- Ch&( & %i((%e on Twee(3eck- Te% e'eryone !’) o$$ (o wri(e- O*en u* "ocu)en(- 1(&re &( i(- 3eci"e ! nee" )usic (o wri(e (o;i""%e &roun" wi(h )y *%&y%is(- 3eci"e !’) hungry &n" nee" $oo"- ;or&ge in (he ki(chenCo)e b&ck, s(&re &( "ocu)en( & %i((%e %onger- Check e)&i%>- AshB 8hy "on’( you /us( (urn o$$ (he in(erne(? 6u%ieB +ec&use (hen ! cou%"n’( "o &ny rese&rch- PuckB Oh, rese&rch1i% y )e, ! (hough( you were /us( *%&ying &roun" on YouTube6u%ieB 1hu( u*, PuckS- Te% us & %i((%e &bou( o(her (hings (h&( in(eres( you, besi"es wri(ing6u%ieB 8e% , ! en/oy re&"ing, *&in(ing &n" "r&wing, bu( ! &%so %o'e &ni)e, )&ng& &n" co)ics- !’) &n &'i" g&)er0 ! h&'e & P1P, &n Dbo. PST &n" & 8ii- ,y $&'ori(e $oo" in (he who%e wor%" is sushi, &n" !’) (&king c%&sses in 8ing T2un kung $uPuckB LsingingL “E'erybo"y w&s kung $u $igh(ing> 6u%ieB Agh- Ash, s(o* hi) be$ore (h&( song is s(uck in e'eryone’s he&"AshB Too %&(eU- 8ho &re so)e o$ your $&'ori(e &u(hors? 8h&( "o you re&" $or $un? 6u%ieB ! h&'e so )&ny $&'ori(es ! c&n’( %is( (he) &% , bu( Nei% #&i)&n is one &u(hor whose books ! &"ore- ! re&" )os(%y $&n(&sy &n" *&r&nor)&%, bo(h in YA &n" &"u%(, bu( !’) (rying (o br&nch ou( in(o o(her genres, (oo- An" ! %o'e )&ng&, e'en (hough ! c&n (e&r (hrough (he newes( e"i(ion o$ 1hinobi 5i$e in (wen(y )inu(es $ %&(V- +esi"es being & (&%en(e" wri(er, you &re &%so &n &r(is(- 8h&( sor( o$ &r( "o you "o? 6u%ieB ! %ike ske(ching &n" "r&wing, )os(%y c&r(oon-s(y%e &r( wi(h *ens &n" Pris)&co%or )&rkers- ;or ins(&nce, ! "i" & webco)ic on )y b%og wi(h Ash &n" Puck, “chibi s(y%eAshB !( w&s )or(i$yingPuckB +u( you %ooke" so cu(e0 Ow! 6u%ieB ! &%so *&in( rocks- An" !’% %e( you *on"er (h&( one $or yourse%$, %o%W- Any &"'ice $or &s*iring wri(ers? 6u%ieB Persis(- Ne'er s(o* be%ie'ing in yourse%$ or your s(ories- :now (h&( (he ro&" (o *ub%ic&(ion )&y be %ong &n" h&r", bu( (he ones who )&"e i( &re (he ones who ne'er g&'e u*Th&nks, 6u%ie! 47E1T!ON1 ;OR 3!1C711!ON

47E1T!ON1 ;OR 3!1C711!ON J-= Ash begins his /ourney in The !ron :nigh( (o kee* & *ro)ise he )&"e (o ,egh&n Ch&se- How i)*or(&n( is i( (o kee* *ro)ises when circu)s(&nces ch&nge? 7n"er wh&(, i$ &ny, circu)s(&nces wou%" you no( kee* & *ro)ise? I-= Ash &n" Puck h&'e &n in(ense re%&(ionshi* b&se" on & $rien"shi* gone wrong- 8e )igh( c&% (he) $rene)ies- Ash $e%( (h&( Puck w&s res*onsib%e $or Arie% &’s "e&(h in (he *&s(- 3o you be%ie'e Ash w&s /us(i$ie" in )&king his 'ow (o ki% Puck? How wou%" you h&n"%e h&'ing & c%ose $rien" c&use hur( (o &no(her $rien", whe(her &cci"en(&% y or on *ur*ose? P-= !n The !ron :nigh(, we %e&rn o$ (he )&ny (errib%e (hings Ash h&s "one in (he *&s(, inc%u"ing )ur"er- How "i" %e&rning (he "e(&i%s o$ Ash’s *&s( &$$ec( your o*inion o$ hi)? !n re&% %i$e, who "o you be%ie'e "eser'es & secon" ch&nce? Q-= Through Ash’s 9ues( (o g&in & sou%, The !ron :nigh( e.*%ores wh&( i( )e&ns (o be hu)&n, (o h&'e hu)&ni(y- 8h&( &re (he key 9u&%i(ies o$ being hu)&n? 8h&( (r&i(s "o you '&%ue in yourse%$ &n" your $rien"s &n" $&)i%y? R-= !n (he g&un(%e(, Ash, Puck, Arie% & &n" #ri)&%kin $&ce )irror i)&ges o$ (he)se%'es (h&( re*resen( (heir "&rk si"es- 8hy is i( i)*or(&n( (h&( (hey see wh&( (hey )igh( beco)e? How "oes i( he%* Ash (o succee" in his 9ues(? 8hy "i"n’( #ri)&%kin’s re$ %ec(ion $igh( wi(h (he o(hers? S-= Arie% & chooses (o gi'e u* her %i$e so (h&( Ash c&n h&'e & sou%- How )igh( (h&( s&cri$ice &$$ec( Ash in (he $u(ure? !n re&% %i$e, wh&( kin"s o$ s&cri$ices &re wor(h )&king, &n" wh&( )igh( cons(i(u(e going (oo $&r? U-= How "oes Puck ch&nge o'er (he course o$ (he s(ory? 8hy "o you (hink he chose (o co)e wi(h Ash &n" su**or( hi) in his 9ues( (o win (he wo)&n who) Puck &%so %o'es? 8ho "o you be%ie'e shou%" be wi(h ,egh&n, &n" why? V-= One o$ (he *re)ises behin" 6u%ie :&g&w&’s $&ery wor%" is (h&( $&eries &n" beco)e )ore *ower$u% when hu)&ns re)e)ber (he), (e% s(ories &bou( (he) &n" "re&) o$ (he)- 8h&( kin" o$ *ower "o "re&)s &n" (he i)&gin&(ion h&'e on hu)&nkin"? How &re (hey i)*or(&n( in our %i'es?


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