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Summer Knight, Page 26

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-six

  The Nevernever is a big place. In fact, it's the biggest place. The Nevernever is what the wizards call the entirety of the realm of spirit. It isn't a physical place, with geography and weather patterns and so on. It's a shadow world, a magical realm, and its substance is as mutable as thought. It has a lot of names, like the Other Side and the Next World, and it contains within it just about any kind of spirit realm you can imagine, somewhere. Heaven, Hell, Olympus, Elysium, Tartarus, Gehenna - you name it, and it's in the Nevernever somewhere. In theory, at any rate.

  The parts of the Nevernever closest to the mortal world are almost completely controlled by the Sidhe. This part of the spirit realm is called Faerie, and has close ties with our own natural world. As a result, Faerie resembles the real world in a lot of ways. It is fairly permanent and unchanging, for example, and has several versions of weather. But make no mistake - it isn't Earth. The rules of reality don't apply as tightly as they do in our world, so Faerie can be viciously treacherous. Most who go into it never come back.

  And I had a gut feeling that I was running through the heart of Faerie.

  The ground sloped down and grew wetter, softer. The mist swallowed sound quickly behind me, until all I could hear was my own labored breathing. The run made my heart pound, and my wounded hand throbbed painfully. There was a certain amount of exhilaration to the movement, my limbs and muscles stretching and feeling alive after several months of disuse. I couldn't have kept up the pace for long, but luckily I didn't have far to go.

  The lights turned out to be a pair of lit windows in a cottage that stood by itself on a slight rise of ground. Stone obelisks the size of coffins, some fallen and cracked and others still upright, stood scattered in loose rings around the mound. The raven rested on one of them, its beady eyes gleaming. It let out another croaking sound and flew through an open window of the cottage.

  I stood there panting for a minute, trying to get my breath, before I walked up to the door. My flesh began to crawl with a shivering sensation. I took a step back and looked at the house. Stone walls. A thatch roof. I could smell mildew beneath an odor of fresh-baked bread. The door was made of some kind of heavy, weathered wood, and the snowflake symbol I'd seen before had been carved into it. Mother Winter, then. If she was anything like Mab, she would have the kind of power that would give any wizard the creeps. It would just hang in the air around her, like body warmth. Except that it would take a lot of body to feel its warmth through stone walls and a heavy door. Gulp.

  I lifted my hand to knock, and the door swung open of its own accord, complete with a melodramatic Hammer Films whimper of rusting hinges.

  A voice, little more than a creaking whisper, said, "Come in, boy. We have been expecting you. "

  Double gulp. I wiped my palms on my jeans and made sure I had a good grip on both staff and rod before I stepped across the threshold and into the dim cottage.

  The place was all one room. The floor was wooden, though the boards looked weathered and dry. Shelves stood against the stone walls. A loom rested in the far corner, near the fireplace, a spinning wheel beside it. Before the fireplace sat a rocking chair, occupied, squeaking as it moved. A figure sat in it, shrouded in a shawl, a hood, as though someone had animated a bundle of blankets and cloth. On the hearth above the fireplace sat several sets of teeth, more or less human-sized. One looked simple enough, all white and even. The next was rotted-looking, with chipped incisors and a broken molar. The next set had all pointed teeth, stained with bits of rusty brown and what looked like rotten bits of flesh stuck between them. The last was made out of some kind of silvery metal, shining like a sword.

  "Interesting," came the creaking voice from the creaking chair. "Most interesting. Can you feel it?"

  "Uh," I said.

  From the other side of the cottage, a brisk voice tsked, and I spun to face the newcomer. Another woman, stooped with age, blew dust from a shelf and ran a cloth over it before replacing the bottles and jars. She turned and eyed me with glittering green eyes from within a weathered but rosy face. "Of course I do. The poor child. He's walked a thorny path. " The elderly lady came to me and put her hands firmly on either side of my head, peering at either eye. "Scars here, some. Stick out your tongue, boy. "

  I blinked. "Uh?"

  "Stick out your tongue," she repeated in a crisp tone. I did. She peered at my tongue and my throat and said, "Strength, though. And he can be clever, at times. It would seem your daughter chose ably. "

  I closed my mouth and she released my head. "Mother Summer, I presume?"

  She beamed up at me. "Yes, dear. And this is Mother Winter. " She gestured vaguely at the chair by the fire. "Don't be offended if she doesn't get up. It's the wrong season, you know. Hand me that broom. "

  I blinked, then reached over to pick up the ramshackle old broom with a gnarled handle and passed it to Mother Summer. The old lady took it and immediately began sweeping the dusty floor of the old cottage.

  "Bah," whispered Mother Winter. "The dust is just going to come back. "

  "It's the principle of the thing," Summer said. "Isn't that right, boy?"

  I sneezed and mumbled something noncommittal. "Uh, pardon me, ladies. But I wondered if you could answer a few questions for me. "

  Winter's head seemed to turn slightly toward me from within her hood. Mother Summer stopped and eyed me, her grass-green eyes sparkling. "You wish answers?"

  "Yes," I said.

  "How can you expect to get them," Winter wheezed, "when you do not yet know the proper questions?"

  "Uh," I said again. Brilliance incarnate, that's me.

  Summer shook her head and said, "An exchange, then," she said. "We will ask you a question. And for your answer, we will each give you an answer to what you seek. "

  "No offense, but I didn't come here so that you could ask me questions. "

  "Are you sure?" Mother Summer asked. She swept a pile of dust past me and out the door. "How do you know you didn't?"

  Mother Winter's rasping whisper came to me, disgusted. "She'll prattle on all day. Answer us the questions, boy. Or get out. "

  I took a deep breath. "All right," I said. "Ask. "

  Mother Winter turned back to face the fire. "Simply tell us, boy. Which is more important. The body - "

  " - or the soul," Mother Summer picked up. They both fell silent, and I felt their focus on me like the tip of a knife resting against my skin.

  "I suppose that would depend on who was asking whom," I said, finally.

  "We ask," Winter whispered.

  Summer nodded. "And we ask you. "

  I thought about my words for a moment before I spoke.

  I know, it shocked me too.

  "Then I would say that were I old, sick, and dying, I would believe that the soul is more important. And if I was a man about to be burned at the stake in order to preserve his soul, I would believe that the body is more important. "

  The words fell on a long moment of silence. I found myself shifting my feet restlessly.

  "Fairly said," Mother Winter rasped at last.

  "Wise enough," Summer agreed. "Why did you give that answer, boy?"

  "Because it's a stupid question. The answer isn't as simple as one or the other. "

  "Precisely," Summer said. She walked to the fire and withdrew a baking sheet on a long handle. A roundish loaf of bread was on it. She set it on a rack to cool. "This child sees what she does not. "

  "It is not in her nature," Winter murmured. "She is what she is. "

  Mother Summer sighed and nodded. "These are strange times. "

  "Hold on," I said. "What she are you talking about, here? It's Maeve, isn't it?"

  Mother Winter made a quiet wheezing sound that might have been a laugh.

  "I answered your questions," I said. "So pay up. "

  "Patience, boy," Mother Summer said. She took a kettle from a hook by the fireplace and poured tea into
a pair of cups. She dipped what looked like honey into each, then cream, and gave one to Mother Winter.

  I waited until each of them had sipped before I said, "Right, patience expired. I can't afford to wait. Tonight is Midsummer. Tonight the balance begins to tilt back to Winter, and Maeve is going to try to use the Stone Table to steal the Summer Knight's mantle for keeps. "

  "Indeed. Something to be prevented at all costs. " Mother Summer arched an eyebrow. "Then what is your question?"

  "Who killed the Summer Knight? Who stole his mantle?"

  Mother Summer gave me a disappointed glance and sipped her tea.

  Mother Winter lifted her tea to her hood. I still couldn't see her face - but her hand looked withered, the fingers tinged with blue. She lowered her cup and said, "You ask a foolish question, boy. You are more clever than this. "

  I folded my arms. "What is that supposed to mean?"

  Mother Summer frowned at Winter, but said, "It means that who is not as important as why. "

  "And how," Mother Winter added.

  "Think, boy," Summer said. "What has the theft of the mantle accomplished?"

  I frowned. War between the Courts, for one. Odd activity in the magical and natural world alike. But mostly the coming war, Winter and Summer gathering to battle at the Stone Table.

  "Exactly," Winter whispered. The skin on the back of my neck rippled with a cold and unpleasant sensation. Hell's bells, she'd heard me thinking. "But think, wizard. How was it done? Theft is theft, whether the prize is food, or riches, or beauty or power. "

  Since it didn't seem to matter either way, I did my thinking out loud. "When something is stolen a couple of things can happen to it. It can be carried away where it cannot be reached. "

  "Hoarded," Summer put in. "Such as the dragons do. "

  "Yeah, okay. Uh, it can be destroyed. "

  "No, it can't," Mother Winter said. "Your own sage tells you that. The German fellow with the wild hair. "

  "Einstein," I muttered. "Okay, then, but it can be rendered valueless. Or it can be sold to someone else. "

  Mother Summer nodded. "Both of which are change. "

  I held up a hand. "Hold it, hold it. Look, as I understand it, this power of the Summer Knight, his mantle, it can't just exist on its own. It has to be inside a vessel. "

  "Yes," Winter murmured. "Within one of the Queens, or within the Knight. "

  "And it isn't with one of the Queens. "

  "True," Summer said. "We would sense it, were it so. "

  "So it's already in another Knight," I said. "But if that was true, there'd be no imbalance. " I scratched at my head, and as I did it slowly dawned on me. "Unless it had been changed. Unless the new Knight had been changed. Transformed into something else. Something that left the power trapped, inert, useless. "

  Both of them regarded me steadily, silently.

  "All right," I said. "I have my question. "

  "Ask it," they said together.

  "How does the mantle pass on from one Knight to the next?"

  Mother Summer smiled, but the expression was a grim one. "It returns to the nearest reflection of itself. To the nearest vessel of Summer. She, in turn, chooses the next Knight. "

  That meant that only one of the Queens of Summer could be behind it. Titania was out already - she had begun the war against Mab because she didn't know where the mantle was. Mother Summer would not have been telling me this information if she'd been the one to do it. That left only one person.

  "Stars and stones," I muttered. "Aurora. "

  The two Mothers set down their teacups together. "Time presses," Summer said.

  "That which must not be may be," Winter continued.

  "You, we judge, are the one who may set things aright once more - "

  " - if you are strong enough. "

  "Brave enough. "

  "Whoa, hold your horses," I said. "Can't I just bring this out to Mab and Titania?"

  "Beyond talk now," Mother Winter said. "They go to war. "

  "Stop them," I said. "You two have to be stronger than Mab and Titania. Make them shut up and listen to you. "

  "Not that simple," Winter said.

  Summer nodded. "We have power, but bound within certain limits. We cannot interfere with the Queens or Ladies. Not even on a matter so dire as this. "

  "What can you do?"

  "I?" Summer said. "Nothing. "

  I frowned and looked from her to Mother Winter.

  One aged, cracked hand lifted and beckoned me. "Come closer, boy. "

  I started to say no. But my feet moved without asking the rest of me, and I knelt in front of Mother Winter's rocking chair. I couldn't see her, even from here. Even her feet were covered by layers of dark cloth. But on her lap rested a pair of knitting needles, and a simple square of cloth, trailing thick threads of grey, undyed wool. Mother Winter reached down with her withered hands, and took up a pair of rusted shears. She cut the trailing threads and passed me the cloth.

  I took it, again without thinking. It felt soft, cold as if it had been in a refrigerator, and it tingled with a subtle, dangerous energy.

  "It isn't tied off," I said quietly.

  "Nor should it be," Winter said. "It is an Unraveling. "

  "A what?"

  "An unmaking, boy. I am the unmaker, the destroyer. It is what I am. Bound within those threads is the power to undo any enchantment done. Touch the cloth to that which must be undone. Unravel the threads. It will be so. "

  I stared at the square cloth for a moment, Then asked quietly, "Any enchantment? Any transformation?"

  "Any. "

  My hands started shaking. "You mean . . . I could use this to undo what the vampires did to Susan. Just wipe it away. Make her mortal again. "

  "You could, Emissary. " Mother Winter's tone held a bone-dry amusement.

  I swallowed and rose, folding up the cloth. I slipped it into my pocket, careful not to let any threads trail out. "Is this a gift?"

  "No," Winter rasped. "But a necessity. "

  "What am I supposed to do with it?"

  Mother Summer shook her head. "It is yours now, and yours to employ. We have reached the limits of how we may act. The rest is yours. "

  "Make haste," Winter whispered.

  Mother Summer nodded. "No time remains. Be swift and wise, mortal child. Go with our blessings. "

  Winter withdrew her frail hands into the sleeves of her robe. "Do not fail, boy. "

  "Hell's bells, no pressure," I muttered. I gave each of them a short bow and turned for the door. I stepped over the threshold of the cottage and said, "Oh, by the way. I apologize if we did any harm to your unicorn on the way in. "

  I looked back to see Mother Summer arch a brow. Winter's head shifted, and I could see the gleam of light on yellow teeth. Her voice rasped, "What unicorn?"

  The door shut, again of its own accord. I glowered at the wood for a moment and then muttered, "Freaking weirdo faerie biddies. " I turned and started back the way I had come. The Unraveling was a cool weight in my pocket, and promised to get uncomfortably chilly if I left it there too long.

  The thought of the Unraveling made me walk faster, excitement skipping through me. If what the Mothers said was true, I'd be able to use the cloth to help Susan, which was something just this side of divine intervention. All I had to do was to finish up this case, and then I could go find her.

  Of course, I thought sourly, finishing up this case was likely to kill me. The Mothers may have given me some insight, and a magic doily, but they sure as hell hadn't given me a freaking clue as to how to resolve this - and, I realized, they hadn't really said, "Aurora did it. " I knew they had to speak the truth to me, and their statements had led me to that conclusion - but how much of it was this mysterious prohibition from direct involvement and how much of it had been another fistful of faerie trickery?

  "Make haste," I rasped, trying to impersonate Winter's v
oice. "We have reached the limits," I said, mimicking Summer. I quickened my pace, and frowned over that last little comment Winter had made. She had taken an almost palpable glee in making it, as though it had given her an opening she wouldn't otherwise have had.

  What unicorn?

  I gnawed over the question. If it was indeed a statement of importance, not just a passing mutter, then it had to mean something.

  I frowned. It meant that there hadn't been a guardian around the little cottage. Or at least not one Mother Winter had put there.

  So who had?

  The answer hit me low in the gut, a sensation of physical sickness coming along with the realization. I stopped and clawed for my Sight.

  I didn't get to it before Grum came out from under a veil, Elaine standing close behind him. He caught me flat-footed. The ogre drove a sledgehammer fist toward my face. There was a flash of impact, a sensation of falling, and cool earth beneath my cheek.

  Then the scent of Elaine's subtle perfume.

  Then blackness.