Cold days, p.35
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       Cold Days, p.35

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “Oh, will you?” said Mother Winter in a low, deadly whisper. Her overlong nails scraped at the wood on her chair’s arms. “Is that what you think, my lamb?”

  Mother Summer arched an eyebrow and eyed Mother Winter. “You test his defiance against his very life, and yet when he passes you are surprised he does not leap to do your bidding?” She made another disapproving clucking sound. “He is brave. And he is courteous. I will show him what you ask—if he is willing.”

  Winter bared her teeth and spit again, into the same hole, and more earth hissed and melted away. She started rocking back and forth, slowly, and turned her gaze elsewhere.

  I picked up the last fallen pot and was about to put it away when I frowned. “Oh. I’m sorry, but there’s a crack in this one.”

  I never heard or saw any movement, but suddenly Mother Summer was there beside me, and her bony, capable hands were wrapping warmly around mine. Her touch was like Lily’s but . . . gentler and more vast. It made me think of miles and miles of prairie soaking up the summer sun’s heat, storing it through the day, only to give it back to the air in the long hours of twilight.

  As gently as if handling a newborn, she took the little clay pot from me and turned it slowly in her fingers, examining it. Then she exhaled slowly, closed her eyes for a moment, and then put it reverently back onto the shelf.

  When she took her hands from the little pot, I saw letters written in silvery light upon it and upon neighboring pots, as if the letters had been awakened by the warmth of her hands.

  The writing on the cracked pot said simply, Wormwood.

  The letters began to fade, but I saw some of the others: Typhos. Pox. Atermors. Choleros. Malaros.

  Typhus. Smallpox. The Black Death. Cholera. Malaria.

  And Wormwood.

  And there were lots of other jars on the shelf.

  My hands started shaking a little.

  “It is not yet the appointed time for that one to be born,” Mother Summer said quietly, and her hard eyes flicked toward Mother Winter.

  She didn’t look back toward us, but her teeth gleamed from within her hood.

  Mother Summer slipped her hand through my arm. I gave it to her more or less out of reflex, and walked across the cottage. She picked up her basket and then we went to the door. I opened it for her and offered her my arm again, and we walked together out of the cottage and into a modest clearing surrounded by ancient forest with trees the size of redwoods. They blazed with the colors of fall, their leaves carpeting the forest floor in glorious fire as far as the eye could see. It was gorgeous, but it wasn’t anywhere on Earth.

  “I think she likes you, young man.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I could tell, because of the cleaver.”

  “It is her way,” Mother Summer said, smiling. “She rarely leaves our cottage anymore. She lost her walking stick. While your summons was impertinent, it was a necessity and you had the right. But it is terribly painful for her to travel, even briefly. You, a mortal, hurt her.”

  Mother Summer’s words made the whole chopped-up-for-stew-meat situation more understandable. Beings like Mother Winter tormented mortals—not the other way around. I’d injured her pride along with the rest of her, and in the supernatural world such insults were rarely forgiven and never forgotten.

  “She was balancing the scales,” I said quietly. “Is that what you mean?”

  Mother Summer nodded approval. “You phrase it simply, but not incorrectly.” She stopped and turned to look up at me. “She cannot take you to the places we must walk if you are to understand.”

  “Understand what?” I asked.

  Her green eyes reflected the colors of the autumn forest. “What is at stake,” she said. “If you choose to walk with me, what is seen cannot be unseen, and what is known cannot be unknown. It may harm you.”

  “Harm me how?” I asked.

  “You may never know a night’s peace again. Knowledge is power, young man. Power to do good and power to do harm. Some knowledge can hurt. Some can kill.”

  “What happens if I don’t have it?”

  Mother Summer smiled, a gentle sadness in her eyes. “You keep the bliss of ignorance—and consign our fates to fickle chance. Do not choose lightly.”

  I pondered it for, like, ten whole seconds.

  I mean, come on.

  I’m a freaking wizard, people.

  “It’s better to know than not know,” I said quietly.

  “Why?” Mother Summer challenged.

  “Because you can’t truly make a choice without knowledge, ma’am.”

  “Even if it may haunt you? Harm you? Isolate you?”

  I thought about it some more and then said, “Especially then. Show me.”

  An emotion flickered across Mother Summer’s face—gentle pain and regret.

  “So be it,” she said quietly. “Come with me.”

  Chapter

  Thirty-three

  I walked into the ancient forest with Mother Summer on my arm, following a wide, meandering footpath.

  “Do you mind if I ask you a question while we walk?” Mother Summer asked.

  “Not at all, ma’am,” I said.

  “What do you suppose will happen to you if you do not heed Mab’s command?”

  “Command?” I asked.

  “Don’t be coy, child,” Mother Summer sniffed. “What my counterpart knows, I know. Mab commanded you to slay Maeve. What do you think will happen if you disobey her?”

  I walked for a while before I answered, “It depends whether or not Mab’s still around when the smoke clears, I guess,” I said. “If she is . . . she’ll be upset. I’ll wind up like Lloyd Slate. If she isn’t . . .”

  “Yes?”

  “Maeve assumes Mab’s mantle and becomes the new Winter Queen.”

  “Exactly,” Mother Summer said. “In time, the difference will hardly show. But in the immediate future . . . how do you think Maeve will treat you?”

  I opened my mouth and closed it again. I could imagine that vividly enough—Maeve, high as a kite on her newfound power, giggling and tormenting and killing left and right just because she could do it. Maeve was the sort who lived to pull the wings off of flies.

  And I was pretty sure whose wings would be the first to catch her eye.

  “Well, crap,” I said.

  “Quite so,” said Mother Summer. “And if you do heed Mab’s command?”

  “Maeve’s mantle gets passed on to someone else,” I said. “And if . . . the adversary? Can I say that safely?”

  Mother Summer smiled. “That’s why we use that word rather than a name, Sir Knight. Yes.”

  “If the adversary has taken Mab,” I said, “then it gets to choose an agent to take the Winter Lady’s mantle. Two-thirds of the Winter Court will be under its influence.” I looked back toward the cottage. “And that seems like it might be bad for Mother Winter.”

  “Indeed,” said Mother Summer. “We are all vulnerable to those who are close to us.”

  “I never figured Granny Cleaver was close to anyone, ma’am.”

  The lines at the corners of Mother Summer’s eyes deepened. “Oh, she . . . What is the phrase? She talks a good game. But in her own way, she cares.”

  I may have arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Kind of like how, in her own way, she likes me?” I asked.

  Mother Summer didn’t answer that, as our steps carried us into a more deeply shadowed section of the forest. “It is at times very difficult to be so closely interwoven with mortals,” she said.

  “For you?”

  “For all of Faerie,” she replied.

  “What do you mean?”

  She gestured at herself. “We appear much as humans, do we not? Most of our folk do—or else they resemble another creature of the mortal world. Hounds, birds, stags, and so forth.”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “You are endlessly fascinating. We conceive our children with mortals. We move and sway in time to the mortal seasons.
We dance to mortal music, make our homes like mortal dwellings, feast upon mortal foods. We find parts of ourselves becoming more like them, and yet we are not like them. Many of the things they think and feel, and a great many of their actions, are inexplicable to us.”

  “We don’t really understand ourselves all that well yet,” I said. “I think it would be very difficult for you to do it.”

  Mother Summer smiled at me, and it felt like the first warm day of spring. “That’s true, isn’t it?”

  “But you’ve got a point to make, ma’am,” I said. “Or you wouldn’t have brought up the subject.”

  “I do,” she said. “Winter is cold, Sir Knight, but never so cold that it freezes the heart altogether.”

  “You’ve got to have a heart before it can freeze, ma’am.”

  “You do.”

  I walked for a little while, considering that. “You’re saying that I have a chance to stay me.”

  “I’m saying many things,” Mother Summer said. “Do you have a chance to remain yourself despite the tendency of the mantle to mold your thoughts and desires? All Knights, Winter and Summer, have that chance. Most fail.”

  “But it’s possible,” I said.

  She looked up at me and her eyes were deeper than time. “Anything is possible.”

  “Ah,” I said, understanding. “We’re not really talking about me.”

  “We are,” she said serenely, turning her eyes away. “And we are not.”

  “Uh,” I said. “I’m getting a little confused here. What are we talking about, exactly?”

  Mother Summer smiled at me.

  And then she just clammed up.

  We are? We’re not?

  I kept a straight face while my inner Neanderthal spluttered and then went on a mental rampage through a hypothetical produce section, knocking over shelves and splattering fruit everywhere in sheer frustration, screaming, “JUST TELL ME WHOSE SKULL TO CRACK WITH MY CLUB, DAMMIT!”

  Flippin’ faeries. They will be the death of me.

  “In the spirit of balanced scales,” I said, “would it be all right if I asked you a question, ma’am?”

  “I welcome the question. I make no promises as to the answer.”

  I nodded. “Who are you, really?”

  Mother Summer stopped in her tracks and turned to look at me. Her eyebrows slowly lifted. “That is a very significant question.”

  “I know,” I said. “Blame it on Halloween.”

  “Why should I do that?”

  I shrugged, and we began walking again. “It’s just got me thinking: masks. I know of one figure from ancient tales who is alive and well and incognito. Why shouldn’t there be more?”

  Mother Summer inclined her head, more a gesture of acknowledgment or admission than agreement. “Things change,” she said. “Immortals deal poorly with change. But it comes to everyone.”

  “I called Mother Winter by the names Athropos and Skuld because they seemed to fit her,” I said. “I mean, she likes her sharp implements, apparently.”

  Mother Summer’s smile appeared for a moment, dazzling me, and then was gone again. “It was not an imbecilic guess,” she said. “And, yes, she has been known by such names before. But you’ve only guessed the name of one of her masks—not our most powerful name.”

  “Our?” I said. “Wait. I’m confused.”

  “I know,” she said. “Here we are.”

  We stopped in the middle of a forest path that didn’t look any different from anything around it. Mother Summer stopped and frowned at me. “You really aren’t dressed for the climate.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I can handle cold.”

  She let go of my arm, looked me up and down, then put a hand on the handle of the basket she carried over one arm and said, “Something a little less . . . informal would be appropriate, I think.”

  I’ve played Ken doll to a faerie fashion adviser before, so I wasn’t entirely shocked when my clothing began to writhe and simply change. When the Leanansidhe had done it, I’d sat in the car for half an hour suffering through one fanciful and undignified outfit after another. Not this time.

  My clothes transformed from cloth into custom-fitted steel. Well, probably not steel, but whatever the equivalent was that the Sidhe used in their armor. The armor was plain and functional with no ornaments on it—a breastplate, vambraces, and large pauldrons for my shoulders. Heavy tassets hung from the bottom of the breastplate, protecting my thighs. My lower legs were covered with greaves, front and back. The armor was black and gleaming, and where light fell directly on it, you could see shades of deep purple and dark blue.

  I realized that I was holding a helmet under my left arm, and I took it in both hands to look at it. It was a Corinthian helm, like they wore in that movie about the Spartans, only without the fancy tail. It was padded on the inside. I slipped it on, and it fit perfectly.

  “Much better,” said Mother Summer. “Stay near me at all times.”

  I looked around the perfectly serene forest. It was a bit of an effort, since the helmet kept me from turning my head very smoothly. I looked up, too. I’m sure the armor made me look goofy. “Uh, okay.”

  Mother Summer smiled, took my arm again, and stretched out one foot. She used it to brush a layer of dirt and fallen leaves from the pitted surface of a flat stone, like a paving stone, maybe three feet square. She tapped it three times with her foot, whispered a word, and drew me along with her as she stepped onto it.

  No drama ensued. The landscape simply changed, as swiftly and drastically as when you turn on a light while in a darkened room. One second we stood in an autumnal megaforest. The next . . .

  I’ve seen movies and newsreels about World War I. They didn’t cover it as thoroughly in my schools, because America didn’t have a leading role in it, and because the entire stupid, avoidable mess was a Continental clusterfuck that killed millions and settled nothing but the teams for the next world war. But what they did show me I remembered. Miles and miles of trenches. A smoke-haunted no-man’s-land strung with muddy, rusty barbed wire and lined with machine guns and marksmen. There was a pall of smoke that turned the sun into a dully glowing orb.

  But the movies couldn’t cover all the senses. There was a constant rumble in the sky, thunder born of violence, and there was everywhere the smell of feces and death.

  We stood atop a small, barren mountain, looking down. Near us, only a few hundred yards away, was an immense wall, the kind you’d use to hold out the Mongols if they were the size of King Kong. It was built entirely from ice or some kind of translucent crystal. Even from here, I could see that there were chambers and rooms in the wall, rooms containing barracks, hospitals, kitchens, you name it. There were dim and indistinct forms moving around in them.

  The walls were lined with what had to be tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers. I peered, trying to get a better look, and then realized that they were armored Sidhe.

  All of them.

  They all wore armor similar to mine, its highlights throwing back the cool, muted shades of Winter.

  Out beyond the wall was a land made of dust and mud and loose shale. It was covered in hillocks and steep gullies, and the only plants that grew there looked like they were certain to poke, scratch, or sting you. Though the land was somehow lit, the sky was as black as Cat Sith’s conscience, without a single star or speck of light to be seen—and it was an overwhelming sky, enormous, like in the open, rolling lands of Montana and Wyoming.

  There were more bodies of troops moving out there. Some of them looked like they might have been giants, or maybe trolls. Larger groups containing smaller individuals were likely Winter’s gnomes. Things flew in the air. Bands of what appeared to be mounted cavalry rode back and forth. Some of the soldiers looked suspiciously like animated snowmen.

  From this vantage point, I could see two major engagements happening, each containing maybe forty thousand Winter troops. And they were fighting. . . .

>   I couldn’t make out the enemy. There didn’t seem to be any unity of form. They were creatures—creatures whose physiologies made no sense, were utterly without order. I saw what appeared to be tentacles, enormous mandibles, claws, fangs, clublike limbs and tails. They weren’t bipedal. They weren’t quadrupeds. In fact, they seemed to have no regard for bilateral symmetry at all.

  I peered a little closer and felt a sudden, horrible pressure inside my head. I felt dizzy for a second, nauseated, and at the same time part of me was screaming that I needed to ditch my escort and go look at these things for myself, that there was something there, something I wanted to see, something I wanted to stare at for a while. A cold, somehow greasy tendril of energy slithered around inside my head, something I had felt before when . . .

  I jerked my eyes away with a short grunt of effort, closed them, and left them closed. “Holy . . . Outsiders? Mab’s fighting Outsiders?”

  Mother Summer said nothing.

  “I don’t . . . I don’t understand,” I said finally. “White Council intelligence always estimated Mab’s troop count at around fifty thousand. There are freaking formations out there with more troops in them than that.”

  Mother Summer said nothing. But she did lift a finger and point off to the left. I looked, and saw a pair of towers the size of the Chrysler Building rising up over the wall. Between them was a pair of gates.

  The gates were something amazing to look at. They were huge, bigger than most Chicago apartment buildings. They were made of a darker shade of the same ice or crystal, and there were designs and sigils carved into them, layer after layer after layer. I recognized a couple of the ones I could see clearly. They were wards, protective enchantments.

  There was a sudden sound, a rising moan, like the wind shaking trees or surf striking a cliff wall—and the horizon outside the walls was suddenly lined with dark, grotesque figures, all of them charging forward, toward the Winter troops.