Cold days, p.36
Cold Days, p.36Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
Faint horn calls sounded, clear and valiant. Winter’s troops began to retreat back toward the gates, gathering into a great arch on the ground outside them, locking their formation into place while cavalry harassed the oncoming Outsiders, slowing their advance. Then the cavalry streaked from their engagement, passing safely through the lines of infantry to come riding back through the gates.
The Outsiders came on and crashed against the Winter lines. Battle ensued. From this far away, it just looked like a big, confusing mess, with everyone jostling for a better position, but I could see a few things. I saw an ogre go down when an Outsider spit acid that started eating through his eyes into his skull. I saw the Winter lines falter, and the Outsiders began pouring reinforcements into the weakness.
Then a small crew of goblins exploded out of a pile of shale at precisely the right moment, when the Outsiders were pressed almost into the Winter lines, but before reinforcements arrived. The surprise attack drove the Outsiders forward, when I could see that the “weak” regiment had been playing the Outsiders for suckers, falling back, but doing so in good order. The Outsiders had overreached themselves, and were now surrounded on all four sides by the savage troops of Winter.
The would-be invaders didn’t make it.
And that was only a tiny fraction of the battle. My senses and mind alike simply could not process everything I was seeing. But my heart was beating very swiftly, and frozen fear had touched my spine like Mab’s fingers.
The Outsiders wanted in.
“When?” I asked. “When did this start?”
“Oh, Harry,” Mother Summer said gently.
“What?” I asked. But I had noticed something. Those layers and mounds of shale? They weren’t shale.
They were bones.
Millions and millions and millions of fucktons of bones.
“What the hell is going on here?” I breathed. “Where are we?”
“The edge of Faerie,” she said. “Our outer borders. It would have taken you a decade to learn to travel out this far.”
“Oh,” I said. “And . . . and it’s like this?”
“In essence,” Mother Summer said. She stared sadly out over the plain. “Did you think Mab spent all her days sitting in her chair and dealing with her backstabbing courtiers? No, Sir Knight. Power has purpose.”
“What happens if they get in?” I asked.
Mother Summer’s lips thinned. “Everything stops. Everything.”
“Holy crap,” I muttered. “Does Summer have a place like this, too, then?”
Mother Summer shook her head. “That was never its task. Your Council’s estimate was fairly close, counting only those troops protecting the hearts of Winter and Summer. Mab has more than that. She needs them—for this.”
I felt like I’d been hit repeatedly in the head with a rubber hammer. “So . . . Mab’s troops outnumber yours by a jillion.”
“So she could run you over at any time.”
“She could,” Mother Summer said, “if she were willing to forfeit reality.”
I scanned the length of the wall nervously. It looked like it went on forever—and there was fighting all along its length.
“You’re telling me that this is why Mab has her power? To . . . to protect the borders?”
“To protect all of you from the Outsiders, mortal.”
“Then why does Titania have hers?” I asked.
“To protect all of you from Mab.”
“Titania cannot match Mab’s forces, but she can drag Mab personally into oblivion with her—and Mab knows it. Titania is the check to her power, the balance.”
“If Mab dies . . .” I began.
She swept a hand along the length of the wall. “A spoiled, sadistic, murderous, and inexperienced child will have control of all of that.”
Hell’s bells. I rubbed at my eyes, and as I did, I connected some dots and realized something else.
“This is a siege,” I said. “Those guys out there are attacking the walls. But there are others trying to dig their way in so that they can open the gates for their buddies. That’s what the adversary is. Right? A sapper, an infiltrator.”
Mother Summer said, “There, you see? You possess the potential to be quite intelligent. Do stay beside me, dear.” And she started walking firmly toward the massive gates.
It didn’t take us long to get there, but as we came up to the base of the wall and walked along it, we started drawing the eyes of the wall’s defenders. I felt myself growing tenser as a marching column of armored Sidhe soldiers came stepping lightly along the ground behind us, catching up quickly.
Mother Summer guided me slightly aside so that we weren’t in the column’s way, and they started going by us. I didn’t think much of it until someone at the front of the column called out in a clear voice, and as one the Sidhe came to a halt with a solid, simultaneous stomp of a couple of hundred boots. The voice barked another command, and the Sidhe all turned to face us.
“Uh-oh,” I said.
Mother Summer touched my hand with hers, and reassurance bathed me like June sunshine. “Shhh.”
The voice barked another command, and as one the Sidhe lowered themselves to one knee and bowed their heads.
“Good morrow, cousins,” Mother Summer said, her voice solemn. She took her hand off my arm and passed it in a broad, sweeping arch over the kneeling soldiers. Subtle, subtle power thrummed delicately in the air. “Go forth with my blessing.”
One of the soldiers in the lead of the column rose and bowed to her, somehow conveying gratitude. Then he snapped out another loud command, and the column rose, turned, and continued its quickstep march.
“Huh,” I said.
“Yes?” asked Mother Summer.
“I was sort of expecting . . . something else.”
“Winter and Summer are two opposing forces of our world,” she said. “But we are of our world. Here, that is all that matters. And showing respect to one’s elders is never unwise.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Mother Summer gave me a small, shrewd smile.
We continued our walk in their wake, and soon reached the gates. There I saw a smaller set of gates—sally ports—built into the main gates. They were the size of the garage doors on a fire station. As I watched, someone shouted a command and a pair of heavily armored ogres each grabbed one of the sally ports and drew it open. The column that had passed us stood waiting to march out, but they did not immediately proceed. Instead, a column of carts and litters entered, bearing the groaning wounded of the fighting outside, being watched over by several dozen Sidhe dressed in pure white armor, marked with bold green and scarlet trim—Sidhe knights of Summer. Medics. Despite the massive numbers of troops I’d seen moving around, there were fewer than a hundred casualties brought back to the gates. Evidently the Outsiders were not in the business of leaving enemies alive behind them.
A lean figure came down a stairway built within the walls framing the gates, at first a shadowy blur through the layers and layers of crystal. He was a couple of inches taller than me, which put him at the next-best thing to seven feet, but he moved with a brisk, bustling sense of energy and purpose. He wore a dark robe that looked black at first, but as he emerged into the light, highlights showed it to be a deep purple. He carried a long pale wizard’s staff in one weathered hand, and his hood covered up most of his face, except for part of an aquiline nose and a long chin covered in a grizzled beard.
He spoke to the Summer and Winter Sidhe alike in a language I didn’t understand but they evidently did, giving instructions to Summer’s medics. They took his orders with a kind of rigid, formal deference. He leaned over to scan each of the fallen closely, nodding at the medics after each, and they would immediately carry the wounded Sidhe in question back behind the wall, into what looked like a neat triage area.
“Rashid,” I murmured, recognizing the man. “What is he doing here—”
Rashid, a member of the Senior Council of the White Council of Wizards, had another title, the name he went by most often.
He finished with the last of the wounded, then turned and approached us with long, purposeful strides. He paused a few steps away and bowed to Mother Summer, who returned the gesture with a deep, formal nod of her head. Then he came the rest of the way to me, and I could see the gleam of a dark eye inside his hood. His smile was wide and warm, and he extended his hand to me. I took it and shook it, feeling a little overwhelmed.
“Well, well,” he said. His voice was a deep, warm thing, marked with an accent that sounded vaguely British seasoned with plenty of more exotic spices. “I had hoped we would see your face again, Warden.”
“Rashid,” I replied. “Uh . . . we’re . . . they’re . . .”
The Gatekeeper’s smile turned a bit rueful. “Ah, yes,” he said. “They’re impressive the first time, I suppose. Welcome, Warden Dresden, to the Outer Gates.”
“The Outer Gates aren’t real,” I said numbly. “They’re a . . . They’re supposed to be a metaphor.”
Mother Summer smiled very faintly. “I’ll leave mortal business to mortals,” she said. “I’ll be nearby, young wizard.”
“Um,” I said. “Thank you.”
She nodded and walked away toward the wounded Sidhe.
“Well,” the Gatekeeper said to me. He seemed . . . if not precisely cheerful, it was something that lived on the same block—positive, confident, and strong. “You’ve managed to travel a very long way from home.”
“Mother Summer drove,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. “Still, I can’t recall the last time a wizard of your age managed the trip, however it was done. You take after your mother.”
I blinked. “You knew her?”
“Those of us who spend any amount of time walking the Ways tend to develop a certain amount of camaraderie. We would have dinner every so often, compare notes of our walks. And there were several of us who were friends of Ebenezar who . . . took it upon ourselves to watch over her.”
I nodded, keeping my face as blank as I could. It was not general knowledge that Maggie LeFey had been Ebenezar’s daughter. If Rashid knew, it was because my grandfather trusted him.
The fresh armored column of Sidhe began to move out, and as they did, horns began to call in the land beyond. Rashid turned his head toward them, listening as if to a spoken language, and the smile faded from his mouth.
“They’re massing again,” he said. “I have little time.” He reached up and did something I’d seen him do only once before.
The Gatekeeper lowered his hood.
He had short hair that was still thick and gleamed silver, but his features were weathered, as if from long years under harsh sunlight. His skin was paler now, but there was still something of the desert on his skin. His face was long, his brows still dark and full. He had a double scar on his left eyebrow and cheek, two long lines that went straight down, a lot like mine, only deeper and thicker and all the way to his jawline, and they were much softer with long years of healing. Maybe he hadn’t been as good at flinching as I was, because he’d lost the eye beneath the scar. One of his eyes was nearly black, it was so dark. The other had been replaced with . . .
I looked around me. Yes, definitely. The other eye had been replaced with the crystalline material that was identical to that which had been used to create the gates and the walls around them.
“Steel,” I said.
“Pardon?” he asked.
“Your, uh, other eye. It was steel before.”
“I’m sure it looked like steel,” he said. “The disguise is necessary when I’m not here.”
“Your job is so secret, your false eye gets a disguise?” I asked. “Guess I see why you miss Council meetings.”
He inclined his head and ruffled his fingers through mussed, tousled hood-hair. “It can be quiet for years here, sometimes. And others . . .” He spread his hands. “But they need a good eye here to be sure that the things that must remain outside do not slip in unnoticed.”
“Inside the wounded,” I guessed. “Or returning troops. Or medics.”
“You’ve become aware of the adversary,” he said, his tone one of firm approval. “Excellent. I was certain your particular pursuits would get you killed long before you got a chance to learn.”
“How can I help?” I asked him.
He leaned his head back and then a slow smile reasserted itself on his face. “I know something of the responsibilities you’ve chosen to take up,” he said, “to say nothing of the problems you’ve created for yourself that you haven’t found out about yet. And still, in the face of learning that our world spins out its days under siege, you offer to help me? I think you and I could be friends.”
“Wait,” I said. “What problems? I haven’t been trying to create problems.”
“Oh,” he said, waving a hand. “You’ve danced about in the shadows at the edge of life now, young man. That’s no small thing, to go into those shadows and come back again—you’ve no idea the kind of attention you’ve attracted.”
“Oh,” I said. “Good. Because the pace was starting to slow down so much that I was getting bored.”
At that, Rashid tilted his head back and laughed. “Would you be offended if I called you Harry?”
“No. Because it’s my name.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Harry, I know you have questions. I can field a very few before I go.”
I nodded, thinking. “Okay,” I said. “First, how do you know if the adversary has . . . infested someone?”
“Experience,” he said. “Decades of it. The Sight can help, but . . .” Rashid hesitated. I recognized it instantly, the hiccup in one’s thoughts when one stumbled over a truly hideous memory gained with the Sight, like I’d had with—
“I don’t recommend making a regular practice of it,” he continued. “It’s an art, not a skill, and it takes time. Time, or a bit of questionable attention from the Fates and a ridiculously enormous tool.” He tapped a finger against his false eye.
I blinked, even though he didn’t, and looked up at the massive gates stretching overhead. “Hell’s bells. The gates . . . they’re . . . some kind of spiritual CAT scanner?”
“Among many other things,” he said. “But it’s one of their functions, yes. Mostly it means that the adversary cannot use such tactics effectively here. As long as the Gatekeeper is vigilant, it rarely tries.” The horns sounded again, and the muscles in his jaw tensed. “Next question.”
I hate trying to be smart under time pressure. “This,” I said, pointing up at the gates. “What the hell? How long has this attack been going on?”
“Always,” he said. “There are always Outsiders trying to tear their way in. There are always forces in place to stop them. In our age, it is the task of Winter to defend these boundaries, with the help of certain others to support them. Think of them as . . . an immune system for the mortal world.”
I felt my eyes get wide. “An immune system . . . What happens if it . . . you know, if it breaks down for a bit?”
“Pardon?” the Gatekeeper asked.
“Uh, it gets a glitch. Like, if somebody new took over or something and things had to reorganize around here . . .”
“Most years, it would pose no major difficulty,” he said.
“What about this year?”
“This year,” he said, “it could be problematic.”
“Rather severely so.” Rashid studied my face and then started to nod. “I see. There are things happening back in Winter. That’s why Mother Summer brought you here. To show you what was at stake.”
I swallowed and nodded. “No pressure or anything.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You get used to it,” he said.
I blinked. “What? That’s it?”
He tilted his head to look at me obliquely with his good eye.
“I’ll get used to it? That’s the important pep talk? I’ll get used to it?”
His mouth quivered. He gave my arms a last, maybe affectionate squeeze and released them. “Pep? What is needed in the Warden is far more than pep, Harry.”
“What, then?” I asked.
He took up his staff and poked my chest with it gently. “You, it would seem.”
“You,” he repeated firmly. “What we need is you. You have what you have for a reason. Unwitting or not, virtually your every action in the past few years has resulted in a series of well-placed thumbs in the adversary’s eye. You want to know how you can help me, Harry?”
“Engh,” I said, frustrated. “Yeah.”
“Go back to Chicago,” he said, turning away, “and keep being yourself.”
“Wait,” I said. “I need help.”
At that, he paused. He looked back at me and gave me a quiet smile. “I know precisely how it feels to be where you are.” He gestured back toward the battleground. “Precisely.” He seemed to think about it for a moment, and then nodded. “I will do what I can. If we both survive the next several hours, I will settle matters between you and the Council, which knows only as much about our roles as it needs to—and that isn’t much. I will verify your return and that you are indeed yourself, and will see to it that your back pay as one of the Wardens is forwarded to you. There’s some paperwork to fill out to get the Council’s office to reestablish your official identity with the government, but I’ll see to it that it happens. I think I remember all the necessary forms.”
I stared at him for a second and said, “You’ll . . . you’ll help me with White Council paperwork.”
Cold Days by Jim Butcher / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes