Cold days, p.5
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       Cold Days, p.5

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  This man wasn’t a tiger. He was a bear. His shoulders were so broadly proportioned that he made Herne look positively slender by comparison. His forearms were nearly the size of his biceps, and he had the kind of thick neck that you see only in power lifters and professional thugs. There were scars all over his hands, and more on his face, all of them faded away to ancient white lines, like those you see on some lifelong bikers. He wore a coat of mail of some kind—a creature of Faerie couldn’t abide the touch of iron, so it had to be made from something else.

  Over the mail he wore a long, open coat of scarlet, trimmed in white fur. It was held in with a wide black leather belt. He had such a barrel of a chest that even a modest bit of stomach was a considerable mass on his huge frame. His gloves were made of black leather trimmed with more white fur, and they were tucked through the belt, right next to the very plain and functional hilt of an unadorned broadsword. His hair was short, white, and shining clean, and his white beard fell over his chest like the white breaker of a wave. His eyes were clean, winter sky blue.

  I lost track of what Eldest Gruff was saying, because my mouth was falling open.

  The second man noticed my expression and let out a low, rumbling chuckle. It wasn’t one of those ironic snickers. It was a rolling, full-throated sound of amusement, and it made his stomach shake like . . . dare I say it?

  Like a bowl full of jelly.

  “And this,” Eldest Gruff said, “is Mab’s new Knight.”

  “Uh,” I said. “Sorry. I . . . uh. Hi.” I stuck my hand out. “Harry Dresden.”

  His hand engulfed mine as he continued to chortle. His fingers could have crushed my bones. “I know who you are, Dresden,” he rumbled. “Call me Kringle.”

  “Wow, seriously? ’Cause . . . wow.”

  “Oh, my God, that’s adorable,” Sarissa said, smiling. “You are such a fanboy, Dresden.”

  “Yeah, I’ve just . . . I hadn’t really expected this kind of thing.”

  Kringle let out another rumbling laugh. It absolutely filled the air around him. “Surely you knew that I made my home among the beings of Faerie. Did you think I would be a vassal of Summer, lad?”

  “Honestly?” I asked. “I haven’t ever really stopped to think it through.”

  “Few do,” he said. “How does your new line of work suit you?”

  “Doesn’t,” I said.

  “Then why did you agree to it?”

  “Seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

  Kringle smiled at me. “Ah. I didn’t much care for your predecessor.”

  “Ditto,” I said. “So do you come to all of these?”

  “It’s customary,” Kringle replied. “I get to visit folk I rarely see elsewhere.” He nodded toward the Erlking and Eldest Gruff. “We take a few moments to catch up.”

  “And hunt,” the Erlking said, showing sharp-looking teeth when he smiled.

  “And hunt,” Kringle said. He eyed Eldest Gruff. “Would you care to accompany us this year?”

  Gruff somehow managed to smile. “You always ask.”

  “You always say no.”

  Eldest Gruff shrugged and said nothing.

  “Wait,” I said to Kringle. “You’re going hunting?” I pointed at the Erlking. “With him? You?”

  Kringle let out another guffaw and, I swear to God, rested his hands on his belly while he did it. “Why wouldn’t I?”

  “Dude,” I said. “Dude. You’re . . . freaking Santa Claus.”

  “Not until after Halloween,” he said. “Enough is enough. I’m drawing a line.”

  “Hah,” I said, “but I’m kinda not joking here.”

  He grunted, and the smile faded from his features. “Lad, let me tell you something here and now. None of us is what we once were. Everyone has a history. Everyone comes from somewhere. Each moves toward a destination. And in a lifetime as long as mine, the road can run far and take strange windings—something I judge you know something about.”

  I frowned. “Meaning?”

  He gestured at himself. “This became the tale with which you are familiar only in fairly recent times. There are wizards enough alive today who knew of no such person when they were children awaiting the winter holiday.”

  I nodded thoughtfully. “You became something different.”

  He gave me a wink of his eye.

  “So what were you before?”

  Kringle smiled, apparently content to say nothing.

  I turned to Sarissa, asking, “You seem to know these guys, mostly. What . . . ?”

  She wasn’t there.

  I looked around the immediate area, but didn’t see her. I moved my eyes back to Kringle and the Erlking. The two of them looked at me calmly, without expression. I darted a glance to Eldest Gruff, whose long, floppy right ear twitched once.

  I glanced to my left, following the motion, and spotted Sarissa being led onto the dance floor underneath the replica of my original Star Wars poster. The poster was the size of a skyscraper mural now, the dance floor beneath it the size of a parking lot. For the most part, the Sidhe were dancing, all fantastic grace and whirling color, with the occasional glitter of jewellike feline eyes sparkling as they turned and swayed.

  A young male Sidhe was leading her by the wrist, and from the set of her shoulders she was in pain. You couldn’t have guessed it from her expression. The young Sidhe wore a black leather jacket and a Cincinnati ball cap, but I didn’t get a look at his face.

  “A fresh challenge, it would seem,” the Erlking murmured.

  “Yeah,” I said. “Gentlemen, if you would excuse me.”

  “You know Mab’s law at court, aye?” Kringle asked. “You know the price of breaking it?”

  “Yep.”

  “What do you mean to do, lad?”

  “Seems that what we have here is a failure to communicate,” I said. “Think I’ll go open up a dialogue.”

  Chapter

  Six

  Moving onto a dance floor full of Sidhe is like dropping acid.

  Partly it’s because they’re just so damned pretty. The Sidhe maidens there were all in Maeve’s league in terms of sheer physical attractiveness, and some of them were just about as barely dressed as she was, only in what must have been the latest trends in the Chicago club scene for the fashionably provocative. And, yeah, the boys were pretty, too, and tarting it up just as much as the girls, but they weren’t nearly as much of a distraction to me.

  Partly it’s because of their grace. The Sidhe aren’t human, even though they look like close relatives. When you see an Olympic gymnast or ice skater or a professional dancer performing a routine, you can’t help but be impressed with the sheer, casual grace with which they move, as if their bodies are lighter than air. The clumsiest of the Sidhe operate at about that same level, and the exceptional leave the mortals eating dust behind them. It’s hard to describe because it’s hard for the brain to process—there’s no frame of reference for what I saw, the motion, the balance, the power, the effortless subtlety. It was like suddenly discovering an entirely new sense with an enormous amount of input: I kept seeing things that made my brain scream at me to stop and watch so that it could catalog and process them properly.

  And partly it’s because of their magic. The Sidhe use magic the way the rest of us breathe, instinctively and without thinking about it. I’d fought them before, and their power was largely invoked through simple gestures, as if the spells had been hardwired into their motor reflexes. For them, movement was magic, and at no time so much as when they danced.

  Their power didn’t come after me, specifically—it was more like I had plunged into it, as if it were a pool of water occupying the same space as the dance floor. It subsumed my mind almost at once, and it was all I could do to grit my teeth and hang on. Ribbons of colored light flared in the air around the dancing Sidhe. Their feet struck the floor and their hands struck upon bodies, their own or otherwise, adding rippling layers of syncopated rhythm to the music. Gasps and cri
es joined with the beat and the melody, primal and fierce, echoing and challenging one another from all quarters, as if they’d practiced it. They hadn’t. It was just what they were.

  Sound and rhythm struck from either side, thrumming against my ears, disorienting me. Light danced and fluttered through the spectrum in subtle, seductive patterns. Bodies twisted and strained in inhuman artistry, their very grace an assault upon my reason. Part of me wanted to just stand there and drink it in, gawking like some ugly, clumsy behemoth among the Sidhe. Plenty of mortals had been lulled into tearful rapture by such dances—and generally speaking, it hadn’t ended real well for them.

  I put up every mental defense I could, reaching for that core of cold, clear power that had been within me since the night I’d murdered my predecessor with Medea’s bronze dagger. I hadn’t even realized what was happening to me at the time, since other things had been on my mind, but I now realized that the power had restored my shattered body, and given me strength and speed and endurance at the very limits of human ability—and maybe past them. I felt it only when I sought it out, but apparently my instinctive need to survive had been enough to tap into it back when I’d set out to rescue my daughter from the late Red Court of vampires.

  Now it poured into my mind like an ice-cold breeze, and withered away the bedazzlement the Sidhes’ dance had wrought on my thoughts. I started forward through the throng, and for a few feet I tried to skip and slip and duck my way through the moving crowd without hitting anyone. Then I realized that even with whatever I had gained from becoming the Winter Knight, I was still hopelessly dull-witted and slow-footed when compared to the Sidhe.

  So I just started walking and left it up to them to get out of the way. It kinda fit my mood better, anyway. They did it, too. None of them were obvious about it, and some of them came within a fraction of an inch of striking me with whirling limbs, but none of them did.

  The Sidhe are tall, generally speaking, but I’m NBA tall, and I could see over the crowd. I spotted the red ball cap and a flash of Sarissa’s wide eyes and went after them. I caught up to them near the back wall of the cavernous chamber. The Sidhe who had grabbed Sarissa stood behind her, one of his arms wound around her neck, the other around her waist, holding her back against his chest. Her eyes were wide now. I could see deep red flushing on the skin of her wrist, where bruises were already starting to form in the shape of the Sidhe’s fingers.

  I found myself clenching my hands into fists and growling deep in my throat.

  Without any evident forethought to it, the dance floor for ten feet all around any of the three of us became clear of moving bodies. The Sidhe had made room for the confrontation. Jewellike eyes glittered and watched intermittently while the dance continued.

  “Sir Knight,” said the Sidhe holding Sarissa. He had straight black hair beneath the cap, and cheekbones so high that they needed to wear oxygen tanks. He was smiling, and there was something particularly vulpine in it. His canines were just a little too large, a little too sharp. “What a pleasure it is to speak with you.”

  “You aren’t going to think so in a minute,” I said. “Let her go.”

  He leaned in closer to her and inhaled through his nose. “Odd,” he said. “I don’t smell you on her. You haven’t claimed her as your own.”

  “She’s not yours, either,” I said. “Let her go. Don’t make me say it again.”

  “She’s just a mortal,” he said, smiling. “A mortal of no station here in Arctis Tor, at court. This place is not meant for mortals. Her body, her mind, and her life are all forfeit, should we decide to take them.”

  “We just decided to let. Her. Go.” I began walking toward him.

  Something feverish came into his eyes and I could suddenly see every bone and tendon in his hand, tight against his skin. His nails seemed a little too long, a little too heavy, and a little too sharp to be normal. Sarissa tried to speak, but only made a choking sound and went silent.

  “You keep coming,” the Sidhe said, “and I’ll keep squeezing. This game is terribly interesting. I wonder how hard I’ll have to squeeze to crush her windpipe.”

  I stopped, because I knew the answer to his question: not very hard. It’s only a little more pressure than you need to crush an empty beer can. It’s sort of scary how easy it is to kill someone once you know how to get it done.

  “What about Mab’s law?” I said.

  “I’ll not shed a drop of her blood,” he replied smoothly. “When I cut off her air or break her neck, she’ll simply cease—which is a waste, but the law is the law.”

  And I got a sudden sinking feeling that the Sidhe in front of me, in his black leather jacket and his red cap, knew how to get it done. “You’re not a Cincinnati fan, are you?”

  “Ah!” the Sidhe said, smiling. “You see, Sarissa, he’s worked it out. It took a while, but he got there.”

  “You’re a redcap,” I said.

  “Not a redcap,” he said, snapping annoyance in his voice. “The Redcap, little Knight.”

  The Redcap was one of those figures I had hoped was a story. According to what I knew of legend, he got his name by greeting travelers in a friendly fashion, and then murdering them horribly. Once that was done, he would dye his cap freshly scarlet by dipping it in their cooling blood. Odds seemed reasonable that he was a badass. Legend was about as reliable as every other rumor mill on the planet, but looking at the guy, I got the impression that he would smile and have an erection the whole time he murdered Sarissa. Or me.

  He certainly expected me to react with fear and caution. Which just goes to show you that no matter how old something is, centuries don’t necessarily make it all that bright.

  “The big bad Redcap,” I drawled. “And when you were picking a red cap for tonight to emblemize your power and skill, you went with Cincinnati over Philly? Or Boston? Seriously?”

  The Redcap apparently didn’t know what to make of that. He just stared at me, trying to decide whether he’d been insulted or not.

  “Man, you Sidhe are a crowd of poseurs. Did you know that? You try to do and say the things you think will push our buttons—but you just don’t get it, do you? Have you even been to a ball game? I caught one with Gwynn ap Nudd a few years back. Decent guy. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”

  “Do you think your allies frighten me, wizard?” the Redcap demanded.

  “I think you’re an opportunist,” I said.

  “A what?”

  “You heard me. You jump people traveling alone, people who don’t have a chance in hell of defending themselves against you. Especially not when you make nice and put them off their guard first.” I gave him a toothy smile. “I’m not off my guard, Red. And I’m not someone who doesn’t have a chance against you.”

  “Touch me and I will kill her,” he snarled, giving Sarissa a little jerk by way of demonstration.

  I looked at Sarissa and hoped that she could read deeper than the surface. “That’s bad, but there’s not much I can do about it if you decide to kill her now,” I said. “Of course, after you do that . . . I don’t really like your chances, Red. If she dies, you’ll join her.”

  “You wouldn’t break Mab’s law,” he sneered.

  “You’re right,” I said. “So I figure I’ll just open a Way back to the mortal world, drag you through it, and after that . . . well, I’ve always been partial to fire.”

  Evidently that line of possibility had not occurred to the Redcap. “What?”

  “I know it’s not thematically in tune with my new job and all, but I find it effective. Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day,” I said. “But set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Tao of Pratchett. I live by it. You wanted to face me down in front of everyone, get props for tweaking my nose on my first night here? Well, congratulations, Red. You’re the man.”

  The Redcap’s eyes narrowed, gleaming bright, and his foxlike smile widened. “You think I’m afraid of you.”

  “The last time somebody swi
ped my date to a party, it got a little messy,” I said in a very mild voice. “Ask the Red Court about it. Oh, wait.”

  The Redcap actually laughed at that, and it was hurtful. Literally. My ears rang painfully at the sharpness of the sound. “It is nothing to me how many cockroaches or vampires you have ended, mortal. I am Sidhe.”

  “Whatever,” I said. “Killed some of them, too.”

  “Yes,” the Redcap said, and there was an ugly, hungry heat in his tone. “The Lady of Summer. I was in that battle, mortal. I saw her blood flow.”

  I nodded and said, “And what makes you think I won’t do it again?”

  The Redcap jerked his chin a little to one side and said, “They do.”

  I froze.

  Dammit, Harry, I chided myself. You’re dealing with faeries. There is always a scam with faeries. There is always a sucker punch on the way. I’d gotten too forward-focused. The Redcap hadn’t been a challenger.

  He was the bait.

  As if on cue, the wild dancing turned to stillness. The music died. All motion in the chamber, as far as I could tell, ceased entirely, and suddenly I stood in a small glade within a forest of lean, wickedly beautiful figures and weirdly sparkling eyes.

  Two beings emerged from that forest, shambling out from the crowd of Sidhe, one on either side of me, maybe fifteen feet away.

  The first, on my right, was a huge figure, shuffling forward with its form doubled over beneath a tattered grey cloak that could have covered a small truck. Its legs took strides that were two or three times as long as mine, and when it came to a halt, its long arms spread out to either side of it and rested on the floor. Beneath its hood, I could make out a flat, broad head, as stark as a skull and colored red and glistening. Its arms ended in hands with only three fingers, but they were proportionally too thick and a couple of feet long. They, too, were red and glistening, as if something had been built on a bone framework with flesh and muscle added on over it, but then whoever had made it had forgotten to put the skin on. It dripped little patters of ichor onto the floor and stared at me with very wide, very white eyes that contained only tiny pinpoints of black.