Cold days, p.53
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       Cold Days, p.53

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher
 

  “Harry,” Karrin said. “What just happened? Is Molly all right?”

  I stared hard at Mab. “I don’t know,” I said to Karrin. “Can you and Justine get them both into the cottage? Just . . . make sure they don’t swallow their own tongues or something.” I looked over at Justine. “How you doing, Mac?”

  Mac gave me a weary, shaky thumbs-up.

  Justine looked up from tending to him. “I don’t think there’s too much bleeding. But we need to get this dirt washed off of him.”

  “There’s a pump by the door to the cottage,” I said. I looked around and frowned at Demonreach. “Hey, make yourself useful and help them carry the wounded inside.”

  Demonreach eyed me.

  But it did so, lumbering forward to pick Molly and then Sarissa up, very carefully, the way a person would carry an infant, one in each arm. Then it walked over to the cottage, carrying them. Karrin, meanwhile, went to Justine, and between the two of them, they were able to get Mac on his feet and hobbling into the cottage. I went and managed to drag Thomas over my shoulder. I toted his unconscious form to the cottage, too, and told Mouse, “Stay with him, boy.”

  Mouse made a distressed noise, and looked over at Molly. He sat down on the floor halfway between the two of them, and looked back and forth.

  “Just have to have a little campout until dawn,” I said. “We’ll take care of them.”

  Mouse sighed.

  “Harry,” Karrin began.

  “Gun,” I said quietly, and held out a hand.

  She blinked at me, but she checked it, engaged the safety, and handed it over.

  “Stay here,” I said, moving toward the door.

  “Harry, what are y—”

  “Stay here,” I snarled, furious. I took the safety off and left the cottage to stalk over to Mab.

  As I crossed to her, her black gown and hair became storm-cloud grey, then silver, then white again.

  “Yes, my Knight?” she asked me.

  I started walking around the base of the tower, away from the cottage. “Could you please come this way?”

  She arched a brow but did, moving over the ground with the same approximate weight as moonlight.

  I walked until we were out of sight of the cottage and the fae down the hill. Then I thumbed back the hammer on the little gun, spun, and put the barrel against Mab’s forehead.

  Mab stopped and regarded me with luminous unblinking eyes. “What is the meaning of this?”

  “It’s still Halloween,” I said, shaking with exhaustion and rage. “And I am in no mood for games. I want answers.”

  “I have turned villages to stone for gestures less insulting than this one,” Mab said in a level tone. “But I am your guest here. And you are clearly overwrought.”

  “You’re goddamned right I’m overwrought,” I growled. “You set me up. That’s one thing. I walked into it with open eyes. I get it, and I’ll deal with it. But you set Molly up. Give me one good reason not to put a bullet through your head right now.”

  “First,” Mab said, “because you would not survive to finish pulling the trigger. But as threatening your life has never been a successful way to pierce your skull, I will provide you with a second. Miss Carpenter will have difficulty enough learning to cope with the Lady’s mantle without you handing her mine as well. Don’t you think?”

  Right. I hadn’t thought about that part. But I wasn’t feeling terribly rational.

  “Why?” I demanded. “Why did you do it to her?”

  “It was not my intention for her to replace Maeve,” Mab said. “Frankly, I would have considered her a better candidate for Summer.”

  “You still haven’t told me why,” I said.

  “I meant Sarissa to take Maeve’s place,” Mab said. “But one does not place all one’s hopes with any one place, person, or plan. Like chess, the superior player does not plan to accomplish a single gambit, a particular entrapment. She establishes her pieces so that regardless of what her enemy does, she has forces ready to respond, to adapt, and to destroy. Molly was made ready as a contingency.”

  “In case something happened to your own daughter?” I asked.

  “Something had already happened to my daughter,” Mab said. “It was my intention to make Sarissa ready for her new role, much as I made you ready for yours.”

  “That’s why you exposed her to all of those things alongside me?”

  “I have no use for weakness, wizard. The situation here developed in a way I did not expect. Molly had originally been positioned with another purpose in mind—but her presence made it possible to defeat the adversary’s gambit.”

  “Positioned,” I spat. “Gambit. Is that what Molly is to you? A pawn?”

  “No,” Mab said calmly, “not anymore.”

  That rocked my head back as surely as if she’d punched me in the nose. I felt a little bit dizzy. I lowered the gun.

  “She’s a kid,” I said tiredly. “She had her whole life ahead of her, and you did this to her.”

  “Maeve was always overly dramatic, but in this instance she was quite correct. I could not risk killing her if I did not have a vessel on hand to receive her mantle—and the lack of the Winter Lady’s strength would have been critical. It is one of the better plays the adversary has made.”

  “You don’t get it, do you?” I said.

  “I do not,” she said. “I do not see how what I have done is substantially different from what you have been doing for many years.”

  “What?” I asked.

  “I gave her power,” she said, as if explaining something simple to a child.

  “That is not what I have been doing,” I spat.

  “Is it not?” Mab asked. “Have I misunderstood? First you captured her imagination and affection as an associate of her father’s. You made her curious about what you could do, and nurtured that curiosity with silence. Then when she went to explore the Art, you elected not to interfere until such time as she found herself in dire straits—at which point your aid placed her deep within your obligation. You used that and her emotional attachment to you to plant and reap a follower who was talented, loyal, and in your debt. It was actually very well-done.”

  I stood there with my mouth open for a second. “That . . . that isn’t . . . what I did.”

  Mab leaned closer to me and said, “That is precisely what you did,” she said. “The only thing you did not do is admit to yourself that you were doing it. Which is why you never availed yourself of her charms. You told yourself lovely, idealistic lies, and you had a powerful, talented, loyal girl willing to give her life for yours who also had nowhere else to turn for help. As far as your career as a mentor goes, you grew into much the same image as DuMorne.”

  “That . . . that isn’t what I did,” I repeated, harder. “What you’re doing to her will change her.”

  “Did she not change after you began to indoctrinate her?” Mab asked. “You were perhaps too soft on her during her training, but had she not already begun to become a different person?”

  “A person she chose to be,” I said.

  “Did she choose to be born with her gift for the Art? Did she choose to become someone so sensitive that she can hardly remain in a crowded room? I did not do that to her—you did.”

  I ground my teeth.

  “Consider,” Mab said, “that I have done something for her that you never could have.”

  “What’s that, exactly?”

  “I have put her beyond the reach of the White Council and their Wardens,” Mab said, again as if explaining something to an idiot. “While they might howl and lecture as much as they wish about an apprentice wizard, they can do nothing at all to the Winter Lady.”

  I took a deep breath.

  That . . . was also true.

  “You’ve made her life so much harder,” I said quietly. I wasn’t saying it to Mab, really. I was just sounding out loud the chain of argument in my head. “But so have I. Especially after Chichén Itzá.”

&nbs
p; “You trusted her with your mind and your life,” Mab said. “I took that as a statement of confidence in her abilities. You will be working frequently with the Winter Lady. It seems to me that this would be a most appropriate match.”

  “And her duties?” I asked. “What is the purpose of the Winter Lady?”

  “That is for her to know,” Mab said. “Know this, my Knight: Had I not considered her an excellent candidate, I would never have had her prepared. She has the basic skills she will need to master the power of the mantle—especially if one she trusts is there to advise and reassure her.”

  “You should have spoken to me about this first,” I said. “You should have spoken to her.”

  Mab moved so quickly that I literally never saw it. The gun was suddenly, simply gone from my hand and was being pushed into my face—in exactly the same spot where Maeve had been shot.

  “I,” Mab said coolly, “am not your servant, Dresden. You are mine.”

  “Demonreach,” I said. “If our guest pulls that trigger, take her below and keep her there.”

  The guardian spirit’s vast shadow fell over us even though there was nothing actually casting it, and Mab’s eyes widened.

  “Servant,” I said. “I don’t like that word. I suggest that you consider where you stand and choose a different term. My Queen. And you will be gentle with that girl, or so help me I will make you regret it.”

  Mab’s mouth quirked very slightly—her eyes more so. She looked up at me almost fondly, exhaled, and said, “Finally, a Knight worth the trouble.” She lowered the gun and calmly passed it back to me.

  I took it from her.

  “Have you any other questions?” she asked.

  I frowned, thinking. “Yeah, actually. Someone called Thomas and told him to be ready at the boat when I first got back to town. Do you know anything about that?”

  “I arranged it, of course,” Mab said, in a voice that sounded exactly like Molly’s. “As a courtesy to the ancient one, just before your party started.”

  At that, I shuddered. Molly’s voice coming from that inhumanly cold face was . . . just wrong.

  “Lily,” I said. “She waved her hand over my chest, as if she could detect the influence of the adversary.”

  Mab’s lips pressed into a firm line. “Yes.”

  “Could she?” I asked.

  “Of course not,” Mab said. “Were it so simple a task, the adversary would be no threat. Not even the Gatekeeper, at the focus of his power, can be absolutely certain.”

  “Then why would she think she could?” I asked. Then I answered my own question. “Because Maeve led her to believe that she could. All Maeve had to do was lie, and maybe sacrifice a couple of the adversary’s pawns to make it seem real. Then she could have Lily wave her hands at her, and ‘prove’ to her that Maeve was clean of any taint. And Lily wasn’t experienced enough to know any better. After that, Lily would have bought just about anything Maeve was selling.”

  “Obviously,” Mab said, her tone mildly acidic. “Have you any questions you cannot answer for yourself?”

  I clenched my jaw and relaxed it a couple of times. Then I asked, “Was it hard for you? Tonight?”

  “Hard?” Mab asked.

  “She was your daughter,” I said.

  Mab became very silent, and very still. She considered the ground around us, and paced up and down a bit, slowly, frowning, as if trying to remember the lyrics of a song from her childhood.

  Finally she became still again, closing her eyes.

  “Even tonight, with everything going to hell, you couldn’t hurt her,” I said.

  Mab opened her eyes and stared down through a gap in the trees at the vast waters of Lake Michigan.

  “A few years back, you got angry. So angry that when you spoke it made people bleed from the ears. That was why. Because you figured out that the adversary had taken Maeve. And it hurt. To know that the adversary had gotten to her.”

  “It was the knife,” Mab said.

  “Knife?”

  “Morgana’s athame,” Mab said in a neutral tone—but her eyes were far away. “The one given her by the Red Court at Bianca’s masquerade. That was how the Leanansidhe was tainted—and your godmother spread it to Maeve before I could set it right.”

  “Oh,” I said. I’d been at that party.

  Mab turned to me abruptly and said, “I would lay them to rest upon the island, the fallen Ladies, if that does not offend you.”

  “It doesn’t,” I said. “But check with the island.”

  “I shall. Please excuse me.” She turned and began walking away.

  “You didn’t answer my question,” I said.

  She stopped, her back straight.

  “Was it hard for you to kill Maeve?”

  Mab did not turn around. When she spoke, her voice had something in it I had never heard there before and never heard again—uncertainty. Vulnerability.

  “I was mortal once, you know,” she said, very quietly.

  And then she kept walking toward her daughter’s body, while I stared angrily . . . sadly . . . thoughtfully after her.

  * * *

  The rest of the night passed without anyone getting killed. I sat down with my back against the outside wall of the cottage, to keep an eye on my “guests” down the hill, but when I blinked a few seconds later, my eyes stuck shut, and then didn’t open again until I heard, distantly, a bird twittering.

  Footsteps came crunching up the hill, and I opened my eyes to see Kringle approaching. His red cloak and gleaming mail were stained with black ichor, the hilt of his sword was simply missing a chunk, as if it had been bitten away, and his mouth was set in a wide, pleased smile. “Dresden,” he said calmly.

  “Kringle.”

  “Long night?”

  “Long day,” I said. Someone, during the night, had covered me with an old woolen army surplus blanket that had been in a plastic storage box in the cottage. I eyed him. “Have fun?”

  A low, warm rumble of a laugh bubbled in his chest. “Very much so. If I don’t get into a good battle every few years, life just isn’t the same.”

  “Even if it’s on Halloween?” I asked.

  He eyed me, and his smile became wider and more impish. “Especially then,” he said. “How’s the leg?”

  I grunted and checked. Butters’s dressing had stayed on throughout the events of the night. The constant, burning sting was gone, and I peeled off the dressing to see that the little wound on my leg had finally scabbed over. “Looks like I’ll live.”

  “Hawthorn dart,” Kringle said. “Nasty stuff. Hawthorn wood burns hot, and doesn’t care for creatures of Winter.” His expression sobered. “I’ve a message for you.”

  “Ah?” I asked.

  “Mab has taken the new Ladies with her,” he said. “She said to tell you that the new Winter Lady would be returned safely to her apartment in a few days, after some brief and gentle instruction. Mab is on excellent terms with the svartalves, and anticipates no problems with your apprentice’s . . . new position.”

  “That’s . . . good, I guess,” I said.

  “It is,” Kringle replied. “Dresden . . . this is the business of the Queens. I advise you not to attempt to interfere with it.”

  “I already interfered,” I said.

  Kringle straightened, and his fierce smile became somehow satisfied. “Aye? Like to live dangerously, do you?” He leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. “Never let her make you cringe—but never challenge her pride, wizard. I don’t know exactly what passed between you, but I suspect that if it had been witnessed by another, she would break you to pieces. I’ve seen it before. Terrible pride in that creature. She’ll never bend it.”

  “She’ll never bend,” I said. “That’s okay. I can respect that.”

  “Could be that you can,” Kringle said. He nodded to me and turned to go.

  “Hey,” I said.

  He turned to me pleasantly.

  “The whole Winter Knight th
ing,” I said. “It’s made me stronger.”

  “True enough,” he said.

  “But not that much stronger,” I said. “You could have beaten me last night.”

  “Oh?” Kringle’s smile faded—except from his eyes.

  “And I’ve seen goblins move a few times,” I said. “The Erlking could have gotten out of the way of that shot.”

  “Really?”

  “You meant me to have the Wild Hunt.”

  “No one can be given a power like the Wild Hunt, Dresden,” Kringle said. “He can only take it.”

  “Really?” I said, as drily as I knew how.

  That got another laugh from Kringle. “You have guts and will, mortal. It had to be shown, or the Hunt would never have accepted you.”

  “Maybe I’ll just punch you out whenever I feel like it, then,” I said.

  “Maybe you’ll try,” Kringle replied amiably. He looked out at the lightening sky and let out a satisfied breath. “It was Halloween, Dresden. You put on a mask for a time. That’s all.” He looked directly at me and said, “Many, many mantles are worn—or discarded—on Halloween night, wizard.”

  “You mean masks?” I asked, frowning.

  “Masks, mantles,” Kringle said. “What’s the difference?”

  He winked at me.

  And for the briefest fraction of a second, the shadows falling from the tower and the cottage in the gathering morning behind us seemed to flow together. The eye he winked with vanished behind a stripe of shadow and what looked like a wide scar. His face seemed leaner, and for that instant I saw Vadderung’s wolfish features lurking inside Kringle’s.

  I sat straight up, staring.

  Kringle finished his wink, turned jauntily, and started walking down the hill, humming “Here Comes Santa Claus” in a rumbling bass voice.

  I stared after him.

  “Son of a bitch,” I muttered to myself.

  * * *

  I stood up and wrapped the army surplus blanket around myself before I walked into the cottage. I smelled coffee and soup, and my stomach wanted lots of both.

  There was a fire going in the fireplace, and my coffeepot was hanging near the fire. The soup kettle was hanging on its swinger, too. The soup would be made from stock and freeze-dried meat, but I was hungry enough not to be picky. Everyone else there probably felt the same way.