Cold days, p.7
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       Cold Days, p.7
 

         Part #14 of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

  The Redcap took a miniature, mocking bow to the crowd and spoke to me. “I was worried for a moment, mortal. You’re faster than you look.”

  He kicked me in the dislocated shoulder. He wasn’t trying to kick my arm off. He was just doing it for the hell of it. It hurt a lot.

  “You should see the look on your face, mortal,” the Redcap said. “This is fun.”

  “You know what, Red?” I gasped. “We’re all having fun.”

  I took my weight onto my knees and back, and slammed the heel of my right hand into the side of the jackass’s knee.

  I don’t know how much stronger Mab’s gift had made me, because I’d never been much of a weight lifter until I’d started therapy. I didn’t know too much about how much weight lifters could, for example, bench-press. So I didn’t have a very good idea how I stacked up against plain old me. Or plain old anybody. Plus the weights for the bench press were marked in metric units, and I kind of fell asleep the day we learned to convert them to pounds.

  But I’m pretty sure four hundred kilos isn’t bad.

  The Redcap’s knee popped like a balloon from the force of the strike, and bent in toward his other knee. He howled in startled agony and tried to throw himself away, but just as I hadn’t been able to move for a few critical seconds after he’d injured me, his body wasn’t responding properly either, and he fell next to me.

  The left side of my body felt like it was on fire, but me and pain are old buddies. His grip on the tie had loosened, and I couldn’t move my left arm enough to get it loose. So before he could recover, I punched him in the neck with my good hand. He gagged and thrashed, and I was able to unwrap the silk from my useless arm. I tried to pull the tie away from him, but he’d already shaken off the hits I’d given him and held on. I jerked on it as hard as I could, but I had only the one arm and was fresh out of leverage. I could feel the tie sliding through my fingers.

  So I let go without warning and snapped my hand at a different target as he fell back.

  He dropped into a backward roll and came up six feet away. He perched on one hand and a knee, still gripping the tie.

  I casually settled his red ball cap onto my head, touched a forefinger to its brim, winked at him, and said, “You have hat hair.”

  Again there was a chorus of marrow-curdling laughter from the Sidhe. It wasn’t any more pleasant to have them laughing with me than it had been to have them laughing at me.

  The Redcap’s face flushed a furious red, and I could see the blood vessels in his eyes bursting.

  Hell’s bells, the twit hadn’t been particularly perturbed when I’d crippled his leg. But touch his hat and embarrass him in front of his peers and the dude flipped out. Nobody has their priorities straight anymore.

  I made it to my feet before he simply leapt at me. He hit me before I could get my balance and we both went down. His eyes burning, he ignored the tie and latched onto my throat with both hands.

  He was strong. I think I might have been stronger than he was, but I had only the one arm. I slammed it at his forearms—if he kept his grip on me, those nails would almost certainly draw blood. He hissed and jerked his hands away at the last second, and I slammed my knee against his injured leg. I bucked him off me while he screamed. I went after him.

  We rolled a couple of times, and I cannot tell you how much it hurt both of us to do it. He had the use of both arms. I was able to use both legs to stabilize myself—but he was a hell of a lot squirmier than me, and in a blur of confusing motion he somehow managed to slither around to my back and get an arm across my throat. I got a few fingers underneath it, and started trying to pry him away. It wasn’t a winning move. I managed to lessen the pressure, but I couldn’t pull him off me, and my head started to pound.

  Another group inhalation went up from the Sidhe, and I could feel them leaning closer, their interest almost frenzied, hundreds and hundreds of gemlike eyes sparkling like stars as the light started dimming. Sarissa stared at me with wide eyes, her expression horrified.

  But . . . she’d lost one of her shoes.

  I watched as she reached out with her toes and managed to pluck one of her fallen glassy chopsticks up off the floor. The freaking yeti holding her didn’t notice. It was staring far too intently at the fight.

  Sarissa passed the chopstick up to her hands, gripped it with both of them, and snapped it in the middle.

  Shattered pieces of black glass fell away from a slender steel rod. Without looking, she simply lifted her hand and pressed the rod against the underside of the yeti’s wrist.

  Faeries, be they Sidhe or any other kind, cannot abide the touch of iron. To them, it’s worse than molten plutonium. It burns them like fire, scars them, poisons them. There’s a lot of folklore about cold iron, and it’s a widely held belief that it refers only to cold-forged iron, but that’s a bunch of hooey. When the old stories refer to cold iron, they’re being poetic, like when they say “hot lead.” If you want to hurt one of the fae, you just need iron, including any alloy containing it, to hurt them.

  And man, does it ever hurt them.

  The ogre’s wrist burst into a sudden coruscation of yellow-white flame, as bright as that of an arc welder. The ogre howled and jerked its arm away from Sarissa’s head as if he’d been a child experimenting with a penny and an electrical outlet.

  Sarissa spun on her heel and slashed the little steel rod across the ogre’s thigh.

  It howled in primal fury and flinched back, sweeping one long arm at her in pure reflex.

  Sarissa caught only a tiny fraction of the blow, but it was enough to send her staggering. She fell only a couple of feet away from me and looked up, her eyes dazed.

  Her lower lip had been split wide-open.

  A large ruby droplet fell from her lip and hung in the air, shining and perfect, and stayed there for half of forever. Then it finally splashed down onto the icy floor.

  There was a shrieking hiss as the blood hit the supernatural ice, a sound somewhere between a hot skillet and a high-pressure industrial accident. The ice beneath the drop of blood shattered, as if the droplet had been unimaginably heavy, and a web of dark cracks shot out for fifty feet in every direction.

  The music stopped. The Redcap froze. So did everyone else.

  Mab rose out of her chair, and somehow in that instant of action she crossed the distance from her high seat, as though the simple act of standing up were what propelled her to the space nearby. As she came, the pallid finery of her dress darkened to raven black, as if the air had contained a fine mist of ink. Her hair darkened as well to the same color, and her eyes turned entirely black, sclera and all, as did her nails. The skin seemed to cling harder to her bones, making her beautiful features gaunt and terrible.

  The Redcap flinched away from me and dragged himself back with his arms, getting clear. Give credit where it’s due: He might have been a sadistic, bloodthirsty monster, but he wasn’t a stupid one.

  The furious, burned ogre wasn’t bright enough to realize what was happening. Still smoldering, still enraged, it came stomping toward Sarissa.

  “Knight,” Mab said, the word a whipcrack.

  Maeve came to the edge of the platform and clutched her hands into fists, her mouth twisted into a snarl.

  I didn’t get up off the ground. There wasn’t time. Instead, I focused my will upon the advancing ogre and funneled my anger and my pain into the spell, along with the frozen core of power within me. I unleashed the energy as I thundered, “Ventas servitas!”

  The ogre was only a couple of yards from Sarissa when the gale of arctic wind I’d called up slammed into the thing and lifted its massive bulk completely off the ground. It tossed the ogre a good ten feet away. It landed in a tumble, dug its claws into the ice, and fought its way back to its feet.

  I rose from the ground, acutely conscious of Mab’s black presence just over my left shoulder, of the watching eyes of the Winter Court.

  I’d told Sarissa this was my first day in prison, and the y
ard was full of things that could and would kill me if they got the chance. It was time for an object lesson.

  I reached down into the cold inside of me. It was painful to touch that power, like throwing yourself into icy water, like emerging from warm covers into the shuddering cold of an unheated apartment on a winter morning. I didn’t like it, but I knew how to get it.

  All I had to do was think about everyone I’d let down. Everyone I’d left behind back in Chicago. My brother, Thomas. My apprentice, Molly. My friends. My daughter. Karrin. I thought about them and it felt like something in my chest was starting to tear in half.

  The Winter inside me was torment and agony—but at least when I was immersed in it, I couldn’t feel.

  I lifted my right arm, the side that projects energy, focused my will, and shouted, “Infriga!”

  There was a flash of light, an arctic howl, a scream of air suddenly condensed into liquid, and an explosion of frost and fog centered upon the ogre. The air became a solid fog bank, a rolling mist, and for several seconds there was silence. I waited for the mist to disperse, and after several long seconds it began to clear away, swept along by the remnants of the gale I had called first.

  When it cleared, the entire Winter Court could see the ogre, standing crouched just as it had been when I threw the spell at it.

  I waited for a moment more, letting everyone see the ogre standing absolutely still in defiance of Mab’s law.

  Then I drew forth my will again, extended my hand, and snarled, “Forzare!” A lance of invisible power lashed out at the ogre—and when it struck, the frozen monster shattered into thousands of icy chunks, the largest of which was about the size of my fist.

  The bits of the former ogre exploded over several hundred square yards of the dance floor, and grisly frozen shrapnel pelted the watching Sidhe and sent them reeling back with shouts of alarm. The Sidhe gathered themselves again, and every one of those bright eyes locked onto me, their expressions alien, unreadable.

  From one of the back corners, I heard a deep, heartily amused chuckle rolling through the air. Kringle, I thought.

  I turned to Mab and almost spoke—but then I remembered her other law and closed my mouth.

  Mab’s mouth twitched in an approving microsmile, and she nodded her head at me.

  “If you consent, I would speak to them.”

  She stared at me with those black carrion-bird eyes and nodded.

  First, I helped Sarissa to her feet, passing her a clean white handkerchief, which she immediately pressed to her mouth. I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. Then I took a deep breath and turned to address the room, turning in a slow circle as I spoke to be sure I included everyone. My voice echoed throughout the whole chamber as clearly as if I’d been using a PA system.

  “All right, you primitive screwheads. Listen up. I’m Harry Dresden. I’m the new Winter Knight. I’m instituting a rule: When you’re within sight of me, mortals are off-limits.” I paused for a moment to let that sink in. Then I continued. “I can’t give you orders. I can’t control what you do in your own domains. I’m not going to be able to change you. I’m not even going to try. But if I see you abusing a mortal, you’ll join Chunky here. Zero warnings. Zero excuses. Subzero tolerance.” I paused again and then asked, “Any questions?”

  One of the Sidhe smirked and stepped forward, his leather pants creaking. He opened his mouth, his expression condescending. “Mortal, do you actually think that you can—”

  “Infriga!” I snarled, unleashing Winter again, and without waiting for the cloud to clear, hurled the second strike, shouting, “Forzare!”

  This time I aimed much of the force up. Grisly bits of frozen Sidhe noble came pattering and clattering down to the ice of the dance floor.

  When the mist cleared, the Sidhe looked . . . stunned. Even Maeve.

  “I’m glad you asked me that,” I said to the space where the Sidhe lord had been standing. “I hope my answer clarified any misunderstandings.” I looked left and right, seeking out eyes, but didn’t find any willing to meet mine. “Are there any other questions?”

  There was a vast and empty silence, broken only by Kringle’s continued rumbles of amusement.

  “Daughter,” Mab said calmly. “Your lackey shamed me as the host of this gathering. I hold you accountable. You will return to Arctis Minora at once, there to await my pleasure.”

  Maeve stared at Mab, her eyes cold. Then she spun in a glitter of gems and began striding away. Several dozen of the Sidhe, including the Redcap and the rawhead, followed her.

  Mab turned to Sarissa and said in a much calmer voice, “Honestly. Iron?”

  “I apologize, my Queen,” Sarissa said. “I’ll dispose of it safely.”

  “See that you do,” Mab said. “Now. I would have a dance. Sir Knight?”

  I blinked, but didn’t hesitate for more than an instant or three. “Um. My arm seems to be an obstacle.”

  Mab smiled and laid a hand upon my shoulder. My arm popped back into its socket with a silver shock of sensation, and the pain dwindled to almost nothing. I rolled my shoulder, testing it. If it wasn’t exactly comfortable, it seemed to work well enough.

  I turned to Mab, bowed, and stepped closer to her as the music rose again. It was a waltz. While the stunned Sidhe looked on, I waltzed with Mab to a full orchestral version of Shinedown’s “45,” and the smaller bits of our enemies crunched beneath our feet. Oddly enough, no one joined us.

  Dancing with Mab was like dancing with a shadow. She moved so gracefully, so lightly that had my eyes been closed, I might not have been able to tell that she was there at all. I felt lumbering and clumsy beside her, but managed not to trip over my own feet.

  “That was well-done, wizard,” Mab murmured. “No one has lifted a hand to them that way since the days of Tam Lin.”

  “I wanted them to understand the nature of our relationship.”

  “It would seem you succeeded,” she said. “The next time they come at you, they will not do it so openly.”

  “I’ll handle it.”

  “I expect nothing less,” Mab said. “In the future, try to avoid being at such a stark disadvantage. Sarissa may not be there to rescue you a second time.”

  I grunted. Then I frowned and said, “You wanted this to happen tonight. It wasn’t just about me staring down your nobles. You’re setting something into motion.”

  Her lips quirked slightly at one corner in approval. “I chose well. You are ready, my Knight. It is time for me to give you my first command.”

  I swallowed and tried not to look nervous. “Oh?”

  The song came to a close with Mab standing very close to me, lifting her head slightly to whisper into my ear. The Sidhe applauded politely and without enthusiasm, but the sound was enough to muffle what she whispered into my ear.

  “Wizard,” she said, her breathy voice trembling. Every syllable bubbled with venom, with hate. “Kill my daughter. Kill Maeve.”

  Chapter

  Eight

  Dancing with Mab was like rapidly downing shots of well-aged whiskey. Being that close to her, to her beauty, to her bottomless eyes, hit me pretty hard. The scent of her, cool and clean and intoxicating, lingered in my nose, a disorienting pleasure. I’d thrown around a lot of energy to pull off the pair of chunk-making combos, and between that and Mab’s proximity, I was having a little trouble walking a straight line after the dance.

  It wasn’t like I had feelings for her. I didn’t feel the kind of low pulse of physical attraction that I would around a pretty woman. I didn’t particularly like her. I sure as hell didn’t feel any love for her. It was simply impossible to be that close to her, to that kind of deadly power and beauty, to that kind of immortal hunger and desire, without it rattling the bars of my cage. Mab wasn’t human, and wasn’t meant for human company. I had no doubt whatsoever in my mind that long-term exposure to her would have serious, unpleasant side effects.

  And never mind what she had just asked me to do.
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  The consequences of that kind of action would be . . . really, really huge. And only an idiot would willingly involve himself in direct action on a scale that significant—which really didn’t say anything good about me, given how often I’d been the guy wearing the idiot’s shoes.

  After our dance, Mab returned to her high seat and surveyed the chamber through barely open eyes, a distant figure, now garbed in pure white and untouchable again. As my head came out of the cold, numb clarity of wielding Winter, the aches and pains the Redcap had given me began to resurface in a big way. Fatigue began piling up, and when I looked around for a place to sit down, I found Cat Sith sitting nearby, his wide eyes patient and opaque.

  “Sir Knight,” the malk said. “You do not suffer fools.” There was the faintest hint of approval in his tone. “What is your need?”

  “I’ve had enough party,” I said. “Would it inconvenience the Queen for me to depart?”

  “If she wished you to stay, you would be at her side,” Cat Sith replied. “And it would seem that you have introduced yourself adequately.”

  “Good. If you do not mind,” I said, “please ask Sarissa to join me.”

  “I do not mind,” Cat Sith said in a decidedly approving tone. He vanished into the party and appeared a few moments later, leading Sarissa. She walked steadily enough, though she still had my handkerchief pressed to her mouth.

  “You want to get out of here?” I asked her.

  “It’s a good idea,” she said. “Most of the VIPs left after your dance. Things will . . . devolve from here.”

  “Devolve?” I asked.

  “I don’t care to stay,” she said, her tone careful. “I would prefer to leave.”

  I frowned, and then realized that she was trying to get a read on me. I simultaneously became acutely aware of a number of Sidhe ladies who were . . . I would say “lurking” except that you don’t generally use that word with someone so beautiful. There were half a dozen of them, though, who were staying nearby, and whose eyes were tracking me. I felt disconcertingly reminded of a documentary I’d once seen about lionesses involved in a cooperative hunt. There was something about them that was very similar.