Wasteland king, p.16
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       Wasteland King, p.16

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  They sang about how elfhorses were an easy ride, so smooth you barely realized how fast you were going.

  They lied. Crenn held on, hunching over a sleek white neck and feeling every step with a jolt in his teeth, hips, shoulders. His savagely clamped hands were knotted in reins hung with silver bells that almost managed to cover the sound of hunting-cries behind and on either side. The Sluagh were curving around their prey; if they managed to make both ends meet they could strangle any hope of escape. The entire city lay blanketed in a choking fog thick as Marrowdowne’s worst stagnation, without the breath of salt from the Dreaming Sea or the fecund reek of rotting vegetation to flavor it. Instead, this mist smelled of flat copper with an undertone of bowel-reek, and a brassy sicksweet note that was easy enough to place, once you’d smelled it before.


  The elfhorses galloped, fractious when they scented the fog. Braghn Moran kept them from melting back through the Veil, the fullblood able to override their urge to protect themselves by vanishing. It was a handy trick, but even a highborn Summer knight couldn’t force them to go faster. Hooves hit pavement in a chiming tattoo, and their white shapes flickered. A few of the mortal onlookers would see white horses; the rest would find it easier to see chrome-and-cream motorcycles, low-slung and belching silver flame from their shining exhausts. Crenn glimpsed flickers of pale faces pressed against the inside of car windows, the elfhorse heaving into a leap and its hooves stamping on thin metal, hissing neighs of displeasure as mortal iron made silver shoes smoke and steam. They crossed a main artery, a sound of crumpling and tearing as a mortal accident unfolded, and plunged into a warehouse district, Braghn Moran evidently thinking to lunge for the edge of town. In the wilderness, there might be fewer pockets of concentrated deathly hatred to bloom into pale vapor and scream those chilling high notes.

  Gallow yelled something, the wind whipping syllables out of his mouth. Crenn leaned in the saddle, his knees clamped home, and his right-hand blade flickered, passing through a streak of mist as it stretched long, rancid fingers after Gallow’s horse. Braghn Moran shouted another few syllables in the Old Language, and Crenn’s skin was alive with adrenaline and the sharp insect prickles of terror.

  Jeremiah screamed again, waving his left arm madly, and for a moment Crenn thought another band of mist had snagged him. The hoofbeats rose to a cacophony, and Braghn Moran aimed the horses at a stone wall and bent over his mount’s neck, urging them on. Gallow’s arm thrashed even more desperately, but his horse followed, and their leaps were marvels of delicate, fluid authority.

  Crenn’s own elfhorse, however, squealed with terror and balked, and the world turned over. He tumbled free, barely able to instinctively curl his left arm over his head, and he hit the wall with a sickening crunch.

  A brief burst of starry darkness swallowed him whole. How bad? How bad did I hit? Oh God how bad did I hit—

  Then the pain came.

  He’d felt something like this once before, when a mortal bullet nestled next to his spine and burning pitch ate his clothes and devoured his skin. His teeth clenched, splintering-hard. Don’t cry out. Don’t say a word.

  Tiny little trickle-footsteps, soft silvery sneakings, and the cries gathered around him. He’d helped its prey, and gotten in its way, and the Sluagh was about to feast on him. Gallow would be long gone by the time they finished, and Crenn would be only a rag of sidhe bones and torn flesh, frozen to whatever patch of earth had seen his agonizing demise.

  The next time the Sluagh rose, his maddened, hungry ghost would join it.

  Don’t scream. Don’t let them win.

  He couldn’t have anyway, because all the breath had left him. Alastair’s body flopped, uselessly, against the wall. Somehow he was sitting, and he had not lost his right-hand blade.

  They clustered around him, shawls and scarves of steamsmoke outlining shattered skulls, wasted arms, twisted legs, muscle-meat torn and bones gone spongy with rot. Ruined faces described only by the mist licking their features leered, their hungry mouths clacking and clicking with tiny sharp sounds.

  The vengeful dead drew closer, and Crenn inhaled. Broken ribs stabbed his sides, and though he had set himself not to make a sound, his traitorous breath escaped in a low moan.

  “Robiiiiin,” he exhaled, the pain a giant red beast with its teeth in his flesh, and forced his broken arm to lift the sword.



  She spilled out into a chill, damp spring night, and the first few gulps of outside air were sweet as wine. Robin scrambled upright and staggered, pixies swirling madly as the burst-open cellar door quivered—she’d had enough breath to use the Old Language, a word so powerful it had bitten her tongue and filled her mouth with blood she was forced to swallow. If the minotaur-thing followed her out here, she was a little more sanguine about her chances.

  Robin glanced about, her eyes stinging from the faint light after the cellar’s close blackness. Running blindly might catch her in another trap. The night was alive with noise—crackings and rendings behind her, along with a cheated basso howl. Bushes and trees dotted about the madhouse thrashed wildly, though there was no hint of wind, and vast shadows suddenly halted, their malformed heads turning with slow, imperial grace.

  Other guardians. Bigger than the minotaur-thing, and probably much nastier as well.

  A high, sharp whistle came from the other side of the shuddering building, trilling into a high cold laugh. The Feathersalt was either having a lot of fun, or she was trying to keep the shadows more interested in her than Robin. Perhaps both.

  Robin turned in a complete circle widdershins, glancing nervously at the black hole of the cellar. The thing thrashing around inside either hadn’t found the coal pile, or it couldn’t leave the building’s confines.

  She finished her turn, struggling to breathe deeply. The pixies streamed before her, a foxfire arrow pointing south. She was cold under the black velvet, a chill having nothing to do with the dew falling.

  Dawn was approaching. The distant seashell-noise of city traffic had quickened perceptibly, a tide turned and the sun preparing to break over a smog-choked horizon. Robin followed the pixies, stepping quickly but not running, saving her breath for when she would need it. Once she was far enough from the madhouse’s clutching grasp, she could whistle for Pepperbuckle, and if they were both quick and lucky, they could leave Ilara to make her own way back to Unwinter.

  It was not honourable, but she was under no illusion that the highborn would simply escort Robin back through the Veil. It was stupid to expect anything but betrayal from one who had been one of Summer’s highest handmaids for so long. Robin’s mortal half had fulfilled a purpose, but—

  The pixies reached a dark shadow of bushes and a few spindly trees, and Robin let out a soft sigh of gratitude as she gained the shelter as well. The urge to hide was well-nigh irresistible, to just fold down and cover her ears and wait for dawn. How long until she simply decided to find a burrow in any space of the real or more-than-real that would hold her, and bolt the door? There were limits to what anyone could bear, even a Half.

  Tiny hands on her, soothing and stroking, pixies nesting in her cropped hair, settling on her shoulders. Her heart finally began to pound a little less, coppery exertion and sour blood in her her mouth. She longed to spit, denied the urge, struggling with her breathing.

  Four in, four out. If you cannot breathe, you cannot sing.

  She could have let the song loose on the minotaur-thing, perhaps. Her throat no longer felt raw from shusweed or from screaming as she fell. It bothered her, to be afraid of her only weapon.

  Well, it’s not the only one now, is it? She slipped her hand into the pocket, felt the cold, smooth hilt with a fingertip. There was another hilt to consider, hanging on the belt at her hips under the coat. Puck Goodfellow’s short curved blade, its tip welling with greenish ichor, could serve her well, too.

  The p
ixies scattered as she unbuttoned the velvet, her slim fingers flying, and dropped her left hand to the belt low on her hips, the chantment in its knots humming comfortingly.

  A rustle filled the tiny clump of greenery. On the other side of the asylum, a long trilling howl rose into the dregs of night.

  Pepperbuckle. Robin’s head jerked up, and that saved her as the blow landed on the back of her head, glancing away instead of crushing her skull. It was swift, at least, and she crumpled into a bush. Pixies hissed, rousing with an angry buzz; and Ilara Feathersalt spoke a scythe-sharp word freezing them in place. The fullborn bent, her own quick graceful fingers patting at pocket and fold, and she yanked free the knife she’d sent a Half to fetch from its hiding place.

  “Many thanks,” the Feathersalt whispered, and Robin, her wits mazed but not completely gone, rolled aside in the bush, slashing upward with Puck’s dagger.

  It bit, not deeply, and dragged, whether through flesh or cloth Robin couldn’t tell. There was a gush of foulness, a hissing, and the Feathersalt might have repaid the blow with interest had not a giant golden blur crashed into the trees.

  Tongue lolling, ruff standing straight up, Pepperbuckle bared his teeth at the nastysmell danger, and Ilara faded through the Veil, only her hissed curse remaining. It flapped its black wings, but the hound leapt, catching it before it could achieve flight, and tore the life and hatred from it with a snap.

  With that done, he nosed at Robin Ragged, but she had lost consciousness. The creaking of the huge bruise-shadows he’d been allowing to chase him drew nearer, and Pepperbuckle whined.

  His head rose proudly, though, and his lip lifted to show pearly teeth. A sword of gold lifted in the east; wind rose, scattering last year’s leaves and shaking greenbud branches. There was no cockcrow, but none was needed.

  Dawn had risen.




  From the black, wyrm-pocked mountains to the shores of the Dreaming Sea, the deep thorn-tangles of the Dak’r Forest to the Ash Plains, silence reigned. Pale flakes swirled from a crystalline vault hung with dry fierce stars of no mortal constellation; splashes of crimson bloomed everywhere as if the land itself was bleeding. It was only the scarlet flax, bursting into luxuriant blossom in every corner of Unwinter’s realm for the first time in many a long sidhe memory. Perhaps it was a mockery of Summer’s verdant lands, or perhaps it was a mark of the lord of Unseelie’s mood.

  Black pennons moved, crackling in defiance of the still air. The Keep throbbed, a ferment and tumult mostly sensed by the chest, not heard through the ear. High in the knife-sharp mountains, the rumblings were muted but intense, as great wyrms shifted in their caves and small ones in their burrows. Cave trolls and other large lumpen Unseelie remained watchful in the deep shadows. Dwarven caves were shut, their doors barred, and the muffled din of hammer and hot metal reached such a pitch it added to the barely heard breathlessness outside. Drow towns seethed, and barrow-wights lay behind their own barred doors, their waxen-pale strangler’s hands crossed upon their narrow chests and a strange vibration echoing against their walls. On the Ash Plains the lean hunting hounds did not course, and neither the fleetfoot stag nor the swift anthrim with their pronged horns, nor did the deathshead hares flicker through the long blasted grass. The Dak’r was full of slithering unseen motion, sensed but again, not precisely heard.

  The vile, the unlovely, the nightmarish, the desperate, the criminal, the outcast—all these, and more, were welcome in Unwinter, as long as they obeyed the Unseelie lord’s will. The cold half of the mortal year was theirs, and though mortals had grown disbelieving, they were still as… nourishing… as ever.

  Just as delicious.

  A low crimson glow began along the mountains. It pierced the sleeping dimness, and the Keep shuddered once more, from lowest donjon to its tallest needle-spire. The opalescent moat thrashed, as if the Watcher in the water were about to rise. The drawbridge lowered, the portcullis rising with a harsh music of chains and metal grinding, and the deepest thrill yet ran through every branch, hidden or visible, of Unwinter’s domain.

  Shadows edged with scarlet moved in the doorway’s throat. The persistent underground rumbling stilled, breathless silence taking its place.

  A high drilling noise pierced the star-crowded sky. It was the screaming of freezing air compressed under a nightmare mount’s clawed hooves.

  He melded out of the bloody light, the black metal of his helmet chased with silver that took a ruddy gleam from the glow. It was not his usual high-crowned helm but a wonder of dwarven metalwork, a stag’s high branching horns dripping with rusty fluid.

  Lion of Danu, was one of his titles. The Huntsman was another. He had served First Summer as horse-and-hound master, when it pleased Danu’s chosen to go riding in the youth of the world. He had not worn the horns since the Sundering.

  The rest of his armor was silver-chased as well, a cardinal cloak descending from spiked shoulders, his gauntlets on the reins unrelieved black. His charger was caparisoned in crimson too, its mane and tail waterfalls of black silk.

  The drilling noise was swallowed in another, a vast susurration. Unwinter did not wind his Horn or glance back. He did not lift an armored hand to summon his knights. He did not command them to follow.

  And yet.

  The whisper became a rustle, the rustle deepened to a throbbing, the throbbing swelled into a roar. The highborn fullbloods of Unwinter, pale and wasted, sallied forth clasped in their own black armor, riding by two and three on the nightmare mounts enticed from the Dreaming Sea’s foaming edge. The mountains shook and crawled as wyrm and dwarf, troll and half troll, and every other denizen of those warrens burst free. The Dak’r seethed, the poisonous dryads and deepwater naiads with sharp teeth and no love for Summer’s sun bidding farewell to their homes. Drow and trow, wights of wood, barrow, and blasted heath broad-shouldered, dripping kelpies and snakelike hounds, every manner of greenjack or creeping-jenny came out. The drow towns emptied of all save the very young or the very fragile, and those cried from their windows at the shame of being unable to follow. Some did anyway, creeping in direct defiance of parental authority or their own infirmity. Twisted and whole, Outcaste and clan-member, they blinked against the rufous glow in the ash-choked sky and flowed in a vast wedge, their leader straight and horned at their head.

  Unwinter, the Lion of Danu, Lord of the Hunt and the Hallow, rode to war.



  A pearly shimmer crested white mountains, indigo clouds underlit with fierce gold. Green rolling hills shivered under a pall of cold dew, and Summerhome lifted its newly sharpened towers, still blotched and pitted with stinking, caustic rust. Summer’s sun was rarely late to rise, no matter how long the queen of Seelie stayed abed, but this morning the thick dark clouds ringing her borders cast a sickly shroud as the rich golden orb struggled to mount the horizon.

  The highest window of Summerhome was reached by a winding stair, its steps so long unused they had filled with dust and appeared more a ramp. The fine granules rose in a stinging cloud as she climbed, pausing every so often as if winded.

  Here, there were no prying eyes, so Summer the beloved, the beautiful, the light of Seelie and the grace of Danu, did not waste strength on a glamour. She was still slender, but it was the rickety thinness of age instead of the smoothness of youth. Her black eyes, starred with specks of diamond light, stayed half-lidded, and sores clustered her cherry-red lips. The holy water had spilled down her front, spreading a rash of crimson scales, and perhaps it had roughened her throat, for the muttering that drove the dust in a whirl around her was hoarse and cracked, not her own lovely ringing voice.

  Surely this limping was merely affectation. Surely Summer, the eternal, the wise, the fount of all things Seelie, simply wished to appear a crone? To test the loyalty of her besieged subjects, for some reason none could fathom, or simply for amusement? Stranger charades had been played at
her Court, and ended with blood or betrayal, a clapping of snow-white hands and the greatest gift of all, Summer’s beneficent smile.

  She climbed, and climbed. The tower vibrated slightly, perhaps because its height made the wind a stroking hand upon its string. Half-heard cries, ragged whispers, soft slithering sounds echoed from the stone walls.

  The Speaking Tower, it was called, for here Summer could listen to the voices of her subjects, their wishes and fears seeping from rough mauve rock. The outside was white-and-greenstone, but the inside of the Speaking was a pink throat. How long had it been since she ventured past the small red-tiled chamber at its base, where an inch of shimmering fluid in a shallow uvula bowl collected the sounds for her?

  Summer finally reached the end of the stairs and leaned against the wall, one thin hand pressed to her side. A modest sable gown clasped her, no heavy mantle or long oversleeves of cobweb sighs softening her outline. Few sidhe would recognize the style—a simple kirtle, rather high-necked and low-waisted—as the robe of a fullblood highborn handmaid of First Summer’s, blue as a dawn that refused to rise above the white mountains.

  The dust of her passage, scraped from the stairs by a chantment-wind, spilled out the small window in a coruscating stream. It took a long while, and Summer’s breathing grew labored between the syllables. Still, she was fullblood, first among the Seelie, even while weakened a force to be feared. And propitiated.

  Dust rose in a sparkling funnel over the Speaking Tower. Summer finally stepped away from the wall and swayed, a trifle unsteadily, to the window. The wind brushed at her skirt and her long tangled hair, polishing her skin. The reddened scales and rash drank at the particles eagerly, and they were sanded away.

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