Wasteland king, p.6
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       Wasteland King, p.6

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  The cold struck her, all along her velvet wrapper, and Pepperbuckle snorted unhappily. She staggered, her heels tiptapping on the milky surface of a road arrowing straight through the knotted, gnarled, black-barked trees.

  She coughed, and the cold retreated. It was only the first few moments, she knew, before she adjusted to the change. Temperature didn’t bother a Half much… but this sensation was different than purely mortal chill.

  Pepperbuckle butted against her, and she steadied herself against his warm bulk. He blew out a breath that turned to icicles, chiming as they fell, and tiny crackling slithering sounds crawled between the trees on either side.

  Robin Ragged raised her head, slowly, and gazed willingly, for the first time in her life, upon Unwinter’s ashen lands.

  PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHTS

  12

  The Steward was a tall, thin sidhe, his bone mask sheer and blank where the eyes should be. Whether he was blind or not seemed academic; his head certainly seemed to behave as if he could see. The mask’s beak shaded thin lips, far too wide for the head they rested on, and when the Steward infrequently spoke, the sharklike ranks of his teeth showed like a series of locked doors standing to attention on a blank street. He did not often need to bare them, for it was understood he carried Unwinter’s authority inside the Keep.

  He stood in the small round room while Gallow ate at a small round table stacked high with roast fowl, gelatinous confections, brughnie-baked bread with its soft interior and crisp-cracking crust, and the fruits of Unwinter’s field—thornapple, the tart almost-bitter chokeberry, damsons from the borderlands carefully carried to the Keep in featherstraw cartons, the black grapes that would not produce lithori but instead could be squeezed with chantment and sidhe fingers to coax out a thin trickle of bloodwine. Pale butter, leached of its sunny color by the chill but still good, and cold blue milk that coated his throat.

  Gallow ate, and ate, and ate. Not to gorge—very soon he’d be running, and you couldn’t do that weighed down. No, he ate to replace flesh melted away by the poison’s wasting and to store energy for later use. Goblins could consume until they bloated, trolls and dwarves were prodigious eaters, and the great wyrms swallowed livestock whole during their infrequent feedings. The fullblood ate mostly to please the palate, but a Half… well, it varied. Sometimes Gallow thought it was more the idea of nourishment that mattered, when he bothered to indulge in any philosophical thoughts.

  The Steward’s dusty black robes reminded him of Robin’s long coat, and Gallow tried not to think about it while he chewed and swallowed, mechanically. The idea that behind that blank bone shield was an old, crafty sharptooth sidhe watching his lips and throat move was similarly uncomfortable.

  The end of hunger came quickly, between one mouthful of bread and the next. His stomach shut like a door, and new strength filled him. His side didn’t ache, and the scar under his armor was a white line, not livid and bulging with fresh colorless venom. He took one last swallow of bitter dark ale, though now it tasted of ashes and brass, and stood, scraping the ancient wooden chair back along stone flags. Some mad urge made him push the chair back in, surveying the ruins of the table. It had never occurred to him before to think of where the leftover food from sidhe feasts went.

  At least he could be sure this wasn’t a meal of sticks and broken stones, glamoured to break a mortal’s dreams and teeth at once.

  The Steward’s beaked mask nodded once. “Dussk approachess.” His tongue, a purple, lizard-forked flicker, caressed the sibilants.

  “I know.” Gallow suppressed the mortal reflex of a belch, though it might have been amusing to see if that noise would cause a shadow of distaste on that long mouth and pointed chin. Blue veins stood out on the Steward’s cheeks, a tree-branching map. His hands were gloved, the sixth fingers vestigial and oddly curled, more like fiddlehead ferns than phalanges.

  “It musst be dussk pre-ccissely.”

  “I know,” Gallow repeated. “Take me to the Gate.”

  For a moment he thought the sidhe would bridle at a mere Half issuing a command, and the marks itched and shifted on Jeremiah’s shoulders, running down his arms, teasing at his wrists. A single death to fuel the lance, before the game began.

  The Steward’s head cocked, as if he could hear the thought. He pointed with one too-long, black-gloved finger, and across the small round room a high-arched door creaked, opening with a dusty groan. His teeth came out from behind those bloodless lips, sharp pale bleached bones under a grinning rotten moon. “Thiss way.”

  The sidhe glided across the room, passing Gallow on a chill draft that reeked of dust and some colorless burning fume. An edge of the black velvet robe almost, almost touched Gallow’s knee.

  If it was an insult, it was a fairly judged and well-earned one. Gallow suppressed a sigh. He didn’t even want to kill the goddamn sidhe.

  Or so he told himself.

  Robin.

  He couldn’t think about that, now. This was the last toss of the dice, the last hand in the game. Win or lose. Double or nothing.

  Either way, Unwinter would protect Robin. The lord of the Unseelie had promised as much, on his own truename and Throne. Sooner or later his hunters would bring her in, and maybe Unwinter would even explain to her.

  Or not.

  Jeremiah’s hand rose to his chest, and he drew the burning cold medallion free as they walked. The Steward’s gliding quickened, as if the sidhe could tell what he held.

  These halls were larger, and less dusty. The same thread of bustling activity ran parallel to their silence; they moved in a deserted bubble. Doors reared up, were opened, passed away. The ceiling and walls drew away as the passages became larger, and finally, acres of polished glassblack stone rang under his boots and the shushing of the Steward’s robes.

  The great gates of Unwinter’s Keep stood open, and the bridge over the murky moat stretched threadlike over the fluid underneath, also glassy and smooth. Gallow wasn’t fooled—the Watcher in the Moat was capable of blinding speed, and if the tentacles didn’t get you the sheer horror of the thing probably would. More than one idiot attacker, just after the Sundering, had discovered as much.

  “I am to ansswer any quesstionss.” The Steward’s tone plainly said he hoped for none.

  Well, Gallow had a few, but there were only one or two that needed answering. “The pennants.” Gallow pointed vaguely upward. “Black.”

  No reply. The bleached-bone unface regarded him, the mouth closed tight. Of course this sidhe wouldn’t give anything for free, especially without a direct question.

  “What do the black flags mean?” Gallow persisted.

  The sidhe made a low creaking noise. Dust puffed from its robes, and Gallow realized the creature was laughing.

  After a few moments, the mouth bubbling with blue-tinged saliva at its corners, the Steward inhaled wetly, tongue flicking out once to test the air. “Foolissh Half, do you not know?” There was no pause for any answer Gallow might have made. “My lord Unwinter is no longer patient; he ridess to war.”

  Ah. Gallow didn’t have to ask against who. A plagued Unwinter had nothing to lose, especially with Summer weakened as well.

  He lifted the medallion, and the Horn, perhaps sensing what was about to happen, twitched as it unfolded, its curve elongating. It was one of the few things older than sidhe or Sundering, that flute-lipped instrument, and its shape was of no geometry a mortal could look upon without queasy revulsion. It was whispered that Unwinter himself had been the only sidhe to escape its deadly call since the first dawning of Danu’s folk, when mortals were merely a bad future-dreaming.

  Silver-glinting, curled and chambered, the Horn grew heavier, neck-chain thickening as it took its true shape. The Steward hissed and fell back, and Gallow didn’t even feel good about the way the other sidhe ran pell-mell for the interior of the Keep and whatever precarious safety the black lacework bulk of stone could provide. He tipped the Horn back and forth, watching the play of light on its
surfaces, as he stepped over Unwinter’s threshold and onto the bridge.

  To give the ancient thing a blast of living breath was to call the Wild Hunt in its full strength, both Unseelie and, more importantly, the Sluagh, the ravening unforgiven. The smaller horn-whistles the knights carried were copies, and awful enough, their ultrasonic cries chilling every living thing, even those that could not hear it. Unwinter had not ridden the full Hunt in a few hundred years, and he’d been about to wind the Horn on Gallow himself not too long ago.

  Or at least, he had been before Gallow had knocked it out of his hands and run for his life. And more importantly, for Robin Ragged’s.

  Attempt this, and we are at quits, Unwinter had said quietly, coldly. If you succeed, very well. If you do not, just as well. But in either instance, I will watch over your Ragged, and give her every care and protection I may offer.

  How long that care and protection might last with Unwinter plagued was a different matter. Still, the promise was better than he thought he’d get, and Gallow found he didn’t give a fuck how this fit into Unwinter’s plans or war with Summer. The two of them were ancient, the Sundering their goddamn war, and this was probably just a sideshow. Not so long ago Jeremiah had told himself he didn’t care if he died, as long as Robin was safe. Told himself that just as Robin wasn’t a usual faithless side, he wasn’t either.

  Here was his chance to prove it.

  He touched his lips to the flute-bell of the Horn. Inhaled… and lowered it, spending the breath uselessly. He closed his eyes. Funny, he’d been ready to die, or if not ready, at least resigned. The poison now seemed like an easy out, but of course it couldn’t ever be easy, could it.

  Not for Jeremiah Gallow.

  Do you really expect to pull this off, Jer?

  Behind him, Unwinter’s Keep held its breath. Were they watching him from the slit windows, peering from the casements, sidhe highborn and low crowding for a glimpse? Was Unwinter in one of the towers, looking down?

  The urge to turn around and make an obscene mortal gesture passed through him, drained away.

  He took a step onto the bridge. Another. A third. Raised the Horn again.

  In every battle, you had to give your name.

  “I am Jeremiah Gallow,” he whispered into its smaller mouth. Then, the irrevocable words. “And I will master you.”

  Then, quickly, before he could lose his nerve, he sealed his mouth to the Horn, and exhaled.

  Hard.

  THE SLUAGH

  13

  A silver nail pulling a golden thread, a thunder passing through ears and heart and chest all at once, a wall of noise so great it was almost soundless.

  It rolled through Summer, that sound, a trembling through the green hills and the smoke-shamed orchard where Summer’s apple trees lifted their gnarled, ever-blossoming limbs. Summerhome quivered on its hill, the green-and-white stone flushing icy blue for a single crystalline moment. From the graceful spunsugar mountains to the white-sand shores of the Dreaming Sea, from Marrowdowne’s sinks to the high heaths where the giants and trollkin passed their slow, lumbering days, a single precise shiver passed, shifting every sidhe, awake or asleep, just a fraction of an inch. In the greatest of her halls, bolt upright on the low bench that served her as a throne, Summer raised her golden head, and the Jewel upon her brow flashed, an emerald star, as if it had not been drained and darkened by the assault upon her lands.

  In the lands of the free sidhe, from the trashwood groves just a breath of the Veil away from mortals to the deep bramblecaves where the scions of unhappy fullblood unions huddled—say, for example, the son of a dryad and a troll, or a satyr’s leering clovenhoof get—pixies thickened, following the sine wave of disturbance through tavern and waste lot, greenbelt and forgotten land clinging to the edges of urbanization. In the mortal realm, a thrill ran through the blood of any being with a share of sidhe, no matter how small. Some, artists or musicians, had nightmares; others seized upon whatever work was to hand and redoubled their efforts. Tired mortals with only a drop of sidhe blood found new strength surging through their veins, and with the sudden jolt came a nameless fear, one that caused shivers or breakdowns, dreams or a moment of déjà vu. Standing on the crushed-mint grass near a hungry-humming redbarked oak, a Half sidhe with worn mortal boots and a hoop of cold iron in his ear, hidden under fat snakes of matted dark hair, staggered as he attempted to leap onto the trail of his prey.

  Do you hear?

  The sound rippled in concentric rings through Unwinter’s ash-starred land, from the Dak’r Woods where a Half girl in ragged black velvet, her white hand buried in the ruff of a goldenred dog, suddenly clapped her other hand to her ear and folded down, hunching as an amazing black bolt of dreadful pain lanced through her skull, to the Ash Plains where the white flax and the occasional stars of crimson poppies bent under a sudden freezing lash, cinder-smears falling from a black sky mixed with diamondprick snowflakes. In the knife-sharp cliffs above the Keep and along the jagged teeth of the mountains that held the rest of the land from sliding deeper into the Veil the great wyrms stirred in their hot slumbers, the smaller ones slithering for the mouths of their caves, their blunt or fringed or narrow noses lifted to test the cold, clear breeze. The Fell Moragh and the Harrhall, the deep luminescence-coated tangle of the drow barrowtown of Usnaragh, and the stones of the ancient doorways into the mortal world, blood-refreshed at every hunt, jumped with tiny specific movements, thudding back into place as the sound-unsound settled into a reverberation felt in tooth-root and marrow.

  Did you hear that?

  The sidhe whispered among themselves. Naiads, their long hair raveling on the surface of sea or river, pond or lake, bent their pretty heads together. Dryads gathered in knots, hushed, and for once satyrs did not chase them but stood solitary sentinel, horned heads upflung and broad nostrils quivering. Kelpies and selkies hesitated, between horseform and biped shape, their wicked teeth gleaming as they snorted and stamped; among them, night-mares or elfhorses along the shores of the Dreaming Sea—which touches all shores, always—tossed their manes but did not neigh. Greenjacks and jennywillows flitted from branch to branch, liggots swarmed into any hole they could find, brughnies drew back into the shelter of whatever hearth they claimed or cleaned, and in the sky above every portion of sidhe land, whether Unwinter, Summer, or free, the gebriels and harpies took wing, cloud-dogs and bird-women not rending each other’s flesh but simply winging hard among birds and other flitting airborne things. Giants and trollkin stamped uneasily on the moors, and deep in every dwarven cavern the Red or the Black of the earthfolk, and the Outcaste besides, halted in their creation of whatever beautiful thing they had conceived. Hammers raised, tongs slipping, beards quivering, they listened, and the great hush in the halls of every mountain was swallowed by the slipslithering of the wyrms as they moved restless and fuming.

  What is it?

  Highborn fullblood paused in their crystalline halls, or halted in their business. Elf-maids older than the mortal idea of history shivered, their true age revealing itself in a single moment of transparent loveliness touched with unthinking wisdom as their hair fell free of braids and ribbons; elf-knights both Seelie and Unwinter paused as their armor woke with the glow of chantment chasing, cups of lithori or bloodwine falling from graceful hands. The Half paused, and more than one sank to the ground, hoping whatever it was would pass them by, a deep chill flashing through the mortal part of their blood and bones.

  What is it?

  Barrow-wights clustered at the entrances to their dank cold burrows, the bleached gold of their jewelry flashing with rich sunglow for a bare moment, their noseless faces flush with pale skull-light. The drow and trow bared their curving teeth, hags and skinnocks and gytrash and robber leprekha and every other manner of sidhe halting, heads lifting, listening, listening.

  Do you not know?

  Dark corners lit themselves with foxfire, as if pixies had decided to lead astray every being in the sidhe lands at
once. The low cobweb glow twisted, spun itself into ghostly patterns, almost, almost coalesced… and collapsed back into the mothering earth or moldering stone, vanishing like dewdrops at noon. Then some few of Danu’s folk sighed with relief, but if there were others about who cared for them, they were chided.

  Hide. Hide now, hide quickly.

  Shutters slammed, doors closing, dryads fleeing for their trees, naiads flickering back into the depths, the Dreaming Sea turning to glass as its inhabitants withdrew from the dangerous surface, lake and forest gone quiet-placid, drow barring their burrow-gates, dwarves shrinking not only behind their great clandoors but also into their individual houses, some even bolting their bedroom doors and retreating to their narrow pallets. Harpies and gebriels and birdlike things plummeted, seeking the safety of nests, and only the pixies remained, uneasily flitting from one corner to the next.

  Pennants ceased their motion over Summerhome and Unwinter’s Keep as the wind itself died, dropping the bannercloths like old rags. Giants stumped for their chimmerpearl castles and trolls retreated below bridges or into stoneform, withdrawing. Flowers sealed themselves into buds, and in Summer’s orchard, the drift of white blossom arrested itself, petals hanging in midair, waiting.

  What is it? Some few of them asked. Why are we hiding?

  The wiser replied, Shhhh, hold your tongue, stay still.

  One sidhe alone moved, crossing the bridge over Unwinter’s glassy moat with long strides, the Horn falling from his nerveless hand and melting into its medallion-shape, quivering with anticipation. From hill and dale around the Keep the foxfire gleams rose, and they did not collapse.

  To wind the Horn was to call the most ancient of Hunts from its restless sleep. Since before the Sundering only one sidhe had done so, for only one sidhe possessed a will harsh enough to bind the ravening, unforgiven dead to a command. It was whispered that once, long ago, when the Horn fell to earth, he had been the only one brave enough to wind it, and the only one canny enough to escape the host it called from whatever unquiet depths housed the aching remnants of every angry thing lost in the depths of Time, so old they had lost even the slumber-dream of death.

 
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