“What manner of trial?” I asked, with a sort of morbid curiosity. I was sure it wasn’t going to be the boring kind, with a judge and a courtroom. It was never that easy.
“Precisely the question I was just considering,” Scáthach said, with a smile that looked uncomfortably similar to that of a cat watching a canary. “Trial by ordeal would be amusing, but there aren’t many ordeals that would be fair. Most of those I could think of would be crueler to one of you than the other.”
Most, I noted. Not all. She was playing with me, and I suspected she was playing with him just as much. Not just a cat watching a canary, a cat holding a canary. She knew what choice she was going to make. Probably she’d known since before I’d even called her.
“Trial by combat,” she said, as though she’d stumbled onto some great revelation. “That would be fair. Let you prove the rightness of your respective positions.”
“You really like your duels, don’t you?” I said. “First Pier, then this.”
“I am a traditionalist,” she said, smiling even wider. “Speaking of which, let us consider the rules under which this duel shall be fought. I think it would be appropriate to follow the traditions of my people, as this accusation is entirely within the framework of my Court.”
The traditions of her people? What was that supposed to mean? And why was she smiling?
I realized it a moment before she continued. “Iron, naturally, will be banned,” she said. “The duel shall be fought within the confines of the circle; any exit shall be considered a forfeit. The duel shall be fought to surrender, or to the point of death if neither party concedes.”
Shit. At one stroke, she’d effectively crippled me. Forbidding iron and steel meant that I wouldn’t have my armor, or Tyrfing, which were my only real advantages in a fight with one of the fae. If I fought as a human, I would be reduced to a handful of knives and some stored spells. As a wolf, my greatest strength was mobility, which was almost useless if we couldn’t step outside the circle.
I eyed the Sidhe noble I was supposed to be dueling, sizing him up. He was wearing armor, some material that looked like silver, and carrying a sheathed sword. He was smiling, a confident, smug sort of smile.
“What if I do not like these rules?” I said, thinking furiously. I was trying to come up with options, and so far I wasn’t having much luck.
“I would consider it an admission that your accusation is false,” Scáthach said. “In which case you would owe a debt to my Court, as recompense for unfairly having insulted the honor of one of my subjects.”
Wonderful. Behind one door was a fight which was stacked against me so hard that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the person I was supposed to fight had been coached on my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Behind the second was owing a favor to Scáthach, being found guilty by the Conclave, and having whatever reputation I’d managed to accrue ripped to shreds.
Did I even want to know what was behind door number three? I suspected not. I could probably talk her into changing the rules, or dismissing the whole concept of a trial by combat, but there would be a cost. It was almost guaranteed that I wouldn’t be making my situation any better. Dealing with the fae was not unlike quicksand; they were experts at ensuring that every move you made just drew you in deeper.
The one bright side, in this situation, was that same patience I had been bemoaning earlier. They were immortal; a few minutes was essentially immaterial to them. Neither of them seemed to have any problem with standing there in total silence while I thought through my situation.
Okay. Things were bad. But the reason things were bad was that I’d gotten myself into this position. If you wanted to beat the fae, you had to think in twisty ways, you had to move so far away from what you wanted that it had to come to you instead. Above all else, you had to do something they weren’t expecting, because if you gave them what they were expecting they’d play you like a fiddle. I’d been moving in straight lines this whole time, thinking that the situation was straightforward, and I’d gotten screwed as a result.
So. In this situation, she was expecting me to back down. That was the smart, rational, predictable thing to do. I would back down, eat crow, and she’d own me. Slightly less rational was that I’d try to talk to my way out of it, attack one of the positions she’d used to justify these rules, or worm my way out of it somehow. I was confident that she had something planned if I tried that. It’s pretty much impossible to beat the fae at rules lawyering. They invented it.
So I couldn’t back down. I couldn’t talk my way out of the fight. Could I actually win?
I looked at the duke again, more critically. He was armed and armored in what I was willing to bet was a silver alloy, which was a problem, but the fact that he’d felt the need for that equipment was telling. He was a noble, a politician. He’d probably fought to get there—it would be hard to achieve a high position in the Midnight Court without being a hardened killer—but since then he’d had minions to do his dirty work for him.
I had minions, too, but I’d kept myself hands-on. Jötnar, much like werewolves, expected their leaders to lead from the front and handle threats personally. The Sidhe were basically the opposite, considering it an admission of weakness to fight for yourself. There was a good chance that I’d done more fighting recently than he had.
It would be risky. But hell, that was inevitable. If I kept playing the odds, the house would inevitably win in the long run.
“The terms are accepted,” I said.
Scáthach didn’t blink, but I thought there might be the tiniest hesitation before she continued. “Very well,” she said. “I shall draw the circle.”
“Draw?” I said. “Why? We are standing in a circle, at present, one which has been used by your people for hundreds of years. We would be following an ancient tradition, in using it as our dueling ground.”
I was sure she hesitated, this time, but there wasn’t a lot she could do. She couldn’t argue with what I’d said without admitting that her reasons for restricting my choice of weapons had been a front. She could have overruled me, of course, but this was a Faerie Queen; she’d rather die than admit she’d been outmaneuvered, even for a moment.
“Very well,” she said at last.
“Good,” I said with a smile. I’d managed to retain some advantage, at least. “Allow me to remove my associates from the field and prepare myself, and we can begin.”
They didn’t argue, and I walked down the hill to the edge of the faerie ring. I carried Aiko, and Snowflake herded the doppelganger along. Legion walked at a distance from us, silent as usual. He gave no indication of his thoughts or feelings about the duel, if he even had any.
The same could not be said of Snowflake. This is stupid, she said. You’re going to get yourself killed. Remember the last time you tried to fight a duel against someone from the Courts?
That was Carraig, I pointed out. He’s a much better fighter than this guy. He had to be, in order to maintain order as Scáthach’s champion. He had to be. I was relying on that, because Carraig had kicked my ass so hard there was no question of fighting back, and while my skills had improved since then, I knew for a fact that he could still take me down any time he felt like it.
If I was wrong in my estimation of their relative competence, this trial by combat was going to be short and embarrassing.
It’s still a stupid idea, Snowflake said. You just set yourself up for a fair fight against someone who came here expecting to fight you. Since when is that your specialty?
True, I admitted. I’m hoping I can make it less of a fair fight than it’s supposed to be. If not, well…you have a better idea? Because I spent a while thinking about it, and I’ve got nothing.
No. Just don’t be stupid. The way she phrased it, you can always just back down.
I might be better off dying, I said, not entirely joking.
Great. No pressure.
At the base of the hill, I stepped over the line of mushrooms and set Aiko on the ground. She didn’t respond at all, not even a reflexive twitch. If she hadn’t been breathing I’d have wondered whether she was even alive.
Then I started stripping off my armor, stacking it neatly on the ground. I kept my cloak, although I had to take quite a few of my toys out of it. The rest of my clothing I folded and set on top of the armor. My leather bracelet I took off and wrapped loosely around my neck.
The pain of the change was distracting, but I was used to thinking through distractions. As my body started to warp and shift, I focused on the coming fight, planning my attack. It was hard, just because there were so many unknowns, but I could establish some broad strategic goals. My priorities were disarming my enemy, maintaining my own mobility, and keeping him from landing a decisive blow. He was likely to go for a quick win, simply because he knew what I was capable of and I had no idea what he could do. That gave him an advantage, but it was one that would fade quickly as I observed his behavior.
So. Keep moving, aim for the long game, and assume every attack was possibly lethal. Try for hit-and-run tactics, using the larger space I’d managed to arrange. Debilitate him if I got the chance. It was a vague plan, but that was the best I could really hope for under the circumstances. Good enough.
I pushed myself to my feet, wincing a little. My left foreleg was mostly numb, which made me a little slower on my feet than I’d once been, but I was still quicker than a human. With luck, it would be quick enough.
I stepped across the line of mushrooms again, leaving the others outside. My cloak dragged against the ground as I did, and I reshaped it to hug my body more closely. The result looked a little like those sweaters some people put on dogs, which wasn’t exactly the fashion statement I’d have liked to make, but screw it. It would work.
The center of the circle was in the house at the top of the hill, so that was where I went. As expected, I found Scáthach and the other Sidhe standing in the same room I’d left them in. I’d been gone for almost twenty minutes, arranging things to my liking and changing, but they didn’t even seem to have moved.
“Jarl,” she said as I walked into the room. “Are you prepared?”
I nodded, my eyes on the person I was supposed to be fighting. He was smiling, a little, but I could tell that he was more nervous than he wanted me to think. It was easy to see in the way he was standing, the way one hand rested on his sword. He hadn’t been expecting me to fight, I was guessing.
“Excellent,” Scáthach said, holding one hand out in front of her. She was holding what looked like a black silk handkerchief, which twisted in a nonexistent wind. “Let no weapon be drawn until this cloth touches the ground.”
I tensed, ready to move. The Sidhe duke was gripping his sword openly now. The room was dead silent, not even the sound of breathing to disturb the stillness. My heart was pounding, rapid and strong, ready for the coming exertion.
Scáthach disappeared, leaving the handkerchief to fall. I paid her no mind, all my attention focused on the scrap of cloth drifting through the air. It caught a crossbreeze and fluttered sideways, teasing, before it fell again. I heard the whisper of silk against wood as it brushed against the floor.
He heard it, too. At the exact moment it touched down, he lunged forward, drawing his sword as he did. It crackled with some kind of energy, and I no longer had any doubt that it was silver. Out of its scabbard, it ached, even at a distance.
But he’d reacted too fast to think. He’d been expecting me to hesitate, or back away, and I did neither. I charged straight at him instead, throwing myself forward with all four feet. I hit his left knee with my right shoulder, knocking him off balance, and then I was past. I was inside the arc of his swing, and he barely clipped my tail on the way by.
It hurt, a little. More from the proximity of the silver than anything; I was fairly confident he hadn’t even touched skin. I leapt for the window while he was off balance. I’d been expecting to shatter it, and relying on fur to stop most of the glass, but I got lucky. It popped out in one piece and I was through, leaving the glass to break on the ground behind me.
I trotted over to the open ground in front of the door, waiting. It took a minute or so for the duke to come out, but he wasn’t favoring the leg I’d hit. Pity. He had his sword in one hand, and the other upraised. He pointed at me with his empty hand as soon as he came through the door, and I jumped aside. There was nothing visible there, but I wasn’t taking chances.
Which was just as well, because an instant later the grass I’d been standing on started to wither and die. I still couldn’t see anything, but I could smell some kind of magic, distinctively Sidhe with notes of death and decay. Not something I wanted to get hit by, I was pretty confident.
He rushed at me without waiting to see whether his magic would connect. I was still off balance, and I couldn’t dodge away as easily as I would have preferred. The sword barely clipped my shoulder, and it hurt. Not just the pain of silver, although that was considerable; there was also something almost like being hit with an electrical current, sharp pain and twitching muscles.
I bit at his sword hand, though, and drew blood. I backed away before he could strike again, testing the injured limb, and found that it could support my weight easily enough.
We were both looking at each other with a sort of respect, now. I was slowed and made even more clumsy by the damage to my shoulder, but his grip was weakened. It was hard to say which of us had come out on top in that first clash.
I was right that he would try to win fast, though. I’d barely had a chance to determine that my leg was still working before he moved toward me. I turned tail and ran for the small cluster of trees that was the only real cover on the hill, wrapping myself in shadows as I went. Even injured and clumsy, four feet were better than two, and I outdistanced him easily enough.
Most of my mind was on analyzing that exchange of blows. I was pretty sure, from how it had gone, that I was right about this duke. He was fast, undeniably, faster than anyone had a right to be, but there was something lacking. It was hard to say quite what it was. Certainty, maybe, a confidence that what he did would work. He was missing the killer instinct that would have taken him from a skilled fighter to a terrifying one.
I made it to the trees, where my cloak of shadows would let me blend into the darkness, and turned to look back. I’d hoped that he would keep chasing me into the trees and I could ambush him, but there was no such luck. He seemed content to wait out in the open, and considering what he was, I had no confidence that I could outwait him. I could be patient when I had to, but eventually I would need to eat, or drink, or sleep. There was no guarantee that he would.
Then I noticed that he was still bleeding. I could smell it. That was a welcome surprise. I’d gotten so used to fighting things that could recover from almost any injury that I’d almost forgotten that you could hurt something and have it stay hurt.
That made my mind up for me. I moved out the other side of the trees, keeping my shadows tightly wrapped around myself, and started to circle around the hill. I knew better than to think my concealment would hold up against the direct scrutiny of any of the Sidhe, let alone one of their dukes, but with luck he would think that I was still in the trees. If he didn’t actually look at me, I might have a chance.
Even with a bad leg, I could move pretty quickly as a wolf. I circled around, out of sight, and then started up over the hill. In less than a minute, I was lurking in the shadow of the house, looking down at him.
I’d gotten lucky again. His attention was still focused on the grove of trees, and he appeared quite willing to wait there ’til the end of days. He had his sword out, but it wasn’t in a ready position, more just hanging by his side.
Now I focused on stealth, rather than speed. I wasn’t great at it, but I’d learned to move pretty quietly over the years, and a little bit of magic woven through the air and shadows around my paws muffled the noise even more. Between that, my cloak, and the fact that his attention was focused elsewhere, I thought that I might be able to get within fifty feet of him before he realized that I had moved.
I’d overestimated my skill, or underestimated his alertness. I’d barely covered half the distance between us when he perked up and started to glance in my direction, alerted by some small noise or scent. Or hell, maybe he’d felt the magic I was working; that kind of thing was natural for the Sidhe, after all.
I gave up on stealth entirely and just sprinted at him. He turned to face me and then visibly startled, flinching away. I couldn’t really blame him for it; from his perspective, a vaguely wolf-shaped patch of darkness had just started running at him at the next best thing to fifty miles per hour.
He recovered almost immediately, but I was already pretty close to him by that point. He started to raise his sword, and I could smell some kind of magic, but I was already leaping for him. I hit his upraised arm and clung, dragging him off balance, biting at his hand. The silver stung my paws and mouth, but I accepted it as the cost of doing business and kept biting, tearing at his fingers with my teeth.
He was wearing armored gauntlets, but they were never intended to stand up to this kind of focused assault. It was only a few seconds before I’d done enough damage to his hand that he couldn’t maintain his grip, and the sword fell to the ground.
I let go a moment later, picking up the sword in my mouth. Apparently even the hilt was made of some silver alloy, because that hurt too, burning my lips and tongue. I forced myself to ignore the pain and start running down the hill.
I’d barely taken three steps before the magic he’d been preparing hit me, wracking me with waves of pain. My muscles clenched and I tripped, bouncing head over heels down the hill. The muscle convulsions did serve one purpose, in that my jaws clamped down on the sword, preventing it from bouncing out or twisting on the way down. I even got lucky and didn’t disembowel myself with the thing.
When I came to rest, I was at the bottom of the hill, at the very edge of the dueling ground. Literally; some of the mushrooms of the faerie ring were pressed outward where I was lying on them.
Not quite out of the circle, though. Not quite disqualified.
It took me a few seconds to stand, and when I did my movements were still jerky and uncoordinated. I quickly moved back from the edge, lest I accidentally fall and land outside the circle.
Then, while the Sidhe was still halfway up the hill, I jerked my head and let go of the sword. It wasn’t a great toss, this not being something I’d practiced much, but the sword still flew a decent distance. It spun once in the air and then hit the ground, sinking in easily, so that it ended up sticking out of the dirt about fifteen feet outside the circle.
I shook my head, trying to clear the burning and numbness from my mouth, and then trotted up the hill a ways, grinning at the Sidhe. He was hesitating, and it wasn’t hard to see why. That sword had clearly been his main weapon, and it was going to be hard for him to get it back. He could conceivably go to the edge of the circle and throw a rope or something for it without breaking the rules, but he’d need at least a minute to do it.
That left us at something of an impasse. He was missing his sword, and I was guessing he’d used most of the magic he was going to. He’d thrown some fairly big punches already, after all, and he couldn’t be that much of a specialist in combat magic or he wouldn’t have needed a sword. He was still wearing that silver armor, though, which would slow me down considerably.
Neither of us was in a good position to hurt the other, then, and both of us were already injured. My mouth still hurt from carrying that sword, and I could smell the blood from his hand. All things considered, it was hard to say which of us was in the worse position.
Which, compared to where we’d started this fight, was a considerable step up for me. I was pretty sure he felt similarly, which was nice. Not so much because of the satisfaction I got from seeing his frustration, although it was considerable; no, I was more glad because it suggested that I was right.
He seemed less inclined to rush in now that he was disarmed, and I had no objection to keeping my distance for a minute. It would give the silver-inflicted burns on my mouth and paws some time to heal.
We circled each other for a minute or so, looking for weaknesses. I didn’t see any beyond what I’d already noted, which was troubling. I might have improved my situation, but he was still basically dressed in a suit of silver. It was going to be hard for me to do any real damage to him while he was wearing that. He knew it, too, which meant I couldn’t just scare him and hope the he’d surrender. It would have to be a credible threat to get a reaction out of him.
Fortunately, there was more than one way to win this fight.
I kept circling until I was on the uphill side, then charged. I feinted low and he crouched, trying to slash at me before remembering that I’d taken his weapon. Then I jumped at his face.
He caught me, trying to force me to grapple. It was a good move for him; every second in contact with him would be burning me, while my own attacks would likely skid aside on his armor. Fortunately for me, his grip was weak where I’d bit his hand, and I was able to squirm out of it after just a couple seconds.
Then I set my hind feet against his chest, and jumped.
There are certain rules that even supernatural beings can’t lightly ignore. Newton’s third law of motion is one of them. I’d put a bunch of force into him by jumping off of him like that, and not even magic could just make that force go away.
The force on me was sufficient to let me clear almost ten feet before I hit the ground. A proportional force, when he was already off balance from trying to catch almost two hundred pounds of wolf, was more than the duke could withstand. He fell.
And then, as people wearing armor who get pushed down on a hill without expecting it tend to do, he rolled.
Given a little time, he probably would have been able to self-arrest. But it wasn’t a very tall hill, and it was a fairly steep one. He rolled, and kept rolling until he reached the bottom.
I watched for a moment, but there was no indication that he had forfeited. I would have expected Scáthach to show up and declare it if he did, and she made no such appearance. Evidently he was in the same position I’d been in, brushing against the mushrooms of the faerie ring without quite crossing them.
I growled a little at that. I hate it when a fight goes fairly.
It was tricky fetching something from my cloak without hands, but I’d designed it well. I was able to dig out a small crystal sphere with my teeth and lob it at him before he’d finished standing up again.
It was a terrible throw, wildly off-target. I reached out and put a tailwind behind it, adjusting the density of the air around it so that it would go where I wanted it to.
It still wasn’t a great throw. It wouldn’t hit him. But it would get close enough that he would be in the blast radius when it hit the ground.
He saw it coming, and I was sure he could feel the magic in it. He reacted on instinct, moving the only way he could to get away from it. He stepped across the line.
A moment later, the sphere hit the ground and burst with a flash of light and a high-pitched howl. Harmless, although he’d had no way to know that. And, in fairness, I was carrying lethal spells and I’d have used one of them without hesitating if I could have. The flashbang had just been the first thing I grabbed.
And a moment after that, Scáthach stepped up next to him. I wasn’t sure where she stepped up from; she was just there, without any warning. Par for the course when it came to the fae, really.
“Duke,” she said, loudly enough that I could hear her halfway up the hill. “By exiting the circle, you have shown your lack of commitment to your position. I find in the jarl’s favor in your dispute. Return to your demesnes and await my displeasure.”
He bowed to her and turned away. A portal appeared in front of him after around thirty seconds and he stepped through it—without, I noticed, having said a single word since he showed up. Scáthach wasn’t shy about ruling her Court with an iron fist, it would seem.
And then she turned to face me. I sighed and trotted down the hill to learn how she’d turned my apparent victory into a win for her.