Scáthach looked smaller than I remembered.
Before, I’d always approached her with the attitude that she was so far beyond me that a comparison was a waste of time. I’d seen her as a force of nature, something to be placated rather than opposed, with any thought of actually fighting her instantly dismissed.
Seen without that attitude, she was…less impressive. She was still tall for a woman, taller than I was, but she didn’t loom over me nearly as much as I remembered her doing. She was beautiful, her features as perfect and remote as a marble statue, but I could detect a degree of uncertainty there as well. I’d never have dared to use the term to describe her before, but her expression was actually petulant, like a spoiled child denied her own way.
Of her power over me, how much had I given her, by my own attitude? I suspected it was a lot of it. Oh, she was still vastly stronger than I was—Grandmother Midnight had straight-up told me so, and she was neither capable of lying nor likely to be mistaken on this topic.
But she was neither omnipotent nor infallible. I could defy her, and while I might lose, that wasn’t the only possible outcome.
We walked into her throne room, and found her sitting on the throne. It was much like the throne I’d seen her use before, a massive piece of crystal like an unbelievably large chunk of gem-quality amethyst. The violet crystal flared out behind her like a cobra’s hood, simultaneously providing a dramatic backdrop to the person sitting in it and making her look insignificant by comparison.
It occurred to me to wonder what that might feel like to Scáthach. A palpable, ever-present reminder that the office she held was more important than she was? It seemed likely. I thought I got her a little better now, between having been a jarl and having seen something of how the Midnight Court functioned. I’d thought of her as a titanic force, but now I could see that she was if anything more of a middle manager. She had pressure from above and resentment from below, and she lived every day with the keen awareness that she could be replaced as the Maiden of the Midnight Court without the other queens giving a damn.
It didn’t excuse what she’d done, and I had no intention of forgiving her for it. But I could sympathize with her a little more. I wouldn’t take that job for the world.
“I take it you killed Carraig,” she said calmly as we walked into the room. It was a vast hall, the ceiling lost in shadows overhead, the edges of the room fading into darkness. A narrow strip of light illuminated the path from the door to Scáthach’s throne.
“Yeah,” I said. “Do you even care?”
“He came to me seeking death,” she said. “Should I cry now that he has finally found it?”
It wasn’t an answer, but I didn’t press her on it. I was self-aware enough to know that there was nothing she could say now that would really satisfy me. I reached into my cloak instead, snapping a piece of slate between my fingers.
Aiko, understandably enough, was less willing to let Scáthach off the hook. “Why?” she snarled, gripping her wakizashi so tightly that her knuckles were white. “Why the hell would you do this?”
“Does it matter anymore?” Scáthach asked, leaning back idly. She was draped across the throne now, lounging with her head on one armrest and her feet hanging over the other.
“It matters to me,” Aiko snapped. “You stole four months of my life, and did a hell of a number on the rest of it. I think an explanation is the least you owe me for that.”
The queen shrugged. It was an apathetic shrug, disinterested. “As you wish,” she said. “I can see which way the wind blows, oh jarl. I knew that I was being used. I could see how the story would end. I simply chose not to comply with their desires.”
“You play the victim very well,” Kuzunoha said. Her voice was calmer than her daughter’s, sweet and polite, but I could hear the edge underneath, the raw anger burning just below the surface. “Your hand was forced. You were compelled by circumstance. You did nothing that would not have happened anyway. Cast yourself as a victim if you please, but your actions are still your own. You chose to do this. You made the choice to cross lines.”
“Don’t pretend you understand me, fox,” Scáthach said coldly. “You are not even a player in this drama. You have no part to play here. You have no place, here or anywhere. You never had anything to say on your own behalf, You are a servant of a dead god, a messenger without a message to carry. Your time has passed; kindly leave this conversation to those who still have some relevance to the world.”
Well, damn. I glanced over at Kuzunoha to see whether she was about to start trying to claw Scáthach’s eyes out, but apparently not even that provocation could really crack her composure. The nine-tailed kitsune’s expression went blank and cold, and her posture stiffened slightly, but beyond that there was no reaction.
“So,” Scáthach said, her vivid green eyes focusing on me again. An odd, unsettling smile played about her lips. “What shall it be, jarl? Will you take your lover and go? Or do you think to demand recompense from me, in exchange for the perceived crime that you accuse me of?”
I looked at her for several seconds. “Do you remember,” I said at last, “when I made my bargain with you a few years ago, I turned down your first offer. I told you then that there were some things that were off limits. When you told me that you’d wake Aiko, the one that was actually your impostor, I told you the same thing. I told you that she was off limits, no questions asked, not negotiable. I straight up told you that if you pushed me on that it would be one step too far. Do you remember that?”
There was a long, long moment of silence. “I remember,” she said, finally. Her voice had an odd tone to it, something I couldn’t quite place. In a human, I might have called it regret. Even if I thought Scáthach was capable of that emotion, though, this wasn’t quite right for it. There was another note to it, something subtler.
“So why do it?” I asked. “Why cross that line? Why couldn’t you just leave things be? All you had to do was stay away from that one thing, the one thing I told you not to mess with, and things could have been just fine. So why did you have to push it?” My voice rose as I spoke, until I was almost screaming by the end of it.
Scáthach seemed totally unfazed. “I am what I am, jarl,” she said calmly. “We cannot change our nature by wishing. In the end, we can all of us only be what we are.”
I sighed and nodded, feeling suddenly very, very tired. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess you’re right. And I guess we both know what happens next. I’m as bound by my nature as you are by yours.”
“Yes,” she said pensively. “I suppose you are. I want you to know that I never harbored any ill will for either of you, children. Had it been my choice, I would not have harmed you. But we all march to another’s beat in this matter. You and I were always going to reach this point, jarl. To apologize for this would be neither warranted nor deserved.”
Then she raised one hand and snapped her fingers. It was a small gesture, and a small sound, fading into the darkness almost instantly.
The result was immediate. Lights came on in the hall, bright silvery light like a half-dozen full moons shining down on us. And with that light, I could see what the darkness had hidden from me.
The room was full of monsters. Packed, wall to wall, with only a small space around the path left clear. There were Sidhe, sharp and lovely as well-honed swords, with cruel smiles on their lips. There were goblins, small misshapen creatures with too-large teeth and claws, grinning and gnashing their teeth. There were bogeymen, tall and slender things half-seen out of the corner of my eye, lurking at the edges of the shadows that still remained in the room. There were kobolds, ugly fae the size of children that walked wreathed in fire and dark magics and smelled of blood and secrets. There were rusalki, beautiful young women with their long wet hair hanging down over their faces. There were redcaps, ugly fae with metal-toed boots and bloody hats.
I stared. I’d been expecting something like this, but still. It was an impressive sight.
A pair of creatures stepped up behind Scáthach, one to either side of her. To her left was a tall, stooped hag, something that looked like an old woman until you looked close. Her hands were iron claws, long and sharp, and her teeth were jagged and too large, more appropriate to a shark than anything human. On the other side was what looked like a human boy in an expensive, if antiquated, red suit.
“Jarl,” Scáthach said, not looking away from me. “This is Black Annis, and the child is Hinzelmann.”
Wonderful. Just wonderful. Both of them were famous enough that I’d heard of them, and neither one was anything pleasant. Black Annis was a hag, the sort that liked to eat children and wasn’t picky about how she got them; Hinzelmann was a truly ancient kobold, who might appear benevolent at first but could turn vicious at a moment’s notice.
Either of those two was probably a match for me, and then some. Add in the army of lesser fae, some of whom were probably lesser only by comparison to the insanely powerful ones in front of me, and Scáthach herself, and I was about as far out of my depth as I’d ever been.
Then I noticed something else, and grinned. It was hard to say quite what the feeling was; it was something that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t known to look for it, and even then I suspected it was only possible because I was on the Otherside. The closest analogue I could think of was something scratching at the door, except that the door in question was more fundamental and abstract than any physical object.
“Finally,” I said, grinning. “Kuzunoha, could you get the door, please?”
The kitsune looked at me oddly, but she gestured slightly, all of her tails moving as she did. The silvery light around her strengthened, and I could smell her magic on the air, fox touched with ginger and cinnamon.
That scent strengthened over the next several seconds, and I began to notice another as well, something cold and hungry and flavored with freshly spilled blood. Scáthach and her army just stood and watched, apparently content to wait and see where this was going.
Then, with a palpable release of tension, the force holding the Way closed shattered. The hole appeared in the world, leading off in a direction I couldn’t place or name. A wind rose up all at once, blowing out of the Way as fierce and cold as if it had come down off the slopes of the Transantarctic Mountains. Snow flurries blew in with it, momentarily blocking my view.
When the snow cleared again, most of the clear space in the hall was no longer clear. It was full of jötnar, and more were pouring out of the Way, filling in the last few gaps. Some of the giants were barely larger than a really tall man, while others were much larger, easily the match of the ogres in the fae crowd. Most of them looked human, but a handful were very, very different. Here was one with two heads, there one that looked like a bear from the neck up. A handful rode on ridiculously huge wolves, the same as I’d seen back in the Wild Hunt.
They had one thing in common, though. They were armed and armored with bright, gleaming steel. There was chainmail and plate armor, swords and shields, axes and spears and massive hammers, all of them steel. One whole group was carrying wooden shields and steel-tipped spears, and had no armor other than the wolf pelts they wore as cloaks. Some of those giants were shaking, and others seemed to be chewing on their own shields; I didn’t miss the fact that even the other jötnar were giving them a wide berth.
The jötnar were muttering, shouting, and roaring. They were speaking Old Norse, but I could pick out a word here and there, mostly names. Loki was frequently referenced, as were his children; Fenrisúlfr seemed to be the favorite, but I heard Jörmungandr and Hel referenced as well, and even Váli and Narfi were mentioned a couple of times. Odin’s name was more common than I would have guessed, although they pronounced it differently than I was used to, almost more like Othin.
I was pretty sure I heard my own name in that mix, too. I optimistically wrote it off as my mishearing something, and decided to pretend that I hadn’t actually heard it at all. The alternative was too disturbing to contemplate right now.
There was a moment of stunned stillness from the fae as the jötnar marched into the hall. Even Scáthach seemed shocked into silence.
That silence was broken when Skrýmir stepped up to face Scáthach, only a few dozen feet separating them. The master of Utgard had the skin of a polar bear thrown around his shoulders, and an axe as large as I was in his hand. An honor guard of jötnar accompanied him; they weren’t as visually impressive as he was, but I had no doubt that they were absolutely lethal fighters. “So,” he said, “one of my kin has a grievance against you.” Skrýmir’s voice wasn’t loud, exactly, but it was so big that it damn near shook the floor.
Scáthach glared at me for an instant, and if looks could kill, I’d have dropped dead where I stood. Then she looked back to Skrýmir and smiled, smooth and sweet as honey. “I have no grievance with you, king of Utgard. This matter is between me and the jarl.”
“That isn’t how this works,” the jotun said lazily. “See, the boy told me he has a legitimate grievance against you, and from what I heard here, I believe it. You went after one of his people, and you did it in about the least honorable way possible. You don’t do that, Scáthach. Not to my people.”
“And since when is he your people?” she said. Her voice was still sweet, but there was an ugly undertone to it now, something vicious and nasty. “The child is hardly of your blood, and he is more a liability to you than an asset.”
“He drank my mead and took me as his liege,” Skrýmir said. “Maybe the Courts have lost their honor, but where I come from oaths still have meaning.” He then sighed. “You really don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “I don’t like you, Scáthach. I don’t like the way you operate, I don’t like what you stand for. And now you try to screw one of my people over in about the most underhanded, despicable, cowardly, contemptible way I can think of, and you have the gall to tell me I should thank you for it?”
Scáthach nodded. “I understand what you are saying,” she said. “Will you accept weregild as reparation?”
“No,” he said, hefting his axe. “I don’t think so. I don’t care to take your reparations. I name you ergi, Scáthach. I call you a nithing.”
When he said that, every single one of the jötnar in the hall went silent. Absolutely silent. Every single one of them. I wasn’t sure quite what he’d just said about her—given that he’d used the Norse words, I was guessing the concepts didn’t even have an equivalent that I could fully grasp. But from their reaction, I was pretty sure it was about the worst thing he could have called her.
“Well, then,” she said. “I believe we’re done talking now.”