Technically, this wasn’t the biggest fight I’d ever been in. That title went to the battle against the necromancer back in Russia. That had been literally global in scale, with the battlefield proper sprawling across miles.
But in a way, that fight had been too big to really register in an impressive way. It was too massive for me to take it all in or grasp the reality of what I was seeing. It was also hard to see, and I’d been effectively high on magic and the Wild Hunt for most of it, so it wasn’t all that surprising that it hadn’t quite seemed real.
This, on the other hand, was entirely real.
When Scáthach said the talking was over, nobody hesitated. The fae, in all their horrid and lovely varieties, threw themselves forward. Strange and confusing magic blazed in the air, things I didn’t understand and couldn’t fully perceive. Light blazed and pulsed in colors that didn’t make sense, weapons were raised, and the fae screamed their war cries as they threw themselves into the fray. The high, ululating calls of the Sidhe, the mad cackling of the hags, the roaring of the goblins, the sad broken songs of the rusalki, the laughter and stamping feet of the redcaps, all blended together into a deafening cacophony.
Had it been just me there, I would have quailed before that noise. It would have left me trembling, and with reason; I’d gotten stronger over the years, but against this, I was nothing much.
Against a small army of jötnar, it was…insufficiently impressive.
The giants gave their answer, screaming and singing and roaring, gnashing their teeth and beating axes against shields, rapping spears on the floor. They actually drowned the faeries out, deafening me, and even the Sidhe paused at that, seeming to hesitate at the thought of fighting these lunatics.
Then they got over it, and the fighting started in earnest.
I couldn’t really keep track of it. It was too big, and it was all around, to every side. Even overhead; sylphs flew above on their insectile wings, and jötnar swatted them down or threw spears of ice at them, tearing gaping holes in those wings.
Mostly I only got snapshots. The group of jötnar who had been chewing their shields rushed forward into the melee, howling like wolves and screaming something about Odin. They lashed out viciously, brutally, without any thought for their own defense. They were using their shields more as weapons than defensive tools, knocking the fae down and breaking their bones by main force. I watched as one of them lost his spear. He didn’t even slow down, just crushed another goblin’s skull with his fist and picked up the corpse, swinging it like a club.
On the other side, the fae pressed in. A group of Sidhe managed to make headway, moving with unnatural speed and grace as they cut down one jotun after another, and other fae were following them, goblins, an ogre. Then one of the jötnar, a female wearing a dark cloak rather than steel armor, struck a staff against the ground and said a line in Norse. I felt a surge of magic, dark and hostile, and all of those fae fell to the ground, screaming and writhing in agony.
Some of the fae tried to bring their own magic to bear, countering the jotun’s seithr or attacking in return. But it didn’t seem to be working. There was a lot of iron in that room now, and almost all of the jötnar were solidly encased in steel. Given time, the fae might have been able to deal with it; they were nothing if not resourceful, after all, and iron was a well-known weakness of theirs, something they would be prepared for an attacker to know about. But they didn’t have time. They were in the middle of a fight, and by and large, they were losing.
All of that, though, faded from my awareness when Skrýmir reached Scáthach. Because that was…well, it wasn’t something to look away from.
Skrýmir’s honor guard peeled away as they got close. Two of them went to fight Black Annis, dodging in and out of reach of her iron claws, cutting into her with their weapons little by little. The rest of them spread out, holding off the lesser fae that would have moved in to interfere. They fought as fiercely as the rest of the jötnar, but at the same time there was strict discipline and a great deal of coordination there. They didn’t slip, didn’t advance too far, didn’t interfere with each other’s movements.
Hinzelmann was standing quietly to the side. His hands were clasped behind his back, and a quiet smile played around the corners of his lips. He still looked like a young child, but the look in his eyes was ancient and alien, and out of the corner of my eye I could see dark flames burning in their depths. I noticed that no one, not a single one of the fae or the jötnar, got within ten feet of the ancient kobold.
That left Skrýmir and Scáthach dueling each other, and it was one of the most impressive things I’d ever seen. She had a long sword in one hand and a shield in the other, both made out of glittering crystal, though she’d been unarmed when we came in. He had just his axe, and disdained any shield or armor.
The Faerie Queen was faster, more graceful, and more precise than possibly anything I’d ever seen. She moved so fast that she was little more than a blur, her long black hair whipping around her. It was beautiful to watch, even more than usual for the fae. The Sidhe are never more beautiful than when they dance, and this was one of the greatest of the Sidhe in the purest, most intense dance there was. It was lovely beyond words, and the fact that she’d have cut me to ribbons in a matter of seconds just made it more so.
Indeed, had it been anyone other than Skrýmir standing in front of her, she might have been winning.
But it wasn’t.
Skrýmir’s fighting was not beautiful. It was not delicate. It didn’t look like a dance. It wasn’t that he was slow or clumsy, and it certainly wasn’t that he wasn’t skilled. It just looked like what it was: a huge, incredibly strong man trying to cut someone into pieces with an axe.
She was faster than he was. She was subtler than he was. But he was just as skilled as her, if in a very different sort of way, and he was far stronger. Thus far she’d dodged or deflected every strike of his axe, but it was obvious that if he could connect solidly with even a single stroke, it would all be over for her. Meanwhile, she’d cut him several times, but it didn’t seem to matter. He was just too big and too tough and too relentless for the small, stinging wounds to matter.
I wanted to do something, to contribute something to the fight, but I wasn’t sure how. Things were opening up a little more now, giving me more space, but I was still in the center of the jotun contingent, with several ranks of friendlies between me and the nearest of the fae. I could throw weapons into the crowd, but the clean division between the two sides had collapsed, fae and jötnar tangled up like water and oil after being shaken. My weapons were mostly indiscriminate, the sort of thing that I couldn’t use to hit just one person.
Kuzunoha was throwing balls of silver fire with uncanny precision, and Katsunaga had vanished at some point, presumably to stab some of the fae from behind with his many, many knives. Snowflake and Kyra had both run into the crowd, low enough to the ground to avoid the press and the violence. They slipped between the legs of the jötnar and attacked the fae, biting and tearing, tripping them and pulling them down.
That left just Aiko and I standing in the middle of the room, not doing anything beyond watching. She was still leaning on me to stay standing, and she was shivering.
It was cold, I realized. I hadn’t quite been aware of it, not consciously, but it was well below zero in that room now. The jötnar had brought the eternal winter of Jotunheim with them, snow flying through the air, frost and snow on the ground.
I pulled Aiko close and wrapped my cloak around her, sharing what warmth I could. It wasn’t much, but she took it gratefully.
We walked forward towards Scáthach and Skrýmir. We had to move slowly, since Aiko still wasn’t steady on her feet and she was slipping a little on the ice.
I wasn’t. I wasn’t slipping, and I wasn’t unsteady. If anything, I felt better than before. I had been feeling a little weak, a little clumsy, the wounds I’d sustained getting in here dragging me down. And I was still aware of that feeling, but it didn’t seem to be affecting me as much as it had been.
I had a distinct and uneasy suspicion that my improved condition and the presence of so much unnatural cold were not unconnected. But that was something to be dealt with another time.
Skrýmir finally got a solid hit in, a two-handed swing coming down on Scáthach at a diagonal. The Sidhe queen got her shield up to block the attack, but the hit was brutally powerful. The shield shattered under his axe, and the sheer force was enough to break Scáthach’s arm behind the shield and knock her back close to ten feet.
Elsewhere, the tide had turned against the fae, to an extent that couldn’t be denied. In the end, they just weren’t a match for what they were up against. The fae were creatures of deception and trickery. They were powerful and deadly, to be sure, but at heart they weren’t creatures of open battle and direct conflict.
The jötnar? They were. These were some of the greatest warriors of a warrior culture, a culture where prowess in battle was everything. They lived for moments like this.
Oh, some of the giants fell. Some of them died. But there were far, far more fae bodies on the ground. The berserks had carved a path through the ranks of fae, with Snowflake biting and tearing beside them, as mad and gleeful in battle as they were. Skrýmir’s personal guard were pushing the fae back to the edge of the room, still tight and disciplined; not a one of them had fallen yet. I didn’t think any of them were even wounded. The jotnar mounted on wolves rode back and forth, trampling the wounded and launching quick attacks against the wounded, disrupting any semblance of coordination.
Here and there a pocket of the fae started to turn the tide, but it never lasted. The volva chanted and worked her magic, and bad things happened to them, everything from stumbling at an inopportune time to dropping to the ground with blood pouring from their eyes, noses, and ears.
I shuddered a little at that one, and reminded myself to never, ever make Signý mad at me. Seithr was a hell of a nasty tradition of magic when it chose to be.
Scáthach was standing and fighting again, but she was more hesitant now. With one arm shattered beyond use and her shield broken, she was off balance, not as capable as she was. She was still beautiful as she fought, but it was a broken, off-kilter sort of beauty, a bird with a broken wing.
“You brought this on yourself,” I called, helping Aiko over the corpse of an ogre in the way. Some of the jötnar were moving with us now, a loose formation trailing behind us. “Remember that, Scáthach. You started this fight.”
She snarled and threw herself at Skrýmir, a straightforward lunge that buried her blade in his side.
The giant just smiled indulgently down at her and chopped at her leading leg with his axe. It was a short stroke, inside the effective range of the weapon, but it still cut halfway through her thigh, slicing through her femur and leaving little more than a chunk of meat holding her leg on.
On a human, either of the wounds they’d just traded would be lethal and then some. But they weren’t human. They weren’t even like human. Scathach threw herself back, wrenching the sword out, and passed her hands over the cut in her leg, murmuring quietly in a language I didn’t recognize. Shadows followed her motions, weaving themselves through and around the cut to hold it closed. She left some blood on the ground and she was clumsier than I could have imagined her being yesterday.
Skrýmir just grinned as the blade was pulled out of him. Blood followed it, but not as much as I’d have expected. I couldn’t see, but I was guessing there was a plug of ice in the wound, keeping it from actually doing much.
Elsewhere, the last ogre went down in a tangle with the bear-headed jotun. The giant’s jaws bit done once, twice, and then something tore on the third bite and the ogre stopped struggling.
“Stop!” Scáthach shouted, backing up to stand next to her throne. “You fools, you haven’t even considered the ramifications of your actions!”
“Really?” I said. Aiko and I reached Skrýmir’s position, and the three of us kept moving, advancing on her. “Because it seems to me that you’re only saying that now that you’ve lost.”
“There will always be a Maiden of the Midnight Court,” she spat. “There always has been, there always will be. Nothing you can do will change that.”
“The Midnight Court must always have its queens,” Skrýmir said. “Nothing says it has to be you.”
“Ah, but who will it be?” Scáthach said. She was grinning now, and she looked genuinely insane, her smile too broad, her eyes too wide and staring. “Have you thought about that? The role will not sit idle and wait to be filled. Kill me, and it seeks out the nearest person that can fill it.”
“Do I care?” I asked.
“You should. It has very specific requirements.” She was still grinning and staring, and it was starting to creep me out. Her eyes were too green, her teeth too sharp. She did not look beautiful anymore, not even in a scary way. “It will seek someone female, young by the standards of her kind. Someone with power. Someone who has a longstanding connection to the Courts. Someone who has been touched with the power granted by the role in the recent past, who carries it on her like a stain. Is this ringing any bells, oh jarl?”
I wasn’t stupid. “You’re talking about Aiko,” I said flatly.
She laughed and clapped delightedly. “Aha!” she said. “Enlightenment dawns! Tell me, is it worth it? Will you condemn your lover in that way for the sake of revenge? Will you burden her with my crown if that’s what it takes to kill me?”
I came to a halt about ten feet away from her. Skrýmir stopped next to me, glancing at me. I wasn’t sure quite how, but I was absolutely certain that the ball had just been put back into my court. He wasn’t calling the shots right now; I was. As far as he was concerned, it was my choice what we did next.
I stood there and tried to make it. This was…it was so typical. It was so fucking typical of the Sidhe. Not just screwing us over, but manipulating us into screwing ourselves. Giving us a choice where every path led to disaster, where we had to hurt ourselves just to survive.
I was so sick of it all. Sick of these choices. Sick of winning the battle to lose the war.
Before I could settle on a decision, Aiko walked up and shoved an iron dagger into the small of Scáthach’s back.
The Faerie Queen gasped in shock and sagged to the ground. Aiko let her fall, leaving the knife in place.
Nobody else moved. We were all staring, unable to look away from what was happening before our eyes.
“You think I’m stupid?” Aiko said. “You think I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here? I’m not stupid. I’ve spent long enough around you people to know how the game works.”
Scáthach opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. Maybe she couldn’t. Even for someone on her level, she’d taken a lot of physical abuse in the past few minutes.
“I’m not going to kill you,” Aiko continued. “I wouldn’t take your job for the world. But even if you hadn’t told me that, I wasn’t going to kill you. Like I said earlier, I’m inclined to get creative about this. So you can take your threats and shove them up your ass.”
The kitsune squatted down next to the Sidhe, and grinned. It was a nasty grin, sharp and humorless. She was enjoying herself, I was pretty sure. Aiko had always had a vindictive side.
“I’m going to leave you here,” she said. “Just like this. You’re wounded. Not just wounded, but crippled. You won’t be fighting any time soon. You won’t even be walking. How do you think your subjects will treat you, do you think? Knowing that you’re weak? That your most loyal followers all just died in this room? That you failed? Do you think the Midnight Court will be kind to you in your moment of need?”
Scáthach glared at her, took a swing with her good arm. It was slow and clumsy, and Aiko slipped aside easily.
“Yeah,” the kitsune said. “That’s what I think too. That’s what’s going to happen to you, Scáthach. You’re going to lie here in agony, surrounded by the corpses of your loyal retainers, until your own followers find you and fight over which one gets to kill you. And they won’t kill you clean, either. You don’t rule the nice Court, after all. You’re going to die slow and nasty, and you’ll know the whole time that you’re helpless to do anything about it. I don’t normally do this kind of thing, but for the shit you did? I think this is fair.”
Everyone in the room was looking at her with new respect now. I mean, I wasn’t, since I already knew she had this side to her. And besides, she was right that this was pretty much what Scáthach deserved. Turnabout is fair play, after all.
But most everyone else was looking a little scared, or even a little bit queasy.
“Well,” Skrýmir said after a few seconds, “I believe your sentence has been pronounced, Queen. We’ll be leaving now.”
“Someone should restrain her,” I pointed out. “That way she can’t just kill herself when we turn our backs, and screw Aiko over anyway.”
“Allow me,” Hinzelmann said, the first thing he’d said. I’d almost forgotten he was even there. He gestured slightly, and I could smell his magic on the air, a dark, secretive sort of smell, earth and fire and bloody secrets kept hidden from the light of day.
A few seconds later that magic congealed into chains of black metal, wrapped tightly around Scáthach from head to toe. They were covered in barbs, which dug into her skin, and pulled tight enough to cut into flesh.
Scáthach screamed then, a high, piercing, agonized scream, and kept screaming until another chunk of metal appeared in her mouth, gagging her.
I stared at the kobold. “Why?” I asked.
“She ordered me to be here tonight,” he said in a sweet, calm voice. “No one gives me orders.” He brushed a fleck of dust off his jacket and walked away, leaving her there wrapped in those chains.
Aiko stared down at her for a few seconds longer, then walked back to me and hugged me. I hugged her back, although the armor got in the way a little on both sides.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go home.”