I was torn as to what the appropriate response in that moment was. There was a part of me that said I should hesitate, maybe try talking to this guy. We were, after all, basically in the same situation. Not completely, but we had enough in common that we could probably have sympathized with each other to some degree.
Most of me, though, was still caught up in the fight, in the rote, mechanical act of killing. And since that was the part of me that was in control, the conflict didn’t really manifest physically. My mind might have been torn as to what the appropriate response was, but my actions seemed very certain. The instant I saw the man, I lunged for his throat with Tyrfing, moving fast enough that I wasn’t sure whether a human would really have been able to see me move as anything more than a vague blur.
Naturally, that wasn’t a problem for this guy. He was, after all, a Champion of the Sidhe, and thus only human in the most technical sense of the word. He certainly wasn’t subject to many human limitations. He was moving before I’d covered more than a fraction of the distance to him, and while that axe looked heavy and slow, he could whip it around like it weighed nothing at all. Which he did, batting my sword away before I got anywhere near actually hitting him.
I was still fairly satisfied with the outcome, though. If nothing else, I’d closed the distance without getting slaughtered. That, in and of itself, was a win in my book.
Or, at least, that was what I initially thought. I was then forcefully reminded that while I was physically stronger than the vast majority of people, this was one of the few that I couldn’t say that about. So when I got close to him, he didn’t panic. He just picked me up and threw me with his spare hand.
I’d noted that I didn’t weigh as much as a flesh-and-blood person of my build would have. I hadn’t fully thought about what that might mean with, for example, being thrown.
It was a pretty strong throw. This was, after all, a champion of the Courts, and as such a hell of a lot stronger than any human could really expect to be. But where a person my size might have been tossed back a bit, maybe gone far enough to crash into people and stop that way, I flew.
I had a long moment, hanging in the air, to look down at the battle raging on the ground below me.
There were a lot of bodies in the grass.
When I crashed to the ground, I’d left the fighting far behind. I was up into the hills on the Daylight side of the plain, a fair distance from their camp.
I caught myself with a cushion of thickened air. This, too, was easier with my decreased weight; with the density of my body so much lower, air resistance could stall my movement much more effectively.
I still landed hard, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I hit the ground with a quiet crackle of breaking ice, but all the actual parts were still there afterward. It only took me a few moments to piece it all back together, and once I did it froze back together almost instantly, cords of darkness winding over it to hold it all in place while it did.
I’d stopped keeping up a human-ish appearance at some point during the fighting. I wasn’t entirely sure when. I wasn’t breathing, either, now that I thought about it.
Once everything was back more or less where it belonged, I pushed myself to my feet and started thinking about getting back to the fight. Running was still probably the best answer, I thought. Probably not the fastest, but it was simple and I knew it would work.
Before I could even start moving, though, a sunbeam bent and split, and the other champion stepped out of it.
I tensed, but he didn’t immediately start swinging. His axe was hanging by his side–still in position to defend himself if it became necessary, but not in an aggressive stance.
“You must be Winter,” he said. “Heard you’d taken the job. Aodh, nice to meet you.” He extended his hand.
I hesitated, then moved Tyrfing to my left hand and took it.
It was…just a handshake. He had a firm grip–hell, he could have crushed my hand to powder if he wanted to, probably–but that was all. No magical trap, no sudden attack.
He let go and stepped back a moment later. “Now, you seem to be under some misapprehensions as to the nature of your role,” he said. “And as I’m the only person who’s been doing it for any appreciable length of time, it falls to me to explain some things to you.”
I blinked. “What?”
“You heard me,” he said. “Look, there are certain things that anyone in this position will figure out given time. But waiting for you to catch on by yourself will just be inconvenient as hell, and I happen to have the day free, so I decided to come and educate you.”
“Okay,” I said. “Um. When you say you’re the only one who’s done this for any appreciable length of time…what does that mean?”
He shrugged. “Around three thousand years now. I stopped keeping track a long time ago.”
Three thousand years of this. Three thousand years of near-constant war. Three thousand years to practice with the kind of power that I’d had for a couple of days.
At that point, actually beating him ceased to be a possibility. It just…wasn’t a consideration. He was easily the match of Carraig, and while I’d gotten a lot better since I killed Carraig, I still wouldn’t bet on myself against him in a fair fight. Not remotely.
“All right then,” I said, taking a step back. “So…what did you want to say, again?”
He smiled slightly, in a way that made me think he knew exactly what I’d just been thinking. “Well, what it comes down to is this,” he said. “There’s a strong tendency, when people start out as champions, to think that the job is about winning fights.”
“And…it’s not?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No. It’s not. You see, Winter, there’s a secret, and as of now you’re on the inside of it. The Midnight Court doesn’t want to win.”
“No. Neither does the Daylight Court, for that matter.” Aodh shrugged. “Think about it, Winter. This war has gone on for four thousand years now. Do you really think that in all that time, neither side could have won? Do you think that there’s never once been an opportunity for one or the other to get an advantage that the opponent couldn’t recover from?”
I frowned. “I…don’t know. I guess I never thought about it.”
He nodded. “Most don’t. It’s a very good ruse. But that’s all it is. A ruse. The reality is that the war is convenient. It’s useful, to both sides.”
“Useful?” I asked. “How?”
Aodh sighed. “Now that is a good question,” he said. “And a few steps beyond the secrets that I’m sharing. Ask your Queen, and if she wants you to know, you will.”
“I’m not sure she knows.”
“If she doesn’t, she will soon,” he said. “It’s a part of her role.”
“That’s what I don’t get about this,” I said. “Role. If they don’t want to win, why do they have us? What’s the point?”
“We serve a purpose,” he said simply. “Purpose is the filter you need to think through. For example, what’s the purpose of this battle? The real purpose, mind.”
“Well,” I said slowly, “the purpose is supposed to be to take this scrap of land. But if I assume that’s a lie, I’d say…probably a chance for Aiko to establish herself. If both sides want to keep things stable, ensuring a smooth transfer of power is in everyone’s best interest. So she needs to show off in a fight.”
“Precisely,” he said. “Now consider. If you were to win here, by simply killing your enemies, what message would that send?”
I frowned. “I guess it would suggest that I was the one who won. Maybe even that she was relying on me to win.”
“You see?” he said. “Purpose. Had you kept on as you were doing, you would have actively undermined the purpose of this entire exercise. That would make my life more complicated, and I’m opposed to that.”
“This really isn’t how I pictured this going,” I said after a moment. “Aren’t we supposed to be…I don’t know, fighting or something? I mean, we’re enemies, aren’t we?”
“You could look at it like that,” Aodh said. “Or you could say that your job, here, was to remove a significant portion of the enemy’s forces. Which you did, in that you removed me from the field. The fact that we’re having a pleasant conversation rather than trying to murder each other is pretty immaterial, all things considered.”
“I…suppose so,” I said. “That seems like a weird way to look at it, though.”
“My advice? The sooner you break the habit of thinking that the rules of logic you’re used to apply here, the happier you’ll be.” Aodh grinned. “Now, I’m going to leave. I recommend that you go take a look at the rest of the battle. I think you’ll find it an…enlightening experience.”
Before I could respond he stepped into another ray of sunshine, and vanished.