“I can’t beat your band of heroes, true, but what if there were another eight bands also out for my blood? Ha! What are you going to do, form a line?”
– Dread Emperor Irritant, the Oddly Successful
I took one look at the Fields of Wend and started cursing in Mthethwa. Lower Miezan just didn’t have that register of pure spite the Soninke tongue did. A mile of glaciers lay at my feet, their differing heights and shifting movements filling the air with the sound of fracas every few heartbeats. Named or not, if I got stuck between two of those I’d be a woman-shaped pile of broken bones. I was really hoping the prophecy of lies was going to work out, because if it didn’t it was going to take Hakram most of a day to find all the bloody pieces of what was left of my body.
“You got fucked on the arena,” Archer noted cheerfully. “And not even in the fun way.”
“I’d noticed, thank you,” I replied crabbily.
The only saving grace of the Fields was that the uneven relief would make it easier to take cover when the Duke of Violent Squalls started throwing a storm and a half at my head. I was very, very glad I’d decided not to wear armour. I wasn’t so good a swimmer I’d avoid sinking to the bottom if I slipped. My plate had been repaired by the servants and set out for me, but I’d chosen something lighter instead. Grey trousers went down into the same pair of good boots I’d taken to the masquerade, over them a thick gambeson that went down to my knees. After my last few scraps with the fae I’d learned that my plate served only to slow me down. The sword at my belt rested comfortably, the handle veiled by my usual cloak. I’d gotten little use out of the garment and its supposedly spell-resistant abilities since Black had gifted it to me, but today seemed a good day to bring in an additional precaution.
The four of us had taken the carriage to the duelling grounds and found quite a crowd waiting for us there. More fae were in attendance than there had been at the masquerade, though by the looks of it they were still all aristocrats. Before being a pain in my ass, Archer had taken the time to discreetly point out the handful of fae she’d bombarded with prophecy the night before. At least one of them had the scroll on his person, idly toying with it as he watched us. Would it be enough? I had no idea. Masego’s glamour amulet was nestled safely under the gambeson, and I’d been met by a sea of blanks faces when I’d arrived, until they all resumed normality. I couldn’t know whether that meant they’d bought it, but it was too late to back out now anyway. The crowd parted for us effortlessly until we came to stand by the Duke himself. I eyed him carefully. The bastard was in armour, unlike me. Plate of what seemed like actual silver – though I wasn’t enough of a fool to hope the metal would be as soft as it should be – and a cape of blue silk dotted with pale hellebores. He had a falchion at his side, ornately jewelled, but no shield. Mage, I thought. Free hand needed for spellcasting.
That was good news of a sort: it meant that he couldn’t simply command the winds with a thought. Possibly. Relying on that assumption might just get me killed, so I’d have to fight as if he could until proven otherwise. A fae I’d met before, the Lady of Cracking Ice, smoothly stepped between myself and the Duke.
“Since we’ve all arrived,” she smiled, “we can begin the proceedings. At the invitation of the Duke of Violent Squalls, I will be serving as the officiant witness. Does the Lady of Marchford have any objections?”
“None,” I said.
“This is pleasing,” she said. “As is custom, I must ask you if the grievance between the two of you can be resolved by any other manner.”
“No,” the Duke of Violent Squalls spoke carelessely.
“He could kneel at my feet and beg for mercy, then I’ll consider it,” I suggested.
Wind picked up sharply around us as the fae aristocrat glared hatefully at my face.
“Didn’t like that, did you?” I mused. “That’d be a no, then.”
“Very well,” the Lady of Cracking Ice said, sounding amused. “The terms set by the offended party were death or surrender.”
“I withdraw the outcome of surrender,” the Duke spat.
“This is quite irregular,” the Lady said with a frown.
“I’ll allow it,” I shrugged. “Didn’t intend to let him surrender anyway.”
“Since both parties are in agreement, it will be so,” the Lady conceded. “Participants are to make their way to the Wending Heart and stand at their respective edge. The duel will begin when the blue light above your heads shatters.”
I glanced at the Fields. What she’d called the Heart was easy enough to find: it was the tallest of the glaciers, topped by a perfectly round platform of maybe forty feet in diameter. There was already a shining blue orb hovering over it. I watched the glaciers around, getting a read for the movements: staying on flat ground with someone who controlled the wind was a death sentence. Ranged combat was no specialty of mine, but if I wanted to live long enough to make it to close quarters I’d need some form of cover. Hakram clapped me on the shoulder.
“Wade in their blood, Cat,” he said.
“That’s the plan,” I replied.
I cast a look at the other two.
“If you have to die,” Archer said, “die loud.”
I would have settled for a ‘good luck’ but that wasn’t really her style, was it?
“Get it done quickly,” Masego told me. “I’ve experiments that should not be left unattended for too long.”
“Love you too,” I mouthed back.
Rolling my shoulder to limber it up, I began my trek to the Wending Heart. Time to find out whether the magical power of lies could kill a man.
There was enough snow on the glaciers that the way wasn’t too slippery. I was more sure-footed than a mortal had any business being, regardless. Couldn’t remember when I’d last tripped or slipped on anything, though even before becoming the Squire I’d not been prone to clumsiness. Probably because I was short, it saddened me to admit. No need to adapt to growing limbs if they stayed the same length.
“It will be most amusing to make a plaything out of an entire kingdom,” the Duke spoke as we moved. “No fae has ever possessed such a bounty of souls.”
He walked so lightly he didn’t leave footprints, I’d noted. It was doubtful I’d be quicker than him, armoured or not.
“You know, I keep hearing about you Winter fae being great at mind games,” I said. “But so far? Not impressed. I’ve had better quality trash talk from orcs and I’m pretty sure that Heiress could make you cry, given half a bell.”
We both made the leap to the Heart, his landing admittedly more graceful than mine.
“Why bother with such games?” he said. “You are outmatched beyond your understanding.”
“Not the first time I’ve heard that line,” I laughed. “Usually the person speaking it is dead before sundown.”
I took the northern edge as he strolled to the southern one. Behind me a lower platform of ice was idly drifting, maybe fifteen feet below. There were a few spires on it that would do nicely as a shield until I could find a good angle to approach. I unsheathed my longsword as he did the same with his falchion, sneering, and with a loud crack the blue orb above us broke. Before I could so much as blink wind howled, and I was casually tossed off the Heart. For a heartbeat I watched the distant ground under me and, with cold detachment, considered that this wasn’t exactly a great start. Even as I began falling I saw a large globe of air forming around me and made the decision that I wasn’t sticking around to find out what that would do when completed. My Name flared and I formed a circular pane of shadow under my feet, leaping off it towards another glacier.
I landed rolling in the snow, arrows of wind hitting the ground behind me and spraying ice everywhere. Archer might have undersold the whole wind magic thing a bit, I thought. I cast a look backwards the moment I got back on my feet and saw the Duke was standing at the edge of the Heart where I’d begun the duel. And he was lazily pointing a finger in my direction. Great. I made a run for it. Two glaciers to pick from: what looked like a barren peak of ice or another flat platform below. I picked the platform – better line of sight – but when jumping down found myself hurtling towards a wall of perfectly still air. Ugh. Wind magic was good at restricting movement, Apprentice had said. The understatement trend continued. I hated fighting mages, it was all tricks and no slugging and slugging was what I was best at. I forced myself to twist in the air and landed feet first on the apparently-solid wall, allowing a trickle of power to go down my legs so I could throw myself at the ice peak instead of falling into the waters below.
I hit the ice with a grunt and plunged my sword into it so I wouldn’t just start slipping, hanging by a single hand. Another trickle of power into my arms and I spun on myself, tearing out the sword and landing more or less on my feet at the top of the peak – just in time to duck under a sharp-looking sickle of wind. The Duke of Violent Squalls was no longer standing at the edge of the Heart, I saw. That was a mixed bag. On one hand, he no longer had high ground and a good field of vision. On the other, I had no godsdamned idea where he was now. I got an answer when the peak under me exploded in a shower of ice and I caught the glint of a moving blade in the spray. Below, and behind. The falchion sliced through my cheek, missing a deeper wound only because my footing had quite literally been shattered. I bit down on the hiss of pain and swung blindly at the silhouette of the fae – but he was gone before I could get even vaguely close.
I landed on what remained of the peak with my cloak over my head to shield from the falling ice, managing to vault to another glacier before a wind spear the size of a ballista’s bolt tore through the ice under me and collapse the whole thing. Shit. If I got hit by that, I wasn’t walking away from it. I kept moving even if I didn’t have a precise destination in mind: so far every time I’d slowed for more than a moment I’d been hammered by magic. All right, so this was like fighting an extremely mobile armoured mage without any need for incantations, who could very likely fly as well and would be unaffected by the terrain. I’d, uh, had better days. Here’s a rule for not dying stupidly, I remembered Captain telling me. Never give a mage room to set up. The longer they have, the more dangerous they get. The few spars I’d had with Masego had only reinforced the notion. If I wanted to avoid further nasty surprises I needed to know where the Duke was.
“Gods Below, this is going to hurt,” I muttered.
I climbed to higher ground and crouched, waiting for my enemy to catch up. The first strike I saw coming. A cylinder of wind with ice shards inside formed ahead of me and began spinning ever faster, shooting out a volley of glinting ice spears that tore through the spot I’d been in a moment earlier. The second, though, I did not. The entire glacier I was standing on broke in half and even as I moved to the left side the Duke of Violent Squalls came out of the waters below, like an arrow adorned with translucent blue wings. He was carving his way up with his falchion, now wreathed in a wind version of the weapon that was three times the size of the original. I let the reflexes of my Name take over, stepping back: If I’d been a heartbeat slower, I would have lost an arm. As it was he ripped his way up the side of my body and straight through the clavicle. The wind weapon blew up a moment later, tossing me onto another glacier before I could strike back. I managed to land on my feet, sliding back and blood flowing down the mangled gambeson.
“Rise,” I said, the aspect coming to the surface.
I’d gotten what I wanted, but the pain wiped away any notion of smiling at that victory. I’d touched the edge of his cape while he was carving me up, slid a thread of my Name’s power into it. A variation on the trick I used with the bone contraptions crafted to trigger goblin munitions, though this had been much more delicate. If I focused I could get a vague sense of where that bit of power was, since it was as much a part of me while away as it had been before. And right now, it was circling around my left. The flesh knitted itself back together as the aspect I’d Taken from the Lone Swordsman did its work, though it pained me that I’d had to use that card this early in the fight. It would be diminishing returns, from now on, and I could only use it another two times. My feet padded against the snow as I focused to keep a read on where the Duke was, astonished by how quickly he was getting around. Just ahead was an ice spire, and in about three heartbeats by my estimation he’d be behind it. I blew out a steamy breath and called on my Name, fashioning a spear of shadows that shattered the spire in a heartbeat.
Let’s see how he dealt with being on the other side of that. I’d been moving before the spear had even left my fingertips, so I came out of the mist just as the Duke was turning in my direction. I swung with a grunt of exertion, tip of the blade managing to cut through the tip of his nose as he smoothly leaned back. With a flick of the wrist I reversed the strike, hacking through the edge of his right eye just before our bodies impacted. He screamed in anger as we rolled on the ground. Unlike the fae, I knew how handle myself to come out on top when we slowed. Not much of a scrapper, this one. I slugged him in his bleeding face as I drew back my sword, the sound of my fist crushing the bones of his nose the sweetest of melodies. A burst of wind threw me off him but I managed to have it put me back on my feet, immediately going back on the offense. He swung his falchion without even trying to hit me, the displacement of air caused by the strike magnified until it became a squall that knocked me off my trajectory.
I adjusted my angle without flinching and hacked down at his shoulder. I grimaced before the strike hit: I’d misjudged my strength, that was going to hit plate instead of neck. To my surprise, my blade cut straight into the silver-like metal. I felt flesh give underneath, if not deeply. My sword, unfortunately, was now stuck. His free hand pointed towards my chest and the spear of wind that impacted me a moment later blew me straight off my feet. Along with breaking half my ribs and puncturing a lung, by the feel of it. I managed to keep enough of a grip on my sword that it came with me while my body hit a wall of ice behind me with a dull thud. I coughed out blood, feeling the lung he’d struck beginning to fill already. Hells, that magic hit like a horse.
“Rise,” I rasped out.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, I felt the wound beginning to heal. It felt like getting stabbed all over again, Merciless Gods. I managed to push myself back to my feet anyway. The Duke’s hand was on his armour, looking appalled. And scared, I saw, for the first time since the duel had begun.
“What madness is this?” he barked. “You do not have the power to even begin to touch my armaments.”
I wiped the blood off my lips and grinned red.
“Guess it was just meant to be,” I said.
Strike one for the power of lies. It wasn’t handing me the victory in a handbasket – the fake prophecy hadn’t been well-crafted enough for that – but I’d touched the story just enough I could twist it. That there was a chance for me to win. The hole in my lung closed, though my ribs still felt like a clan of orcs had been stomping on them. With only one good eye left and a broken, blood nose the Duke had come out ahead but he no longer looked so pristine. With a snarl of rage, he flicked his hand upwards and I took that as my cue to make a tactical retreat. I jumped atop the wall behind me and legged it to another platform. Good instinct, I saw a moment later. Winds roiled in a circle enveloping the entire width of the glacier then came down like the hand of an angry god – the entire mass broke like glass and sunk under the water, sending waves in every direction that had the glaciers rocking like ships in a storm. The Duke of Violent Squall had not moved, wings keeping him aloft in the air as his eyes searched for me. Deciding that running the Hells away was the better part of valour, I ducked behind an ice spire and continued my escape.
The sliver of power in his cape told me he was on the move a heartbeat later, when I concentrated. Going under the water again, I thought. Running out of tricks, was he? Or perhaps fae weren’t allowed to be too creative. If they could make too many decisions, their stories might not unfold as they should. I gauged where he came out of the deep and moved to flank him. I felt the Duke pause and smiled. I’d done enough damage the creature was wary now. He seemed to be hiding beneath a glacier’s cliff, so I crept quietly atop and only allowed a trickle of power into my legs when it came time to leap, teeth bared and sword high. Another eye, I thought. If I could take its vision away this would become a great deal easier.
I realized I’d fucked up about halfway to the ground.
The Duke of Violent Squalls was not under me, waiting to get stabbed. His cape, however, was. Trap, and I’d literally leapt at the occasion of falling into it. A globe of air, the same magic he’d used early in the fight, formed around me. A heartbeat away from my feet touching the ground the air solidified, trapping me like a fly in amber. I stayed there hanging, barely able to breathe, as a spire of ice shimmered and revealed itself to have been the Duke. The snow-pale fae smiled and idly waved his hand, the globe shrinking closet to my body before rising higher in the air, taking me with it.
“Sooner or later,” he said, “vermin gets caught. Shall we give them a spectacle worthy of my name, Lady Foundling?”
His wings beat and he took me back to the Heart still in his globe, landing fluidly on the ground as I hung in the air above him. I could feel the fae on the shore watching us, though I couldn’t see them. The Duke has positioned me as if I was still about to fall on him, a mocking smile on his face. Four spears of ice rose were carved out from the ground by roiling wind, rising to align with my shoulders and knees.
“Did you think resembling my form would make me hesitate?” he asked amusedly. “Let me disabuse you of the notion.”
In that moment I watched his eyes and saw his entire concentration had gone into manipulating the spears. That was the thing with magic: no matter how old and bad you were, it was impossible to cast more than one spell at a time. He was invested, and withdrawing from that would take a few moments. The Beast laughed, standing behind my shoulder and baring its fangs. I could feel its warm breath on my cheek, feel my Name pulsing with it. For a moment I almost forced myself to speak, to ram a cheeky reply down his throat, but I pushed down the urge. Monologues are for amateurs. The spears began moving, slow to my eye, and I reached for the second bundle of power inside of me. Heat flowed through my veins and in the back of my head I heard a snapping sound, the very same the Penitent’s Blade had made when I’d broken it over my knee. I’d thought about keeping it, after Liesse. When it was just a very sharp sword. But then the day after it had become light as a feather, for angels were not prone to metaphor, and I had seen my death writ on its edge. So I’d broken it, into a hundred pieces I’d had scattered over rivers and lakes so it would never be forged again.
It had not been an act without consequence.
“Break,” I croaked.
For an instant all I felt was my will pushing against something infinitely larger. If the Duke had fought me, I grasped, I would have been swept away by the tide effortlessly. But he wasn’t fighting me. Magic was will, and his will was in the spears. The globe shattered, the Beast howling in approval. I’d been caught with my sword raised to strike and though the momentum had been blunted that was again how I began descending. Panic went through the fae’s eye and a hastily-redirected spear caught me in the shoulder – but it was the wrong one, I laughed – then another tore through my side and finally my arm came down even as the ice tore through flesh and bone. The tip of the blade punched through the silver armour and straight through the heart.
“You,” he gasped.
“Me,” I replied, taking all that was left of my Name and pouring it into the blow as I scythed down through his body, cleaving it in half.
Icy red water poured out of the gaping wound and I ignored the pain from my shoulder long enough to raise my blade one last time, meeting the Duke’s eyes as I struck. The head flew. I let out a groan of pain and exhaustion as I dropped to my knees. Shit. I’d been spending power like coppers throughout the entire fight just to survive, and now the well had run dry. Couldn’t even muster my last use of Rise, it was slipping through my fingers. I groped blindly for my hand and found a signet ring there, gurgling out a triumphant laugh. With an ugly gasp I broke the spear that had bit deep in my shoulder, leaving the ice inside and haltingly getting to my feet before trying the same with the one in my flank. My fingers were too weak – I botched the job and cried out when the ice dug deeper into my flesh. I saw the fae on the shore, vision swimming, and almost wept at the idea of having to make my way back there. Worse, the Heart was still rocking from the massive blow the Duke has struck earlier with his magic, though it was almost unnoticeable now. I paused. Entirely unnoticeable. The hair on my arm rose. Something was wrong. I looked down at my blade and dropped it in surprise. The red droplets falling from it were staying in the air, frozen. And now that I’d dropped it, it was staying still as well.
The Duke? Was this a variation on the globe from earlier? If the Duke wasn’t dead – no, he had to be. Otherwise I wouldn’t have the signet. There was a sharp snip from behind me and I turned. There was someone sitting at the edge of the Heart, a piece of ice and a knife in hand. He – it was a man, slender and dark-skinned – was carving the ice. His hair was long and dark, coming down in waves over his shoulders. On his brow I glimpsed a crown, fashioned in grey dead wood and weeping blood-red sap. He turned to me and a single glance was enough to have me fall to my knees. The ice in my shoulder burned, until the pain left and a strange and terrible clarity replaced it.
“Catherine Foundling,” the King of Winter spoke.
The words were not words. They were mountains old as dawn ground to nothingness one season at a time, they were ice so deep in the heart of the world it had never seen the light of day. My ears were bleeding.
“Come, sit,” he ordered. “It’s time we had a little chat, don’t you think?”