I was casting everything I had done, everything I believed, everything I had chosen-everything I was-against the will of an ancient being of darkness, terror, and malice, a fundamental power of the world.
And the bonds and the will of Mother Winter could not constrain me.
There was a sharp, shimmering tone, like metal under stress and beginning to fail, but more musical, and a blinding white light that washed away the darkness and dazzled my eyes. There was a thunder crack, and a terrible force erupted from my wrists and ankles, throwing a shock wave of raw kinetic energy-a mere shadow of the true forces at work, a by-product-out into the space around me. In that whiteness, I caught an image of a shrouded, hunched dark form, flung from her feet to impact something solid.
And then I was free and hauling myself up onto my feet.
I backed up, hoping I hadn't gotten turned around in the flash, and a surge of relief went through me when my back hit a stone wall. I felt out along on either side of me, and my hand brushed something solid, maybe a small shelf made from a wooden plank. I knocked it off its peg. It fell to the dirt floor with a clatter and a clink of small, heavy glass jars.
I leaned against the wall, dazed, panting, and gasped, in my deepest and most gravelly voice, "No one can chain the Hulk!"
I heard a stir of cloth in the darkness then, a slight grunt of effort, the faintest whistle in the air. I can't claim credit for being smart or cool on this one. Some instinct pegged which way the cleaver was coming and I flung my head sharply to one side. Sparks flew as the cleaver struck the wall where my skull had been and sank into it as if it had been made of rotten pine, not stone. It stayed there, making a faint vibrating sound as it quivered.
I have got to learn to keep my freaking mouth shut. I clenched my teeth together and stayed still, giving no indication of where I might be in the darkness.
For a long time there was quiet, except for the breathing I fought to slow and silence. And then a horrible, slithering sound went through the blackness. It caught in Mother Winter's ancient throat, clicking like the shells of swarming carrion beetles. It wormed its way through the air like a swarm of maggots burrowing through rotten meat. It brushed against me, light and hideous, like the touch of a vulture's lice-infested feather, and I struggled to press myself back a little closer to the stone at the sound of it.
Mother Winter was cackling.
"So," she said. "So, so, and so. Perhaps thou art not entirely useless after all, eh, manling?"
For all I knew, Mother Winter had a whole cutlery set over there. I gathered my will into a shielding spell, but I didn't release it. Magic was like air and water to the fae. I had a feeling Mother Winter would have been able to home in on it.
"That was a test?" I whispered-behind my hand, so that it might not make it utterly obvious where I was standing.
"Or a meal," she rasped. "Either would suffice."
And then brightness flooded the room.
I thought some massive force had inundated the area I stood in, but after a second I realized that it was a door. The light was sunlight, with the golden quality that somehow felt like autumn. I had to shield my eyes against it, but after a moment I realized that I was standing in a small, simple medieval-looking cottage-one in which I had been before. Everything in it was wooden, leather, clay, and handmade. The glass in the windows was wavery and translucent. It was a neat, tidy place-apart from one corner with a large, ugly, raw-looking rocking chair. Oh, and a spilled shelf of small clay pots with wax-sealed mouths.
"You can be so overly dramatic, betimes," complained an old woman's voice, as gentle and sweet as Mother Winter's was unpleasant. She came into the house a moment later, a grandmotherly matron dressed in a simple dress with a green apron. Her long hair, silver-white and thinning, was done up in a small, neat bun. She moved with the slightly stiff, bustling energy of an active senior, and if her green eyes were framed by crow's-feet, they were bright and sharp. Mother Summer carried a basket in one arm filled with cuttings from what must have been a late-season herb garden, and as I watched, she entered, muttered a word, and a dozen tiny whirlwinds cleaned thick layers of soot from the many-paned windows scattered around the cottage, flooding it with more warm light. "We'll need a new cleaver now."
Mother Winter, in her black shawl and hood, bared her iron teeth in a snarl, though it was a silent one. She pointed one crooked, warty finger at the window nearest her, and blackened it with soot again. Then she shuffled over to a chair beneath the window, and settled into the resulting shadow as if it were a comforting blanket. "I do what must be done."
"With our cleaver," Mother Summer said. "I suppose one of our knives wouldn't have done just as well?"
Mother Winter bared her teeth again. "I wasn't holding a knife."
Mother Summer made a disapproving clucking sound and began unloading her basket onto a wooden table near the fireplace. "I told you," she said calmly.
Mother Winter made a sour-sounding noise and pointed a finger. A large mug decorated with delicately painted flowers fell from a shelf.
Mother Summer calmly put out a hand, caught it, and returned it to the shelf.
"Oh, uh, Mother Summer," I said, after a moment of silence. "I apologize for intruding into your home."
"Oh, dear, that's very sweet," Mother Summer said. "But you owe me no apology. You were brought here entirely against your will, after all." She paused for a beat and added, "Rudely."
Mother Winter made another displeased sound.
I looked back and forth between them. Centuries of dysfunction in this family, Harry. Walk carefully. "I, uh. I think I'd prefer to think of it as a very firm invitation."
"Hah," said Mother Winter, from her hood. Her teeth gleamed. "The Knight knows his loyalties, at least."
Mother Summer somehow managed to inject her voice with profound skepticism. "I'm sure he's overjoyed to owe loyalty to you," she said. "Why did you bring him here now, of all times?"
More teeth showed. "He summoned me, the precious thing."
Mother Summer dropped her herbs. She turned her head toward me, her eyes wide. "Oh," she said. "Oh, dear."
Mother Winter's rocker creaked, though it didn't really seem to move. "He knew certain names. He was not wholly stupid in choosing them, or wholly wrong in using them."
Mother Summer's bright green eyes narrowed. "Did he . . . ?"
"No," croaked Mother Winter. "Not that one. But he has seen the adversary, and learned one of its names."