Small Favor

Chapter One

W inter came early that year; it should have been a tip-off.

A snowball soared through the evening air and smacked into my apprentice’s mouth. Since she was muttering a mantra-style chant when it hit her, she wound up with a mouthful of frozen cheer—which may or may not have been more startling for her than for most people, given how many metallic piercings were suddenly in direct contact with the snow.

Molly Carpenter sputtered, spitting snow, and a round of hooting laughter went up from the children gathered around her. Tall, blond, and athletic, dressed in jeans and a heavy winter coat, she looked natural in the snowy setting, her cheeks and nose turning red with the cold.

“Concentration, Molly!” I called. I carefully kept any laughter I might have wanted to indulge in from my voice. “You’ve got to concentrate! Again!”

The children, her younger brothers and sisters, immediately began packing fresh ammunition to hurl at her. The backyard of the Carpenter house was already thoroughly chewed up from an evening of winter warfare, and two low “fortress” walls faced each other across ten yards of open lawn. Molly stood between them, shivering, and gave me an impatient look.

“This can’t possibly be real training,” she said, her voice quavering with cold. “You’re just doing this for your own sick amusement, Harry.”

I beamed at her and accepted a freshly made snowball from little Hope, who had apparently appointed herself my squire. I thanked the small girl gravely, and bounced the snowball on my palm a few times. “Nonsense,” I said. “This is wonderful practice. Did you think you were going to start off bouncing bullets?”

Molly gave me an exasperated look. Then she took a deep breath, bowed her head again, and lifted her left hand, her fingers spread wide. She began muttering again, and I felt the subtle shift of energies moving as she began drawing magic up around her in an almost solid barrier, a shield that rose between her and the incipient missile storm.

“Ready!” I called out. “Aim!”

Every single person there, including myself, threw before I got to the end of aim, and snowballs sped through the air, flung by children ranging from the eldest, Daniel, who was seventeen, down to the youngest, little Harry, who wasn’t yet big enough to have much of a throwing arm, but who didn’t let that stop him from making the largest snowball he could lift.

Snowballs pelted my apprentice’s shield, and it stopped the first two, the frozen missiles exploding into puffs of fresh powder. The rest of them, though, went right on through Molly’s defenses, and she was splattered with several pounds of snow. Little Harry ran up to her and threw last, with both hands, and shrieked merry triumph as his bread-loaf-sized snowball splattered all over Molly’s stomach.

“Fire!” I barked belatedly.

Molly fell onto her butt in the snow, sputtered some more, and burst out in a long belly laugh. Harry and Hope, the youngest of the children, promptly jumped on top of her, and from there the lesson in defensive magic devolved into the Carpenter children’s longstanding tradition of attempting to shovel as much snow as possible down the necks of one another’s coats. I grinned and stood there watching them, and a moment later found the children’s mother standing beside me.

Molly took after Charity Carpenter, who had passed her coloring and build on to her daughter. Charity and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye—well, in point of fact, we’ve hardly ever seen eye-to-eye—but tonight she was smiling at the children’s antics.

“Good evening, Mister Dresden,” she murmured.

“Charity,” I replied amiably. “This happen a lot?”

“Almost