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‘I can smell thee, Chooser! Come out, and no harm need befall this one. Or leave him be, and I’ll broil him!’
It’s a rough life being a Valkyrie’s Chosen. Chosen what, exactly, I never did find out. But when she brings you back from the mostly dead and asks you to call her if ever you want an adventure, well … that’s how you wind up pinned down by a dragon’s claws in some godforsaken cave whilst he threatens and cajoles and otherwise promises to make tinned knight on toast out of you, starting with your innards. ‘Hurt him,’ said a voice that rang with the accents of the old North, ‘and I’ll put your head on my wall.’ It wasn’t a threat, as such. (You had to know Red.) More of a promise.
There was the sound of dragons claws tapping up and down in thought, and the swish of a long scaly tail.
And his voice changed. ‘Have Valkyries grown so lacking in courtesy that they refuse to talk things out face to face?’ Dragon’s voices, of course, are well known – well known to anyone who’s not a newly minted Valkyrie’s Chosen, that is – to have magical properties. I found myself nodding along. Perfectly reasonable. What a nice dragon … ‘Come out, where I can see thee, and let us talk this over like civilised people …’
‘No dice, old wyrm. Your word of safe conduct, or nary a glimpse of me do you see.’
I had to hand it to her. I couldn’t even see her. Admittedly I was at something of a disadvantage just presently.
‘The lady drives a hard bargain,’ said the dragon silkily. ‘My word of safe conduct for this period of truce between us.’
I heard the sound of brass boots and, rolling my head just enough, I saw a tall woman with great bone structure and long hair the colour of rich copper striding forward. The hair in question was drifting back and forth in the winds running through the cave. And the dragon generated a lot of heat of course. Mix that with the icy cold without, and you were bound to get a few heat drafts.
‘There. That’s better. May I offer you some tea?’
‘No. Thank you,’ said the Valkyrie coldly. She didn’t like this one bit.
‘Sorry, Red,’ I murmured. It came out a bit strangled. The dragon’s clawed paw was pressed round and over my ribcage.
‘Careless of you,’ she said in a neutral tone. ‘Do better next time.’
Maybe I was feeling the heat a bit, but that seemed to hurt worse than the dragon.
‘Now,’ she said looking up at the dragon. ‘You had something to say?’
‘Would a little home courtesy hurt? You are here, in my cave, uninvited. And I find this manling, sneaking about, the very snow still falling from his feet. I smelled him before he got near. But, what else did I smell? A Val-maiden. Does she come to parley? Does she come to ask a favour? Does she approach me like, you should pardon the expression, a gentleman?’
The Valkyrie shrugged. Her hair glinted in the light of my fallen torch. ‘As you say.’
‘Then why does she come? That is what one naturally asks oneself.’ The dragon raised its other front paw and stroked, I kid you not, a long wispy moustache that wound behind its nostrils.
‘You have something in your hoard. A stone, about so big, scribed with runes—’
The dragon thumped its fist down perilously close to me. The ground practically shook. ‘The contents of my hoard do not concern thee! Impudent mortal! Centuries past I would have had thee for my supper!’
‘Centuries past, you might have tried,’ said Red, her eyes growing strangely cold and hard. Her hand straying nearer to her sword’s hilt.
‘Can’t breathe …’ I tried to murmur.
‘I believe my assistant is asking if you would mind loosening your grip, sir wyrm.’
‘This conversation is over!’
‘Then release my friend. You gave your word of safe conduct.’
‘Safe conduct for you,’ he murmured silkily. ‘I said nothing of the manling.’
Red’s hand gripped her sword hilt. ‘You lying lizard! You knew full well—’
‘I remind you,’ said the dragon, delighting in the legalism of it all, ‘that you have given your solemn word of truce— Stop squirming, you!’ This he directed at me, I had got my arms out and was pushing at his claws. To my amazement, they were shifting. Call it the strength of desperation.
‘Kill him, Red! Forget about me! I was lost already!’
‘Whaaaat!? Insolent manling, you shall die!’ Flames spurted out of the dragons nostrils, scorching the rocks. He sprayed fire round the cave. A jet from one nostril blasted straight at Red. Straight towards her heart—
—where it met her brass breastplate. The runes around her collar lit up, but the breastplate, and indeed Red, seemed mysteriously not to turn to smouldering pile of ashes.
‘Truce-breaker!’ cried Red. I felt it somehow as she drew her sword. I also felt the dragon’s claws lift off me as it turned to face her.
‘Run!’ she called.
I didn’t need telling twice, I was rolling and scrabbling to my feet.
I felt the air turn molten behind me as a full blast of dragon-fire hit the ground where I had been.
Red was standing there, sword held out in front of her. A strange glow seemed to emanate from it.
‘You dare to bring that blade here and call me a truce-breaker!’ The dragon was outraged. ‘Get ouuut! Get out of my caaaaaavveee!’
‘Red?’ I said, touching her arm. ‘Red.’
‘Time to go?’ said I, sudden convert to discretion being the better part of valour.
She nodded, decisively. ‘Stay behind me,’ she murmured. ‘And when I say so: Run.’
We both turned in the same instant and sprinted round the bend, flames rippling round the curved passageways. Stomping footsteps echoed on the cave floor.
‘And never come back! Never come back! You hear me, wench! Never come back!’
We made it to the snow outside, the icy winds. Which after the dragon’s breath felt strangely refreshing. My clothes were going to smell of sulphur and brimstone for weeks.
We kept moving.
After what seemed like a lifetime, when there was enough distance between us and the cave, Red turned to me. ‘So, did you get it?’
‘Just like you said,’ I said, pulling a leather bag out from under my borrowed armour. She’d made me train in it for weeks before she’d let me take to the field.
She didn’t even look at it. ‘Best put it away again for now. We’ll look at it later.’
‘What?!’ she turned, snarling at me.
‘Have I done something to upset you?’
‘Oh – you!’ She hit my chest. Her gauntlet made a clang on the borrowed breastplate. It still hurt. Valkyries tend to have an arm.
I decided to keep applying my newfound wisdom about discretion. I kept silent. We kept walking.
We made it back to the way. ‘Ready to fly?’ she asked me, slightly more gently.
‘Yes, ma’am.’ I said, carefully. That was when I noticed her staring at something.
‘Idiot! Your neck!’
‘I don’t feel anything.’
‘That’s because it charbroiled your scarf away and the ice wind’s frozen the sense out of you! Don’t you know not to fool around with dragon burns!’
‘Um, no, actually …’
‘Oh …’ she looked a bit abashed. ‘I forget that …’
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘Let’s get you back so we can get you patched up,’ she said. ‘Oh, and, Chosen?’ I heard a touch of the old smoke in her voice, as I felt her hand grip my shoulder as we faced the way. ‘You weren’t bad for a beginner.’
I tried to say, ‘Thank you,’ but I think it got lost in the aether as we stepped forward into the way, just leaving the stones on the snowing hillside.
I don’t know exactly what I am. I’m a Valkyrie’s personal Chosen. No mead and feasting for me. I don’t know what it means yet myself. Somehow it almost doesn’t seem real.
But some days I’m really glad it is.
Thanks, Red.Published in