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‘Where are they? What are they?’
‘They’re sirens, sea-maids, tritons – creatures of the sea of long ago. Invaders.’
‘Are they … human?’
‘Some of them. Or in the catalogue, they may pass for it. Like a spaniel and a wolf are both a dog. One of them will still eat you though, given half a chance.’
‘Oh.’ He looked back at her. ‘And, please don’t take this the wrong way, but what are you?’
The lady in the black swimsuit looked back at him, then reached down into her beach bag and pulled out a winged helmet. The helmet was made of brass.
She reached back behind her and let her hair fly loose, and only then did she put the helmet on. Out of the improbably sized beach bag came in succession armoured boots, gloves, skirt, and demi-breastplate (for beachwear), and then, finally, just to make the point, an impossibly long spear, or the haft for it, and a wide-bladed sword. She slotted the sword into the spear handle, which glowed momentarily.
She looked at him and asked, ‘What do you think?’ She smiled slightly. ‘If you like I could sing a few hoy-atta-hos? … What’s the matter, you seem a trifle disconcerted?’
He coughed. ‘I’ve, er, never met a real live Valkyrie before …’
‘But you met me earlier in the week. We’ve talked nearly every day. Surely you remember?’
‘I, er …’
‘You haven’t gone half-witted on me now, have you? I rely on you to lend a hand.’
‘Lend a hand? How?’
‘There are certain conventions to be observed. There are rules in these situations. I’m allowed to intervene, but only if I’m leading heroes into battle.’
‘Certainly. These shores are being invaded.’
‘By young ladies in swimsuits…? Ow! What was that for?’
‘You are not thinking straight. Those young ladies, most of them are ordinary human beings. But they are under a spell. The sea-maids have them under their spell – and they are going to use them, use them to summon forth creatures you do not want to encounter, believe me. Kerfluite horrors, sea monsters, things out of the old lore – and worse. Sea hags and fish men. And you – you are my hero. I have to lead you against them. Here, hold this.’
The famous beach bag disgorged a richly ornamented long sword with a jewelled hilt, a bit like the one on top of the spear handle. She pressed it into his hand, and it – lit up. The blade was suddenly limned with light – and flame. The flames were pale bright blue. ‘Excellent,’ she nodded in satisfaction. ‘Put this on.’ She thrust a plumed Greek-style helmet onto his head. It didn’t quite fit at first, but she persisted.
‘It suits you,’ she murmured.
‘Oh, thanks.’ In spite of himself, he found himself blushing. ‘Do I get any other armour?’
‘Oh, no. Heroes are supposed to go bare-headed, but I need to keep track of you, and it’s hard to miss that helmet’s mane.’
‘Stop saying oh like that in that sulky tone. You’re a hero. Act like one.’
‘Right.’ He struck a pose. ‘Ow! Some helmet, I felt that right through it!’
‘I’m a Valkyrie,’ she said shaking her hand out. ‘It goes with the territory. You won’t be completely unprotected. I can understand you’ve never done this before.’
He thought she was going to reach back to the beach bag, but it seemed to have disappeared somewhere. Instead, she drew out a medallion from around her own neck and put it round his. It had a big red stone at its centre, and letters engraved round the edge. They shifted in the sword light. ‘Hold still.’ She tapped him with the spear blade on each shoulder. ‘There,’ she nodded, ‘you’re deputised.’
‘Now,’ she grinned at him, pointing down to where the fires glowed and singing, chanting figures danced around the flames, ‘let’s go for a walk on the beach … Any requests? … No? Oh, well, I’ll wing it then. Ahem … Hoy-atta-hoooo, hoy-atta-hooooooo …’
From somewhere, it was like distant trumpets sounded, the wind rose up over the cliffs and off the sea, blowing salt breeze and the scent of snow. Hair flying, spear swinging along, she started galloping down the path. The disconcerting part was that he found himself following along the same way — and singing along. He had to admit, she had quite the voice, and she was just getting warmed up:
‘Oh hear us when we cry to thee – for those ’midst peril from the sea … !’Published in