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The horse’s ears flattened down on instinct. He knew that voice. He knew that silhouette … Not here. Not now. He leaned down to the girl in brass next to him, and said out of the corner of his, admittedly, long-muzzled mouth, ‘When I give the word, run. This is no time for heroics. We need to get out of here … Hey, are you listening?’
‘Naughty-naughty, horsey!’ said the figure in the doorway, stepping in out of the storm. Heavy raindrops ran down her biker’s leathers and dripped onto the floor as she walked. Behind her, more figures, also in bikers’ leathers, stepped through. (Just knew this was a bad idea, the horse was thinking.) The woman in the lead pulled off her helmet and shook her hair out with, it seemed to the horse, a gratuitous amount of flourish. It didn’t seem quite so gratuitous to some of the people standing around in the bar. In fact, some of them were now standing with their mouths open. Swan maidens tended to have that kind of effect on people. And particularly, swan maidens who’d, so to speak … gone to the bad. This was not good.
He was just about to say to Helheim with it, scoop up his Valkyrie charge, and make a break for it, when more black-clad figures emerged from the doorway behind the bar, and through from the kitchen. Hey, he thought he’d locked that door … That just wasn’t playing fair …
‘You weren’t thinking of going anywhere, were you, horsey? Not away from little ol’ me?’ drawled the woman with the voice like bourbon-laced cigarette smoke running over swan’s feathers, a voice that somehow bubbled up through its owner’s voice-box to give an effect more than itself. ‘We have so much catching up to do, you and I … And you can introduce me … Who’s your little friend? As if I didn’t know already …’
The girl in brass — would-be Valkyrie, and swaying slightly after consuming quite a quantity of mead in the last little while — turned to the horse and spoke in an undertone that somehow managed to carry further than she meant it to, ‘Horse … Who is this?’
‘Don’t say he’s forgotten me,’ the dark swan maiden crooned. Behind her, her gang was already spreading out, sealing off the exits. ‘And after all I taught him, too … Ah, such is ingratitude in this weary, cynical world …’ she added with a theatrical sigh.
Careful not to say his friend the Valkyrie’s name, because there were things someone sufficiently motivated with a knowledge of dark magic — like, say, an anarchist rogue swan maiden with a penchant for biker’s leathers — could do with that, he said, ‘You know how I said I had a few bad experiences before coming to you?’
The girl in brass nodded. ‘Mmm. Yes?’
‘Well this is one of them. Meet Cygna … my last rider …’
She looked to a part of the horse’s back which, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, was easy to miss. ‘She the one who—‘
‘Yep, that’s the one.’
‘Yep. Also her.’
‘With the … — and the—‘
‘Yes, yes. That’s her. Evil harpy swan queen of the nether reaches. Please … I’m begging you, we have to get out of here. No, wait—‘
The girl in brass was already striding forward. Several of the dark swan maiden’s goons stepped up menacingly as she did so. She looked grim as she stopped within a few feet of her. ‘Seems to me, you and I should have a little talk about the proper care of talking horses.’
Cygna just smiled, running a hand through her hair. Several fascinated male pairs of eyes watched breathlessly. Men were so easily led sometimes … And then she started … laughing? ‘Is that what you think he is? Well, far be it for me to disillusion you, darling. I’ll just take my horse now and be on my way. We have such plans for him … Don’t we, horsey, darling?’
The horse, who, out of politeness and because he’d just been bought a bucket of beer, had been sitting on his haunches, tried to back up and knocked into the bar.
His imploring eyes reached out to the girl in brass. Please, they seemed to say, I’m begging you. Come away.
‘And it’s no use your making horse-eyes at the little Valkyrie wannabe like that, horsey. And, yes, I know who she is. And,’ she said glancing at the horse, ‘what she is.’ She smiled.
‘Run!’ shouted the horse. ‘Just get out and run. Don’t worry about me.’ He was on his hooves again, pawing at the ground, ready for the charge. ‘Go!’ he said again.
The girl in brass looked puzzled, and slightly hurt, and as if she was trying to catch up with what was going on. One thing was clear, though. They were trying to take her horse. They were going to hurt her friend. She swung.
Unfortunately, Cygna, never one to let an opportunity for treachery go by, was swinging first. ‘Grab the horse!’
The girl in brass turned. The goons behind the bar had thrown some sort of net over the horse. He was struggling like mad. She turned further to try to go towards him, and paid for her distraction as a biker-glove-clad fist smashed into her jaw. She went down like a bag of brass hammers.
A lot of things seemed to happen at once, it dazedly occurred to her as she tried to pick herself up again.
Cygna reached out with her other hand with a weird gesture, the net around the struggling horse, surrounded by black-clad goons, suddenly seemed to glow with a painful white light. The horse sagged, drooping before her eyes. He gave her one last imploring look as if to say, Go! For the love of God, go!
And then something else seemed to happen at the same time, something funny. Their gazes met, and she … saw something. Just a flash of something — bright and shining forth … and then it was gone. And she wasn’t even sure what she had seen.
Then he just … went. It was no longer a being who could talk to her. The eyes just went blank, and empty. As if he was just a wild animal again. Horse …
The horse had always been a wise-ass, a pain in the neck … her friend. But as the light died out of his eyes, it was like he wasn’t there anymore. Somewhere inside, her heart was screaming. She could hear a wobbly metallic sound and realised through blurred, wet eyes — as if from far away — that it was because she was shaking and it was rattling her armour …
Also at around about the same time — because you can’t start a fight like that in a room full of proud, well-brought-up people, whilst obviously trying to pull some sort of evil shenanigans, without someone noticing — people started fighting back.
The bartender had slid over the bar-top with some kind of wooden club in his hand, and some of the other not-so-easily-led men were moving towards Cygna and her goons. She just laughed girlishly, raising an outstretched palm in front of her, crooning some sort of dark song in a language that girl in brass couldn’t make out, but seemed to thrum with old runes and Viking sagas and even — the girl in brass sniffed suspiciously — opera: the men stopped in place, swaying with vacant looks on their faces.
Cygna’s goons were dragging the horse, half unconscious and on his side, along in the magic net. Which seemed to suggest they were pretty darn strong. She looked around wildly for any kind of an opening in the chaos that was opening up.
‘Oh, little Val-kyrie!’ called a voice. Cygna! She turned. ‘Too late, darling. Thanks for the horse! I promise I’ll take very good care of him … But then, I’ve never been one for keeping my promises … See you at the apocalypse!’ She heard a thump behind her, and turned to see the horse being dragged through the kitchen doors. Everything was happening too fast!
A woman in biker’s leathers like Cygna’s stepped up to her with a smirking smile, raised a hand, and blew some sort of blue dust in her face. What the … Others, similarly dressed, were throwing flaming rags and bottles onto the ground. People were screaming. And … why was the ground swaying like that … Ugh … A noise like tinkling brass cymbals filled the room. She found herself giggling abstractedly to herself: Ladies and gentlemen, the evil swan maidens have left the building! Thank you! And goodnight …
She woke up outside in the pouring rain. The worst of the storm had apparently departed with the swan maidens. But they’d gotten away, and they’d taken her horse … And who knew what they were going to do to him?
She hadn’t been in the Valkyrie game long, but she had a really, really bad feeling about all of this: Clearly magical creature with hidden importance, seized by seriously mysterious bad guy with evil plans … Not good. And what had been that bit about “See you at the apocalypse” …
People had managed to put most of the fires out, and they’d seemingly gotten out mostly okay. A few people had probably had to go to the hospital, which was about as lucky as you got, she supposed, in the circumstances.
Someone must have dragged her outside, and there she sat, half kneeling in the rain, clutching her sides as raindrops rolled down brass plates and dripped into a puddle in front of her, leaving ripples that shimmered in the neon and the moonlight … That was one thing at least … nobody could tell whether the water running down her face was raindrops, or tears …
To be continued … ?
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