Freya and Dinna were traveling across the Emerald Grasslands towards the forests of Nonnebakken when first they saw the Shee-Lahs of Cloud Lake, or in reality, she not so much saw as heard.
It was the sound of battle that first drew her attention, as it would with anyone as adverse to boredom as were Freya and her bad tempered horse. The plains had been pretty (for Freya to look at) and luscious and tasty (for Dinna to eat) but they were also very samey, and for a few days now, Freya and Dinna had been looking for something, anything, to liven up their journey to Fyrkat, the city of mages, where they intended to meet up with her good friends, Effenwus and Tig.
There, where the green grass of the plains ended and the great birch forests of Nonnebakken began, the tall blonde woman known as Freya Fjordrider brought her lean black horse to a halt with a mere shifting of her weight, and they stood together for a moment and listened.
“Yep, definitely fighting,” she said to the horse, who nodded his head and snatched at his bit in agreement, ears pricked so hard they touched in the middle. Seen like this, with long black mane, forelock and tail blowing in the breeze, and nostrils flared, he almost, almost, looked pretty, but that lean snake-head would never win any prizes, and his cloudy black eyes shone with an evil light that was hard to mistake. None of that mattered to Freya, who loved him for his courage, and his speed, and the fact that he had once been human and understood far more than any other horse living. And because he loved her back, and his loyalty was a very, very handy thing to have.
“What do you think?” she asked him, tossing back her long blonde braids. “Do we want to see what’s up, or do we ride on to Fyrkat and die of boredom?”
Dinna snorted loudly and disgustedly at that idea and threw in a hearty buck on the spot to show Freya how he felt about dying of boredom.
Hardly moving in the saddle, the woman laughed. “I vote we go and see too,” she said, “So I think it is unanimous.”
She drew her sword, Greygory, and as she did, she touched her heels lightly to the black horse’s sides, and they swept forward across the grass towards the edge of the birch forest at a gallop. It was from within this forest that clashes of steel and the desperate shouts of fighters were ringing out, but so far she could see nothing, or yet know who she might choose to join in this battle.
Into the forest they went, cantering now as they ducked between the silver-and-black trunks of the trees and leapt over the summer-green undergrowth. There were no paths, so they made their own through the thick forest cover. The sounds were coming from the direct north of them, and the land began to rise and fall into foothills as they progressed directly towards the battle. At last they came out on a small hillock, and below them in a little dip, they saw the fighters.
Freya brought Dinna to a halt again and the pair looked down on the fighters with avid interest. As afternoon sunlight slanted orange through the trees, it picked up and caught fire to dust being kicked up by the combatants, and their shouts and roars came to her ears like music. It was quite a sight to see.
The roars were not those of humans, but of four great, rough-coated, grey hounds, who were obviously part of one of the sides, and who fought alongside their mounted companions. The people they fought beside, six all told, men and women both, were of mixed size, one even so slight as to seem a child, but all were mounted upon large and dappled grey horses, with long wavy manes and tails and great heavy feet that shook the forest floor as they leapt and turned. The riders wore brown, all brown. Leather and suede and fur they wore, and their heads were bare, with wild hair of different colours that flew about as they struck at their enemies with desperate swords, riding their massive horses like centaurs.
The enemies were more numerous, but less interesting, being some thirty or so in number, and the run-of-the-mill type of blackguards that Freya was very familiar with. Despite the attacks of the grey hounds and of the riders of the grey horses, they were getting the upper hand. Already one of the women on the other side was sporting a bleeding sword cut to her thigh, and they were sorely besieged on all sides.
“Don’t think I would want to go against those hounds. I hate killing dogs,” Freya said conversationally to Dinna, who shook his head. He had no such scruples.
“I think we’ll side with the grey-riders,” she decided, nonetheless. “They look like fun.”
She sent Dinna down the hill at a gallop, shouting her war cry as she went, “A woman! A woman!”
All heads turned to look at her as she came, and she made it clear whose side she was on by beheading, with one stroke, the first of the boring gits she came to. Standing up in the stirrups, she left her reins to sit on her neck as she guided her dancing black horse with heels and body only, and sent him straight for the next of her newly-chosen enemies, who turned his horse to meet her, sword up, eyes terrified.
She saw a hound begin to leap at her, but a woman’s voice commanded, “No!” and the hound turned away again, instead going for the sword-arm of one of the other of the cut-throats, one who had been standing and staring with surprise at Freya’s approach for a moment too long. Down the man went, the great dog on top of him, and a moment later down went the horse and man Freya had targeted, as Dinna placed his weight perfectly to knock over the innocently-oblivious mount of his foe.
It was an easy matter for Freya to dispatch the sprawling enemy before he had even managed to get up. Fair fights were for even numbers, if ever.
The grey-riders had been re-energized by her arrival and now they struck forward together with greater energy and confidence. Leaving dead and wounded behind them, they went side-by-side after the remaining twenty or so of the road bandits, who began to show signs of fleeing.
“Don’t let them go!” a great, dark-bearded man beside her shouted desperately. “They mustn’t escape!”
All of them put more energy into the fight, but even as they fought some of the ruffians, others could be seen melting away behind the sacrificial cover of their fellows, then the loose horses they had left behind ran away, and soon enough the riders of the greys and the rider of the black found themselves alone in a circle of bodies, and around them the forest was quiet and empty.
“By the cloud,” said one of the women angrily. “They’ve got away with it again! We’ve lost it!”
“Lost what?” Freya said curiously, wiping Greygory and sheathing it at her belt. “Well, that was fun!” she said happily.
Faces turned towards her, as if up to that moment they had forgotten a stranger was among them.
“Fun it was not,” said the bearded man, scowling at her.
Freya shrugged. “Each to their own,” she said placidly, but her hand went back to the pommel of Greygory, and Dinna brought his hind legs under him at the feel of her body returning to battle readiness.
The man and two of the younger ones started to reach for swords as well, and then the panting hounds put their tongues away and began to growl instead, and it began to look like the fighting wasn’t yet done.
“Rarr-Dee, Tee-Lah, Shar-Non, hold!” said the oldest of the women, riding between them. “This warrior helped us in our moment of need. Quickly now, ride on. We may yet be able to catch up to the thieves again before the sun sets. Go!”
The five other riders turned their horses at once, and with a word the woman sent the hounds away as well. The riders and their hounds spread out into a phalanx ahead and began to search the forest in the direction of the disappearance of the blackguards.
“Ride on with me, friend,” said the oldest woman, who was perhaps forty or fifty, with skin that had seen much sun, and friendly lines that formed in her face as she smiled. She looked hale and strong, though, and the arm she put out to Freya to clasp was lean, brown and muscled.
“I apologize for my family,” the woman said. “We have been much beset and they are suspicious of strangers now. I thank you for your help at such a crucial time of the battle. Ride on with me, please, and tell me how you came to be here at that moment.”
Freya urged Dinna to turn and walk beside the vast grey horse the woman rode, as they began to walk along in the wake of the rest of the riders. He objected, as he always objected to being so close to another horse, but when he turned his head to snarl at the huge grey, Freya waved her boot-toe near his nose to remind him to watch his manners.
“There is no story to tell,” Freya said, “I am travelling to Fyrkat. I heard fighting. I came to see if it was something that required my intervention, and here we are.” She smiled at the brown-dressed lady, bright blue eyes flaring with mischief. “I don’t always mind my own business,” she added. “Though it gets me into trouble frequently. My name is Freya Fjordrider, and this…” here she clonked Dinna lightly in the teeth with her boot just in time to stop him sinking them into the unsuspecting shoulder of the big grey “…is Dinna, who has no manners.”
“I am Kick-Azz Shee-Lah, matriarch of this troupe,” the woman replied, smiling at her again and politely ignoring her unmannerly horse. “It is my family that you came to help. Until the thieves came, we were riding our usual circuit around Cloud Lake, entertaining the towns we came to. We have had raiders to deal with before, but never ones like this pack, called the Bigotes, who came to steal a particular thing, one we can not easily stand to lose. And so we left behind our wagons and chased them, and they have led us this far across the Emerald Grasslands, and now we have lost them again.”
“Not yet,” Freya said. “They won’t get far in this forest, and night will soon fall. I think perhaps we will be able to find them then. There is something in this forest that will force them to light a fire this night, and we will be able to find them by it, if we are brave enough.”
“What would such men fear enough to make them light a fire?” asked the woman, glancing at her with clever, worried eyes.
“There is a monster that walks this forest,” Freya said. “Or so the story goes, though I’ve never seen it myself. It was created by an incompetent wizard at Fyrkat, and it fled before it could be destroyed. It has haunted the birch forest ever since, and just about the only thing it fears is fire. These men will know of it, if they have come this way before.”
“And we will be safe from this monster how?” Kick-Azz said.
“Pure good luck,” Freya admitted, “But then I’m known for my luck, so perhaps as long as I am with you the monster won’t find us.” She grinned at the woman. “Or at least, not until we can light a fire of our own.”
“Aye, right, good plan,” said the woman, and she smiled back at Freya. “But since I didn’t have a plan at all, I think we’ll go with yours.”
A grey horse was lumbering towards them, with a grey hound running before it. The horse was ridden by a girl of perhaps twelve years, with long curling red hair, a cheeky freckled face, and long legs that still only came halfway down the horse’s sides.
“My youngest, Beree-Feend Shee-Lah, known to us as Berry,” said Kick-Azz as the child came to a sliding halt in front of them.
“Mama, we found their trail,” the girl said excitedly, practically bouncing on her saddle. “Come quickly!”
She turned her vast horse neatly over his haunches and cantered back ahead of them, and Freya and Kick-azz put heels to their mounts and trotted after her, separating and coming back together as they negotiated the rough forest floor and the white-trunked trees.
They came upon the rest of the troupe, all leaning out of their saddles to study a trail of hoof-prints at their own horse’s feet.
“They went north-east,” said the large man, “And they aren’t bothering to hide their trail.”
“They’re heading for Fyrkat in a hurry,” Freya said. “I wonder who set them on this quest. Whoever it is, they think they’ll be safe when they reach the city.”
The man glanced at her, then at the woman. “Kick-Azz?” he said.
“It’s alright,” the matriarch replied. “She’s here to help us, and we have no need to hurry. We will catch them after nightfall, Freya here says. Freya Fjordrider, this is my husband, Rarr-Dee Bloke, now a Shee-Lah by marriage.”
Freya held out an arm to the man, and he rode over to take it. “Rarr-Dee,” he said, “And if the Shee-Lah says you’re a friend, then you’re a friend.”
Freya nodded as she clasped his strong arm. “I am no friend to thieves, and I will travel with your family a little way longer, if you want,” she said.
He smiled, and when he did, the thunder of his dark features was lightened. “I am glad,” he said. “Kick-Azz was right. We owe you much already. Here, meet the young ones. This is our oldest, Tee-Lah Shee-Lah.” A beautiful young woman of some twenty years nodded at Freya. Her hair was very long, and, now that she wasn’t fighting, it fell down her back in smooth waves that flowed like honey, and were very like her mother’s. She was the one who had a cut on her thigh, but she had already wrapped it tightly with a cloth, and some sort of ointment oozed through.
“This is Shar-Non An-On-An-On,” Said Kick-Azz, pointing to a young man, dark of hair and cheeky of eye, who cheerfully gave her a wave, then went back to his hoof-print studies. “He joined our troupe to doctor a sick horse back in Cloud Town, and for some reason he didn’t want to leave us again.”
Shar-Non laughed and glanced at Tee-Lah. “For some reason,” he said, and they smiled secret smiles at each other.
“And this is our middle child,” said Rarr-Dee, “Je-Dai Shee-Lah.” A slim bean-pole person, somewhere in the middle years between child and adult, looked shyly out at Freya from under another mop of red hair.
“And you have met Berry already,” said Kick-Azz.
“I have,” said Freya, winking at the merry-faced child, who giggled and tangled her fingers in and out of her giant horse’s mane and kicked her feet back and forth their stirrups.
“And that’s Har-Ree and Ha-Grid and Her-Mi-Ony and Lu-Na,” Berry said, pointing at the four great hounds who had come to lay at their sides and pant. “And that’s Chew-Eeh and An-Nee-Kin and Lee-ah and Loo-Ook and Han-Solo and this is Vay-Der,” she said pointing to all the horses separately, then patting her own mount.
“That is what happens when you let the children name the animals,” Kick-Azz said cheerfully.
“Nice to meet you all,” said Freya. “And this is Dinna, but he’s not very nice, so don’t get in reach of his teeth or heels, except you, Berry, because he likes children, bless his little black heart. And now we should ride on, because while we aren’t in such a hurry, we don’t want to be travelling too long by night, so it would be best if we can keep up with the thieves.
“Why don’t we want to ride by night?” Shar-Non said.
“Because of the Veeky monster who lives in this forest,” Freya said. “All bones and bile, and only afraid of fire. It hunts by night so we are safe by day.”
“I’m glad you came across us,” Said Kick-Azz. “We’d have been riding blind, otherwise.”
Freya shrugged and grinned. “Foresight isn’t always useful with the Veeky, or so I’ve heard, never having met it myself,” she said, “But we’ll ride on and see what happens. It won’t be boring anyway!”
The Shee-Lah troupe plus Freya rode on deeper into the forest. The sun sank over their left shoulders as they travelled north, and the further they went into the trees the darker it got. After a while, it got too dark to see even the wide trail the Bigotes had left behind them and the younger ones took turns leading their horses and walking ahead, bending low to follow the path of trampled forest mulch with their brighter eyesight.
They were going up and down hill, but the trend was up, and now, some way ahead of them and well above eye level, they saw a great bonfire flare up into the twilight. Freya felt some relief at the sight. She had been beginning to suspect that the men were in such a hurry that they planned to brave the Veeky and ride on through the night.
“They’ve camped,” Rarr-Dee said, bring Chewy to a halt. “What is your plan?”
“We creep in and watch,” Freya said. “If we can, we find out where your precious thing is and we make sure that no matter who gets away this time, they will do it without the object. Would you mind telling me what it is?”
The family shared glances of decision, then nodded to each other, and it was the middle child, Jed-Dai, who said, “It is our Oo-Koo-Lay-Lee. It has been in our family since the days of my great great grandmother.”
“And before that too,” agreed Kick-Azz. “It is a gift from a wizard our family helped, and when you play it, it makes everyone happy and joyful… and therefore keener to reach into their purses and less likely to reach for swords. Without it, we can still do what we do, but no longer will our welcome be so assured, nor our living.”
“And what does this piece of magic look like?” Freya asked.
“Like a very small lute but not a lute,” Berry piped up to say. “Jed-Dai plays it best, and I have the best voice, and so does Tee-Lah and Shar-Non! Mama Shee-Lah plays everything best and trains the hounds to do tricks, and Daddy Rarr-Dee knows all the songs and stories…”
“And keeps the whole mad collection on the road,” Rarr-Dee broke in wryly. “It’s nearly full dark. Shouldn’t we be creeping up on the bonfire?”
“Yes,” Freya said, noticing as she said it just how dark it had become. The Veeky would be on the move, but it was a big forest. There was no reason to think it would find them so soon, if at all.
They rode on, unmolested by man or monster, until it came time to tie the horses up, apart from Dinna who could sneak with the best of them. They crept forward through the trees, great hounds crawling beside them, and Dinna tip-toeing behind, to spy on the encamped raiders from below. It was hard for any of them to be quiet in the rustling undergrowth, but the roaring of the bonfire hid any noises they made.
Bellies flat on the ground, humans and dogs watched the movements in the camp, while Dinna stood behind a tree and peered round it.
Freya was counting numbers. There were still twenty Bigotes alive, some slightly wounded. They were preparing to spend the night, but they looked wary and alert, though more because of the Veeky than the little family she now lay amongst, she judged. The leader seemed to be a particularly old and crusty man, who sat on a small wooden chest and directed the others to run around him. There was no sight of the Oo-Koo-Lay-Lee, but Freya would have bet her next bottle of something tasty and alcoholic that the magical instrument was in the chest.
“Do you see the chest under the arse of that old crusty?” she whispered to Kick-Azz, who lay beside her.
“Yes,” said the Shee-Lah just as quietly, though the crackling fire and talk of the raiders made such care less than necessary. “It would make sense to have it in there. We were warned long ago that if it was broken, the magic would be lost. I’m sure whoever has sent these men to steal it told them it must arrive unscathed.”
“Or no money for them,” Freya agreed. “That might help us. What if we send three or so people round to the other side, then the rest of us attack from this side? The leader might try to sneak away with the chest again, and our little ambush can get it off him.”
“I’ll go,” Rarr-Dee rumbled from the other side of Kick-Azz. “More might sneak away than three can handle. If I take Jed-Dai, Tee-Lah and Shar-Non, and leave you three with all of the hounds, don’t you think you could make enough noise to make them think it is all of us attacking again?”
“Yes,” Kick-Azz agreed. “I think we could. Do you think that would work, Freya? We could send the hound Har-Ree with them and have them send him back to us when they’re ready. He is taught to back-track via scent and to find the troupe member we name.”
“Why not?” Freya said quietly. “Sounds like a good idea. Back to the horses, people. Best if we get this done before the Veeky finds that lot, or even worse, us.”
They scrooched backwards until they were well into the darkness, then went quietly for their mounts. Rarr-Dee and his little team made short work of preparing, then they disappeared into the darkness, heading east and intending to make a wide circle around the campers, with the largest of the shaggy grey hounds at their heels.
We’ll wait here,” Freya said. “Don’t want to confuse your Har-Ree by moving anywhere. I’d hate him to walk into the camp by mistake.”
“He won’t,” said Berry, who was still with the two women, as planned. “He’s so clever. He’s cleverer than Shar-Non, Shar-Non says, and Shar-Non reckons he’s always right. Papa says all young men his age think they’re always right.”
Freya chuckled at that. “I’m not sure that ends when the youth does,” she said to Kick-Azz wryly.
Kick-Azz snickered quietly with amusement, but probably wisely, refrained from commenting.
“In our family, we think that the Shee-Lah is always right,” Berry said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Freya. “That’s how it should be. I, for instance, am also always right.” This time it was Berry’s turn to snicker, and Freya grinned into the darkness. Well, that was certainly true, from her own point of view, and what did Freya care for the points of view of others?
“What…?” Berry was just starting to ask when Kick-Azz interrupted her.
“Berry,” said Kick-Azz, “I know this talk, and Freya, is fascinating, but will you feed the hounds and keep some meat aside for Har-Ree when he returns?”
“Yes mama,” said the child obediently, and she went to the saddle bags of Kick-Azz’s horse and stood on tiptoe to reach into them.
“Wonder of wonders,” Kick-Azz said quietly to Freya. “At least the change of scene has made them behave better. With two almost-adults in the family, and two only just adults, Rarr-Dee and I were beginning to think we might have to fight off a mutiny pretty soon.”
“My parents suggested I might like to go and find new things to do, and to look at, when I reached that age,” Freya said, “And I liked the idea well, so I did. I’ve been looking at, and doing, new things ever since, though they both frequently involve needing a sword, for some reason. Some of us never grow out of it.”
“I’m glad of it this night,” Kick-Azz said, “Because otherwise you wouldn’t have been there to help us at the right time.”
“Thank me if we get back your Oo-Koo-whatsit,” Freya said watching the feeding of the hounds with interest. It wasn’t totally dark anymore, because a full moon had risen. It helped them now, but it might hinder the other half of the team as they tried to surprise the crusty leader.
In the light of the moon, and with her eyes well-adjusted to the night, Freya could see that little Berry had the three great hounds sitting in front of her, and she was quietly chattering away to them as she handed out chunks of bloody meat, one by one to each hound. When sitting, the heads of the dogs levelled the height of the child. They really were amazing beasts.
“Where did you get…” Freya was just asking Kick-Azz, when there was a rustling in the undergrowth and suddenly a ghostly fourth hound had arrived and joined the dinner queue.
“Good boy, Har-Ree!” Berry said quietly but enthusiastically, and she gave the next few pieces of meat to him.
“They’re ready, and no outcry from the raiders,” Kick-Azz said. “It’s time. Throw the rest of the meat to the hounds quickly, Berry,” she ordered, then added to Freya, “Getting meat is not an issue when your whole family uses weapons to put on a show of accuracy every night.”
“I’d wondered why a group of performers were all so good with their swords,” Freya said, as she swung up into Dinna’s saddle.
“There’s the performances, and there’s the bad people you meet on the road,” Kick-Azz said, mounting up as well. “But these have been the first ones who’ve been able to best us.”
“We were taken by surprise,” Berry said as she climbed up her stirrup leather and into the saddle, lively as a monkey. “We were all asleep.”
“And that was our first mistake,” Kick-Azz said as the turned their horses towards the camp, “But we were in the centre of a town, and who would have expected raiders there?”
“They would have come after you no matter where you were, or how prepared,” Freya said. “I sense the determination of people wanting to earn very good money, driven by the treasure of a corrupted magic-user. I think perhaps it was being in the centre of town that saved your lives.”
“May they live to regret that!” Kick-Azz said fiercely.
“Yeah!” said Berry.
They were back on their little rise now, looking down on the peaceful night-time camp that glowed in the light of the big fire. The men and women below were mostly sitting down and eating bowls full of whatever had been cooking on a small fire beside the huge one.
This time, the watchers were still mounted, so there could be no stealthy approach, and before the campers could notice their arrival, Freya gave her war-cry by way of a signal. “A woman! A woman!”
They charged, swords drawn, with Kick-Azz and her youngest daughter urging the eager hounds to, “Sic ‘em!” with loud and excited voices, trying to make as much noise and sound like as many people as they could. The hounds obliged by beginning to bay, and the three riders and four dogs crashed down onto the camp like a flight of Valkyries.
The raiders weren’t slow to get moving, not with the Veeky out in the forest somewhere to keep them alert. Even as some threw away their bowls and reached for weapons, the crusty old leader took up the heavy wooden chest and, quickly strapping it to a pack horse, mounted his own horse and rode away on the far side of the camp, with only two followers behind him.
“Our plan! It’s working!” Kick-Azz shouted to Freya as she drew her sword out of the belly of the first raider she’d come to.
“Woo hoo!” yelled Berry, swinging her sword with great accuracy into the ear of another raider, scalping him and dropping him to the ground to be trampled by her clumping great horse as she rode on looking for the next foe.
Har-Ree (or one of the other hounds, Freya couldn’t really tell them apart) grabbed for the groin of another man even as he was trying to swing aboard his horse, a sight which made even Freya wince, especially when the next hound then began to make a tug toy of the poor raider, with the first dog still firmly holding him by the jadding tools.
“That’s gotta hurt,” Freya said happily as she rode on and let Dinna take out the next opponent with a single strike of his lethal forelegs to the forehead.
So far so good. They were holding their own and certainly keeping the raiders occupied. Freya kept stealing glances up the hillside to their north, hoping not to see the leader come high-tailing it back down. There was nothing to see yet, which was a useful sign.
“Keep moving!” She yelled, at a moment when she had the woman and girl nearby, their hair swirling out around them as they cut ferociously left and right. They wouldn’t be able to defeat seventeen fighters if they got bogged down, and killing them all wasn’t the goal anyway. They needed to get up that hillside to where they’d separated the leader and his wooden chest from the herd.
With the hounds swirling at their horse’s feet, the three fighters fought their way right through the raiders, around the bonfire, and out the other side, and now they were having to guard against thrown weapons from behind as they left the firelight behind and rode on up the hill, with Kick-Azz calling her hounds to her as they went.
“Find Rarr-Dee!” Kick-Azz shouted to her great grey dogs, who went ahead like ghostly arrows into the night.
The fire had blinded the humans to the dark, so they trusted to the noses of the hounds and let their horses find the way between the trees, lunging up the steepening hill behind the great, baying beasts.
When they came upon the rest of the family, it was very suddenly. There was no light there, not of fire or of magic, and only the full moon picked out the scene of the crusty old leader and his one remaining lieutenant, unhorsed and bailed up against a rocky outcrop. Rarr-Dee and the three youngsters were gamely attacking, and one Lieutenant was already down under the crushing feet of their massive horses, dead or mortally wounded, but the moon was in their eyes, and the raiders hid in the shadows of the rocky cliff behind them, only leaping out to strike then return to the safety of the overhang. They were playing a waiting game, and Freya knew why.
She knew that the rest of the thieves would be right behind them up that hill, and that they didn’t have much time to waste finessing things. “Where is the pack-horse?” she shouted. “Find the pack-horse! Leave the Veeky-bait to their own devices and find the keeshing pack-horse!”
“This way! I saw it go!” Jed-Dai shouted, and Freya and the whole family troupe all turned their horses and went after the youth, who put long legs to the sides of the huge grey horse and lumbered into a canter up the hill into the dark.
“Jadding pack-horse comes from Fyrkat, and homing right back to Fyrkat, all alone if necessary.” Freya muttered to herself. “Not good. Some corrupt wizard there will get his magical prize after all, but not if I can help it.”
She urged Dinna into a gallop and let him have his head as the pale trees and dark undergrowth blurred past her. Those evil black eyes of his might be cloudy and impenetrable, but they saw by night far better than hers.
They passed Jed-Dai, whose massive animal couldn’t go uphill at the same pace as the lightly-built, long-legged Dinna, and behind her she could hear at least one more of the great grey clumpers making heavy work of the slope. She didn’t check her pace to wait for them. The unburdened pack-horse might be going even faster than she was.
The land levelled out into a flat area, and the trees thinned out a little. Moonlight shone down and picked out the white trunks of the birch trees, making them glow, and creating an unreal scene for the woman and her black horse to ride through. There was no sign of the pack-horse, but Freya and Dinna kept heading straight towards Fyrkat as fast as that nimble horse could go.
Then she brought him to a sudden stop, his hooves sliding in the mulch of the forest floor as he worked hard to lose all that galloping momentum. Ahead of them, standing, was the packhorse. It was standing because its lead-rein was being held by someone. Someone you might not expect to find in the middle of a forest.
She wore white. Innocent white. Her hair was dark and her face and body frail and thin. The hands, though, those hands that held the nervous pack-horse there, were equipped with talons as long as Freya’s forearms.
Frey rode forward slowly, and behind her she heard more horses arriving. She put her hand back in a ‘steady’ gesture. This, she had a bad feeling, was the Veeky, and they were now in extreme danger.
“Hello pretty lady,” Freya said, mildly as she rode near, but not too near, to those talons. “I’m very glad you caught our horse for us.”
“Oh, is it yours?” said the lady, who was far from pretty, but instead hollow-cheeked and bitter about the mouth, with rather a lot of jagged teeth. “I’m very glad I could catch it for you then. I thought it might belong to those other people down the hill there.”
“Oh no, it’s ours alright,” said Freya. “If you’ll just pass over the lead-rein, we’ll be heading off home.” She slowly held one hand out towards the creature, which smiled at her, showing teeth, and ever so gently handed her the rein, carefully keeping those vicious talons pointed away.
Behind her, Freya could hear more horses arriving, and strained whispers as explanations were made.
“My grateful thanks, gentle lady,” she said, backing Dinna away step by step and bringing the pack-horse along with her.
“Oh, you are very welcome,” the Veeky said kindly. “I always like to help people who pass through my forest. I am the very essence of helpfulness.”
“I’m sure you are. Well, we might be seeing you again one day. Good bye, pretty lady,” Freya said, eyes never leaving the monster as it stood there in the moonlight and raised one peaceful, terrifying hand.
Hoping the Shee-Lahs would have the sense to start getting the hell out of there without any undue scuffle, Freya quietly swung Dinna away from the Veeky and began to lead the pack horse out of the clearing, pointing to the rest of the troupe to show them to go too.
The whole family were there, hounds as well, and they began to ride slowly along, south of her but paralleling her, as she rode westwards. They would have to get around the Bigote band below, and it seemed best to also avoid heading any closer to Fyrkat in the north east. They could discuss where they really wanted to go once they were safely crowded close to a roaring fire.
Brrr, that had been a scary moment, even for Freya. She controlled any urge she had to look behind her, in case that set the Veeky off. She could barely believe they were going to get away with it. They were out of sight of the thing now, and she took a big breath and let it out. Phew.
She and the Shee-Lahs rode closer and closer together, until they were all in one group again, and they put their horses into a trot, the better to get away from the monster back there. The hounds were growling and looking all around them nervously, and Freya just had to hope like hell it didn’t mean that the Veeky was following them.
Then, suddenly, the Bigotes rose up out of nowhere. On foot and quiet, under cover of the night and the heavy tread of the grey horses, they had run and hidden behind trees ahead, and crept in behind too.
Reining into a milling pack and calling the dogs to heel, the Shee-Lahs and Freya looked around frantically for holes in the circle, but there were none. They’d had been neatly ambushed. They all drew swords and waited.
“Heh, knew you’d be heading this way sooner or later,” said the crusty old keesher who led that rabble, sneering at Freya and her friends. “You wouldn’t want to get any closer to Fyrkat and that evil old jadder, Neon’Azi. Not considering how much he wants your lovely little lute there to manipulate the masses with.”
“It’s not a lute, it’s an Oo-Koo-Lay-Lee!” Berry said affrontedly. “And it’s ours. Taking it off us was stealing!”
“Thank you for my lesson in thievery, little girl,” the man said sarcastically. “Now hand over the pack-horse and the lute, before I give you a lesson in dying.”
“How rude!” said Berry. “I don’t need lessons in dying. You are MUCH older than me and will die much sooner.”
“Not if you don’t hand over the booty,” said the Bigote, and he and his men began to draw in towards the little band, who got ready to fight.
“I’m sorry about this,” said Kick-Azz to Freya as they both chose their first opponents and lined up ready to meet them.
“I wouldn’t give up just yet,” Freya said cheerfully, “They’ve unhorsed themselves, which was useful for sneaking, but now, in a face-to-face fight, they are at a disadvantage, and anyway, I’d far rather face a bunch of foot-fighters or even mounted ones, than that keeshing Veeky!”
Kick-Azz laughed. “That’s true. Sic’ em!” she told her hounds, and the great beasts leapt forward with deep-throated snarls, each of the four immediately taking down a screaming Bigote.
“Ha! It’s definitely a disadvantage to them to be facing your hounds on foot!” Freya said happily, and swung Greygory viciously at the first Bigote to come into range.
The Shee-Lahs and Freya fought back-to-back in a circle, with the cowering pack-horse crammed in behind their horse’s great grey arses, and the hounds leaping here and there as suited them. They were bailed up, but they were far from beaten. Bigotes lay scattered on the ground all about, and the much-beset leader no longer made jokes about teaching anyone how to die. The treasure they had been offered must have been prodigious for them to show such dedication.
Freya had rarely fought in such a handy crew, young as so many of them were. She was enjoying herself way too much; cutting and thrusting and even kicking while her evil black horse enjoyed himself just as much, as he bit and struck beneath her, and the swords of the others flashed and cleaved on each side of her.
Then, the man she was fighting suddenly didn’t have a head, and it wasn’t her who had done it. A white blur went by, and when it had passed, the Bigote was standing headless, sword still raised to parry Greygory, then his body was falling under Dinna’s joyfully stomping feet.
“What the?” Freya said, looking around her with horrible suspicion already dawning.
There! White! Another man was down, and a hound yelped and leapt away as the white blur caught it a glancing blow.
“The Veeky!” Freya yelled. “Ware the Veeky! It comes as a white blur!” She had no idea how you warned people against, or even defended yourself against, a white blur, but forewarned was as forearmed as she could make them.
For a moment, the monster paused in her view in the moonlight, and it smiled so kindly at her, jagged teeth poking out of its mouth, hideous claws poised to strike. “I am the very essence of helpfulness! I will help you all into death!” it shrieked and then it was a blur again, and the leader of the Bigotes became nothing but a slashed and bleeding bundle in seconds.
“The Veeky! The Veeky!” shouted a Bigote, and the whole lot of them fled. Unfortunately for them, the white blur went with them, and screams filtered back through the trees as the monster began to catch them up.
“Quickly, make for their camp and the bonfire!” Freya shouted. “It’s our only hope!”
She put heels to Dinna and started off, but realised almost immediately that the Shee-Lahs weren’t coming with her. Wheeling around in a tight circle, she looked back and found that they were out of their saddles and busy pulling the wooden chest off the pack-horse’s saddle, with all of the grey horses pulled into a ring behind them, and the hounds lying at their feet.
“What the keesh are you doing?” she yelled. “The monster will kill us all before we even get a chance to fight it, nevertheless have a jadding sing-along!”
“There is another way to fight the monster,” said beautiful Tee-Lah calmly as Rarr-Dee smashed the padlock off the chest and Jed-Dai grabbed up and hugged what was presumably the Oo-Koo-Lay-lee, then gave its strings a few strums. A sweet little tone came ringing out of it, and Freya instantly felt calm and happy.
“Grateful thanks to the wizard Ol’dbat for her magical gift that never goes out of tune,” said Kick-Azz. “Quickly. Get ready now! The monster will be back for us soon.”
The whole family pressed in around Jed-Dai, and little Berry held out a hand for Freya to come and join them. “Freya!” she called. “You can be back-up singer!”
“Not likely!” Freya said, since she sang like a cat on heat, but she still sprang to join them when she saw the first flash of the white blur returning, and Dinna had the sense to cram in behind her, pushing the obliging and confused greys aside to get into the middle of the herd. If the white blur was going to start killing horses, he wouldn’t be the first to go if he could help it.
“Ripdyed I think,” said Rarr-Dee. “Ready? And a one two three go!”
Jed-Dai started strumming, and then all the Shee-Lahs began to sing, “I was scared of underpants and larks. I was scared of gitty pearls and farting on occasions…”
They were nonsense words, but the tune was so cheerful, and the magic of the little instrument flowed out of it and bathed everyone. Freya found herself humming along and swaying to the music, grinning like a fool.
“Oooh, oooh, and they run up trunks…”
The white blur blurred by again, and then round and round them, seeming to go so fast that it made a full white circle of blur around their tight little group of humans, horses and hounds, but then it slowed, and became more visible, and then the Veeky was standing in front of them, its bony face enraptured, its hideous talons flicking about as it conducted their song.
“Lady, why are my pants all rip-dyed, taken away by the dart ride, I wanna be your best wank plan!”
Kick-Azz, still singing, nudged Freya and nodded at the hypnotised Veeky, which was dancing and conducting and grinning its huge jagged teeth in all directions all at once.
Freya was too into the music at first to understand her, so Kick-Azz leaned over to her and sang, “You’ve got a sword on your belt, and you’ve gotta kill the monster,” instead of what the others were singing, which was more like, “I’ve got a bump in my boat ‘cause you’ve gotta big old ding dong!”
Freya shook her head a few times to clear it, then did indeed draw her sword and she didn’t even bother to sneak up, the way the Veeky was into the music. She just walked right up to the monster, but then she hesitated. There wasn’t much she drew a line at, but she didn’t much like to kill anybody who was unable to fight back, not even a monster.
But then the Veeky had said it was going to ‘helpful’ them all to death, and there was no way they were going to be able to kill it if it got going again. Still, she hesitated.
Then Kick-Azz was beside her, sword out, and nodding at her to say that it had to be done, and together they raised their swords, and together the blades came down, and the Veeky fell, cleaved on both sides of its head, right down the chest to the middle of its body.
“We’ve got a chunk off this fiend, boss of mummers brings the sword down!” The rest of the Shee-Lahs finished triumphantly, and the Oo-Koo-Lay-Lee strummed to a stop at last.
“Well,” said Freya eyeing the fallen monster. “That was a family sing-along like no other. It’s time I was on my way to Fyrkat. I’ve got a bad wizard to hunt down, preferably before his minions return to tell him what happened.”
Dinna was already beside her, having guessed her intent, and she swung up into the saddle with one lithe movement.
To the hospitable protestations of the Shee-Lahs that she should camp with them until the night was over, she regretfully replied, “A warned wizard is a dangerous wizard, but one day I will come to Cloud Lake to find you, and then we will sit at our ease and sing songs to your amazing magical lute again.”
She rode away, but she turned back to wave them a last goodbye and was struck by their togetherness as they stood close and waved back, all those wild heads, the brown clothing and the grey of the horses and hounds. She waved a final time and turned her face towards Fyrkat.
Berry’s protesting voice followed her into the forest. “It’s not a lute, it’s an Oo-Koo-Lay-Lee!”
Gorgeous cloudy lake image from here: <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/background”>Background photo created by whatwolf – www.freepik.com</a>