Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (12 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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“There’s the metal,” the nixies sang.

Laurel wrapped her arms around her knees. She was completely

dry, now, and looked like any other half-naked girl you’d meet at

a body-builder’s convention. More at home in her body than most

girls.

“Our time is up, Russell,” Laurel said. “You and I—we are doomed.”

“We are doomed,” the nixies sang.

“You’ve seen the omens,” Laurel continued, “both the Red Dwarf

of Detroit and the Black Dog of Lake Erie.”

“The black dog of—” Russell swung around. Roy was sound asleep

again, snoring and farting by turns. “You mean Roy? He’s just a stray.”

“Call him whatever you like, a Black Dog has signaled doom on

the lakes for centuries.”

“So you’re saying that
I’m
doomed, if he’s hanging out with me?”

“I’m afraid so,” the kelpie said. “I give you another day, maybe two.”

Russell thought on this a moment. “Can you tell how I’m going to

die?”

Laurel shook her head. “From all appearances, I’d say you’ll get

drunk and fall in the river.” She nudged the bottle of Four Roses with her foot.

“Well, thanks for the heads up, but I don’t get whether you’re

warning me to be careful, or telling me to do whatever the hell I want because I’ll end up dead either way.”

• 101 •

• Warrior Dreams •

“I’m here to offer you a warrior’s death,” Laurel said.

The warrior? That guy’s already dead, Russell wanted to say. That

guy doesn’t exist any more. But of course he didn’t, because it wasn’t true. “What do you mean?”

“I told you that I’m the last remaining guardian of the lakes. When

I am gone, the lakes will run with the blood of the gifted.”

Russell rubbed his stubbly chin. “What’s the mission? Do you want

me to slaughter all the people who’re dumping crap into the lake?”

Laurel shook her head. “Pollution
is
a problem, but our immediate concern is the storm hag of the lake.”

“The storm hag of the lake,” the nixies sang.

“What—what—what—wait a minute,” Russell said. “Storm hag?”

“You’ve not heard of her?” Laurel tilted her head, perplexed. “She

is famous. All the Lake Erie sailors know about her.”

“I don’t know any sailors,” Russell said. “I’m not from around here.

I just came in on the bus.”

“I’ve known a lot of sailors,” she said.

Russell put up both hands. He had a feeling he didn’t want to know

about the sailors. “Never mind. Tell me about this hag.”

“Her name is Jenny Greenteeth. She roams the lakes, riding on

an enormous lake sturgeon. She foments storms, then pulls ships

underneath the water and drowns the sailors.”

“I can see where that’s a problem for the sailors, but how is that a problem for you?”

“It’s not just sailors,” Laurel said, fingering her necklace. “Jenny has lived in the lakes since the dawn of history, but she has recently developed a voracious appetite for magic. We think
that
might be the result of phosphates. Or hormones. We’ve fought back, but none of

us can stand against her. Many of us have died—not just nixies and

kelpies, but grindylows and watersprites, snallygasters and selkies

and hippocamps.”

“No offense,” Russell said. “But that sounds like a catalog of the

world’s most obscure magical creatures. Creatures nobody but me

will even miss.” Not that anybody would miss
him
, if he disappeared.

• 102 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

Laurel snorted softly. “Most of the original creatures of faerie are already extinct. Those that call attention to themselves were the first to go. Elves and unicorns, griffins, centaurs, and dragons—humans

loved them to death. We may be all but invisible, but that’s why we’ve survived.”

That’s how I survive, Russell thought. By being invisible. “I’m

sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to imply that you aren’t important..”

“I’m used to it,” Laurel said. “Magical creatures persist in those

places in the world that are hard to get to. That are still relatively free of iron and pollution. There are pockets of dryads in the deep forests of South America, sea serpents and mermaids in the great oceans of

the world. Once the Great Lakes were large enough to shelter us, too.

These days, not so much. Think about it—it’s the tiny magics, like

hexes and charms and lutins, house elves and brownies and woods

sprites that add color and texture to the world. That keep it from

being all metal and glass and right angles. Can we really afford to

have less magic in the world?”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Russell began, “I guess I—”

“With every creature she destroys, Jenny grows larger and hungrier

and more dangerous. Soon the lake will be completely barren of

magical creatures. Except, of course, for her. Then, I believe, she will turn her attention to the land.”

“Can’t you gang up on her?” he asked. “Couldn’t all of you together

take her down?”

“We have tried. Every time we’ve gone against her, we’ve suffered

huge losses. I am the sole survivor of my squadron.”

How’d it happen, MacNeely? How is it that you’re the only survivor?

“What do you mean, your squadron?”

“There used to be scores of us, patrolling the Great Lakes from

Superior to Ontario. Now there’s just me. You see, the only weapon

that works against her is iron, and none of us can wield it.” She raked back her red mane of hair. “We need a champion.”

“We need a champion,” the nixies sang.

“A champion?” Russell frowned, perplexed.

• 103 •

• Warrior Dreams •

“We need someone who can partner with us. Who can wield iron

on our behalf. We need a warrior.” She looked Russell in the eyes, and then down at the iron bar beside him in the snow. “We need you.”

“What? No!” he said. “Oh, no. Don’t look at me. You’ve got the

wrong guy.”

But she
did
look at him, a mingling of eagerness and challenge.

“Don’t you get it?” Russell said, his anger rising. “I’m done with

that. Heroes get killed. If they’re lucky.”

He should know. He was a bona fide hero, with the medals to prove

it. And the wounds that nobody saw, that nobody wanted to see.

“You’ve proven that you can wield iron—can kill with it, if you

have to. You’ve experienced magic, so you know what we stand to

lose. You are unique in the world, Russell G. MacNeely.”

“Yeah, well, you try and be unique for a while, and see how it

works out for you,” Russell growled.

“I
am
unique,” Laurel said, “in these lakes, at least. My entire family—my mate, my birth family, and my children have been killed.

I’m the only one left.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Russell blurted, as regret sluiced over him.

“I know what it’s like to lose a child.”

“Son or daughter?” Laurel asked.

“Daughter,” Russell said, wishing he hadn’t brought her up.

“How did she die?” Laurel asked.

“Oh, she’s not dead,” Russell said. “I stay away from her. It’s better that way. Safer.”

Know your weapon.

I am the weapon.

Laurel cocked her head. “But if—if she’s still alive, then—?”

“Look, back to business,” Russell said. “Even if you found a

champion, how would he hope to go after this hag? Wouldn’t she just

swim away? And if he swam after her, even if he caught her, he’d be

too exhausted to fight.”

“We have a plan,” Laurel said, as if she’d just invented the wheel.

“We’ll set a trap.”

• 104 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

“You have this all worked out, don’t you?” Russell laughed bitterly.

“Now all you have to do is find somebody to do it. Somebody else.

You can’t expect me to fight your magical battles for you.”

“You don’t understand, Russell,” Laurel said. “I’m not asking you to fight for me. I’m a warrior, too. We’ll fight together.”

Russell looked her up and down. “Right. Now, I’m going to bed.

With any luck, I’ll get some sleep.”

Turning his back on Laurel, Russell ducked under the bridge, took

another hit of the Four Roses, and crawled into his sleeping bag.

“Whether you help me or not, your fate is sealed,” she called after

him.

He didn’t sleep well. All night long, the nixies sang of battles and valor, invading his dreams. The soft tinkling of bells from the river told him the flow of refugees was continuing.

He dreamt he galloped through the waves astride a white horse,

bursting through spray, his sword held high over his head. Just ahead, Jenny Greenteeth rose out of the waves, rose and rose and rose until she blotted out the sky. He swung his blade with a two-handed stroke and—

A faint noise woke him. Gripping his weapon, heart thumping,

that metallic taste of fear on his tongue, he searched the darkness.

“It’s me, Russell,” Laurel said, sounding amused. “Put away the

iron. I won’t hurt you.”

He heard a soft rustle of fabric. Then she sat down next to him,

unzipped his sleeping bag, and slipped in beside him. She was very

clearly naked.

“What are you doing?” Russell said, rolling on his side to face her.

“Isn’t it obvious?” she said. “Please say yes.” And then she kissed

him, which awakened sensations he thought he’d forgotten.

With every ounce of resolve that was in him, he gripped her

shoulders and pushed her to arm’s length. “Why?” he demanded.

She regarded him, perplexed. “Because I want to?” She poked him

playfully. “It seems you do, too.”

“Why?” Russell repeated, bringing up his knees in defense.

• 105 •

• Warrior Dreams •

Laurel let go an exasperated sigh. “Well, it’s kind of a tradition for warriors on the eve of battle to—you know—in case it’s the last time.”

“I told you,” Russell said. “I’m not going to fight. No matter what

you—”

“Russell.” Laurel put a finger over his lips. “Silly. I wasn’t talking about you,” she said. “I was talking about me. I just need a little

cooperation.”

And so, after a bit more persuasion, Russell cooperated.

After, they lay, looking up at the sky. Or they would have, if the

bridge wasn’t in the way. Laurel fingered Russell’s dogtags. “What are these? Amulets of some kind?”

“It’s ID. So, if you’re killed, they can figure out who to notify.”

“What about this one?” She read the inscription aloud.

“I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

“That’s the Warrior Ethos,” Russell said. “It’s something they make

us memorize, but they don’t believe in themselves.” He sighed. “All I ever wanted to be was a soldier.”

In the morning, he awoke alone. Hungry and sore and worn out,

like he’d been doing battle all night. Laurel was a warrior, for sure. He smiled, remembering.

“Laurel?” he said. No answer beyond the howling of the wind,

blowing down the river.

He quickly yanked on his clothes, shivering in the cold. Laurel’s

seaweed dress still lay where she’d dropped it, dried and disintegrating.

Crawling out from under the bridge, he saw that black thunder-

clouds were piling up in the northwest. An unusual sky for February.

Something bad was brewing.

The area around his campsite was deserted, not a nixie nor a pixie

to be seen. After the tumult all night long, it was a little unnerving.

And, truth be told, a little lonely.

“That was a strange dream,” he said aloud.

• 106 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

Roy lifted his head and whined when Russell spoke. “Guess I didn’t

dream you up, boy.” He’d been half-convinced the dog would be gone

in the morning, too. Gently, he gripped the dog’s ruff to either side and looked at him, nose to nose. Roy’s eyes glowed like red coals, like in all the stories about hell-hounds.

“Are you really the harbinger of doom?” Russell asked. “Is my

number really up?” Would the harbinger of doom leave piss-marks

all around the camp?

In answer, Roy unfurled an impossibly long tongue and licked

him in the face. Pulling away, he pawed at a bundle, lying in the snow.

A long bundle wrapped in seaweed, a squarish package next to it.

Russell knew what it was before he ever picked it up.

“You forgot something, Laurel!” he called. “Come get this stuff! I

don’t want it.”

Nobody answered.

He couldn’t help himself. He was a warrior, after all. Picking free

one edge of the seaweed shroud, he unrolled it.

It was an iron sword in a leather baldric, a massive blade with

dragons on the hilt. As he drew it out, he saw that it was freshly oiled and free of rust and incredibly sharp, as Russell found out when he

tried his thumb on the edge.

“Ow!” he said, sucking on his thumb. “You call this a weapon?

Where’s my M110?” he called out. “How ’bout an M4?” No answer.

Unwrapping the other bundle, he pulled out a circular shield and

a silver helm.

He picked up the shield in his right hand, the sword in his left.

Dancing around on the riverbank, thrusting and parrying , he fought

an invisible opponent to surrender.

He’d taken fencing lessons, back in the day. It was an up-close,

intimate dance that seemed appropriate to a warrior. His muscles

remembered what his unreliable mind had forgotten.

A soft whickering drew his attention back to the river. A horse

stood there, dripping wet, having just climbed out of the water. Her coat shone white with a faint tinge of blue, translucent as stillwater

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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