Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (13 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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• 107 •

• Warrior Dreams •

ice. Water streamed from her red mane and tail. She wore no saddle

or bridle, only a necklace of water lilies and freshwater mussel shells.

The luminous blue eyes were hauntingly familiar. Recognition

pinged through Russell.

“Laurel?” he whispered.

“I told you,” she said, tossing her head and pawing at the earth

with her hoof. “You won’t be alone. We’re in this together.”

He took a step back, shaking his head weakly, the tip of his massive sword dragging in the snow. “No,” he said.

She came forward, twitching water from her tail, her eyes fixed on

Russell. When she was close enough, she reached out and butted him

gently with her head. He stroked her velvety soft nose. Pulling back her lips, she exposed fearsome sharp teeth. Gripping his parka, she

dragged him forward a few steps, toward the river’s edge. Then knelt, to make it easier for Russell to climb on.

Russell looked back at Roy, hoping for direction. Roy sat in the

snow, his tail beating on the ground, his red-coal eyes fixed on

Russell.

“Is this it, Roy?” Russell asked. “Is this how it all ends?”

Roy said nothing.

“I can’t believe I’m asking advice from a dog I’ve only just met,”

Russell muttered.

He looked back at his crib under the railroad bridge, the meager

campsite he’d defended like a junkyard dog, knowing it was the best

he could hope for. He could stay here, and eke out a living, dumpster-diving and haunting the soup kitchens. He could go back to the

world and start taking his medicine again. Or he could do this thing.

He could be a warrior, one more time. It was the one thing—the only

thing—he’d ever wanted to be.

Laurel had her head twisted around, looking at him.

“Where is everyone?” Russell asked.

“They’re down in the harbor, waiting for you.”

“You said you had a plan?” Russell said.

“The nixies will lure her inside the breakwall,” Laurel said. “That

• 108 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

will prevent her from taking advantage of the sturgeon’s speed. We

can either run her aground or trap her against the breakwall. Then

it’s up to you.”

It’s up to you, MacNeely. Somebody has to take out that gunner or
we’l never get out of here.

Russell picked up the helm and slid it onto his head, strapped the

baldric onto his back, and slid the sword into it. He retrieved his

shield and strode to the kelpie’s side. Swinging his leg over, he twined his fingers into her mane. “Let’s do this thing,” he said.

The next thing he knew, they were flying over the concrete barrier

at the water’s edge and plunging into the icy river. It was a good thing he was holding on tight, or he would’ve been pitched right off. The

water was just as cold as Russell expected, but Laurel gave off heat like a furnace, warming his entire body. He could feel her muscles

under him, extending and bunching, extending and bunching as she

swam with the current, following the switchbacks of the crooked

river toward the lake. The shoreline blurred by, faster than Russell could focus. Fleetingly, he wondered whether Laurel was in a hurry

to act before he had second thoughts.

They swept under the Shoreway, under another railroad bridge,

past Wendy Park on their left-hand side.

They burst out of the mouth of the river like a log out of a chute.

At that point the wind hit them, a furious pounding from the

northwest, whipping up whitecaps even within the breakwall. Laurel

kept swimming, angling across the flow of water to a spot just inside and to the east of the passage through the break into the greater lake.

There she hovered, constantly swimming just to keep from being

swept out into the lake.

“We’ll wait here,” Laurel shouted, but Russell could barely hear her over the howling of the wind and the thunder of the waves crashing

over the wall.

Just beyond the wall, the lake water seethed with swimming

bodies—nixies and grindylows, watersprites, and selkies. This was

the bait that was meant to lure the storm hag.

• 109 •

• Warrior Dreams •

She was on her way, if the weather was any indication. Sleet hissed

into the water all around them, found its way under Russell’s collar, and bit into his face like a thousand tiny knives. If not for Laurel between his knees, he’d be frozen solid already. Swiping ice from his lashes, he peered into the distance, where the black horizon melted

into the turbulent lake.

Then he saw it, something that looked like a massive tidal wave

heading for the breakwall, higher than any other wave. Ahead of it,

magical creatures peeled off to either side, desperate to escape.

“Is that something?” he asked Laurel.

“That’s her,” she said, and dove.

Russell clung desperately to her back, squeezing his eyes tightly

shut. Pressure built in his ears until it seems like they might pop. He held his breath as long as he could, then tried to let go, so he could kick his way to the surface. He stuck to her back like a burr on Velcro, unable to free himself. He breathed in—he couldn’t help it—and to

his surprise, it was fine. He reached up to his neck and found gills there—deep slits on either side. He was breathing underwater.

That’s when he knew he was having some kind of a major breakdown.

When you see things, MacNeely, what do you see?

Russell’s head broke the surface, and then Laurel’s, and he saw

she’d come up just inside the breakwall. Russell turned to look just as the storm hag burst through the passage from the lake, driving a

cryptozoological menagerie before her.

Russell gaped at Jenny Greenteeth, pawing through his mental

thesaurus of words for huge. Like colossal. Humongous. Statuesque.

Immense. She was as tall as the thunderclouds piling up behind her,

and she rode a fish the size of a freight train.

Her skin was the color of verdigris, like copper after years of

exposure to seawater and sunlight. Her hair was chartreuse, with

jewels, shells, pearls, and other glitterbits woven into it. She wore what looked like a fortune in bling—pearls, diamonds, opals, and other

gemstones roped around her neck. She controlled her steed with reins that looked to be made of moray eels.

• 110 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

Her eyes were the mustard yellow of a sulfur spring, her teeth

grass-green, and she wore a kind of armor made of brass plates.

“Shipbuilder’s plaques,” Laurel explained. “One for each ship she’s

foundered.”

“Shit,” Russell said, looking down at his puny shield, then back up

at his opponent. And laughed. “She’s colossal. We’re totally fucked.”

“Courage, Russell,” Laurel said.

The sturgeon surged forward, plowing into the school of fleeing

lake creatures, magical and not. The storm hag sluiced her fingers

through the water on either side, straining them out. She crammed

fistfuls of nixies, kelpies, carp, and walleye indiscriminately into her mouth.

Even astride the fish, she towered over buildings on the shore.

And then, she began to sing.

Come into the water, love, Dance beneath the waves,

Where dwell the bones of sailor lads

Inside my saffron caves.

“What’s that all about?” Russell asked.

“It’s her thing,” Laurel said briskly. “Kind of a tradition. She likes to sing before a kill. The others are going to draw her this way, into the closed end of the breakwall, so she’s trapped. Then we’re going in.

Just be careful—her claws are deadly poisonous.”


Now
I’m worried,” Russell said, grinning. What the hell did he have to lose?

That MacNeely? He’s crazy brave.

There was a time when being crazy served a soldier well.

The surviving decoys made a sharp right turn past where Laurel

and Russell lurked, making speed toward a small opening in the

break water at the west end—too small for the sturgeon to fit through.

When Jenny saw where they were headed, she yanked her reins hard

right, digging in spurs made of oyster shells. She lashed her mount

with a small whip, screeching, “Don’t let them get away!”

• 111 •

• Warrior Dreams •

Like a lake freighter, the sturgeon made a wide turn to follow, its

wake slopping over the shoreline like water sloshing out of a bathtub.

It put on speed, blood staining the water from the wounds in its

sides. It reached the breakwall at ramming speed just as the last of their quarry slipped through the hole. The sturgeon slammed into

the opening, ramming halfway through, and then stuck there, its tail flailing, sending tidal waves onto the shore.

Outside the breakwall, the nixies cheered.

But Jenny Greenteeth wasn’t done yet. Howling in fury, she stood

astride the breakwall like a colossus at the gate. Truth be told, Russell thought she might indeed be a little bigger than she started out.

“Russell,” Laurel said. “I think it might be time to draw your

sword.”

“Not yet,” he said, leaning forward to whisper into Laurel’s ear.“I’m going to need both hands. Bring me in close to the fish,” he said.

“He’ll smash you against the rocks,” Laurel protested, swimming

closer just the same. They followed the breakwall in, avoiding the

lashing tail, until they were all but bumping up against the sturgeon’s side. The eel reins were dangling in arm’s reach. Russell gripped the reins and ran up the slippery side of the fish, coming up underneath Jenny’s position on the wall.

Russell reached over his shoulder, gripped the dragon hilt of the

sword, and pulled it, hissing, from its baldric. It was all he could do to hold the blade steady with his trembling arms. Balancing lightly atop the sturgeon, he slashed into the storm hag’s ankle with a two-handed swing. Then slid down, flattening himself against the sturgeon’s side, pressing his face into its leathery skin, clinging to the eel harness as if his life depended on it. Which it did.

Jenny screamed, a scream that could have been heard in Canada.

Crouching, she scanned the area around her feet for the culprit.

“Hey! Greenteeth!” Laurel shouted. “Over here!”

Turning, she spotted Laurel, hovering between the sturgeon’s tail

and the wall. Flopping down on the sturgeon’s back, she reached for

Laurel while the kelpie swam furiously for open water. Seizing hold

• 112 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

of the water horse, Jenny lifted her, dripping, while Laurel struggled in the hag’s massive hand, shifting from horse to girl to slippery fish.

“What’s this?” Jenny snarled. “Did you sting me?”

Russell ran lightly up the hag’s spine, using the braids in her hair to climb to the top of her head.

He stood there, sword in hand, and his eyes met Laurel’s. She

nodded, once, then sank her razor teeth into Jenny’s fleshy palm.

Enraged, the storm hag flung Laurel away. The kelpie landed, broken, on the rocks of the shoreline and lay there without moving.

Russell rappelled down the front of the hag’s face. Bracing his feet on either side of her nose, a hair’s breadth above her gaping mouth, he plunged his sword into one of her sulfur pool eyes.

The storm hag exploded, covering Russell head to toe with yellow

goo and launching him far out into the lake. He hit the water hard

and sank, a helpless bag of broken bones in the churning waves.

Drowning’s not a bad way to go, he said to himself as he spiraled

down.

Then multiple hands were supporting him, lifting him back

toward the surface. He saw it coming toward him, so brilliant it hurt his eyes, and then his face broke through, into the sunlight.

Incredibly, the storm was over, the waters lapping calmly against

the breakwall, the sky that brilliant blue that sometimes happens on rare days in autumn.

“Laurel,” Russell gasped. “Where’s Laurel?”

“Don’t worry,” the nixies said. “You go together.”

“Good,” Russell said. And closed his eyes.

An honor guard of six nixies laid the two warriors side by side in a small boat filled with water lilies and sea glass and some of the sea hag’s ropes of pearls, since she wouldn’t be using them any more.

Followed by a retinue of nixies and grindylows and shellycoats

and water dragons and brook horses, they towed the boat far out into the lake, to a place where the sunlit waves glittered all the way to the horizons. The mourners commenced to diving, bringing up pebbles

• 113 •

• Warrior Dreams •

and stones from the bottom of the lake and piling them into the boat until it sank beneath the surface.

The nixies scattered flowers over the warriors’ watery grave and

chanted,

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

Every one of them knew that a new Lake Erie legend had been

born.

“This is it?” Margaret MacNeely ducked under the metal

infrastructure of the bridge. “This is just as you found it?”

Sergeant Watson nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Except, you know, for

the personal effects we’ve already given you. The medals and like

that. We were afraid somebody would take them, if we left them

there.”

There wasn’t much. A sleeping bag, left unzipped, gaping open.

The charred remains of a fire. A U.S. Army backpack.

Margaret knelt and poked through the backpack. A few flannel

shirts, socks, underwear, an extra pair of jeans. The e-reader she’d given him last Christmas, carefully protected in a plastic bag. She

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
3.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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