Atalanta cheerfully suggested I go hunting with her, saying something to the effect that while we humans might be sustained on oats and groats, she was carnivorous. Rather than be under the scrutiny of Atticus, I agreed that a hunt would be entertaining.
Atalanta fluffed and flattened her feathers in pleasure, hopping across the hut and out the door in one bound, her tail just missing being shut in the door as it rattled back on its hinges.
“Happy little thing, isn’t she?” I commented dryly.
Atticus looked up over his cup of gruel. “Very. Make sure she comes back with something, I’m not so fond of watery oatmeal myself.”
I stared at him. Where was the intensity behind his words? Yet, he’d said all he was going to say, and was back to examining his book written in Cyrillic, and every bit as ornamented as the Book of Kells. Reading it seemed problematic for him, but the page he was on was about matryoshka dolls. I couldn’t tell if he was reading up on nesting dolls, or if he was simply trying to comprehend the book. There were only limited illustrations—whoever had written it was a better writer than artist—and without knowing the captions, the dolls could well have been mistaken for a porcelain pot.
“Ready yet?” called the gryphon from outside.
Pretending to have ignored the book, I grabbed the fur coat Atticus had brought with him from his workshop, gave it a little shake, and asked him, “Is it fine if I borrow this?”
Normally, I’d just tell him I was taking it, period. However, when one deals with wizards and anything might be magical, it was wise to seek permission.
“It’s yours,” he muttered with a dismissive wave.
Stepping outside, I pulled on the coat and quickly saw why. Despite appearing massive and all-engulfing, it was just a little tight on me. No way could it have fit Atticus, unless it was as a child. I had a hunch, though, that it had not been worn in a very long time, and the way it fit over my long arms and narrow chest perfectly made me think it was bewitched. Once I finished the double row of buttons, my suspicions were confirmed. The fur grew into place, a seamless coat as warm and snug and draft-free as any animal’s hide.
Atalanta twitched her head to examine me. “Nice. Very nice.”
She bowed, motioning me to sit up on her shoulders. Standing tall, her back came to just over my hips. Standing on her back legs, she would be much, much taller than I. I sat on her, uncertainly.
“I’ve—um—never even been on horseback. So…might want to fly low?” I suggested.
She pecked at my knee, pushing me off her neck and more onto her shoulders, then hunched low. “Hold onto my feathers, but don’t pull them out.”
“Move with me.”
I couldn’t ask what she meant before her body rocketed straight up, or at least it felt like it was straight up. My butt slid down her back some before my knees caught hold. I clung for terrifing minutes with my eyes squeezed shut as she pounded the air up, up, up. Then we shifted to the side and were gliding.
“I told you to move with me,” she said cheerfully. We were about seventy-five feet above ground.
“I thought you said we’d be low?”
I didn’t reply, and for a few minutes, she flew in lazy loops and over flat lands. I started to enjoy myself, but not as thoroughly as I would have thought. I supposed flying wasn’t my thing.
“Ready to go hunt?” she chirped.
“What do I do, and what are we hunting?”
“You just stay here and be silent, since I haven’t trained you to use a weapon. And we are coming up on our prey now.”
We dropped over a ledge, and before us was a herd of twenty or so horses grazing in a warm pocket where it seemed the snow had landed and melted on impact. They were fat, round, short things with long winter fur.
“Oh. I didn’t ask. You aren’t one of those ‘save the feral burrows and horses’ advocates, are you?”
“No,” I said. I was more of a “care only about the things that influence your life, otherwise you’ll mess up someone else’s” advocate. Though I thought, as many people did, that horses were pretty to look at, that was about where my feeling for them ended. They’d never been a part of my life, and I understood that some people adored the silly things. Given the chance, I might, too. Under the present circumstances, though, they looked like fattened hunks of meat.
“Good,” said Atalanta with a sigh, “They are a gift of sorts from the local lords and kings. They give us their unwanted horses, we don’t eat their prize war stallions.”
Sounded like a decent bargain to me. Atalanta was gaining altitude, having managed to hide from startling the herd yet. Without warning, her wings dipped back and she plummeted down to the earth. I managed to not scream. My stomach flew into my mouth, and I gripped the gryphon tightly with paralyzed fingers. The herd broke into a run. Her flight shifted. We were targeting a small one with a big limp. We were closer, closer. The rest of the herd left him behind, stampeding away. Atalanta’s claws were almost to his neck.
He fell, and she dove. I flew over her shoulders, hit the ground, and rolled with practice of falling many times from childhood bike tricks. My body didn’t stop rolling until my back slammed against a rock and I sprawled over it. Numbness spread through my body, my fingers tingled. I was upside down. Flopping to the side, I heard a splash, and realized my pants and boots were in ankle-deep water. Shaking, I got to my knees.
Oh, I should be hurting. I wasn’t, but I should be. Adrenaline, I decided.
Finding a stick, I used it and the rock to help me climb to my feet.
Atalanta was busy dispatching the horse. It would seem she wasn’t a very good hunter yet. I wanted to call out to her, but I had no breath. It’s a terrifying feeling, to not breathe. Then suddenly I was breathing and wheezing, and tears were in my eyes, but not from pain. I still felt no pain.
I tried to hobble out of the water, but my next step landed me in calf-deep water. So did the step behind me. There was a mist rising. I couldn’t see my way to the shore. I climbed up on the rock, too numb with shock to feel cold. I thought I heard two or three low notes of a flute.
“At—Atalanta,” I wheezed, my voice too soft for even my own ears to hear. I coughed suddenly. There was blood in my mouth. I searched with my tongue, and found my teeth had cut my lip. I checked over my joints. Nothing broken, nothing dislocated. Just bruised and knocked about. Now I was certain I heard music, low, slow, haunting. I shivered.
I waved away the mist. It was growing, and a chill raced up my arms. I’d stumbled into something’s territory, and it was most certainly not a good thing. With the help of the stick, I stood up and stared around me. It was all fog now, fog so thick I could only wave it away with my arms, and I could see nothing. Wobbling with disorientation, I sat down again and let the cold seep into my legs. Water sloshed in my boot. I knew that out there, growing closer, something was in the mist and on the hunt. The low notes were winding through the mist now, and the song ended, but a lingering echo repeating the tune continued.
It was a horse walking through the water, except I doubted that horses would come in this mist unless they were chased into it. The horse-sounding thing came closer. Mist parted, and I saw the outline of a horse. It was too tall, too sound, too pretty to be one of the discarded horses that the kings gave to keep the gryphons fed. It was lean and muscled, and it smelled of seaweed. It came closer to me. I watched it, holding still and quiet until it stood right before me, my face at chest-level.
It bent its black head down, and turned one glowing red eye to look at me. Its mane was not hair, it was fine kelp. Its fur was scales. I did nothing as its red nose snorting fog lowered to my hands resting on my knees. I held still as it inhaled my scent and exhaled flecks of swamp water over my fists. A pink tongue flashed over my hands, and I saw pointed teeth and long canines. It did not draw my hand into its mouth, but licked me like a puppy.
“What are you?” I asked.
Its vertically-slit pupils narrowed, then widened again, and it spoke in the air about me, “I am your nøkken.”
Water spirit. Shapeshifter. More often than not malevolent. If it had bad intentions, though, it would have merely drowned me by now.
“What do you want?”
“Out of this pond.”
“I cannot take you out.”
“You can in the water in your boot.”
“I am not what you would want for a master.”
“You are a flute. There are not many.”
His words made no sense to me, but I refused to linger on it.
“I will not take you.” How could I think to trust a water spirit for an instant?
“Then,” he said sadly, “I will show you the way to the shore. You are not far.”
And with that, the mist and the creature were gone. The flute ended, too, but somehow I couldn’t get it out of my ears. Instead of the staticy ringing in my ears during utter silence, I heard the song of the flute.
“Gayle! Abigail! Reynel!”
It was Atalanta.
“I’m here!” I called out, and took two steps through the water, and was once more on shore.
“By the pond!”
While Atalanta made her way to me, I emptied out the water from my boot, wringing the pants as much as I could. I hoped it would be enough to keep the nøkken here.
“What are you doing here! There are kelpies and the sort of things living hereabouts!”