E F McAdam

The Scots Valkyrie

The psych ward was far too quiet. Asta edged towards one of the doors. Through the window she saw a patient, a young man, who was strapped to his bed with a myriad of drips and monitors. Files were in little slots outside the door – Asta scanned them, one by one, as she strode down the corridor, until she found the right file. ‘Blair the ‘Screaming Banshee’,’ Asta read aloud with a scoff – typical of her friend to not give them her last name. If the Scots associated her with Bhraghad, then maybe there would have been more chaos. And maybe chains. She flipped through the pages as she stepped into the room. The bed was empty. The cuffs were cut, the tear was ragged as though done by teeth. The evaluations inside Blair’s file were all done by mortals, which explained why the cuffs weren’t iron. ‘Skide, Blair,’ Asta sighed. ‘Why are you here?’ She glanced at her watch. Asta hadn’t come here with the aim to reconnect with the crazy sidhe she’d left, ten years ago, in New Craigs Psychiatric Hospital. She needed to get back to Colden, who, hours before, had called her with the news that his son had been attacked in their home. Iver would be out of surgery any minute. She’d promised Colden she’d be there. But Blair was Asta’s responsibility – she had been for two thousand years. Colden would understand. The Holgarssons knew as well as she did how dangerous the sidhe was when not properly medicated. Throwing the file on the bed, she took off down the corridor until she came to the stairwell. Opening the door, Asta’s ears rang with a humming she always associated with the sidhe. The little bastards were annoying enough protecting their mound, but it was another thing when added to the cacophony of hospital bleeps, whirs and coughs. Either way, it meant she was close. Asta stepped onto the landing. ‘Blair?’ Her boot slipped and she glanced down to see a pool of blood by her feet. She moved to the top of the stairs and saw a body below her, in a porter’s uniform. Rokkirhiminn hummed on her back and Asta’s hand itched to take hold of her sword’s hilt. Instead, she stomped down the stairs to crouch beside the body. She laid her palm on the man’s back – he was still warm, not long dead. As she took a handful of his scrubs and rolled him over, his guts fell out over her boots. Asta jerked back, looking at the ruined chest of the man, skin and cloth and blood merging together at the tears, the hole in his stomach spilling entrails onto the floor. Asta pressed her hand to her mouth, choking on the smell, and tried to steady herself. The only creature with claws long enough to leave such a mark was… Odin help me, Asta thought. The mad sidhe wasn’t the only containment issue in the hospital. Asta moved to the centre of the stairwell. Her hand itched again, so she stuffed it into her pocket. ‘Blair?’ Asta called. ‘It’s me, Asta.’ There was shuffling below, which stopped when she called. Asta could hear a panted breath, like a wild animal. She closed her eyes and prayed it was just her mad little sidhe, and she’d not just accidentally run into the monster who’d killed the porter. ‘Blair, it’s Asta. Come on. I’m here to take you home.’ There was a patter of feet, bare feet, on concrete and then, suddenly, Blair appeared at the bottom of the stairs. She paused, eyes wild and hair matted, before she raced up the steps, hospital robe flapping. Asta couldn’t help but smile – even though years had passed, Blair hadn’t changed. Sure, her red hair was slightly more untamed than last time, dreadlocks and beads and – was that a feather? – tangled in her endless curls, but she was still the same mad sidhe she’d always been. ‘It’s so nice to see –’ ‘No time.’ Blair made a sharp right at the top of the stairs, hopped over the body of the man, and raced up to the second floor. ‘Can’t stop!’ she called back over her shoulder. ‘Blair?’ Asta watched as her friend disappeared from view before lurching after her. The slapping of the sidhe’s bare feet on stone rang up above her, always out of reach, red hair flashing around each corner. ‘Slow down! Wait!’ On the fifth floor, the door exiting the stairwell was swinging. Asta darted through to see Blair racing down the corridor. Her robe was only tied around her neck and her naked arse flashed like a moon as she ran, until she reached the end. She skidded to a halt, bare feet squeaking on the polished lino, before swerving to the right. ‘Blair!’ Asta called. She swore and lurched down the corridor after her, Doc Martens squeaking on the polished floor, Rokkirhiminn humming on her back. Her sword seemed ready to fight and she hoped – no she prayed, to Odin and Thor and all the other damned gods – that he was wrong. He wasn’t. First, the air split with a deep, guttural roar. Second, Blair’s body came back into view – flying through the air. Red hair writhing like fire, she slammed back into the wall. Her head smacked back and she crumpled to the floor. Asta’s feet slammed to a stop. Rokkirhiminn was still humming, urging her on, pushing her to leap into battle. But the thought of raising her sword again reminded her, with a lightning flash of pain, of her last battle – of falling from the sky – of waking up with two burning scars on her back and her wings stuffed into pillowcases. She was a Valkyrie. Or she used to be, at least. She would rather die, she thought, as she raced down the corridor towards the sound, than let her friend fight alone. Not that Blair could fight – her small body, dainty like a doll or bird, was lying still. Asta pressed her fingers to the soft skin of Blair’s neck, shining ever so slightly with silky scales. A pulse. Faint as a butterfly’s wings, but there. Asta’s breath escaped her in a rush, but before she could breathe freely, a growl behind her made her whirl. Squeezing between the tiny hospital doors was a huge brown bear. The bear’s hunched shoulders were wedged between the double doors, straining so hard that one shoulder was cut and bleeding. The other shoulder had a scar, the fur patchy and tattered around the old wound. Its lips curled back and it let out another roar that made the windows rattle. A skinwalker? She’d never even seen one in Scotland – they were rare, even in Asta’s home-country – never mind one attacking a village in Danelaw. Her village, her Holgarssons. Now, at least, she understood why Iver Holgarsson was in critical condition – the reason they were all here to begin with. Asta had never been mauled by bears before – she’d always been the one doing the damage – but the thought of claws slicing through a young boy was enough to make bile rise up to her throat. He was only thirteen. She glanced down at Blair. She’d heal quickly enough, but not here – not in the sterile human world. She needed her people, sea or mound, or she’d be as dead as her father. But she had to prioritise – the bear was heading towards a hospital room. Pushing doubts and other worries to the back of her mind, Asta leapt into battle. The bear roared and swiped at the Valkyrie as she lunged, finally seeing her as a threat. Rokkirhiminn produced a highpitched whine as he was released from the sheath, turning into a beautiful singing as he slashed through the air. The bear lifted a paw to block – the sword struck so heavily it stuck into the bone. The cry was louder, touched with pain, as its other paw batted Asta away. The blow landed but the claws didn’t connect – regardless, Asta was catapulted over the reception desk in the centre of the ward. A woman was cowering under the desk. She was shaking with fear – most Scots had never even heard of a skinwalker – but she wasn’t pissing her pants, so Asta guessed a lot of magical-creature shit went down in this hospital anyway. ‘Stay down,’ Asta said, as if that wasn’t obvious, groaning as she eased herself to her feet. ‘I’m a professional.’ She wished for her armour, not for the first time, instead of her Masters of Reality t-shirt. Not that Black Sabbath didn’t give her the courage of ten men. Rising above the desk, she winced as she assessed how many ribs were broken. Limping badly, Rokkirhiminn still lodged in his front-right leg, the bear trailed blood and fur as it inched across the floor. Asta tried to haul herself over the desk but then decided to shuffle around instead. The bear wasn’t watching her. It wasn’t even watching Blair. Its eyes were on a window, looking into a private room, where the blinds were drawn. Next to the window was a glass-panelled door, and through this, Asta saw movement. She circled, trying to keep the bear’s sharp teeth and skullcrushing jaw in her view, realising there was a chair and some other equipment hastily thrown against the door, trying to barricade it. She caught a flash of dark hair in the windowpane of the door. The man behind the door stopped and moved back into view. Asta locked eyes with Colden Holgarsson and for a moment they stared at one another. As though both were surprised to see each other there, though they’d been having coffee together earlier, when Asta consoled him over the dreadful attack on his son. As though there wasn’t a bear stalking towards their room. As if the bear wasn’t back to finish the job. ‘Colden, get back!’ The bear gave a roar and launched itself through the window. The glass shattered, the blinds tangling around the furred body as the bear squeezed its front legs through the gap and started swiping. Asta raced forward and threw herself onto the bear’s back, clinging onto the fur as thick and wiry as a man’s beard. Through the window-frame, most of which was taken up by the huge bear, Asta could see Colden lunging at the beast. He was wielding a drip stand that wasn’t even sharp, and with his other hand, he was pushing a bed out of the bear’s reach. On the bed was a small boy, too small against the pale sheets, with the familiar dark hair of the Holgarssons. Iver. ‘My sword!’ Asta yelled, as the space in the small room grew smaller – bear, Colden and the bed all pressing back towards the far wall. She jammed her hand into the wound on the bear’s shoulder and it roared. ‘Get my sword!’ Colden lunged – the bear swiped with its free paw. Asta wrapped an arm around the bear’s neck – it was like hugging an oak, there was no way she’d be able to circle it in her arms – and hooked its leg with her other. She squeezed, making her long-forgotten muscles work, and snapped the bear’s joint. Its cry was loud enough to summon Ragnarok. Colden lunged again, gripped the handle of Rokkirhiminn and screamed. Her sword hummed violently, the hilt glowing red hot as Colden recoiled. He stumbled back against the wall and fell. His hand, cradled against his chest, was blistering red. ‘Colden!’ Even with Rokkirhiminn sticking from its paw, the other now hanging loosely, the bear was determined to grab Iver’s bed. Its claws hooked onto the edge and drew him closer. ‘Iver!’ Not now, Asta thought. Not like this. Her oath to the Holgarssons was going to be broken, like this, with a child and a bear in a hospital. With no sword and a hangover. Asta tried to squeeze through the gap but the bear’s shoulders kept moving, pressing her up into the window-frame and shredding her back with glass. Her ribs groaned like a longship on rough waves as she was crushed and torn and crushed again. ‘Colden! I need my sword!’ Iver, unconscious through the chaos, finally opened his eyes. He watched with utter serenity as his bed was being dragged towards the bear’s mouth, teeth as large as thumbs and saliva pooling onto the floor below. And, through the screaming and pain and the smell of Colden’s burning flesh, Asta noticed that Iver’s eyes – once the typical Holgarsson blue – were completely black. There was a whirl of movement and a flash of red like a fire rushing through dry heather. Blair dove through the tiniest gap between the bear and window-frame, as supple as a snake, and seized Rokkirhiminn from the bear’s arm. She heaved and the sword slid free. The bear howled and his paw slipped down, dragging the bed over sideways. Colden lunged, catching Iver before his head hit the floor – and the boy’s eyes closed as if he’d been unconscious the whole time. Blair looked up at Asta – whose body now felt completely flattened in the middle, like a cartoon who’d been run over – and tossed the sword skywards. Asta reached forward, worried how her hand was shaking, and felt the song of the kill echoing through Rokkirhiminn’s hilt as she snatched it out of the air. The rest wasn’t really up to her. Rokkirhiminn knew what to do and sunk down hilt-deep into the bear’s thick neck. Its roar eased, lowering in pitch into a gentle growl that reverberated up through Asta’s chest. It stilled – and then sagged. Its chest deflated and the pain in Asta’s back eased. She tumbled down off its shoulders and onto the floor, just in time to see the massive bear’s head slide away and lie inert – the skin of a bear, lying dead and glass-eyed. The pelt was skinned in a rush, she saw, the fur matted from age and the scar on the shoulder hadn’t been treated. The bear had been old when killed, a stark contrast to the boy lying beneath – he had pale skin and brown hair and a nose he hadn’t grown into yet. He looked maybe seventeen. Lying on her side, Rokkirhiminn pulsed in her hand, now as cool to the touch as he’d always been. She looked between his sharp, blood-soaked edge, and the man – though really, Asta thought, he was just a boy – and felt a sharp hurt, almost like betrayal, at her own blade. It was supposed to never hurt the innocent. The bear was a threat, as a skinwalker, but the boy beneath was not. ‘What have we done?’ Asta whispered, to her blade, who hummed a little louder, blocking Colden’s voice as he bent over his son, whispering soothing words. She rolled over, her chest heaving and pain spreading wet like blood across her back. They were safe. She’d saved them. That was all that mattered. Right? Blair appeared over her, hair wild and stained even redder with blood, smiling down at her. ‘See, I couldn’t stop.’

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