The Chronicles of Astrone - Chapter 11.1
 

FLIGHT OF THE SKINFAXEN

When she was a young girl, Demitra’s father had occasionally taken she and her sister to visit the horses of the Hellenic Police at their stables in Athens. The destriers were among the largest animals she had ever set eyes on, huge and muscular and deserving of their fame as warhorses in medieval times. They were bred specifically for mounted police work, and trained as foals to serve in departments across the city, but they were well cared for. 

Most of the beasts the girls saw on those days were stallions of patched brown and cream, though they fell in love with two mares whose coats were a delightful sheen of white. Lampos and Phaethon they were called, named after the immortal steeds of Eos, the Ancient Greek Goddess of Dawn. Georgia had always been eager to assist the stable hands in grooming their fine hair, until one afternoon when Phaethon had dropped a load of dung all over her ankles. Demi would never forget the look on her sister’s face right then, just as she would never forget watching those flying horses swoop down and land on the protruding spur of the Nidafjall.

Now, gaping at the beautiful pair as they approached the mouth of the grotto, their helmeted heads eight feet from the ground and manes gleaming in the daylight, she realised that they somehow seemed to dwarf those Athenian destriers.

Enchanted by their majesty, Demitra had almost failed to recognise the black-cloaked rider atop the grander of the two. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him; even with that thick hood, there was no mistaking who he was.

“That’s the guy!” she yelled to Victor. “He’s the one who kidnapped me!”

Stopping the horses in front of the cave, the boy disconnected his hi-tech gloves from the glowing reins, and swung down from the saddle. He had strapped his energy rifle across his back, pinning the weatherworn mantle to his riding leathers. The sight of the futuristic weapon sent Demi’s mind flashing to her scramble for the shore of the crimson lake. It had been the difference between life and death for her – at least, she had thought so at the time – and it made her shudder to recall the terrible sound of the Lindorm’s screams.

As much as the appearance of the masked figure had brought her immense relief then, his presence here generated a somewhat varied reaction among the group. There would be no surprises for Demitra lurking behind his visor and respirator but, as he slowly removed them, she was nonetheless overcome by shock. 

Beside her, Victor gasped when he saw his own features emerge, stumbling backwards as his legs turned to jelly. The intruder was physically identical to the English boy: sparkling blue eyes, wavy blonde hair, and every bit as cute as that jerk Yiannis Maniatis. Yet there was something odd about his manner.

Obviously there is: he’s just flown in on a frickin’ horse! That’s so awesome! But…

Rage suddenly swelled inside Demi, erupting in her veins like wildfire. This was some kind of trick. It had to be; nothing else made sense. She had witnessed too many magic shows to be fooled by misdirection tactics. They were twins, she was sure of it. That meant Victor had been lying to her about waking up in the mountains, and his crystal, and all the stuff he knew about Vikings and elves and a stupid World Tree. The whole thing was just a ploy to confuse her into lowering her guard for these creeps. It made her so mad to think she almost believed his story.

Even now that Victor had gone a sickly shade of pale, his expression twisted by incomprehension as he sank to the pebbled floor, she was certain he was faking. The skyrider’s icy calmness did little to change that opinion.

“Who the hell are you?” Demi demanded in a voice far more assured than she was. “What’s goin’ on?”

The boy remained silent, his hardened gaze the same as the one he had given her back in Myrkvid before putting her to sleep. It was cold and detached, but not hostile, as if he simply lacked the ability to display emotion. Behind him, the giant steeds whinnied impatiently, stomping their shaggy hooves as the gusts tossed their tails. His attention lingered on Demitra for a moment, examining her, but soon moved to the stout monkey still crouched on the rock by the hollow’s entrance.

“The enemy has learned that the Earthborn have come,” he said. Even his accent matched Victor’s funny British one, only slightly more formal. Victor did not seem to notice, however; he was currently cradling his knees to his chest and mumbling incoherently.

Quit tryin’ to freak me out! I’m not gonna fall for it!

Shi Hou frowned pensively at the news, stroking his whiskers and peering out over the grassy plains. He had called this country Alfheim, something to do with Norse mythology. How much of that was true, Demitra could only guess, but it had not stopped her from admiring its natural beauty.

“Afraid of this was the Great Sage,” was his eventual response. “How did it happen?”

“Hold on a minute!” Demi spluttered. “You two know each other?”

Then, the rescue at the lakeit wasn’t by chance!

“We were ambushed in Jotunheim by a squad of einherjar,” the skyrider explained, ignoring her again. “They knew we were there; they knew who they were searching for. Contact had been made with several Jotnar viscounts. Perhaps it was the Utgard Thing who alerted Valhalla to our assignment.”

“Perhaps less reckless should you have been,” Shi Hou countered haughtily, motioning to the second stallion. “And your partner?”

“Stardime was…taken,” he faltered, though his impassive demeanour did not. “Apprehended by the Dragon Assassin. She fought valiantly to ensure I escaped with the Skinfaxen.”

“Of that the Great Sage has no doubt, but irrelevant it is if-”

“Hey!” screeched Demi, her temper reaching a critical point. “Answer me! Who is this?”

“A friend,” Shi Hou replied brusquely, dismissive in his introduction. “Cristov is his name.”

Had Demitra not already felt so betrayed by the revelation that the silvery primate could actually speak, she most definitely would have by his acquaintance with the stranger in the black cape. When she had regained consciousness that morning, the darkness and frozen air of Svafnir’s Cave had left her lost and scared. Her furry companion had been her only beacon of hope, a comforting reminder she had not been totally abandoned.

Demi had trusted this creature, whatever he was: trusted him when he showed her the golden apples were safe to eat; trusted him when he had beckoned her out of the grotto to brave the world beyond; trusted him with her innermost fears and silly musings as they sat together on the ledge, observing the waterfall of clouds and a sky without a sun. She had rambled on and on about events in the forest, speculating on what the serpent was, or if the hooded figure had somehow used real magic to knock her out, or who the voices she had dreamt of in this weird place belonged to.

All the while, Shi Hou had listened but kept quiet, choosing to conceal the truth from her like it was some con. It would be hard to forgive him for that.

If Victor hadn’t threatened to throw his sapphire off the mountain, would this old moustached wisecracker have even spoken at all?

“Are you in on this, too?” she barked at the boy from Brighton. “Is this ‘Let’s-All-Laugh-at-Demi Day’?”

“Wh…why does…he look like me…?” Victor asked absently, staring at his counterpart.

“There’s no time for questions right now,” Cristov said bluntly. “The Earthborn must be presented to the Sorceress.”

The Sorceress…?

“Hmm, yes,” Shi Hou agreed with a nod. “Much there is to report. Troubled is the Great Sage by what was found in Wanaham.”

Demitra folded her arms and stuck out her jaw. “I’m not goin’ anywhere until you tell me why I’m here!”

“Then a while you will be waiting.”

“But-”

“Enlightened by the Sorceress shall you both be,” hissed Shi Hou, exhaling irritably. “Expecting you she is.”

“Expecting…?” Victor repeated numbly, the colour still drained from his cheeks.

The simian regarded the bewildered young man with a hint of concern, pushing himself from the rock and hobbling over to feign empathy. Despite Victor sitting in a curled position, Shi Hou was only a few inches taller, but enjoyed an imposing aura. “Important you are, Earthchild. Need you the Sorceress does for what is to come.”

“But…why does he look like me?” Victor managed again.

“Think of Cristov as a reflection from the Otherworld, hmm?” advised Shi Hou, his tone considerably softer than before. “No harm can he do you.”

“We have to go,” reiterated the mysterious blonde. “Can you ride with him?”

“An alternative option there is not,” grumbled the Great Sage, helping the boy to his feet. “Ready a Skinfaxi.” 

“I don’t have a spare neuroglove,” Cristov informed him, “so it’ll have to be a traditional flight.”

“The Great Sage comes from traditional times.”

With a curt bow, Cristov spun on his heels and paced across the outcrop to the stallions. Grasping the bridle on the smaller of the duo, he gently patted its belly and muttered soothing words of instruction. The massive white animal knelt on all fours as was bade, neighing amicably. Leading the disorientated Victor towards the steed, Shi Hou clambered onto the leather saddle with a little boost from his comrade, and accepted the reins. When Cristov had settled his twin properly at the rear, he donned his protective gear once more, and vaulted onto his own mount.

“Hurry up!” he called to Demitra, gesturing for her to join him.

“Too cautious are you for one who seeks adventure,” echoed Shi Hou, his taunt worsened by the fact it came from a midget, horse-riding monkey. “Where is your daring?”

She scowled. I shared that in private.

As much as anything, Demi despised her courage being challenged. She was not like the other girls at school; she was not interested in expensive clothes, or which celebrity was in fashion, or how many popular boys wanted to kiss her. She had always longed for excitement, though desiring an opportunity and seizing it were two very different things. It had never really crossed her mind that she would hesitate at such a moment.

Crazy as it sounded, getting on a flying horse with a gun-wielding stranger was not the issue: it was more about overcoming the betrayal.

Should I stay in the heights of the Nidafjall and pray I’m somehow transported back to my boring life? Or should I climb up on that stallion – a “Skinfaxi” apparently – and risk whatever comes next with these people? Am I afraid…or just too stubborn to take a chance?

The faces of her family reeled through her thoughts: Thalia, Georgia, Theo, Angelo, and even Mr Jiggers. She imagined what they might say if they were standing beside her right now. “Do what you want, Stork, see if I care,” would undoubtedly be her sister’s contribution, while her father would probably be excusing himself for some stupid police emergency. As usual, it was Thalia’s voice that was the lone message of support, “This is not goodbye, Demi, only good luck...”


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