A Valhallan Interlude — A Need for Mead, part 2 of a story I wrote originally published on Ricochet.com:
The horse touched down lightly in the dust near the parking lot. ‘I still don’t think this is a good idea,’ he said. Not many horses talk; then again, not many horses fly, so they probably broke even there. He looked up apprehensively at the storm clouds racing rapidly towards them across the night sky.
The girl riding on the horse’s back didn’t seem to notice them as he trotted towards the entrance. She tried to dismount. There was the sound that a suit of brass outer garments makes when it drops from a height with a girl in it. ‘Ow …’ said the girl from the ground. She found herself gazing at the big flashing neon sign on top of the bar. ‘Who calls a bar Rolling Thunder?’ she asked.
The horse, who was liking this situation less and less, shivered. ‘I don’t know. You’re really going to leave me out here?’
‘Oh, relax,’ she said, rolling onto her front so she could get up again. ‘I’ve left you outside of places before — what’s so bad about here?’
‘You really don’t feel it?’ said the horse. The wind was picking up and raindrops started pattering down from overhead.
‘I just really feel like letting my hair down,’ the girl said, pushing her helmet into an outsized saddle bag. ‘Will you be all right?’
‘Me? Fine …’ said the horse casually. ‘You go and enjoy yourself.’ Instantly he knew he’d said the wrong thing. The temperature in the night air seemed to drop several degrees, independent of the unnaturally gathering storm that only he seemed to be noticing.
‘… I never enjoy myself,’ she said quietly.
Well, that was clever. Way to go, horsey. He looked around at the parking lot. There were quite a lot of big motorbikes here, he considered. Oh, well. Best find some nice overhang, in out of the rain. Looked like she could be a while …
No one drinks like a depressed Valkyrie. Except, perhaps, with the possible exception of a depressed would-be Valkyrie who’s wondering what she’s doing with her life.
She’d made quite the entrance as she’d strode into the cavernous interior of the bar, her clothes clinking gently. Like an Old Western gunfighter. People turned to stare. They quite frequently did that, she’d noticed. She really wondered why.
There was a song playing on the jukebox as she entered. Something about a man being sad about the rat in his compost pile, or something. She didn’t really follow country music, but the refrain seemed to catch her mood: ‘Gnawing on the orange rind of life … Just wishin’ you would be there again …’ Yeah …
This was a big place. Surprisingly dark, too. There was the odd light or two, here and there, and the stage was lit up, but not much. She guessed people liked the atmosphere. She sat down at the bar, in the middle of a row of empty stools. ‘Mead,’ she said. ‘Lots of it.’
The bartender took one look at her and nodded. You see a lot, tending bar. Different sorts of people. And, very occasionally, someone like her. Good thing they’d got a fresh barrel in.
A prickle of something made him look up. Looked like there was a storm coming in … ‘Hey, Gary, make sure things are battened down, wouldja? This feels like the big one … Mead, comin’ right up, miss.’
Outside, the horse looked up. It was raining pretty hard now, the odd rumble of thunder in the background. And something else. Something on the breeze. He sniffed, and the hair of his mane started to stand up on end. Uh-oh. He knew this was a bad idea …
In a far dark corner, someone watched from under a deep hood. It was nice here. The bar staff were friendly, and they didn’t try to hurry you. Which was good … There was too much hurry in the world, lately …
The bartender looked around. Rolling Thunder was, against some appearances, and the expectations of those who didn’t know the place, actually a respectable establishment.
Sure, you had the biker crowd, and there were the guys from the mines, and the guys working construction, and quite a few others. And quite a few gals, too, come to think of it. People who liked to wind down somewhere where they felt welcome — and he always made sure they did feel welcome. He liked his customers, and he liked his job — and they were good company. He found it never paid to judge on appearances. You could easily miss what mattered most.
It was a place where most things within (and quite a bit over) the letter of the law were tolerated as just a part of life. Which was as it should be. (In a civilized world, things that some people no longer regarded as “civilized” had to be allowed to happen — like teaching lessons. Mostly these boiled down to things like Not Hitting Girls, with a side order of Be Honest and Do Right; that, and the feeling that the world’d be a better place if more people got a pair of matching gold wedding bands first … And if a girl’s brothers or father, or even a few concerned friends, had to go teaching education without a license, well, the other guys would hold your coat.)
You had all these kinds of people. And it was part of what made it such a nice town to live in.
And, occasionally, you had the ones like the girl in the brass outerwear. She wasn’t trouble, exactly, she was just … different. She was also singing, up on the stage, with a mead glass in her hand. It was … something else …
The horse heard the singing. It was hard to miss. ‘Oh, no.’
She knew what happened when she got like this. He started looking for a way in. One that a well-nourished horse in the prime of his condition could actually fit through.
He found one round back, where a couple of big men were securing things against the coming storm. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘hold the door?’
They both looked at him.
‘Guys?’ he said.
They looked at each other, and then at the horse. It was interesting to see which one hit the ground first.
The horse sighed. You’d think people’d never seen a talking horse before … He managed to gather them both up by their shirts and started pulling them back through the double doors. What? He couldn’t just leave them out here. There was a storm coming … And, because he was a conscientious horse, and he had an idea of what was behind that storm — or, at least, riding along with it — he nudged the door locked after him.
Over above the storm, there was the sound of engines. Motorbikes rode over the clouds as lightning bubbled below them. This was kind of daring, considering, but the riders didn’t seem to notice. What was keeping the bikers in the air — it’s not like they were on genuine flying horses or anything — wasn’t immediately clear. But the great big wing-shaped streamers of glowing light flapping behind them might have had something to do with it …
The hooded figure sat back in the dark corner and smiled. This was good music. Good pair of lungs on that girl. Good voice. A lot of heart. A little undisciplined maybe, but there was something there … If only she could figure out what …
The bikes touched down on the road leading up to the bar with a roar that could barely be heard over the surrounding storm. The wings of light flickered in and trailed back into the riders’ backs. This was going to be fun …
Grown men were crying into their beer. This tended to happen, whenever she sang, the horse reflected as he peered through a window in the big double doors from the kitchen.
The cook was eyeing him nervously, and deciding that he clearly hadn’t really just seen a real live horse walking through his kitchen. The horse sighed and pushed his way through the doors.
It wasn’t as if she was a bad singer. Anything but, in fact. That was kind of the problem. Just because she couldn’t really sustain the more classical or operatic stuff for very long didn’t mean … She had this way of putting something into the music, he thought, as he passed a group of bikers sobbing unashamedly. She let it breathe. She let the music come alive …
… And the thing was, that could be a powerful thing — but when someone was as wounded deep inside as she was, it could also start doing unexpected things …
‘Who let the horse in here?’ said a man by the bar. ‘I ain’t drinkin’ with no horse standing by me.’
The horse, who if he had a fault it was a tendency to be a bit of a wise-ass, found a clear area and sat down on his haunches, and turned to give the man a big, horsey smile.
‘C’mon, now, get!’
‘The horse is with me.’ A path cleared.
She may, just, have been slurring her words slightly, but no one just then would have been prepared to admit it. The man who’d been complaining about the horse took one look around and then stepped back like a gentleman so she could reach the bar, which was crowded with customers.
Considering the quantity of mead she’d taken in, it was kind of impressive that she was even still standing upright. She put an arm around the horse’s shoulder. ‘A drin’ for my friend here!’
The bartender shrugged. He saw all sorts. And besides, after the girl’s singing, the waitresses couldn’t keep up with the flow of orders. He was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak …
‘And what will your friend have?’ asked the bartender, after a moment.
‘Um, do you do beer in a bucket?’ said the horse.
The bartender blinked. And then went to find a bucket.
The horse leaned in close to the girl in brass. ‘Listen,’ he whispered urgently, ‘we need to talk. That storm—‘
They say misery loves company — well, so does drama. The door burst open, showing the storm outside. Several figures stood silhouetted in the doorway against the rain, with more behind them. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. ‘Well, looky here, horsey,’ said a voice like swansdown and bourbon mixed with cigarette smoke. ‘Why the long face?’