Like a Spider

Coyle was mucking a stall when the villager came running in.

“In the flower patch! In the flower patch! There’s a–who’re you?”

“The new stable hand,” Coyle said. “Of what do you rant?”

“Found a wounded horse, we have, and there’s something most wrong about it. Come quick!”

Coyle readied the wagon and bade the villager sit next to him, and twenty minutes later they were drawing up to the flower patch. Several men and a few women stood around in a semi-circle, speaking quickly and loudly.

“Straight from Hell, that’s what it is.”

“Never seen nothing like it in all a England.”

“How d’you think it’s got injured?”

“Should put the bloody thing out of its misery. Where’s me pitchfork?”

“Move aside, please,” Coyle said. “Move, now, right away.”

A few of the villagers stepped aside and Coyle looked down at the creature.

It was a grey horse, true as any, save for its extraordinary size and extra legs—which equaled a total of eight. The horse was on its left side and whinnied slightly as it moved its two front right legs. The nock of an arrow poked out of its ribs and blood stained the flowers. Coyle stared at the horse for several moments before turning to the quieting townspeople.

“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing at the man who had come to him, a taller man wearing a black apron with soot on his face, and a bearded man with a chunk of his left ear missing, respectively. “Help me get him onto my wagon.”

The bearded man frowned.

“Where would you take it?”

“To the stable, that I may tend its wound,” Coyle said.

“This is a beast from Hell,” the bearded man said. “To tend its wounds would not be Christian.”

Coyle shook his head. “You have no greater knowledge of its roots than I. It is a horse in need and I believe it can be saved.”

The bearded man laughed without humor.

“A horse? This beast is more like a spider! What right has it to live?”

The crowd murmured. Coyle took a step forward.

“You are not the Christ,” he said, pointing at the man. “It is not your right to speak of if this horse will live or die. If you think otherwise, take it up with the monastery.”

Coyle backed up and hit himself on the chest once with his open hand.

“I am a stable hand in this hamlet of Brycedale, and I will do all that I can to save this horse.

The bearded man stared at Coyle and shook his head several times.

“This is devil’s work. I will go to the monks. They will sanction this. The beast will die.”

He pointed at Coyle.

“And perhaps you as well, devil-worker.”

The bearded man turned and hurried away. Several people in the crowd hurried after him, muttering to each other in hushed tones. Coyle turned to the people who remained.

“This is one of God’s creatures, like anything else. I beseech you, help me.”

The villagers worked together, and after a few false starts they were able to load the eight-legged horse onto Coyle’s wagon. His own horses whinnied looking at the creature, but Coyle smiled and started the trip back to the stable, feeling all the while that he was being watched.

Coyle carefully removed the arrow and treated the wound before bandaging it. The horse was at death’s door when he started and hardly conscious of the man’s actions. When it became aware of Coyle’s presence, it reacted violently, and the stable hand very nearly took a large hoof to the ribs. But the horse, despite its righteous fury, was still in poor health, and Coyle left it in its stall with water and food.

Coyle put the arrow—all black and metal—on the table in his shack.

The horse showed some improvement the next morning and a little more the day after.

On the third night after its arrival, after Coyle had lit his candles and as he was stirring his stew, there was a knock at the door. He opened it to find a stranger in the darkness. With long, red hair and a thick beard to match, he wore a black cloak with the hood back. A sword hung from his belt.

“Good tidings, friend,” the stranger said. “Have I startled thee?”

Coyle shook his head. “No harm. I was expecting someone else. Will you make yourself known?”

The stranger nodded. “I am Lafe Twice-Sunk.”

“You are a Dane?”

“Yes,” Lafe said. “Do you take that with kindness, Saxon, or must I push forward on this night?”

Coyle shook his head. “Any are welcome, save robbers, rapers, and killers. Come. I have stew, bread, and wine.”

Lafe entered and the men ate together in silence. When they were finished, the Dane leaned forward.

“I have a truth to tell,” he said. “It is not by happenstance that I have made rest here.”

Coyle nodded.

“I hear tell of an unusual horse in your stables,” Lafe said. “May I see it?”

Coyle stood.

“Speak to your intent. Would it receive the same peace as I?”

Lafe nodded. “Truly.”

“Then come,” Coyle said. “I will show you this horse.”

He lit a torch and led Lafe with him to the stables. They looked in upon the eight-legged horse.

“By the gods,” the Dane said. “ ‘Tis true. The whisperings are true.”

“What truth is this?” Coyle said.

Lafe turned to him.

“You have the eight-legged horse, Saxon,” he said. “There is only one known. Tis Sleipnir, steed of Odin.”

Coyle raised an eyebrow. “Odin?”

Lafe shook his head and laughed.

“You Christians. Odin is the All-Father. Ruler of the gods. King of Asgard.”

He pointed at the sleeping horse.

“Behold before you Sleipnir. Odin’s steed. ‘Tis a mighty thing you have found.”

Coyle frowned. He looked at the horse for a moment and turned back to his guest.

“How has the horse of your god-king come to find itself wounded in England?”

“Let us talk away from your steeds,” the Dane said, “lest we trouble their rest.”

Back in the shack, Lafe leaned back in the chair Coyle had offered him.

“I heard tale from a bard a few days’ ride back, a night or so before learning of your guest. The forces of Odin and Loki are warring, and their conflict has found its way here.”

“Who is Loki?” Coyle said.

Lafe scowled. “The horrid trickster. He is Odin’s son, but an evil thing. Much harm has come to Midgard—the world of men, Saxon—through that shape-shifter and his children. He delights in the suffering of mortal beings, and his father stands against him.

“The bard told me, Saxon, that the forces of Fenrir—Loki’s son, a treacherous beast much like his father—fought alongside him, against Odin and the mighty Thor—Loki’s brother. It is said that both Fenrir and Thor were slain.”

Coyle crossed his arms.

“What of Odin, then?” he said, and as the fire flickered, his face was cast in darkness. “What of Loki?”

Lafe spread his arms. “The bard says they both escaped.”

He gestured at the far wall, in the direction of the stables.

“And now, Saxon, you have saved dear Sleipnir and are bringing him to health. Such action is a mighty one and will serve you well when Odin comes looking. Sleipnir gives the All-Father great strength. With the two reunited, he will surely be able to smite Loki from Midgard and prevent Ragnarok.”

Coyle cocked his head to the side. “Ragnarok?”

Lafe nodded, his expression grave.

“The end times,” he said. “You Christians call it Armageddon. Loki and Fenrir sought to bring it about, to destroy all things. It is written that only Odin and Thor could stop them. Thor is dead, but so is Fenrir. If Odin can defeat Loki, Midgard will be safe. If Odin is reunited with Sleipnir, he can defeat Loki.”

“The villagers will come for the horse,” Coyle said. “They believe it a demon and have gone to the monastery for permission to kill it.”

Lafe raised an eyebrow. “And you do not think it a demon, Saxon?”

Coyle shook his head. “It is not mine to say, Dane. I care for any horses that come my way. God may sort the rest.”

Lafe didn’t say anything at first. He nodded several times.

“I hope you can keep Sleipnir safe, Saxon. For all mankind, of course, but for your own sake as well.”

Lafe stood.

“If Odin finds Sleipnir safe in your care, he will be generously grateful.”

Lafe walked to the door.

“But if he finds you’ve let his treasured steed perish, his wrath will be brilliant and unforgettable.”

And with that, Lafe left.

For the next three days, Coyle cared for Sleipnir, even as the eight-legged horse bucked and thrashed against him. When he wasn’t caring for the steed, he tended the other horses and worked on his plan. Each afternoon and evening, he walked up to the hill overlooking the hamlet and watched for any sign of trouble.

On the third night, he found it.

In the distance, on the outskirts of the hamlet, was an approaching mob of villagers, illuminated in the darkness by their torches. At that distance, it wouldn’t take them long to arrive.

Coyle rushed back to the stables. He opened Sleipnir’s stall, and the great horse reared up on four legs.

“Think what you will of me,” Coyle said, “but the Christians are coming. If I don’t hide you, you’ll die.”

Sleipnir bore Coyle no mind, kicking violently at him, and it took more than a moment for Coyle to wrestle the slipknot around the horse’s neck. He dragged the struggling animal to the shed and forced him inside, slamming the door shut.

“Keep quiet,” Coyle said, “or all will be ruined.”

Back in the stables, Coyle lined two ponies up head to haunches and fastened the harness he’d worked up. It bound the two steeds together connecting the back end of the front horse to the chest of its companion. Awkward, without doubt, but the horses could move. Coyle led them into an empty stall, one that needed to be remade and wasn’t being used in the meantime. He stood behind the horses, holding a whip.

“Safest travels,” he said, and struck the hind horse.

The beast whinnied and tried to rear up but was restricted by its fastenings. Coyle swung again, hitting the one in front of it. Both horses whinnied and tried to get out of the stall, but they couldn’t turn. After several more strikes, the front horse rushed forward and the hind horse followed, and the two steeds crashed through the weak stable wall and off into the wilderness, running as quickly into the darkness as their awkward arrangement would allow.

Coyle pulled the arrow from his belt–the one that had been pulled from Sleipnir–and slashed the head of it across his left arm three times. Blood spilled from the wounds. He hid the arrow beneath hay and slumped against the wall.

When the villagers stormed in, Coyle looked up at them, clutching his arm and wheezing.

“The beast attacked me. It is beset with madness, with evil!”

He pointed at the smashed wall. One of the villagers kneeled and held his torch over the ground.

“Oi, look at all ’em hoof prints! She’s a demon, alright.”

“Perhaps it can still be found,” Coyle said, and the villagers rushed past, charging out into the woods as they raced after their would-be demon.

When everyone had left, Coyle smiled.

It was just days after his trick with the horses when there was another knock on Coyle’s door. Taking a moment to straighten his tunic, he answered it.

Standing before him was a tall, thick man with a long beard, a great cloak slung over his shoulders, and a patch over his left eye. A two-sided axe hung from his back. Coyle took a step back.

“Do you know of me, Saxon?” the man said.

Coyle let out a breath.

“I do,” he said. “You are Odin.”

Odin nodded.

“Such wisdom in this part of Midgard is unexpected,” he said. “I have come for fair Sleipnir. Does he rest well in your care?”

Coyle nodded.

“I will take you to him.”

He led the god back to the stables and stopped outside Sleipnir’s stall. Odin looked in at the horse and smiled.

“Oh, my dear steed,” he said. “It pleases me so to see you.”

Sleipnir looked past him and bucked furiously, thrashing back and forth. Odin frowned.

“Fair Sleipnir, tis me,” he said. “Tis Odin. Why such distress?”

“It is not for you, All-Father,” Coyle said.

Odin turned to face him and gasped as Coyle plunged the black arrow he had stashed under his tunic into Odin’s stomach. Sleipnir reared up and whinnied. Coyle pulled the arrow out and stabbed Odin with it again, and the old god dropped onto his side, the battle axe falling away from him onto the ground. He looked up at the stable hand. Coyle shimmered briefly, filling the space with blinding light. When it subsided, the figure that stood there had long, golden hair and wore plated armor. Odin glared.

“Loki,” he said.

Loki nodded, smiling.

“Oh, such a venture this has been, Father. Killing the stable workers and taking their place, plucking your damn horse from the clutches of those irritable Saxons, tricking them into believing he had escaped. Can you appreciate my machinations?” He clucked his tongue several times. “I’m sure you certainly can’t. The bards don’t sing of Odin the Unbiased, of course.”

Odin tried in vain to push himself up. Loki snickered to himself and walked over to the axe.

“I couldn’t believe my luck in besting Thor on the field of battle. A terrible tragedy that I couldn’t trick him into his doom as I have you.”

Sleipnir whinnied and thrashed and threw himself against the door.

“This is not the end,” Odin said. “Tyr and Heimdall will stand against you. They will—”

“Father, begging? You embarrass yourself.”

Loki picked up the axe.

“It is forewritten. With the deaths of mighty Thor and wise Odin, Asgard loses any chance of victory.” Loki grinned. “Even with Fenrir’s demise, I still have my other children. I have the giants. I have the trolls. Both man and Asgard cannot stand against me.”

He raised the axe over his head.

“Behold the end, Father. Welcome Ragnarok.”

Odin raised his hand and Loki swung the axe down, splitting the old god in two as his dear Sleipnir watched.

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