This chapter is told from the point of view of Stefan Nilsson
Holding Leila felt incredibly good. After all the terror and frustration I’d just been feeling, I needed her hugs. I wasn’t ready to tell her why I’d gotten so upset about Evander and the deception. Not yet. Not here. I just had to focus on getting her through whatever she had to do in this strange and magical world. And before that, figuring out what they even wanted her to do.
As soon as we stood up, the ravens were cawing at us and flapping around until we followed them in a certain direction. They took us between trees and bushes, helping us find easier ways to get through the woods. It didn’t take us very long to get back out.
Once we were past the tree-line, I froze. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. There was a horse waiting for us, but it wasn’t just any horse. It had eight legs. I knew what that meant. I knew the legends. As much as I believed in those legends, I didn’t think I would ever encounter anything from them on Earth. Well, we weren’t on Earth. And there he was: Sleipnir.
“Leila…” I gasped, taking her hand. “Do you… do you see him?”
I didn’t want to take my eyes off the horse, but I also wanted to see the expression on her face, so I chanced a glance at her. She was grinning like a loon.
“Of course I see him, Stefan,” she told me. “Oh, I knew you’d be excited when you saw him!”
“Wait… what? You– you knew Sleipnir was out here? How–“
“Isn’t it incredible that he’s here?” she asked me. “He’s so magnificent!”
She started walking over to him, and I gripped her hand tighter and held my ground. She looked back at me.
“It’s okay, Stefan. He’s nice. Well, to me anyway. Today’s my second time riding him, and he looked pretty happy to see me.”
She tugged on my hand again, and I followed her along, uncertain as I was. I watched her pet the horse’s head and cheeks. He whinnied in a way that I could almost call affectionate. Then I saw him looking in my direction.
“Sleipnir…” I whispered. “You are incredible.”
He snorted a little. Then he took a few small steps closer to me and nudged my chest with his snout. I petted him the same way Leila had.
“Wow… You… Leila how did you–“
“How did I find him?” Leila asked for me. She could tell that I was at a loss for words. “I didn’t,” she started to explain. “Nikolai did Oh, you haven’t met him yet. Anyway, Sleipnir had been trapped by some kind of rogues, and Nikolai freed him, but the rogues sent the werewolves after him. That was the night I got scratched.”
“Sounds like a busy night,” I told her.
“It was,” she agreed with a nervous laugh. “I saw several centaurs, I met Sleipnir, I was scratched by a werewolf, and I saw Evander use incredible magic all in one night. And the next morning, Evander and I went on a ride with Sleipnir. Well, Nikolai was with us, too, but he rode one of the centaurs.”
“So…” My mind was racing with a myriad of different thoughts and questions. There were so many things that were real, that– I guess I can’t say that I didn’t believe in them, but that the people of Earth typically don’t believe in them. “When this Nikolai you speak of freed Sleipnir, how did he know it would safe to do so? How did he know Sleipnir wouldn’t hurt him or someone else?”
“I’m not completely sure,” Leila said, and I think she was actually admitting something for once. “Maybe it’s just in his nature, or maybe they were working on an assumption, too. You can ask him a little bit later.”
Leila paused, looking down as though a little worried and ashamed. Then she said, “By the way, I want to apologize again for lying to you about the scratches. I never should have gone outside when they asked me to stay in. I should have trusted them better, and.. I guess part of me knew that you’d be disappointed that I’d acted like that, too. I–“
I pulled her into my arms again, and embraced her tightly. “I know,” I told her. “We’ve always talked a big talk when we see characters in movies and games not listen when it’s for their own good. You didn’t take your own advice. You went outside and put yourself in danger. I hope I didn’t give you the impression that I would be angry that you had a lapse in judgment. It happens. I just… I really want you to be able to come to me with things that are going on in your life.”
She held me back. She was soft, and it felt wonderful to have that softness wrapped around me. I didn’t want to let go of her.
“I’ll be better,” she said in a tone that told me she was trying hard to reassure me. “Now that we’re together here, I know I can do better.”
“I’ll be by your side,” I told her, giving her another squeeze. “So… I guess we should head back and figure out what it is we need to be doing here. Did… Killian and Larsa didn’t follow you out here, did they?”
“No,” she replied with a small laugh. “I don’t know if they’re awake or anything, but as far as I know they didn’t leave the manor house.” She gestured over to the main road. “Evander and Jean-Marc rode out with me– and one of the centaurs.”
I looked over at the small group waiting on the road, then back to her. “And you said you rode Sleipnir here?”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “If you help me get back on him, you can ride with me, and we’ll head back to the manor house together.”
“But there’s no saddle,” I pointed out. “You rode Sleipnir bareback?”
“Of course I did!” she said. “Did you really think he’d take a saddle? Don’t take this the wrong way, but Evander showed me a couple things about riding bareback the last time I was here.”
“You caught on pretty quickly for someone who’s only ridden a horse a few times in her life.”
Her face scrunched a little as she looked up at me. “Stefan, don’t start acting jealous now. You can teach me everything you know about horseback riding from here on out. Now, are you ready to help me up?”
“Whatever you want,” I told her. I helped her up on to Sleipnir’s back, then climbed up to sit behind her. It was an incredible feeling. She’d sat in front of me before, like when when he been on rides at an amusement park, but somehow being on a horse like this felt different. Now I just had to make sure not to do anything that would make her regret letting me ride with her.