Today’s Throwback is a shifter tale with a difference, more traditional in some ways. It's set in an historical, semi-mythical Scotland where the Elder gods haven't quite left the lands.
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Flein is a wanderer by instinct and need, roaming the known world as the fancy takes him. In the Highland village of Glenfinnan, women have been raped and brutally murdered. By all accounts, the killer is a waterhorse, a monstrous shapeshifter. But when Flein meets Donnchadh, first in its equine form, then its man-shape, he knows the waterhorse is innocent. Flein is drawn to the shapeshifter, but he finds it difficult to acknowledge it's more than a monster.
Donnchadh, though wary, shares the same attraction. They join forces to hunt for the real murderer, but time is short. They must find the killer before more women die. Then suspicion is turned on them and the hunters become the hunted.
At the water's edge stood a horse. A riderless horse. It wore neither saddle nor bridle and the glossy brown hide gleamed in the May sun. The mane and tail were long, very black and by the look of the wind-tangles in them, had never known a grooming. The heavy stallion neck swooped down to join strong shoulders, and arched ribs led on to powerful haunches. Long black legs and rounded hooves completed the picture of what to Flein seemed the perfect horse. Sharp ears were angled toward him, deep dark eyes were fixed on him and the fine head was held high, nostrils flaring.
Flein Traveler smiled, his eyes narrowed and watchful. He knew danger when he saw it.
"Gods, but you're magnificent," he said quietly. "I know you. I don't know who you are but I know what you are." Flein had long ago learned all he could about shapeshifting predators. Loki was such a one and far more lethal than this creature. The horse gave a deep-throated grunt that was almost a snarl and took a pace toward him, its ears flattened against its skull, long neck snaking forward. "Waterhorse." He had an instant of warning as the muscles bunched and he hurled himself away from the stallion's charge. Fast as he was, the narrow head whipped round and carnivore fangs clashed a scant hairsbreadth from his shoulder. Laughing, Flein put the slender grace of his rowan tree between himself and the creature. "If I'd known this land had such wonders I'd have come here sooner."
It might have been his laughter or his lack of fear, or perhaps it sensed the difference in him that came from his sire, but the stallion stopped and its ears flicked forward. He was being studied, assessed by a keen mind.
"So, I'm something new, am I?" Flein drawled softly. "I've not met the likes of you before, either. I can see how you'd entice someone onto your back. You're the finest beast I've seen in many a year, but you won't be chewing on my bones, nag."
The ears twitched and it came toward him, pacing slowly. He was not deceived. He'd already seen it could move with the speed of a striking snake for all its size. Reluctantly, Flein drew his sword and the waterhorse paused.
"I don't want to hurt you," he said. "Go back to your loch and leave me alone." He stepped out from his shelter, blade held ready. "I've a long journey ahead of me and I'd sooner not fight you."
Again the ears flicked forward. The gesture was purely equine but the growing curiosity in the steady gaze was not.
"Go back." He moved closer and stopped with his sword point only a few feet from the broad chest. It was more than a little risky and it put him perilously close to those murderous hooves and teeth, but it also enabled him to see more clearly the intelligence in the beast's eyes. "Don't you know an iron sword will kill you?" he snapped. "And you, my splendid fool, would find it hard to kill me."
The waterhorse wrinkled its upper lip, scenting him. As a sneer, it was monumental. It came forward until the point of the sword was almost touching it and Flein smelled the lightness of clover, as if it had rolled in a meadow. If it feared the touch of the forged metal, Flein could see no sign of it. The dark eyes were challenging him now, daring him to chance his speed against its swiftness for the first strike and Flein laughed again. "Shall we call it a draw between us, then?" he suggested. "We go our separate ways and agree not to harm each other?" It would be so easy just to grab a handful of mane and swing up onto that sleek back—Flein got hold of the impulse and smothered it, easing back a pace. At the same time the waterhorse retreated a short way.
They matched each other step for step, until Flein was on the road and the stallion hock-deep in the loch. Then the each-uisge turned and plunged into deeper water, sending up twin wings of spray. Feeling oddly disappointed, Flein called his horse to him and soothed its sweaty fear. He took off the hobbles, tightened the girth, mounted and started on his way.