It began in mythology class, mentioned alongside so many other bizarre creatures that began with the letter "k": the Kappa, a Japanese water demon that fed on cucumbers and the blood of small children; the Kraken, a huge squid-like beast that lived in the deepest depths of the ocean and devoured ships; the Kongamato, an enormous flying creature, almost like a pterodactyl, that carried off whatever food it could.
And then there was the Kelpie.
Professor Wagner scratched the name out on the damp blackboard with the soggy squeak of chalk echoing throughout the tiny classroom. All our desks were crowded together in one corner, although this was more our own personal choice than because of the limitations in size. The classroom was fine, only a little smaller than average, with a pinhole Styrofoam ceiling and cheap fluorescent lighting that was always going out at the most inconvenient times. It was just that we liked to avoid the glass display cabinets that lined up directly to your right when you walked in the door. Nobody wanted to spend an hour with the empty eyes of a disfigured sheep skull boring holes into the back of your own.
The squeeze was all right, we didn't mind; there were only about twenty of us, probably less. Mythology wasn't a popular class, not when there was art and sport and business to take the place of the eccentric subject, but none of us would have been there if we hadn't wanted it.
"Kelpies," announced the professor, buffing chalk dust from his glasses with the corner of his woolly vest. It was the same as he wore every day, a dirty green waistcoat with two rows of zig-zagging yellow stripes across the top and one of his white business shirts underneath. "Anyone ever heard of them?" No one raised a hand, standard procedure whenever we began a new unit - Professor Wagner seemed to have missed the point that said the reason we were taking this class was so that we could actually learn of the existence of these creatures. "Nobody?" We shook our heads, earning a slightly disappointed look of disapproval from the professor. He straightened his tie and gave his glasses another nervous polish. "Well, then." His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he prepared to launch into his daily lecture. We scrambled for out bags and dug out stubby-looking pencils and crumpled pieces of lined paper, gazing intently at the front of the classroom. The professor was fond of pop quizzes.
"The Kelpie. It is a supernatural water horse, believed to haunt the rivers and lochs of Scotland and Ireland." We dutifully scribbled the information down. "The Kelpie is believed to have a black coat, although in some stories it is described as white, which has the consistency of a seal's pelt and is deathly cold. It often appears as a lost pony, but can be identified by its constantly dripping mane. At times it can also take human form. There are many variations." At this point he turned and wrote some more notes on the board, then continued. "It will try to lure people, although more commonly children, into the water, where it drowns them and then eats them." I raised a tentative hand.
"Um...how exactly does it do the luring?" I asked. The question earned a few giggles from the girls sitting behind me, but they were soon silenced by a pointed glance from our teacher.
"The Kelpie encourages children to ride on its back, at which point its skin will become adhesive - sticky, that is - and the child will become stuck to the Kelpie's back. It will then be dragged into the water and eaten." Silence from the crowd. Professor Wagner straightened his tie again and looked around at our worried faces. "Don't look so glum!" he cried. "The Kelpie is only a legend, after all. Now, let's talk about a few of the well-known stories involving these beasts..."
School ended early that day, as it typically did on Mondays, and classroom doors opened onto a rapidly darkening sky and the faint rumble of thunder in the distance. We all wrapped our coats a little tighter as a chill breeze crept between the wings of the school, bringing with it the faint smell of rain and the flowery aroma of the moors, all in bloom now that spring had arrived, although you wouldn't think it to look at the weather. The night before the temperature outside my bedroom window had dropped to forty degrees and when I woke up in the morning there was a faint coating of frost on the glass. It was a wonder the wildflowers had blossomed at all, we said, and weren't lying dead in sad little clumps as they normally would be.
"I heard Kelpies make things grow even when it's cold," my friend Alma whispered in my ear. "Maybe that's why the flowers are still alive?"
"Don't be ridiculous," I scoffed. "That's all rot. The professor didn't say anything about that. It is interesting, though - the Kelpies, I mean, not the flowers. That's just weird seasonal stuff, my mum says." A huge gust of wind chose then to wail through the school grounds, buffeting our hooded faces and almost whisking Alma of her feet. She was a waiflike little girl, with skinny arms and legs and thin hair that fluffed up like so much cornsilk on a cob; it was the color of cornsilk, too. We were all mostly skinny here in Thurso, and I was no exception, although my hair was black instead of blond like Alma's and snaked down to my waist in a tight braid that fluttered in the wind.
"Let's go home," Alma said, shivering some more. Her bright red parka was as thick as a troll's buttocks, but she'd feel cold on a summer's afternoon, we always joked.
"Tally-ho!" I belted, and raced for the road, bookbag bouncing at my side and one hand raised in a mock salute. We paused by the small grove of birch trees near the church and snapped off a few of the willowy branches, waving them at each other and growling ferociously. I took a pair and held them over my head, catching leaves in my hair. "Grr!" I roared in a gravelly undertone, stomping my feet and snorting. "I am the ferocious Kelpie! Fear me!" I chased Alma in circles around the trees until we both collapsed to the ground, panting with laughter, sticks snapped and discarded. We lay there, staring up at the leaves and the sky until we felt the first drops of rain pelt down on our faces. We ran as fast as we could but even so barely made it home before the downpour.
I shut the door, bangs dripping, though my braid had been tucked under my jacket through some twist of fate and remained bone-dry. "Mum, I'm home!" I called. The smells of baking bread and hot coffee emanated from the kitchen and I heard the wooden click as my baby brother stacked up his piles of wooden blocks and paraded plastic animals through the teetering towers, gurgling with pleasure. "I'll leave my things in the mudroom, shall I?" It was only the front hall, really, but we called it our mudroom because of the oddly-placed cupboard that was too small for storing the little things and too large to be a closet, and the linoleum tiles that squeaked and were ugly as sin. We'd never gotten rid of them despite my mother's complaints.
I shoved my raincoat into the woodbox and slipped into the kitchen on sock feet.
"Gagla!" my brother Timothy burbled, his own, odd way of pronouncing my name. I had yet to decide whether I found it endearing or annoying. It made me sound like some sort of witch, which really wasn't that bad of a thing. I wiggled my fingers in front of his wide blue eyes and made spooky swooshing noises.
"Hocus-pokus, aglus-schmokus!" I chanted. "I am the great and powerful Kelpie witch of the moors and I will eat you all up!" Before I could move to tickle him he turned and knocked over the shortest of his towards and immediately became preoccupied with stacking it up again, the colored blocks growing even higher then before.
"Have a good day at school?" My mother asked from the kitchen. She sounded tired - probably another difficult day of nursing. My brother was a little troublemaker, though you wouldn't think it to look at him. We'd let him into the baking cabinet, once. Flour everywhere, and you couldn't see the floor for the drifts of white powder that had been spread all over it.
"Rather," I remarked, hopping up onto a stool and helping myself to a cracker. "We're studying Kelpies. It's fascinating."
"Mn-hm," came the usual reply. "Anything else?"
"Well," I continued between crunches, "We're doing circle formulas in maths. Not the easy kind," I added, "The other kind, with the arcs and finding the angles and the lengths and all that. I've got a bit of homework, actually..." I pulled out the rumpled worksheet and squinted at the printed problems, which all asked things like how-do-you-find-the-length-of-this-arc-if-the-angle-is-thirty-degrees and then a few word problems about orbits. Maths was easy, if a bit dull. I scribbled down a few answers after covering the margins with my untidy scrawl of calculations and popped another cracker in my mouth.
It rained harder that night, although I heard it slow to a gentle drizzle at around half-past eleven, the heavy drops lightening to a gentle patter on the roof tiles. The loose water gurgled down into the gutters and I dreamed of swimming in a black river full of weeds, thick and slimy under the moonlight, and a horse, standing on the riverbank, dripping wet and covered in a coat of coal black. Kelpie, a quiet voice whispered, and then I woke.
The morning brought dripping eaves and the smell of bacon frying in a pan on the stove. Then the familiar whistle of the kettle as it reached a boil and let out a piercing whine that would always set Timothy bawling in his cradle if it wasn't took off in the next ten seconds. I leaped out of bed and hurried down the hall, snatching up the kettle and earning slightly singed fingers in the process as I set it down on a rainbow pot-holder. It was a sloppy weave of neon ribbons, a crafts project from third grade. I'd gotten better in the five years that had passed, and was better now, I hoped. If not at potholders than at being odd, if that was any compensation. Bacon sizzled and threatened to burn and I grasped the handle with my nightshirt wrapped around my hand and dumped the load onto a plate set out on the countertop. The pan went into the sink along with the other dirty dishes from dinner.
Breakfast was eaten hastily, bacon searing my throat, and I almost choked on the milk.
"Have a lovely day!" my mother said, pecking me on the cheek as I passed, her arms full of baby bottle and a groggy-eyed Timothy. I pulled on a pair of rain boots in a moment of foresight and was out the door and skipping down the cobbles to Alma's house on the corner. She stood there, beaming, and we commenced our typical morning conversation in that eight o'clock drizzle.
"And how're you today, Missus Grace?" she'd ask.
"Positively invigorated," I'd reply, or whatever abnormally long word came to mind at the moment, regardless of whether it actually fit the situation or not. "It has been-" I stopped mid-sentence and stared.
"Whatever is the matter?" Alma inquired innocently. I didn't reply.
On the corner of the street, right across the road from my friend's home, is on open spot of wall that affords a spectacular view of the moors and makes you imagine you could see straight to the sea. On most days the view is a pleasant one, made even more so by the many wildflowers bobbing in the wind; a colorful moving carpet. But now all the color seemed to have been leeched from the grassy expanse and it seemed as though I would never see the sea, no matter how far I looked. There was only the rolling moor that spoke loudly of endless fens and dank rivers surrounded by tall marsh grass. There was only the black horse, staring back at me from between a pair of standing stones. We used to play on those stones, Alma and I, clambering gleefully to the top and pretending to be the queens of the troll kingdom, but when I saw the horse all the happy memories went out of me.
"Oh!" I gasped, and stepped backwards, afraid that the creature would come closer. It was not an ordinary horse, so my intuition told me; and besides, there were no horses running wild on the moors, and no one in Thurso owned a black horse. There was a palomino down at the stables, and a few brown racehorses, but none like this one. It was not abnormal-looking, by any means; there was nothing about it that should have given me cause to be afraid - if anything, it was all the more beautiful and majestic than a regular equine, and yet...
"What is it?" Alma latched onto my arm and peered anxiously over my shoulder. "Have you seen something?" I pointed to the stones.
"There, that...that black horse, do you see it?" It was not a vision, I was sure of that, and seemed to become even more real once I acknowledged its presence. My sight seemed to sharpen and I thought I could see water dripping from its dark mane, water weeds tangled in its tresses. Alma gave me an odd look.
"What horse?" she asked, and I thought for a moment that she must be crazy to not spot it. I pointed it out again and received the same blank stare. "Grace," she said warily, "There isn't any horse."
"But it-" I made to point again and realized that my friend was right - the space between the stones was empty, blindingly empty, and I felt a sudden wave of fear wash over me, not that I was going mad, but that I no longer knew where the creature was - it could be anywhere, now. "Let's go," I muttered, and began walking briskly down the street, anxious to leave that place as quickly as possible.
It was there again when I walked home, alone because Alma had had to remain behind to work on a project for her history class, something involving battles. I thought at first to take a detour, but refused to be deterred from my usual habits just because I thought I had seen a...a horse. Not a Kelpie, I told myself. Not a Kelpie. They don't exist, not in real life. It's a black horse, just an ordinary black-
"Horse..." The words died in my throat as I spotted it again, though closer this time, a few feet nearer to the wall than it had been before. I could almost see its eyes, now, giant black globes that held no emotion, not even the mellow warmth that so often appears in a normal horse's eyes; it had left hoof-prints around the stones, crushing petals and grass beneath its hooves and leaving its trail littered with withered flowers. I flinched away and ran all the way home.
"I'm home..," I called yet again as I entered the house, shutting the door with an almost feverish strength and fumbling with the latch. I never locked the door behind me, not ever...why was I doing this now? Horses couldn't open doors, anyways. "Stop being such a dunce," I chided, and then jumped a foot in the air when Timothy latched onto my ankle, giggling gleefully, his black curls bouncing. Black, I thought. Like the horse. I stopped, hit myself in the forehead. "Stop it!" I ordered, louder this time. Why was I being so paranoid? "Stop it!" My mother glanced up from her seat at the kitchen counter and called out to Timothy.
"Tim, your sister says to stop. Get off her leg, dear!" Timothy looked up at the sound of our mother's voice, but didn't understand. He gave me a confused look and clung tighter. I heard a sigh and the rustle of a magazine as it was folded up and stuck into the fruit bowl.
"No, Mum, it's fine!" I protested before she could get up, and half-limped to the kitchen, Timothy bouncing up and down on my leg like a toy boat in the waves and laughing with every step. "It's fine, I was just...talking to...myself," I admitted sheepishly. "It's been kind of a crazy day," I added as an explanation. "Test in maths and Professor Wagner gave us a pop quiz on those...horse things." I didn't want to say the word "Kelpie," as if that would summon the beast to me. More paranoia, I told myself. Ridiculous. Tomorrow was Saturday, and then I wouldn't have to leave the house, wouldn't have to pass the wall, the stones. And then on Monday I'd take another route to school. Safe.
Or so I thought.
There it was again, peering out at me as Alma and I passed by on our shortcut through the stables, stinking of river filth and rotten water weeds. The wood of its stall door was soaking wet and a puddle of dark water seeped out onto the cement, staining it and glistening with pond slime. I tried not to shudder as Alma walked right past it, happy as you please, and chattering away about how her family was going to go down to the ocean next week and she would try to bring me back a shell or something so long as there wasn't a crab inside it. I replied without really thinking that as my friend she was welcome to bring me back whatever she liked, even if it did have a crab in it. Her reply consisted mostly of giggles.
Then again, it was lurking next to the grove of birches and turning the ground around them into a soggy pool of mud and roots. I nearly fainted when Alma walked up to the trees and snatched up a few more branches, her hand passing mere centimeters from the creature's glossy snout. It let out a thick snort, its breath condensing into a hot cloud of fog in the chill air and drifting away as quickly as it had come. I felt as though it was breathing down the back of my neck the entire way home.
"Professor Wagner," I asked at the end of the next week, after class had let out, "How can you protect yourself from...uh...Kelpies?" The professor gave me a strange look, much like the many I received from Alma after my sudden outbursts that occurred only when I wasn't focusing and would turn to yell at the creature to keep away from me.
"Is this for a project?" he asked. I shook my head frantically. "Why all the sudden interest, then?" I hadn't been expecting this.
"Um...because..." The truth will out, my father always said. "I think...and I know this sounds odd, professor, but I think a Kelpie's following me."
"Grace, if this is some kind of practical joke, then-"
"No, no!" I burst in. "I'm serious! I've been seeing this weird black...horse - or what looks like a horse - everywhere, all black and dripping wet, just like you said! When I walk home and to school I can see it standing out in the moors, by those standing stones, and one time it was in a stall in the stables, and everything was all wet, but Alma never sees a thing! She thinks I'm crazy, but I'm not, sir, I-" I was babbling, now, letting out all my fears and paranoia that I had kept inside for fear of ridicule. The professor held up a hand, stopping me in my tracks, but he had a thoughtful look on his face and was fidgeting with his tie, something he only did when he was trying to figure out the answer to a difficult question. At last he said,
"Grace, are you absolutely sure you've seen this horse?" I nodded, afraid that if I opened my mouth I would begin to babble again. "Well...the Kelpie is a being of Faerie...all I can suggest is to carry iron with you and to try to stay away from it...bells may work as well. Avoid water and whatever you do, don't touch it." He said these last words very seriously. "Do you remember that story about the ten children and the Kelpie?" he asked me. I shook my head again.
"Afraid I must have missed that one, sir."
"Very well, then...there were once ten children out for a walk by the river, when they were approached by a beautiful horse with a glistening black coat. It lay down in front of them, inviting them to ride, and nine of them eagerly scrambled on. The tenth child, however, was suspicious of the creature and remained behind, although not before reaching out with a hand to stroke the horse on its muzzle. The creature immediately reared up and bolted for the water, dragging the children with it. They tried to get off, but found that the horse's coat had become sticky and held them fast. The tenth child, too, was dragged along, and only survived by cutting off his own hand. The rest of the children were drowned and eaten by the Kelpie." My face morphed into an expression of shock.
"Don't touch the ho-Kelpie, sir, understood," I stammered. Now that I thought about it, the story did sound a little familiar, like something out of an old storybook that I'd read long ago. "Thank you very much."
"Good luck, Grace," the professor murmured, and sat back behind his desk, going over papers as though we'd just had the most ordinary conversation in the world.
"Mum, do we have any iron?" I called, rifling through my jewelry box and odds-and-ends drawers in hopes of finding something suitable. The only object that seemed to have any potential was a rusty iron nail wedged between the cracks of the floorboards in the attic, but it was barely the length of my thumb and the tip had long since worn away, making it useless if I felt the need to use it as a weapon. "Bells, too!" I added, remembering. "Are there any?" My mother stuck her head in the door, nursing Timothy again.
"This for a school project?" she asked, and I was struck by a peculiar sense of deja vu.
"Sort of," I lied. "For mythology. Iron and bells - they're supposed to protect against fairies and what. Have we got any?" My mother pursed her lips thoughtfully and for a brief moment I worried that she would say no, but then her eyes lit up and she smiled.
"Come with me," she commanded, and marched down the hall. "It was your grandmother's," she said excitedly, "My mother. Very superstitious, she was, always worrying about the fairies - carried something with her. It was-well, you'll see in a moment." She set Timothy down on the faded quilt that covered her bed and rifled through a small wooden set of drawers that sat on the dresser, while I lay down and bounced up and down on the mattress while springs creaked and groaned under my weight. If I rolled over and stuck my face into one of the quilt patches it still carried that faint smell of old things, despite having been used for years and washed more times than I could count. "Ah-ha!" my mother cried triumphantly. I rolled over and stared.
She was holding onto a slim black cord, from which dangled a round pendant engraved with black horses and a winding pattern of Celtic knots too complicated to make out from my position. "Here." She handed it to me and I weighed it in my palm, feeling the coldness of the iron sink into my bones. It was heavier than I had expected and pressed down on my hand. The little black horses, I realized, were not horses, but Kelpies - their backs melted into the scaly tails of a fish and their front legs were thin and boney. The knots twisted around them, forming makeshift bridles and saddles, although a small part of me whispered that a Kelpie could not be chained, not like that.
"Will it do?"
"It's..." What could I say? A lifesaver? "...perfect, Mum. Thank you." She smiled at me and ruffled my hair, shutting up the box with a series of wooden clicks and locking it tight with a golden key which she unscrupulously dropped into her sock drawer. I slid the pendant over my head and it nestled comfortably against my chest, weighing me down and keeping me tied to this world. I could not be sure that it would work entirely, but it was all I had. I did not know how closely I was cutting it, then.
The next day the Kelpie appeared at school, closer than it had ever been before. It followed me around the campus, judging me with those eerie black eyes and getting damp that nobody else could see all over my books; when I opened my locker during lunch I found the pages of my journal peeling and water weeds wedged into my binder.
I would wave the medallion at it when I thought no one else was looking, but all the creature ever did was blink slowly at me and breath heavily through its nostrils. It disturbed me that despite my fear I still found it beautiful.
"Good," was all Professor Wagner said as I walked into class, nodding at my necklace, but that was all the mention our conversation ever received. It was as though it had never happened. Lessons continued, and we were moving onto something called the Death's-Head Hawkmoth, thought to bring death and pestilence wherever it appeared. The slides that flickered up on the old projector showed us that it truly did have a "death's-head" emblazoned on its wings, a brown blob that bore a striking resemblance to a skull. I thought of the Kelpie gnawing its way through someone's skeleton and blanched.
It followed me as I passed between classes and if I dared to look out the window as I sat comfortably in my desk I would see it there, too, watching me. I could tell no one about it; even Alma had stopped speaking to me as much as she had used to, and we no longer walked to school together anymore. She claimed my paranoia was beginning to get to her. It was true. I would see it whenever she looked at me, distrust, there in her eyes.
The Kelpie could not get me, I realized one day in maths. It would have to wait for me to come to it, and it had all the time in the world for that. It would haunt me until the day I died, be it by its own hand or by the slow passing of time. If I died of old age, I wondered, would it wait on my grave? The thought repulsed me and I vowed to rid myself of it. The chance came sooner than I had imagined.
That afternoon the air smelled of an oncoming storm and the horses in the stables nickered anxiously as I waved hello, noting the stranger housed among them. It opened its mouth and did not bray but let out a low moan that sent shivers down my spine. That night I heard it roaming about on the moors, howling and moaning fit to burst. Even when I covered my ears with the bulk of the pillow its cries penetrated my ears and kept me laying awake all through the long night, and into the wee hours of the morning, when a roaring torrent of rain began pouring down on our little town and gale-force winds battered the windows, rattling the glass. I thought I heard branches cracking and envisioned a tree collapsing onto our roof.
School was cancelled the next day on account of the storm and so I sat on my bed all afternoon, finishing off a piece of maths work and doodling all over the page. I did not hear the Kelpie again, but maybe that was just because I was hearing too much already. Things crashed and howled outside until it seemed like the world would tear apart at the seams and send all of creation crashing down on us. Still, the idea that it was out there in the storm, waiting for me, nagged in the back of my mind and was the reason I glanced out of my bedroom window more than I should have.
I could see the moors clearly through that window on a good day, behind another stone wall, a grassy green panorama dotted with swaying specks of orange and white and the violet of the heather; a comforting and familiar sight. Not on this day. Every time I looked out I expected to to see the Kelpie standing there placidly among the lashing rain, staring. Closing the curtains was worse, I reasoned. It could wait there the entire time and I would never know.
The storm abated sometime early Saturday morning, although there were still clouds covering the sky; when I awoke the eaves were dripping with liquid silver and a few sparrows were twittering anxiously in the trees, sending more drops showering down in erratic sprays that pattered quietly on the roof tiles. I stole a glance out the window and saw the space that ran up to the wall plastered with wet leaves and harboring a few cracked branches. There was no sign of the Kelpie and I hoped for a moment that it had been frightened off by the storm. But then there it was, small at first, a black spot in the distance but growing steadily closer, a silver bridle dangling limply from around its neck. It stopped behind the wall and met my gaze, stamping the ground with a solid hoof. I knew what it was - a challenge.
"All right, you," I said, knowing it would hear me. "I'll take your dare, you stupid Kelpie. I'll come out there and ride you." It stomped once more before turned and racing away over the moors, towards the river.
I was downstairs in a flash, barefoot and still in my nightclothes, pausing only to snag a coat from the mudroom and wrap it around my shivering frame as I slipped quietly out the front door, shutting it behind me. It was early, about six, and I hoped that my parents would stay true to their roles as sleepers and remain in bed until eight. That gave me time, at least two hours, to get to the moors and then come back...if I came back. But I tried not to think about that. Something tugged at my conscious and I tiptoed back inside, scribbling down a note and laying it gently on the kitchen table: Gone for a walk on moors, be back by eight. Love, Grace.
P.S, I added, don't worry. The words left me with a guilty feeling in my stomach as I left the house for the second time.
The pavement was cold and hard and my soles stung from the tiny bits of grit that poked rudely from underneath. My breath fogged out in a little white cloud and I pulled the coat a little tighter. It was my father's favorite, I realized, the dark green one he always brought with him to work, and then everywhere else. It was old and smelled of cologne and office buildings, if that made any sense. Underneath, the pendant hung stoically, the iron glistening faintly.
I skirted the wreckage before the wall and stood quietly in front of the crumbling stones, pondering. If I squinted out at the moors I thought I could see a black spot, moving back and forth along the horizon, though never coming any closer; but it never moved any farther away either. I made my choice and clambered over the wall, sending loose pebbles skittering to the ground and frightening a small brown lizard that had been crouched in the stones at the base. I watched it as its tail swished and quickly vanished between the blades of grass. Then I began to run.
The ground was damp and I would occasionally cross over patches of mud that sucked at my feet and left me with a brown shell on my soles, although it quickly crumbled away on the grass. Dew wetted my ankles and flower petals and loose grass stuck there like a second layer of skin. The black speck of the Kelpie grew ever closer and although I could not see the sun as it rose ever higher in the sky the clouds lightened, turning from a deep blue to a metallic grey. I clutched at the pendant, crushing it in my hand as I raced ever forwards and feeling it leave behind a winding imprint in my palm. It was my only hope, now.
I stopped at last when I reached the base of a tall hill, the top enshrined by a ring of standing stones. I had never been here before, never come this far out even on one of my wandering walks; when I looked back over my shoulder I could see the brown smudges that were the rooftops of the town, and wondered if anyone had woken up yet, if anyone had noticed that I was gone. What would they think, I wondered, if I didn't return? What would they think regardless? But that didn't matter now, I thought sadly, and started up the hill.
The grass was drier here, browner, the flowers sparser, and a harsh breeze blew against me from the west and roared in my ears. My eyes watered in the wind and I felt the tip of my nose grow cold and numb, as did my fingertips before I wrapped them up in the ends of my sleeves. Somewhere a lone bee buzzed around amiably, though most of the sound was lost to me. I crested the hill and stopped.
In the center stood the Kelpie, a commanding silhouette against the stones. Their shadows long and leaned inwards, causing the great monoliths to seem ever the more foreboding. I placed my hand against the one nearest to me and felt the chill and the roughness of th granite. These were old stones, I knew, here long before Thurso had even been an idea, floating about in some traveler's head. The Kelpie snorted, jerking me out of my reverie. I stared at it, torn between what I knew I had to do and turning heel and sprinting away down the hill and home again. It bent down its great glossy head and lay down in the grass, inviting me to sit. I stepped forward.
There was only a bridle, here, no saddle or halter, just a thin silvery strip of leather looped through the Kelpie's mouth and around it's ears that dangled down onto its back. I moved closer and tentatively reached out a hand, jerking backwards when the Kelpie snorted and shook its head impatiently, as if to say, hurry up!
And let me drown you, my mind added, and I shuddered. I grasped the reigns and made to sit down, when I remembered Professor Wagner's words: "Whatever you do, don't touch it!" Gasping at the fatal mistake I had almost made, I reluctantly slipped out of my father's jacket and lay it over the Kelpie's back, quickly leaping on before the creature could shake the makeshift saddle off. I made sure to lift my legs, keeping my feet as far from the Kelpie's flank as I could, only letting my knees press against the green fabric as a bare minimum of control. It was much colder without the coat and my teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. Then, without warning, the Kelpie bolted up and raced down the other side of the hill.
I clutched the reigns for dear life and yelled into the wind, a cry of terror and exhilaration as the landscape raced past in a blur and the air was ripped from my lungs. The Kelpie was fast, faster than I had dared imagine, and if I squinted into the distance I could see the grimy black line of the river slowly winding its way through the moor. There were no flowers here, only rows of reeds that waved in the wind and watery ground full of puddles that splashed as the Kelpie galloped through them and spotted my feet with brown specks. I felt my knees sink inward and looked down, expecting to see the jacket eaten away and the Kelpie's coat bubbling around my skin, but there was nothing. By sheer luck I remained untouched, although I could see that the edges of my father's coat had developed a sticky black skin and were curling inward. The river drew ever nearer.
A bit after we were halfway there I reached for my necklace with a tentative hand, grasping the silver bridle ever the tighter and pressing the Kelpie's sides with my knees so hard I could barely feel them. I hooked the string up and over my head so that it flapped loosely besides me, amulet clenched in my hand. The Kelpie seemed to glance at me with one eye and without warning bucked. I screamed and held on for dear life, but did not let go of the necklace. I did not touch the Kelpie. I did not fall.
We reached the river. The ground sank beneath the weight of the Kelpie's hooves, leaving behind dark prints, and a startled flock of starlings took to the air, filling it with the sound of flapping wings. Before us, the waters of the river gurgled sluggishly and clumps of weeds and old logs floated by. The water was dark here, dark and deep so that I could not even imagine where the bottom lay, and marked all over by little waves that shook the surface. I shuddered, not from the cold but from fear - we had been riding for a long while, and all of me felt numb and frozen; my skin was like ice and I felt that if I tried to move I would hear my joints creaking. The Kelpie plunged forward.
This time I did fall, though deliberately, making a desperate grab for the green jacket, only to find that it had stuck to the Kelpie's back like glue and made no sign of ever coming off. I landed in the water with a splash and burst up to the surface, coughing and floundering about, the weight of my clothes dragging me downwards. I spluttered some more at the bitter taste of the river water and started for shore, only a few feet away and yet it seemed miles. The river here did not slope like it did in most places, but began deep and stayed so all the way to the other shore, or so it appeared. I felt my toes briefly brush the bottom and quietly rejoiced. Then something else latched onto my ankle and i barely had time to scream again as I was yanked down into the darkness.
Cold pressed down on me from all sides and my hair billowed around my face like a velvety curtain. A few stray slivers of light filtered down through the murk and I grasped frantically at them, straining for the surface, to no avail. The pain in my ankle was all that kept me from letting go and drifting off. I knew that if I let it, the Kelpie would kill me dead. I twisted awkwardly and stared downwards.
It was darker below, and I barely managed to make out the dark form of the Kelpie, which writhed below like a snake. I caught a glimpse of a long and scaly tail as it flashed briefly in the light, but then it was gone again. The Kelpie's eyes bored into mine, dark and infinite.
"No!" I yelled at it, and a cloud of bubbles erupted out of my mouth, spiraling upwards. My voice was muffled in my ears and all I heard was the gurgle of the river. "You won't get me!" I kicked hard at the Kelpie's muzzle with my free foot - underwater, it seemed, its skin was perfectly normal, the adhesive a tool for hunting on land. "Let go!" I shrilled, spewing more bubbles, and by some twist of fate the Kelpie did. It was a relief; I could feel the water growing heavy on my shoulders and my lungs burned uncomfortably. but then the pain came, and I could see the blood billowing from where the creature's teeth had bit into my ankle. I gritted my teeth and struggled downwards. More terrifying than ever, the Kelpie advanced.
It was here that I realised the flaw in my plan. I had planned to loop the necklace around the Kelpie's neck and let the iron charm do its work, but the beast's neck was far too large for such a thing to work. It snapped at me and I turned tail, swimming upwards, clawing at the water.
I broke the surface just in time, gasping in great gulps of fresh air and swimming as quickly as I could for shore. Behind me, the Kelpie reared out of the water, eyes rolling in its sockets and tail thrashing angrily. I heard it bellow and swam ever the faster.
My fingers met earth and I tugged myself up out of the water, dripping and gasping and trying to avoid getting tangled up in my hair, which was already knotted and tangled with weeds and specks of decaying matter. My ankle let out a fresh wave of pain and I gasped. The Kelpie snapped at my foot and I leaped for the cover of the reeds, pulling up handfuls of dirt as I went. The front of my clothes were stained brown all the way down from when I had crawled and grime was rapidly beginning to accumulate underneath my fingernails. Water ran in rivulets down my cheeks and blood flowed into the ground. I turned and faced the Kelpie on shaking legs.
It seemed bigger now, as though the water had given it power - it probably had, my rational mind suggested - and didn't seem to care whether I drowned or not, so long as I ended up a corpse on the edge of the river. I raised up the necklace, which by some miracle I had not dropped, and held it in front of me. The Kelpie remained where it was but I could see it eyeing the object nervously.
"You don't like this, do you?" I said, my voice rasping from lack of oxygen. "It's iron, and you can't touch it, can you?" I raised my arm back and threw the necklace.
It arced through the air in a perilous dive, landing squarely on the Kelpie's pelt, though it did not bounce off as physics declared such things should. Instead it stuck, the black skin around it bubbling, melting and dripping down to the ground, where it continued to writhe underfoot until it finally dissolved with a hiss and a small cloud of smoke. The Kelpie screamed and bucked, trying to reach the iron with its muzzle, but to no avail. It was obviously in great pain, and going absolutely mad. I backed away, eyes wide, and turned to run. I made it a foot and then something struck me in the back of the head. I collapsed to the ground, my vision rapidly clouding over.
The Kelpie screamed and bucked, trying to reach the iron with its muzzle, but to no avail. It hurt, this necklace, burned like ice and set his skin aflame. Even when he plunged into the water, his servant and protector, the iron stayed, eating away and burning....burning until he could see the bone through his skin, and he bled then, bled black blood that faded to a deep crimson, and his tail...his tail was gone too, and all that was left was a useless pair of legs - horse legs! And then...he became aware of a curious sensation...his lungs were burning along with the rest of him, and the Kelpie let out a huge scream that reverberated throughout the river and then died away into the distance. There was nothing to do now, however much he fought for the surface. And deep down in the bottom of that river...
I awoke, not with a start but slowly, as though my mind had been lifted from the middle of a great pool of mud. I lay there with my eyes closed, my cheek pressed into the earth and my shirt drying against my back. It itched a little, I thought, as though ants were crawling up and down my spine, but did not raise a hand to scratch it. Instead, I listened: to the wind in the reeds, the rustle of the grass, the slow but steady flow of the river...the starlings chirped nearby, having returned home to their nests in the rushes. Nowhere did I hear the tread of hooves, the frantic squeals of pain as the iron burned into the Kelpie's hide, the erratic splashes of water. something nagged in the back of my mind, like a half-remembered dream, and images of the Kelpie struggling in the river floated to the surface if my mind. I flinched.
Quietly, I opened my eyes.
The river flowed past through the reeds, which arced protectively over my head, blocking out the sky. My right ankle was cold and stung when I moved it; the rest of me was cold, too, although I had not realised it at first. The numbness had gone away, leaving me wet and shivering in the dirt. I sat up, blinking. The Kelpie was nowhere to be seen. I slowly crawled forwards, closer to the riverbank, reaching out with my hands and glancing around for the necklace, the familiar glint of iron in the bland browns and greens of this lonely shore. Nothing. There was, though, flapping quietly in the forked branches of a piece of driftwood, my father's jacket, soaked through and absolutely filthy. I cautiously lifted it up, wringing it out as best I could. When I checked the edges they were clean, free of any Kelpie skin. It was as though it had never existed.
"Grace!" someone called out faintly. I turned and saw dim figures weaving through the grass, close enough to the river but not nearly enough to see me, crouched down in the reeds. "Grace, are you here!?" one of them called out again. I recognised my father's voice and that of Alma's father as well.
I stood up, the jacket draped heavily over my arm, and waved with the other.
"Here!" I shrilled. "I-I'm here!" I stumbled forwards, out of the reeds and into my father's open arms. When I gazed up at him his eyes were warm and relieved. They were blue, I noted without noticing. Blue, not black. Never black. Never again. His watch read in at about half-past ten - I had been gone for more than four hours. No wonder they had come looking for me. "Tell Mum I'm sorry," I said into his chest, my voice muffled by the fabric.
"Pardon?" My father held me out and looked at me, puzzled.
"I lost the necklace...her grandmother's," I explained. "She let me borrow it, and...I sort of lost it. Sorry." It was odd, apologizing for something to the person who had nothing to do with it. "Sorry I wandered off, too." Exhaustion swept over me then, and I closed my eyes again. Explanations could come later. I felt my father lifting me up and carry me away, my chin resting on his shoulders. I briefly opened my eyes and took a last look at the river. A last remnant of a half-remembered dream dragged itself up from the bottom of my mind. And deep down in the bottom of that river...I felt sleep tugging on the edges of my eyelids. Deep down...I slept. In the bottom of that river...
...a Kelpie drowned.