Each drop of water from the overhanging branches fell into the stream with a noise like stone on stone, faint but clear through the smoke of mist that drifted over the ground. For all the still night there was an odd, chill breeze blowing. Ailie had been treading carefully, the basket at her hip heavy with butter from the kine and honey from the hive, gifts from Mistress MacPherson at Cuillean. She had stayed there all evening, for the old lady had been yearning for a young thing about the house, and had given her broth to sup and spring water to drink and spun long yarns of when she was a girl.
Now Ailie quickened her pace, mindful of the late hour and the folk waiting for her at home, and came out from under the trees to a place where the stream tumbled peat-brown over granite boulders into a pool. She slithered down the slope, recovered her balance and went on across the cropped turf, dew-bleached in the moonlight. The path curved to the right here, and as she followed it, something dark bulked in the corner of her eye. She stopped. No more movement, but it was still there. Ailie set her lips together and turned toward it. Better to see it than not to know.
It was like a horse, but it was not. There was a tale Mistress MacPherson had told her.
She would have to pass between it and the water.
Kelpie. Her lips formed the word, but no sound came, only a breath of air on the cold night that drifted before her eyes and was gone.
The thing had no visible substance; it might have been drawn in strokes of pallid light on the darkness. Each wild lock of its mane moved slowly like weed underwater. A shimmer of green danced and slid on each curve and plane of its face as if it, and she too, stood waiting in the depths of the stream.
Between the shifting outlines it was darker than the dark behind it. Ailie dared not move; but she had to move. The thing was not blocking her way. It drifted beside her, no closer, as she took one step, another, along the path between it and the water’s brink. She edged away from it, and her foot slipped. She fell with the basket hugged close to her right side, and her left hand slapped down into grass that seemed coated with fine grit. She curled her head and shoulders down, for now surely the kelpie would come for her, and carry her off into the dark water.
There was no sound but her breath, and the damp shift of hooves that were not quite hooves on grass. Nothing else happened. Slowly she sat up, still hugging the basket close. The heel of her left hand stung; she licked at the graze, and tasted salt. But she was not bleeding. Wondering, she pinched a blade of grass between finger and finger, and wiped it clean.
The fine grit was salt.
Ailie looked up, and saw the kelpie pacing a curve, like a caged animal in a zoo. It must have come out of the water, and someone had bound it in a circle of salt, and now it could not return to the stream. She was safe. Quite safe. She scrambled to her feet, and kilted up her skirts in her left hand to run away.
There were voices in the distance, borne uphill on the chill breeze. Lachlan, and Jamie, and the new hand from beyond Kessock whose name she could not remember. They were arguing as usual. “A silver bullet, that will kill it and no mistake!”
“Why would we do such a thing, when we can bridle it with the sign of cross? Better a strong horse to do the heavy work that the laird lays on our backs.”
The kelpie whickered, a noise as if ice wept. Ailie could not help but turn around. It turned its head slowly and looked at her out of its left eye. Green and wild was the eye, and cold. But there was also a sadness that drew her deep in, and somewhere behind that a white figure that might have been a reflection of herself, or the ghost of a ghost or a long-ago dream; but whatever it was, it was human, or had been once. The wild and the dark water was the nature of it, and not of its choosing.
Ailie set down the basket and dropped to her knees again, scraping and tugging at the grass, leaning down to the stream to scoop up water and wash every blade clean for a space as wide across as her two arms could reach. Then she drew back, clutching the basket in front of her again, as if it would make a shield for her if need be.
She did not need it. The kelpie stepped daintily forward, head down, cautious, then found itself free, and in one leap, a surge of dark, it was gone, leaving behind it a swirl of cold air and a noise like distant thunder.
Ailie took the other path back, down the gentler slope where she would not meet the three men climbing up from the stream’s fall into the mill-pond, and as she walked towards warmth and home she wept, the tears salt on her face. Not for herself, nor because of the fear that had passed, but for the creature that had gone back alone into the darkness of deep water.
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