It was three moons ago the kelpie had me, and he will not yet take me back.
They had all warned me from such beasts, the women of our village, vowing my hands would stick to its watery back and condemn me to drown for the dream of touching so beautiful and treacherous a thing. Our kind they draw down into water to eat of; our flesh is sweet to them, as soft and red as anenome under the silken casks of our skin.
Yet, though they devour our kind they lust for us, too. They will take brides of men and women alike and deflower them in the tallow of tsavorite deep. Some they hold there always, and others they return to the dry earth ever changed, their eardrums ringing of the sea, and the churning river, no matter how far from the water’s edge they run.
More still they drown, and send to the surface bloated and blue, for kelpies are cruel, and capricious, and whimsical as wild horses, and mad with the mean and stupid needs of men. Their eyes are libraries of darkness, their manes jade tangles of tendrilous weed that can, by the clever, be used to capture and become mistress of them. For if a kelpie’s reigns are taken away they are forced into the bodies of boys, some mere, lovely fools, others poets, and dancers, and philosophers, all still wild with the spirit of magic.
From a girl I’d dreamt of having such a man, watched the waters of river and ocean alike with a longing that such a savage devil as a kelpie might come to me. I had, in my mind, built such a castle of fantasy about them that I had near forgotten that there was ever such a beast in existence, and still was.
I had forgotten that they were monsters, and had killed many a young girl like myself merely for the love of it. Yet no kelpie had been seen about our village for a hundred years; perhaps, then, they had never been there at all, no more than a story told by hearth fire and bedside dark.
So it was that I had no fear to wander by the waterside alone.
One afternoon I went foraging for mushrooms in the hills, and in the sun-jewelled length of that summer day I lost the time completely. I only knew that evening had come by a slither of blackness gnawing the sky where it touched the grass. Fearing I would not find my way back to the village by night I busied myself to the river to follow its winding road down to the houses, by which I could not wander astray.
It was as I walked there that I came upon a black stallion, leaning down to the murmuring waters to drink. Six feet it was, in height, and the shining gilt of its dark hair glimmered almost green in the tumbling daylight.
“It must have wandered out from some field,” thought I. “Perhaps I should take it back, for surely it will be stolen if I do not, or injured. Either way, its master would miss it. I must try to capture the poor thing.”
This decided, I stepped around the beast in a half-circle so as not to frighten it, and reached out for the tumbled reigns I saw about its neck. As my fingers glanced the horse’s glossy skin it raised its head and looked at me with eyes like headstones, black and bleak, and I became quite still, seeing at once that they were not the eyes of an animal.
In a violent jerk the stallion rose up on its hind legs, yanking me in an arc until I was thrown sidewards across its back. The pain of colliding with its hard flesh winded me in a clap of seizing agony, and I screamed without sound, finding that I could not move from where it had placed me, for my bare skin had fused to its wherever we touched.
It was then I knew that I had come upon a kelpie, as fearsome and beguiling as were all fae creatures, its muzzle billowing with a stark and simmering smoke. Then down, down to the silt of the riverbed it struck, its bulk sending up a spray of chrysoprase waves behind us.
Naturally I thought, then, that by being pulled under the surface with such force I would surely drown. But while joined with the kelpie it seemed I could breathe easily, enabled by some strange sphere of magic.
Down to a cave under the river bed it took me, its existence an impossible thing. There was air within that odd space, the stone floor—as the kelpie cast me down upon it—cool and dry. It had brought me here to devour, I saw, for the horse loomed down upon me, a foreleg poised to shatter my skull like so much glass before it made its feast of me.
Yet as I gazed up at the kelpie I saw in the rippling beauty of its flesh and the cold intelligence of its stare that it was no mere beast, but also a man, and bearing the facets of both in this fair form.
I raised one trembling hand and touched the damp velvet of its snout, smiling as it recoiled from my caress in surprise.
“My love,” I said, tenderly. “You are so handsome. I dreamt of you, so very long ago.”
Up I knelt, and put my arms about the kelpie’s neck, and kissed him.
Him— oh, him, whose name I still do not know. In a fairytale he would have taken his mortal guise in order to love me; in my story he remained a horse, vast and steaming with a wild heat even as he lay with me amidst the water weed that served as his bed.
My tongue and lips touched hoof, and rounded belly, and soft, whiskered lips; I rolled under the black wave of his ministrations until my cries were echoes about the cave.
Only when we fell apart did the kelpie assume his human form for the first time. Broad, and tall, and thin at the waist, with hair down to his hips, he stood and held me. His shoulders stooped, a suggestion of that concealed and greater size.
“I must take you back,” he said.
His voice was soft, and deep, and sonorous, an older man’s voice projected from the throat of a youth.
“What do you mean?” I cried. “We must marry, now. You must keep me. I have lain with you— without you, I am spoiled in the eyes of men.”
The kelpie’s face bore the remote sadness of some primitive etching on ancient stone.
“I cannot,” he told me. “I have no wish to be bound to another by love, yet I do not care to harm you. I will return you to land. I can do no more.”
I clung to him, winding my arms about his body, into the soaking mist-fall of his hair, making him want me again. He closed his eyes against me and groaned, a delirious shudder of need near making him its servant.
“No,” he said. “No. You do not know me. I will lose myself in my true form. I will break your back beneath me. It is what I am.”
I felt the strength in him, knew from the hollow lightlessness of those mad eyes that he could kill me in the merest wring of his arms or dash of hardened hoof. Yet I wanted him as though he were some seaborne prince standing before me, his hair, the undertone of his pale skin the poison green of twilight.
“Come away with me,” I said, “and live on land as a man.”
“No,” said the kelpie, and in his voice was the thickness of repulsion. “I should die than be so trapped as my brothers have been, in centuries past.”
Then, in a moment, he was a stallion again, and spoke no more. He bowed low for me to climb upon his back and be returned to the surface, and I obeyed, but for one reason alone. Within his hair I saw the winding loops of reigns; with my fists tight within them I knew what must be done.
The kelpie rode the current up towards land again, bursting out onto a flowery bank where he shook me down loose from him in a bed of grass. As he did so I twisted the reigns in my hands and yanked, meaning to take the whole thing with me, and bid the kelpie back into the shape of a boy again.
Yet the reigns were but made of some frail weed, and snapped in split tendrils in my hands.
At once the kelpie screamed in thwarted horror, his black eyes rolling.
“Give them back,” he cried, still in the great shadow of a horse. “Let me leave you.”
“My love,” I said. “How could I ever, now I feel for you so much?”
I saw the kelpie shift from stallion to man, and back again, the change seeming to hurt him, being that I held onto a fragment of his magic. Bloody sweat rolled down his flanks, and I saw the great hurt in his eyes, the betrayal.
Had he forgotten he had meant to eat me, before I charmed him? Trust a man to have so short a memory that he knew only the wrongs done to him, and not that which he had planned for me.
In slow, agonised motions the kelpie staggered back towards the river, panting and calling his wounded rage. All the time I kept my half of the reigns wrapped up in my sodden apron, thinking that he would soon forget his soreness in longing for me and my tender flesh.
It was not so.
The following night he drowned my neighbour, a good woman, kind and of a giving heart; she had gone down to the bank to wash her clothes, and was found floating, violet and breathless, amongst her laundry like some poetic suicide, though from the hoof prints on the bank we of the village all knew it murder.
The kelpie came to my front door in that struggling human form, aching to bend down on four limbs as a horse. His beauty—twisted and ghoulish with suffering—enchanted me. I was as giddy and foolish as a young girl, and as cruel.
“Give me my reigns,” begged the kelpie. “Set me free. I do not want you.
He would have me break the bond between us, deny the love that had saved me.
I still adored him, craved the salt of him within me, the steam of his violent breath, and the ruby bite of his square teeth at my shoulder as he mounted me again. I could not conceive that he had only have wanted me for a day; it hurt too sorely that something so beautiful and ferocious could be so fickle, was but a man.
“Take me back,” I said, “and you shall have your reigns again.”
My lover only reared in anguish, and went back, defeated, to his watery lair.
I pined for him, dreamt of our lovemaking, of a star-lanterned wedding attended only by fish, and birds, and the horses in neighbouring fields that sensed our union.
It seemed improbable to me that the kelpie’s resolve to proceed in this life without me could not be worn down like salt by an eager tongue. Soon he would realise the depths of his love and return to saddle me on his back again, to saddle himself within me.
Weeks passed. The full moon came.
That night my lover killed a child that had gone to the river to swim. Though I was no relation to the boy by blood we all of us ache for the death of innocents; I wept, and still I forgave him, the husband I had bound to me.
“My reigns,” said the kelpie, when he crawled—half-man, half-horse—up the steps of my house in the brutal spasms my thievery had inflicted upon him. “I need them back. You must set me free.”
Piteous, he sprawled at my feet, this fae killer of women and infants.
“I want you,” I said. “You will never be free from me again.”
A further month passed without event. Then, one golden afternoon, the kelpie rose up and lay with a young woman from the village on the riverbank as I watched from the cover of trees. The maiden thought him a pretty boy that had fallen in love with her, from afar, a stranger that spoke little, yet that had the lyricism of a love song in his fucking, which was all he would ever need to charm.
I saw the kelpie lie over her like a weeping willow, the shining flow of his hair the green of absinthe in the night; I saw him rise under the black mantel of a horse and crush the young woman to death under his hooves afterwards till the bank was thick with bones and blood.
“See what I am,” he said, twisting to face me; he had known that I was observing him, having waited for a day both I and another were present at the waterside, that he might show me such brutality.
“See what I am,” he said, again. “What I will do. This is my hunger.”
“I see,” I said. “Yet I still love you.”
The kelpie gazed upon me with such loathing and despair that my heart knew the frailty of glass.
In my house I had woven my half of his reigns about the rafters; too of earth was the cottage for the kelpie to enter in search of it, the threshold salted and soldered with silver, and yet I glimpsed in him the heaving madness that told me he would try it, should he go much longer without his prize.
“Take me away from here,” I said, gently. “I know that you desire me, still.”
But the kelpie only snarled in wordless hate and sunk back to the river bed to sulk, as men are wont to do.
A fortnight has passed, since then, and I have learned that the villagefolk have tired of our squabble, and mean to end it, for us. A day ago a meeting was held, in secret, to confer as to what the people should do; a friend of mine was present, and thus warned me to lock my doors and windows against the mob that will soon come.
They mean to take me from my bed, some night, to bind my wrists and ankles in the very reigns that I have taken and leave me on the riverbank to the kelpie’s mercy, of which they believe he has none.
My friend meant to save me, in telling me this, I think; she has care for me, still, though I have brought down death upon our kin for the sake of my selfish love. Yet I have sensed always my end should be thus, from a child, and have no wish to fly from this destiny to another.
Should I try I know I shall only wither from heartache, that which has already moth-eaten a thousand holes through my spirit.
So I will go with the vengeful mob by choice, on foot, and wear the reigns upon me as my veil. I will live or die a bride, that night, my fate that which the kelpie will choose for me.