The Kelpie and the Curse Part IV

The gardens were cool with the dropping temperature.  My window of time was ending.  But Prince Lorenzo!  Prince Lorenzo who had seen me.  If I could fall in love with him, he could break my curse!

Do not trust the prince, Orin had said.  Anxiety wrapped around my middle and squeezed.  Trust the prince or trust a Kelpie?  

And there was Prince Lorenzo.  Tall, dashing, and glad to see me.  The coils around my chest loosened a fraction.

Over the next weeks fall drew nearer.  Every day I spoke with Orin as I cleaned the pens.  Every evening I soaked the stench away and walked the grounds with the prince.  He was kind, attentive, attractive, witty, and could be my salvation.  I willed myself to fall in love with him.  

I dressed for the evening in my finest red dress.  Butterflies tumbled through my middle and my breath plumed in a tiny white puff.  The first frost would come this week.  I would kiss Lorenzo.  Tonight, I would break the curse.  I knew he cared for me.  I’d grown to care for him, too.  Surely that was enough?

Lorenzo took my arm as we strolled towards the Kelpie pens.  His fingers were warm over mine.  We stood just outside the ring of enchanted stones.  Anxiety dribbled through me.  I heard a soft ripple and knew Orin was approaching the shore.  

I started to tug Lorenzo’s arm to move us away, but he held me fast, stealing my breath as his hands circled my waist.

“Rhiann,” Lorenzo started.  I could hear Orin’s soft ripples and my middle writhed with discomfort.  From the corner of my eye I saw Eric watching behind the tree, a huge smile plastered on his face.  

“I’ve grown to care for you.  Deeply.”  Lorenzo’s deep voice should have sent little spangles over my skin, but instead, my skin crawled.  This was it!  This was the moment he declared his love and we kissed, and the curse was broken!  What was wrong with me?

“Marry me.”

My heart stopped.  Kiss him! My brain screamed.  Break the curse!  His face angled towards mine.  I should tip mine to meet his.  

Orin whinnied.

“I can’t.”

Lorenzo jerked his face back.

In horror, black smoke seemed to curl around Lorenzo.  I tore myself from his grasp and bit back a scream as Eric seemed to stretch from his tree into the prince.  The two men melted into each other.

Then my blood turned to ice.

Before me stood the wizard.  The giver of my curse.  His staff sparked with purple crackles of lightening.

No!

He whirled his staff in the air, magic crackling from the end and sending terror vibrating through my limbs.  

“You will bow to me!  I will have your lands, and I will have you as my wife!”

Orin screamed and the wizard took another threatening step.  He raised his staff, intent on striking the sizzling end of it straight down on Orin’s head.

My heart nearly burst inside my chest.  Orin.  I was in love with the blasted Kelpie.  

Knowing I would die at the hands of the curse-giver or at the touch of my beloved, I flung myself at Orin, knowing that the moment I touched his watery skin, I’d sign my own death.  But it did not matter.  Not anymore.  I would die free.  I’d give the Kelpie my first kiss.  The kiss of true love.

“No!” the wizard shouted as my feet left the ground.  Time slowed as I leaped into the water.  My hands found Orin’s long face.  Cupping my hands around the giant head, under the curve of his jaw, they stuck firm.  Tiny tethers tightened like stabbing needles into my flesh.  Ignoring the pain, I put my lips on his wet nose. 

And light exploded around us.

The needle pricks released, but where I’d held the face of a horse in my hands just moments before, it melted away, soaking me in a shower of droplets.  The wet horse nose became a pair of lips, warm and firm beneath mine, and suddenly hands wrapped around my waist.  I tried to back away, to see what had happened, but I couldn’t move.  My lips were still glued to Orin’s.

Thunder boomed and lightening crashed, striking the tree and scattering sparks like flaming arrows that hissed as they hit the water.

An inhumane shriek rippled down my skin and I yanked my face away to find the wizard engulfed in red flames, licking up his robes, catching his hair.

He bellowed, but his words were lost in smoke as the flames reached into the heavens, dissolving the wizard into a smoldering pile of ash.

Shuddering, I gripped the arms that held me.

The arms.

My head whipped around.  Dark, damp hair, and dark eyes met mine.

Lorenzo,” I breathed.  It was the face of my child-hood playmate.  All grown up into his manhood.  My mouth went dry.  The years had been most kind to him.  

“But…but what of Orin?” 

One side of his mouth tipped up.  I squeaked as he scooped me into his strong arms and waded fully to shore, away from the stinking pen waters, now reeking of burned wizard and Kelpie blood.

“I am Orin.  And Lorenzo.  I always have been.  I was cursed, too.  Your kiss freed us both.”

He put me gently on my feet and my eyes scanned his face.  The weight of the curse had lifted, and I slowly reached out and traced Lorenzo’s jaw, strong and firm.  His chest was bare—he was entirely bare but for a pair of tattered breeches that hung low on his hips.  Without meaning to, my fingers lightly grazed a crescent scar on his chest.  Another on his bicep.  Bite marks.  From the Kelpies.

He stroked a piece of soggy hair behind my ear.

“We are free.”

With gentle fingers he tipped my chin upwards.  “Marry me, Rhiann.  It’s why I went to Evermore to begin with.  To ask your father for your hand, to solidify the alliance of our kingdoms.  But instead, I met with the wizard.  And I became part of your curse.”

His fingers feathered over my jaw and worked into the hair at the base of my neck.

I was stunned.

“Marry me?” he whispered again.

Marry my one true love?

Yes.  But only if your father gets rid of the Kelpies.”

“Most assuredly,” he chuckled.

And then his lips met mine in a kiss full of promise.

The Kelpie and the Curse Part III

The day sped by and I was done cleaning the pen with hours to spare.  

“Thank you for your help, Orin,” I told the giant horse as I emptied the last bucketful of green goo into the barrel that would be wheeled away by one of the other staff later in the evening.  “I’ve never been done with my task so quickly before.”  

He nodded solemnly.  There had been no more near-misses.  He’d kept his word and kept the other Kelpies at bay and kept his distance, too.  Sometime during the afternoon heat, I’d lost some of my distrust of the creature, though I was still wary.  

“Will you come back tomorrow?”  Water trickled from his mouth with his words.

“Of course.  I clean the pens every day.”  It was my curse.  

“Would it be possible to bring a book with you?  Could you read to me?”

My eyebrows raised.

“If I help clean again and keep the others away?”

“Perhaps.”  

“Rhiann.”

I turned.

“Do not trust the prince.”

I gave my head a little shake as I made my way back to the shed and then made a much-desired stop at the hot springs to soak off the stench.  What bizarre game was the curse playing?

Though I had expected never to see Prince Lorenzo, he was at dinner, sitting on the dais at his father’s table.  I was at the lowest table, furthest from them as the stink of Kelpie never quite left my skin, and we couldn’t have anything unpleasant upsetting the royals. 

Orin’s words rumbled over in my brain as I slathered plum preserves onto a slice of bread.  My eyes tracked to the high table.  I was close enough that I could see the prince’s features clearly.  He’d grown up to be a handsome man, but he looked astonishingly like Eric, my gardener friend.  

I chewed my lip.  Eric was near my age.  So was Lorenzo.  Was it possible King Hadrian had sired an illegitimate son?  It wasn’t uncommon, though the thought cramped my belly.

I brought a book of fairy tales with me to the pen the next day.  I’m not sure what possessed me to acquiesce to read to the Kelpie, but I loved a good fairy tale.  Even in spite of my curse.  Fairy tales had happily ever afters.  And I was desperate for one that didn’t involve pails of poop.

I read to him that first day.  At his insistence, I read while he brought masses of seaweed to the shoreline.  After an hour, my voice was dry and there was a hefty pile of weeds.  I fished them out with my rod, and we talked.  The Kelpie was an excellent conversationalist.  We talked of philosophy, we spoke of poetry, we discussed politics.  Things I hadn’t realized I’d missed since the curse fell upon me.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” There was a hint of desperation in Orin’s voice.

“Of course.  Shall I bring the book, too?”  The lightness in my heart confirmed that Orin had filled a craving I hadn’t realized I had.

“Please. Thank you, Rhiann.”

Eric met me on the way back to the shed.

“Lass, you are well?”  His concern sent little flutters through my middle.

“I am.”  I felt my eyes shining, content in a way I hadn’t been since the curse was laid on me.

“Where’s your face covering?”  His eyes crinkled in worry.

“Oh.  It fell into the Kelpie pond.  The big on sprayed water on it.  It just disintegrated.  I’ve been meaning to ask, are Kelpies venomous?”

A troubled look flashed over Eric’s face.  “I’ll see if I can get you another.”

His worry was touching.  I nearly told him not to bother, that it interfered with my speaking to Orin, but that would bring more questions and only concern him further.

Dinner that night was baked chicken and roasted turnips.  I had just finished wiping my mouth on my linen napkin when footsteps behind me set my back straight and brought a flush to my face.  The footfalls were confident, but they faltered as they reached the ring of Kelpie stench that constantly engulfed me.

“I know you.”  The deep timbre of the voice sent heat over my shoulders and my heart tripping to my throat.  Slowly I turned.  My eyes grew wide as I stared into the face of Prince Lorenzo.  

“Princess Rhiann!”  His shocked voice drew the stares of those around us.

“My lord,” I whispered.  He knew me?  The curse allowed it?

“What are you doing…here?”  He gestured to the lowly station of my table.  Knowing the curse would stop me, I tried to explain.

“I’m cursed,” I wanted to say, but instead, “I volunteered to keep the Kelpies.  I want to learn about them.  It is my greatest wish,” came out without my permission.

“Truly?”

“Of course.”  The words were supplied for me.  “They are a most fascinating race.”  If I could have bitten my own tongue off, I would have.  I glanced back to his face, seeing again how much Eric resembled him though Lorenzo’s features were darker.  

“Let us speak.  It has been many years.  Do you not have an escort?”

“Please, Your Highness, I do not wish to draw attention.  No one here knows who I am.”  The curse spoke for me.  

“Of course.  I’ll meet you in the gardens in one hour.”  He winked conspiratorially.

Conclusion coming next week…

The Kelpie and the Curse Part II

Sunlight pierced the skies as I swept a hand over my face to move the blonde strands that had tangled overnight.  It was chilly in my tower room.  I shivered, as much from the cool air as from what it meant.

My curse would be permanent if I did not find a way to break it by the first frost.  Despair nearly crippled me before I sucked in a breath and plucked up my courage.  I had to give my first kiss to my true love before the first frost, else I’d be scrubbing Kelpie muck the rest of my days, never allowed to return home.  But first I had to find my true love.  And right now, there weren’t many prospects.  Kelpie cleaners ranked even lower than scullery maids.  I wasn’t exactly invited to social functions.

Shaking my head and letting a heavy sigh loose, I struggled into my green dress.  While my fingers deftly braided my hair, I thought back to the conversation I’d had with the Kelpie last night.  

Surely, he must be a product of the curse.  I wasn’t sure if he was sent to help me or sent to hinder me in finding my true love.  But for the first time, there was a lightness in my step as I made my way down the long stone corridor to breakfast.  Maybe today I’d get some answers while I attempted to remove the rest of the algae.  Would the Kelpie keep his word?

Just as I was about to round a corner, hushed voices stopped me.  My leather boots made no noise on the stone floors.  I backed myself next to the wall, out of sight.

“Prince Lorenzo should be returning tomorrow.  The king said his return need not be celebrated.  To let him come home quietly.  His journey will have been long and hard.  He’ll need his rest.”

I’d met Prince Lorenzo once, many years ago.  Our fathers had an alliance and a good trade in wool from King Hadrian’s kingdom and fish from our coasts in Evermore.  Lorenzo had been a quiet boy, not much older than me, with dark hair and dark eyes.  Well, he hadn’t been quiet once we’d started playing in the gardens.  We’d whooped and hollered (in a most unlady-like fashion, I was scolded later), torn through the maze, and climbed trees in the orchard. We’d had a grand time.  I wondered where Lorenzo had gone and why his return didn’t warrant the usual fanfare.  

Even should we meet, I was sure he wouldn’t remember me.  And even if he did, who would expect the Crown Princess of Evermore to be covered in pond gunk and smelling like a Kelpie’s back end? 

Opening the shed near the Kelpie pond, I reached for a long hooked pole, net, and a large wooden bucket.  

“How are you feeling today, Lass?”

I startled.  “Oh, Eric.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t see you there.”

Eric materialized out of the gloom of the shed, carrying hedge clippers and a large canvas bag.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said kindly with a smile.  A little dimple appeared at the corner of his mouth and I realized he was actually quite handsome with his dusty brown hair and twinkly green eyes.

“No harm done.” 

“Be careful today.  That newest Kelpie is a wild one.  Here.  This might help.”  He handed me a soft triangular cut cloth.  “Tie that round your nose.  Might keep some of the stench away.”

“Thank you.  That’s very kind.”  

He smiled once more, dipped his head, then went out the door to go about his gardening.

With nervous anticipation tripping through my gut, I approached the Kelpie pen.  The moment my foot hit the white ring of enchanted stones the watery head broke the surface.  Wicked teeth dripped water as seaweed clung to the creature’s mane.  It was a Kelpie byproduct.  No seaweed propagated in the pen, but the Kelpies grew it daily and it had to be fished out and disposed of.  I shivered.  Was this the Kelpie from last night?  I couldn’t tell them apart.  Every one of them was terrifyingly large, lethal, and revolting.

We stared at each other.  Me with my blue human eyes, the Kelpie with large liquid irises that reflected the sunlight.

“You’ve come.”

The breath left me in a whoosh.

“I’ve come,” I whispered.

He inclined his head to me.  “I will keep my promise to you.  The others will not come near you while you clean.”

As if on cue, four other watery horse heads appeared, a tangle of weeds and wickedness.  Shrill screeches echoed around the enclosure and I clapped my hands over my ears while my heart pounded, and my knees knocked in fear.  No matter how many times I heard the creatures’ cries, every time it scared me to my bones.  The sound was like the keening of the dead, wailing to ensnare a victim.  It was all I could do not to cower on the ground.

A deep guttural neighing boomed over the shrillness of the others, and the speaking Kelpie brought his full height out of the water, easily doubling my own stature, his glistening musculature gleaming in the sunlight as rivulets ran off his wide back and sturdy flanks.  With a giant galloping lunge across the top of the water, he leapt onto the others, his teeth gnashing and his hooves pummeling.  Another ear-shattering scream and they all plunged into the deep waters.  Their sudden departure sloshed a huge wave towards the shore.  Scrambling out of the way, I only just missed the drag that would have soaked me.

Heart still pounding, I gripped my chest.  I had never seen anything like what I’d just witnessed.  Either the speaking Kelpie wanted to feast on me by himself, or he detested the foul pen waters as much as I did.  

Slowly, my breathing returned to some semblance of normal.  Glancing around, several guards had seen the interlude but were now going back to their normal duties.  It rankled that my safety was considered so far beneath them.  

“Lass?” Eric’s head popped around the large tree that marked the edge of the Kelpie enclosure.  “What was all that noise?”

“I,” I stammered, suddenly wary of mentioning the speaking Kelpie to Eric again.  “The big one.  He chased the others off.”

“Most unusual behavior.  Maybe I’d better have one of the others clean out the pen today.”  Appreciation swelled at his concern, but my curiosity had been piqued and I wanted to speak with the Kelpie again.  If he returned.  For all I knew, I’d have to clean his carcass from the pond tomorrow if the others finished him off.

“No, no.  It’s fine.  But thank you for your concern,” I added with a winning smile.  Eric looked at me uncertainly.  

“If you’re sure.”

I nodded. 

“Be sure to wear that cloth over your nose,” he cautioned. With another hard look at the pond, Eric left.

I tied the cloth around my face.  Picking up my rod, I glanced out at the rippling water.

“Thank you,” I whispered.  Could the creature even hear me?  Seeing no disturbances in the water, with a shrug, I dipped the pole in and fished out a clump of stinking seaweed.

My nose wrinkled as glops of brown gunk slid off the clump before I could put it into the bucket.  Hearing the ripples before I saw them, I jerked my head up, the seaweed plopping unceremoniously on the ground, missing the bucket altogether.  

The speaking Kelpie, I could tell it was him now—so much larger than the others, slowly swam to the edge of the shore, a giant mass of seaweed hanging from his mouth.  My feet were rooted to the spot.  My hands clenched my pole should I need to use it as a weapon.

“That’s close enough,” I ground out behind my mask.

The Kelpie rose higher in the water and my eyes widened as several spots on his flanks and chest dribbled dark water.  He was bleeding.  

He opened his mouth and the clump of vegetation slopped onto surface of the water.  Never taking my eyes from the Kelpie, I moved the mass of weeds to the shore.

“Thank you,” I murmured.  Unease slithered in my gut as the creature watched me with luminescent liquid eyes.  He nodded once and began to submerge.

“Wait!”

The ears pricked forward and his head rose back up.

“Do you have a name?”

The horse head cocked to the side.  It opened its mouth but only a gurgle came out.  Frustratedly it shook its head, mane flinging water droplets as an angry noise erupted from its chest.  I took a step back and the creature stilled.

“You may call me Orin.”

“Orin.”  I liked it.  It slipped off my tongue like a gentle wave.  “I’m Rhiann.”  It seemed only fair to share my name with him, though after I’d done so, I hoped it didn’t give him some unnatural sway over me.  I brushed that thought aside.  I was already cursed.  The curse might possibly provide some protection from other magical creatures.

“Rhiann.”  My name was like the soft notes of a reed pipe as the Kelpie repeated it.

“Will you permit me to help you clean the pen?”

It was the most unusual request.  But everything about this Kelpie seemed bizarre.  And I could use the help.

“I would welcome it.  But…could you be sure to stay several feet from the shore?  I don’t want anything to accidentally bump into you,” I quickly amended as he shook his head.  We both knew I didn’t want him that close to me.  I had no intention of becoming a snack.

Orin turned his back to me, collecting another mouthful of seaweed.  I bent over to scoop another glop out when the cloth covering my face fluttered off and into the edges of the foul water.

I growled in frustration.  Kelpie stench filled my nostrils.

Suddenly, Orin was next to me.  I jerked violently and stumbled back, falling onto my rear.  Terror seized me as I realized I was still inside the ring of enchanted stones.  Crab-walking backwards, I scrambled to the rocks.

Orin turned his face from me and squirted a stream of water between his teeth at my fallen face covering.

It sizzled.  It sizzled right there in the middle of the water.  

Were Kelpies also venomous?

Horror clouded round my heart as my hands felt the smooth white stones.

“It is not my intention to hurt you, Rhiann.”

His head submerged again, and my frozen lungs started painfully.  For long minutes I sat there, clutching at the enchanted stones, willing my body to move from its arrested state of terror.  I’d never been that close to a Kelpie before.

Acting as if he hadn’t just incinerated my cloth in the middle of the pond water, Orin brought up another mass of seaweed.  He brought up three more mouthfuls before I moved.  With shaking hands, I pulled up the masses with the pole and deposited them into the bucket.

Part III coming next week…

The Kelpie and the Curse

Part I

Cleaning the Kelpie pens was the worst job in the history of jobs at the castle.  Never mind that I was unjustly cursed.  Never mind that I shouldn’t even be in this land.  Never mind that I was the Crown Princess of Evermore.  None of it mattered.  Kelpie poop was the great equalizer.

I detested the magical beasts.  They were dangerous.  Deadly.  If even so much as a hair touched any place on a Kelpie, you were glued to them forever until you either cut off whatever was stuck, or until the Kelpie dragged you down to the bottom of their stinking pen, drowned you, and then ate you for tea.  Maybe or maybe not sharing with his Kelpie compatriots.  

But King Hadrian was famed for his love of animals, and for his magnificent menagerie.  And his menagerie wasmagnificent.  Except for the Kelpies.  But every kingly petting zoo should house dangerous beasts that even crazed dragon hunters refused to stalk in the wild.

I whacked my pole down in the water beside a watery head that broke the surface a little too close for comfort.  The beasts took the shape of a horse in the water and this one peered at me with its large eyes.  The watery mane shook, and it bared its wicked teeth.  It loomed closer.  I was going to lose this pole.  Because I was going to heave it straight at the creature if it didn’t back up.

“Horse, I will shove this rod straight in that open mouth of yours,” I warned it as a tremor shook my hands.  I could talk extravagantly, but inside I quaked like a babe.

“I’m not a horse,” it whickered as water gushed from its mouth.

I pulled up short.

Kelpies didn’t speak.  They were dumb creatures.  Dumb and malevolent.

“You…you spoke?”

“Easy!  Here, let me help!” Eric, the gardener and my one friend here, quickly snatched the pole from my shocked hands and brought it smashing down on the head of the Kelpie.  A terrific shriek pierced the evening air and I clapped my hands over my ears.  

“Eric.  It spoke.  Did you hear it?”

He looked at me concernedly.  “Rhiann, how long have you been scraping the pens today?”

I shrugged.  “Since this morning. There was a large scum of algae that grew overnight.”

“I think the fumes may have touched you.  You know breathing in so much of their,” he cleared his throat, “stench is toxic?”

“Yes.  I’m aware.”  I blinked.  Surely that’s what happened.  No Kelpie had spoken to me.  I’d just been breathing in their noxious odor too long.

“Let me finish here and you go get cleaned up.  It’s almost time for the evening meal.”

“Thank you, Eric.”  I turned, unsteady on my feet.  

***

I puzzled the phantom interaction all through the dinner of roast boar and spiced apples.  At least I’d been cursed to a place plentiful with good food and a marvelous cook.  I slowly chewed another bite of herbed potato.  That Kelpie had spoken to me.  I wasn’t convinced it had been the fumes.  The thought both chilled and excited me.

Was this another product of my curse?

***

I stole down to the Kelpie pens once the castle was still.  It was dangerous to be near the Kelpies in daylight.  It was foolish to go at night.  The shadows would hide their watery forms.  I was counting on the enchantments surrounding their pond.  Enchantments that would let me pass to go to them but wouldn’t let them pass the ring to get to me, so long as I stayed outside it.  I needed to know what place this Kelpie might hold in my curse.

The moon shown down with a bright clean light and lit my way as I stole through the grounds, forsaking modesty and hiking my long green skirts up to my knees so they wouldn’t tangle as I veered off the path.  

The Kelpie pond was still.  Not a single rippled showed on its smooth surface.  I was out of my head.  I must be. It was impossible for a Kelpie to speak.  Shaking my head, I turned to go back to the castle as would anyone with an inkling of sense.

Unless it was an unknown condition of my curse?

The thought halted me in my tracks.

Something broke the surface of the water.

“I see you.”

The reedy words floated ghost-like on the night air raising the hairs on the back of my neck.

Whirling around, hand clutched over my heart, I could see the bare outlines of a horsehead moving towards the shore of the enclosure.  Frantically I glanced down.  I stepped back another few inches outside the ring of white stones.  During the daylight hours, I had to go inside them to clean the pen.  I wasn’t fool enough to venture so close in the black night.

“I hear you.  How can I hear you?” I whispered.

“I sssseeee you,” it hissed again.  My blood iced.

“Of course, you can.  How else would you hunt unsuspecting prey in the middle of the night,” I shot back, hoping enough bravado showed in my voice to cover my trembling.

It coughed a wet gurgling noise.

“You missed some algae.”

A hysterical ball of laughter escaped my throat.  

“This is impossible.  Why do you speak to me?”

“Only you can hear me.”

This was sounding more curse-related by the moment. 

“Why?”

A strangled noise sounded from the darkness as the head approached the shoreline.  I bit my lip.

A chuffing noise sounded through its wet nostrils.

“I’m not permitted to speak of it.”

“What do you want of me?”

It was quiet so long I wondered if it’d sunk back below the waters.  But then a cloud shifted, and moonlight streamed down on the Kelpie’s head, nose nearly dripping into the water.  It looked forlorn.   I shook the thought from my head.  What rubbish.  It was probably a tactic to lure sympathetic girls to their deaths. 

“Will you speak with me again?” It finally spoke.

“I must scrape the filth from your pen every day.”

“If you will try to remove the rest of the algae tomorrow, I’ll keep the other Kelpies away from you.”

Was it trying to strike a bargain?

“I will make no promises to you.  But if you keep the others from interfering, I’ll do my best to clean the water.”  I would have done so today if Eric hadn’t sent me to the castle.  I may be cursed, but I could still be thorough in my duties. I may detest the Kelpies, but it wasn’t their fault they were kept here in a stagnant pen.  They belonged in open water where currents or waves would cleanse their environment naturally.

“Do not speak of this to anyone,” the gurgled voice rolled over me like thick mist.

“It’s unlikely anyone would believe me even if I did.”

Part II coming next week…