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.
“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.
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…