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.
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.”
“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.
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…