Note: This is my third letter of Advent 2021, but part 19 of me and my brother’s Advent Letters project. For an explanation of the project and to get caught up on past letters, go to my Advent Letters page to see them all.
In the horse’s sudden rush forward, Jer dropped his bow. Matt tried, and failed, to draw his sword in the jostling up and down.
Only Brian held onto his weapon. Though his right hand was stuck to the horse, his left gripped his war hammer. Willing it to the size of a boulder, he swung it backwards over his head. It hit the horse square in the side as it leaped toward the water.
The impact detached the boys from the horse. They arched far out into the black lake, landing with a tremendous splash. For too long a moment, the world was a panicked tumble of darkness. Brian then realized his problem and, with regret, let go of his hammer. Flailing in circles, he finally spotted the watery smear of moon at the surface. Though he only just learned to swim that summer, he doggy paddled with all his might, lungs ready to burst. Finally, he broke through with a giant gasp of air.
Matt and Jer were already treading water, and had been shouting for Brian. No sooner had Brian wiped the lake from his eyes than Jer grabbed him around the chest and swam.
“Hurry, hurry! It’s coming!”
Brian started swimming, but not before risking a look behind.
Charging through the water was the horse. Though it still had roughly the same head and body, it had transformed into something aquatic and monstrous. Curved shark teeth slathered out of its jaws. Gills puffed beneath its webbed mane. Instead of hooves, it had clawed flippers. And its tail now resembled a crocodile’s. A rushing wake foamed behind it as it swam.
“Come on, Brian!” Matt shouted.
Brian tried, but his doggy paddle wasn’t making enough progress. Matt and Jer seemed to realize this, because they each put one of Brian’s arms around their necks, and muttered how Brian goofed off too much during swim lessons.
Brian was about to respond, but another backwards glance stopped him. The creature was barreling toward them with terrifying speed, and so close that Brian could see the pupil slits of its red eyes.
The shore was too far away. There was no way they could make it in time. If only he hadn’t dropped his hammer, maybe he could have—
Brian dropped suddenly beneath the water, and the world again descended into darkness.
Something had Brian, Jer, and Matt in a vice grip. It didn’t matter how much the boys struggled; the grip only got tighter as it dragged the boys further under water.
The mermen must have gotten them—there was no other explanation. Brian screamed uselessly into the depths. His vision blurred. His lungs screamed. He was just about to give up when he stopped going down. In fact, he was rising back up. Then, wonder of wonders, he popped above the surface.
Brian spluttered and spat out the lake water he’d swallowed in his panic. His hands swiped at a smooth rock. Jer and Matt were right behind, and helped Brian onto it. That’s when Brian got his first look around.
They were in a cave. Stalactites and stalagmites jutted like teeth around them. The lake water lapped gently against the rocks. Webs of glow-worms crawled along the walls, basking the cave in a ghostly blue light.
Along the far side of the water, a large shadow climbed onto a rock. The shadow of whatever creature had brought them here.
It stepped into a patch of blue light. Brian wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this.
A young man. He was broad and handsome, with a coal black mane of hair and kind eyes. He wore sealskin breeches and a sealskin vest, and had blue patterns and runes tattooed along his arms. Brian gaped, and made a mental note to get his own tattoos someday.
“That was a close escape we had there, friends.”
The young man’s legs swished in the water as he spoke.
“Umm….yeah,” Matt said. “Who are you?”
“My name is Cail. And it was a happy chance that I was in the area. You three are certainly blessed: few children who meet a kelpie survive to tell the tale.”
“Kelpie? You mean that horse monster thing?” Jer asked.
“Aye,” Cail replied. “The terrors of Faerie lakes, those kelpies. Some of them, anyway.”
“What’s a kelpie?” Brian asked.
“Fearsome shape-shifters. You saw its true shape in the water. It also turns into a beautiful white horse. The only difference between them and regular horses are their backward hooves. They’ll stand on a lakeside hill, chomping grass and looking like a perfect riding companion. But when an unsuspecting traveler pats the beast on the neck, their hand sticks. Then the kelpie charges into the water to devour his victim.”
“But perhaps a kelpie’s most dangerous form is that of a human,” Cail continued. “The kelpie that attacked you is named Morag. He takes the shape of an old and withered man. Then he stands by a bridge and—”
“Asks travelers to steal a horse for him,” Matt groaned.
The color drained from Brian’s face. The old man was a kelpie. Everything he told them—the chicken, the horse, the maiden—was a trick to drag them into the lake and eat them.
That triggered something in Brian’s mind. “Thank you for saving us, Mr. Cail. But why were you in the lake in the first place?”
“It’s not a matter of being in the lake; it’s a matter of getting out.”
Cail laughed at the Mellemas’ confused expressions.
“May as well tell you the whole story. Last year, I happened upon a cottage overlooking the lake. Inside was the most beautiful maiden I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
“Did the cottage have rose trellises on the front?” Matt asked.
Cail’s face lit up. “You know Nixie? How is she?”
Matt and Jer became suddenly interested in the cave ceiling. Brian spoke up.
“She seemed okay. Mostly. I saw her embroidering and taking care of her mother.” After pausing, Brian added, “I think she was sad.”
Cail stared into the water. “The moment I saw her, I wanted to confess my love. But that was impossible. I was…in the form of a horse.”
The boys blinked.
“Wait,” Matt said, “You mean you’re a—”
“Kelpie, yes. Not all of us are monsters. But anyway, Nixie saw me outside her cottage, and assumed I was a stray. She took me to her mother, who put me to work in her fields. I didn’t dare change into my human shape for fear that I would frighten Nixie. The work was hard and lasted months, but I didn’t mind. Nixie was by my side, and that made it all worth it.”
The brothers traded gagging motions.
“Eventually, I could take it no more. I changed into my human form right there in the field. I marched up to her and declared my love. I told her that, if she willed it, I would return to horse form and work for her forever. Instead, she took her hand in mine and…declared her love for me.”
“Right after meeting you? There must not be a lot of options out here,” Jer remarked. Matt elbowed him.
“By that time, Nixie’s mother was in declining health. She nonetheless gave her blessing, and we were to be married the next day. But word of my presence spread across the lake. Even to other, more sinister kelpies. And Morag is as sinister as they come. When he heard there was another kelpie in his territory, he decided to banish me so I couldn’t steal his prey. Of course, I would never prey on human travelers. But Morag can’t comprehend such things. That night, he snuck into the barn where I slept and…stole my silver necklace.”
“So what?” Jer asked.
“By magical law, kelpies must remain in the lake where they are born. The only way to leave is by magical charm: our individual silver necklace. The instant Morag took my necklace, I transported back to this lake. I’ve been trapped here ever since. Look.”
Cail tried lifting his feet out of the lake. But his ankle only beat against the surface, like it was made of thick glass.
“That’s terrible,” Brian said. Before he finished putting his thoughts together, he declared, “We’ll help get your silver chain back!”
Cail splashed the water in celebration. But then his expression turned deadly serious. “I could never ask you children to do this for me. Even among kelpies, Morag is dangerous. There’s even a rumor that he can only be killed by—”
Matt grabbed Brian’s shoulder.
“Could you excuse us a moment?” Matt said to Cail.
The brothers huddled. “What are you doing? We can’t face Morag again,” Matt said. “We’ll get eaten.”
“But Cail saved our lives. We can’t just leave him trapped in the lake—we owe this to him.”
“How could we even help? We lost our weapons,” Jer said.
“No we didn’t. We still have Santa’s bag, right?” Brian asked.
Matt turned to show the bag around his shoulders. Realizing Brian’s point, he whipped it off and opened it.
Brian, meanwhile, turned to Jer. “Remember when you guys wanted to steal the horse, and I said it wasn’t the right thing?”
Jer muttered something under his breath.
Brian continued. “Well, I know that this is the right thing. Cail helped us, so we should help him. Besides…”
Jer followed Brian’s gaze to Santa’s bag. Matt was kneeling over it in awe. Jer’s bow and quiver. Matt’s sword and shield. Brian’s war hammer. They were all back inside.
Despite himself, Jer smiled. Matt grabbed his sword and tightened his shield.
“Okay then,” Jer said. “Let’s find that kelpie.”