“Momma, it’s cold and wet here.” Brahan had been complaining piteously throughout the length of the trip, pulling uncomfortably at his clothes.
“Oh, be silent do. You don’t like anywhere,” Debora snapped at her younger brother, butting at him with her fur hand muff.
“Doesn’t bother me,” Madeleine piped up, although her furry hat was pulled as tight as she could make it down over her ears. As the youngest, she was often trying all too hard to emulate her oldest sibling in being entirely unflappable.
Laura smiled to herself, adjusting the stole at her shoulders as she watched the soggy Welsh countryside slowly go by. “The ride is almost over, won’t be long now dear ones.”
Sure enough, only moments later, the carriage crossed from the dense and damp forest to a slightly more cleared area. There were houses here, though few seemed to have been inhabited for any length of recent time, the larger residences being mostly collapsed in disuse and neglect or being drawn back into the body of the surrounding forest.
“This was your home, Momma?”
Laura looked over at Debora, as always startled by the wide green stare of her black-haired daughter. “Yes, dear heart, though it looked much different when I did. The houses were all full and the forest was pushed well back from the village borders.”
Brahan glanced around, bemused. “What happened?”
“Bad things. Very bad things.”
The coach rolled to a stop and Laura accepted the help of the driver to climb out, the children piling out behind her. The bags containing their meager belongings were deposited beside them in relatively polite but unceremonious action.
“Driver, I’m told you come here fairly regularly. Can you tell me if Jakob Rees still lives on here?”
“Jakob Rees?” The driver chewed toothlessly on the name for a moment before the wrinkles in his face smoothed in recognition. “Oh! You mean Ole Jake, on the edge of town? Yar, yar, lass...he still lived in the last cabin by the river for many a year, so far as I know.”
“My thanks.” Laura passed the man an extra couple of coins for his trouble, lifted her bags and set off. Behind her, she felt rather than heard or saw the three children collect their own bags and follow along in her wake down the softly packed mud fairway of the village. Fortunately, the main village, which had clearly never been large, was incredibly small and as a result they broke out to the forest quickly, allowing for more dense undergrowth and moss underfoot that actually provided better traction. Eventually, Laura could hear the distant sound of the river rushing through the forst, so she knew they were close. Sure enough, her father’s small cabin, with goat pens along one side and small vegetable garden on the other came into view. A lamp lit in the window revealed a figure rising from within and a moment later the door swung open.
“Lowri, my dear girl! Welcome home, lass!”
Jakob Rees took in the three children arriving behind her. “So, these are the little’uns, then?”
“Yes Father, unless I’ve been followed all the way from Scotland by changelings or spirits.”
“Don’t jest, lass,” Jakob blanched. “Especially not here.”
“What’s wrong with here?” Debora wanted to know.
“Never you mind for now, young lady. We’ll get settled in and then we’ll worry about such things.”
It took several hours to “settle in” to Laura’s childhood home, which since she had lived there, her father had added two more rooms to over the years, but had done little else to prepare for their arrival. The extra rooms were cleared out and pallets laid in one for the children; Laura took the other room for herself at her father’s insistence, as he claimed he was used to sleeping in a chair in the main living area anyway. Then it was time for dinner, which consisted mostly of fish Jakob had caught early that morning and a handful of tubers pulled from his garden, washed in the river and boiled.
They sat together, the entirety of the Rees family, around the large table bridging the cooking area and the living area. Jakob said grace while the children and Laura sat quietly, their heads lowered respectfully.
“Amen.” Jakob finished, then looked up at the lowered heads around the table. “You don’t speak Grace anymore, Lowri?”
“I admit I’m out of the habit, Father.”
Jakob sighed. “And the children? What of them?”
“We’ve never said Grace, sir, but Momma taught us to be respectful of the people who do.” Debora piped up.
“Did she indeed.” Jakob’s tone was flat, though he seemed grudgingly accepting as he passed the plates of food around the table. “That’s well and good, I suppose.”
Dinner ended up being a very quiet affair.
Later, after the children had been put to bed, Laura sat with her father in the main room of the cottage, sipping a small glass of wine he’d poured for her while he nursed a tumbler of whisky that he kept refilling before it ever emptied.
“I’m taking them tomorrow,” Laura blurted at length.
Her father grimaced at her over he the rim of his glass. “You think still think it’s a good idea?”
“It’s as good an idea as any, I suppose. If they grow up not knowing, how much damage might that ultimately do?”
Jakob put his glass down with a sigh. “They don’t seem...I don’t know, they just seem like children.”
“They are children, Father.”
“Do you want me to come along?” Jakob’s tone suggest he was of two minds whether he actually wanted to come along or not.
Laura thought for a long few breaths, rolling the dregs of wine left in her glass while she contemplated her father in her peripheral vision. “I would like you there, Father. You were there, you were part of what happened. Is there even anyone else left in the village that can say that?”
“There are few enough people left in the village at all,” Jakob set his glass down; he glanced wistfully at the whisky bottle, which was now mostly empty. “After all the deaths, many people just wanted to go elsewhere, just forget what happened here.”
“I can understand that.”
Jakob guffawed, raw and grating. “I expected you might.”
“I wasn’t running from you, Father.” Laura put her glass down, fixing her father with a
stare she typically reserved for her children when they were being obstinate or suitors being overly aggressive. “None of what happened was your fault. It was placed in the hands of Providence from the outset.”
Jakob blanched, turning his face away. “That’s what Brother Dolan wanted everyone to think. He had always set his sights on you, though.”
That gave Laura a moment’s pause. “He rigged the drawing?”
“The drawing never really happened. Only a handful of us ever knew. Father Taliesin, myself, Brother Dolan, the Widow. Without your mother...I wasn’t strong enough to say no. My voice alone wasn’t enough to dissuade them and Brother Dolan was particularly insistent that it must be you.”
She felt her face harden into a mask, behind which her mind whorled in thought. “You don’t need to go tomorrow, Father. I’ll do this on my own. Excuse me, I think I’ll take a walk by the river to clear my mind.”
Laura ignored the haunted expression on her father’s face as she rose and exited the cabin. She took a deep, shuddering breath of the chill, moist night air before turning sharply and following the babbling sound of running water into the short strip of forest separating her father’s property from the river defining the eastern limits of the village.
The river had changed little since her youth, though the moonlight and glittering reflection of stars made it’s black fluidity seem curiously magical, like a strip of the night sky poured down to flow upon the earth. Laura hugged herself, shivering with memory as she thought back to the spring before she left her home, her father, and even her name behind.
The spring warm snap had come early that year, only a week after one of the most brutal blizzards in living memory, and after that came the flood. The river that skirted the edge of the little Welsh village erupted from an exuberant tickle that barely rose above the ankles to rushing torrent that swept away whole clumps of farmland, livestock, and of course human lives.
It was shortly after the rains and snowmelt stopped feeding the river that the first body was found. A trapper who lived on the edges of the village found his daughter on the river bank, a little downstream from his home. She’d been drowned, that much was obvious. The abrasions on her hands and wrists, those were less easy to identify and it was clear she’d been gnawed upon by some animal or another, though most animals avoided water-drowned corpses.
The elders of the village muttered amongst themselves.
Three days later, a young man’s body was found a bit further downstream, closer to the village. Drowned, abraded, gnawed upon yet again. In less than a week, three more villagers died the same way. Everyone was warned to avoid the river, though the village elders remained tight lipped about what they thought was killing their neighbors.
The arrangement was made quietly and when Lowri returned to the house after a long day working around her father’s farmstead, she found the village elders clustered within the tiny, one room shack she and her father shared: Father Talisan, the chief village elder who was not a man of the cloth, but everyone treated with the sort of reverence as though he did; Brother Dolan, the village’s one concrete connection to the Holy Mother Church; the fraternal twins Rhodri and Madoc, the patriarchal Janus that held the most property and economic influence in the village; and the old widow Arianell, a woman considered mad by many, marked by her sweeping mane of made grey hair and her piercing gray stare that often quelled even the most outspoken of her detractors.
Amongst them, at the head of the small dining table, sat Lowri’s father, Jakob. Years of working on their small farmstead had left his face weathered and his hair sun-bleached to an auburn, but he looked like a stripling in comparison to the leathery faces, balded pates and hunched postures of those around him.
“Hello, everyone. To what do we owe the honor of this visit?”
Most of the elders’ faces were wooden as they took in her greeting, muttering inarticulate responses, their eyes shying away from Lowri and her own father’s gaze dropped to the table as though in shame; Brother Dolan stared at her with a strangely feverish expression, his mouth quirked in a strange smirk while Arianell simply stared at the young girl, seemingly unphased by either Lowri’s bright greeting or whatever concerns burdened the remainder of the company.
“Lowri…” Jakob struggled to speak, his voice thick. “The Elders here assembled believe they know the nature of what has befouled our river and preyed upon our neighbors.”
“It’s blasphemous, superstitious nonsense,” Brother Dolan snapped suddenly, but for all his bitterness there was no conviction in his tone.
“Phah!” Arianell barked a laugh of dry, dead autumn leaves underfoot. “You pray to a god you’ve never seen, revere his Son that you’ve never known, but the evidence lies directly in your path and you skirt around it like your pretending not to see a cow-pat in your path.”
“Aria, please.” Father Talisan waved one hand half-heartedly.
Brother Dolan rolled his eyes. “Fine, if we accept that an ungodly demon has infested our river, then I should send for an exorcism team from the Church, but what you plan is barbaric and savage!”
“‘Demon’? Phah! It is no more a demon than a rabbit is a demon, or a lion or a wolf, if you need your analogies more concise, Brother.”
Brother Dolan’s brows bunched high up his receded hairline. “Not a demon? If we believe this...fantasy of a monster living in our river, I am led to believe it ensnared villagers, dragged them into the river to their deaths and then feasted upon them! If that is not demonic…”
“And how different from any other predator is that, Brother? Only the fact that the kelpi preys on humans makes it truly different.”
Lowri frowned. “A kelpie? The old story of a water horse?”
“It is not just a story, lass.” Lowri’s father looked up. “ In years gone by, there have been many a story about kelpies preying on villages.”
“Only when the villages failed to leave out tribute for the kelpies to eat otherwise.” Arianell pointed out. “The Church frowned upon the practice, saw it as heretical and in league with Satan, and how well we know that where the Church frowns, the old ways disappear.”
Brother Dolan coloured with fury. “You’d blame the Church…”
“We’ve not time or energy to cast blame,” Father Talisan cut in, interrupting Arianell’s gathering rejoinder. “If we don’t want to lose any more of our neighbors to this creature’s hunger, we have to end it now. I’m sorry, Brother, but we cannot wait for the Church to intervene; the village might well be empty by the time anyeon shows up to help us.
“We need to act now.”
A cold chill crawled over Lowri’s skin as every head turned in her direction.
“What...what do you want me to do?”
The next morning, shortly after dawn, Lowri found herself squatting next to the river. Staring at the waters glistening with the wan morning light, she found it hard to imagine this shallow bit of the river harboring a murdering monster out of legend; here, the flow was barely larger than the depth of a stream. Father Taliesin and Widow Arianell had been certain, however.
“The attacks have simply worked their way down the course of the river,” Taliesin had said, the Widow nodding a grudging agreement. “ Your house comes closest next, so it’s fortuitous that you were chosen in the lots, as you or your father would likely have been the creature’s next targets anyway -”
“Fortuitous indeed,” Brother Dolan snapped, his voice thick with disgust as he had rounded on Lowri, his feverish face unnervingly close. “Make no mistake, girl, it was an act of Providence! Lowri here shall be the vessel of God’s own wrath upon this demon!”
“Don’t speak of things you are clearly ignorant of, Brother.” Widow Arianell thrusted the priest aside, her main of gray hair a swirling cloud of annoyance. She had leaned in close to Lowri, her voice little more than a whisper. “Listen closely, girl. The kelpie has a fierce hunger for virginal girls; not to eat like their other victims, no. They want...other things.”
“Carnal pleasures.” Brother Dolan seemed to try retain his air of disgust, but there was a heat underlying his voice and glittering in his eyes as he gazed at Lowri that turned her stomach.
“Yes,” Arianell turned a glare upon the priest, who looked away abruptly. “That hunger will force him to take a human form, if kelpie it truly is. Then, we can capture him so that he can be dealt with. Now, I will tell you what you need to do...”
Lowri, chill in her crouch at the edge of the river, remembered the old widow’s instructions, her stomach still queasy with anxiety. Gathering up her skirts along with her courage, she reached up and touched her womanhood, just enough to get a hint of her natural moisture, before hurriedly restoring her modesty. It felt like a weird arrangement all around, but Arianell had assured her it was the best way to draw the kelpie out of the water. Amongst the other elders of the village, only Brother Dolan seemed to take any interest in what Arianell had said, though Lowri rather wished he hadn’t been so intent.
Lifting her hand towards the river, Lowri knelt down and waited. The sun shifted in the sky minutely, but she quickly found herself growing bored and feeling not a little bit silly, kneeling in the muddy river bank, offering scented fingertips to the burbling river. The sounds of forest life continuing on as usual was a occasionally broken by the crackle of brush underfoot or the pop of a joint, betraying the fact that there were others hidden in wait in the woods around her.
Then, the forest grew suddenly and frighteningly still. Birds stopped in their song, the scurrying of animals in the underbrush stilled, even the wind in the trees seemed to abandon rustling the foliage. A queer sound, like a cross between a human scream of agony and a horse’s triumphant call over-rode the sound of the running stream before Lowri.
Without any further warning, an equine head burst forth from the stream, though the depth of the water should not have been able to harbor a creature of the size that reared up from the water’s surface. Hooves and body followed as a huge, horselike creature pulled itself up and for the first time, Lowir beheld a kelpie in all it’s mock-horse wonder.
It was monochromatically green, from its eyes, coat, skin all the way to its tail and main, though the shades grew darker at its hairier body parts. It’s great, goggling eyes were the brightest, though; a blazing green, full of a strange hunger as it beheld Lowri on the bank. Although mostly horse-like in structure, its mouth was full of long, jagged teeth entirely unlike any horse Lowri had ever seen and it’s hooves, instead of appearing to grow naturally, seemed to be hoove-like shaped rocks clenched in long, birdlike talons.
For all its strange appearance, the kelpie was as graceful as any member of the species it aped and it cantered towards Lowri, great wide nostrils flaring in her direction as it circled her with wary curiosity. To her astonishment the great beast trotted to the very edge of the river and, one by one, the claws holding its hooves released, dumping them like a person taking off their shoes.
Each discarded hoof caused a radical shift in the size and build of the kelpie; Lowri found herself wincing inwardly at the sounds of snapping bones and the unsettlingly silke sound of tearing flesh as the kelpie went through his transformation. Finally, he castoff his final hoof and instead of a great equine monster before her, Lowri found a middle aged man, gangly of limb and long of face but otherwise in apparent good health, standing naked before her, his manhood so large and engorged she through perhaps this was the only part of him that hadn’t been altered by the removal of his hooves.
Then, he began to move in her direction, his intent abundantly clear in his wide green eyes.
Now in a human form, the capture of the kelpie was a surprisingly easy task; the net, laced with iron filings, dropped from the trees above both Lowri and the kelpie. The kelpie, so intent he was on satisfying his hunger, wasn’t as quick as Lowri when the call was made. She rolled out from under the net as it fell and the heavy rope it was made from almost immediately bore the kelpie to the ground, screaming in shock and dismay.
The largest, most able bodied men in the village poured out of the woodline, crude cudgels and random farm implements bearing down on the kelpie was he lashed out, struggling to fight clear of the net. In his human form and weighted down as he was by the net, he was no match for the combined might of even a handful of villagers, all whom seemed to gather greater confidence with every stroke of their weapons, beating the beast down.
“You did well, girl,”
Lowri started, discovering Brother Dolan at her elbow; the heat in his eyes as he looked down at her reminded her horribly of the kelpie, but she forced herself to remain composed. “Thank you, Brother. But...what will be done with it now?”
“The Widow Arianell says its hooves must be destroyed so it can never regain its unnatural form. Then, the man it has become may be killed. In the meantime, the village smith has constructed an iron-wrought cage to hold the creature in. No one will have to fear this monster harming their friends, neighbors or loved ones again.”
She looked over to see her father striding up to put himself between her and the priest, casting an askance glance in the other man’s direction. “She’s done her part, Brother. I’m taking her home.”
Brother Dolan shrugged. “As you will.”
Over the next day, the village conspired upon how to put an end to the kelpie. Lowri wasn’t invited to the deliberations, though she’d been instrumental in his capture. She’d half expected that the creature would keep the whole village up all night, wailing to be free like any other captive anima;, but the barn where they’d place the cage and its monstrous occupant remained silent.
Curious, Lowri crept out just after dusk, sidling quietly through town and slipping into the barn past the drowsing guard posted outside the doors. The moment she entered the room, though, she froze in surprise.
There was a already another girl outside the kelpie’s cage, a girl Lowri didn’t recognize; given the tiny population of the village, it struck her as odd that there would be someone she didn’t recognize in the guarded barn where the kelpie was being held in his iron prison. Moving quietly closer, she could hear them arguing back and forth and realized that in spite of her diminutive size, it wasn’t a girl at all, but a very short woman grown. Her voice was low and rich, her body full of the curves of womanhood, but she was less than half Lowri’s height. What she had intially take for a long, loose shift of brown covering the woman turned out to be her very own hair, so long and full it covered her almost entirely from shoulders to ankles. The woman’s face was curiously flat, her eyes almost unnaturally large, far apart and narrowed in a deceptively calm fury.
“So it's just a coincidence that I find you here, amongst the mortals, caged as a man , of all things…” she was snarling at the kelpie, who for his own part was all but cowering in the cage, his face turned away from the heat of the woman’s rage. “What tale will you tell me about that?”
“They tricked me,” the kelpie responded piteously. His voice even cracked strangely, like a horse breaking its leg in a hole. “They lured me out with a virg -”
The woman rolled her eyes so hard her head actually jerked back in disgust. “I swear to Mab, if you tell me they lured you out with a virgin, I will leave you here to die.”
“I can’t help myself! It’s in my nature!”
“Your nature.” the woman echoed, her tone flat as her arms crossed under her breasts.
“You’re trapped in an iron cage all because you were lured by an unplowed cunt and in the meantime, our children starve waiting for you to come home with a soul to feed them…”
Lowri’s attempt to stifle her gasp failed and the woman turned to face her, her strange face twisted in a combination of annoyance and surprise, her eyes growing unnaturally wide. Then, her nose twitched and the woman’s eyes narrowed once again. Moving with sinuous speed that made Lowri’s legs went watery with horror, the little woman was abruptly standing directly before Lowri, glaring up at her as she sniffed at the young woman furiously.
“You...You’re untouched. Are you the sacrificial goat they used to draw my stupid husband out of his natural form?”
Unable to speak, Lowri simply nodded.
The woman turn her head this way and that, eyes so large and brown that there was barely any whites to be seen at all seeming to attempt to pierce Lowri’s very soul. Tiny nostrils flared absurdly fast, button nose twitching almost rodent-like.
“There’s naught special about you, besides you’ve never known the touch of a man. Why did they choose you?”
Lowri found she didn’t want to answer, but curiously, she didn’t seem able to help herself. “The parents of all the virginal girls of age in the village drew lots. My father lost.”
A derisive snort blew out hard enough to rustle Lowri’s hair. “Coincidence. That what you think it is? Poor luck that you were chosen?”
“You said I wasn’t anything special.”
The woman blinked; something almost akin to amusement twisted her lips. “That I did...but sometimes specialness isn’t about the person, but about the circumstances that person is put in. Come with me, my little goat.”
Again, Lowri felt the urge to resist. Indeed she suddenly wanted to flee from the barn, wanted nothing to do with this strange woman and the kelpie or even her own home village any longer. Instead she felt her feet dragged along as the woman sharply turn about and strode purposefully out of the back of the barn.
The pace the woman set didn’t seem fast at first, her stride deceptively slow and deliberate, but she moved through the undergrowth in an effortless fashion Lowri couldn’t emulate. Soon, Lowri was all but running to keep up. As a result, it wasn’t long before they drew up short along the riverbank.
Lowri staggered to a stop beside her guide, thankfully feeling the urge to drag herself along drain away. “What are we doing here?”
A strange, high pitch sound unlike anything Lowri thought humans would be capable of making erupted from inside the woman, who otherwise ignored her with her eyes intent on the softly rushing waters of the river. Gradually, to Lowri’s astonishment, river began to stall; upstream and downstream the current appeared to continue naturally, but directly before Lowri and the strange woman, the water grew queerly still, the surface eventually becoming as still as glass.
The woman barked again, this time in a different tone; three long, furry bodies abruptly emerged from the river. Although Lowri could not remember ever seeing one, she’d heard tell that otters were once endemic in the streams and rivers and these little creatures matched the description she’d been given: long, sinuous bodies covered in slicked fur, looking at once part beaver, part rat with wide, blunt heads, all of which were looking up expectantly at the woman.
“My God,” Lowri whispered, an old story she barely remember from the days when her mother still lived surfacing in her memory. “You’re an otter-wife.”
“Ah, so there are some of you that still remember,” the otter-wife snarled, her mouth twisted as though tasting something bitter. “Someone certainly remembered kelpie’s and their weaknesses well enough.”
“Wait...how is a kelpie your husband?”
“How not?” the otter-wife snapped, though her tone had little true aggression in it, only a certain air of weariness. “When the Emissaries of the One God came and stamped out the old traditions, so many were lost; the selchie, the otter-wives, the ettins, the kelpie. Some of us were outright killed for what we were, others were killed for their skins as though they were simple animals, many simply starved, refusing to sup on flesh where good will had failed.”
Lowri frowned. “The old traditions of leaving out food…”
“The food itself wasn’t really what sustained us; after all, we can feed ourselves on plain, mundane fare as much as any physical being. But to maintain what we are, to not become lost in our skins, it was the good will, the spirit of generosity and neighborliness that we fed upon.”
The otter-wife glowered, heat returning to her anger. “And your precious church saw those old traditions as ‘superstitions’ to be erased, saw my family as demons to be destroyed, even viewed our very memories as blasphemy.
“So yes, now a kelpie is my husband and I was forced to take this form to couple with him to conceive my pups, much though I hate how ungainly it is and how brutish he is in either form. It was the only option I was left with to survive.”
“But why did that mean the kelp - uh, your husband had to kill our neighbors?”
“Gods above and below, do those priests truly teach you nothing?” The otter-wife hung her head, shaking it slowly before turning to appraise Lowri. Her eyes were sad now, the heat of her anger expended. “Good will is an extension of soul, child. It is faith which feeds us just as it feeds your One God. Without those cast-offs given to us willingly, we were forced to take it...which isn’t as satisfying or as appetising, frankly, but when you’re starving, you take what you can get.”
Lowri frowned. “How have you lasted so long? It’s been so many years since people followed the traditions you say kept you alive…”
“Time doesn’t work the same behind the Reflection in the water,” the otter-wife replied; her tone suggested it was a matter-of-fact subject. “I couldn’t tell you how many years it might actually have been since we last surfaced from the safety of the Reflection, but I do know that it’s been months since we returned. Everywhere we’ve traveled, the story has been the same: no offerings of goodwill anywhere we looked. By the time we’d made our way along the river here, we were desperate to feed our pups.
“Now, if I can even get my husband out of that hateful cage your neighbors have placed him in, we’ll have to move on, probably back into the water’s reflection and surface yet again who knows how many years down the line in a different body of water looking for -”
The three pups squealed in horror, hurling themselves back into the water. Lowri turned to look at the otter-wife; her eyes met the fae creature’s. Together, they looked down at her chest to see something long and sharp poking out of it. The otter-wife’s blood glistened on the tip of a boar-spear, held at the other end of it’s long shaft by Brother Dolan.
“You’ll not be going anywhere or inspiring any more murder for your demonic offspring,
witch,” the priest snarled, his face twisted in a monstrous snarl.
The otter-wife glanced back at Lowri, her eyes pleading as she whispered to her. “Don’t let my children starve, little goat. Please -”
Brother Dolan yanked the boar spear loose with a vicious twist, cutting off the otter-wife’s final words. Her body collapsed bonelessly to the ground and, to Lowri’s astonishment, remained a woman. It didn’t burst into flames or rot away instantly or even turn back into an otter. The dead otter-wife looked like little more than a child’s corpse.
“Soon, her ‘husband’ as she put it, will meet her same fate.” Brother Dolan spat on the tiny, lifeless form. “Feeding on souls, cast aspersions upon the Lord and the Church. Burn in Hell for eternity, Satan spawn.”
The priest turned to leave and seemed to only remember Lowri just before nearly trampling her. “You’d best head home, Lowri. You lured the kelpie out of the river and even managed to draw out his demonic mate. I think you’ve done more than enough.”
Lowri felt her expression harden into a mask. “Yes. I suppose I have.”
That night, the bulk of the villagers gathered at Father Taliesin’s home to determine the best way to do away with the still living kelpie and body of his dead otter-wife. Lowri found herself left alone; many of the villagers were actually regarding her with a reluctant sense of awe for having been in the presence of both the murderous kelpie and his otter-wife. It was almost as though they feared she’d been infected somehow by the association.
Wandering away from arguments over whether killing with iron as sufficient, whether flames or salt were more effective and if prayers of last rites would have any impact at all, Lowri found herself wandering back to the barn and the caged kelpie. They hadn’t bothered setting a guard after Brother Dolan murdered the otter-wife, presuming that without his mate, there was no one left who cared what happened to the murderous water-horse.
Slipping inside, Lowri beheld the kelpie, sitting on the floor of his cage, his arms wrapped around his crooked knees, his head hung between them. Although she made precious little sound, his head jerked up as she approached.
“So. It’s done then. She’s dead.”
His great green eyes were raw with grief already,his woeful expression jerked at her heart; the lump in her throat forced her to respond with nothing more than a sharp nod.
“Was...was she wearing her skin when she died?”
Lowri blinked. “What?”
The kelpie’s expression hardened minutely with irritation. “Was she wearing her skin when she died. Was she otter or was she human?”
“She was human.”
Lifting his head, the kelpie’s mouth widened in an agonized, silent scream of agony before dropping back to his previous, helpless hanging. “Died...outside her own skin. Murdered as a human. She was right all along. Loving me was her undoing.”
“Your children yet live.”
The kelpie pulled his head up enough to glower at Lowri. “Do you truly desire so much to see me suffer that you would mock me so?”
“It is no mockery,” Lowri rejoined tartly. “My God teaches me to speak truth in all things. I do not lie when I say all three of your pups live.”
“I cannot decide if it a generosity or a cruelty to know, though I thank you all the same.” the kelpie pulled his head up straight, staring out at nothing. “They will starve without tokens of mortal goodwill or souls ripped from my victims to sustain them. They will simply die a slower death.”
The kelpie’s expression grew thoughtful and canny; gradually, his gaze focused back on Lowri.
“But my wife’s skin is still out there...so there is yet hope.”
Laura blinked away tears, forcing her mind away from the agonizing hours of the kelpie’s death. There was no time to mourn the long dead; that was something she’d done enough of already and done it years ago. It was time to take care of the living.
It was morning now; beside her the three children looked up at her expectantly.
“Why are we here, Mother?” Debora wanted to know.
“To see whose children you really are.”
Walking to the edge of the riverbank, Laura dug around in the and loose stone until she touched something that felt ridged and oddly warm in contrast to the cool river waters. One by one, she dragged out four irregular stone shapes that looked a bit like large clam shells and place them in the water in a square.
Brahan let out out a squeal, springing forward and leaping upon the stones with a sudden burst of delight, as though he’d been offered a new toy. Laura, Debora and Madalaine looked on as the young boy’s clothes nigh exploded off him as his hands and feet grasped the stones. In seconds, where once Laura’s son stood, now a greenish creature looking much like an equine yearling stood in his place. Less monstrous than the kelpie, Brahan’s fanged mouth looked more natural than haphazard and jagged, his coat was both thicker and more slick, the hair on his main and tail shorter, but his tail itself longer.
“Girls, it’s time to put on your skins.” Laura said quietly, watching as Brahan danced gracefully around in the water, taking joy in his long, powerful limbs.
Debora’s hands vanished into the fur stole she’d been carrying, followed rapidly by her arms, neck and then her body entirely; Madalaine likewise pulled her furry hat down over her face, her shoulders and all the way down her body. In moments, where two young girls had once stood, now a pair of thick, sinuous otters crouched on the ground in dresses left in loose piles, looking up at Laura curiously.
But Laura was gone as well, a much larger otter wriggling free of the dress she’d been wearing and fitting herself tightly into what moments before had been a large fur stole. The otter gave a sharp bark and the waters of the river stilled. Leaving their human lives behind like the castoff clothes on the river bank, Lowri Rees and the children she’d unwittingly helped orphan disappeared behind the Reflection of the Water, away from the cruel world of man which no longer knew how to gift goodwill.