The Smith and the Water-Horse
by S. J. McKenzie
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
The next day passed slowly at the house by Loch Arnish. Megan was confined to the bedroom, with Ian to keep watch over her in case she attempted an escape. Cullen went down into the village to find out more about the strange boy.
None there knew of him, and this was good news, for at least he could prove to Megan that the boy was a liar, and had not been working, as he had claimed. He knew if he told her that Emmet was not really a boy at all, she would refuse to believe him, and would think it to be another way of “keeping her a prisoner,” as she had called it last night. “You will keep me here forever!” she had screamed, as they locked her into the children’s room. “You will never let go of me. I’d rather be dead.”
But now he thought he might have found a way to persuade her that the boy was simply a petty thief, cut loose from his family. His spirits were lifted by this, and he found himself imaging a new life for all of them, in particular his daughter, who he would send to his uncle’s house on Skye, to be with his many relatives in Portree. But he was jolted out of this reverie by Ian, who came racing up the road toward him, and said as soon as he could draw breath: “She’s gone! She’s gone!”
It became clear in no time that the monster had tricked his son. “I heard one of the ewes calling out as though she were being attacked,” said Ian, “and I thought the creature might have come up all the way to the top fields. But I ran out and found nothing amiss. When I got back, I heard a horse racing away from the house, and Megan was gone from her room. I’m so sorry.” The boy was in tears now.
“Never mind your being sorry,” said Cullen. “We must get down to the bay. That’s where he’ll take her.” And they ran as fast as could be, young Ian soon stretching away from his father over the turf and breaking over the top of the rise so that he could see down to the loch.
By the time Cullen came down to the shore, his son was not to be seen, and Cullen ran about calling for him, thinking that the water horse might have taken him, too. But then he saw the boy swimming about frantically in the bay. Cullen signalled to him and after a time, he swam back to the land, but he was shaking too much to speak, and it was some time later before he could tell his father what he had seen.
“She was on the back of the horse, a great black one. The boy was nowhere in sight. I thought at first she was riding off to meet him at the other end of the loch, but then the horse turned, straight for the water. I could hear her screaming, and trying to get down from its back, but she couldn’t get loose from it, and it was quick as lightning. One minute it rode along the beach, the next minute, she was deep in the loch.” He pointed down to the spot were the horse had ridden out. “They disappeared. I couldn’t find her, and she’s not come out.”
They found her later on in the evening, just as the sun was setting, floating gently back to shore. Her face was peaceful, but her body was like that of the ewe. Ian cried for hours, but the smith could not mourn her yet. All his grief had been drawn out of him at the drowning of his wife seven years before, and there was nothing in him now but cold and determined rage. “I will see you in the morning, Ian. We shall have some vengeance tomorrow,” he said, and he went to his smithy, and worked there all night, and most of the following day.
* * *
“Look there, in the water,” said Ian.
Cullen looked out upon the loch bathed in starshine. The night was cold and clear, the wind was low, and so still was the water that the orb of the moon was almost perfect in the sea. But in one place, a column of steaming mist arose, as though something below were causing a great heat.
“I see nothing but the fog there,” he sad as they peered out from their rocky hiding place.
“There, swimming out near to it,” said his son.
Now Cullen saw it; a black shape, far too big to be an otter, swimming purposefully toward the shore. As it swam through the moon, a horse’s head could be seen above the silver water. “Ah,” said the smith. “Damn that old priest. I knew it was a water-horse all along.” And he thought bitterly about the many times in his life when his words had not been heeded, although they had later proved to be right. But then he thought that his daughter might say the same of him; that he never listened to her. And her last words came back to him: “I’d rather be dead.”
“Here he comes, up to the shore now,” said Ian, and then drew breath, for the smith’s son did not know as much of the old ways as did his father, and was expecting the great black horse they had seen the night before. What they saw instead was the true form of the thing: a creature in the shape of a man but far larger, gaunt and lean and twisted, its body covered all over with black shaggy hair, except about its cruel and ugly face, on which there was a livid red covering of hide.
As it moved closer to the bait they had laid out on the beach below them, they could hear it talking to itself in a low voice. “First the ewe, and now the lamb! There’s many ways to fool the ram!” it said. And then Cullen heard its whinnying laugh, for what was to be the final time.
At this, he felt hot anger surge though him, loosing the bitter bonds of winter that held his heart. It was the water horse that had been fooled, this time. For all its guile, it was unable to resist the smell of cooked meat, and had gone straight for the dead lamb, which they had roasted on a small forge lying hidden in the rocks behind them. Many hours they had spent, dragging down the forge from the smithy, getting it lit despite the wind of the afternoon, and making sure all was ready for the creature’s coming that night.
“Now, PULL!” roared Cullen as the creature lifted the bait, and they both heaved away on ropes that ran down from the rocks to the beach. The ropes flashed upward in unison from just beneath the sand and nooses fastened tight around the legs of the creature, which whinnied again, but this time in panic as it fell to the beach and could not draw itself up. Quickly they tied the ropes to the forge, and then they drew out from it two great hooks, red hot at the ends, which they wielded upon steel chains and carried in great thick canvas gloves.
Down to the creature they ran, and just in time, for it was beginning its transformation into the shape of a man, so that it might escape its bonds, and it was giving off an unearthly heat as it did so. Steam was rising from it, as its hair fell away into the sand, is limbs straightened, and its features slowly shifted into those of the young boy who had stood in the smith’s cottage two nights before. In a moment, it might have been able to slip the nooses from its slender legs and run free.
But it did not have a moment. They swung their chains and plunged the red hot iron hooks into its flanks, screaming as they did. There was an agonised cry from the water-horse as great jets of steaming salty water came up from it and splashed all over the smith and his son. Undeterred, they set to it and drove the hooks in and out of its body as they screamed again in rage, triumph and sorrow. Soon the creature was dead, and its body no more than a battered pile of hair and bone, for all the rest of its strange substance had been drained out onto the sand.
“I found you, and today is your last,” was all the smith could say when they were done.
* * *
“It was here, Father. Last night.”
“So you say. But where is the proof?” said the minister.
“You have my word, and the word of my son. We killed it here, with these hooks you see.”
“Then where is its body?”
They stood on the sand in the place where the bones had lain. Now there was nothing but a pile of strange clear jelly, which the smith prodded with a hook. “Here. It has turned back to starshine. It is the stars that draw them out from the sea, I believe.”
“You are wrong to believe such things,” said the minister, an angry tone growing in his voice. “I would not chide you for having brought me all this way so early in the day, if there were something here to see. But once again you have no proof of what you say. This is not starshine, but the remains of a sea-jelly, or some creature of that sort.”
“But we saw it, Father.” The smith now sounded almost pitiful, so great was his desire to be believed.
The minister turned to him, a new tone in his voice. “I am sorry for your loss,” he said. “To lose both mother and daughter to the sea is beyond a man’s ability to bear and understand. Only God knows why this has transpired. It is to him you must turn for comfort, and he will come to you when you have put these old ways out of your mind.” And with that he turned away, and began walking back up the beach.
The smith turned and looked out towards the sea. From that day he no longer tried to be believed and understood by the priest, or any other person. He kept his silence, but he knew the truth of what had become of his wife and daughter, and he knew they had been avenged.
Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie