They named her wrong. Humans always get names wrong.
Her mother threw herself from the flat-tired car and stumbled to my loch. She or the baby or maybe both were craving the feel of water, and she collapsed in the banks with her feet submerged. An agitated man followed, yelling that it was too dark and too dangerous. She was reckless and stubborn; I liked that.
The faint, luminous green ribbon in the night sky was first to catch her swamp coloured eyes and my own waters were the first to touch her soft fresh skin. The frantic lights of the ambulance flashed in fragments between the trees and the sirens harmonised with the baby’s cries as they decided on her name; Aurora for the sky above and Nimue for the sorceress that had called them to the loch.
‘What would you have named me?’ She asks.
‘Eirica’ I answer, ‘because you have the spirit and the disposition of a queen’
‘Well, my parents could hardly have known what disposition I’d have…or my spirit.’
They left my blood-stained water and fourteen years passed before I saw her again. She had grown to reject her name, as I knew she would, and she called herself Nim. She came with a blanket, a basket, and a boy. I stirred from my sleep, intrigued by the girl with walnut-brown curls and the laughter that the wind carried across the loch. She shied away from the sun, huddling into the shadows of the trees and turning her face away from the white-hot light. She gazed at the water; trailing ardent eyes from the glittering teal of my shallows to my dark sapphire depths. Had I been human, I might have blushed.
I knew who she was the moment her skin connected with the water. She still had swamps for eyes, murky green flecked with brown-
‘Stop saying my eyes are swamps!’
‘Swamps aren’t known for being pretty.’
‘I think they’re pretty.’
The boy joined her in the water, his skin prickling and muscles stiffening against the cold. They floated on their backs, fingers almost touching. She searched the clouds for castles and creatures, while he searched her face for a kiss.
He had too much earth in him, all bone and iron, and much too breakable. When I looked at her, I saw all the blinding stars as they had been before collapsing into dust, every path they had been scattered on throughout millennia before finding a way to make themselves human. Next to her radiance, he was little more than a moth and his wings were already singed.
‘Just admit it; you were jealous.’
‘Maybe a little.’
I grazed his bare ankle with a flick of some underwater shrub. He yelped and kicked, and I tangled his feet with the slippery weeds He thrashed and beat the waters’ surface with his fists and I pulled him under. His lungs ached as he tugged at the knots around his legs. I left him and emerged at the waters’ edge.
My shape was that of a horse, slick and black and beautiful. I liked that shape; it felt strong. I can’t say what I expected; perhaps that she would run to me and wrap her arms around my neck and leap onto my back and let me carry her into the deep forever. Many before her had been enraptured and had gladly followed me; albeit to their graves. Humans die too easily, but not this one – I was sure of it.
She searched the water for the boy, and I worried that she hadn’t noticed me. I huffed impatiently, scuffing the damp dirt under my hoof.
Finally, she looked up.
‘Let him go,’ she demanded, her voice proud and compelling. Her wrath was like a thunderstorm, like watching lightening crack the sky; captivating in its beautiful danger. She was a tempest made human as she emerged from my loch, hair dripping, clothes clinging tight and a seaweed circlet on her head.
‘I know what you are,’ she told me, lifting her chin and straightening her back, ‘and you don’t frighten me – kelpie.’
I snorted. Humans were even trying to name me now. I reached out to her with my mind, spirit finding spirit, ‘What will you give me in return?’
‘I will give you nothing. You will release him because if you do not, I will become your enemy.’
I laughed, as well as a horse can laugh. Humans have begged and bargained and bled for me, but never has any tried to threaten me. She was only a child with a wild and stubborn glare, so sure that her words could make a spirit of the loch tremble at the knees. She amused me. She intrigued me. I loosened my grip on the boy and he burst through the surface, gasping and spluttering. She didn’t go to him right away, mooring me in the swamp of her eyes, daring me to break away.
‘Would you stay with me?’ I asked her.
Her steel expression flickered in surprise. The corner of her mouth twitched, almost a smile, and it felt like finding a fleck of gold in the muddy banks.
‘What would you give me to stay?’
Oh, she was clever.
Her teeth gleamed like pearls, ‘Would you give me all the water of the loch, carried to me in a sieve? Would you scavenge seven pure-white pebbles, perfectly round and smooth as silk? Or perhaps sew a dress for me made of dandelion seeds?’
‘You know the stories, so you know that it is the human that performs impossible tasks. Feats that separate the ordinary from the extraordinary.’
‘I don’t need to prove anything,’ she stepped close and rose up on her toes, her voice a whisper in my ear ‘If you really thought I was ordinary, you wouldn’t want me.’
It was another two years before she returned to me. I woke to a song echoing through the dusk. The sun was bleeding, drops of brilliant red light spilling from the sky into the water, and a blanket of darkest blue fell on the fiery embers of the day. Her voice was haunting and lovely, like a lost gull at sea calling out for-
‘Come on, seriously?’
‘What? I thought humans liked the sound of birds.’
‘Seagulls sound awful. They’re famously awful.’
I took the shape of a man, and for the first time in my long life, I felt insecure. I had dark hair and dark eyes and long, dark lashes and my skin was tinged blue. I knew how others were entranced by this form, but what beauty could I really achieve when I was next to her? Even the light loved her; the sun cast the last of its scarlet and gold rays onto her as an early moon flickered weakly and stars fought to pierce through the sky.
‘Hello, kelpie,’ she said, her voice as sweet as long-awaited rain.
She stayed with me long into the night, blindly weaving a crown of long grass and daisies as we spoke like old friends.
‘Would you stay?’ I asked her when the earliest bird whistled, signally the resurrection of the sun.
She smiled and brushed a kiss against my cheek, soft as a feather though it burned my skin, ‘No.’
She visited me often over the next year. Each dawn I asked her to stay and always she refused. Then, one day, she sought to break my heart.
‘Well, that’s not true at all.’
‘But you did.’
‘Would you stay?’ I asked her, with resilient hope.
She hesitated, ‘I’m moving away tomorrow. I won’t be able to come back for a long time.’
I felt as though my heart was withering, her words as grim as winter, ‘You’re leaving?’
I foraged fruitlessly for the words that might persuade her to stay. Instead, I reached into my pockets and drew out four smooth, round pebbles as white as fresh snow and a pouch filled with delicate dandelion seeds.
‘I began the tasks you set for me three years ago. When I complete them, will you come back? Will you stay?’
She smiled at me, a mist falling over her strange and lovely swamp-eyes, ‘I can’t spend my whole life in the same place I was born. I need to explore as much of the world as I can.’
‘But then you will come back. Tell me, what is the price to make you stay?’
She shook her head, ‘I ask you for nothing. I won’t have you waiting for me.’
‘I will wait however long it takes. Time is nothing to me. There is nothing I wouldn’t do. I swear to you,’ I drew a nail across the palm of my hand, allowing droplets of blue blood to seep through the slit in my skin and dissolve in the water, ‘I will wait a hundred years for you to return.’
‘A hundred years is too long!’
‘My oath is made.’
She sighed and wrapped her arms around my neck. A knife embedded in my chest would have hurt less than saying goodbye.
My long wait began. Many others came by the loch, but I beseeched none to stay. The knowledge, the hope, that she would one day return to me was enough to subdue my loneliness. I rarely took shape above the water, stretching myself into gentle waves. I counted each sunrise; each silvery winter daybreak and golden summer dawn. Each one was a day closer to seeing her again.
I had counted 29,930 when I saw a frail figure approach the loch. Her hair was moon-silver, falling loose down her back. A stray curl drifted in the breeze, stroking her crumpled-silk skin. Nothing had ever looked so beautiful. Her swamp-eyes creased as she smiled and I shifted into shape, running towards her.
‘Nim!’ I lifted her into my arms and spun her around, the water rippling around us.
She stumbled as I set her down, leaning into me with a shiver.
‘I am far too old for that,’ she laughed through laboured breaths.
Her legs shook and I sunk to my knees in the water, cradling her delicate frame in my arms. She rested her head on my shoulder.
‘You are early,’ I told her.
‘Then why do I feel so late?’
Her eyelids fluttered shut and her chest stilled.
‘Nim? Nim, would you stay?’
She was born into the cool water of my loch and 99 years later she died in it.
‘You’re not ending the story there are you?’
‘Of course not.’
I had vowed to wait a hundred years for her to return. Even if she had come back to me early, come back to die in my arms, I wouldn’t break my oath. I waited and waited. I saved lost souls from drowning in my loch, hearing her last breaths in every human that passed my way, unable to bear losing her again. I waited.
When my hundred years had come to an end, I shifted into a human shape and drifted on the waters’ surface, wondering how my story would end. I had heard humans whisper about my loch and about the water spirit, the kelpie, that mourned his lost lover. They said that my cries could be heard in the wind. They said that I would steal girls and drown them, hoping to replace the one I had lost.
I imagined a song floating on the breeze, a song once sung by the only person who hadn’t feared me. I imagined I could see her the way she was when I made my vow, stepping into the water, her eyes like swamps, so deep and strange that I could get lost in them.
‘You’ve waited a hundred years,’ the vision said, ‘and now I return.’
I stood, sinking my feet into the rocks, ‘this is no vision.’
She laughed, as sweet as rain. She wore a thin dress sewn from dandelion seeds, one I had crafted many years before, and a crown of dried seaweed embedded with seven pure-white pebbles.
‘I suppose you haven’t figured out how to carry the water in a sieve,’ she smiled, ‘but I’m happy just to live in it.’
I waded slowly towards her, breaking into a run as the water crashed around me, rushing to reach her before she could disappear again. I collided into her solid frame, my hands burying into her walnut-brown curls as I finally, finally, finally kissed her.
‘Would you stay with me?’
‘I thought you’d never ask.’