They named her wrong. Humans always get names wrong.
Her mother threw herself from the flat-tired car and stumbled to my loch. She and the baby were craving the feel of water and she collapsed in the banks with her feet submerged. A man followed, yelling that it was too dark, too dangerous. She was reckless and wilful and continued as if she had not heard.
The first thing those swamp coloured eyes saw was the faint, luminous green ribbon in the sky 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?’
‘Beira’ I answer, ‘after the queen and goddess for you have the same spirit’
‘Well, my parents could hardly have known what spirit I had.’
They left my blood-stained water and fourteen years passed before I saw her again. She had rejected 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 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 wanting. He was 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 with singed wings.
‘Just admit it; you were jealous.’
‘Maybe a little.’
I grazed the boy’s 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 struggled 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 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 in a proud voice. Her wrath was like a thunderstorm, like watching lightening crack the sky; captivating and beautifully dangerous. 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 could barely name themselves and now they were trying to name me.
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 find a way to destroy you.’
I laughed, as well as a horse can laugh. Humans have begged and bargained and bled for me, but a threat? That was new. 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.
Still, I loosened my grip on the boy. 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.
‘Will 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. 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 uncertain. 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 everything I possessed, she was more. I was lovely and wild as the loch and she was like the ocean; breath-taking and indomitable. Even the light loved her; the sun cast the last of its scarlet and gold rays onto her, an early moon flickered weakly and stars fought to pierce through the sky, all desperate to touch her.
‘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 as we spoke like old friends.
‘Will you stay with me?’ I asked her at daybreak.
She smiled and brushed a kiss against my cheek, soft as a feather and scorching as a flame, ‘No.’
She visited me often over the years. Every dawn I asked her to stay and always she refused. My hope was shatterproof until one frost-kissed winter morning.
‘Will you stay with me?’ I asked.
She hesitated, running her fingers through the glittering frozen grass, ‘I’m moving away tomorrow. I won’t be back for a long time.’
I felt as though my heart was withering, as though winter had pierced inside me with an icy talon, ‘you’re leaving?’
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 all those 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 won’t make any promises. I want to see the whole world and that will take a long time.’
‘Tell me, what is the price to make you return? 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. Nothing has ever hurt more than saying goodbye.
Hers is a story of adventure; of voyages to distant lands, of spice and dances, of mountains and caverns, of a resilient heart racing and skipping and breaking time and time again, of a life lived fearlessly and absolutely.
Mine is a story of waiting.
I was not lonely; I knew that she would return. When others came to the loch, I did not beseech them to stay. I stretched myself into the water and counted every silvery winter daybreak and golden summer dawn, each one bringing me a day closer to seeing her again.
I had counted twenty-nine thousand nine hundred and thirty when I saw a frail figure approach the loch. Her hair was moon-silver, falling long and loose down her back. A stray curl drifted in the breeze, stroking her crumpled-silk skin. 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, will you stay?’
And then, in the water she was born in, she died.
‘You’re not ending the story there are you?’
‘Of course not.’
My oath was made in blood and so unbreakable.
Even though she had died, my wait was not over.
I waited and waited with nothing to wait for.
I heard whispers about the spirit of the loch, how he stole girls and drowned them to replace his lost love.
It wasn’t true. I was tempted to grab hold of those who came to my loch, those with defiant spirits and sweet voices. I searched their eyes for swamps and found only jade forests and chocolate buttons. Sometimes I pulled them into the water and I didn’t want to let go. But what I had lost could never be replaced and I released them to the surface.
They said my cries could be heard in the wind. That one was true.
One day I was floating on the water, human-shaped and lost to dreams. I imagined a song floating on the breeze, one I had heard long ago. I imagined I could see her the way she was when I made my promise, 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, ‘so now I can come back to you.’
I stood, sinking my feet into the course sand, ‘this is no dream.’
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.
‘Will you stay with me?’
‘I thought you’d never ask.’