A man’s shift at the flour mill ended, and a woman approached to speak with him. He noticed sand in her hair and brushed it off. She blushed, dipping her head, embarrassed but thankful. The woman, a Scottish lass whose name she did not give, walked home with the man, admiring his work and how well he kept himself. As they neared his home, the woman, wishing to see more of him, told of a house she owned on an island. She wanted him to meet her there.
The man, not in possession of a boat, offered his home instead. She refused, stating a want of privacy and how much she loved the view. The woman informed him of two boats on the shore they could use to travel across the loch. Giving him their location, she told him how to find the island and left.
He rushed to his house and sought the finest clothes in his possession. He kicked off his boots, setting his dirk aside, and prepared for his engagement. As a hunter and a mill worker, he did not own much. The man wondered what he could bring that would be appropriate. What do women want? Food? Grain? The man wasn’t sure, but he’d heard tales of flowers and their potency for romance, yet he didn’t know where to find them this late into the season.
The man toiled over every detail, desperate to give her the best impression. He thought hard about this, searching for any location he may know of that could have flowers. An idea! He realized, throwing on his boots but forgetting to reholster his dirk.
Traveling to town, the man remembered a nearby floral shop and prayed it remained open so late. To his fortune, it was! As the man picked out the flowers, the shop owner asked who the flowers were for. The man told him about the woman on the island. The shop owner warned him, telling him a horrible story about a man’s liver found on a nearby shore, and he should be watchful for danger.
The man thought the warning odd but reassured the shopkeeper that he had a weapon and would be fine. He thanked the man for his warning, paid for the flowers, and left with great haste. The man was nearly at his destination when he realized he had forgotten his dirk but shrugged it off. What danger could one lass pose?
At the loch’s edge, the man spotted a boat beached on the shore. He found it peculiar that no marks from a second boat marred the beach, but perhaps she kept the other one elsewhere. He worried about her traveling alone, the store owner’s story fresh in his mind. In the fading light of night, he hopped aboard the tiny wooden craft, ignited his oil lamp, and began the journey.
Childhood tales of monsters and beasts in the water weighed on his mind as he rowed with the single oar, concerned for the woman’s safety. There were no signs of a boat on the water, nor had he heard any cries for help. Of course, she was fine, he reassured himself.
The gentle roll of the water brushed against his boat as he navigated the quiet loch. An object struck against his oar. The man pulled his pole out of the water, the lamp’s light illuminating the dark loch. Nothing swam nor moved beneath the surface. His mirrored reflection stared back at him as he watched the silvery waves. A fish, perhaps, he reassured himself, placing the oar into the water.
In the dark of the night, the island was scarcely visible. A single, lit window acted as a beacon, drawing him toward the hope and joy of his night, the beautiful woman awaiting his arrival. The man scanned the waters again, ensuring no creatures lay waiting beneath.
A feeling crept over his heart as his gaze wandered. A dread that something was amiss. The situation felt off, yet he couldn’t understand why. A feeling of unease pestered his brain like a gnat buzzing around his head.
He shrugged off the feeling and continued, rejecting the notion of childhood myths. How could he possibly be afraid of something so silly? He thought, pushing his oar through the water with more force than before.
The gentle waves of the loch remained undisturbed until an object splashed in the distance. Another boat? Or maybe a fish? He thought, searching the waters. The ripples caught his vessel in a soft sway. Lamp in hand, he scanned the murky void beneath him.
A white object caught his eye, and he struck it with his oar. The water shimmered as the white object further revealed itself to be the crescent moon uncovered by dark clouds. The man laughed at himself, shaking his head. Holding the lantern over the water, he took one last search of the loch. Something swam beneath his boat.
The man rowed the boat faster, keeping his senses keen for any disturbance in the water. Another disruption rippled against his craft. He spotted it a second before the creature dipped below the surface. A pair of eyes illuminated in his light.
Fearing the beast capsizing his boat, the man knew he needed to make it to shore. Which was the shortest travel? The beach he embarked from, cloaked in darkness, seemed like a foolish choice. With terror in his heart, the man pushed forth toward the island. The window light was his only salvation.
Whatever creature stalked him touched his oar, but he continued, steeling himself and choking down his fears. A fleeting what-if crossed his mind. Did this beast take her? Of course not. He could see the light in her window. She had to be safe at home. The uneasy terror never abandoned him as his arms paddled, slapping the water with reckless abandon.
Something grabbed his oar, tugging it into the water. The creature breached the surface as he pulled back. He recognized the muzzle of a horse, but its flesh sickly and pale. In horror, he pulled back on the oar. The boat rocked back and forth, knocking over the lamp. His wooden paddle struck it, spilling the flaming contents onto the water. The creature let go as the man pushed with all his might away from the flame, slapping out any fire that caught on his craft.
In that moment of bright light, he spotted the beast. It’s dark green, muddy fur fluttered in the water as it paddled with large hooves, descending into the depths. The shopkeeper’s words of warning rang in his head. He recognized the creature as a water horse. These beasts, man-eaters by nature, were known to avoid eating the liver. The man’s heart, aching with terror, beat like a drum, yet his blood felt cold and still as if he had fallen into the water.
He couldn’t see without light, but perhaps, he thought, the beast could not see him either. He paddled with slow, gentle strokes, hoping not to alert the creature, gliding along the waves ever closer to the island.
The man could hear the water horse break the surface, but not near his boat. Its soft bobbing rippled the surface, but he remained careful, moving the paddle with the water, avoiding the most minute splashes, and even holding his breath for good measure.
Nearing the island and almost clear of the terror, he heard a voice—a cry for help, followed by a splash. Someone thrashed in the water, screaming and begging. He recognized the voice. The dying flame on the water illuminated the loch and nothing else along the endless void of water. The pitiful light from the crescent moon broke apart on the silvery waves. The terror in the woman’s voice was unmistakable. He tried to place the woman’s voice as she echoed into the night air.
He knew one truth about the water horse. They were shapeshifters. Capable of deception and lulling the unaware into a false sense of safety and dragging them to the depths of the loch. Had this one tricked the woman, or was this a trap for him? He did not know. However, the light in the house indicated someone was there. Was she there waiting for him as he hoped, or did she never make it home? Perhaps this was a well-baited lure, ready for him to bite and fall for the beast’s deception?
With a heart weighted like stone, he finished his journey to the island, reaching the safety of the land. The voice faded as he tugged the boat ashore, the high grass at the beach’s edge wild and overgrown. He looked at the old cottage, searching for an entrance.
The man noticed a significant amount of rot for a house still occupied. Green moss and mildew coated the moist wood. He searched outside the cottage, peeking in windows and seeing lit lamps inside but no occupants. The man found the front door and knocked. No response. He gazed around, searching for the woman. Had he been wrong?
The man spotted a stable with a single horse. Odd, he thought, but stepped over to the stable, relieved to see something normal, keeping watch for the woman. The horse, its fur glinting in the scant moonlight, spotted him. He raised one hand, glancing at the cottage door, as he moved toward the animal. The horse remained still, allowing him to approach and pet it.
Its fur felt dirty, matted and wet. The man realized his mistake once he touched the animal, but it was far too late. Despite his efforts, the man’s hand adhered to the horse. The horse turned and walked to the water. Panicked, the man grasped at his wrist, bracing against the ground as he pulled. He dug his heels, twisting and tugging against the beast as he felt sand against his ankles.
He reached for the dirk in his boot but felt nothing. The man grabbed at the horse’s eye, missing, his hand sticking to the animal’s jaw. Cold water coated his shoes as he struggled to find solid ground to brace against. He kicked the horse’s knee, getting his foot stuck. The man struggled, pushed, and pulled as he panicked, screaming, feeling the chilling water rise up his pant legs.
The man’s watery reflection mirrored his horrific struggle, desperate wide eyes searching for a solution, mouth open, screaming. His shirt, soaked with freezing water, weighed down his movements, and with a swift, desperate kick, the man’s other foot stuck to the horse’s chest. The black, freezing liquid reached his chest, stuttering his breath as the horse plunged into the depths.
Under the water in the faltering light of the moon, the animal shifted shape before his eyes, changing from a horse to a beautiful woman, her hands around his wrists in a grip like iron. He knew her. The woman with sand in her hair dragged him away from his last glimpse of light as the mirrored reflection of the moon above faded into darkness.
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