From the author: A volunteer at an animal shelter gets more than she bargained for when she's called to collect a horse abandoned at the side of a lake. Who is the mysterious woman who comes to collect him? And why is the horse adorned in silver jewellery? Originally published in Trouble Among the Stars #3, link https://troubleamongthestars.com/2019/08/02/issue-3-is-here/
Tina was in a foul mood. It was early enough for the mist still to be curling off the loch and the spider webs to be kissed with dew. It was cold, and the sun was just creeping over the tree line like spilled water, and she had been called out to an abandoned horse.
Who abandoned a horse at this time in the morning? No one, which meant it was abandoned last night, which meant the poor bloody thing would be chilled through and flighty.
Honestly, people were awful.
Tina had been on call for the Animal Protection League ever since she retired from nursing and while she never minded it - of course she didn't mind it, she loved animals - she got cross sometimes. She was fine doing this. She was still a formidable woman: strong arms from lifting bodies across beds, and thick legs from walking the wards. A flighty horse was no worry for her. But oh she would like to get her hands on the irresponsible louts that did this sort of thing.
She spotted the creature over by the edge of the trees. It was a seal brown beauty, grazing on the tough grass poking through the needle bed. It was a Shire she thought, certainly a crossbreed if not pure blooded, which was good. That meant it wouldn't be damaged by the cold yet.
She hefted a blanket anyway, a rope halter in the bag at her hip, then started over to it. She had apple slices in her pocket and slipped one into her hand, clicking her tongue as she got closer to it.
Its ears perked up first, then it swung the heavy head round to see her.
"What big eyes you have," she cooed, laughing quietly as it blinked at her. They were a muddy hazel, more green than she'd seen in a Shire before, and watched her, keen.
She slowed and held out the apple, coming forward in inches. He, she could see now it was a he, sniffed to test the air. There was a bridle on him, a beautiful thing with intricate metalwork over the black leather straps. She spotted shells worked into it, with coins and mail sections hanging from edges and settled over his nose.
"Someone got you very pretty didn't they? Shame your mane is a bit straggly."
The horse snorted at that, shaking his head. The mane rippled, catching the pink of the sun rise and glowing with it.
"You are quite the bonny chap. I thought someone had dumped you but that bridle's awful nice to be abandoned, did you get away from someone?" she asked, reaching up to catch the rein hanging down. The horse stilled, head lowering and eyes falling closed. "What a calm boy you are." Tina soothed, rubbing the flat expanse of his skull.
She settled the blanket over his back and he was good as gold, shaking just a little to settle the wool against his skin. Reaching into her pocket she dug below the apple for a dreaded sugar lump – it wasn't really approved of anymore but she knew a horse liked a cube now and then. She held one out and he snuffed over her palm, gobbling it up and trying her hand for good measure.
She yanked it back with a hiss and laughed, rubbing his head again.
"Keen lad, I bet you've not had your food have you?" she asked, taking in his swishing tail and blinking eyes. "We'll get you down to the stables and see if we can get a trace done, I bet someone's missing you."
She walked him round the edge of the loch and he followed her like the mist, barely a sound from those big, dish plate feet as they went along the stones.
He was not quite so forgiving with the horse box though, swaying that long arc of a neck back and forth between her and the low ramp. His hooves planted firmly and he snorted, staring at her.
"I know it's not the nicest, but I need to get you checked out and it's all they'll give me – funding cuts." She shrugged, laughing at herself for justifying it to the horse. "Tell you what, I'll get Andy to give you another sugar lump if you get in for me. Andy's already going to be crazy over you, he won't take much convincing about it. Sound good?"
He blinked at her again and she gave the rein a light tug forward, hopeful. To her delight he went with it, slinking up the ramp and into the narrow space.
"Good boy." She sighed, securing the back and opening the venting at the windows. "I'll open these up so you can have some fresh air and we'll be at the stables in no time."
She received a huff back through the vent and laughed to herself again – he was definitely someone's pal.
The shelter was quiet this time of year, the spring air meaning most people had adopted the rescues as part of a mission for the New Year. It never lasted, Tina knew, but the willingness was at least something.
Andy was manning the front desk, perched on the chair like a heron on a lake, all limbs and searching stare.
"We've got a lovely one here," Tina called as she came in, bustling through to the yard so she could open the stable doors.
"What sort is it?" Andy shouted back, disengaging from the computer and following after her. The shelter wasn't fancy, it was barely open, but the stables were solid and Andy loved helping with horses the most. He was a young one really, seventeen Tina thought, and had all the spry energy young men were meant to have. He was a good lad to have around.
"Shire I reckon. Got a lovely bridle on him, seems fine except being a bit hungry. I think he's gotten away from someone, he doesn't seem neglected or spooked."
"That's good news, hopefully we can match them back up." He smiled, helping open the trailer up and leading the horse out. "He's very calm on the rein."
"Yes, and look at the silver on those decorations, I think it's real."
"Ornamental, for a show or something?" Andy asked as he clicked his tongue. The horse started forward, following into the yard and shaking itself out. "Look at that tail, I know people who would pay good money for that on a violin bow." Andy laughed with a wink at the horse. That got him a firm head shake, that long neck moving the mane in little waves.
"I don't think he likes that suggestion much." Tina laughed, giving him a firm pat on his blanketed rump. "I promised him a sugar lump and some TLC when we got back, could you give him some rolled oats and a good brush down?"
"Of course – we'll maybe try doing something nice with your tail and your mane too shall we pretty man?" Andy asked, stroking over the nose of the animal again. It leaned its large head into him, skull to chest, and Andy laughed at the enthusiastic rub he got.
"You be good to him, I'll go check if we've had any calls about one getting out. It might still be early for someone to know he's off, but we can hope."
"No problem, Tina, we'll find lots to do won't we boy?" Andy called after her, leading the hulking horse into one of the stalls.
Tina settled herself into the computer chair and cupped her coffee in both hands. Fingerless gloves were amazing invention but her hands still got cold and she couldn't do with that all day.
She was looking through the recent reports for the Highlands when a woman walked into the shelter, rattling the wind chime at the door.
Tina looked up at the noise and smiled – it was early for a visitor but she was always keen to see people interested. The woman was tall, easy close to six foot, and had long, curling hair tumbling down her back. It was the subtle black of the area, smooth glints of red and auburn showing as it moved under the fluorescent lights. She was a pale thing, skin like frost, but she had the most marvellous eyes, grey purple of the sky before it snows. Tina noticed eyes, a habit from nursing, and she thought those were beautiful ones.
The woman had a thin sheen of water over her, not enough to drip on the floor but like she'd been caught in a shower. She wore brown trousers and a matching vest top, no coat, silly clothes for a day this cold.
"I didn't realise it’d been raining," Tina said, smiling and holding her hand out. The woman blinked at her, those eyes focusing and flicking over her.
"Not too badly, just a little to keep you on your toes," she replied, shaking the offered hand. She was shockingly cold and Tina yelped from it, rubbing one hand between hers.
"You're frozen solid lass!"
"I'm always on the cold side, don't worry," she laughed, pulling her hand back.
"Well what can we do to help you? I'm Robertina, Tina for short."
"Nice to meet you Robertina. I'm Rhian. I understand you might have a friend of mine. Tall, dark and handsome chap, last seen wandering around beside the loch like he didn't have a care in the world? He was wearing a ceremonial bridle, all shiny coins and silver." She circled a finger around her face like she would wear it.
"The Shire: he's yours?"
"Aherin, yes. I'm sure he'd say no ones but his own, but he's the one I'm looking for," Rhian said. "Is he here?"
"Yes, brought him in about twenty minutes ago, he's just getting some food and a brushing down."
"That might not be a good idea. He gets awful funny about who handles him. Fine with horses, a dream with them, but he gets a bit bitey with people. Can I see him?"
"We'll need to do some checks before you can take him off but yes of course, this way," Tina said, taking her back through to the stalls. "Andy, we're in luck," she called as they moved through the yard.
No response came back and Tina rolled her eyes – he probably had his music on.
They came into the stall to find Andy on the horse, tears tracking down his face and body rattling with shakes.
"Oh shit," Rhian muttered as Tina rushed forward. "Don't touch them: it'll be more difficult if you get stuck too."
Tina paused, hand on Andy's thigh.
"What do you mean?" she asked, turning round to look at Rhian. The woman had the decency to look sheepish.
"You're not really going to be able to get him down from there. He's stuck. And if you touch Aherin then you'll get stuck too. "
"Nonsense, I've touched him already this morning."
"Just the head, right?" Rhian asked, swirling eyes on Tina.
Tina nodded, hand still firmly on Andy.
"That's the safe bit. Lets you get the bridle on, and the such. The rest of him you'll stick to, 'less you want to cut something off. That's what one lad up in Thurso had to do, lost a thumb and two fingers. It's how he gets his meals."
"I don't know what you think you're talking about, Rhian, but this is just silly."
"Why is your lad not on a saddle, you bare ride a lot here?" Rhian pushed, walking up to join Tina.
"Of course we don’t, I'm sure it was just a mistake."
"Let's ask him, awful quiet for someone so upset isn't he?"
"Andy just what is going on?" Tina asked, pricklingly aware of how close Rhian was and annoyed that her productive morning was being upturned so entirely.
"It spoke to me."
That stopped her in her tracks, Tina's face snapping up.
"What did you just say?"
"It spoke to me," he repeated, trembling. "I was going to make up his mane and I heard him speak. I thought I was just hungover as hell but it kept happening. He told me I could get up and work his mane better from here and it seemed like it made sense. Tina, I can't get down. I tried taking my jeans off but whatever it is has soaked through them and it's on my skin."
"Andy, a horse doesn't talk, that's just ridiculous-"
"More ridiculous than that trailer you brought me back in?"
Tina's voice stopped, her mouth closing. She turned from looking at Andy to glance down the long neck of the beast, the large head turned enough to watch the three bodies gathered.
"Aherin, try not to be such an ass. You're barely passable as a horse." Rhian sighed as she said it, a scowl tugging her mouth down.
"Don't be rude, you're the one that vanished and left me to be abducted with this shit on my face." The voice was all wrong, almost human but swirling around her mind, tumbling over her like a wave.
"I was preparing the site, you were the one that got peckish. You knew you had the damned bridle on!" Rhian hissed back, shooting him a glare.
"Right, just what is going on here?" Tina shouted, eyes back on the shaking form of Andy.
"Aherin, aside from being an absolute idiot, is a kelpie." Rhian supplied, that sheepish smile back.
"They don't exist."
"I'm so glad to know my existence is by the opinion of a rescue worker who bargains with sugar lumps," the horse replied, shaking his head again. Andy wobbled precariously, paling further.
"You took it quick enough," Tina said, a small voice in the back of her head reminding her she was arguing with a horse.
"I was trying to get your hand."
"And this is why he's a jerk," Rhian sighed, slumping against Aherin's flank and bouncing a loose fist off the other side. "Why did you have to go for one here?"
"He was fiddling about with me and I'm hungry." The last word was almost a growl, a noise Tina knew shouldn't come out of a horse. She could feel sweat prickling along her forehead, a tingling down to her pinky fingers.
"I gave you sugar and rolled oats," Andy squeak, nodding to the bucket at the other side of the stall.
"And they were delicious appetisers, but I require flesh and I wasn’t going to get anywhere trying to convince that one to touch me. She put that damned blanket on me."
"Which is what normal humans do to rescue animals, Aherin, which is why appearing in populated areas is a stupid idea and you aren't meant to do it." Rhian grumbled, face still against the firm muscle. "You're going to have to let him go. He's too old: he'll get noticed being missing."
"Tina, what are they talking about?" Andy interrupted, grabbing Tina's hand.
"She's talking about how to get you down, aren't you, Rhian?" Tina asked, scrabbling for something to soothe the boy. He looked fit to faint and that couldn't make anything better.
"Yes, that's just what I'm talking about, because that's what you're going to do isn't it, Aherin?"
"I don't see why I should, I earned my meal."
"You absolute jerk, I’ll kick one of your spindly bloody legs out from under you and that’ll hurt a lot more when you get back in the damned loch." Rhian spat, grabbing the hind leg of the flank she rested on and squeezing her nails in.
"Get off me woman!" Aherin kicked back, bucking and sending Andy bouncing off his neck in turn. Andy let out a pained yelp and threw up, the smattering of vomit hitting the straw.
“Lightweight,” Aherin snorted, shaking his head.
“Fuck off,” Andy moaned, pouting and miserable.
"Very productive, well done." Rhian sighed, walking around Aherin to grab the bridle and make him look into her eyes. "You cannot eat them. Let's get the ritual done and I’ll help you hunt.”
“There’s two meals here, the old one would be a good feed.”
“I'll come out in this form again and find something drunk and stupid and lure them in for you, you can have the whole body."
"That's a much more agreeable situation. Fine, if we go back to the loch I'll walk in and let him off."
"You can't do that here?" Tina asked, rubbing the base of Andy's back. It was all she could do without touching the demon horse.
"No, he can't change back with someone attached. How did you get him up here?" Rhian asked, looking up to Tina with a hand still on the bridle.
"In a hideous trailer. Only the promise of the boy got me in it," Aherin sniffed and Rhian yanked the bridle.
"It was a trailer," Tina confirmed.
"Can we use that with this lad on top?"
"You're not really meant to but we could, yes."
"That's what we'll do then, you take us back to the lake and once your lad’s off we can all pretend this didn't happen." Rhian nodded, looking back down to Aherin. "Deal?"
"Fine, if we must."
The trip back to the loch felt longer than it should have to Tina. Rhian sprawled in the front seat wasn’t helping.
"So, you just walked to the shelter from the lake?" Tina asked.
"No, but my way wouldn't work well with your lad attached to Aherin. Poor thing already seems on the edge of his nerves."
"It's not really something they cover in the training."
"No, I suppose not." Rhian laughed, pulling one of her feet under herself. "It's not taught in the same way now. Mums used to warn their children about water horses and talking animals."
"Is that what you are?" Tina asked, watching the woman out of the side of her eye.
"Of sorts, I suppose. You'd probably call me a ceasg or a maighdean na tuinne, though I hear they now just call us mermaids."
"You have legs," Tina said, unthinking, then coughed and made herself look at the road again.
"I do on land, yes," Rhian agreed. "I don't in the water."
"And you're going to get him someone to eat?"
"Yes. If I don't he'll just eat you and your boy and that would not do any good, they always go crazy when one that age goes. A young child, or an old drunk, they're easy. Lots of accidents happen. But people look much closer now."
"That's got me feeling so much better about this."
"Ever gone hunting in buck season?"
"I don't hunt."
"Lots here do. Do y’ think they care about how many generations get interrupted? No, they want their meat. And you lot can go and buy it now, you have shops, but I still see men coming out every season shooting up the forest. Or fishing when the salmon go leaping. So save me the grief for a stranger, I'm saving your lives and we're all getting off quite lightly."
Tina sat with that for a few minutes, eyes on the road.
"Do you eat human flesh?" she asked once it burned too hot in her throat.
"No, I don't. I suppose I could. I've never had to, I eat fish. Aherin needs human flesh, or at least large mammals. He can take a cow or ram now and then and last with it but the hunger's still there."
"Sounds tough to keep up with."
"It goes away for large chunks of time, once he's sated. We were trying to help with that when he vanished."
"He was reported as abandoned."
"I'm sure someone thought they were helping." Rhian laughed, gathering her hair up at the back of her neck and twisting it into something like a bun.
"Will you take someone local?"
"No, I'll take him down along the river and find someone there."
"Will you look like you do now?"
"Why, do you think I'm pretty enough to lure someone off?" Rhian asked, winking at her.
"Well you're obviously beautiful, it was more if you looked different for different jobs. Gentlemen prefer blondes and all that."
"What do you prefer, Robertina?"
"I prefer my retirement with my cats to being lunch for a grouchy horse monster."
"Well that's sensible, can't argue with that." Rhian nodded, looking back to the road. "I prefer the lasses myself, but I can look pretty enough for a drunkard to want to chase me. That's usually what works."
"Reckon a lot of women would thank you." Tina laughed, smiling at the wild thing beside her.
"I sing to the ladies too, sometimes. Songs for the girls sat on the shore wishing for things to be different. You get less of them now; they move away and make their own lives. I like it, even if it makes it a bit lonely."
"Sounds lovely. If I wasn't terrified of getting eaten I'd come and listen."
"I promise to keep Aherin on a leash if you do." Rhian smiled back at her, ghosting a hand over Tina's arm.
"We're nearly here. Will he actually let Andy go?"
"Yes, he made a deal and he'll stick to it. He's bound by his honour as much as any of us are."
"And how do I explain this to Andy?"
"We'll deal with that when it comes. I have a few ideas about that."
"Alright, I'll trust you on that one then. We're here."
They opened up the trailer to sweating Andy and a stomping Aherin.
"That wasn't so bad was it?" Tina asked, leading the angry horse out of the trailer.
"The sooner I'm free of this oaf the better." Aherin snorted.
"And I'm sure he feels the same way. Water. Now." Rhian barked, pointing to the loch.
"Naturally," Aherin said, bowing his head low and lumbering off into the glinting surface.
"So how does this work?" Tina asked, following them.
"He goes into the water and that’ll free your chap. I'll go in and make sure he's alright."
Tina watched them wade into the loch, itching to follow. She'd be no use there though, better here with a blanket for Andy once he was free.
She watched Rhian change as she went deeper into the water, her hair curling and stretching out around, the colour closer to tangleweed than the black waves before. There was the ghost of scales creeping up her bare arms now, a shimmer that caught in the sun.
She was distracted from her view by Andy yelping and a loud splash. She spotted his flailing arms and saw Rhian moving towards him, hoisting him up to standing.
Tina could see a man stood with them now, as tall as Rhian and broad across the chest. He was warmer skinned than her and his hair flowed down his back in a dark shawl too. His eyes glinted like gold, a wicked hint of something there. He smirked and waved to her, the silver bridle caught in his other hand.
"Lovely to make your acquaintance, but I'll be leaving now. Rhian will deal with your boy there." With that he turned and waded a bit deeper before diving into the water, disappearing underneath. Tina watched a few bubbles come up and was pulled back to the others wading towards her.
Andy was shivering like a drowned thing and Rhian had an arm around him, cooing soft words as they walked back to shore. When she was closer Tina could see her face had changed, her eyes larger and almost round, her mouth a wide gash across and filled with teeth.
"Not as pretty when I'm half way through things I'm afraid," Rhian said with a shrug.
"You're still nicer than your companion." Tina laughed, scooping the blanket around Andy and rubbing along his limbs. "What are we going to do with you then my lad?"
"I have something for that," Rhian said, leaning down and pecking a kiss to Andy's lips.
He gasped, body going rigid, then passed out. Rhian picked him up and carried him back to the passenger seat, tucking him in with the blanket around him.
"Might I suggest you blame either his hangover, or say he dropped a bucket on his head and blame the concussion? I could whack him over the head but I trust you wouldn't approve."
"No, let's not cause any brain damage when he's still growing, eh?"
"Indeed." Rhian smiled, a funny thing will all those teeth, and stepped back from the door.
"You'll have to be off on your hunt," Tina said, closing the door and looking at the woman before her.
"I best had, wouldn’t want him wandering off again and getting someone else in trouble."
"Thank you for your help. I wouldn't have had any idea what to do."
"I suppose hiding a body wouldn't be covered in the training either." Rhian laughed, reaching out to touch Tina's hand. "I have to ask you not to tell anyone about this. And if you want to come and hear some singing I like a full moon to do it under."
"I'll keep that in mind," Tina said, and meant it.
"I hope to see you again, Robertina. Have fun protecting the animals."
Rhian pecked a kiss to Tina's cheek, a cold and slightly scratchy thing, and then turned back to the water and ran in, diving under as soon as she was thigh deep. Tina watched the water whirl and bubble until it stilled and then she turned, getting back behind the wheel. She made sure Andy's blanket was tucked around him and the seatbelt safe before setting off for the shelter again. She would have to get him set up on the hay with a blanket over him.
She could look up the next full moon on her calendar too.