I've been wanting to write a story for a while that includes a Kelpie. I decided this would be the challenge for a Kelpie Story. When I sat down to write this, I expected to struggle with the word count and chapter breaks the most, but I almost found it easier than to write a straight, no-chapters short story. So now I pass it on to you. How did I do?
I offer this response: The Forest of Shadows
The woods lacked the sun's warming grace. Estlyn glanced over his shoulder as a flock of sparrows flushed from the undergrowth, gripping the hilt of his dagger in readiness, and heaved a sigh when a stag emerged. Estlyn rubbed his eyes and wondered if his fears were unfounded. No sane man stepped foot in the Forest of Shadows. It was a good place to get lost, and a horrible place to die.
And he was already lost.
Hedwise stepped from the carriage and stretched. “That’s far enough, m’Lady,” Ogive said. “We are on the Forest Road. There are dangers here.”
Hedwise obeyed with reluctance, peering through the undergrowth into the darkness. “I thought I saw something.”
Ogive pulled her back towards the carriage. “Please. Your father will take my head if we don’t deliver you to your wedding.”
“A small delay won’t start a war, Ogive.” Hedwise didn’t believe the tales of the Forest of Shadows, where evil thrived and twisted trees blocked out the sun. Still, with strange noises rattling on the wind, perhaps it wise not to test Fate.
The throne appeared red in the window's light, a bad omen. Ayman looked to the foul-tempered king and braced for the worst.
The king paced. “I’ve a mind to try him for treason when we find him.”
“We tracked him to the Forest of Shadows, Sire.” The guard shifted his weight. “He’s as good as dead. The devil is in those woods.”
“A ghost story scares grown men from their duty to their king! You will enter those woods and you will drag my son back by his ears if need be, or I will have your heads on spikes!”
“Sire.” The guard spun about and hastened from the chamber.
Ayman genuflected. First a red throne, and now the crowned-prince running away on the day of his bride’s arrival…
Estlyn checked the water, suspicious. Although the water smelled clean, the pond’s surface failed to ripple at his touch. He struggled with his thirst but decided not to risk it.
In the center of the pond, a pale hand appeared and beckoned. Estlyn’s heart lodged in his throat.
Ayman greeted the young Hedwise and her governess upon their arrival. “I’m afraid the king is engaged at present,” he apologized, “but I can answer any questions.”
“Grammercy.” Ogive made introductions. “The journey was exhausting, but uneventful.”
“You’ll want to freshen up. If you care to follow me, I’ll show you to your chambers.” Ayman bowed.
Hedwise stood fast. “I am a Countess in my own right. You will address me accordingly.”
Ayman gulped. The young countess would not be so easy to tame as the king thought. Could the day get any worse?
The hand belonged to a body clothed only in dripping water and bearing eyes that pierced Estlyn’s soul. “You disturbed my sanctuary.” She spoke in an ageless voice. “I demand the reason for your trespass. Your sacrifice will befit your sin.”
“Sacrifice?” He shivered. “Please, I meant no harm. It’s my wedding and my father—“
“I smell deceit. Betrayal. Treason.” She whispered these words and he felt the sting of them. “You have until the morrow. Mark your tribute, or I shall choose you.”
“I apologize for my son’s absence,” the king said.
Hedwise silenced her governess with a raised hand. “Your Majesty, I am still a babe to court politics, but it seems to me that a king should never apologize for another’s actions, especially if it is rare for him to apologize for actions of his own.”
A smile grew in the king’s expression. “My son could learn from your example. Your beauty, I fear, is wasted on him.”
“Where exactly would my betrothed be? Is he aware that he belittles our marriage contract?”
The king snorted. “Unlikely. He’s always been a contrary prince. My men place him in the Forest of Shadows.”
“Why would he go there?”
He rolled his eyes. “To be worthy of you.”
The gate guards did not recognize Estlyn until he flashed his signet ring, but he didn’t blame them. If he looked as miserable as he felt…
He stumbled into the throne room, disappointed to see his bride speaking with his father. Her presence made what he had to do more difficult.
His father jumped from the throne. “You look…where have you been?”
“Majesty.” Estlyn bowed, addressing his bride. “M’Lady, my late arrival could not be helped, but I have procured a gift for you.”
His bride smiled. “A gift? From the woods?”
“A wild horse of such rare beauty, it should be yours.”
“Can I see it now?”
“It’ll be delivered on the morrow, m’Lady.”
Hedwise joined her betrothed and the king in the meadow beyond the castle gate, where a horse of rare beauty indeed drew near. The pale mare glistened as if wet. Hedwise felt the presence from the forest’s edge again.
Estlyn didn’t look at her. “Can you ride, m’Lady?”
Alarm shivered through her spine. “It is unseemly without a saddle, your Highness.”
The king stepped forward. “My son, you fool. You would give an unbroken horse to your bride?”
The prince placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “But you are the finest horse trainer in the kingdom, Father. You will train her.”
Estlyn watched, nervous, as his father mounted the bareback mare. She reared and stamped and the king gripped her mane.
His bride turned from the scene. “Please say you never meant that horse for me.”
He sank to his knees. “You know what she is?”
“I do. I didn’t believe…I’m the fool.”
“My father intended to impose First Night Rights. And he is the sort of man who breaks wild horses.” Estlyn kissed her fingers, fighting tears. “I couldn’t let him hurt you.”
The kelpie broke towards the forest; the king stuck and screaming the entire way.
“The King is dead,” Hedwise kissed Estlyn’s brow. “Long live the King.”