Quiver and hunting bow were his most prized possessions, one slung over his shoulder, the other held tight with stained wood smooth under calloused fingertips. An arrow nocked in careful decision, he stalked silent through the lush forest growth. It was with a thrill in his blood, a trapped butterfly pulse beating beneath his skin, that he tracked the snapped ferns. The white catches of fur, the spare spottings of blood, they led him after the frenzied hare with an arrow shaft sticking splintered from its haunch. It was a dead thing walking, one he would find with the trail of seeping life left behind. As far as he was concerned, the hare already bubbled in a stew pot, the hide stripped and washed clean of marring, ugly bloodstains.
A strain of something lyrical, something musical, snatched his undivided attention from the trail, not sudden but slow and alluring. The way a moth was drawn into a flame, into the hypnotic dance of its flickering tongues, he moved toward the sound. No longer did he care for the stealthy chase of a hare as he tramped over the moss and twisting roots underfoot. Instead, he chased the slowly growing song, entranced. The haunting melody of it morphed from mere humming sound, catching in his ears in bits and fragments, to the voice of a young woman. She sung clear, a voice delicate like the spun weave of a spider’s web, heavily laden with morning dew that caught the sunlight.
It was through the boughs of a willow that he first saw her, dipped into the edge of a pearly, shimmering pool. With hair that wound like current ripples through the pond rocks, pale as silver moonlight, she draped tantalizingly over the bankside. And it was with rosy lips that she continued to sing, something of a woodsman’s widow, left bitter with only the bite of an axe to soothe her sorrows.
“Why would a such a lovely maiden sing a song so bleak?” he asked as he pushed through the draping willow buds.
Seemingly unconcerned she was being watched, the young woman merely tipped her head back against the moss, finding his gaze as her song found its gruesome end. Her eyes glittered like opal, milky iridescence glowing bright over a rainbow of colors and shades. As if in answer, she merely raised one arm over her head, revealing the long, fluttering fins attached, splashed in shades of indigo and lavender. Suddenly, he was reminded of the beautiful, fanned betta fish he had seen once in the river basin.
“A creature like myself has no need for fantasy dreams when all I need is here,” she said, the words winding around him just as her song had.
“Come with me, and you may dream all you wish,” he said, enraptured.
Along the edge of the pool, he crouched, combed his fingers through the hair of hers that draped across the land. He gathered that which floated on the crystal surface of the water, pulled it behind her and braided it into a plait, only a few strands falling loose to frame her face. All the while, she said nothing, and offered no change in expression. She only watched, smooth, inky lashes brushing her cheeks with every languid blink.
She wore no heart on her wrist, for there was no sleeve to bear it upon. If anything, the mystery only tangled him farther in her web, desiring as he did to reach in and crack open her ethereal beauty to explore what lay underneath. Never had he in his life encountered someone so steeped in magic, in nature and in delicacy. Finally, hoping to enamor her the same way she had him, he tucked lilies and wildflowers into the weave of her hair. “You would be treasured, with me. Have no need to sing of romantic tragedy any longer,” he pleaded.
Again, the serene softness in her expression offered no cracks, no glimmers of what was hidden and locked in her mind. With gentle movements, she plucked every bloom from her hair and set them adrift on the water. She turned the pool into a garden of petals and silk, looking perfectly at home amongst the breathtaking arrangement. “As long as fins adorn my body, you will never have me. My heart belongs to the water and no soul else,” she said, the sound crashing over him like a breaking wave despite the quiet force of it all.
Discontempt bubbled up through him and he said nothing more, letting it brew to anger. His visit ended with the perfect maiden and he retreated home, no hare nor a hand held in his own.
He trekked through the forest once more, when sunset faded to twilight days later. Tracking the hare chases that weaved through the undergrowth, he walked and wandered until an enchanting melody found him once more. The song was different this time, as he listened and crept through the sagebrush. The words spoke of a spirit with a keen eye, a protector of the forest. He hardly had the patience to let the melody finish, though. Like on the hunt, his hands were steady even for all the anticipation riling up his heart.
“You’ve captured my attention, my whole heart. You hold it in your hands; allow me to do the same for you,” he said, breaking past the weeping willow that hung near the pond.
“Have you not seen me? Have you not heard me? I cannot leave this place, nor would I ever wish to,” she replied, a questioning tilt to her head. The plait, he noticed, was gone from her pale hair. Not even a trace of its wave remained.
Again, at the edge of the pool, gazing into clear water, he crouched at her back. Before she could move, he seized one wrist in his grip, pulling it clear of the water with a splash. Her fins shimmered in the moonlight. “Let me cut the chains that bind you, then you will belong to me. I’ll not be denied my lovely water nymph,” he said.
As the words crawled past his lips, he slipped a hand into his pocket, only to come back empty. Suddenly, his heart leapt to his throat, a cold dread sinking heavy over him.
“Would you perhaps be looking for this?” She brandished his very own dagger in her free hand. Its familiar weight had been in his pocket only moments ago. When had she lifted it? For the first time since he had seen her, lit by the gentle sun days ago, a wicked smile broke across her lips. What had been rosy before suddenly looked crimson, maroon, sleek and shining like blood in the starlight. The delicate silver stranding of her hair mirrored the shine on his stolen blade.
“Allow me to cut the chains that bind you to this earth. We have no need for a wretched creature such as yourself.”
It was hardly a moment more before she twisted from his desperate grip and, in a single fluid movement, a graceful arch of water following her arm, she cut his throat open.
That night, her pool was tinged with red, shining dark under the moon. A haunting melody spilled from her lips to fill the forest, a tale of the lost hunter who fell prey to his own impulses, and to the water nymph who he desired to defile.