The storm engulfed the valley. It unsheathed its wrath on the Glen below; mercilessly. Arrochar, the valley of the two lochs, hidden among the Trossachs mountains. The village bared the angriest malice of the Scottish weather.
The young boy stood at the bank of Loch Lomond, his gaze fixed on the towering mountain that pierced into the clouds. His breath held, listening to the melody of the storm. The roaring skies that bellowed thunder from its belly, the wind’s howl echoed through the Munros, and the waves crashed its jaw on the bay. Mostly he'd hear nothing out of the ordinary. But still, he listened carefully to catch the song in the storm. HER song.
He traced over the empty gap on his boot where his sgian-dubh once rested. His grip tightened around a marble conch shell, wondering if its owner would return. Many full moons faded since that evening. He waited out every storm since then, listening for her voice, reminiscing that fateful evening...
Angus clawed his way up the mountain, his frail hands struggling to catch grip on the waterlogged gravel. He could hear his older brother calling out from far below; his voice fading with each rock he’d scale over, slowly ascending into the mist. He had to lose his brother off his trail. He knew he’d be dragged back home if Fraser ever caught up. He couldn’t bear to face his bullies having failed his challenge.
Bring back a stone from the cairn at the mountain summit, they said, and show them the so-called might of the MacFarlane clan. Perhaps then he’d be released from their torment. Their taunts echoed piercingly in his head. He didn't know what he feared more. The never-ending jeers of his failure, the battering winds that could fling him away with one swift blow, or the unearthly creatures that hunted unsuspecting travellers who’d strayed from their path.
“Kelpies haunt the foord by your direction, an’ nighted trav’llers are aluur’d to their destruction”. He knew the stories were only made to scare children away from danger. He couldn’t let silly folklore scare him anymore. Though he could not help but wonder if the legends were true. The tales of a shape-shifting water horse, who’d lure men with alluring beauty, only to feast upon their victims.
The storm raged violently. The heavy gust edged him towards the drop. His heel off the ledge, gripping down with his toes and worn fingernails. He glanced down at the bottomless death he avoided; very narrowly. He traced the rocky path with his eyes, but it faded into the mist. The summit remained shrouded among the clouds.
That was when he heard it. An ominous melody in the wind. Something was out there. Though the mist rendered his vision shorter than his arm’s reach, he sensed something tracing his movements. He reached down for his sgian-dubh and took arms. The fragile stone blade shuddered under his numb, blue grip. He cursed his father for believing him to be too young to wield a real blade. Slowly, he etched forwards, darting his eyes in every corner of his fading surroundings.
Left. There was no mistaking it, something dashed across his left. The wind had come to a sudden halt, and the rain had silenced. He held his breath, listening to every leaf rustle, and every raindrop. He could hear the song getting louder and closer. Its breath was on his neck. He slowly turned his head to the tree beside him.
There it stood, behind the twisting dead tree that clawed out its branches. He kept his gaze on the red eyes, glaring hungrily at him. The mist faded to reveal the creature hidden within. A stallion with blood-red eyes piercing into his soul. It gills ripped across its neck, and its fangs poised like daggers. Its black body was a dark abyss, consuming the fading remnants of light.
The wind howled in fear at the creature’s presence. Its blow swept Angus over the cliffside. He clawed into the rocky ledge, desperately climbing away from the bottomless void beneath him. The creature bellowed a haunting cry and hurdled towards the mountain edge. The rock shifted under Angus’s weight and pelted onto his forehead. His senses withering as he plummeted down. The final traces of light reaching his eyes watched the blurred creature shoot its hooves down to reach for his arm. As his vision faded from red to black, to nothingness.
"Angus! Angus!" Fraser yelled with all his might, yet his dim cries were no match against the roaring wind and the canon firing raindrops. He cursed the other village boys for constantly tormenting his poor wee brother. He had a right mind to wheech them off the mountain summit. That would show them to challenge the might of the MacFarlane clan.
Nightfall was fast approaching. It was difficult enough to make his way through the shrouding mist, but the darkness would render it impossible. He was drenched, blistered and bruised. Yet the thought of his younger brother's lifeless body overwhelmed his sense of pain, as he continued the chase.
He knew better than to let his fear fall prey to silly folklore of the unearthly creatures dwelling in the mountains. He knew they were only tales to scare the children away from harm. Yet he could not shake the lingering unease lurking within him. Perhaps it was the way the wind seemed to whistle back and forth to itself, as if it were communicating. Or perhaps it was the way the mist that had engulfed him, creating the sense that he was being watched...
The eruption of lightning jolted Angus awake. He gasped for air, coughing uncontrollably. He could hear the waves of the loch crashing onto the harbour bay. Just how far had he fallen? Was he dead? His vision sharpened back to him slowly.
He found himself shielded away from the spearing storm within the mouth of a shallow cave. His stone blade placed delicately next to him was enough to work out he hadn’t fallen here by accident. Someone, or rather, something had brought him here. Carefully, he picked up his blade and scanned the cave.
He turned towards the song coming from within. The flash of lightning revealed the pale, ghostly face, watching him from the shadows. He poised his blade at the creature, waves of terror flooded his veins, as he shook uncontrollably in terror and agony. "Show yourself!" he demanded. Desperately praying his squeaky childish voice was threatening enough to scare it away
"I've been told to never reveal myself to a man" it replied with a playful tone.
Angus lowered his blade in defeat and sorrow. He sat back on the rock, tucking himself into a ball. "Then you have nought to worry about", he said with a melancholic sigh, "I'm not a man. I never will be one, just a wee runt who cannae fend for himself". The pale face gave a beaming smile that lit up the cave, as it slowly rose from the shadows.
Angus watched in awe as the girl emerged from the rocks and skipped towards him. His face helplessly reddened at her beauty, mesmerised by her heavenly choral voice and the sweet melody she sang. Her ebony hair glistened with the fading light of the evening. Her smile radiated through the shadowing mist like a beacon, with a row of pearls glimmering in her mouth. But above all else, it was her ruby eyes that charmed a spell over Angus's heart. But the spell broke just as quickly as Angus backed away wide-eyed in fear at the sight of her hooves.
He cowered back with his blade trembling in his hand, pointed dead at the girl. "You...you’re a Kelpie! You’re a man-eating Kelpie ain’t ya!"
"That's right!" she said, the same smile still beaming ear to ear
"I won't let you eat me!" he closed his eyes and swung his blade in frenzy. "I'll fight you to the death I will!" She gently placed her hand on his and lowered his weapon. "Father was right about men, nothing but war on their minds" she tutted, and gently placed his hand over his bandaged forehead. "Don't you think if I wanted to eat you, I would have by now?"
Angus slumped back on the cave floor in shame and confusion. "So why have you kept me alive then if not to eat me?", he asked, looking into the girl’s piercing ruby gaze, as if disappointed in not having the worth to even be eaten. The girl sat beside him and shrugged her shoulders. "I don't enjoy the taste really. I prefer deer, fish or sheep really. Men are nutritious for us, but you all simply taste sweaty and horrible to me.”
Angus let out a small chuckle but stopped abruptly at the sharp pain on his forehead. “Hope you don’t mind” she began, “but I had to rip off a bit of that cloth you’re wearing to stop you bleeding to death.” He stared miserably at the muddy, shredded remains of his kilt. The regal red and emerald tartan of the MacFarlane clan soiled brown. He deserved it, he thought. Better left to rot in the earth than soil the name of a mighty clan with his measly existence. “Cheer up!” You’re alive, aren’t you? You’re lucky that it was me who found you and not one of the others. They love the taste of man meat. Storms like these are when we go to hunt. We hide ourselves in the mist, hunting for dwelling travellers who’ve lost their way in the mountains. We’re always hidden away, so we forever remain only a myth, unknown to the world on the truth of our existence.”
The girl kicked her feet in the air and continued to sing, tuning her melody with the whistling of the wind. Angus was mesmerised by every note she sang. He closed his eyes, hypnotised by her soothing song, he felt his pain slowly ebb away. “What’s that song you keep singing?” he asked when she finally finished. She placed an arm around him and returned a sly expression, as she leaned close to whisper into his ear. “It’s our hunting song. It’s what we sing when we’ve found a prey to feast on, our signal to call upon the others to ambush our victim.”
Angus froze, his heart stopped dead. He gazed into the creatures menacing eyes, as she revealed a row of teeth, each as sharp a dagger. She couldn’t hold back anymore. She threw her head back and burst out into laughter. “Sorry,” she croaked, struggling to catch breath between laughter, “couldn't resist! Don’t worry, the others can’t hear me. At least, not without this.” She revealed a marble conch shell, glimmering in the fractured light refracted through the raindrops.
Angus’s anger quickly subsided by the glistening treasure. He looked at the shell, then back at the creature with great curiosity. “So why aren’t you on the hunt with everyone else?” The girl didn’t reply, she merely gave him a smile and continued to hum her melody. But Angus understood. Though the shape sifter could eloquently disguise herself with her smile, she could not hide the loneliness that flickered in her eyes. The same pain that was in his own. He understood all too well the misery of an outcast.
He heaved himself up from the rock and offered his hand to the lonely kelpie. “I’m Angus, wee’un of the MacFarlane clan.” The girl giggled and took the young boy’s hand. “Marie” she replied.
Nightfall was nearby, and the final traces of light would soon disappear. Yet still, there was no sign of his younger brother. There would be no way of finding a path down if he continued to climb. He’d be trapped on the mountain at the mercy of the storm. His brother’s fate unknown, praying that he was at the very least alive.
A sudden gust catapulting him across the path. He tightened his white-knuckled grip onto a nearby tree branch and shielded his face against the barrage of rain. The wind howled stronger, determined to blast him off the mountain. Fraser darted his head at the creaking beneath him and dived away from the branch. But it was too late. The tree was hurled clean off its roots and crashed onto his body. He wanted to scream, but the weight had winded the air from his crushed lungs. His vision blackened and his mind blurred by the pain. The last thing he heard was a gentle song humming in the wind, as his senses faded away...
Marie’s ruby eyes flared blood red without warning, as her fangs began to emerge. "Blood of man" she growled, "the smell is nearby". Angus stumbled back in fear at her sudden outburst. He had let his guard down and now was helpless to defend himself. Marie quickly dimmed her eyes and retracted her fangs at the sight of the frightened boy. She apologised and helped him up, dusting the gravel off his skin. "Listen", she whispered.
Angus held his breath, gazing into the Loch. He put his ear to the roaring wind and picked up the melody of her song. He could hear multiple voices echoing back and forth, hidden within the uproar of the storm. "There's another injured traveller up there. I can smell their blood. The others must have picked up his scent too". Angus gazed onto the mountain and wondered about the poor soul who'd fall prey to the Kelpie hunt. His face suddenly whitened pale, and his eyes widened.
"Fraser!" He jolted up as the lightning struck the bay with full might. Marie held onto him dearly, urging him not to take himself back to the jaws of danger. She knew there was no way to protect him from the hungry herd on their hunt, but Angus wouldn't let down. "Please! I can't let my brother die!"
Marie returned a heartbroken expression to the boy. She didn't want to lose the only person who she could seek refuge from her loneliness. Though she’d never felt the compassion of a friend before, she knew the duties of one, and was prepared to help her friend in his time of need. She transformed into her true form and heaved the boy onto her neck. “Grab hold of my mane, and don’t let go.”
The deafening roar of thunder followed the bolt of lightning as it crashed into the bay. With a bellowing shriek, Marie charged into the mist at the foot of the mountain. She scaled the unforgiving terrain effortlessly, her galloping strides gliding over the rocky path. Angus clutched her mane in fear and awe. He felt the freedom of an eagle, soaring over the mountain towards the never-ending horizon. His eyes vigorously scanning for his brother
“There! It’s him!” He leapt from her back and darted towards Fraser. He feebly tried to lift the crushing tree away off his brother’s, but his strength could barely catch grip on the bark of the hardwood. He leaned close, praying to hear even the faintest of living breaths. The songs in the storm were getting louder. The kelpies were edging closer. He desperately clawed away at the bark and heaved the trunk with all his will. Finally, he could feel it slowly budging. He rammed into the side of the trunk, but it didn’t shift, instead it began to lift upwards.
He watched open-jawed as Marie lifted the giant pine tree over her head, and launched it over the cliff, as it soared into the horizon. The songs surrounded them with the mist, rapidly closing in on them. They were out of time. With another burst of strength, Marie heaved the two brothers into the air and caught them on her back as she transformed once more. She took a few trots back, before galloping at full speed, leaping over the cliff edge, down into the bottomless void. The songs fading as they fell deeper into the abyss.
Angus dropped to his knees in relief when he opened his eyes and found himself back safely on the bay. He held his brother tight upon hearing his breaths slowly strengthening. He exchanged an expression of gratefulness to his new friend, but she returned it with a melancholic smile, as she turned away from him.
“Wait!” he cried. He opened her hand and placed his treasured sgian-dubh in her hold. “Something to remember me by. Made it myself. Hopefully won’t need it since I’ll get a real blade soon.” Her tears held back in futility. She tightly threw her arms around him and embraced the love of her new, and only friend. Angus couldn’t help but shed a teary smile when he noticed the flickering loneliness had faded away from her piercing ruby eyes. He watched her run back towards the mountain, as she galloped away disappearing into the mist.
Angus stood at the foot of the loch, inspecting the marble shell she gave to him in return. The final words they exchanged on that eve echoed in his mind. “Will I ever see you again?” he had asked, his voice breaking with sorrow. He turned his gaze to the mist that consumed the mountain, towards the song that pierced through the dark. His face beamed as she emerged from the haze. The two sprinted besides the crashing waves and threw their arms around each other, welcoming the warm embrace of their newfound friendship.
“Wait for me by the loch when the storms rage across the Glen”, she had said to him, “the kelpies hunt among the mountains when the mist shrouds their presence, when the roaring winds carry their melodies. But I’ll be here instead, waiting for you. Listen for the sound of my voice, listen for the song of the storm.”