Eileen dropped her suitcase at her feet and surveyed the hotel lobby in surprise. It was a modest, moderately priced family hotel. It had a very ordinary bar and dining room with a small patio. There was a nice view of the loch and the looming hills beyond and the castle ruins were picturesque, but that did not account for the number of people milling around in the lobby. She stood up on tiptoe, peering over shoulders, trying without success to attract the attention of the flustered receptionist who, with her eyes glued to her computer screen, was trying to multi-task. Eileen grasped her bag. Ignoring imprecations as she stepped on toes, she shoved her way to the front and waited. The receptionist finally looked her way, brushing the hair that was escaping from her bun out of her face.
“Yes?” she said to Eileen. “Can I help you?”
“Hello, I’m booked for three nights,” said Eileen, pulling her rumpled confirmation out of her pocket and pushing it across the desk. The receptionist, whose name tag proclaimed her name to be Mairi, smoothed it out, read it, and looked, if possible, even more distressed.
“Ms. Eileen, I am so sorry for the confusion, but I am afraid we are completely full. We have had some glitches with our computer system and somehow, we must have double booked you. We have the Celtic Folklore and Story conference here, a wedding and the university graduation...”
She quailed and her speech trailed off as Eileen drew herself up to her full five feet two inches, turned red and glared.
“Ms. Mairi, I am here for the conference. You could have the whole Bolshoi Ballet and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir here for all I care. I don't need excuses. I made my reservation two months ago. Where do you suggest I stay? I assume every local hotel is equally booked.”
Mairi, on the verge of tears, looked up in relief as a tall, dark man standing behind Eileen spoke up.
“I could not help overhearing,” he said. “Ms. Eileen, you would be welcome to share my suite. The bedroom door locks. I will take the sofa bed in the living room.”
Eileen turned and stared, taken aback. He was lean, with dark, slicked back hair. His eyes were unusual, dark greenish brown, deep-set in his pale face. Despite feeling as if she were in a bad romance novel, she nodded, exhaustion overcoming her natural caution. Mairi sprang to attention as Eileen gave her a steely look.
“I expect a full refund, and you should give this gentleman one too.”
Mairi nodded agreement as she hurriedly completed the check-in. The man picked up Eileen’s bag.
“I’m Domnall,” he said. “Let’s get a drink so you can relax a little. Sounds like you’ve had a stressful day.”
The bar was just as crowded as the lobby, but the crowd seemed to part at Domnall’s glance. He had no need to push or step on toes, Eileen thought wryly. He found them a seat in the corner.
When they had their drinks, he raised a toast.
“Here’s to a successful conference,” he said. “I hope your presentation on the history of the legend of the each-uisge, commonly known as the kelpie, goes well.”
He nodded towards the window. "You know that a kelpie is reputed to inhabit the loch yonder?"
“I’m impressed,” said Eileen. “So, you’re here for the conference too?”
“I saw your name on the programme,” he said. “It’s quite an honour to meet you. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Eileen smiled, finally relaxing.
“I’m flattered. The analysis of Celtic myths and legends doesn’t usually draw a crowd except amongst the diehards and academics.”
“The kelpie is different. A spirit who can shape shift from a horse to a handsome man could be quite a box office draw.”
Eileen, a little dizzy from her wine, laughed.
“Except for the part where he turns back into a horse and carries his victim, usually a lovely lass, down into the depths of the loch. Not very politically correct these days.”
“Ah, but he can be controlled with a silver bridle or a silver cross. Is that not so?”
“You’ve done your homework.”
They headed to the suite. Domnall opened the door with a flourish, and ushered her in. There was a roomy sitting room with a large sofa bed which had been pulled out and made up. He opened the door to the bedroom which had a small balcony overlooking the loch. The sun was going down behind the hills and the water looked dark and foreboding in the fading light.
“As you can see, the bedroom door locks from the inside. I will go back down to the bar and stay out of your way, so you have time to get ready for bed in peace.” He bowed, a smile playing around his strange eyes, and left the room. Eileen shivered, then told herself not to be silly. She not only locked the bedroom door but jammed a chair up under the door handle. After a hot shower, she got into bed and was soon in a deep sleep. In her dreams, a dark horse emerged from the waves of the loch, shaking water off its sleek coat. She could hear it snorting and feel hot breath on her back as it pursued her. She woke up with a start, her heart pounding. Drifting back into an uneasy doze, she could not tell how much later she awoke again to a gentle rattling of the bedroom door. She sat up, frozen with fear, as the handle jiggled. Feeling extremely foolish, she slipped off the silver Celtic cross that she always wore and crept to the door.
“Go away,” she said as firmly as she could through dry lips. The movement of the door handle stopped, and she could hear heavy breathing on the other side. She hung the silver cross on the handle and began to recite the Lord’s Prayer from the depth of some childhood memory. The breathing increased into a choking sound, followed by a series of dull thuds. Silence followed.
Eileen spent the rest of the night huddled in the bed, staring out of the window until the dawn light began to creep over the hills and illuminate the loch. She got up, cautiously opened the door and peered into the sitting room. There was a strong smell of salt water and the sheets on the sofa bed were damp and rumpled. Strands of green water weeds lay scattered on the floor. Of Domnall, there was no sign.