KelpieI was sitting on the doorstep of my late Grandmother’s house when I saw him canter up through the field between the cottage and the river. I’d been here a week and this was the first time I’d seen him. I’d begun to wonder if he’d been taken away. I couldn’t imagine what age he would be by now, although it looked like he hadn’t changed a bit. He had roamed the fields and woods around the cottage since I was a child. Smooth and sleek, black as a panther, he would dip his head and let me stroke his velvety nose, and eat polo mints out the palm of my hand. He was always damp though, and smelled faintly stale although it was clear he was well looked after. The most beautiful horse I had ever seen; he was bound to have an owner, although Granny always insisted he didn’t.
‘The only owner he’s got is me,’ she would say, lips pursed.
But I knew he wasn’t her horse. He would appear and disappear at will. I never knew where he went.
‘Back to see his family,’ Granny would say when I asked her.
‘Why doesn’t he bring his family here?’ I would ask.
‘They have no place here,’ she would snap, and that was that.
Granny had been dead a month now, and I had finally found the time to start clearing out her house. I had inherited everything, being the only next of kin excluding my parents, who lived in Canada and had no desire for a remote cottage in Scotland. In all honesty, nor did I, and I hadn’t yet decided what I was going to do with the place. I couldn’t live here – I had a life and a job back in London – but I could keep it and rent it out, although selling it was an option as well.
I had to be careful who I sold it to, though. Granny had made it clear in her will that it wasn’t to be sold to McTurk, a local landowner desperate to fill the hills behind the cottage with wind turbines. In order to do so, though, he needed the land that the cottage was on. Granny said that this wasn’t to happen, and I agreed.
The other stipulation that Granny made in her will, was to keep the old bridle in the family. The bridle was made of cracked leather and had hung in Granny’s hallway all my life. She’d told me that it had belonged to a very special horse owned by my Great-Grandfather. I had no interest in it, but Granny had always made it clear that one day the bridle would be mine, and that it was to remain in the family. I never understood why, but I would honour her wishes all the same. Keeping the promise about the house was proving more difficult though. McTurk was a difficult man to deal with at the best of times, and he needed this cottage and ground. I was beginning to wonder just how far he would go to get it.
‘Hello Kelpie,’ I called to the horse as I walked over to the fence. Kelpie was the name Granny had given him.
Still just as agile and shiny as he had ever been, his docile face lowered and his forelock dangling over his eyes. He came close, let me stroke his nose and flank. He was damp as always, leaving my fingertips wet. I had always assumed that the dampness and the smell was due to him either trekking through the river or taking a dip in it. Did horses enjoy swimming? I wasn’t sure. But I was right in that he hadn’t aged. He was as dark and muscular as he had been years ago, and didn’t appear to be limping or tired.
‘Where do you come from?’ I whispered into his twitching ear. ‘You really are a mystery.’
He whinnied and twisted his head away, making me jump. A car was coming up the track.
‘Oh no, I bet it’s McTurk again.’
Kelpie snorted in response as a khaki Landrover pulled up in front of the house.
‘Hannah!’ McTurk called cheerily as he jumped out.’Now isn’t he a beauty!’
‘Why are you back here? I’ve told you before, if you think you can scare me away…’
‘Hannah!’ he said, hands up in mock surrender, a fake smile on his pudgy face. ‘As if I would do such a thing. I want to make a fair and honest deal with you, as I’ve already explained.’
‘And as I’ve already explained, it won’t happen. This place is not for sale. And trying to scare me into selling it to you won’t work.’
‘Scaring?’ He pretended to look surprised. ‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘The bullets through the letterbox, the seagull nailed to the front door. The slashed tyre on my car, the gunshots in the middle of the night. Don’t tell me you’re not behind it. The Police say they can’t prove anything, but I know it was you.’
‘I have no idea what you mean, my dear Hannah. Now.’ He stood beside me and leaned on the fence. ‘This is a lovely animal you have here.’
‘He’s not mine,’ I replied through gritted teeth. Kelpie sensed something in the air. His nostrils flared and his ears flattened. He snorted and shook his head.
‘Oh really? Well, let’s assume that he is yours. And let’s assume that unless you’re prepared by the end of the week to sign this place over for me, perhaps he may not be yours much longer.’
My heart raced. ‘Look, McTurk, he really isn’t mine, please leave him alone.’
McTurk ignored me, watching the horse. ‘He really is stunning. Would fetch a good price for him, either as a stud or over on the continent. Remember that, Hannah, dear,’ he said. As chilling as his words were, his voice was still deceptively cheery.
‘Smarmy wee beggar,’ Granny had called him. She wasn’t wrong. But he was dangerous, too. Kelpie didn’t seem to like him; he was skittish even after McTurk had driven off with his back wheels spitting up gravel.
‘What a horrible man,’ I said, holding my hand out to coax the upset horse over to me. ‘He really is nasty but I won’t let him hurt you. I wish I could get rid of him. How could we get rid of him, eh Kelpie?’ I asked gently as the horse eased closer. I rubbed his damp nose. ‘We won’t let him get to us, will we?’
I didn’t change my mind about selling the house, but I did worry about Kelpie. I had thought of catching him and locking him in one of the outbuildings but after that day I didn’t see him again until the weekend.
I had been fast asleep until I was woken by a scream. A bloodcurdling, piercing scream that made me jump up, then sit as still as I could, hearing nothing but the sound of my pulse in my ears until I tried to figure out what on earth I had heard. Another of McTurk’s attempts to scare me? Or was it a fox? An animal being killed? Kelpie!
After ten minutes of frozen fear I managed to creep from my bed to the window. The night was bright in the moonlight and to my relief I could see Kelpie in the field, grazing contentedly, his tail swishing. He seemed unperturbed; perhaps I had dreamed the noise. My breathing and my racing heart slowly returned to normal. All the same, I didn’t settle properly again that night.
Two days later, the local Police Officer came, along with another Officer from Glasgow. McTurk had been reported missing. I told them I hadn’t seen him since that afternoon with Kelpie, although I’d heard screaming in the night, which I’d assumed was something to do with him. They raised their eyebrows and made some notes, said they’d look into it.
‘If you see him, please let us know,’ the local Policeman said. ‘Now, isn’t that a stunning horse?’
He walked over to Kelpie, who looked up and took a couple of paces towards us.
‘He really is. He isn’t mine though.’
‘Isn’t he? I’ve never seen him around here before. Who does he belong to?’
‘No one as far as I know, although it doesn’t look like it. He’s been here since years though, he wanders around, has done since I was a child. My Granny used to call him Kelpie.’
The Policeman laughed. ‘Very apt.’
I looked at him. ‘I don’t get it? I never really knew what the name meant.’
‘You don’t know what a Kelpie is? It’s a shape-shifting water spirit, famous in Scottish folklore. They often take the form of a horse. Evil things, they can be. They would lure travellers onto their backs, then charge headlong into the river and drown them.’
I looked at Kelpie, who stared back at me through his tousled mane. I felt goose bumps on my bare arms.
‘Aye, the only way to tame one is to get its bridle. Once you have the bridle you can make the Kelpie do whatever you want.’
I gripped the fence, suddenly dizzy. I looked at the horse, look right into those dark, shining eyes. I thought of McTurk, and I thought of the tattered, leather bridle hanging in the hallway. I thought of me wishing I could get rid of McTurk, and I thought of the unexplained screaming in the night.
‘Kelpie?’ I said, barely whispering the word.
The bright eyes stared right back at mine. They blinked a couple of times, then Kelpie lowered his head, whinnied then turned and walked towards the river.