THE TALE TELLER
by Constance Brewer
With a howl the wind shook the tavern and rattled the shutters, persistent as a terrier with a cornered rat. Caught in the storm’s teeth, patrons of the Briar and Bramble clutched their bar stools, cuddled their pints close, and whiskey closer.
A worn man with craggy face and a thoughtful grin stood, cleared his throat, and raised his glass high.
“Blow, blow, winter wind…
Yer tooth is not so keen
Because you aren’t seen,
Although yer breath be rude—”
Good-natured jeering greeted his recitation. “Sit down, old man, the whiskey on your breath would give the wind pause.”
Tavis McElravy grinned and knocked back his drink. He finished and banged his glass on the wooden table just as the inn door flew open and rattled the wall. Tendrils of mist and a splatter of rain swept into the room along with a bedraggled figure, wild-eyed and spirit pale. Water dripped from disheveled strands of copper-tinged hair and darkened the shoulders of his sodden wool coat.
All eyes fixed on the sight. The man surveyed the startled occupants a moment before he stammered out, “H-h-help? Did you not hear me callin’ for help?” The foreign accent dropped into the silence with a thud.
The regulars gawked; a rough-hewn tableau of pints froze halfway to thirsty lips.
“We heard not a thing over the blasted wind!” growled McElravy. “Close that damned door, Johnny! You’re lettin’ the outside in and the inside out!”
“Sorry. I forgot about the weather, awful weather we be havin’, every day this week the weather’s been terrible with the rain and blowin’ and–” The man swiped a sleeve across his nose and glanced around. “Oh, God, I wish you had heard me a callin’!” He gave the open door a kick. It closed like a shot and brought the patrons from their stupor. They sprang up and swarmed the scruffy young man.
“Wot happened?” the barkeep asked as he shouldered his way forward. The small crowd parted, dinghies before his tugboat.
“Oh, Alistair, it was terrible, just terrible!” the young man sobbed. “I called and called and no one came.” He swayed and fell towards the barkeep who grabbed and held the young man a half arm’s length away.
“Wot troubles have befallen you, lad?” Alistair tugged the wet coat from Johnny’s shoulders and hung it over a chair. “Tell us.”
The crowd edged closer.
“What happened?” Johnny repeated. He glanced at the bright-eyed crowd gathered around him.
“Tell us, Johnny!” they urged.
Johnny peered up from under long eyelashes. “I don’t know how to start. Perhaps … No, ’tis too late.” He fumbled his way to an empty chair and sat heavily. “I feel faint.” He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his forehead.
“A whiskey, Alistair. Get the boy a whiskey!” Tavis McElravy cried. “He’s suffered a shock he has. You know these bookish types canna handle a wee upset. ”
Alistair gave a hard sniff, jerked his grizzled head in a nod, retreated behind the bar and poured two fingers full of amber liquid in a glass. He stuffed the bottle back under the bar before he returned and set the glass in front of the young man.
Johnny sat with eyes closed a moment longer, picked up the shot and tossed back the contents. His eyes opened wide and he took several breaths as the raw liquor worked its way down. “Ah.”
The crowd leaned in again.
“Tell us, Johnny! Wot happened?” Tavis said.
“It was terrible,” Johnny said again. He sat up straight in the chair and glanced around to make sure he had the bar’s full attention.
“Raibert and I were comin’ to town, comin’ to this very place as a matter of fact,” Johnny said. “We were comin’ to celebrate.”
“Celebrate?” Alistair asked, shooing the people back with a wave. “Give the lad some air, now!”
“Tell us!” Tavis urged again. The wiry sheep farmer hopped from foot to foot in anticipation.
“Raibert came to me cottage last night. I was the first to hear the news.” Johnny sniffed and dashed a hand across his eyes. “He asked Nathaira to marry him and she agreed!”
Tavis landed on both feet with a thud and clapped his hands together. “We were bettin’ on if it would be you or Raibert that won the lass,” he said. “Seein’ as you both be University men and all that.”
“Johnny here has a way with words he does,” a man agreed.
“Wot lass could refuse the pretty tales Johnny tells?” someone else asked.
“Raibert could recite a poem with the best of them!” a tanner protested.
“There’s more to a marriage then tellin’ stories,” the first man said.
Johnny held up a hand. “We both wanted her but it be Raibert who won her. I was happy for him, very happy. I didn’t think I had a chance, not bein’ from these parts. That’s not what has me so upset. We were comin’ here to tell everyone when … when …” Johnny placed his hands over his eyes. Tavis patted his arm and Johnny gave a loud sniff before he dropped his hands. “We were walkin’ along the banks of the loch when Raibert spied a horse grazin’ by the road. It was a magnificent beastie, just like in the picture books of Araby. Big brown eyes and a face as pretty as that of Nathaira.”
The crowd leaned forward until their breath tickled Johnny’s face and neck. He shivered.
“Wot happened?” Alistair demanded.
“I warned Raibert t’was too good to be true, I warned him I did. But Raibert, he wouldn’t listen! He just had to have that horse. The beastie wore a handsome bridle with tiny gold bells. There were even tassels on the reins, just like the pictures. Raibert said it was the bonniest pony he’d ever seen and he wanted it for Nathaira. Before I could stop him he jumped on the horse’s back!”
Tavis gasped. “You never mount a strange horse near the Loch. Everyone here knows that. It could be a creature of the Fae!”
Johnny nodded. “Aye. That it were. As soon as he mounted, the horse rared up and took off. It ran right into the water, Raibert screamin’ for it to stop!”
The crowd let out a collective groan and swayed forward, eyes gleaming.
“No matter how hard he tried, Raibert couldn’t get off the horse!” Johnny continued. “It swam for the middle of the Loch, I tried to help, I jumped in the water and made to grab the horse’s tail but Raibert yelled at me, ‘Go back, go back, it be enchanted!'”
Johnny took a deep breath and paused to look each villager in the eye. “All I could do is watch as that vile, magick beastie swam to the deep water and dove, taking poor Raibert to the bottom with him.” Johnny sniffed, and a few tears rolled down his face. He held up his glass with an imploring look at Alistair. “I waded back to shore and waited and waited but I never saw Raibert come to the surface.”
Alistair took the glass but made no move to refill it. “So, lad, what do you think became of poor Raibert?”
Johnny shook his head and clucked his tongue. “I fear Raibert is no more. An evil kelpie murdered my best friend!”
The next morning the people of the village scoured the banks of the loch. It was Johnny who gave a yell and pointed into the reeds by the water’s edge. Alistair waded out the few feet to retrieve the dark, slimy object. He held it up for the people before he splashed to the shore. There were gasps and murmurs of upset. “Wot is it?” someone asked.
Alistair turned the object around in his hands. “A liver.”
“It must be Raibert’s!” Johnny said. “I read all about it at University. Kelpies eat their victims, all but the liver, they can’t abide liver, so that’s all that’s left.”
“Aye, my poor Raibert,” a woman said as she stepped from the crowd and threw back the hood that covered her head. Petite and graceful, she had a wild mane of curly brown hair that framed a round face and sea-gray eyes. Green silk ribbons wove through her hair and danced in the light breeze. “Killed by a kelpie say you, Johnny Boy? ‘Tis a misfortune, kelpies hereabouts have been watchin’ over us for generations.” She pressed a strong hand to her heart a moment before she tightened the ground length cloak around her. “Poor, trusting, Raibert.”
Johnny gave her a smile, and reached for her hand, grasped it tightly. “Oh, Nathaira. I am grieved by your loss, truly I am. What a tragedy, your husband to be and my best friend ripped from our side.” He looked at the people around them. “Until this vile beastie is caught and killed perhaps we best not be hangin’ about the loch’s edge. You know what they say, once a wild thing develops a taste for human flesh–”
The villagers edged away from the water. The mists began to gather over Loch Etive and shroud the surrounding hills, curious fingers of fog that stretched towards the village.
“Well, we best be plannin’ a burial,” Alistair said.
The crowd muttered agreement, and as quickly as they’d gathered, they left. Tavis McElravy led the way, reverently carrying the earthly remains of Raibert Duncan.
The funeral was short. The drinking crowd retired to the Brair and Bramble ten minutes after they planted Raibert Duncan’s boxed liver in a corner of the cemetery. Johnny heaved a dramatic sigh, and sank into a rickety chair. The sigh attracted the attention of the barkeep. Johnny raised a hand. “I need whiskey, Alistair. A shot of your best to get me through these tryin’ times.” He sighed again. “I need to raise a glass in tribute to my dear departed friend.”
The regulars gathered around and offered words of sympathy and pats on the arm. Alistair brought a glass of amber liquid and waited. Johnny stared at him wide eyed; until it became obvious the barkeep wasn’t about to relinquish the glass without payment. Johnny patted the wool coat, searched through and came up empty. He dug in his trousers and pulled out a silver coin. Johnny turned it in his fingers a moment before he slapped it into Alistair’s outstretched hand.
“Real money, Johnny? You rob a bank or somethin’?”
“I came into some coin recently,” Johnny said with dignity, “Buy a round for the house, in honor of me dear friend, Raibert.”
Alistair raised an eyebrow, took the silver, set the glass down and left to pour the round of drinks. The sympathetic villagers kept Johnny company, pressed more drinks in his hand, begged for a retell of Raibert and the devil horse. It was late afternoon before Johnny announced his departure. He stood, staggered a bit, regained his equilibrium and went to the entry. He opened it to step out, and let loose with a piercing scream. Everyone rushed to the door.
“Wot?” Alistair asked. He shouldered his way through the throng to the front.
Johnny could only point, hand trembling. On the top step lay a dark, slimy object the size of a good lamb chop.
“It looks like meat,” Alistair said. He reached down and poked a finger into the mass. “It feels fresh, too. Wonder how it got here? Someone’s idear of a joke?” He pushed back the ever present beret and scratched an ear.
“Maybe Johnny’s dog dug it up out of Raibert’s grave,” a man commented.
“I don’t have a dog!” Johnny replied.
“Sure you do, a black ‘un, shaggy as all git out and big as a bull calf. I seen it followin’ you to the tavern this mornin’,” Tavis said.
“I don’t have a dog,” Johnny repeated in a faint voice. He glanced out the door, trembling.
“I’ll take care of this,” Tavis said. “You best be getting’ on home, Johnny. You don’t look so good.”
“Aye, the trauma of losin’ your closest friend must be settin’ in,” Alistair said. He put a hand on Johnny’s back and gave him a shove. “Run along home, lad. It will all be better in the mornin’.”
Johnny stumbled down the lone step, straightened and looked around. “Aye, I best be getting’ on home,” he repeated. “I’ll make a big fire and cook me supper,” Johnny said in a louder voice. “A big, bright fire.” He stepped off and headed up the street. The mists held a firm grip on the land, visibility was reduced, and the fog changed the familiar into sinister shapes. Rain misted steadily from the leaden sky.
Nearby, a horse stamped a foot. Johnny walked down the dead center of the road. Hooves clopped in rhythm to jingling bells. Johnny stopped.
The hoofbeats stopped.
He looked behind him. Johnny saw no horse, only the faint outline of a big, black dog. The dog’s fiery eyes watched him with an unblinking stare. Johnny swallowed, turned, and walked more quickly. He could still hear the sound of bells, but when he looked over his shoulder he saw nothing. Johnny veered left at the crossing to avoid the loch road and took the one along the riverbank. Around a wide bend, a horse stood beside the road. It wore a gold trimmed bridle, and bells hung from the reins.
“I will not fall for your tricks, Creature. Kelpies are not real. They be fairy-tales. I’ve been to the University, I know.” Johnny walked by the horse, and ignored its soft whicker and the enticing look in its green eyes. “You’re not real,” Johnny repeated. “Fae creatures are tales made up by superstitious villagers. I’m an educated man, I’ve read books. Be gone!”
The horse vanished.
A soft splash sounded from the river. A few meters ahead of Johnny stood another horse, gray as the mists, with a silver trimmed bridle and tassels hung from the reins. It turned liquid green eyes on Johnny and neighed softly.
Johnny turned back towards the village. The black dog materialized from the haze and stood in his path. It made no sound, merely stared at him with burning eyes. More splashing came from the river. One by one, horses appeared from the fog, decked in fancy bridles covered with gems and precious metals. Seaweed-strewn manes billowed as the horses whickered in discordant tones and tossed their heads. Johnny pressed his hands to his ears and bolted, straight between them, down the winding river road towards the cottage he rented. He made it inside, slammed the door and threw the bolt with shaking hands.
“I’ve just had too much to drink, that’s all.” He tossed the wool coat on a chair. “It’s nothin’. Alcohol on an empty stomach. A spot of supper and I’ll be fine.” He stirred up the coals and hung a kettle of stew over the fire to heat. “Maybe a swig of water to rinse the taste of whisky from me mouth.”
He walked to the bucket by the door and picked up the ladle. There was no water in it. Johnny frowned and dipped the ladle in the bucket. It felt empty but something lay at the bottom. He reached in. His hand struck a soft, slimy object. Johnny pulled it out.
The liver sat in his hand, dark and dripping. Johnny shrieked and scrabbled at the door. He grasped the bolt, yanked it back, tore open the door and flung the liver into the yard. It sailed over the head of the black dog to hit the ground with a soft plop.
Johnny slammed the door, threw the bolt, and leaned on it, heart threatening to pound its way free of his chest. “It’s not real.”
He went to a wooden chest near his cot and dug inside. Johnny pulled out a knife and laid it on the table. Next he pulled out a pint of whisky and set that by the knife, picked up a carved wooden bowl, blew the crumbs out, and used another ladle to dish up stew. His hands trembled so much the stew slopped over the edges. He ignored the mess on the floor and sat, dipped his spoon in and brought it towards his mouth. A chunk of meat sat on the spoon, dark and shiny. Johnny hadn’t had meat since he stole a lamb from McElravy a month before. He looked in his bowl. Chunks of meat glistened, edges bloody and raw.
Johnny slapped the bowl aside. It scattered the contents across the floor in a trail of slime. Shaken, Johnny reached for the bottle of whisky and his dirty glass. He poured. Instead of a stream of amber something thick and red oozed from the lip. Johnny slammed the bottle back on the table but the glass continued to fill itself with red liquid until it spilled over the rim.
The fluid arrowed across the table, straight for Johnny. He leapt to his feet with a screech, knocked the chair back. The liquid streamed off the edge of the table, and pooled on the floor a moment before it stretched itself into a ribbon and lapped at Johnny’s boots.
“You’re not real!” Johnny grabbed the wool coat, threw it over the puddle, and stomped down. He watched for several minutes, but the liquid didn’t run out from under the coat. He left the coat on the floor, crawled into his bed, and wrapped a blankets around his shoulders. The fire died slowly, night passed to dawn but Johnny lay stiff as a board and stared up at the low-beamed ceiling with wide eyes.
The morning light looked friendly. Johnny took the water bucket and cautiously opened the door. There were no horses, no black dog, nothing but the creeping mists. He stepped out, hesitated. He could get water from the river or wait until he got to the village to drink from the well. After a glance at the river and the scattered fog along its edge, he chose the well.
Johnny tossed the bucket in the cottage, grabbed his coat off the floor and headed down the road before the mists could overtake him. He hurried along the river road, hands tucked deep in his pockets. Halfway to town, where the road turned to parallel the loch he felt the hairs on his neck rise and glanced behind him. The black dog followed. “Shoo! Go away!”
The dog faded a few steps before it followed again.
“Leave me alone!” Johnny found a rock and threw it at the dog. The rock bounced and skittered to the side. The dog didn’t move, it just waited, patient expression on its fearsome face.
Johnny whirled and started for the village. A few meters around a bend a rough and shaggy man stood by the side of the road, waterweeds tangled in his hair. He raised a hand.
“You’re not real,” Johnny said and swept by, nose in the air. The next bend revealed a beautiful young woman with green eyes and dark hair. Johnny mistook her for Nathaira, until he noticed the seaweed plaited through her hair and finned hooves in place of feet. “Leave me be!”
Johnny ran the rest of the way to the village and didn’t stop until he stood panting at the well, dizzy and weak, head pounding. His thirst made him nauseous. He lowered the bucket, drew it up and set it on the stone edge before he grabbed one of the ladles hung on the wooden cross piece.
He dipped the ladle into the bucket. It met resistance. Johnny tipped the bucket on its side. A glistening liver flopped to the ground with a gentle plop.
Johnny screamed. He threw the ladle on the ground. A few villagers came running and Tavis McElravy altered course from the Briar and Bramble to make a beeline for the well.
“What ails you, lad?” Tavis asked as he limped over. “Are you hurt? You’re bleedin’.”
“Where, where?” Johnny turned frantically around in a circle.
“Right here on your side, lad, there’s a great bloody spot.”
Johnny twisted to look. A russet mark stained the coat, right above the hip. “No, that’s not my blood.”
“Whose is it then?”
“The liver!” Johnny whirled and pointed at the ground near the well.
Tavis stared at the damp spot on the ground, raised an eyebrow. “The liver, you say? What liver?” He looked blank for a moment before his eyes grew wide. “Raibert’s liver? You think…? Oh, lad….”
“It was the liver!” Johnny stared at the dark outline on the ground.
Tavis clucked his tongue. “Been hittin’ the bottle a might early, Johnny?” He dipped the ladle into the bucket and took a drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and dropped the ladle back into the bucket. “I’d knock off the whisky for a while. Let poor Raibert rest in peace.” Tavis ambled away.
Johnny picked up the ladle and dipped it into the bucket. It struck something soft. He didn’t even pull the dipper out, just left it and backed away. Johnny glanced around and spotted the dog. It sat in the middle of the road and stared at him. Johnny turned away and headed for the inn.
Inside, he raised a shaking hand to attract the attention of the barkeep. Alistair looked at him, waited a moment, looked away. Johnny dug in the coat, and came up with another silver. He stared at it, dumbfounded. It wasn’t there yesterday+. Johnny shook his head, held up the silver and waved it to get Alistair’s attention. The barkeep nodded and brought a glass and the bottle.
“Come into more coin, have you, Johnny?”
“This be the last of it.”
Alistair set the whiskey down, took the silver, and vanished back behind the bar. Johnny eyed the amber liquid. It stayed amber as he stared at it. Johnny finally picked up the bottle and poured. The liquid ran into the glass, amber, but when he went to bring it to his lips, it was red. He set the glass down and got up from the table. “I changed me mind, Alistair. All I want is some water. I’m through with whiskey, forever.”
The barkeep shrugged, fished a mug out from under the counter, filled it. He set it on the end of the bar and went to another customer. Johnny lifted the mug and peered into it. It looked like water. His thirst was such that he thought he’d faint if he didn’t drink. He sped the mug to his lips and took a big draught. Salty seaweed filled his mouth, along with slick leaves and a coppery tang. Something slimy tried to pass his teeth.
Johnny promptly spit everything on the floor; stomach heaving, and dropped the mug. It shattered. The inn patrons stared at him, mouths agape. He ran to the door, tore it open and bolted down the road, dashing from well to well. He could drink from none of them. Sobbing, Johnny stumbled home. The mists floated, light, and he saw eyes in the deep pools of the river, eyes topped by pointed ears and a forelock made of seaweed. The eyes watched him.
Johnny trotted on unsteady legs.
The thing in the river followed, gliding, a few ripples marked its passage through the water. Rough men and women stood on one side of the road, beautiful women and handsome men on the other. They watched. Behind Johnny the great black dog with smoldering eyes trotted silently.
Horses decked out so fine it would make a thief weep cantered alongside him and whickered incessantly. Johnny made it to his cottage and slammed the door, intending to stay inside until the things that watched went away. Tormenting thirst drove him back to the village well a few hours later. Again he did not draw up water but something heavy and soft. He could drink nothing at the Briar and Bramble, even milk turned crimson in his mug. He gave up on the village and went home.
The next morning terrible thirst drove him to the edge of the river. When bulging eyes, pointy ears, and seaweed manes broke the surface, he backed away to wander, sobbing dry tears. His muscles convulsed and the spasms made him stagger and twitch. As the hours passed, days slid to nights, and back again, Johnny’s eyes sunk into their sockets. A villager on the road took one look at him and ran the other way as Johnny tried to speak around a dry, cracked tongue.
Johnny roamed aimlessly through the heavy mists, followed by an entourage of shaggy men, beautiful women, fine horses, and the great, black dog. The horses cantered through the river shallows and kicked up great arcing sprays of water with their hooves.
Their gentle nickering drove him mad.
Evening found Johnny near the banks of Loch Etive. He stared out. Small waves foamed out of the mists and raced toward him across the loch. Water. Lovely, precious water. Thirst drove him to the edge but when eyes, ears, and sea green manes broke the surface of the water he backed away to wander again, sobbing. Johnny roamed aimlessly through the heavy mists, followed by his silent entourage and the whickering horses. Sunset found him again at Loch Etive. Great bulging eyes cleared the surface of the water. Ears pricked forward. The eyes watched with interest as Johnny paced the banks.
Johnny looked at the dark equine eyes and licked his lips. The eyes sank until they were only half exposed, ears flattened to near invisibility. Johnny flung himself down to dip a trembling hand, and brought it to his mouth.
Blessed water rolled over his parched tongue, and down a dry throat. He shoveled water into his mouth by the hand full, awareness limited to nothing but the precious liquid.
A sudden pressure on his back caused him to pause, thirst unquenched. Before Johnny could cry out the weight on his back and shoulders increased and forced his head into the loch, under the water. Eyes wide, he peered through the swirling tendrils of waterweeds, down into the misty depths. His screams turned to gurgles as the air was forced from his lungs. The last thing he saw appeared from the murk with mouth agape, and gleaming equine eyes.
Johnny’s body jerked out from under the strong hands holding it down and disappeared. The surface of the loch roiled and bubbled, then stopped. One stray bubble rose to the surface and popped. All was still. The mists receded across the water and the moon broke through the clouds to illuminate the now peaceful banks of Loch Etive.
Tavis McElravy arranged for the several of the villagers to take the pieces of Johnny away and bury it next to Raibert Duncan. After they left, Tavis, Nathaira, and Alistair lingered. Nathaira’s long cloak flapped open in the soft breeze, revealing a filmy underdress of weed green.
“Why would Johnny go swimmin’ in the loch at night?” Tavis asked, “That be insanity.”
“Poor lad had a drinkin’ problem,” Alistair replied with a shrug.
“Aye,” Tavis said. “T’is a pity. All the book learnin’ in the world won’t save a man from his own demons. Ah well, I best be getting’ back to me home before the wife comes lookin’.” He gave Alistair a nod and trotted off down the road.
Alistair reached out to tuck a stray strand of curly hair behind Nathaira’s ear. “I’m sorry about Raibert, child. He would have made a fine husband.”
“Aye, that he would have.” Nathaira said. “Johnny never listened, so full of his own talk was he.” She shrugged.
“Some people cannot see wot’s right in front of them,” Alistair replied. “We could have helped the lad, had he only asked.”
Nathaira closed strong fingers around a flat rock and sent it skipping out over the calm waters of the sea loch. Eight, nine, ten times it hopped and jumped before it gave in and sank. The ripples hadn’t yet dissipated before the rock came skipping back, propelled with such finesse that it landed directly in front of Natharia. She picked up the flat stone, examined the surface, slid it into one pocket of her cloak before she turned away from the tranquil water. “Ask? Johnny’s problem was that he read all our stories at University… but he never truly believed them.”