BIWC Writing Challenge 2021

CHAPTER 4

Gary O'Brien

Eleanor clawed her way onto shore. She retched once, twice, then vomited up a violent mix of water, bile and tree root that left her gasping for air. Once she emptied her stomach and regained control of her breathing, she collapsed onto the ground beside the mess and rolled onto her back.

Her head throbbed, a chill gripped her, and her lungs weighed heavy in her chest. I should have brought my inhaler. She looked skywards, spears of moonlight piercing the forest’s canopy. Was the moon always that bright?

One ray reached down through the leaves to touch the surface of the newly formed pool that filled the hollow before her. Eleanor propped herself up on her elbows and studied the water. Was that there before? Then it all flooded back to her. The hound. The feeling of power welling inside her and the bolts of blue energy she had summoned from her hands. The sense of terror as the water rose. Drowning. Someone grabbing her wrist . . . or something.


A jolt of fear made her sit up quickly. She scanned the dark walls of the forest, listening for a few moments. When she was sure she was alone, she let out a small sigh of relief.


Alone.

Instinctively, she raised her ring finger to her lips and kissed the silver band. Unlike most standard wedding rings, it had no fitted gemstone. It was unique. Intricate Celtic patterns wove around its circumference, unlike any design Eleanor had ever seen before or since. Yet, the ring was not one of a kind; it had a twin, which Bill still wore. Whenever she had asked him where he had gotten them, he always insisted that he had forged them himself. Of course, that couldn’t be true as Bill had never been much of a handyman, let alone a metalsmith.


Before Eleanor could slip further into fond memories, something tugged at her mind. She frowned at her hands — they seemed different somehow. She chewed her lip in thought. Something had changed since she had summoned blue magic. Then it hit her; they were different! Younger. Her skin was smooth, and she could clearly see the hint of veins beneath. She turned her hands over to find the liver spots that once marked the back of both were gone. Again, she could see the veins, these more prominent. She made two fists and was surprised at the strength of her grip.


She ran a hand over her face, felt the wrinkles that creased her forehead, the crow feet that gathered at the corners of her eyes. Guess it’s just my hands. Not that she minded. Unlike some of her friends, and indeed a younger Sam and Lizzie too, she had never been one for vanity. Still, though, she was excited that the magic had done a far better job than even the most expensive hand cream on the market.

‘Magic,’ she scoffed, glancing at the pool again where a figure was in the process of emerging from its depths. ‘What the hell?’


It was a hairy, naked man. Well, naked to the waist as far as she could tell since he stopped when their eyes locked. Moonlight cast shadows across his face, but she could still make out something odd about its shape. Long angular cheekbones and a chin that almost pointed at the tip. It was lined by an unkempt mass of black hair matted with roots, cattails and bulrushes. The man said nothing, just stood there, head tilted as he regarded her with oversized eyes.

Eleanor stared back, scared to make a sudden move. Then she remembered herself and the power she had used to stave off the demonic hound. She climbed to her feet, clenched her fists and felt the same warm tingling sensation as before. A small part of her noticed that she stood a lot straighter now, too — another gift of magic.


‘Are you going to try to kill me?’ she called out.

‘Why would I do that?’ asked the man, his voice soft and calm.


He speaks. At least that’s something. ‘Everything else seems to be trying.’


‘Not all spirits are malevolent in these parts.’


‘These parts?’ Eleanor glanced around again. ‘Where am I?’

The man raised a brow. ‘You don’t know?’


‘Enlighten me.’


‘These are the ancient paths once walked by the Draoithe.’

‘The Draoithe?’


‘Druids.’


Eleanor frowned. Druids. Pagan priests of history. She vaguely remembered Lizzie doing a project on them in school. Eleanor had made a robe for her the day the project was due to add more authenticity. Bill had tried to help, but in the same way he was no metalsmith, he couldn’t even thread a needle.

‘Where are the druids now?’ she asked.


‘Gone,’ said the man, his voice filled with sorrow. He had a distant look in his eye. ‘They were the wisest and kindest of humans. I thought they had returned when you summoned me.’


‘I didn’t summon — ’ Eleanor looked down at her hands as realisation dawned. The water. Drowning. ‘You saved me.’ She studied the man again. ‘Who are you?’

‘A denizen of the land. The brooks, rivers, and lakes are my home. A water spirit, if you will.’

Water spirits. Of course there were water spirits. Eleanor took a deep breath. ‘Do you know this land well?’


‘I do.’


‘Then can you help me? Again, I mean. I need to get to my friend. He’s a sheep farmer who lives . . .’ she waved a hand at the forest, ‘somewhere near here, I think.’

‘There are no humans that live here any longer,’ said the spirit, the same sadness as before permeating his words.

How far off the road had she wandered? Then a thought came to her. ‘Are there any hills close by?’


The man nodded. ‘There are some to the west beyond the lake and marshes. But the marshes are dangerous, haunted by cruel spirits. My kind avoids the place, and the hills are even more dangerous. None dare venture there.’

‘Damn it!’ snapped Eleanor. She kicked the ground. It was one obstacle after another. The dryad had told her to get to Hal, that he would help her, explain everything. ‘Where are you, Hal?’

‘Hal?’ asked the man, raising a brow. ‘You mean Halion?’


‘Huh?’ It was Eleanor’s turn to raise a brow. ‘Hal. Hal Ferry. He is the friend I am trying to get to.’

‘You’re her,’ said the man, sudden awe in his voice. ‘You are the one called Eileanori.’

Eileanori. That name again. It stirred something in her like before. The scent of fresh earth, the faint sound of a gong. A green-eyed, red-haired woman smiling down at her as she lay in the snow, staring up at a full moon. The dryad’s whispered words came back to her. You do not know how special you are, Eileanori.

A sudden howl pierced the silence of the night, tearing Eleanor from her thoughts. That bloody demonic dog again! A second howl answered, this time to the right, closer than the first; Eleanor’s heart lurched as a third rang out to the left. She looked to the man again. ‘Please, help me.’

The man stared at her for another moment, then sank back into the water, disappearing beneath its surface.


‘Wait!’ cried Eleanor, taking a step towards the pool. She froze at the sound of a fourth howl. I need to run. Even with a revitalisation of strength in her old bones, she knew she could not outpace them, but she had to try.

She made to run when the pool rippled, and another figure emerged, this one far larger and wider, with four legs and a long snout. It took Eleanor a moment to process that it was a large black horse. Its coat sheened in the moonlight like silk. It was beautiful. Magnificent. The horse regarded her with the same eyes as the man.


‘Get on,’ came his voice from the horse’s mouth. ‘I will take you to Halion.’


Eleanor blinked; an old memory twirled in her, her mind adding things together. A water spirit that shapeshifts into a horse. Then realisation dawned. ‘You’re a kelpie!’


‘So, you do know things,’ said the horse.

More information dripped into Eleanor’s mind. ‘You eat children,’ she exclaimed.

‘Only the ones that soil my waters.’ Eleanor couldn’t tell whether the kelpie was joking or being serious. ‘Now get on.’ The creature dipped its front legs, lowering its body closer to the earth.

Eleanor hesitated. Another howl, this one far closer than before, and then she was grabbing the kelpie’s mane and heaving herself onto its back. A wash of damp fur filled her nostrils. The kelpie straightened, took a couple of steps. Eleanor wobbled, then sank her fingers further into its mane to keep her balance.


‘Keep your head down,’ said the kelpie and before Eleanor could ask why, the creature burst forward, kicking into gear faster than a Mitsubishi Colt. They sped towards the trees, and Eleanor ducked her head just in time as they reached the first one, its low menacing branches threatening to break her face if she didn’t.


She heard more howls behind her.

***

The kelpie race through the forest. Water splashed the air where its hooves drummed the earth, droplets spraying Eleanor every now and then as she kept her head low. She clung to the creature, pressed against its soft coat, felt its muscles bunch and release, bunch and release. Hanging branches passed over her like lights in a road tunnel; it was almost soothing.

A howl.


Eleanor jerked awake. They had been riding for what felt like an age. The forest seemed never-ending, its dark walls like a maze trying to trap her. Nonetheless, the kelpie did not stop or turn around, just kept on riding west towards the lake and marshlands it had mentioned.


Its words of warning had stuck with her, but she pushed them further back into her mind. One thing at a time, El. That’s what Bill used to say whenever she let herself get into a fluster about things, big or small, and was close to a panic attack. He always knew how to calm her down and reassure her that everything would be alright no matter what obstacle stood in their way. So much had happened in the last day, from signing over the house and agreeing to move to Lake House Retirement to being driven to a talking tree-woman by a possessed car, then being chased by demonic dogs. And now she was on the back of a creature known for eating little children riding to her old flame. It was all surreal.


Movement to her right caught her eye. A low shadow flitted between trees, matching the kelpie’s pace. It suddenly shifted, darting in from another direction, coming right up behind the kelpie’s right flank.


‘Watch out!’ cried Eleanor as the large hound closed with its jaws wide, tilting its head as it readied to bite at the kelpie’s ankle. There was a loud clap, followed by a high pitched whine, and the next moment, the hound was spiralling back through the air, disappearing into the darkness. Eleanor winced. The kelpie didn’t even break its stride after its hoof connected with the hound’s head.


More shadows appeared in the darkness behind them — half a dozen at a glance — all eyes fixed on Eleanor, a chorus of deep panting growls as they attempted to close the distance.


‘Ride faster!’ she cried, turning back around.


The kelpie said nothing, its attention fixed on the environment ahead. Shafts of moonlight lit their way. A rock formation appeared to the left, its wall riddled with thick roots. Eleanor saw a figure atop it.

The hound leapt through the air, mouth gaping, fangs gleaming and dripping with saliva. The kelpie veered right, and the hound flew past them, teeth clamping down on the air where Eleanor’s head had been a second before. It hit the earth, rolling through the detritus, and was back on its paws in one fluid motion. Then it was chasing them, its pack right behind it. A dozen now.


And then they broke the treeline, forest walls suddenly giving way to open air, grassland, and shrubbery. They were on a gentle slope that dipped down towards a wide lake that stretched as far as Eleanor could see. Its waters glimmered in the moonlight. She could make out its far bank where it merged into an even vaster marshland, a dark smudge across the low horizon. The sight filled her with dread, the kelpie’s warning of cruel spirits coming back to her, but it was outweighed by the hope that came with the silhouettes of hills that rose above the marshland.

Hal is there. I know it!


Noise came from behind them as the pack of hounds burst from the treeline. They sped down the slope after them, closing the distance rapidly, no longer hindered by forest.


The kelpie galloped for the lake. It showed no signs of changing direction as it rode full tilt down the slope toward the water’s edge. Eleanor blinked, mouthed a silent no. Dread churned her stomach; panic clasped around her throat as she realised what the kelpie was about to do. He lied. He’s going to drag me under and devour me like the small children in the stories.


She attempted to pull her hands free of the kelpie’s mane but realised she couldn’t. Her fingers stuck to its hair like glue. The panic clasped tighter. There was nothing she could do. She closed her eyes, thought of Bill and how she would see him again soon. She steeled herself as she waited for the inevitable plunge.

It never came.


Eleanor opened her eyes. The lake waters swirled around her, rippling out beneath the kelpie’s hooves. Beneath? She glanced over her shoulder. The pack of hounds was gathered at the lake’s edge, circling and barking. She turned around and regarded the back of the kelpie’s head. Not all spirits are malevolent in these parts. A mix of relief and pure joy coursed through her as they rode across the lake’s surface towards the far bank.


The Great Escape, Chapter 5/9 will be published on Sunday August 22nd.

Next week's author is LL Prior.



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