Welcome to our new Saturday feature, each week we will publish one short story. To kick start the feature we have Laura Clay author of ‘Hooves Above The Waves’. Enjoy our new weekly event and huge thanks to Laura for cutting the virtual red ribbon.
Laura’s short fiction has been published by Scottish Book Trust, 26, Freight Books, and as part of the Dangerous Women project. As a UNESCO Emerging Writer, she read at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of Story Shop. She is currently querying her first YA urban fantasy novel.
Loch na Beiste
A short story by Laura Clay
The locals had laughed when Murdo said he was going to drain Loch na Beiste and find the kelpie living at the bottom.
They were still laughing as his assistants whipped on the struggling horses, dragging cartloads of his equipment along the stony path to the shore.
‘Och, you’re away with the fairies,’ his wife had said that morning, while he’d pulled on his tweed jacket and straightened his bow tie in the mirror. ‘There’s no beast in there.’
‘Jean, I wouldn’t expect you to understand such scientific matters,’ said Murdo with a dismissive wave, as he left the house and began inspecting his horses.
So far, five fishing expeditions had been called off because of the creature, and one crew had vanished altogether. It was costing Murdo manpower, but more importantly it was costing him money. It wasn’t like he was getting any younger. The family lodge was far from its glorious heyday; the suits of armour lining the halls were rusty, the mounted stag heads wearing chipped antlers. One of his ungrateful sons would soon have the thankless task of squeezing an income out of the wilderness around it. He sighed, pulled his cap over his greying hair and climbed onto his personal carriage. One of the locals was accompanying him that day, a tall boy with pale skin and black hair swept around his cheeks, hiding his face.
‘Is everything ready?’ Murdo asked.
‘Yes, Mr McLeod,’ said the boy without turning round.
Murdo peered at him. ‘Here, Calum, I haven’t seen you around for a while.’
‘Well, I had to take a few extra jobs. What with the rent going up.’
Calum stared straight ahead and adjusted his coat collar. ‘The other lads were talking about how you’re paying well for this work, so I thought I’d offer my services.’
Murdo sighed. ‘Times are tough. I’ve done everything I could to help out my tenants, but this just couldn’t be helped.’
He patted Calum on the back in a half-hearted gesture of reassurance, and whipped the horse into action. The Highlands crowded around him, mountains carpeted in emeralds, reflected in the still water’s surface. Above him, the sky was boiling with clouds, threatening to burst at any moment.
‘So, what exactly is the point of bringing all this gear to the loch?’ asked Calum.
‘Profit, dear Calum, profit,’ said Murdo, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. ‘The damned beast at the bottom of that loch is bad for business.’
‘And what’s the equipment for?’
‘To drain the water, of course! And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to send for several tons of lime. If we don’t beach it, we’ll poison it.’
A small smile crept over Calum’s handsome features. ‘You want to empty the entire loch just to find the kelpie? But… won’t that kill all the fish as well?’
Murdo’s confident expression faltered at Calum’s words. ‘I’ve planned this operation for months. I can live with losing a few fish. Don’t worry yourself with grown-up matters, son.’
He cracked the reins harder. Calum winced. ‘There’s no need for that,’ he muttered.
‘Time is money, boy. Customers are leaving in droves. If nobody comes to hunt and fish, we’re all in trouble.’
The wind grew stronger, whistling through the rocks and nearly knocking Murdo’s cap off. He cursed under his breath. Once the kelpie was dead, he’d throw the keys to the lodge at his eldest son, leave him to revive the flagging business venture, and buy a one-way train ticket to London. Every storm that whirled over the hills seemed to blow away a little more of his sanity.
A briny smell drifted towards him, and he wrinkled his nose. ‘So, do you fish here?’ he asked his companion.
‘Oh, yes, all the time. It runs in the family, I suppose.’
The horse came to a halt by the lochside, sending large chunks of mud flying into Murdo’s face, but somehow missing Calum completely. Murdo climbed down from the carriage, puffing and panting from the effort, and landed on the grass with a heavy thud. Loch na Beiste was as unwelcoming as the beast that gave it its name. It stretched underneath the hills, hiding from the daylight, grasping for the dark stream beyond. Reeds prickled its surface, spreading out from two islands covered with thorny bushes. If there were any fish, there was no evidence of them.
Achgarve’s laird busied himself inspecting the equipment he’d bought from a merchant in Liverpool. The pump was attached to a wheel covered in buckets, and looked like it ought to house a fairground carousel rather than the sturdy horse Murdo had brought. If the damned animal had to take breaks, he’d brought a whole cartload of hand pumps for his men. They’d grumbled about being recruited for Murdo’s project instead of fishing on the loch- they’d even refused his generous pay offer- but a spot of good old-fashioned blustering and threats of eviction had done the trick in the end. After all, the debtors were visiting Murdo’s door every day now.
‘So, just in case it decides to appear, what does this kelpie look like?’ asked Calum.
Murdo thought for a moment. ‘My lads tell me it looks like an upturned boat in the water.’ He paused, as if daring Calum to come up with a witty retort. ‘When it comes ashore, they say it basks on the sand. It has a horse’s head and a great, sleek body.’
Calum started to untie the mouldy hoses on one of the other carts. ‘Killed much, has it?’
‘Five of my men so far. Lost count of the others.’
‘Sounds like you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of one.’
‘He’s got on the wrong side of me, Calum.’ Murdo rubbed his hands together. ‘Don’t worry, though- we’ll soon have him stuffed and displayed in the lodge.’
‘You’re going to exhibit the kelpie?’
‘Of course! Guaranteed income, and my achievement will be preserved for posterity.’
‘Oh, I’m sure everyone will remember you for a long time,’ Calum murmured.
Eight hours later, Murdo was pacing up and down, watching his men driving the horse in circles and working the hand pumps. The creaking echoed through every fold of the mountains, as baleful as a banshee’s wail. Adding insult to injury, the rain had begun to fall, great round drops drumming on the worn machinery and pooling on the scrubby grass.
‘Faster! Come on!’ Murdo strode up and prodded one of the men in the sides in a vain attempt to chivvy him on.
‘It’s no use, sir,’ the man puffed, taking his arms off the pump and letting them flop uselessly by his sides. ‘There’s no way we’ll get all the water out.’
The horse let out a snort and sank down on the mud, already worn out from ferrying Murdo to the loch. Several more workers ran to its side, stroking its black coat and shouting encouragements, to no avail.
Murdo drew himself up to his full height. ‘I was specifically told this lot would drain the loch in a day. Two at the most. You must be doing it wrong.’
Calum watched the scene unfold from his spot on a nearby rock, swinging his long legs back and forth, smiling. Seeing him so relaxed, Murdo folded his arms and glared.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Oh, nothing. It’s just…’ Calum gestured at the giant pipes in the channel they’d cut leading to the stream at the loch’s end. ‘It’s just that every time you pump water out, more will just come in the other side. You could keep this up for years and still not empty the loch.’
Splash. The loch’s surface rippled briefly.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s only a fathom deep,’ grumbled Murdo, pulling out a sheet of paper. ‘My men worked it all out.’
‘Mm, but it’s very wide, though. And with the rains we’ve been having this week,’ said Calum, folding his legs underneath him, ‘I’d be surprised if you managed to keep up with nature.’
The young man’s wit finally broke the last of Murdo’s patience. He marched up, his face twitching in irritation, and pointed a finger at Calum.
‘You seem to know an awful lot about this loch. What makes you the expert, exactly?’
‘I wouldn’t say I’m an expert. But I’ve got a bit of… local knowledge.’
Splash. This time, several bubbles erupted along with a muffled, distant voice.
Calum brushed his hair behind his ears and turned to the laird. Murdo’s hand trembled and dropped to his side when he saw the boy’s eyes. They were an unearthly shade of blue, sparkling in the dim midday light. Shaking his head as if to clear his doubts, Murdo moved closer.
‘I’ve been laird of this estate for thirty years. I spend all my time looking out for the interests of my tenants. And I don’t take too kindly to upstarts like you muscling in.’
A screeching sound cut through the men’s grunting and set Murdo’s teeth on edge. He turned to the rasping, groaning pumps behind him and jabbed a finger at them. ‘If I were you, Calum, I’d get up and start doing something useful.’
‘Useful, huh? Alright.’
Calum leapt gracefully from his perch and sauntered over to the dwindling crowd of workers toiling at their useless task. Murdo sat down on the rock, staring out at the loch’s roiling waters, wondering how his meticulous plans could fall to pieces so easily. The noise of the hand pumps had faded to a plaintive croak; Murdo assumed his men had given up and taken a break. His hands ran across the rock’s surface and stopped. Under his fingertips, where Calum’s hands had been, he could feel three ragged grooves torn into the stone.
‘What’s the meaning of this?’ he murmured.
The sound of cracking and screaming filled the air. Murdo got to his feet and turned around. The pump was deserted. An upturned boat floated in the shallows, next to the remains of an outstretched hand. Murdo watched as the boat shifted upwards, its surface turning pale, human features carving themselves from the wood.
‘Sorry, Mr. McLeod, I don’t think I’ve been very useful at all.’
Calum was leaning against a pump, grinning, and nodded towards the other man. Like Calum, his face was deathly pale, strands of dark hair framing his face. His long fingers clutched at his sides, his brow furrowed with discomfort. When Murdo’s eyes travelled downwards, his face reddened at both men’s distinct lack of clothes.
‘What’s going on?’ snapped Murdo, running a hand across his clammy brow. ‘Who are you?’
Calum’s companion said nothing, but simply pointed at the horse-drawn pump. The horse was gone, a trail of hoofprints leading towards the water.
‘Looks like you’ll just have to do without the extra workforce,’ said Calum.
The laird’s mouth moved wordlessly for a moment as he processed what had happened.
‘You mean there’s more than one of… but where… where are my men?’
‘Afraid they had a rather unfortunate accident,’ said the newcomer. ‘All drowned.’
‘Drowned? But how could…’
Murdo’s voice died in his throat as Calum and his companion strode forward. A stray beam of sunlight caught their yellowing fangs, a few drops of crimson staining their sharp points.
‘We couldn’t have you wiping us out. Too many of us are getting killed as it is,’ said Calum. ‘Or used to haul you around,’ he added with a scowl, pointing at his friend.
‘If you work your men as hard as you worked me, I don’t think you’ll be missed,’ said Murdo’s horse, closing in on his master. Murdo winced at the fresh scarlet lines left on the kelpie’s body by his whip.
‘Now, let’s be reasonable about this!’ he spluttered. He pulled off his cap, twisting it between his hands. ‘We’re all gentlemen here… I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement…’
‘I’m not sure we can. Sorry.’ The other creature wiped his hands on his legs, leaving a bright red trail. ‘On the plus side, that first course was fantastic.’
(c) Laura Clay, 2016
Long-forgotten creatures stir beneath a desolate Highland loch. Ordinary men with extraordinary powers realise they don’t have to play the heroes. A shipwrecked sailor wakes up in a remote lighthouse, far from home, and realises his safe haven is not as it seems.
Three supernatural stories by Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Emerging Writer Laura Clay, inspired by the landscape and mythology of Scotland. Features Loch na Bèiste, read at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Story Shop initiative.
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