Eryn had never been so torn. While her feet marched in one direction, her heart floated in the opposite. You should be going East, it screamed. Yet her mind continued its rhythmic chant: West, West, to save Mindondelu!
To make it worse, the nymph’s silence was stifling. Eryn imagined an aura of disapproval wafting regularly toward herself, and she gritted her teeth. She had already decided not to sleep for the next few days until she reached Mottlewood, or at least an Elvin outpost; what more did this blasted Élegan want? Eryn breathed heavily, presumably alongside the invisible creature, growing tenser with every stride. Finally, the pressure was unbearable.
“I can feel you judging me, Élegan,” she half-shouted. “So, stop! You’re a careless nymph, what do you know about responsibility? I have my duty, to my people, to the elves—even the whole flaming forest may be relying on me!” Whether the passion with which she spoke was true fury or just bottled anxiety, Erin was not sure. Either way, the words came gushing forth in an angry torrent. “When I was chosen to be an ambassador I took the weight of the land on my shoulders. If anything happens to Mindondelu because I took a detour, it would all be my fault. And what if I don’t even survive? What if I get killed by golems on the way there? Then I’d be of no help to anyone, not even Drystan.” Her heart leapt to her throat as she said his name, and bitter tears sprang into her vision. “I have no choice, nymph. I have to go West.” by this sentence her words were quiet, almost impossible to hear. She fought to keep from crying of despair, yet still there was no answer from her companion. She looked up, angrily. “Say something, curse you!” she cried with a loud voice.
It was a few seconds before she heard a rustle of leaves, somewhat far off.
“Were you trying to talk to me?” called the nymph, also in the distance. “Or were you musing to yourself?”
Even more embittered that her rant had been naught but an apostrophe, Eryn stared hard at the forest before her. “Forget it,” she spat. Then she added to herself, quite inaudibly, “Stupid nymph, can’t even keep a straight path without getting distracted.”
“Well I’m sorry if I’m not as eager as you to walk away from a friend in need of saving,” came the nymph’s biting reply, so close that Eryn almost shrank back from the voice in her ear.
It took all Eryn’s strength not to whirl around and lash at the thin air she knew she’d find.
“I suppose for that I won’t even tell you what I’ve been doing for the past hour,” Élegan sneered.
“Like I want to know,” Eryn scoffed.
“Well if you did know, it could shorten your journey several days. But seeing as you don’t need my help…” her voice held a crafty edge.
Unprepared for such good news, Eryn did not have time to suppress the rush of hope that jumped from her lips. “What? What is it? What did you find?”
“First, say you’re sorry,” the nymph ordered. “You hurt my feelings.”
Calling on every thread of diplomatic expertise she’d gained from her time of ambassadorship, Eryn forced a humble apology from her mouth. “I deeply regret my prior indiscretion. Nymphs are valuable members of the forest community, and it would be my greatest shame to offend one.”
The nymph was silent for a moment. “A bit stuffy, but that will have to do,” she sighed.
Eryn stopped and glanced eagerly at the general location of the voice.
“Well, Eryn of Mottlewood,” Élegan continued. “I’ll have you know that I’ve spend the last hour of my time tracking a kelpie through the marsh just north of here.”
Eryn’s heart sank, and confusion rose with remnant anger. “How is this good news?” she demanded.
“Tut, tut,” chided the nymph. “Don’t get your bow in a knot. This is good news because I spent the hour before that fetching a little token I collected on one of my many travels.” And with that, a golden bridle suddenly appeared right before Eryn’s face. “Have you ever tamed a kelpie before?”
Eryn took the glittering artifact with inexpressible awe. The bridle itself was beautiful, shimmering despite the dreary weather, embedded with shards of jade, turquoise, and quartz. The cheekbands were engraved with interwoven Celtic knots and embellished with scenes of galloping horses and drowning men. From the browband hung a single garnet, carved into the shape of a diamond with two “teeth” projecting from the bottom. But beyond the physical beauty of the piece, Eryn could sense the immense power that seemed to accompany its very existence. With this bridle, one could capture one of the most malignant beasts of the pond-filled forest and reedy seashore. The fearful spirit of the wilderness could be tamed.
“So, pseudo-elf, you up for the challenge?” the nymph quiried.
Eryn clenched bridle resolutely. “Where’s the beast now?”
* * *
Despite her taxing last days of travel, Eryn’s legs dared not complain as she raced breathlessly through the forest. The nymph was gliding in her usual manner, but with a leafy bough trailing behind her so Eryn could follow. Eryn’s ears pounded like drums in her head, and she tried somewhat in vain to quiet the noise her anxious steps were making. Excitement and nervousness pulsed through her veins. I’m coming Mottlewood; I’m coming Drystan, she thought.
All of a sudden, the floating branch halted, and Eryn had to scramble to a stop, almost ending up tripping headlong over a root if she hadn’t spun at last second. The branch shook a little.
“Some elf you are,” the nymph smirked.
Eryn was too wired to absorb the remark. “Where is it?” she hissed.
The nymph, too, lowered her voice. “I left it grazing just through this thicket and to the right. There’s a bog by a stand of willow trees there and a little stream that runs all the way to the sea on the other side. If you don’t see the kelpie at first, wait, and it might come out of the water.”
Eryn nodded and shouldered the golden bridle, preparing to set out.
“Wait,” whispered the nymph urgently. Eryn waited. “The kelpie will smell you as soon as it rears its head. Take this,” a small pouch of some crushed herb dropped into Eryn’s hand. “Sprinkle it over your head and rub it on your hands.” Eryn did so hurriedly. “Then take this, too,” the nymph continued, placing a red leaf in Eryn’s hand to replace the pouch. “It will keep the beast from raising its head when you put the bridle on it.”
Eryn didn’t know what to say, so she nodded again and began to creep forward along the way the nymph had beckoned, this time successfully silencing her footsteps. At first she couldn’t decide whether or not to draw her dagger, but remembering that she could very well lose it if it got stuck to the kelpie’s sticky coat, she left it be. Around the corner was indeed a bog framed by willows, yet the kelpie was nowhere to be seen. Eryn crouched and waited.
It seemed like she waited forever. She sat there motionless so long the high began to be replaced by a crowd of doubt. What if this was a trap? What if she’d been right about Élegan—star-forsaken—all along? What if the nymph was just playing an elaborate game, luring Eryn to her death by drowning or ambush or being eaten by ferocious beasts? Eryn’s mind began to play tricks on her: showing her movement under the water, feeling eyes boring into her head. She shifted her weight ever so slightly, increasingly anxious.
But then she saw it. She could have missed it, if she had been looking away from the water’s edge at that moment, so silently did the creature rise. Instead of splashing to the surface, water streamed across the animal’s body, gliding back into the pool without a sound. Fortunately, Eryn was looking at that moment, and the sight almost struck her dumb.
She had seen kelpies before, but only from a distance and, apparently, never a full-grown one. The beast was massive. It had the smooth, powerful body of a large horse, but with hooves that pointed backwards and a mane and tail entirely of tangled, gold-green kelp. The coat glistened white with a sea-green luster, and its eyes flashed dark blue. Its movements were both solid and weightless as it stepped from the water, looking wild and defiant. Eryn gulped, but somehow banished her doubts. It was now or never.
With agility like that of a fox, she slipped from bush to bush until only a few feet stood between her and the magnificent horse. It paused, one colossal forefoot hanging in the air, and swung its narrow muzzle first one way, then another. Eryn seized that moment. Brandishing the red leaf in one hand and the bridle in the other, she leapt from her hiding place and lunged at the creature. Its reflexes were surprisingly fast for a beast so huge, but its instinct to fight rather than flee was its downfall. It whirled upon her, not foreseeing the powerful herb Eryn shoved at its nose. The kelpie half-whinnied, half-screamed—an awful, terrifying screech. Then with one movement, Eryn dropped the leaf and threw the bridle over the animal’s head. There was a struggle; Eryn grasped the kelpie’s mane and yanked on the bridle hard. She narrowly avoided its flailing hooves as the straps fell into place. And all at once, the garnet on its forehead glowed, the animal snorted, and the thrashing stopped.