by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
The November that Emelie turned seventeen marked seven months since Marcas had left for the war. That she thought of that before her birthday did not strike her as strange, but her parents and Marcas’s looked at her and each other sadly. “We’ll make you a big dinner tonight,” her mother promised. “A feast.”
“Thank you,” Emelie said, because she didn’t want to make her mother unhappy.
Emelie milked the cow and basketed eggs in the same daze that she had wandered in all year, a gradually deepening mood that grew darker and and more chill as the season did. The trees along the village roads were black and cold against a grey sky, their lives drawn deep into their arms, and she felt the same: waiting for something she could do nothing about.
There was a strong wind that day. The grasses sighed and giggled with it. Emelie glanced back at the house, but her mother was inside cooking lunch. Walking softly, she set the basket of eggs on the porch and then, looking around to make sure her father wasn’t around either, grasped the edge of her skirt and took off at a light run for the road. It would rain soon; she didn’t waste to waste the entire day.
She and Marcas had married in March, just as the snow had begun to recede, by the little pool near the well that they had played near as children while their mothers gathered water for cooking. Everyone had insisted that they marry in the church, but they were young and headstrong, only barely more than children themselves, and they’d wanted that touch of familiar wildness. “You need the blessings of God, not your fairies,” he mother had clucked.
Emelie did not believe in fairies. Emelie believed in starlings and squirrels and small drab fish and the sound of dead leaves crackling under feet as she chased Marcas at dusk. The winter months were creeping in, and now the day never quite escaped nightfall; some said that since the prince had taken all their young men the sun would never break entirely free of the hills again. Their village was small, and even the loss of twenty people would be devastating. But there had been no word.
The ground was still wet from rain earlier in the week, and Emelie had to be careful not to slip on the leaves as she came down the hill. There was no one at the well. The pool was swollen and clear; Emelie brushed dead grass away and pulled her skirt up to her thighs so she could kneel at the water’s edge without muddying her clothes. Since she was old enough to walk here she had played at trying to catch frogs and the grumpy minnows — like a little cat, her mother had laughed once — but the only thing stirring in the pond today was the wind on its surface. Emelie leaned forward over the water and saw only herself.
Her own reflection still seemed to her an unfamiliar sight: as all the women did, she’d cut her braids when she’d married, and now she had the face of an adult, with sad eyes and loose hair that fell to the tops of her shoulders. I look like someone’s mother, she thought, but that was one of many things that Marcas had left unfinished. The woman in the pool frowned up at her. “You should smile,” Emelie said to her. “It’s your birthday.”
The reflection cocked its head at her and tried to push the corners of its mouth up, but the effect was wholly unconvincing. “That’s no good,” Emelie sighed. The face rippled as the wind picked up, and Emelie ran a hand through her hair to make it stop whipping around her head. She missed having it all pinned up.
As the pool settled, her face swam back into view, but something about it had changed. Emelie frowned and leaned down to the water, trying to make out what was lending it that strange colour; the pond was very deep in places and sometimes it was hard to see the muddy bottom, but it never looked so deeply blue unless it was reflecting a clear sky. She couldn’t discern anything in the dark water until suddenly, far beneath her, a pair of wide yellow eyes opened and stared back at her.
Emelie wanted to gasp or cry out, or throw herself back and run home, but she found that she couldn’t do any of those things; she held her breath and leaned forward until her nose was almost brushing the pool’s surface. Whatever it was rose up through the water, and as it became clearer Emelie felt her mouth go dry.
It was a woman.
She looked young, with long dark hair and uncovered breasts, and loops of what looked like blue and green silk floating around her without actually clothing her. She was suspended within the water perfectly, like a fish, neither fighting her weight nor her buoyancy, and she smiled at Emelie like she had a secret she was dying to share. She spread her arms, long and pale, glittering with strange jewelry, and make a beckoning gesture. Emelie could not see her legs.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
The woman gestured again, bigger this time, like a girl calling a friend over. “I can’t,” Emelie said. “It’s too cold.” She looked away for a moment, wondering sharply if she were dreaming; everything looked normal. The well, the trees, the nearer houses. When she looked down again the woman was still there, smiling up at her.
Emelie shifted on her knees. “You come here,” she said, mirroring the beckoning. “Come up here.”
The woman stopped smiling and shook her head, obscuring her face with the long hair that floated around it. She closed her strange golden eyes and, as Emelie watched, sank back into the depths of the pool with her arms over her head like a corpse. And then all was normal again, as though she had never been there.
“His Highness says the battle is going well,” her father said at dinner that night. His voice carried a note of uncertainty; in public they all adored their prince, but within their homes few trusted him to do anything but protect himself. “News is the army may be home by Christmas.”
“Have any letters come from the army itself?” Marcas’s father asked. “Or do we only have His Highness’s word?”
Emelie’s father shook his head. It was not the happiest birthday dinner Emelie could remember, but she had hardly expected it to be. It was better than Marcas’s had been in August, with his chair empty. “At least he hasn’t forgotten us.”
“Yes, and all the other villages,” Marcas’s mother said dryly. “I’ve heard a number of them have been sacked, and His Highness has done nothing.”
Emelie’s mother tore up some bread with a grim face. “I do wish the weather would improve,” she said. “It’s put us all in such a bad mood.”
“It’s always dark this time of year,” her father shrugged. “It was raining when Emelie was born. Do you remember?”
“I don’t,” her mother said with a raised eyebrow. “I was preoccupied.”
Eveyone laughed at that softly; even Emelie found a smile. “Well, it was,” her father continued. “A big storm came in. I was expecting the roof not to hold, on top of everything else.” He took a bite of chicken and grinned at Emelie across the table. “I was afraid it was an omen.”
“A good omen!” Marcas’s mother exclaimed. “Nothing like some thunder to get everyone’s attention.”
Emelie chased the vegetables around her plate. She was not feeling particularly thunderous.
“Speaking of rain,” her mother said, smirking, “I notice you didn’t take in the laundry today.”
“I’m sorry,” Emelie said. “I forgot about it.”
“Don’t worry, I did it. But you only get away with it today because it’s your birthday.” She drank from her wine. “What were you up to this time?”
Emelie laid down her fork and folded her hands in her lap. “I saw a nixie today.”
Silence. Even the sound of chewing and cutlery ceased. She chanced a glance up and saw that Marcas’s mother’s face had gone completely white.
“Down by the well,” Emelie said.
Her own mother laid down her fork and pressed the back of her hand to Emelie’s forehead. Emelie, startled, tried to bat her away, but she moved to grip her shoulder with such force that Emelie froze. “You poor thing, you must have taken a chill running around outside,” she said.
“I’m fine,” Emelie said softly, but her mother pulled her out of her chair and guided her into the hall.
“Emelie,” she said fiercely, “don’t say things like that.”
“This is no time for your fairy tales and you know it. Marcas is fine. He’ll be home by Christmas.”
There were old stories that said that nixies were the spirits of rivers, and since man had found God they only ventured forth when something bad was about to happen. Emelie wasn’t so sure of that: the woman in the pool had been smiling. But her mother was very practical in her ways, so Emelie nodded and said, “I’m sorry. It was nothing.”
Her mother sighed. “She’s very superstitious, you know. She never wanted to let Marcas play down in that pond. She only allowed it because he liked you so much, and we could never tear you away from it.”
Emelie hadn’t known that.
Her mother felt her face and again and tutted softly to herself. “Go to bed,” she said. “I’ll save your dinner for you. Honestly, nixies. You’ll be seeing dragons next.”
Emelie went to her bed and listened to the faint sounds of her birthday dinner continuing without her. Just like Marcas’s. This was becoming a sad habit. As the night on, the sounds of the house eventually died down, and soon there was silence as Marcas’s parents went home and her mother and father went to bed.
She could not stop thinking of the woman in the pond. She had no doubt that she was real, despite her mother’s dismissal. Emelie tugged on her hair and thought jealously of the nixie’s wild long tresses flowing around her in the water. She wondered, was hard to swim with her hair all around her like that? When Emelie’d had long hair she had always worn it pinned up. She’d kept all of her barrettes, in the hope of someday having a daughter whose hair she could comb and braid.
She couldn’t sleep. She sat up and looked at the door; there was no lamplight coming in from the hallway, so she slipped out of bed and made her way quietly to her clothes chest. She winced a little as the hinges on it creaked. Feeling around underneath her blouses, she found her jewelry box and nimbly picked out her prettiest silver hair clip. She uncovered her coat as well, pulling it on over her nightgown, and slipped the barrette into her pocket. She paused to listen again and — sure she could hear nothing but the house settling — went her window, opened it, and ventured out into the night.
The sky had cleared and there was a full moon, but Emelie hardly needed it to find her way to the well. She regretted forgetting to put on shoes, as it was dreadfully cold, but the soft dirt road was kind to her feet as she stole her way down the hill. The moonlight shone on the surface of the pool like a beacon, and she quickly found the spot where she had knelt by the water that morning. There was no movement in the water; she could only dimly see her own reflection now.
“Are you here?” Emelie whispered. Nothing answered her but the wind in the trees.
Emelie sat down and fished the hair clip from her pocket. She held it out over the water with her fingertips. “I’ve brought you a gift.”
For a nearly a minute there was still nothing. Disappointment was beginning to curdle in her stomach when the moon’s image in the water trembled, and then bent and broke. Emelie’s heart beat faster, and she almost cried out with delight when the nixie’s pale face finally appeared deep within the water. “Here!” Emelie said, proffering the barrette.
She looked up at Emelie quizzically, and she rose through the water until she was bare inches from breaking the surface. But she ventured no farther. “Don’t you want it?” Emelie asked. “Oh, don’t you know what it is?” She sat up straight and gathered her own hair behind her head with one hand; it was only barely long enough. She mimed pinning it in place. “It’s for your hair.”
The nixie tilted her head and lifted one of her hands, palm up, just beneath the surface. Emelie leaned down and carefully dropped it, and the nixie caught it. She examined the barrette with great curiosity as Emelie laid down on the ground on her stomach, propping herself up on her elbows. “I told my mother about you,” she said, “but she didn’t believe me. You’re really there? I’m not going mad.”
The barrette was very bright underwater, lit up by the moonlight and the glow of the nixie’s skin. The nixie smiled up at her coyly as she brought up her arms to sweep her hair back; her neck was adorned with a gold necklace wrought so fine it was nearly a web, lit up here and there with tiny jewels and floating like mist to frame her full breasts. Emelie’s hair clip was rather sad next to that. The nixie set it into her hair regardless, though it did nothing to tame it.
“You’re very beautiful,” Emelie said with a sigh. She leaned her chin into her hands. “I wonder why you’re here.”
The nixie sank a few feet and watched Emelie with her little smile; Emelie might have been imagining it, but that expression seemed friendlier now. She also noticed, helplessly letting her light-starved eyes feast on the beauty and colour within the water, that while the nixie had not come up for air at any point, her shoulders and breasts rose and fell as though she were breathing normally. She peered down at her, squinting a little, and saw that the golden film necklace was obscuring long thin slits on the side of her neck.
“Oh,” Emelie said, “you can’t leave the water.”
As Emelie watched, the nixie lifted her arms and made the beckoning motion that she had that morning. Emelie bit her lip. “You can’t come up even a little? It’s very cold.”
The nixie only repeated herself.
I must be bewitched, Emelie thought. “Wait,” she said. “Don’t go anywhere.” She scrambled up off the ground and brushed dirt and leaves from her coat before she unbuttoned it and eased out of it. She thought, my hair will dry by morning, but my clothing won’t, and it won’t do to let mother worry about why my nightgown is soaking wet. She carefully folded the coat over her arm and laid it on the ground, and then pulled her thin nightgown off over her head and laid that on top.
The cold air made every hair on her body stand on end; she ground her teeth and peeked back into the pool, and was gratified to see that the nixie was still there. Emelie knew from long experience that the depth of the pond was inconsistent, and in this light she could not hope to see the bottom while she ventured into the water. She sat on the edge of the pool and experimentally dipped one foot in; she jerked it back right away. “I can’t!” she cried. “I can’t, it’s too cold!”
The nixie looked startled through the rings of the disturbed water. She lifted a hand to where Emelie’s toes had touched it and skimmed her fingertips along the underside of the surface. “I’ll try again,” Emelie whispered.
The darkness of the water closed over the nixie’s face as she retreated from the edge of the pool. Emelie could hardly see her. She swallowed and braced herself. All was silent by the water; there were no frogs, no nightbirds, no buzzing of insects. It was as though nothing existed aside from herself.
Emelie lowered her foot into the water again and nearly whimpered. The cold made her instantly numb and unable to judge whether she was stepping on anything sharp as she found the muddy bottom. The water here came to about halfway up her calf, and with the next step to her knee. She wrapped her slender arms around herself as she waded in unsteadily; she was embarrassingly aware of her nipples, hard as pebbles and aching under this exposure. When the black water was lapping between her thighs she seated herself. Emelie knew from many summer afternoons spent here that this shelf gave out into a much deeper area within only a few feet from the pool’s edge. “Are you still there?” she said to the water. Her teeth were chattering.
Something touched her ankle; she was so cold she couldn’t rightly make out what it was, and she yelped and scooted back a little. But even as she cast around in alarm, sensation returned to her legs and rose up through her body as though she was sitting next to a fire. Fingers were tapping their cautious way up her shin. Emelie felt around in the water, and a cool hand closed securely on hers and gently tugged.
Emelie felt instinctively that something wasn’t right, but she felt equally unable to resist that pull. She shuffled forward until she could feel the shelf fall away and cautiously eased her legs over the edge of it. The hand on hers adjusted its grip, closing on her wrist, and the abruptly yanked her out into the deeper water.
Her head went under, and the shock of the cold stunned her as she frantically tried to find footing. There was none to find; she tried to cry out for help and released nothing but a stream of bubbles from her mouth. She couldn’t see the nixie anywhere. Emelie had always been an enthusiastic swimmer but not a particularly skilled one, and in her panic she could do nothing but thrash in the water, desperate to find something that would support her. “Help me!” she screamed, and then there was no air left in her lungs.
A powerful pair of arms closed around her, pulling her forward and then pushing her up. Her head broke the surface and she gasped, panting in her panic for longer than it took to restore her air. She looked down to see the nixie hugging her around her hips and smiling up at her wickedly from underneath the water line. “That was a very cruel trick!” Emelie cried. “You could have drowned me.”
The nixie’s belly was pressed up against Emelie’s thighs, and she could feel her giggle in a strange, watery way. Below that Emelie felt smooth, fine scales gliding against her legs, and she swallowed. The nixie’s golden eyes were sleepy-looking and half-closed, and she was quickly adapting her grip on Emelie’s body so she was holding her up by her buttocks and gently urging Emelie to wrap her legs around her. Emelie laughed, suddenly shy, but did so. She wasn’t cold at all anymore.
It was strangely peaceful, floating out in the middle of the pond and being held up so she could breathe. Emelie relaxed gradually, laying her hands on the woman’s shoulders, and watched the constantly shifting nimbus of her hair. The nixie winked at her and leaned it to press a kiss against Emelie’s stomach. “Ah, don’t,” Emelie laughed, “I’m ticklish.”
Either the nixie didn’t understand her or she simply pretended she didn’t. She pressed another sweet kiss against Emelie’s solar plexus, and then lowered her in the water enough to nuzzle her breasts. The embrace felt good, but it made Emelie suddenly sad as she thought of Marcas. She missed him, his enthusiasm and his clumsy hands and his silly prick. She dipped her cheek into the water so she could lean it atop the nixie’s head, and the nixie darted a soft tongue tip against one of Emelie’s aching nipples.
That sent a jolt through her whole body; Emelie closed her eyes and ran her fingers through the nixie’s hair as the woman continued with this new game, seemingly liking the reaction. Her mouth was as cool as the water, and the delicate attention only made Emelie’s poor nipples harder. Emelie groaned a little as she felt the light prickle of teeth. “Have you lured me in here to eat me?” she whispered thickly.
The nixie laughed again and pinched Emelie’s breast with her lips. Emelie covered her other breast with her hand, but the nixie pouted and nudged it away so she could bestow soft kisses upon it as well. A heat began to rise in Emelie’s face despite the chill, and she shifted her legs’ grip on the woman’s tail.
Suddenly the nixie drew her underwater again, though Emelie had enough warning to take a deep breath before she was plunged into the blackness of the pool. Now she could see her unearthly companion very well, as she was nearly shining in the darkness around her. Her eyes were brilliantly gold in her lovely face as she grinned at Emelie, and she darted forward and stole a soft kiss from her lips. A few bubbles escaped from Emelie’s mouth as she followed it, and she was soon lost in a hunger that didn’t feel like her own.
The nixie’s hands moved from Emelie’s rear to pet her belly, and then to cup her breasts; frankly Emelie felt more than a little inadequate next to the glory of this woman’s bosom, but as the nixie gently rolled Emelie’s nipples between her fingers Emelie’s grip on her self-consciousness soon loosened. She raised her own hands and timidly laid them on the nixie’s ribs, feeling how the bone there seemed strangely unrigid and forgiving, before making bowls of her hands with which to hold the nixie’s breasts. The nixie purred audibly with approval, making the water around them shiver and startling Emelie, but that trill took root in her belly and she tightened her legs around her unthinkingly. The nixie’s breasts were very soft and heavy in Emelie’s hands. The need for air was making Emelie’s lungs burn, but she couldn’t stop herself from brushing her thumbs over the perfect nipples and feeling the skin contract a little under the pressure.
The nixie kissed her again and purred against her mouth, directly into her body, and now Emelie whimpered; she could feel those tiny scales on her inner thighs and lips, but there was nothing to gain traction on. The nixie’s hands dropped to Emelie’s thighs again and pulled her against her pelvis, and Emelie moaned.
Before Emelie knew what was happening, she had been thrust to the surface again, and she was coughing and treading water. I’m under a spell, she thought, but in realizing it she saw its power over her, and she knew she could not hope to fight it. She was burning in this cold water, aching for her husband’s rights but not for her husband. She felt the nixie stroke the length of her leg, and then slip behind her to press rude kisses against her rear. Her hair swirled freely around Emelie’s waist, so Emelie could not make her out in the water.
Cool fingers parted her thighs, and she nearly swooned as a ghostly touch effortlessly found the spot that had always so easily evaded her husband. Emelie’s head fell back into the water as she trembled, and the nixie took hold of her legs again to support her. The fingers went away for a moment and then reappeared a few inches forward, stroking her lips and darting in between them teasingly. When Emelie did not resist, they soon slid in to fill her. The nixie’s mouth closed over that place where she burned.
Emelie cried out, helpless in the middle of the water as the nixie took her. The fingers inside her moved with the faint motion of Emelie’s hips as she responded to the nixie’s lips; panting, Emelie reached into the water to pet the silky hair again. It adhered to her stomach and thighs like wet silk or a grasping seaweed. The nixie had a clever tongue that stroked and circled her, never stopping long enough for Emelie to find sanity. The heat within her grew and grew as the nixie lavished her attentions upon it, and Emelie rocked against the fingers within her.
She shouted loudly enough to be heard from the nearest houses when she finally stumbled to her climax. She arched her back hard as the nixie thrust into her and then, finally, withdrew, leaving her empty and cold. But the nixie continued to press kisses into the crevasse between Emelie’s legs for many minutes afterward, and Emelie gradually relaxed, floating on the water like disturbed branches.
When she awoke, she was lying at the edge of the pool with her coat draped around her like a blanket, and the sky was grey with approaching daylight. In a small cleared spot in the dead grass beside her head was a gold necklace, so finely wrought it was nearly a web.
“Oh my goodness, you really do have a fever!” her mother cried at her bedside a few hours later. “Your face is burning up.”
Emelie could not argue with that. She had not stopped shivering since she had awoken, even once she was safely back in her bedroom and under her blankets. “I don’t want you to leave your bed today,” her mother said. She sounded unusually nervous. “Do you understand me? No adventures today.”
“I’m not a little girl, Mother,” Emelie muttered. Thankfully her mother chose to ignore that.
There was a lot of fuss and bustle going on around the house that day, but Emelie couldn’t figure out what was going on. She couldn’t work up much concern about it, though; as soon as she was alone, she reached under her pillow and drew out the nixie’s gold necklace and examined it with awe.
Emelie couldn’t wear it herself, of course — she was just a plain village girl with no aspiration for such riches. But it was proof that what had happened was no dream. Even waking up naked at the side of the pool, she might have found reason to doubt herself. The night’s outing rested uneasy and beautiful in her memory; she wondered a little guiltily if she could teach Marcas to do that when he came home.
Within the gold film there were tiny rubies and sapphires and brilliant little river pearls. It was surely a treasure to rival even their prince’s. There was a rumour that he had an entire storehouse filled with gold and silver that he never even looked at. Emelie had always thought that sad.
She dozed on and off through out the day; she was occasionally awoken by the sound of men shouting to each other outside, but she would soon nod off again. She dreamed of when she was a child, and she would spend all day running through people’s gardens looking for butterflies.
It was nearly nightfall when she woke up for good. Someone was pounding on their front door; Emelie heard her father answer, and then a lot of shouting. And then silence.
She lifted her head from her pillow, frowning. She could smell something burning. Someone in the kitchen was making a lot of noise walking around, and she realized with sudden shock that it was someone in full armor.
“Your prince has fallen!” a man outside cried. “Surrender!”
Emelie sprang from her bed and staggered, dizzy with her fever, but steady enough to go to the window. The fields and the trees were on fire.
“Your army is destroyed!” a man on horseback, trodding unmindfully through a neighbouring yard, called. There were countless men with him. “No one will save you! Surrender now!”
“Is there anyone else in this house?” someone just outside her bedroom door called.
Emelie jumped out of the window. It was a cold, misty night, and her nightgown a little more than a shift; the man on horseback saw her immediately. She fled for the road, towards the burning trees, and prayed that none would be brave enough to follow her. She clutched the nixie’s necklace in one hand and flung herself down the hill. She could hear hoofbeats somewhere behind her, but she couldn’t tell if they were chasing her.
The pond by the well was now lit up with much more than moonlight; the reflections of the fires made the surface of the water look molten. “Are you here?” Emelie cried. “Please, if you can hear me–”
“Who do you think you’re looking for, missy?” a male voice growled. Emeile spun around and saw three soldiers there with swords. “No one down here. Made sure of that.”
Emeile took three uneven steps back, taking her knee-deep into the water. The men frowned at each other. “Please,” Emelie pleaded. “Help me.”
“What, you gonna drown yourself?” One of the men came forward. “Come on, lass. We’ll be kinder to you than that.”
“What has happened to my husband?” Emelie whispered.
“Your husband is dead,” the last man said. “Dead or left for it.”
Emelie shuddered deeply where she stood; the necklace slipped from her numb fingers and fell into the water without so much as a splash.
Suddenly, from all around her, the pool erupted as though every drop of water within it were desperate to escape. The men stepped back with huge eyes, and Emelie stayed where she stood within the spray, as an enormous golden serpent uncoiled itself from the water. The burning trees made the light on its scales dance.
“God in heaven!” one of the soldiers cried. “It’s a wyrm–”
The serpent struck him before he could even finish his warning; its teeth punctured his neck and he fell, gurgling. The other two turned to run, but only one of them made it as far as the hill, and he no farther than that.
Emelie remained rooted to the spot through out the slaughter. She wept, thinking of poor, stupid Marcas, so eager to prove himself. It was hardly a fitting vengeance, this, but she thought: whatever lives here loved us both.
The serpent returned to the water, its jaws dripping with the men’s blood. The trees around them were falling now, and the flames were spreading, but the wyrm moved with no urgency, twining a tail affectionately about Emelie’s ankles as its mass slid back into the water. Emelie was not surprised to soon see the nixie’s face smiling up at her from within the pool.
“You really can’t leave the water, can you?” Emelie asked. Her voice was choked.
The nixie shook her head.
“Well,” Emelie sighed. “Neither can I.”
The nixie’s gold eyes considered her for a long moment. Emelie could still hear men’s voices and horses from over the hill, where the village used to be. “Take me with you,” Emelie whispered. “Wherever it is that you go.”
She cocked her head a little. “Please,” Emelie said.
The nixie nodded and smiled with a startlingly joyous expression, and she held up her arms. Emelie waded out to where she could reach them, unmindful of the cold water that swirled up into her nightgown. They linked hands, and Emelie had only long enough to take a quick deep breath before she was pulled under to the nixie’s breast. She closed her eyes, and the nixie pulled her down, far down, farther down than this or any pond reached into the earth. She could feel the water rushing within her companion like blood, and the joy it gave the springs and the rivers to have such a glorious spirit residing within them.
Presently, Emelie realized she could breathe. She opened her eyes, and saw only gold.