‘If this all turns to shit,’ Darren said, ‘I’m blaming you.’
‘Why? This stupid idea is all yours!’
Behind us Jamie said quietly, ‘you think if this all turns to shit we’ll actually have time to blame each other? We’ll be dead!’
Darren snorted. ‘Princess, here, won’t let us go without a fight.’
I shoved him off the path. Our nerves were showing now yet no one wanted to be the first to admit he didn’t want to be here.
Trudging the path to Briar Lake. Could have been romantic under the moon-lit sky, watching the multitude of stars twinkle; if I had a boyfriend to share it with, and I wasn’t loaded down with ridiculous packets of needles and crosses, and it wasn’t this lake.
Jamie yanked Darren to his feet. ‘Don’t be a dick.’
Darren grinned and his teeth glinted eerily in the light. That’s what too much whitening got you! ‘Alright,’ he said, ‘let’s make sure Cass is in the lead. The Nokken will… argh… you…’
A fist this time to knock him off the path. I turned my back on my friends and strode along the path. We had torches but the night was so clear we didn’t need them. ‘I don’t know why I listen to you,’ I growled over my shoulder.
‘Because you love me.’
Darren was a good friend, but I didn’t love him. Which was perfect since he wasn’t gay. Deep down I liked that he brought out the jokes, liked that he was comfortable around me. Some of my other so-called friends had freaked out when I’d revealed my orientation months ago. So-called because I never really saw them now. Jamie had stuck by me too; reckon he kind of had to since we’d been friends since primary school. He’d been miffed I hadn’t spoken to him about stuff, though I think he was secretly grateful I hadn’t.
In any case, orientation wasn’t why the three of us were heading to Briar Lake. This was truly Darren’s idea. He swore he’d seen the Loch Ness Monster once back when he was a kid and had been fascinated by such creatures since. Briar Lake had its own monster—the Nokken. Well, no, its own mystery, rumour, myth. Some claimed to have seen things, some claimed to have felt foreboding when they’d been at the lake. All this didn’t stop it being a popular swimming spot in summer so the mystery wasn’t really a showstopper.
Darren had taken the bull by the horns and researched our local horror story for a class paper. According to him there was plenty to prove that something lived in the lake. After all, David Campbell had drowned in the lake back in 1952 and he was the town’s star swimmer. Clarise Sherrin and her sister claimed to have ridden a white horse into the lake in 1977, and somehow scrambled to the bank. They were seven and five respectively so no one really believed them. Anyway, Darren had screeds of waffle like this, and had decided that we three should go to the lake and find out for ourselves if this monster was real.
The Nokken. Kind of a cool name, really, from the Norwegian for ‘waterhorse’ and that’s probably why some people say it shows up as one—a white stallion with a misty mane. It inveigled kids onto its back and took them out into the lake, whereupon they would drown. (I sometimes wonder if this part of the myth is why our town has a really strong ‘learn how to swim’ mentality). Darren said that women usually reported a beautiful young man playing a fiddle.
I kept to myself the fact that I’d be attracted by that persona too, though Darren had grinned when he’d said it and told me the beast showed itself to men usually as an old tree stump. ‘Outa luck there, boyo,’ accompanied by a punch on the arm.
This was why I never revealed any feelings I might have for someone. Darren was ready and waiting with a field day of jokes and jibes.
So yeah, this thing could display itself in a manner of ways all depending on who it was after or probably what mood it was in. Apparently its real form was humanoid, covered with sea grass with glowing gold eyes like headlights. Teeth like a piranha, too, and skin resembling that of a drowned man. We’d Googled images; yeah, not something I was hungering to see.
‘Keep back from the shore, when you get there, Cass,’ Darren called behind me.
I half wavered in my step, having momentarily blocked out my current reality. I lifted a hand in acknowledgement but didn’t speak. The shore… none of our town’s reports had mentioned this anomaly but Darren had found other myths that indicated the Nokken could disguise the shore line, make it seem further out than it was. And once the unsuspecting victim was way out of line, the water would come in and they’d be drowned.
Everyone ended up drowning, no matter the reason for them being in the water. The story went that the Nokken took them to his underwater domain and I didn’t imagine it was any sort of Atlantis down there. Not under Briar Lake anyway! What he did with his victims then, no one knows. This was probably the part of the story that had Darren so intrigued. God, he better not be about to spring on Jamie and me that we were going for a swim.
Not that I believed the myth, but the moonlit night and silence (aside from us) gave off something of a slightly uneasy atmosphere. Damn it, I was letting Darren’s stories get to me!
Behind me Jamie said, ‘I’m gonna need counselling after this.’
Darren laughed. ‘I brought a hip flask, if you want some?’
‘A hip flask?’ I asked. ‘Serious? You get caught with that and your parents are gonna kill you.’
The silver flask flashed in his hand like a miniature torch, and there went his teeth again like he was at a black-light dance. ‘There won’t be any left for them to kill me over,’ he said nonchalantly and chugged back a decent mouthful.
Jamie took him up on the offer and though whiskey was so not my poison I felt the need, unspoken of course, for some Dutch courage too. I capped the flask while we stood around trying to look like we weren’t choking.
Darren took the flask from me. ‘This is apparently dad’s good stuff.’
Jamie turned and spat into the bushes.
‘G-god,’ I got out and couldn’t stop the laughter bubbling free.
It took us ten minutes to resemble three serious, calm young men. Hopefully the silly-buggers attitude had well and truly left. Darren sucked in a breath. ‘Come on, we can’t be too far now.’
And we weren’t. Another ten minutes at most and we stood on the grassed picnic area at the sheltered south end of kidney-shaped Briar Lake. There was no breeze but the water lapped the pebbles on the shore and though it always did that, like it had some tidal thing going on, we made sure to stand clear. The shore was where it should be but if Jamie and Darren were like me, then their nerves were tightening with unease too and the best plan was to believe everything Darren had read! Which was stupid, but it was amazing what staring at a calm dark lake with a moon shimmer on it in the middle of a silent night could do. I fancied I heard a fiddle and Jamie said, ‘is that out more now?’, pointing to the water.
It wasn’t, I don’t think. And the fiddle sound was probably just rustling in the trees behind us; some night bird or mouse.
‘Shit,’ Darren breathed. ‘This is fucking scary.’
‘It’s your fault,’ I told him, not bothering to hide the slight waver in my voice.
Jamie drew breath. ‘Okay, so what now? Standing here’s not helping. Darren, what’s the plan?’
‘I don’t really have one,’ he said. ‘Beyond shoving Cass out there to…’ He backed up, palms outward.
‘Yeah, you better back up,’ I told him, hands fisted. This time I wouldn’t be joking, my nerves were that on edge.
‘S-sorry,’ Darren said. ‘I just… okay, let’s just take a seat and see if anything happens.’
Which sounded a decent enough plan. We crowded around a picnic table, all of us on the one side since none of us wanted our back to the lake. Nobody admitted it but I’m pretty sure we all wanted to be the one in the middle; Jamie was the lucky bastard to get that spot. Darren dug into his backpack and pulled out some chocolate bars, a camera, and a notebook and pencil. Jamie and I looked at him but we shouldn’t have been surprised. When Darren’s hooked into something, he goes all-out.
‘Bet you’re gonna take a sample of the lake too?’ I asked, half joking.
‘Nope, that’s Jamie’s job,’ Darren said, depositing a tiny plastic container on the table.
‘Not fucking likely,’ Jamie responded after half a beat.
‘It’s just water,’ Darren said.
‘You get it then,’ Jamie told him. ‘You’re on the end.’
Darren leaned around him to me.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ I told him, tucking my hands into pockets. ‘This is your mission, Darren.’
‘Bunch of girls,’ Darren grumbled but he didn’t exactly leap up from the table.
Jamie glanced at me and I shrugged. Then because my hands had contacted with the bags in my pockets, I hauled them out onto the table. Three bags of needles in each pocket (such a safe thing to carry!) plus two iron crosses. Jamie followed suit—more iron needles and crosses, including the cross I was sure I’d seen hanging in the hallway of his house. He pulled a face when he saw me glancing at it.
‘I really don’t believe in this mumbo-jumbo,’ he muttered, ‘and mum’s gonna kill me if I lose it, but, well…’
‘If you have to throw it at something, Jamie, you’re probably not gonna need your mum,’ Darren said, as he lay down his own pile of needles. He had no crosses but his pile of tiny iron spikes made me think he’d stolen them from some sewing company. How else could he get so many? He grimaced. ‘I’ve been collecting these for ages.’
Jamie made an inarticulate sound and I wasn’t particularly happy at how long this plan had been in place either.
‘Darren,’ I asked slowly, ‘how much do you believe this um… story?’
He cocked his head. ‘Kind of a lot.’ He ran his finger over one bag, flattening the contents into one long spread of needles. ‘Myth has to come from somewhere,’ he said and his voice was low as if he didn’t want anyone to really hear his confession.
Jamie shook his head. ‘All it needs is a great storyteller and a gullible audience.’ The crack in his voice showed how unsure he was of what he was saying.
Darren raised his brows at me. ‘What about you? You think I’m missing some marbles?’
‘I don’t know,’ I answered. Darren was a really good friend, and I’d never ever worried about him in any shape or form. I don’t think I did now, either, but his earnest expression and the fact he’d researched this and brought the truckload of needles… these things sent shivers into my spine. He believed on some level and I was beginning to fear that that level was the same one where Jamie and I sat.
I liked to think of myself as a pretty courageous person; after all I’d come out to my dad who’d always called gay people horrid names. But right now I really wanted to bolt, and never see this lake again. I drew breath. ‘So… if this thing comes toward us, we throw the needles. Just one, or a handful? Do we have to hit it?’
‘Aim for it,’ Darren said after a short moment. ‘The crosses are apparently stronger but don’t waste one if you have needles.’
I nodded, since for a moment I couldn’t speak.
‘And you said something about its name,’ Jamie whispered.
‘Yeah, but I don’t know how good that is,’ Darren said. ‘Apparently you say its name to it and it dies. Seems far too easy to me.’
Jamie snorted but didn’t respond. I asked if he meant the Nokken name or a name name. ‘How the hell do we know that?’
Darren arched a brow. ‘Well, maybe that’s why it doesn’t work. No one knows its real name.’
‘Shit, stop smiling like that. Your teeth are freaking scary.’
Darren sucked in his lips. ‘Needles,’ he said, ‘then crosses. But, mostly, stay away from the water.’
‘Except for when you go get the sample,’ Jamie reminded him.
‘Er, yeah,’ Darren said. ‘But you guys will be right with me, to defend me.’
I pictured that and slapped a hand over my mouth to stop the laughter. God, this would be entirely farcical if someone happened to be out for a night jog and saw us. Darren held out the flask but I shook my head. Instead I grabbed up one of the chocolate bars and ate it in ten seconds flat. And it was the kind of bar you normally couldn’t do that with.
‘So we sit here and, what, wait?’ Jamie asked.
‘Yeah,’ Darren said. ‘Or maybe we should do the water now.’
No one made a move.
Silence confirmed it and then I shifted to glance over my shoulder. That damn rustling; man, it sounded like the strains of a fiddle. And I don’t know how since no wind moved the trees nearest us. Night birds, and then we leapt as one when an owl hooted. The flask was rushed around, and we settled back down.
‘I know one thing for damn certain,’ Jamie grumbled. ‘I am never agreeing to one of your schemes again, Darren.’
‘Not sure I’m gonna bother coming up with any,’ he replied wryly. ‘I’m not exactly not freaked myself, you know.’
‘Maybe we should just go,’ I suggested, hoping like hell they’d agree.
‘Yep,’ Jamie said.
‘Sure,’ Darren echoed, bolting upright, and flashing a grin when Jamie and I stared at him. ‘But, the water… I do want some.’
Now that we’d decided to call it a night, we felt a little less uneasy. The lake was calm, the moon shone brightly; it was just like day really. Darren picked up the container and Jamie and I each took a bag of needles. He took his mum’s cross and I hefted up another one. I felt silly doing so though never thought not to.
The pebbles scrunched under foot and then squelched as we made it to the water’s edge.
‘Don’t fall in,’ Jamie told Darren as he started to bend.
Darren froze a second, glared, and then completed the crouch. Jamie and I stood either side of him, kind of staring around.
‘Shit,’ I grumbled. ‘I swear I’m hearing a fiddle. Those damn trees. I’m never gonna…’ I cut off when I turned back to Jamie and saw him frozen, staring out at the lake.
I turned and let out a word my father would have been proud of. About fifty feet out, above water or below it we couldn’t quite tell, were two golden objects.
‘You gotta be fucking kidding,’ Jamie whispered.
‘Darren, do you… shit! What…’
Darren was no longer crouching between us, but up to his thighs in water, heading for the golden objects. Jamie and I stared at each other, threw down the stuff we’d been holding and waded in. This was some really bad joke, a set-up and our friend was gonna get himself drowned if he went further. Our hands taking his arms halted his progress.
‘Did you see?’ he got out, pointing.
‘Yeah, yeah.’ I yanked him back as he tried another step. ‘Just stars on the water, Darren.’
Jamie corroborated with me, voice trembling, and between us we managed to get Darren turned. He’d had more whiskey than us, it was probably starting to play with him. We went two steps and froze again; Jamie whimpered. Or that could have been me. Probably both of us. Standing on the shoreline, between us and the picnic table, was a white horse. It tossed its head in the air and let out a shrill whinny.
No way we could miss it, or the mist.
‘What do we do?’ Jamie whispered.
‘It’s just the whiskey,’ I said, ‘and our minds playing tricks.’
‘It’s the Nokken,’ Darren said on a tight breath. ‘We need to get out of the water.’
Yeah, except the horse stood right where we wanted to be! I pushed against Darren, forcing him against Jamie and so we moved on an angle toward the shore. The horse didn’t move, bar following us with its gaze. The mist crept out around it as if it really did emanate from the mane. A glance behind showed the lake shining under the moon. Mist shouldn’t be on land if it wasn’t on water, right? This is just a figment, I told myself, just a figment, just a…
We became statues again as the horse shifted, took a step into the water, and then we were speed demons, bolting onto dry land. Darren stumbled to his knees, pulling Jamie and me down with him. As much as I felt the urge to curl into a ball and hide my face, I had to see what was going on.
I got out a croak, coughed to clear the frog. ‘It’s gone.’
‘Huh?’ Jamie rose beside me, a hand helping Darren up.
They both swore when they saw I was right. The horse was gone, the mist was gone, and no golden orbs glowed in the water.
‘Fuck, guys,’ Darren garbled, ‘we can never tell anyone about this!’
‘Scout’s promise,’ Jamie blurted.
I seconded Jamie, even though Darren had been all about revealing our findings to people, and then we spent a moment in nervous laughter, before we climbed up, all totally soaked from the butt down.
‘I better get that cross,’ Jamie said and headed for the spot where we’d dumped the stuff.
I joined him, stashing the one I’d carried in a back pocket, the bag of needles in the other back pocket. I’d need to remember to remove them before I sat down!
‘Hey, Cass, get the…’
Darren didn’t finish, or maybe he did and I just didn’t hear it as a long plaintive note on a fiddle spun out of the air behind Jamie and me. Not the trees this time, not birds, not anything but a fiddle. Jamie and I turned as one. This couldn’t be happening, this couldn’t be true!
Seated upon the picnic table was a young man, playing a fiddle. He had his eyes closed as he swayed in time to the music he was creating, and his long silvery hair seemed to swing in time too. In fact, it looked tangled with his bow hand and really looked like it made up the hairs of the bow.
What the hell was in Darren’s father’s “good stuff” whiskey? I glanced at Darren; he stared open-mouthed at the figure, and then he half turned to me and Jamie. His eyes were round with shock and yet he managed two gestures at once – one hand beckoning us to him, the other miming a throwing motion.
Jamie and I looked at each other. Jamie still held the cross and he glanced at it. ‘Should I?’ he mouthed.
I just shoved him and we scuttled toward Darren. The music didn’t stop but when we reached Darren and looked back, the figure had opened his eyes and was watching us over the intricate movements his fingers were making across the strings. I sucked in a breath; he had the most beautiful golden eyes.
Darren clamped a hand to my wrist and I realised I’d taken a step. A flush burned my face. God, my turn to make a fool of myself. ‘Don’t let me go,’ I whispered. ‘That music’s like a siren song in my blood.’
Darren arched brow. ‘What are you, a girl?’
I flushed more. ‘No, gay, and I think that’s gonna be a problem.’
My friends looked caught between horrified and amused. ‘Jamie,’ I got out hoarsely, trying my hardest not to tug free from Darren’s grip, ‘throw that bloody cross.’
Jamie raised it. ‘It’s not iron,’ he said in much the same tone. ‘It’s silver.’
‘I don’t give a shit. Throw. It.’
So he did. The cross thunked onto the table and skittered off the side. The Nokken didn’t miss a beat, but he looked amused. And then he smiled. I sucked in my breath, held it for as long as I could. This was dumb, this was dumb and totally not real. And I cannot be attracted.
And next thing I heard myself ask, ‘who are you? What do you want?’
‘Cass!’ Darren hissed.
I looked at him. ‘We need to know,’ I whispered.
The music trailed off into the night and I turned back to see the Nokken had lowered the fiddle so it stood on its point on the table, the bow resting across his knees. Still looked like his hair was tangled up. Now that the fiddle didn’t block his face, I reckon even Darren and Jamie would have agreed that the man was stunning.
‘You know who I am,’ the Nokken said and his voice was as musical as the fiddle, still a siren song in my blood.
I twisted out of Darren’s grip and took a step forward.
‘You’ve seen half of my guises.’
And right before our eyes we were staring at the ‘real thing’ – the huge gaping maw with needle-teeth, the golden glowing eyes and the matted sea grass pelt. Beneath the grass we saw swollen grey skin that looked like it would explode if a needle speared it. None of us screamed; I don’t think we were able to get that much horror into voice. But in an eye-blink he’d changed again, disappeared in fact.
‘What?’ I croaked.
‘There,’ Jamie cried and we looked at the shoreline where a wooden boat bobbed.
I glanced back at Darren; he hadn’t mentioned the boat, but he was nodding. ‘And that,’ he mouthed.
I turned again, found an old tree stump just a few feet from me. I stared, heart crashing about like it was trying to escape my ribs, and next thing the young man stood in front of me. And I mean in front of me; if he’d have reached out he’d have touched me. Despite seeing all those other forms this one was drawing me in like there was nothing wrong with the situation. He was a half head taller than me, a bit more slender, and he had fine features, feathered brows that sat slightly curved above stunning golden eyes. When he smiled, his teeth weren’t pointy and not half has glaring as Darren’s. His straight silvery hair swung to his waist; part of it hung over his shoulder and I never wanted to brush someone’s hair behind their ear as much as I did now.
‘Yeah, okay,’ Darren said boldly behind me. ‘Whiskey’s got to us. Let’s go.’
The golden eyes flickered over my shoulder. ‘I don’t want you to go.’
‘Jamie, you better fetch that cross or your mum’ll have your arse on a platter,’ Darren said. ‘Cass, stop faffing. It’s getting cold in these wet clothes.’
The Nokken brought his focus back to me and I hoped like heck he wasn’t about to look me up and down. My jeans clung horribly and the cross I’d stashed in the back pocket felt like it was burning a hole. He inclined his head just a little. ‘Why did you come here?’
Still musical. I thumbed over my shoulder at Darren. ‘He’s been researching you for ages.’
‘Did you think to capture me?’
‘Not on your life,’ I spouted. Actually, I didn’t know what Darren had intended. Probably just get some proof, and get away with our lives. I swallowed.
‘Your friend is foolish,’ the Nokken murmured. ‘Both of them, in fact. Crosses don’t bother me. Why would they?’
I shrugged and then repeated a question from what seems years ago. ‘What do you want?’ I mean, it hadn’t tried to hurt us beyond scaring the bejesus out of us. And I could see Darren and Jamie edging toward the picnic table.
‘I was curious, and I am lonely.’
I didn’t entirely like the sound of that.
‘I don’t want you to go.’ Something flickered in the golden eyes, or maybe it was the long silvery lashes catching the moonlight as the creature blinked.
‘Cass, get a hike on,’ Darren growled and I glanced his way to see he had his backpack over his shoulder and his hands full of needles, glinting now they were out of their bags. He held them up, making me understand he was going to throw them so I could make my move. After-all, the Nokken had rubbished the cross, he hadn’t mentioned the needles.
I turned back to the young man in front of me, caught brief sorrow in his eyes. He then glanced at my friends and they froze and for a split moment the Nokken seemed all his guises in one, but most clearly the young man. Darren and Jamie were rooted to the spot, shedding needles onto the table. I didn’t know if it was their doing or the Nokken’s.
‘If I stay,’ I blurted, ‘will you let them go?’
The Nokken seemed to take half the night to face me and his features held no expression. Jesus, what was I saying? The creature pulled his long hair over his shoulder so it all swung down his back, and without a word he turned and walked to the water. I swallowed. Well, that’s how I get us all free, insult the creature!
But at the edge, water running to his ankles, he half turned and held a hand out to me. ‘Yes, Cass,’ he said in that musical voice of his, ‘if you come with me, they are free to go, and I will not bother anyone again.’
‘No fucking way!’ Darren cried. ‘Cass, are you nuts? This…’
‘Give my regards to Clarise Sherrin,’ the Nokken said softly.
Darren froze, and I had the strangest feeling that right up until now he hadn’t really believed what he’d read and hadn’t believed what was happening here. But Clarise was the little girl he’d told us about from the seventies, who’d escaped from the horse with her sister. His horrified gaze met mine. ‘No,’ he said, shaking his head, ‘no, this…’ He jumped when Jamie clamped onto his arm.
The Nokken repeated my name. He still held out his hand and as I stepped toward him, reaching to take it, I felt the coolness of the water rising up my legs.
‘This will not hurt,’ he murmured, closing his fingers around my hand. ‘Come.’
And I did because he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen and I would do anything he asked.