So, I was the Left Hand of God, the Holy Champion of the Faith sent by God to smite the evil beings that would control the world and enslave humanity. So what? I was still a barely-under-five-feet tall, less-than-a-hundred-pound, thirteen year old human female who was more than a little pissed that life had dealt me the cards I was holding. I was born Alexandra McKiernan, but the world now knew me as Dame Alice Spencer-Killdare, niece of Sir Eoin, the Baron of Spencer, and the heroine of Belfast now a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Two weeks ago I rescued my "cousin," his mother Elizabeth, and my "grandmother" from a group of said evil beings, including a rather demented Demon, a millennia-old Vampire, and a group of Werefoxes.
And I was still aching from the experience. The external bruising and scratches were gone. The stitches in my arse, back, left shoulder, right thigh, chin, and over my left eye were all out and the cuts healing so nicely I would probably not have many scars from the fight. Karl Waldensee, the monk sent from the Order (read: shadowy religious organization founded to battle the world's monsters) to watch over me had cleaned up everything in Belfast and, thanks to my foster father Eoin Spencer, I was the hero for saving them all from an IRA splinter group.
No Demons. No Vampires. No Werefoxes. The monsters are not real. The Order was kind of like Obi-Wan Kenobi. You know, "These are not the droids you are looking for." Only they did it all the time to a lot more people. Part of their job was to make sure the monsters stayed fairy tales.
In the aftermath of Belfast, I was really hating being Alice Spencer-Killdare. Of course, being Alexandra McKiernan wasn't all that easy, either. People had been trying to kill Alexandra since I was born. But I had dad and Anika (my cousin) and the rest of my family as Alexandra. Eoin and my new family had been nothing but supportive and protective, even to the point of Hestia, one of my teachers/bodyguards, giving her life. But becoming Alice did not make Alexandra's problems disappear. It merely made them harder to find me. And Belfast proved that they would find me! I guess the lifestyle that came with being Alice was a bit of a consolation, since I was now a wealthy heiress and a knight and all.
It was also how I found myself being driven through northern England on our way to southern Scotland and the Spencer estate, "for my own good." When the stitches came out, Eoin decided we were all going to his estate up north for some recuperative rest in the country. And by all I mean Eoin, William, Grandmother, Elizabeth, and me. And Eoin's security chief Ambrose Devlin and his security people, of course. William and the ladies had just been kidnapped, after all. Scotland Yard and MI5 still had a security detail on them, so they would be coming, too, though they would trail us by a few car-lengths and pretend we didn't know they knew we knew they were there. So I was sitting in the back seat of a black Land Rover, sandwiched between William and Eoin, the second in a six vehicle convoy heading to the Barony of Spencer.
Without the air conditioning, it would have been sweltering in the Rover with Eoin, William, the driver, and the two security men Ambrose assigned to our vehicle before hopping in the Rover behind us with Elizabeth and Grandmother. Summer was blazing in all her glory, pounding England with a nearly unprecedented heat wave. Much as I did not want to go on the trip, now that we were on our way, the many lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and coastlines loomed large in my plans when we got there. I loved to swim.
In the interim, I fell asleep.
The change in engine noise woke me. I lifted my head from where it rested on Eoin's shoulder and saw that we had turned onto the estate's drive, a long tunnel of pavement enclosed by trees in their full summer foliage. The shadowed drive was cool and relaxing, easing tension I did not realize was there. The house and grounds came into view and a smile crept onto my face. I was happy to be there, I realized. For some reason, it felt more like home to me than the Chelsea townhouse back in London.
As we drove up, the front door opened and Mr. Campbell, the caretaker, stepped out with a welcoming smile. William and I hopped out and ran up to hug him. I know, a little more expressive than is thought between the British upper class and their servants but Mr. Campbell had known William since he was born and I got to know him well over the last year or so. He was more like an uncle or close friend of the family than a servant. He lived in a neat cottage on the edge of the orchard and kept up the manor when Lord Spencer was not there. That he was here to greet us meant that this little trip was less a spontaneous decision on Eoin's part than he represented when he announced we were going.
Before Mr. Campbell could usher us into the house, three car-loads of security people sprang into action even as the MI5 security team following our convoy pulled up and jumped out of their black sedans. While Ambrose's people swept the house, MI5 agents spread over the ground; Ambrose and two each of his men and MI5 agents stayed with us until the all clear was sounded over the radios. Then Mr. Campbell led us and the ladies inside to the sitting room before escorting Mistress MacGregor and the cooks to the kitchen to make a late lunch for everyone.
After a quick meal of sandwiches and fruit in cream, Eoin and Grandmother went for naps, Elizabeth decided to go visit her own manor house in the next valley, and William and I donned our swimsuits to go swimming.
On our way out of the house via the back door, Mr. Campbell warned, "Watched out for each other. There've been entirely too many drownings and near misses in this area this year."
That stopped us cold, towels around our necks, William in a black Speedo under the white t-shirt that I knew showed off his muscularly fit body to perfection and me in the most modest, metallic blue one-piece suit I could find under a lavender button down shirt and pink shorts. If I could have gotten away with Bermuda shorts and a sports bra, I would have; Grandmother and Elizabeth, however, would hear nothing of it. In fact, they despaired at the suit I chose; they considered it scandalously modest for me. Especially since I was in "such great shape!"
"What do you mean, Mr. Campbell?" I asked, a hint of my paranoia rearing its ugly, all-too-often-correct, little head and taking a wary sniff.
His craggy, gray bewhiskered face was grave, brown eyes sad. "Four kids have drowned in the Avon this year and the Irvine and Lugton have had near misses," he replied, his rough voice cracking with sorrow. "The authorities can't figure out what is different this year from other years, but the waters hereabouts seem to be trying to suck the youngsters out for a swim down into the depths. All of the bodies were found weeks later, gnawed by animals, but they were intact enough to see they drowned. So mind me and you be careful and watch out for each other."
"We will," William replied, slinging an arm over my shoulders.
Our plans were to go to the pond the orchard surrounded today and that was where we went. But William wanted to take me to the Avon during our trip. He liked to fish in the bigger part of the river near the gorge through which the Avon flowed on its way to the River, and then the Firth, of Clyde and eventually the Irish Sea. It was a ways from the estate and we would have to drive. Given everyone's heightened state of alert after Belfast, we would also have to take a couple of guards.
As we walked through the orchard, William kept stealing glances at me. I finally got creeped out enough to snap, "What!?" as I whirled on him, glaring.
He started and then grinned sheepishly. He looked like a little kid again instead of the eighteen year old, soon-to-be university student he was. "Sorry, Alice. It's just ... I seem to see and think about things strangely now. Last summer, if Mr. Campbell told us what he did, I would just think, 'How sad.' This summer, I think, 'What does Alice think?'" he admitted with a deep flush to his face, eyes down on his feet. Then his eyes came up and they were piercing in their intensity. "So, what do you think?"
I shook my head and continued on towards the pond. There was a sweet, fruity smell on the air under the trees; harvest time was not far off. I could hear the burbling stream that fed the pond not far off and the gentle hushing sound of the pond water lapping at the shore. The buzzing of insects and the occasional call of geese and frogs announced we were close before we rounded a bend in the path and pushed through the hedge guarding the pond.
The pond itself wasn't really large, but it was deep and a little on the cold side. It was big enough, with enough bugs and fish and seed grasses in and around it, to support a small flock of ducks and geese along with a few other wetland birds I couldn't name. And the frogs. Frogs could be heard in mating season all the way at the house, according to William. The birds would soon be heading south, but for now it was cool to swim with them. They never let you get too close; they just kind of cruised around you or winged away in a few quick wing beats.
The sun that had made the lowlands around London unbearable was less harsh and far less sweltering in southern Scotland. It was still hot, however, and William and I put out towels on a couple of big rocks along with his shirt and my shirt and shorts. William immediately splashed into the water, yelping with the cold. When I was down to my swimsuit, I took a vinyl and rubber harness that I had hidden in my towel and strapped it to my calf. It was a diver's knife. More specifically, it was a special forces-style knife that I ordered via an arms smuggler I met a while back. When William first took me swimming, while I was sequestered at the Spencer estate learning to be an Australian girl named Alice (and unlearning how to be an American girl named Alexandra) I realized I needed something for when I was swimming. I met the arms smuggler by accident when we moved to the London townhouse. He was in an antique shop when I went in to buy my first knife from that place. He was shocked, then impressed, by my choice of weapon. He offered to get me more modern weapons should I need them.
William watched me strap it to my right calf with mixed outrage and fascination. "Can I ask?" he queried diffidently with a pointed look at my leg.
I smiled and shrugged. "Your father would probably say I was paranoid," I replied with a trace of condescending irritation. "My new motto, however, is: 'It isn't paranoia if they really are out to get you!' I call it being prepared. You will survive being embarrassed for taking a weapon you don't need to places others do not think you need to. You might not survive not having a weapon when you need one."
With that, I dove in, swimming across the pond on one breath. The first time William took me swimming there, he tried to race me across the pond but could only get a third of the way across before he had to come up for air. Dad and the Santoses used to say I must be a mermaid; I loved the water so much. When I came up on the other side, I wiped the water off my face while looking around for William. I started when he jumped to the surface of the pond, gasping for breath and holding a bleeding hand with a worried look on his face.
"Come on, Alice!" he yelled, heading towards the shore. "There is something that bites in here!"
My right leg snapped up and I had the diver's knife in my hand without thought even as my eyes scanned the water. That was when I realized the ducks and geese were much closer to the shore today and they were now flowing out of the pond in a feathered wave, a frantic cacophony shattering the calm air. The bank was too marshy to get out on my side of the pond without getting bogged down in knee-deep mud. Not a situation you want with something trying to eat you, assuming William was right.
I began making my way around the pond in chest- to thigh-deep water, eyes peeled to the pond's surface and knife at the ready before me.
"There!" William shouted, pointing to my left.
I turned just in time to see the wake of something moving swiftly beneath the surface, the arrow of disturbed water aimed straight at me. It was neither small nor fish-shaped and in fact moved kind of ungainly under the water, a kind of jerky, surging motion barely seen in the pond water. The pond was neither crystal clear nor a murky soup, so I could see as far down my own body as my calves in the higher-than-waist-deep water. Had I been stationary, I could probably have seen my feet, but trying to get to shore had kicked up sediments from the bottom.
As the ... creature, whatever it was, got within two meters of me, a horse-like shape was visible. I stood there, knife raised for a spearing thrust, gaping. There was nothing in my life's experience (weird as it has been thus far), nor any knowledge gained, that would explain an aquatic, carnivorous equine shape inhabiting Eoin's pond and trying to eat his son and niece. I knew of no species of equine that was carnivorous, nor any as small as that coming towards me, nor any that was as comfortable beneath the water as this seemed to be. I also knew of no monster that could explain this situation, lean though my knowledge admittedly was on that front.
Whatever it was, as it came near me, my hand darted down into the water, knife spearing its neck. It thrashed around on the end of the knife, trying to slash at me with fanglike teeth and hooves that ended in claws. That moment spent gaping like an idiot almost cost me. Not my life, the thing was only about a meter (3 ft.) long. Standing on dry ground it might be slightly taller, but nothing that had a chance of killing me. As I trudged through the water, dragging the weakening critter on the end of my knife, William stared at me from shore.
"What the bloody hell is that?" he demanded incredulously.
"And I am supposed to know why?" I retorted irritably, flinging the spasming corpse on the bank and hauling myself out of the pond. I dropped the knife smeared with a greenish fluid on the ground by the rock upon which rested my towel and clothes. I quickly wiped myself down and dressed, wiping the knife on the wet towel and drying it on my shirt. After slipping the blade back into its sheath, I strode over to the body, which William was looking over with a sick look on his face, skin a little pale. "Sooo. What the hell is that thing? You have been coming here since you were a little kid, what is it? If it had attacked us in the orchard, I would say it was a horse, or rather a pony. But look at those fangs! And the claws on the hooves!"
William scanned the ground and picked up a stick about as long as his arm. With it, he scraped the skin on the long neck and flaps of skin caught on the tip of the branch, revealing grayish-pink structures beneath. "Gills. It had gills. That is how it breathed under water and why we didn't see it before it attacked me." He lifted up his hand, showing a gash on the back of his hand that was still bleeding.
"Well, we can't leave it here," I said, looking out at the pond and the still-discomfited birds only just now making their cautious way back into the water. "If for no other reason than that it will start to stink after a while."
He looked up at me with a naughty grin. "Let's take it home," he proposed, answering with a shrug when I shot him a questioning look at the suggestion. "Maybe Mr. Campbell will know what it is. He has lived on or around the Spencer estate since he was a boy. If anyone around here knows what it is it will be him."
We arranged the now-still carcass on our towels like a litter and hauled the surprisingly heavy creature back through the orchard to the back door of the caretaker's cottage that sat on the edge of the fruit trees. Walking through the trees, we could see a thin ribbon of smoke coming out of Mr. Campbell's chimney. I had never been inside the little fieldstone house but William had many times. He said it was almost as if the twentieth century did not exist inside that picturesque dwelling nestled among the fruit trees.
Apparently dropping the carcass on his stoop was loud enough to carry through the open windows because no sooner had we straightened to wipe our bedewed brows than the top half of the stout oak Dutch door opened. The caretaker saw what was on his doorstep and grinned, leaning on the bottom half of his door.
"Well now, didn't I tell you younglings to watch out?" he demanded with mock severity. "And here you are dumping a Kelpie foal on my doorstep. I guess that explains the drownings. The mare that spawned this little monstrosity must be in the Avon with her yearlings and adolescents."
"Kelpie?" I inquired.
"Aye, a Kelpie. The beasties mostly infest waters in the Highlands and rural parts of Ireland, Wales, and Cornwall, where folk know the signs and avoid them," he replied with another grimace. He shook his head. "Every once in a while a mare comes south to find safer waters in which to foal. The mother of this one will not be happy to find it dead."
"But how can she?" William asked, seeming so ... I don't know, naive? It was the question of an innocent. It was something that someone who knows nothing of predators would ask. Eoin was not a hunter and so neither was William. My father was a hunter and he taught me about how animals, be they four-legged or two-legged, act. "We brought the body here. How will she know what happened to it?"
"There was blood in the water and on the shore where I dropped it," I answered before Mr. Campbell could open his mouth. "And there will be the smell of a dead body at least for a little while."
"Lass, she won't need a scent," the old man said, his craggy face grim. "Kelpies may look like horses, but they are not animals. They are monsters that prey on humans. They can even look like humans sometimes. And they can think almost as well as humans, which makes them infinitely more dangerous than a horse or even a wolf who is distressed over the loss of their young. She will come for you and she may not look like a horse when she does."
Mr. Campbell actually took the carcass to the other side of the estate from the house and pond to burn it after tending to William's hand. Before doing that, he dumped a load of spices all around his cottage and on the body. He also gave us a jar of spices each to sprinkle along the path we took to his house, all the way back to the pond. "An old folk remedy against Kelpies," he muttered as he sprinkled. His hope in doing that was to confuse the Kelpie's very good sense of smell enough that it would have to approach as a human. There were, he assured us, easy ways to tell a disguised Kelpie from a human stranger.
When we returned from sprinkling the spices through the orchard, Mr. Campbell was still gone. On his stoop were Eoin and Ambrose, both looking unsettled.
"Kelpie?" Eoin asked with a sardonic look on his face, as if he was having trouble comprehending how conversations like these slipped into his life.
I couldn't help myself; I giggled, slapping my hands over my mouth. "That is what I said," I tittered.
William bumped my shoulder, shaking his head even as he grinned widely. "She really did say that exact thing, in that exact tone, to Mr. Campbell," he confirmed. Amused smiles bloomed on the male faces surrounding me and I realized I was once more the source of much hilarity amongst the menfolk. I shook my head with a sigh of resignation, my eyes twinkling with my own amusement. William added, once he stopped laughing, "Mr. Campbell seems to know all about them. I guess they are a Scottish thing."
"Celtic, actually," said the caretaker's voice from around the corner of the cottage. He rounded the corner, his face drawn with weariness. There were soot marks on his pants, face, and hands and the scent of spiced meat wafted on the breeze ahead of him. "We Scots brought the beasties with us when we came to Caledonia. They are a lot smarter here in Scotland than they are in Ireland or farther south in Wales and Cornwall, or even the few in Brittany. Some idiot Scots chieftain used to ride a Kelpie into battle and mate with her after his victories. Needless to say, the Kelpie used to make sure he won often. Took five clans, two wizards, and a Pictish horde to kill the idiot!"
Ambrose, looking even more dangerous than usual in a shoulder rig holding two 9mms, raised his eyebrows at that. "He was that formidable, that powerful?"
Mr. Campbell snorted, the Scottish in his accent suddenly apparent. "Nay, the bloody Kelpie would lure the opposing clan's best warriors out of camp the night before battles and drown them in the nearest loch or river or bog. The wizards convinced the warriors to camp nowhere near water and to ignore any comely lasses approaching them on the eve of battle. They slew the Kelpie and the chieftain in battle with the help of Pictish mercenaries."
Ambrose looked a little relieved. "So this isn't like werewolves or vampires? Where you need a specific type of weapon to kill them?"
The caretaker looked bemused by the conversation. "Nay, lad. The lass killed the wee one with a nice diver's knife," he told them.
Eoin and Ambrose looked down at me in surprise, Ambrose's eyes flicking to my legs. "I do not recall you ever going near anything resembling a dive shop," Eoin said in that wonderfully upper class London accent. Almost made me overlook the reproach in the tone. Almost. When I kept silent to the implied, but not asked, question, he added, "How did you come by a diver's knife, Alice?"
Reluctantly, I shrugged. "A friend got it for me after I realized I had no weapons I could take swimming."
"Where is it?" Ambrose asked. "Dive knives go on your leg or arm and yours are bare."
When we dropped the Kelpie's carcass on Mr. Campbell's doorstep, I had slipped it off just before he stuck his head out of his door. Just fast enough that he did not see it, I thought. Now I pulled it from the small of my back, the harness straps wrapped around the sheath.
Ambrose took it from me right before Eoin could; outrage the dominant emotion on my foster father's face. The security chief drew the blade with a whistle. "This is a nice blade, Alice. I have seen its like among Australian Marines and my Yankee friends with the U. S. Navy SEALs."
"And who was this kind friend who sold you an illegal blade? Especially so soon after the queen's knighting got the ministry to ignore your weapons in Belfast." Eoin asked heatedly, his eyes snapping with anger.
I looked into those blazing orbs and sighed. "You are not going to like the answer to that question," I told him softly.
"I already bloody well know that!"
Another sigh, this one tinged with regret. "His name is John Brown and he is an arms ... dealer," I said as gently as possible.
Eoin stood there looking at me with his mouth moving but no sound emerging for a long minute before snatching the dive knife from Ambrose and stalking off towards the manor.
"Er, Alice?" Ambrose ventured when Eoin was out of earshot. "You do know how common a name John Brown is in Britain, right?"
I grinned, urchinlike. "If you are asking if I know that John Brown is probably not his real name, then yes. He is an arms smuggler and my 'uncle' is Sir Eoin, Baron of Spencer," I said rather tartly. Then I rolled my eyes as a concerned look bloomed on Ambrose's usually intimidating face. "He is a friend and I am smart enough to have followed him home once or twice. I know who he is, and he is not someone with a reputation for hurting little girls. As a matter of fact, he has a reputation as something of a gentleman among scoundrels."
Ambrose grinned. "You know I am going to look into this, don't you?" he asked somewhat impishly, rather out of character for him. There was a hint of teasing in his tone that was rare when he was talking about security-related matters. "If only to assuage your foster father's rather highly aroused, and justifiably, protective instincts."
I let out a long-suffering sigh. "Naturally," I replied, resigned to dealing to overprotective males for a while to come. I could also see it getting tiresome very quickly and, under the right (or would that be wrong?) circumstances, dangerous.
I found out later that Eoin had gone back to the house and confiscated every weapon I brought with me, including those he gave me himself. Nothing I said would sway him. I wound up smuggling a small steak knife out of the dining room that night just so I would be armed!
A week later, as things were settling back down to normal (read: no Kelpie mother appearing for vengeance, though I was still all but knifeless), a bomb dropped into the middle of a calm Sunday afternoon.
Ambrose had taken me to the nearest Roman Catholic church (Eoin's dead sister-in-law having been Catholic allowed me to go to the church of my choice) that morning after a quick breakfast, surprising me. After a year of knowing him, I had assumed he was either religiously indifferent or Anglican, like Eoin and his family. Lapsed, that was how he described his Catholicism. While we were listening to an almost hypnotic sermon on the right to life, up to and including defending oneself, Eoin, Grandmother, William, and Elizabeth went to their family's Anglican church. The Spencers had been fervent Anglicans since the time of Elizabeth I and helped fund the building of St. Thomas á Beckett Anglican Church in Ayr.
After mass, everyone met back at the Spencer manor for lunch. While awaiting the cooks' efforts to be served, plans for the rest of the day were discussed. William had been invited to a friend's house at church and they planned to go fishing in the Avon with the friend's older brother and cousin. Grandmother and Elizabeth, seemingly having bonded over their shared abduction trauma, were going into Glasgow to see if there was anything worth their time in the shops. I was attached to this foray without my consent. It seems the adults had taken the opportunity to discuss it behind my back and decided it would be good for me to have some "fun" shopping.
The look on Eoin's face when this pronouncement was handed down was not one open to discussion or debate. Since I needed new bras (which I was forced to wear despite not having anything to put in them yet) and a new jacket, I gave in after a weak attempt to argue. Now I was very glad I wore a white silk blouse and lavender silk pants to church rather than the skirt outfit or dress I was urged to don when I accompanied Eoin to his church. Since it was High Anglican, it wasn't that weird for me when that happened, I just preferred a Catholic church.
About two hours later, halfway into our route through the shops Grandmother wished to visit, our security people were suddenly rushing us out of a hat boutique and pushing us into the Land Rover. Worried sounding squawks were streaming out of the radio. Jamieson, the leader of our security team and Ambrose's second-in-command, stared at me in the visor mirror with a scared look on his pale face. With that piercing gaze came a dread. Something had happened.
My first thought was some kind of accident involving Eoin or William. It was immediately dismissed as unlikely; they would have told us what was wrong instead of simply whisking us back to the Spencer estate. The next thing to occur to me was the possibility that some kind of retaliation for Belfast had finally come down on those I cared for. Again, I immediately dismissed this due to how the guards were reacting. They were not agitated enough, alert enough. It was more that they were shocked, not a state in which this group of retired military and police often found themselves.
It had to be the Kelpies. Or a Kelpie.
I was pretty sure neither Eoin nor William was hurt, at least not badly. The drive home, however, was a long one.
We were a couple of minutes out from Eoin's manor when a tense but controlled squawk came over the guards' radios. Jamieson relaxed with a smile and turned to us, or rather Elizabeth. "They have found William and his friends, Lady Ancen. He is unhurt, though one of the other lads was attacked by something in the water, my Lady."
Elizabeth paled. "What do you mean, 'attacked?' What attacked them?"
"We have no details, my lady," Jamieson said, his stolid face once more expressionlessly blank. It had been a little unnerving seeing his normally stony visage crack to reveal the fear he felt upon receiving that first message to get us home. "The constables and Scotland Yard think there might be something loose in the area that ought not be here. The locals think someone smuggled in a crocodile and released it in the Avon when it got too big. The constable is sending for a biologist to look at the wound and examine the other bodies that they thought were drownings from earlier in the year."
"I remember the stories," Elizabeth murmured, her face worried despite the assurances her son was fine. "Four drownings in a few months, and all young people, was tragic. Now they think an animal killed them all?"