Note: This was first posted up on my Patreon page in December. (For folks who follow me here and subscribe to my Patreon, there are minor differences between what y’all got and this version because I went through and edited it again for this post.)
At first, when Danae sees the horse in the canal, she thinks that she’s dreaming.
The horse is huge and dark in the faint thread of light reflected on the water. When it takes a laboring step forward, vines and thick wiry ropes tug at its blue-black flesh.
Danae flinches, fingers tightening their hold on the tote bag slung over her shoulder.
The horse makes a sound like a scream, head tossing back and forth as it fights against the things binding it and threatening to haul it back into the murky depths of the canal.
At first, Danae doesn’t move.
If she’s dreaming, she’s still at her cramped desk in the back of the store and there’s nothing that she can do.
And if she’s awake, there’s a horse wading in a South Florida canal.
What can she do in that case?
The horse tosses its head, its dark mane sending droplets of water arcing through the air to splatter the ground on the bank, and then utters another one of those panicked-sounding cries that causes the hair on the nape of Danae’s neck and her forearms to stand straight up.
When Danae glances around, the streets are empty and there isn’t a car for several blocks. If anyone in the surrounding houses can hear the horse or the splashing in the canal, they aren’t bothering to come out.
Danae hitches her bag higher up on her shoulder and glances down at the grass-covered slope leading down to the canal and the horse trying to get out of it.
“I’m coming,” Danae calls out, sliding a bit in the damp grass on her way down.
It’s a miracle that she doesn’t fall straight down into the canal herself, but Danae makes it down to the bank with nothing more than a few mossy stains on the knees of her work uniform to show for it.
Up close, the horse is massive.
One of its pale green eyes is roughly the size of one of Danae’s palms and when it huffs out a breath, a cloud of steam flogs from nostrils that are bigger than her eyes.
Up close, the horse looks like something out of a nightmare and that’s before it lets out another cry and reveals a mouthful of jaggedly sharp teeth.
Danae can’t stop herself from screaming, barely managing to cover her mouth with her hands as she scrambles backward up the banks of the canal on slippery-soled shoes.
“Y-you’re not a real horse,” Danae says when she can speak without fear tightening her throat. Her tone is accusatory and she knows it, but she can’t stop herself from jabbing her index finger in the horse-demon-thing‘s direction. “What—”
The horse takes another slow step forward, hooves the size of dinner plates trying and failing to find traction on the dew-damp ground. Between the ropy vines trying to tether it to the canal and the muddy bank impeding its every step, the horse doesn’t get very far before it starts to slide backwards into the muck.
Despite its sharp teeth and midnight-dark features, there’s something about the big animal that makes it look –
Not soft, per se.
Yeah, Danae can see that.
Danae shucks her bag and then moves forward, stepping carefully on treacherous ground until she can reach out and close her fingers around one of the thick vines looped around its neck.
Underneath her fingers, the vines feel like cable. They should be too strong for her to move or even break but when she tugs, they peel apart as if she’s ripping at them. Fibrous material clings to the tips of her fingers, but within moments, much of the muck-soaked vines and threads of something that gleams silver in the night lay scattered around Danae’s feet.
Soon, the only bindings left are the ones that go underneath the surface of the water.
Even on a good day, she wouldn’t go into a canal. They’re deeper than they look and dangerous because of it. Even in the well-off neighborhood she’s walking through, Danae’s seen regular reports of grown adults being sucked into their doom by the swirling underwater currents that aren’t visible from the surface. What looks ankle deep on the giant horse-thing still struggling against the grip of vines holding it fast, might well be hip deep on her.
But Danae can’t just leave it there.
“Hold on,” Danae says to the panicking animal in front of her. “I think – I have something in my bag that should help.” She backpedals, almost running to her bag and shoving her hand in to find the switchblade that she’s kept there since some rich person’s asshole kid tried to mug her on the way to the bus stop a few months back.
Finally, she has a use for it that probably won’t land her in jail.
The horse-thing doesn’t seem to know what to make of Danae when she comes back with the knife held tight in her fist. It stomps at the ground hard enough to shake it and tries to back away, those pale eyes rolling back with panic.
“Shh,” Danae croons, holding her hands out. “I’m just trying to help. I know you’re a big scary demon horse and you can eat me, but just – just let me help. I just need to get on your back, okay?” She keeps walking as she talks, edging around to the side that is farthest away from the deepest of the muck and murky water.
Outside of carousel rides at the flea market, Danae has never ridden a horse. And wood and metal don’t have anything on the gigantic flexing mass of power that doesn’t trust her one bit. The horse looks at her again, baring those sharp teeth that’d look more at home in a horror movie than in the mouth of something that’s supposed to only eat grass.
“Will you –” Danae falters, panic tight in her chest. She manages to clear her throat a second later. “Will you get down a bit? I can’t get up like this.” She gestures as she talks, hoping that some of what she’s saying is going through. If the thing in front of her doesn’t understand speech, maybe it’ll understand the hand gestures.
Somehow, it works.
The second that the horse lowers front enough for Danae to feel as if she has a hope in getting on its back, she scrambles for it. She knows it can’t be comfortable, especially when her fingers push into the densely tangled mane and she pulls. This time, the noise that echoes through the night is a pained one.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Danae mutters, patting the side of that thick neck and willing the horse not to throw her into the canal – or anywhere else for that matter. “I’m almost there. I just –”
It takes a second or two of wiggling, but finally Danae gets herself situated enough that she can see the dense lines of even thicker vines pressing into black flesh. The knife in her hands seems too small for such a task, but Danae doesn’t have anything bigger or better. She takes to sawing at the vines, muttering at them as she cuts and cuts and cuts without as much as a fray in the fibers.
Finally, she gives up and just tries to yank them free like she’d done with the smaller fines.
Somehow, that works.
The vines fall apart underneath her hands and so she keeps ripping at them, tearing them apart as the horse underneath her starts to move towards the shore with more confident steps. As the last vine crumbles to moist mush beneath her fingers, something changes.
There’s something like the pop of pressure changing in the air then Danae finds herself falling –
Something grabs Danae’s shoulders, heat searing her skin through the thin fabric of her t-shirt. Instead of falling face-first into the canal and winding up a sad story on the news in the week after they find her, Danae hovers kind of awkwardly in the air above the water before she’s tossed none too gently onto the grass on the side of the canal.
Danae closes her eyes, breath puffing out of her chest in an aggravated grunt as she lands. She’s not in pain, not really, but her dignity sure is bruised.
When Danae opens her eyes, she immediately looks for the horse that she’d been helping. Sure, by now she’s very aware of the fact that no horse has ever looked like that or had teeth like a shark, but she can’t stop herself from assigning it a familiar name or from trying to find it.
There’s no horse on the riverbank.
If not for the hoof prints stamped into the dirt and the detritus of the vines still clinging to her hands, Danae would honestly tell herself that she managed to imagine the entire experience. Honestly, she probably will spin it into a story once she takes the bus home and is back in her room.
Pushing herself up to her feet, Danae brushes of the front of her pants and then the back, trying to get the worst of the muck off before she gets back on the sidewalk. Sure, as long as she’s dressed the bus driver can’t keep her of the bus, but it’s a lot easier when it doesn’t look like she’s gone for a roll in the mud.
“Now where’s my –” Danae pauses, mouth dropping open when she realizes that she still isn’t alone in front of the canal.
There’s someone – something – crouching down beside her bag, rummaging through her things without any shame. In the barely there light coming from the moon and the flickering street light several yards away up on the sidewalk, at first the only thing Danae can see is skin so dark that it might actually be black and hair that falls like a curtain to the ground.
Then the person turns around and looks at Danae.
Pale green eyes. A thin-lipped mouth that turns from frowning to smiling once the person in front of her meets her gaze. Those teeth. So many of them and so sharp.
Danae nearly topples over from shock.
Of course, she can’t finish her sentence. What sense would that make when the person in front of her isn’t a horse and the horse from before was never even that?
Danae shivers, less from cold than from the nervousness taking hold of her, but then frowns. “What are you?”
The person in front of her stands up to a height that most people never reach. They’re huge. Broad-shouldered with long limbs and enough muscles that even Danae can see them flexing when they move. And boy does that body move.
Danae barely blinks before she’s face to face with that being. Her brown eyes widen as they alight on a face that’s almost too perfect to be real.
“You’re – you’re –” The words fail her, but the being in front of her is helpful enough in this aspect.
“I am a kelpie,” they say in a proud tone as fingers press against Danae’s arms just underneath the sleeves of her shirt. “And you have saved my life.” They smile again, sharp teeth so very close to Danae’s face that all she can do is squeak and try to squirm away despite the strong grip of those fingers on her skin. She’ll have bruises in the morning – purple against brown – if she even makes it to the morning.
Danae shakes her head. “I didn’t do anything!”
The kelpie continues to smile.
Danae wishes that they would stop.
“I didn’t,” she says, putting the emphasis on the words. “All I did was cut you free. It’s not a big deal at all.” Really, it’s not. All Danae wants to do is keep repeating herself until the kelpie gets the point and lets her go.
The kelpie snorts.
“You cut me free of my prison,” the kelpie explains. “Therefore, you have saved my life. I owe you a boon.”
Danae shakes her head.
“Oh, no. You don’t,” she says, stumbling over the words in her haste. “You really don’t. Just let me get my bag and I’ll be out of your hair.” The next time that Danae tries to pull away, the kelpie lets her. Just lets go of her arms and stares at her with confusion on their face.
“You do not wish for a boon?” The kelpie’s mouth twists with a frown that’s a million times more worrying than their smiles had been and a heavy hand pushes into the tangled curls of their hair. “Most humans –”
Danae isn’t dealing with this.
She throws her hands up in the air.
“‘Most humans’ nothing,” she says, speaking louder than she means to as her voice fills with panic. “I helped you because you were scared and I was worried. That’s it. I’m not expecting anything except for you to let me go home so that I can sleep. Okay?”
Danae sidesteps the kelpie before they can answer, heading for her bag. Her things. The paperback she reads on the bus home, her extra-extra clothes, and her wallet are all strewn across the dew-damp grass as if they don’t matter. Danae bites back the anger that wants to burst free and just starts shoving everything back in her bag, muttering the whole time.
If she rushes, if she runs and crosses the street while the light’s still green instead of waiting for it to change, maybe she’ll make it to the bus stop in time. Maybe she won’t have to try and call someone to get her.
Blowing out a sigh, Danae almost misses when the kelpie comes back to her side.
“Yes,” she says. The word drags out so long that it becomes a multisyllabic thing. “What do you want?”
The kelpie frowns.
“I owe you a boon,” they say as if that makes any sense. “You cannot just leave –”
Danae shakes her head. “Look,” she says, as gently as she can. “I’m sure you’re a nice guy – kelpie, I mean. But I don’t know you. I don’t know what’s going on. All I want to do right now is go to the bus stop, take the bus home, and then sleep until I have to drag myself back out here for work tomorrow afternoon. I don’t have time for this right now.”
Instead of getting angry or frustrated, the kelpie smiles.
“Please stop doing that,” Danae mutters under her breath.
The kelpie either doesn’t hear or doesn’t care.
“Then I will come with you,” the kelpie says as if that’s it and everything’s set in stone. They drop down to their knees and starts shoveling things into Danae’s bag.
Danae blinks. “Excuse me?”
“I. Will. Come. With. You,” the kelpie says with a smug smile on their face. “It is dark out and I would rather my boon not go unfulfilled because of something happening to you. I will go with you and see more of your world.” Still smiling, the kelpie reaches out and pats one of Danae’s hands. “It will be, hm – fun?”
Danae sighs, seeing her chances of going home without incident dwindling by the second.
“I don’t even know you,” she says in a defeated tone. “And you were a freaking horse a few minutes ago.” She holds up a hand to hold off any protests when the kelpie opens their mouth to complain. “But as much as I want to just tell you to go away and leave me alone, I don’t think that you will. So just – come on.”
When the kelpie smiles again, Danae doesn’t even bother to hide her shiver at the sight of those sharp teeth.
She’s going to have one hell of a hard time explaining this to her roommates.