Image: Waterhouse, John William; Hylas and the Nymphs; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hylas-and-the-nymphs-206346
Aidan and Jaslyn’s village is under attack by a monster. Do they have the will to defeat it or will they surrender to its power?
‘I’m coming with you.’
‘No, you’re not.’ Her brother sat on the edge of his bed, took up his whetstone and rag and began to sharpen his sword with clean, deft movements. It was once their father’s sword, old and rusty and notched. The hilt was cracked, the grip falling apart, but Jaslyn eyed it enviously.
Sitting on her bed opposite, she dropped her head onto her fist. ‘Why not?’
‘You know why.’
‘If I were a man—’
‘But you’re not a man. You’re a maiden, destined to marry and have children. Not to fight.’
The sharp zing of the sword against the whetstone filled her ears. ‘I’m older than you,’ she said.
‘By one minute. And what does that matter? Chief Druston wants the oldest, able man of each household to accompany him. What use does he have of a woman?’
‘Barely a man,’ she pointed out.
He paused in his sharpening. ‘But I am a man nonetheless. With Father dead, I am all there is.’
She sat up straight and clasped her knees. ‘I am useful. I am skilled with the arrow. I can throw a dagger and pierce an apple over thirty feet away. You’ve seen me.’ She jabbed a finger at him. ‘Let’s see the men in the village do that.’
He looked at her with his mossy green eyes, the same as hers. They were twins: the same dark, wavy hair, the same olive skin, the same full lips. But that was where the similarities ended. When they were children it was hard to tell them apart. Jaslyn had worn her hair short like Aidan’s, and she had been fast and strong, faster and stronger than her little brother. But recently—
Aidan was over a head taller than her now. His shoulders strained against his tunic. His hands were big and strong. It was six months since they had raced each other up the Schofield Steps when Aidan had beaten her for the first time.
She looked down at herself, at her long flowing locks her mother never let her cut anymore, at the swell of her breasts against her tunic. She wrapped her arms around herself, hating them. They had grown rapidly over the past year, ever since her first blood. Almost as rapidly as Aidan had grown tall. She winced and hugged herself more tightly. The village men were looking at her now, whispering, winking. It wouldn’t be long before one of them asked to court her.
Aidan put aside the whetstone and got to his feet. ‘Here,’ he said, holding out the sword hilt first.
She gazed at him in confusion, then hope. Would he let her go after all? She stood up and grasped it. Her father had never allowed her to touch it. She smiled at him. Then her brother released his grip, and she tripped and stumbled, the full weight of the heavy iron blade yanking her forward. She lost her grip, and the sword clattered to the floor.
‘See,’ her brother said.
Jaslyn clutched at her strained wrist, tears filling her eyes, not from sadness but from rage. ‘It doesn’t prove anything!’
‘It proves everything!’ Giving a sigh, he picked up the sword and went back to his whetting. ‘I know you want to protect me, Sister. And I love you for it. But the swamps are no place for a woman.’
‘I used to walk them with Father every day.’
‘As did I, but things have changed. Something terrible inhabits them now. If you can’t even lift a sword how do you intend to defeat what’s out there?’
‘An arrow in the eye.’
‘But what if our enemy doesn’t have eyes? Rumour tells it’s a monster, made of the swamp itself.’
She lifted her chin. ‘If that is true, then what of its heart? How can your mighty sword kill it if it hasn’t one?’
He paused in his whetting, his eyes shining with anger. He might be stronger than her now, but she had always outsmarted him. ‘Leave, Sister. This discussion is over.’
The next morning, Aidan sat astride Iago, the family horse, and left the village behind, one man in a long ribbon of men coiling along the trail that led into the woods. It was a cold, dreary morning. The fog was thick and low, his breath came out in a mist and the ice in the air caught in his hair and crept beneath his gloves, making them wet. He drew his cloak tighter and looked back over his shoulder to see the women of the village gathered and watching. His mother was crying. His sister stood by her side, red-faced, arms folded, looking askance. He turned back and nudged at his mount. The trees loomed overhead. A turn in the path, and the village was lost behind him.
The trail was the surest, quickest route to Daingean, a neighbouring village, and beyond. It had once been used every day, but that was before the mysterious disappearances, before the rumours. For the past three weeks, those who went in didn’t return home.
It was a three-day journey through the woods, the beaten dirt track slippery with ice, threatening to break a horse’s ankle. At each passing hour the path grew grimmer, the trees thicker as they arched overhead and blocked out much of the sunlight. They were halfway through when the stench of the swamps assailed them, lying thick and heavy on the air.
Aidan shivered and tightened his grip on the reins. They had stopped moving, and he wasn’t sure why. The horses stomped their hooves and whickered nervously. The men’s eyes darted between each other and the trees. Whispers filled their ears, sweet whispers speaking of soft hands, smooth hair, supple skin. Aidan shifted in his saddle, feeling himself go hard. He pulled reflexively at the reins, making Iago nicker.
‘Steady men,’ Chief Druston said, a crack in his voice.
They all froze, letting the whisperings brush over their skin like the stroke of a lover’s touch.
Chief Druston was the first to climb from his mount. He stood at the edge of the trail, gazing into the trees as though in a trance.
‘Chief?’ spoke one of the men.
Chief Druston looked over his shoulder, his eyes strangely dark, his hair and beard silver against a spill of sunlight trickling through the leaves. He turned back. He hesitated, took a step, then left the trail, following the whisperings.
There were grunts and scraping and whickering as the rest of them did the same, Aidan too, his heart pounding so hard it thundered in his ears. Hand on the hilt of his sword, he left Iago and his supplies behind and followed Chief Druston and the rest of the men into the woods.
A short distance from the trail, and his feet sank into something warm and wet—the swamps. He yanked out his leg and shook it. He was never meant to leave the trail. The swamps were treacherous, thick and sucking and rancid, and could drag a man under within minutes. And yet—
He peered closer, squinting against the gloom. Beneath the swirl of leaves and woody debris, the water was clear and blue. It looked almost drinkable. And it was so warm. He sighed, heat rising like a wave from his wet feet to the top of his head, chasing away the bitter cold from his bones.
He hurried ahead, splashing alongside the others, weaving through the trees. His legs tangled in brambles. Sharp branches scratched and poked.
The whisperings were becoming louder, the water deeper, his heart pounded harder. Then he broke into a clearing and stopped at the wondrous sight before him. Gone were the swamps. In their place was a little paradise: sparkling blue water, waterfalls, waterlilies, sunlight cascading onto flawless white skin and shining hair. There were women. And not just ordinary women, but beautiful women—slim and pale and perfect, with long flowing locks that coursed over their shoulders and breasts or sometimes looped around their thighs. They were swimming in the water, giggling, splashing each other, bathing, or lying across exposed rocks or small, muddy islands in all their glorious, beckoning perfection.
Aidan released the hilt of his sword.
Chief Druston was in the water, submerged to the waist, embracing one of them. She giggled and squirmed in his arms as he planted kisses all over her face, his laughter echoing hers.
Aidan unbelted his father’s sword, letting it drop into the water. It sank and disappeared. The men around him were doing the same—unbelting, unbuttoning, unbuckling, until their bare skin glowed against the light. Laughing and shouting, they splashed deep into the water.
Aidan found himself in the arms of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, breasts supple and perfect beneath his hands, lips soft and sweet against his. She had bright green eyes, like the rolling hills on a spring day. She wrapped her arms and legs around him and buried her face into his chest. She didn’t speak, only smiled and giggled. Aidan didn’t care, his interest far from conversation. He looked around, found a soft spot to lay her down and slid into her with a cry.
Her hair streamed around her, shining in the sunlight like polished bronze. Vaguely, he heard the laughter, groans and shouts of the others as they took their pleasure. The pressure in his hips and groin built, and he plunged harder until he thought he must have caused her pain, but she only giggled and thrust her hips against him, pulling him deeper inside.
Then the screams came, the shouting, the crying. He looked up. The men were thrashing in the water, drowning, dying. A red blush floated along the surface around him. Something awful was happening. He had to do something, fight, run away, anything. And yet, he kept thrusting, harder and faster, driven by a mad urge he couldn’t control or understand. He knew his death was coming and there was nothing he could do about it. He didn’t even feel fear, only a dull resignation.
Then he ruptured into her, and the spell broke. The woman was gone, as were the rest of them. There was only the swamp, thick and sucking and rank, just as it was supposed to be. He fought against its grip, head to foot in filth, numb with the freezing cold. But he hadn’t the strength, and he was already up to his chest.
The others’ shouts and screams filled his ears. There was a terrible gurgling as someone was pulled under. He tried to swim, tried to thrust himself desperately to the surface, hands clawing at the muck, at the empty air, but it was to no avail. He was up to his chin now. He craned his neck, looking blindly into the overarching branches above, as he gasped his last breaths.
It was late into the night, and Jaslyn was standing at her bedroom window gazing towards the woods. It had been four days since her brother and the rest of the village men left to confront whatever horror was lurking within. They should have been back by now.
She sat on her brother’s bed. Tears filled her eyes at the sound of her mother’s sobbing coming through the thin walls. She gripped her knees, her nails digging into her skin. She would be brave. She would search the woods, fight the monster and win. Wiping her face, she got to her feet and stood once more at the window. She felt no fear, only determination and resolve.
She would bring her brother back or die trying.
After writing her mother a note, Jaslyn left before first light, before her mother should wake and try to stop her. With the family’s only horse vanished along with her brother, she would go on foot, a pack full of provisions at her back, quiver and bow over her shoulder, dagger at her hip. It was a warmer morning than when her brother left. Nevertheless, her nerves had set in, and she trembled.
It was a long walk, and lonely. There had been no rain to wash away the hoofprints of Chief Drustons’s party, and her throat swelled at the sight of them. Which ones were from Aidan?
There had been no surprises all day until late afternoon when there came the sound of something large moving through the woods: branches snapped, bushes ruffled, something snuffled. Jaslyn froze and reached for her bow.
She braced herself, arrow at the ready, string pulled taut. Then the ‘monster’ revealed itself, and she lowered her bow, laughing in relief. It was a horse, doubtless from Chief Druston’s party, bridled and saddled and unscathed, if a little jittery.
Jaslyn put aside her bow and opened her pack.
‘Here,’ she said, holding out an apple. It was a young chestnut mare, and she snatched the apple from Jaslyn’s fingers. Jaslyn patted her on the nose. ‘Good girl.’
From then, Jaslyn’s journey was swift, the mare tired but strong as she carried her the rest of the way.
The trees grew thick and tall the further she travelled. The darkness grew. She clutched at the mare’s reins, shivers rushing down her spine. She didn’t like this, and for the first time began to doubt herself. Just like Aidan said, what was she going to do with just a bow and a dagger against a monster?
She gasped at a sudden whispering in the air. It seemed to come from everywhere. She spun the mare in circles, trying to determine the source.
‘Who’s there?’ she called.
They were masculine voices, deep and resonating, and dare she think it—desirable. The whisperers were somewhere close, waiting for her, ready to sweep her in their arms and protect her from the unknown. She got down from her horse.
As she left the trail, she hissed and yanked out her left foot when it sank ankle deep in warm water. Her father had told her never to stray from the path, but the whisperers beckoned, and she splashed ahead.
She stopped with a gasp. So much beauty: the gleaming water, the bright sunlight, the flowers and waterlilies strewed across the surface. And the water was so warm she could have laid down and floated away.
Her heart fluttered at the sight of a man standing tall and broad and beautiful in the middle of it all. He had long brown hair cascading down his back, a beard neatly clipped. He had a strong jaw, a kind face and eyes that shone as they bore deep into hers.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
He didn’t respond.
She readied her bow and nocked an arrow, aiming at his left eye. ‘I said, who are you?’
He held out his hands and stepped towards her, barely making a ripple in the water, as though he were a part of it. She drew back her arrow, and he stopped.
He was naked, and Jaslyn blushed at the sight of his manhood, standing as tall and broad as the rest of him. He wanted her, and it made her heart thunder madly. She gasped as a sudden heat coursed through her body. Her grip on the bow weakened, shook. She became sticky between the legs. He was still holding out his arms and they looked warm and strong and comforting.
She took a breath and tried to harden her grip, but the bow slipped from her trembling fingers. It dropped into the water with a soft plunk. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t resist him. Horror washed through her at the thought of what she was about to do. After all her promises to her mother, her brother, herself, after all her arrogance, she was going to fail.
‘What is this ungodly power?’ she trembled.
He didn’t answer.
She took a step towards him, then another and another. A myriad of sensual thoughts invaded her mind: what she wanted to do to him, what she wanted him to do with her. Something strange was happening. She had never thought this way before. Her mind was not her own.
She looked down at herself. Why was she covered? What was the use of clothing out here? She shrugged off her coat and swept off her tunic. She gazed down at her breasts, and for the first time saw they were beautiful. She cupped them, touched them, massaged them. Her nipples were tingling. They were so soft and filled her hands perfectly. How could she have once despised them so much? She ran her hands down her waist, her hips. She had a lovely figure, feminine, womanly. She unbuckled her belt and let it drop into the water, dagger and all.
Next came the britches. And then she was naked. She should have been cold, but that strange warmth burned like a fire within. She undid her braid and let her hair flow over her shoulders, her breasts, thankful that her mother had stopped her from cutting it. She ran her fingers through its lengths. Never in her life had she felt so beautiful.
She went deeper into the water until she stood before him, submerged to the hips. She touched him, brushed her fingers across his nipples. Smiling, he took her into his embrace. Jaslyn sighed, pressed her head into his chest and held him back. His penis throbbed against her navel. Wet heat trickled down the inside of her thigh at the feel of it, and she moaned. Then he tilted her chin and lowered his lips.
She reeled back. ‘No!’ He looked at her, a hurt look on his face. ‘No,’ she said more feebly, sagging in his arms.
He smiled and met her mouth. He was soft and warm and insistent, his tongue gentle. There was a mild shot of surprise as she realised it was her very first kiss.
She moaned, then squirmed, then thrashed in his arms. Shoving him away, she wiped at her mouth and spat. ‘No.’
Again, that hurt look, and it almost destroyed her. All she wanted to do was wrap him in her arms, but she closed her eyes and shut him out.
She took a deep breath. ‘I will come with you, willingly, openly, if you release my brother and everyone else you’ve taken.’
‘No,’ he said, and his voice was the sound of trickling water, the patter of rain against the leaves, the rush of the tide along the sand.
‘Release my brother then.’
‘No,’ he said.
With an effort almost beyond endurance, beyond agony, she unstuck her foot and stepped back. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She clutched at herself as a terrific pain ripped across her chest. She couldn’t breathe. It reminded her of when her father died. It was as though her heart was breaking.
She took another step. A sob and a cry, and she took another.
‘Wait,’ he said. She stopped but didn’t dare open her eyes. ‘Your brother then, for you.’
She tilted her head back with a gasp, letting the tears fall away. ‘Release him, and I am yours.’
Her eyes flung open, and she clung to him with a cry as he picked her up in his arms and lay her down on a soft island of wet grass that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. He traced his fingers down her face, then spread her legs.
‘Wait’, she said. He paused. ‘I—I’ve never done this before.’
His smile broadened, and he crawled on top. Panting, she braced herself. She winced at a sharp pinch as he pushed through her maidenhead, winced some more as he thrust again. Tears pricked her eyes, and she gasped, but then he kissed her, and it somehow eased the worst of the sting. They rocked together, Jaslyn biting her lip at the pain, her lover silent and rhythmic as he plunged into her. His biceps clenched and smoothed at each thrust. His hair cascaded around her. His eyes gleamed like shining stars into hers. She grasped onto his waist with a cry, pleasure mixing with pain as her vagina tightened around him. She wanted it to end and yet never wanted it to stop. Then he came, and he did so with a grunt and a shudder, and it was like he poured himself into her, some kind of magic that rushed up her torso, her shoulders, her neck, down her thighs, her legs, until she was completely enveloped.
She lay sprawled beneath him, heaving for breath. Smiling, he grasped her breast and sucked at her nipple.
‘What have you done to me?’ she gasped, but he merely smiled some more and brushed his fingers through her hair. She looked at him. ‘Your oath. My brother.’
He straddled her, his penis lying wet and swollen against her belly. He took her hand and kissed it, then stood up, guiding her to her feet.
He pointed his finger at the swamp. The water swirled and bubbled. She grasped onto him when the grassy island shifted beneath her feet. A sudden gusting wind tossed and whipped the nearest branches. Then it all stopped. The wind stilled, the water calmed, the branches silenced. Moments later, there came splashing. Something thrashed in the water. There was a lung-rattling gasp, a hideous choking.
‘Aidan!’ she cried.
Coughing and spluttering, more gasps. Kneeling in the water several feet away, her brother was almost unrecognisable: dripping wet, eyes bloodshot, hair matted, face sunken and looking terribly old, chest heaving like the dying. But then he looked up, and his face caught alight.
‘Sister?’ He coughed, spluttered, gagged.
She smiled but didn’t go to him; the Lord of the Nymphs was waiting.
‘Jaslyn?’ Aidan said, stronger this time, eyes wide at the sight of them together.
‘Tell Mother I love her.’
‘No!’ Aidan cried. He thrashed and splashed, coughed and spluttered, but he hadn’t the strength to save her and slumped back into the water, gasping for air.
Ignoring him, she took her lord’s hand, and he pulled her against him and wrapped her in his powerful embrace. Something dragged at her feet. The water bubbled and hissed around them as they and the island began to sink. She clutched onto him.
‘Have no fear,’ he said in her ear.
She tried to steady her heart, but as the water rose past her breasts, up to her neck, terror overwhelmed her. She struggled against him, tried to throw him off, but he was far too strong and pinned her to his chest.
‘Aidan!’ she screamed.
A jolt of energy exploded through her spine, and she flung back her head. It blinded her, burned through her mind, until all memories of Aidan, her mother, her home and everything she had once known were gone.
The Lady of the Nymphs lay on a shallow island just above the surface of the swamp, combing her fingers through her long, bronze locks, watching as her sister nymphs played and gambolled in the water.
‘Come, milady. Come and join us,’ they giggled, splashing one another.
She smiled but kept brushing her hair. They asked her all the time, but she would never join them. She would only love one man, and the Lord of the Nymphs had no equal.
At the sound of clumsy splashing, they all looked up. Two men from the village approached, pushing a boat through the trees. That was strange. Where were the rest of them? And nobody had possessed the sense to bring a boat before.
Her sisters looked troubled but still tried to coax them over. They exposed their breasts, flicked back their hair, arched their graceful necks. They were all so beautiful, and she was proud of them. The men, however, didn’t seem to notice. They paddled between them, purposefully avoiding them, and beached onto her island.
One of them leant over and seized her wrist.
‘Let go! I am not for you.’ She tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t release her.
‘Jaslyn,’ he said. ‘Stop it. I’ve come to rescue you.’
She frowned. The name sounded oddly familiar. He looked familiar too, very familiar.
‘Come on, you must remember,’ he said.
She looked at him more closely, and something unlocked in her mind. ‘Aidan?’
© Morgan Tonkin 2018