Atynleigh leaned into the wind as she pulled her wool shawl closer around her face. The freezing wind was part of her daily trek along the shores of the great lake, yet someone had to check on the well-being of the creature that lived on the high point above the cove. In Atynleigh’s small, damaged family, that someone meant her. The creature must be attended to, and Atynleigh was a dutiful child. So, she shrugged the pack on her back into a more comfortable position and trudged on.
Far above the cove the dull sun added a meager warmth to the dark slate that formed a grassless apron in front of the hut where the creature lived. This morning he had painfully made his way to a high stump of stone that separated the path from the lake cliff and was resting in the sun. His eyes wandered to the restless, gray waters of the great lake below him. Sometimes he looked, and with some regard, to the low mountains and thick forest that lay to the east and south, and to the steeper valley with its swift, narrow river that formed the western lands. But the lake, stretched across the northern horizon, was his home, and it was this that he longed for.
Knowing that the girl would surely come that day, the man—if man he was—had clumsily stoked a fire for tea. He knew the child would be cold and he knew the burden he placed on the family in the valley.
The sun was the width of an outstretched hand above the horizon when Atynleigh approached the hut. She called to the creature as she approached the cabin.
“I am here,” she heard in response.
She knew it was difficult for Creature to speak aloud. His voice came in a wet, soft whisper. Yet, she had heard the words of his greeting clearly, with its strange, precise accent. At such times she knew he had been thinking the words. When Creature used his mind instead of his throat, his words came easily. She also knew that he could hear her thoughts. But just as it was easier for him to speak with his mind, it was easier for her to speak with her throat, and this was how they communicated.
Atynleigh remembered when she and her mother had found—rescued, saved—the creature from death on the stone beach some distance from their home. He had been injured and in pain from a fearsome wound on his side.
She and Mother had been fishing far down the cove. Fish had been sparse for weeks and they had followed signs of schooling fish past the safety of the harbor. Mother was a skilled fisherman, from a long line of men and women who had made their living on the lake’s water. Atynleigh’s mother and father had enjoyed fishing together, but Father had died months ago and now Atynleigh was Mother’s fishing companion.
They had entered a shallow cove where a rippling surface spoke of an abundance of fish. They were about to toss their net when Atynleigh stayed her mother’s strong arm and nodded noiselessly toward the near shore. A man appeared to be crawling across the beach, not even crawling so much as moving his limbs in response to unremitting pain. All of this, as well as something undefinable about his dark, rough appearance, made mother and daughter hesitate as they scanned the shoreline for danger. These were unsettled times. Even aiding the obviously sick or wounded required a serious decision.
“We need to get closer,” Atynleigh whispered.
Mother nodded. They were both thinking the same thing. If someone had been on this shore to help Father, he might have lived instead of bleeding out in frigid water, alone and without hope. On that fateful day, rising waves from a sudden storm had thrown Father, as skilled a man as there was in a small boat, into the shallows. He would have survived with only bruises, but he had crashed down on a broken iron hoop from a submerged and rotten barrel. The metal drove deep into his thigh, cutting the femoral artery. Without help, he had never stood a chance.
That loss gave both mother and daughter courage to offer this stranger the lifeline which had been denied Atynleigh’s father. Still, they approached cautiously. Mother slid from the boat as it hissed against the pebbles and grounded itself on the shore. Atynleigh, with her sharp eyes, would watch the tree line for possible danger. They did not need to discuss these arrangements, they simply knew.
The man had rolled on his back and looked in their direction. He had clearly been aware of their approach. Now, he neither moved nor made a sound. He lay a short ten yards from shore, his head toward them with golden eyes watching their every move.
“What?” her mother asked.
“I said nothing,” Atynleigh replied, looking at her mother for the first time since the boat came to its stop. “I thought you told me…”
They both looked toward the man with his pleading eyes. They were sure he had made no sound, but they knew what they had heard. Atynleigh impulsively joined her mother in the water as they ran together—to do good.
They needed the strength of their desire to do the right thing, for as they approached the injured man, they saw that it was, in fact, no man at all.
“A Spirit Animal,” Mother whispered, stopping short some distance from the creature. She had hesitated as she said this and both Mother and Atynleigh looked at each other and then back to the creature. Spirit animals were known to exist in this lake, sometimes seen, sometimes feared, sometimes revered in a way just short of worship. The Spirit Animals were creatures of legend and song. They were neither man nor beast, but part of both worlds and it is said that they could talk to both the fish and the fishermen. Many a person who had disappeared was said to have been called to the lake by a Spirit Animal, never to be seen again. There were others who said they would have been lost except for a Spirit Animal that guided (or carried) them to a safe shore after a storm or accident.
Atynleigh shook with fear and awe; this was certainly the creature of the legends. What lay before them had the configuration of a man, but the scales and gills of a fish. He had a muscular tail and spiked dorsal fins down his back like a lizard. His face was reptilian. The eyes were golden, large, and bulging, with pupils constricted in pain. Down the creature’s side, from armpit to hip, a bloody slice had been opened by some sharp object.
The creature looked at them again and they heard more thoughts, but of garbled and uncertain meaning. The creature was able to capture feelings more than specific words, though sometimes one emerged as the other.
“Spirit Animal,” was suddenly repeated back to them, and then, softer, the repeated plea, “…do good.”
Atynleigh had looked to her mother, fearful, wondering what they should do. Mother’s worried eyes moved from her daughter to the creature and then her shivering lips closed in a look of decision and determination. Mother hurried back to the boat, caught up the net and ran back to her daughter.
“We will spread this beside the creature, lift him on to it as best we can and ferry him back to the cabin. I can care for the wound there.”
They went to work but heard no more from the creature save a feeling of intense pain when they moved him.
He was still alive when they brought him to their cabin.
From the early days of Creature’s recovery, even those perilous first days lying on a pallet by the fire in their cabin, Atynleigh had noticed his golden eyes following everything she and Mother did. He tried to understand their thoughts and share his with them, but communication was halting and incomplete. Creature had watched as they spent the long, cold nights working, working, working, until the brief hour before exhaustion sent them to bed. Once they called the day’s work enough, she and Mother would pull out the chess board and play a fast, deadly game.
Their game of chess was not the slow, studied game of deep thinkers. Theirs was like their lives, a series of quick decisions.
Mother and Father had played chess. They had taught Atynleigh while she was still sitting on their knees and as she grew older, that any one of that trio might win on any given night. Their board was simply functional, but the pieces—ah, those chessmen. Father had carved them from walrus tusks. They were tiny because tusk was a precious commodity. But the carving was fine and animated, with carefully detailed faces.
The creature had quickly become fascinated with the nightly chess match.
Two days after Creature came to the cabin he was starting to move painfully and slowly. Each time he reopened his wound, but the bleeding was less each time. He ate hungrily. That would have been a problem, except that fish had started coming to the cove. The first day a mass of mussels had apparently thrown themselves onto the shore by the cabin, enough to fill a bucket. It had turned into a feast for all of them.
By the fourth day Creature had been lucid enough to ask what this ‘chess’ was. A full week later Creature hobbled toward the chess board and began observing the game. He watched, trying simple questions using his soft, bubbling voice, or speaking directly into their minds. Five days later, absorbed in the game, his webbed hand moved hesitantly toward a piece on the board, a bishop, carved to look both haughty and bored.
“Yes” Atynleigh said, “that is the man I was going to move.” She looked at him with astonishment. “Do you know where I wanted him to go?”
“A line.” His claw hovered above the board in a diagonal. “Capturing a rook.” The claw stopped above Mother’s ward man, shaped like a Berserker, shown biting down on the top of his shield.
“Can you move it?”
Creature’s golden eyes locked on Atynleigh’s brown ones. She moved her head to encourage him. In response, his claws curled inward, moving them out of the way. He used the knuckles of the hand, just above the webbing, to grasp the bishop and deftly move it across the board, pushing the rook out of the way. He then carefully plucked up the rook and set it aside.
The room filled with Atynleigh’s laughter. She and Mother both laughed—perhaps for the first time in months. This movement of a clawed hand from a healing stranger had made them feel a lightness that had been rare in their cabin.
It was at the end of his third week of recovery, during such a chess match, that the full danger of their situation closed around them. The match had barely started when Creature straightened his back, his eyes closed into slits, and focused on the door.
Mother did not hesitate or question the creature. There was danger close and closing.
“Move. Make yourself as small as you can in the dark corner of Atynleigh’s bed, back, under the slant of the roof.”
“I can fight.”
“You will lose. Do as I say.”
When Mother used that tone, no one could withstand her. Atynleigh watched Creature roll back onto the small bed where it was wedged between the hang of the roof and the slant of the steps going to the loft where Mother slept.
Mother and daughter then pulled the rough blankets of Creature’s pallet off the floor and threw them over the huddled figure of the lake-man, making a mess of unmade bed in the dark corner. They moved the low table with its chess board intact over the clean and flattened space where the pallet had been, roughing the dirt floor with their feet as well as they could. Mother scattered the wood fire enough to lower the light of the cabin just as they heard the men approach.
A fist pounded on the door.
“Who is there?” Mother called.
“The Reeve of the shire, Widow. Open.”
Mother opened the door and let the firelight fill the entryway. There were three men dressed in rough tunics and wool capes. Two were men from the village. All were on foot. She glanced from the faces of the men she knew to the one she did not.
“Reeve Tomasil, it is late. Is there trouble?” She looked past them as if the trouble were waiting in the clearing.
“We come to warn of trouble. The fisherman here is certain there is sign of a Spirit Animal, wounded and ashore, in this area.” Reeve Tomasil pushed the stranger forward as he spoke. It was as close to an introduction as was possible in this primitive community.
The stranger then spoke with a surly voice, trying to assert authority where he had none, “We need to inspect the houses. Make sure he isn’t hiding.”
Mother laughed and pushed the door wide open. “Look all you want, Reeve. But I think if I had seen a lake monster in my house, I would be seeking you instead of the other way around.”
The stranger stepped forward and wrenched the door from Mother’s hand.
“I’ll have my own look around.”
“No, sir. The Reeve may, but you shall not.”
The stranger was shocked by this barrier to his wishes. He started to push past Mother but that proved to be a problem as the woman stood her ground.
“The Reeve is known to me and is welcome in this house. I do not allow that familiarity to every person. Certainly not a stranger who does not know a proper welcome.” As Mother said this, she fixed the stranger with her eyes and seemed to grow both taller and straighter. For the first time all of them noticed that she had come to the door with a fish skinning knife in her strong right arm.
As the stranger took a short step back, Mother addressed the men she knew.
“Tomasil,” Mother said trying to sound genuinely concerned, “has anyone been injured by this Spirit Animal? I could bring my medicines. You know I stand ready to help.”
“No, Widow.” The Reeve was weary of the long searches this stranger had insisted upon over the last weeks and he was not used to being offered help by the families he interrupted. It showed in his eyes and Mother now used that to seal a quick end to this visit. She spoke softly.
“You must be very tired. My daughter and I have a little left of our supper, but the rest is yours if you wish.”
She stepped back from the doorway she had blocked to the stranger, and her act of generosity and openness had the effect she had counted on.
“No. No, we won’t be staying, Widow. What little you have belongs to you and the child. We have warned you and checked the house. It is all we need.”
“But it could be lurking…” the stranger tried to protest, but he was stopped by the tired Reeve.
“Our work is done here. We wish you a quiet evening, Widow.”
“And a bright morning to you,” Mother said.
Atynleigh joined her mother as they stood at the open door and watched the three men retreat down the path toward the village far out of sight. They stood in the lighted door just long enough to appear completely fearless and innocent, then closed the door, both shaking uncontrollably.
They stoked the fire to a bright blaze and slowly uncovered Creature. He too was shaking, but not from fear or cold.
It was a long time until his anger subsided. He spoke only with his mind that night.
“I must leave your house.”
“You are not ready. We did not bring you this far to lose you out of fear—or anger.”
“I put you in danger.”
Mother hesitated, then stated a simple fact. “There is danger. True. And we do need to get you out of here. We were as lucky as we were smart tonight.”
“Mother,” said Atynleigh, her voice soft but earnest, “I have an answer, but it is a hard answer. We need to get Creature to the cliff hut. Even if the Reeve returned with men, Creature would see them and escape to the lake, down the cliff ropes long before anyone could walk the path.”
Mother sat silently. The idea had occurred to her as well. The cliff hut was a small, barely functional shelter built on the top of the hill just to the west of their cabin. It had been built by Atynleigh’s great-grandfather as part of a coastal warning system. An open fire on its heights could be seen far down the lake shore as well as inland. Such fires, passed from hilltop to hilltop, were a way to warn of marauders, though such times were now long past. The cliff ropes had been added years later so that careless people, caught on the small beach below during high tide, could climb to safety.
But how to get Creature to the hut? He had not been able to take more than a step or two across the dirt floor of the cabin. He fed himself, but only with food which had been presented to him. Yet, tonight’s near miss had thrust the decision upon them all.
Somehow, Creature used the information in their minds to glean an accurate picture of the place and path.
“I can do this cliff path. But now, in the dark, before anyone sees us.” Then he added with fierce resolve. “Or I must return to the lake, healed or not.”
It was decided. It was done.
Slowly, with exhaustive effort, ever more frequent rests and moans of excruciating pain, the trio made their way from cabin to hut. Mother had gone ahead to lay a fire, prepare a pallet and bring up a sack of provisions, then returned to help Atynleigh guide and support Creature up, ever up.
“Child…” he had started once.
“Not now, Creature. We will talk when you are at the top.”
But they had not talked then. Upon entering the hut Creature had collapsed half on and half off the pallet without word or sound of any kind.
Mother had insisted that both she and Atynleigh return to the cabin. After carefully tending the low fire and setting some dried fish within the reach of the lake man when—and if—he awoke, they returned to their home. They were in their beds just before daybreak, and still asleep at noon. During that entire time, a fog so thick it took one’s breath away covered the entire cove, hiding both cabin and cliff.
That had been weeks ago, and now in the cold sunlight, Atynleigh ran toward the hut and the creature, who had become her friend.
Creature had risen clumsily from the rock upon which he had been sitting. The purplish scales of his face were gray at the tips and his jagged wound was a raw line that glowed white in the pale sun.
“I have rare medicine,” Atynleigh said. “Mother trapped a beaver, and the musk glands have miraculous oils. She said you will feel the difference.”
Atynleigh paused to look closely at the wound. It was raw, pink under pearl and as jagged as the thrust of the spear that he said had caused the near-fatal cut. Her hand moved close along its line but did not touch the fragile tissue. She sniffed at it.
“It doesn’t smell. It is closing without infection.”
“There is less pain. But the flesh is…stiff.”
“That is how these things heal. We need to get you inside. Mother’s salve will help.”
Creature followed her into the hut and settled himself with a groan on a low stool.
“Let us see if this salve is the miracle Mother says it is.”
She removed a pot of oily, amber-colored salve from her pack. It smelled strongly of musk and camphor. Her fingers took a dot of the thick gel from the pot and lightly moved it across the wound. Creature never moved, though she felt a long intake of breath through the gills on either side of his neck.
“Mother says you should feel a numbing tingle at first, but then relief. Do you understand?”
“She says it will speed the healing.”
“That is good, child.” He spoke these words in his whisper.
He always found Atynleigh’s name to be too much a jumble of sound to attempt. She was just ‘child’ to him.
She put the pot of salve on the table. She had something she wanted to ask him.
“When my father was alive, he told me stories of the spirits that live in the great lake. He thought he saw you, or someone like you, once near the island at the west end of the lake. Father described a creature much like you.”
“I seldom go to that island, but others like me find it comforting.”
“Are there many of you?”
“Few. Fewer all the time.”
“Are you the Spirit Animal that the tales talk of?”
“Spirit is too big a word. I am an animal, like you.”
“I think you are the Spirit Animal of the fables.” Atynleigh said this solemnly. She and Mother had talked about this. They were sure they knew who he was and much of what he was capable. “Do you bring the fish to our cove?”
“I can call them.”
“We are grateful for that.”
The creature did not smile, for his mouth was not capable of that, but Atynleigh felt a smile in what he said next, “Child, do you want to play the game? Or are we going to carve our own today?”
“Both. First we play.”
In the days that had followed the difficult move to the cliff hut, while fall had inched toward early winter in the mountain community, Atynleigh and her Creature had started carving a new chess set, just for them.
The pieces were small, each one the length of one of Atynleigh’s fingers. She fashioned the pieces as her father had, with curious little postures and attitudes. Her queen seemed worried and held her hand to her cheek. Atynleigh’s king was vigilant, with a sword held across his knees. The bishops were looking for sin and sorrow with scowls on their faces.
Atynleigh had started not with any of these pieces, but with the knights. She knew they would be the hardest piece to capture, sitting on small, Nordic horses. They needed the extra width of the base of the precious walrus tusk, the last two her family had, so she began with her knights, and it was then that she made a stylistic decision that would affect every piece on the board.
She attacked the delicate ivory with purpose and precision. When she had finished the first knight, she held it out to Creature for inspection.
A bubbling sound much like a chortle came from Creature’s throat.
He was looking at a chessman with the features of a man, riding a stout horse. But the eyes were remarkable. They were not the eyes of a man, but the round, bulging eyes of a fish, staring with a challenging intensity out of a human face. They were, unmistakably, the eyes of Creature, yet just human enough to make one assume that the carver either lacked skill or was making a joke.
Atynleigh and Creature’s free time had passed in much this way—playing and carving. They were ready to start the last three pawns that stormy winter day. They would begin after they played their game of chess.
Perhaps it was the intervening slate of the hillside that interrupted Creature’s sense of surrounding. Perhaps it was the soothing balm or strong camphor of the salve. Perhaps it was just his increasing contentment in Atynleigh’s presence, or his intense efforts to expand the language between them, but Creature did not intuit the danger until it was too late.
The persistent stranger that had almost found them out in Mother’s cabin had not forgotten his ill-treatment that night. When he received word of the abundance of fish on Mother’s drying rack, he was certain that she knew more of the lake monster than she had shared. He had observed both the cabin and the hut from a distance. Smoke from the lofty cliff hut could not be explained save by the presence of an unknown. He had followed the daily trek of the child to the hut. And today he had chosen to make his secretive climb up the brushy, western side of the cliff. He would come upon them from the back side of the hill. If they ran down the eastern path, he could catch them easily—a young girl and lake man more used to water than land. The south side was an impenetrable tangle of brambles and berry bushes. North lay only the sheer drop to the lake, surely too great a fall with too shallow a bottom for even the creature to make that a viable choice. There would be no escape.
The stranger moved with cunning. As he raised his head above the slate rocks at the top of the cliff his presence became known in an instant but too late.
With a throaty hiss Creature rose with a speed that turned the inside of the hut into a shamble. The table, board and chessmen were overturned. Atynleigh’s safety and escape became his only focus. Creature threw the door open and held it wide.
Atynleigh understood a tone so forceful. She charged through the door and almost ran into the stranger as he appeared around the corner of the hut. He had a long knife in his hand and his instinct was to grab for the girl as she flew past him. His hand caught her sleeve and spun her to the ground.
That was his mistake.
“Monster,” was the only word Atynleigh heard from the creature.
In the instant the stranger’s attention had been turned to Atynleigh, Creature moved toward the assailant. He was slow but his bulk and returning strength were all he needed to grab the man’s arm with one clawed hand, twisting it around his back and pushing him away from Atynleigh and toward the cliff.
At first the stranger tried to free himself, slashing backwards with the long knife. If any of the blows met flesh, they had no effect. Atynleigh was scrambling to her feet when she saw Creature straighten and twist hard on the man’s arm. The bones of the stranger’s arm cracked apart, followed by an anguished scream.
“Don’t. Don’t!” the man screamed, but Creature was pushing the evil presence steadily toward the cliff. At the edge of the precipice Creature lifted the stranger entirely off the ground.
With a mighty heave the stranger sailed off the cliff. A wailing cry followed his body down.
But there was still danger. Creature’s efforts had brought him tottering too close to the edge. He reached out his right hand to steady himself on the single rocky protrusion near him. It should have been easy, but Atynleigh also saw the paroxysm of pain along the raw line of his wound. His arm reached out to steady himself on a rock, but the muscles contracted in pain, missing the rock. Gravity took Creature’s body over the edge.
Atynleigh reached out to him in futile desperation. “No,” she screamed.
She watched as Creature fell, haphazardly at first, then he straightened himself, arched his back, and rolled over. There was a shallow bottom to the cove here and he needed to enter at as horizontal a plane as possible while still cutting into the water. The impact was intense. She listened hard for one last thought, but if it was there, it trailed off before fully formed.
In the weeks that followed Atynleigh finished the chess set that she and Creature had made together. She and Mother played a single game with it, so that each piece knew its place and purpose. Then Atynleigh made a stone container of soft pumice and placed each piece carefully inside the hollow of it. She sealed the lid with wax and then made her way to the beach at the base of the cliff. On a thin strip of land well beyond the high tide line she buried the stone container deep in the soft sand.
“It is here,” she said, “for us; a bridge across two lands.”
For years, even after she grew to adulthood, with children and then grandchildren of her own, Atynleigh would come to this spot. She would sit near the chess set and talk to Creature, as though he were alive and lying in the shallows just off the cliff. Sometimes she was sure she could hear his soft words drift across the water to her. Always the same.
It is of note that for many years fish were a regular presence off the cabin by the great lake. It is also of note that the chess set was discovered hundreds of years after even Atynleigh’s grandchildren had grown old and died. The Lewis Chessmen, as they are called, were found in 1831 on the shores of Lake Uig on the Isle of Lewis. They can now be seen in the British Royal Museum. They are beautifully carved, quite small, and have bulging, fish-like eyes.