Major Robert Anstruther tethered his horse and started towards the castle. Here, at Caerlaverock, he could be alone, to reflect on his future in the enfolding tranquillity of the moated ruin. He paused a moment to gaze up at the castle’s stout gate towers, their red colour deepening in the first rays of the setting sun. How many marauding armies had been repulsed from here, in the centuries when Scotland and England were separate, warring kingdoms? Nowadays, the kingdoms were joined and at peace, at least with one another. Wars were fought overseas.
As if to remind him of his own role in those wars, a sharp twinge of pain lanced through his injured leg. He muttered an oath and shifted his weight. He had expected to be fully fit again by now, and able to rejoin his regiment, but it would take some time yet. He grimaced. His army career must take second place for now, since his poor father could not survive much longer after that last seizure. Robert, as the only son, had had to promise to set about finding himself a wife.
In the gathering dusk, the mist was rising from the moat, starting to shroud Caerlaverock as if to hide it from prying eyes, like some fairytale castle. Such a magic and mysterious place should be home to the ghosts of ancient warriors, cut down in bloody battle, or perhaps to nymphs and naiads, rising from the watery depths, their golden curls glistening. Robert began to stroll towards the gate, musing on those strange thoughts. In all the years he had been coming here, in the twilight of dawn or dusk, he had never once met another human being. Nor a spirit, either. If they were here, they kept themselves well hidden.
Perhaps things had changed since his last visit, years ago? He had been out of the country a long time. He fancied that Caerlaverock was eternal, though. Its serene beauty never changed.
He had just crossed the moat on the rickety makeshift bridge and was going down into the dark narrows between the gate towers when he heard it—a silvery, tinkling laugh, floating on the drift of mist rising from the rushes. Some nymph was here, it seemed. And she had awakened just in time for the twilight that Robert so loved.
Intrigued, Robert crept down the stone passage, straining eyes and ears for any clue to where his nymph might be. Logic told him that he had imagined the sound, that there could not possibly be any fairy woman here, no matter how magical these ruins might seem. And yet he found himself putting one foot softly and warily in front of the other, in case a crunch of gravel should scare her away. If she was here, he wanted to see her, to touch her, before she melted back into the silent waters of the moat.
Another sound, carried on the mist. Not a laugh this time, but a song, a female voice humming a low, mysterious melody. It spoke wordlessly of lost love and heartbreak. Local legend said a water nymph would always mourn the love she could not have. But if an earthly man could kiss her, the nymph would be anchored to the human world for ever, and in thrall to the man who had shown her what human love could be.
Robert shook his head against his own fanciful imaginings, but he still crept silently forward to reach the open courtyard, beyond the gloom of the passage. He had to know.
She was there! High up on the battlements, on top of the tower, surrounded by mist, she seemed to be dancing on the air. It was difficult to see her clearly against the rays of the setting sun, but he had an impression of naked limbs clad in a damply clinging gown of filmy white, and a mane of red-gold hair hanging in loose curls around bare shoulders, glinting as it caught the dying light. She was dancing back and forth, weightless and floating, her naked arms raised towards the sunset.
She could not be real! But even so, no man could see such a vision without wishing to possess it. That seductive voice was luring him on, catching at all his senses. She must not be allowed to dissolve back into the mist. A water maiden’s kiss must surely be worth any risk? Kissing her, embracing her—would it be like trying to catch flowing water, impossible to hold, and as elusive as quicksilver?
Keeping to the shadows, he circled the courtyard until he came to the tower. He could hear her still, but she was hidden from him now by the vast bulk of the stonework. He crept up the spiral stairs, his eyes wide against the gloom, his ears attuned to the floating notes of her melody. The pain of his injury was pushed aside in his heart-thumping eagerness to reach the top, to snatch his prize. When he emerged, would she be gone? No, he could still hear her voice, drifting on the mist-laden air in long watery notes, sometimes so soft they might be no more than a breeze from the estuary and the sea beyond. But there was no breeze. The evening was totally still. Only the rising mist was moving, to protect the ruin from mortal eyes while its queen, this beautiful nymph, ascended her battlement throne. If he could capture her…
The light was just above him. He was about to emerge. He pressed his body against the wall of the staircase and stopped to listen. She sounded very near. He risked a rapid glance round the stonework and only just managed to swallow the gasp that rose in his throat. She was there! A beautiful illusion, perhaps, but almost near enough to touch.
She was smiling rather wistfully, humming still, and her eyes were closed. Her face was lifted towards the west. In the low sunshine, her curls were glowing like a fiery halo around her head. She seemed to be dancing with some invisible cavalier, holding out one long slim arm as if waiting for her partner to take it and kiss her hand. It was an invitation no man could resist. Robert stepped out into the light, clasped her outstretched fingers and pulled her into his arms, eager yet dreading the inevitable moment of loss when she faded into chilly, watery nothingness.
But she was not cold. Nor was she light as thistledown, like the fairies of his childhood tales. His nymph was cool and almost alive, as if she were already half-way to the earthly reality that he could offer her with his kiss, and with his body. He drew her closer and stroked a hand over her flowing hair, letting its silken strands caress his palm. Her magic was already possessing him totally. And he must possess her in turn.
His pulse was racing. His whole body was a mass of surging heat and desire. Yet his first kiss was gentle, hesitant, the merest touch on a mouth that was cool and unresponsive. Nymph-like, she was not ready to yield. But neither did she pull away.
It was enough. Now he began to kiss her in earnest, with only one insistent thought hammering through the raging chaos of his mind. If he could make his nymph respond to him, she would be earth-bound, and his, for ever! As the kiss continued, less gently now, he felt slim arms glide round his neck, touching his skin, his hair. He was making her ever more real. He would make her his! If he wanted to hold her, he must make love to her. But not by force. She could still flee, still melt into the mist. She must be made to want him, to long for him as he was now longing for her.