Priestess of the Waters by Rebecca Buchanan
“It’s three in the morning, Sallali. Three. In the morning.”
The detective looked up as I clomped through the grass. He tilted back his fedora, his eyes dark, and smiled grimly. “Peigí.”
He stood on the edge of a small lake, the tiered stone fountain in the center spouting water in pretty patterns. (Really? Why? Who would be out here to watch the pretty fountain at three in the morning? Didn’t the Social and Golf Club know there was a war on?) A handful of officers prowled with flashlights, talking low and occasionally yelling back and forth. Big floodlights had been hooked up to the engine of one of the patrol cars and set up around the lake. Radios crackled. A coroner’s van sat idling in the grass. There was an ambulance, too; a sopping wet man wrapped in a blanket sat shivering on the gurney, while a woman in a very nice suit and silk stockings snarled at him and waved her arms.
I had been so busy looking around that I stumbled over a lump of uneven ground, nearly snapping off the heel of my shoe. I quickly righted myself, wrapping my jacket tighter around my body. “This couldn’t have waited until a more decent hour? Say, ten-ish?”
Sallali just shook his head. “No. And that’s why.” He shoved an unlit cigarette between his lips as he moved to the side and I finally got a clear view of the lake.
“Limnads,” I whispered.
There were a dozen of them—at least, a dozen that I could see, all gathered around and on top of the base of the tiered fountain. They varied in coloring: skin the rich black of deep mud or the reddish-brown of the clay near the shore or the golden-white of sun-warmed sand; hair that was crystalline blue or weedy green or the fluffy white of catkins. That many limnads for such a small lake meant the underground streams connected it to other numinous bodies of fresh water—no telling how many. And while limnads were among the more social anima loci, they tended to congregate in groups of this size only when—
Sallali pulled out the clove cigarette and rolled it between his fingers: a nervous tell. “The nymphs won’t let the body go.”
The limnads pulled back, parted, then swirled around the fountain again. The body was beautiful. If he was this beautiful in death, I could only imagine how stunning he must have been when he lived: rich dark brown skin, sharp cheekbones, full lips, tightly curled black hair.
And limnads loved beautiful things.
Had he gone willingly into the water? Or had they seduced him with song and laughter? Or had they impulsively pulled him in for kisses and caresses, intending to let him go, but held him down too long?
“It’s too quiet. Were they singing when you got here? And—” I squinted. “Is that a navy uniform?”
Sallali shoved the cigarette back into his pocket. “Nope and yep. Other than to hiss at us, they haven’t made a sound. And he’s an officer, I think, but even with binoculars, I can’t get a clear look. Whoever he is, he’s a few hundred miles from his ship.”
“Mmm. Or they brought him here.”
“So…can you handle them?”
I bit my lip. The limnads were agitated, prowling around the body. They kept touching him, throwing furious glares toward us. A few bared their teeth and hissed, long hair slicked down their backs and cheeks. “One way to find out.”
I turned and trudged back toward my car. Sallali followed, shortening his strides to match mine. His arm brushed my shoulder. I cleared my throat. “Missed you at Gran’s birthday party last month.”
“Work. You missed the Policeman’s Ball.”
“Work.” We reached the car and I popped open the trunk. My tools were neatly arranged inside. I unfolded a freshly-consecrated white silk veil and wrapped it over my head and shoulders. It clashed badly with my red and black jacket and red pencil skirt, but there was no way I was going to change clothes in front of Sallali and the rest of the department—assuming I even had the time. I flipped open my small traveling case and pulled out a jar of honey, a bottle of olive oil, a lighter, and a packet of fresh, uncut tobacco leaves, stuffing them all into my jacket pockets.
I had taken a bunch of leaves with me on my sole pre-war tour of Europa, visiting ancestral graveyards and homesteads and temples in Érie and Alba. The distant cousins I had met there later wrote to complain that the anima loci in the streams and groves and wells were now demanding tobacco as part of their regular offerings.
I had mailed them some seeds.
I had no idea what became of those seeds, or those distant cousins. There wasn’t much information coming out of Europa those days thanks to the fascist blockade…
“Hhmm? Sorry.” I slammed shut the trunk and turned back toward the lake. “Just thinking. So, what do you know?”
He didn’t answer for a long moment. From the corner of my eye, I could see him watching me. He eventually reached into his pocket, pulled out a notebook, and flipped it open. “Deceased male discovered at about oh-one-thirty by a night watchman making his round on the golf course; apparently they’ve been having problems with people sneaking in to petition the limnads for news of loved ones fighting overseas.”
I shot him a glare—“And that’s a problem how?”—and stumbled over the same bit of uneven ground.
He caught my elbow, steadying me, and didn’t let go. “This is a dues-paying club. Only dues-paying members are allowed near the nymphs.”
I snorted. “Dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Take it up with the fancy suit over there.” Sallali waved his notebook toward the elegant woman in her silk stockings; she had stopped berating the sopping-wet man on the gurney and was scowling at us now. “Mrs. Tattlinger, President-with-a-capital-P of the Social and Golf Club. The night watchman…uh, Harold Johansen…called her immediately after discovering the body. She drove out here and ordered him to take a boat out and retrieve it.”
“Limnads pulled him in?” We stopped a few feet from the shore. If anything, the knot of anima loci had grown larger and tighter. There must have been two dozen of them now, swirling and hissing.
“Yep. Nearly drowned him. The night janitorial staff up at the clubhouse heard the commotion, came out to investigate, and that’s when we were finally called.” The irritation in his voice was unmistakable. He flipped shut the notebook and shoved it back into his pocket. “And that is all we know.”
I drew a breath. “All right, then.” I toed off my shoes and gingerly moved down the slope of the shore and into the water. I stopped when the cold water brushed my calves, hiding a wince as the heat began to leech from my body. My toes started to hurt.
I whispered a low prayer to primordial Okeanos and wise Tethys, lifted a hand to make sure that the veil was still in place, then uncorked the bottle of olive oil. I slowly poured it out into the lake. The limnads watched, a few of them slipping closer, silent and sleek.
The honey was next. I unscrewed the lid, tucking it into my pocket, and immersed the full pot in the water.
Two more of the limnads left the fountain to swim toward me. They circled into the shallows, carving their hands through the mud to create dirty clouds in the water. One of the nymphs, dark-skinned and green-haired, extended her hand. The jar of honey lifted to the surface, carried by a wave. It spun, lifted higher, and slipped across the lake. The limnad snatched up the honey. She tipped the jar, her tongue darting out to taste it. With a low purr of approval, she passed the honey to one of her sisters, then swam toward me. When she was close enough, she stood.
All conversation behind me ceased. Radios snapped.
The nymph’s skin glistened in the floodlights. Her hair was not a single shade of green, but a dozen, and it fell all the way to her knees. Her eyes, too large for her face, were dark green and unblinking, and her teeth were sharp.
I held out the tobacco leaves and flicked the lighter. The wind caught the cloud and scent. She tilted her head, sniffed, and smiled. I set the burning leaves on the water and they immediately disappeared, sucked below the surface.
“Your offerings are accepted, priestess. What would you ask of us?”
“Ancient One, you hold a mortal among you. I ask that you please release him, that his loved ones might—”
The nymph hissed, the noise rising to a near-shriek. “Our beloved! Beautiful and now lost to us!” She swooped closer, the water rising higher as she moved, surging up around my hips. The cold sank deeper into my body, numbing my skin. She bared her sharp teeth. “Return him to those who took him from us? Never!”
The water surged higher, rising above my waist.
“Ancient One, please, I do not understand!”
“Then look upon him, our beloved, and understand!”
Tentacles of water curled around my ankles and calves—tight, biting—and down I went, under the surface. My skirt was shoved up high around my hips and the veil was ripped from my head. I thought I heard someone yell. The water was dark all around me, and cold, and I could feel myself moving, and there was water in my nose, and then suddenly I was upright again, breathing, coughing, kicking to stay afloat. The fountain loomed in front of me, and the tight knot of limnads surrounded the beautiful body.
He was even lovelier up close. His uniform—lieutenant, I could see now, with a patch showing a stylized drawing of the Five Grand Lakes—was plastered to his body, displaying the outline of firm muscles. His lips were slightly parted, as though he was on the verge of speaking, but his eyes were closed.
One of the nymphs stretched forth an elegant reddish-brown hand to stroke his cheek and twine a finger through the curls of his hair. She tugged, tipping his head to the side, and there I saw the hole in his skull.
I shifted closer, reaching for the edge of the fountain to steady myself.
As one, the limnads hissed, an angry, predatory sound.
I hastily backed away, arms flapping. My teeth were beginning to chatter, and I tightened my jaw. “Ancient Ones, forgive me. I am your priestess, born under the sign of water, born under the planet of water. I wish only to learn what happened to your beloved, and to ease his passage to the hall of his ancestors.”
The dark-skinned, green-haired limnad rose up beside me, slipping soundlessly from the lake. “His mother came to us here, offering the finest honey and sweet tobacco and silk. She wanted a child. We granted her request, but there was a price. As much as he was her son, he would always be ours. Of the water, as you are.” Her hand settled on his leg, stroking the uniform. She turned toward me, her green eyes grown darker, her tears mixing with the lake water. “He sailed in great ships upon our lakes in the north, and we protected him, even as he protected you.”
Right. Naval border patrol on the Five Grand Lakes. Made sense that he would stick to freshwater, given his ties to the limnads.
Except he hadn’t drowned or frozen to death. That was definitely a bullet hole in the side of his head.
I hesitated, then asked, “And is this how your beloved was lost?”
“Yes!” The green-haired limnad snarled and surged toward me again, the water splashing against my chin and cheeks. “Murdered! Lost to the hate and treachery of mortals! They pretend friendship and gratitude, but all the while they deceive him! See! See them now!”
Bodies floated up all around me, pasty white. Two, three, five, a dozen. They stared up at the dark sky, eyes milky, mouths hanging open in shock.
I scrambled, twisting in a circle, lurching to avoid them. But the bodies were all around me. One bumped up against my shoulder. I spun, and another body rammed into my back. One of the limnads—her eyes rain-grey, her hair the pillowy white of catkins—grabbed one of the floating bodies and sank her teeth into his chest. Clothing and flesh ripped, thick black blood pooling in the water. My stomach twisted, nausea climbing up my throat. I closed my eyes, trying to breathe.
“Peigí! Peigí?” Sallali yelled from the shore. “I’m coming in! Hold—”
As one, the limnads snarled, the sound skittering across the water, making the bodies shake and slide around.
I swallowed hard, waving a frantic hand. “No! Don’t! S-stay there!”
He stopped, already up to his calves in the water. His face screwed up in a frown of frustration. “Peigí!”
“J-just w-wait!” I spun back around and faced the green-haired limnad again. My tongue felt thick and my words were beginning to slur with cold. “Ancient One, you have won j-justice for your beloved. You have ssslain those who murdered him, who took him from you. No rites will be per-r-rformed for them. Their bodies will be left, unmourned, unanointed, and their souls will forever wander the edges of the underworld. They will never know peace.”
The anger that twisted her face eased just a bit, and I cautiously swam forward. “Your beloved ssshould be laid to rest. The r-r-rites must be performed, his body must be anointed, and the songs of lamentation must be sssung, that his soul might pass on, and rest in the halls of his ancestors. Do this for him, one last act of love.”
An anxious, waiting silence settled over the lake. The limnads all watched me, their grey and blue and green and black eyes fixed. A radio crackled. The pale bodies floated all around me.
The green-haired limnad tilted her chin. “You will bring us the oil with which you anoint him.”
“You will bring us your tears.”
“And you will sing for us the songs you sang for him.”
A small pause as the limnads all looked at one another. There were almost imperceptible nods and a low hum filled the air.
“It is agreed.” The green-haired limnad touched the leg of her beloved lieutenant, kissed him gently on the cheek, and slipped beneath the surface of the lake. I felt her hand brush across my ankle. Each limnad who followed did the same; one by one by one, they bid their beloved farewell, and then touched my ankle or shin or knee—a reminder and a warning.
When the last of them had disappeared, I reached up to pull the lieutenant off the base of the fountain. My fingers didn’t work. I had to shove my arms under his knees and wiggle him forward bit by bit, kicking hard. When enough of his body hung over the edge, gravity took over, and he plopped into the water.
I flinched at the undignified descent, waiting for an angry grab at my legs or even my throat. But nothing happened.
The cold had crept deep into my belly now and it was getting hard to breathe. Wrapping an arm around the lieutenant’s chest, I swam awkwardly back toward the shore. I could read his nameplate now: Lt. Onodugo Muoneke. The pale bodies bobbed all around me, some intact, others missing chunks of flesh or whole limbs. I swallowed and focused on Sallali, who had waded out to his knees.
He held out a hand, leaning forward. As soon as I was close enough, he grabbed the lieutenant’s arm and hauled him up onto the shore. A pair of uniformed officers and the coroner waited to carry the limnads’ beloved the rest of the way. Sallali turned, reaching for me.
“Come on, almost there.” He pulled me against his warm chest. “Dry clothes, blankets, hot water, got all that waiting for you.”
My teeth were chattering so hard that I could barely speak. “You r-r-really know how to sshhhow a girl a good time.” I stumbled as I stepped free of the mud and onto solid ground. My legs almost gave out. Someone, I didn’t see who, threw a heavy blanket over my shoulders. Another someone—EMT from the look over her uniform—took me by the arm and tried to lead me toward the ambulance, but Sallali wasn’t letting go.
He pointed at one of the uniformed officers. “Yonaguska, I want two more coroner vans down here.”
“MacUspaig, who’s the chthonic priest on duty tonight?”
“Uh. Le Guen? I think? Maybe?”
“Well go find out, and get whoever it is down here. I want that lake completely cleansed and purified asap.”
“R-r-r-remember. No r-r-rites—”
“Don’t worry, I heard. Mhic Lochlainn. Get some more boats—whatever you can find—and some rope. Start pulling out the bodies.”
“Yes, sir.” The patrol officer tipped her head and ran off.
“Come on, let’s get you warmed up.”
With the EMT on one side and Sallali on the other, his shoes squishing the whole way, I was hauled unceremoniously over to the ambulance. Harold Johansen, the night watchman, hopped out of the way, his eyes big. Mrs. Tattlinger, President with a capital P of the Golf and Social Club, reluctantly stepped aside, her arms crossed. She tapped her foot impatiently as the EMT wrapped me in more blankets and pressed a mug of hot water into my hands.
“Well?” she snapped. “Are you done?”
“I am. For now. But he’s n-n-not.” Warmth made my fingers tingle. I took a tentative sip of the water, then another, and felt the liquid hit my cold belly.
Mrs. Tattlinger scowled. “This is absurd. Members will begin arriving shortly to enjoy the breakfast buffet and an early morning game. You have the—” she grimaced “—body. I insist that you leave immediately.”
Sallali tipped back his fedora, the corners of his mouth curling up in a mocking smile. “Yes, ma’am, we do. The body of a Navy lieutenant who died protecting his country. A hero. Remind me again how many city councilors, judges, priests, priestesses, astrologers, and poets you have as members of your club? You were pretty adamant about listing all of them when we first arrived. I’d like to reach out to them and let them know that you are not only attempting to undermine our investigation—”
“—But are also putting all of them in danger by insisting that we not perform a proper cleansing of a miasmic scene. Should we just leave all those bodies floating in the lake? Or would that interfere in those early morning golf games?”
Mrs. Tattlinger glared at him, jaw tight, vibrating with rage.
Sallali took a step toward her, leaning forward. His voice was low. “It will take as long as it takes. Now get out of my way.”
Cheeks flaming, Mrs. Tattlinger spun on her heel and stomped away.
Harold Johansen flinched, his shoulders curling. “Hoo boy,” he muttered.
I took another sip of water. “Don’t worry. Pretty sure that your job is safe.”
Sallali shook his head. His shoes squished as he turned to me, one hand settling on my thigh. I could feel its weight even through the layers of blankets. “Stay here, okay? Until we’re done?”
I nodded and squeezed his hand. “Okay.”
Hours passed. I slipped inside the ambulance to strip off my sodden clothes and change into some warm cotton athletic pants and a long-sleeved shirt and thick socks. Not chic, but definitely comfortable. I returned to the gurney in time to see Mhic Lochlainn appear with another canoe and a pile of rope; she and three other officers began to drag the bodies from the water, sometimes in pieces. One officer threw up.
MacUspaig ran over to greet Le Guen as the priest pulled up in his government-issued car, the officer waving his hands as he explained the situation. The older priest frowned at him, frowned at me, frowned at the line of bodies, frowned at Sallali as the detective crouched by that same line of bodies, then made his way over to the ambulance.
“What’s this about no funeral rites for the deceased?” he demanded. “You want angry ghosts wandering around?”
I shrugged. “Take it up with the limnads. Just send them away from here and let their Gods sort them out. Except the body already in the coroner’s van. That’s going to autopsy and then, well, whichever temple Muoneke’s family specifies.”
Le Guen frowned harder, hrumphed, and turned back to his car. A few moments later, he was walking toward the lake, his fedora replaced by a crown of deer antlers, an intricately painted and trimmed ritual leather shawl covering his civilian clothes.
I caught the first few words of his prayer to Cernunnos before my attention was drawn to Sallali. He held a clear plastic bag filled with shiny wallets in his hand, turning it back and forth. His head was down, so I couldn’t see his expression, but from the way the coroner was gesturing at the bodies…
I hopped off the gurney, blanket still around my shoulders. The grass was cool but not cold beneath my socks. They saw me coming and stopped talking. “What is it?”
Sallali rubbed the back of his neck. “What was it she said? Lost to the hate and treachery of mortals?”
“Sounds about right. Why?”
“Because according to the info on these identity cards, these guys—” he gestured at the dozen bodies “—were a dentist, an optometrist, a banker, a janitor, a college student, a car mechanic, a florist, a teacher, and so on and et cetera. Various ages, various education levels. All from different parts of the country. What do you think the chances are that all of these guys would be sailing the Five Grand Lakes at the same time, in the same place, to come into contact with—and murder—Lieutenant Muoneke over there?”
I stared at the bag in his hands, at the shiny new wallets with their shiny identity cards, then down at the bodies. All male, all pale-skinned, with eyes that had once been blue or hazel.
Le Guen had finished praying to Cernunnos and moved on to the ecumenical portion of the ritual, commanding the spirits of the dead to leave this place and bring no harm to the still-living.
“None,” I realized. “You were right. He did die a hero, doing his duty, protecting his country.” I met Sallali’s troubled gaze. “They were fascist infiltrators. He was on patrol. He and his crew—well, they must be dead, too. They caught the infiltrators crossing over from Kanata. Maybe the Naval crew was suspicious, or maybe the infiltrators pretended to be lost or stranded…something. But they murdered the crew. Including the limnads’ beloved.”
“And ended up drowned and half-eaten as a result.” Sallali tipped his head back, scowling at the bright eastern horizon. “This is above my pay grade. I need to call this in.”
I nodded mutely, attention directed down at the bodies again. Infiltrators, saboteurs, spies. It was a fluke—or divine intervention — that had set them into the path of Muoneke’s patrol and, ultimately, their own destruction. I shivered, wondering if it had been only this one group, or if others had slipped across the border without notice and were even now plotting and planning…what?
I started as Sallali’s warm hand settled on my elbow. “Come on. I’ll escort you back to the temple.”
“I thought this was above your pay grade and you had to call it in?”
“Oh, it is. Couldn’t earn that much in a lifetime. And I will.” He looped my hand through his arm and started walking towards my car. “But I want to make sure that you get home safe, first. Your Gran would curse me with something awful if I didn’t.”
“Not likely. You’re her favorite.”
Le Guen had finished his rite and symbolically turned his back on the dead. He was focused on the lake now, casting handfuls of salt into the water.
The sun cleared the horizon, the light scattering as it touched the dancing fountain. The surface of the lake rippled and I caught a glimpse of green hair and narrowed dark green eyes. The limnad rose higher and I saw my ritual scarf caught between her sharp teeth. I felt her watching me all the way to the car, and even as I drove away. And I could only wonder if she would be satisfied with a dozen dead bodies, or if more would follow.
Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer, and a regular contributor to EvOke: Witchcraft*Paganism*Lifestyle. Her stories and poems have been published in a wide variety of venues, including Abyss & Apex, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Enchanted Conversation, The Future Fire, Polu Texni, and others.