Siren's Storm by Asa Maria Bradley
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Giddy and naked, I launched myself into the water and lost my breath in the initial shock of sun-warmed skin meets snow-melt water. A beat or two later, though, I swam deeper and twirled in a slow corkscrew twist while gripping the small aquamarine stone pendant hanging around my neck. I opened my senses to the power of the water. As my legs stretched and fused, I closed my eyes and savored the sweet sensation of rigid inch-long fins popping out along my spine as my feet transformed into a tail fin much smaller but shaped similarly to what whales use to propel through the water.
Two razor-thin slits on both sides of my neck opened, and I no longer had to hold my breath because the gills now filtered oxygen out of the water to fill my lungs. As the grime washed off my body, I felt clean and whole in a way I hadn’t for a long time. I savored the experience of being truly myself in my proper form.
I played for a couple of hours, exploring the depths of the lake while playing tag with small fish and some frogs. They were excited that I could understand their thoughts, but life in a remote mountain lake seemed pretty sheltered because other than what food was the best to eat, they didn’t have much to tell me. However, they were super fun to play tag with, and their antics as they tried to catch me greatly amused me. I felt extra invigorated as I plunged and somersaulted in the water. The lake must have been fed minerals through the rocks and the dirt surrounding it. The effect of the deposits on my physiology—not unlike humans getting high—plus not seeing any other hikers for the two days I’d been in the wilderness made me careless.
And that is why I didn’t notice the man or his horse until I was almost back ashore and popped my head above water.
The appaloosa had a beautiful dappled palomino coat that I got caught up in admiring. A few heartbeats passed before I noticed the smirk on the rider’s lips. He obviously thought my bare shoulders meant he’d caught me skinny dipping. The druggy fog left my mind, and I was instantly sober.
“Howdy,” he touched his western hat in greeting, his blue eyes shining with delight. They were extra startling because of how sharply they contrasted with the deep copper of his skin. A neatly trimmed dark beard graced his square jaw. It didn’t hide the dimples that bracketed his mouth. He appeared comfortable and relaxed on top of the horse, but there was something in his posture that showed he’d be ready to react instantly to any threat. His broad shoulders were slightly tense, and although his left hand held the reins loosely, the right hovered over his hip as if he was used to carrying a weapon.
Luckily I’d already changed into my bi-pod shape before I hit the shallow waters closer to shore, and it didn’t take but a smidgen of magic to twist some underwater weeds into what would pass for a strapless swimsuit. I had a bit of a smirk myself as I stood up in the water that was still waist-deep.
“Hi,” I answered and shielded my eyes. Not so much because of the sun glare, but because they were a turquoise color not found in humans. Sometimes it freaked people out, so I usually wore brown contact lenses. They were now crumpled and dried-out in one of the outer pockets on my pack. Sweat had made my eyes sting and irritated the contacts during my dig, so I’d pulled them out. “Interesting habit you have, creeping on women swimming in mountain lakes.” A little confrontational, maybe, but seriously, men could be so dumb. Even the good guys had no clue that they appeared creepy when they approached a woman if they put her in a vulnerable position. Ogling from atop a horse is not a non-threatening position.
The horse snorted as if he was in on the joke and shook his head. Fool, it thought my way.
Your rider or me? I shot back, surprised at its choice of words. Most four-legged animals speak to me in images or with a minimal vocabulary. The horse just snorted again. Perhaps it was as much of a jerk as its rider, or perhaps that was the only word it knew. I studied the horse and the rider from my position in the water. Even though I was pretty sure I would win if I had to fight the man, I wasn’t so sure about the horse.