Leda and the Serpent

Sound of Sleat, Scotland, 1872

They returned to Glenelg in December, the snow already piled thick upon the hillsides, as if they hoped its soft relentless fall might smother their arrival. The house was still sealed up, its fireplaces empty and rooms like ice - there had been some mix-up in communications, and the staff had failed to prepare the place. Behind the front door, a soft sliding pile of correspondence - a reminder that, despite their disappearance, they had not been forgotten. The Reverend James McShane knelt beside the slanted stack, inspecting it as if it were the abandoned nest of some strange beast: desultorily, he picked up a random envelope, then in one rash motion opened it. The usual mockery, the usual anonymous jibes. The Rev smiled weakly up at his wife and his two daughters.

"Well, we shan't be lacking firelighters, at least."

The family set to work, activity the only thing for now that could stave off the cold. True to his word, the Rev built up fires in each room, taking grim satisfaction in the slow flaring and blackening of each unopened letter, each insult he would not be obliged to read. Scouring the kitchen, his wife managed to locate enough preserved comestibles for a suitably austere homecoming meal. His daughters - twenty-four-year old Jannie, nineteen-year-old Lile - repaired to their rooms and tried to reconnect with life before... well, before what was never to be mentioned again.

Jannie McShane inspected herself in a small hand-held mirror, knowing full well how great a sin was vanity. She saw a primly-dressed, slightly severe young woman, mature for her age, perhaps even a trifle careworn. Sandy, gold-streaked hair was pinned high on her head, not a vagrant strand. Beneath it, a rounded, high-browed, soft-cheeked face; somewhat sallow, a touch heavy about the chin and jaw. Wide-set almond eyes - dark brown, luxuriously lashed - peered a little mournfully from under sharply-arched brows. A flattened, slightly flared nose overlooked a lushly ripened mouth that tapered to thin lateral creases at its corners - these creases had somehow become fixed in a slightly downward curve, needing to be forced up into a smile. This was the sort of detail potential husbands would note: a tipping point between beauty and plainness. 'Twas not age so much as seniority was the problem, Jannie decided - being the elder sister, the sensible one; keeping watch upon her younger, flightier sibling; all this had taken the edge off her bloom. But unless and until Jannie was finally married off, Lile would remain her burden, her responsibility. Jannie sighed, put her mirror down, then went to check on her little sister.

Lile was not in her room, and a cursory check about the house indicated, alarmingly, that she had slipped out while everyone else was engaged. For a few moments Jannie felt a black panic - she considered raising the alarm to their parents, but that could only rake up unnecessary trouble, so soon after their return. Besides, a few deep breaths and an instant's thought revealed the only place she could have gone - and if her parents knew that, there'd be hell to pay.

Exiting discreetly, Jannie crunched over light, twice-frozen snow down a winding garden trail, one existing set of delicate footprints marking her way. The trail broke from cover onto a tiny dock jutting into the Sound of Sleat itself - today as cold and dark and forbidding as iron; the ghostly outline of Skye wreathed in freezing fog. At the dock's landward end was a wooden boathouse - Lile was inside, gazing with wistful reverence upon the building's occupant, a small yacht named Leda. She did not look round as Jannie approached.

"What's going to happen to her?"

"I believe Father has a buyer in Mallaig," Jannie replied. "The name will have to be changed, of course. Lile, why are you down here? You know how angry he'd be..."

"I wanted to see her," said Lile coldly, "Just once more. Is that so wrong?"

She turned then, fixing Jannie with a tearful look. It was always a deflating experience for Jannie, to be abruptly confronted by the superiority of her sister's sweetly vulnerable beauty. Gossamer hair the colour of cornfields, as pinned as her own, but with loose strands artfully framing a face like a white rose, with high soft cheeks and a delicate dimple about the chin. Penetrating, somewhat haunted blue-green eyes, strikingly lashed, gazed out under daintily feathered brows; above a rounded, concave nose and stunningly full, slightly parted lips - the lower one bisected by a vertical seam that gave it the appearance of a lush, ripe fruit about to split. A volatile mix of sympathy and jealousy often made Jannie's dealings with her sibling unnecessarily terse.

"Come back with me now," she snapped. "There's nothing to be gained by staying."

"There's truth," Lile countered. "Leda is real; what happened was real..."

"NOTHING happened!" Jannie fought to keep from shouting. "Can't you get it through your head? We sailed; you got seasick - that is all. For God's sake, we all agreed..."

"Yes," Lile whispered, "So we did. But agreeing on something doesn't make it true."

She lowered her head, strode past her sister without another word, and began the slow trudge back up to the house. Jannie sighed, watched her a moment, then followed at a distance.

*

Back in her room, Lile pouted. The gap between her and her elder sister might have been just five years, but it could as well have been a generation. Jannie was like her mother, only worse - Mother at least had no pretension of being coeval with her youngest child, did not follow her around like a hectoring, scolding shadow all the time. If they could only get Jannie married off like they intended, she might have time to think.

She sat upon her bed, feeling the fire slowly rid her of the boathouse chill, listening to its insistent, somehow soothing crackle. And then it hit her, like a thunderbolt of revelation - the fire. She bolted to the hearth, flinging herself down on all fours and intently studying the grate, defying the stinging heat

that threatened to singe her face. Down at the fringes of the piled, glowing coal a few fragments of paper still survived, fitfully fluttering like moths trapped at a window, helpless and doomed. Unless... She grabbed a poker, levering back the coal, throwing up coils of thick grey smoke, trying to create space around the pale shards. Summoning her courage, she thrust her hand into the hearth, withdrawing it at such speed it was like a whiplash - bits of ash went dancing around her like little black flies. Miraculously, she had not burned herself, and entrapped in her fingers were remnants of three letters.

The first was predictable abuse, of a type familiar from when her father had first gone public - she quickly returned it to the fire. The second, from what little she had to go on, seemed to be implying a threat from supernatural forces: this she might have kept, had any name or address been discernible on the fragment. With mounting trepidation she unfolded the final scrap.

It was exactly half a letter - whether it had burnt strangely, or her father had carelessly ripped it, she couldn't tell. Her heart beat faster as she realised it had address and most of the signature intact: between them the elegant lines of truncated text had a strange poetry; as she pieced together their message Lile found that she was trembling...

...why you have not responded to my previous...

...able to corroborate the events of August 20th...

...happy to discuss the matter with you...

...honest and truthful.

His name was MacKinnon - he lived at Duisdale House, on Skye. "Able to corroborate the events of August 20th" - a giddy excitement filled Lile, such that she almost rushed down to tell her parents, before fear and reason set in. She couldn't tell anyone in the family, of course she couldn't:

they would rip the fragment from her grasp, destroy it, deny it ever existed just as they denied everything else - it had been "agreed". No, her only recourse was to track down this MacKinnon person, get an account so complete and substantial that her father, mother and stupid sister would be unable to deny it. And after that, the whole world would be unable to deny...

It could be a trap, she mused - a lure dangled by a hoaxer, or a journalist, seeking more sport at the McShanes' expense. But somehow she doubted it: she knew vaguely of Duisdale House, a modern place high on the hills; she had an inkling it was an important residence, so mischief seemed unlikely. At any rate, she needed to get there. In secret.

She lay awake most of the night, puzzling over the problem. She entertained ludicrous notions like stealing the Leda - but not even Father would attempt to sail her solo. Her parents would never simply let her walk out alone, after what had happened (or rather, not happened, it was "agreed") the last time - Jannie would be despatched to accompany her, following in her every step, hanging around like a bad smell. She could run away, she supposed, but that would only bring more trouble than before: whatever truths she unearthed would be lost in the turmoil. No, she decided resignedly, her only solution was to bide her time; wait for an opportunity to present itself. It would be agony, but it was necessary - her family were striving to forget the truth; and once this was done they would set about forgetting the very act of forgetting itself. And then, then she would seize her chance.

*

Normality steadily began to reassert itself. First the servants returned, albeit a little reluctantly. Then the Rev began his rehabilitation, riding the wave of Xmas goodwill (only a few of his parishioners seemed to have deserted for good). The family were seen out and about in the village, and whatever was being said about them, none of it was to their faces. Frosts and thaws came and went: Father ministered; Mother socialised; Jannie made embarrassing forays in her quest for a man. And all the while Lile seethed, retreating as often as she could to her room, there to read in secret the fractured message, over and over, like a sacred text - her only glimmer of reality in the dreamlike existence that

was taking over her life.

It was her mother who inadvertently provided salvation. As the first green glimmers of Spring began to appear on the snow-peppered Highlands, she became concerned at Lile's constant midering about the house, and attempted to engage her interest in the garden. From there 'twas but a short jump to the study and collection of wildflowers - a hobby Lile threw herself into with aplomb. Naturally, her expeditions into the hills for specimens could not be conducted solo, and often as not it was Jannie who drew the duty of being her escort - a duty the elder sister quickly began to resent, in terms of imposition upon her time, and damage to her better clothes. Besides, one was unlikely to find a potential suitor clambering the rugged slopes in search of rare Alpine blooms. And once it was established that these forays were passing off without incident, the Rev McShane and his wife began to feel that perhaps they had been a tad overprotective of their youngest child, and though they fretted mightily over the decision, they at last gave permission for Lile to pursue her new-found passion alone. She made two entirely legitimate hunting expeditions, all the while checking over her shoulder to ensure she was not followed. Then, on the third occasion, she simply marched her way straight over the southward-lying hills to Lochourn, there to anonymously catch the tiny little steamer that plied the waters of the Sound.

The thrill of finally taking this fateful step was mollified by simple fear of being back on this all-too familiar stretch of water: the first time since, well, it. Her heart palpitated in syncopation with the boat's rapid chugging: she kept her face fixed and prayed the handful of other passengers would not notice how pale she was. But the round trip to Duisdale passed without incident or strangeness of any kind; and before she had quite recovered her wits she found herself looking up the steep drive that led to Duisdale House. There could be no going back now.

The delay after her ringing of the bell was so protracted that her heart sank - the prospect that the imposing lodge might be deserted was almost too much to bear. But at length came footsteps, the unlatching of a lock; and the door was opened by a most striking woman. There was something immediately exotic about her face, not just the somewhat swarthy complexion: something about the large, slightly slanted eyes with their coal-black pupils; dark and vividly mysterious 'neath

tempestuously arched brows, under a penumbra of raven hair. A high-browed face, with a firm, rounded chin; high cheekbones so precise and vivid they seemed almost chiselled. A delicate nose, piquantly contrasted by a wide, voluptuous, slightly down-turned mouth: a face of contrasts, slightly unsettling in its details yet fascinating in the totality. Lile couldn't help staring, not least because she had no idea who this woman was, though she obviously was not staff. Her ignorance, however, was not shared.

"So you've come at last," the woman said, her voice deep, commanding in its softness; the accent strange and distinctly foreign. "I had almost given up hope." She moved back, holding the door open: Lile felt vaguely like the heroine - or victim - in a fairy tale as she stepped inside.

"You know me?" she asked tentatively.

"Of course - you are Lile McShane." The woman did not smile.

"And you know why I am here?"

"You are here in response to my letters, I assume - I am Veronica MacKinnon. You're here to talk about the yacht, Leda. And the monster, of course."

And at these words, Lile could not longer contain herself - she broke down and wept.

*

Veronica brought her tea which she evidently prepared herself, there seemingly being no staff in the great house. At the first sip Lile decided the tea had been enhanced with something medicinal, but nonetheless she drank it down and composed herself.

"My apologies," she sniffed. "You must think me an utter fool."

"Not at all." Veronica's seriousness was unyielding - there was something haunted, almost sinister, about her expression. "Do you wish to talk about it?"

Lile shook her head. "I'm not sure I can, just now - ridiculous, I know. I just..." She looked at Veronica - gazed deep into those ebon eyes. "I just need you to convince me I am not mad. I need you to tell me you saw it."

"I saw it," came the quiet, firm reply.

"Thank you," Lile whispered, and wept again.

When she was recomposed, Veronica stood and extended a hand.

"Come - I'll show you."

Feeling again like a lost child, Lile allowed herself to be led up a wide, spiralling staircase, to a large, ornate study lined with bookshelves. At the far end was a bureau, positioned before a vast window commanding magnificent views of the Sound.

"My husband's office," said Veronica offhandedly. "He was a clan chieftain, you know."

"Was...?" Lile hesitated.

"He died a year ago. A sudden illness."

"Oh. I am sorry."

"Don't be. You didn't know him."

"So..." Lile tried to lighten the mood, "You are chieftain now?"

Veronica almost smiled. "I hold the clan records, but that's about it. The situation is... delicate."

Lile crossed to the bureau, looked out the window. She could see clear across the Sound, see the little steamer still forging its way, even make out the tiny huddle of buildings that was Glenelg: she wondered what her family was doing, whether they were already worrying about her. Looking down at the bureau, her attention was drawn by an impressive spyglass, mounted on an elegant stand like an eagle's claw. Then her eye wandered to a sheaf of papers upon the dulled varnish surface, and she let out a little gasp. Press cuttings, sketches, letters - about the Leda, about her family, about monsters.

"I was still dealing with his affairs right through the Summer," Veronica said, at her shoulder. "I'd spend most of my time up here. That afternoon, 20th of August, was perfect - sunny, warm; the Sound was like a millpond, a glittering mirror. I just happened to be looking out, towards the inlet at Lochourn, when I saw a disturbance on the water. I thought at first it was a row of seals breaking the surface, but they were far too regular, too evenly spaced. When I got the glass trained, I realised I was looking at a line of humps, all belonging to the same object - the same creature. I counted eight humps altogether: I saw neither head nor tail. After a minute or so the thing disappeared under the water, and though I waited for some time I did not see it again. What I did see was a little cutter, becalmed, struggling its way down to Lochourn."

"The Leda," Lile breathed. She felt an intense, throbbing pressure on the side of her face. She turned to look at Veronica, felt dizzy, as if she were falling into the deep dark wells of her eyes. As Veronica reached for her she all but swooned, crumpling into the woman's embrace. Veronica kissed her, hard, stealing what remained of her breath.

"You don't know how long I've waited for this," Veronica whispered, kissing her again, her lips overpowering, almost smothering. They were crushed together, bosom to bosom; clinging to each other with a ferocious desperation, almost wrestling with urgent passion. A hairpin pinged to the floor

like a discarded cartridge, Lile's locks tumbling free: she could not breathe and had no idea what was happening, but oh God, it felt so right.

Abruptly, the storm abated. They paused, leaning together like exhausted boxers, panting and dishevelled. Lile wanted to laugh with the ludicrousness of it all, but Veronica was so implacably serious, her look almost morbidly entrancing.

"Do you want me?" she hissed

Lile could only nod dumbly, trembling, hot colour rising in her cheeks. She wanted - oh, how she wanted - even if she had no clear idea what, or who, or why. Veronica put a hand to the back of her head, drawing her close, kissing her slowly this time, gently; her luscious lips pressing soft as cushions, sweet as ripened fruit. Lile felt her own mouth moisten, her own lips opening like shy petals, involuntarily welcoming the slick, sticky intrusion of Veronica's probing tongue. Lile gurgled in her throat, a muted sound of surrender; her own tongue curled eagerly about the intruder - tangling, tasting, touching. She was dizzied again, awash with sudden heat; her whole body tingled, from the outside in.

Veronica was propelling her, leading like a desperate dancer, pressing her down into a capacious, sturdily padded armchair. Clawing at the buttons on Lile's bodice, she threatened to rip them clean off, obliging Lile to forestall her with a raised hand.

"Wait," she whispered. "Let me..."

Quickly she unfastened bodice, then busk, carelessly discarding them to the floor. She lifted her arms, pale and goose-fleshed with sudden chill, allowing Veronica to pull off her chemise. It was all so sudden, so urgent - no time to think, no time to comprehend. Veronica touched the white hummocks of her breasts; touched them with a kind of brusque gentleness, kneading and pulling. Her fingertips brushed the pointed, tawny nipples, making them strain and swell; making Lile gasp with the sordid novelty, the shamelessness of it. Even now she still could not quite absorb the reality of this

seduction; the simple, awful truth that this woman, this stranger, meant to make love to her. Veronica lowered her head, kissed Lile's breasts each in turn, her lips voluptuous and suckling, raising tiny arcs of pink upon the ghostly flesh. She drew a nipple into her mouth, letting her tongue flicker against the rigidly yielding teat: Lile threw her head back, biting her lower lip to suppress a most unladylike moan; her arms akimbo and useless. The signals coming from her body no longer made any sense: her nipples ached, but then so did other parts of her, as yet untouched; a glittering mosaic of sensation assaulted her; a silent cacophony of unfamiliar needs and desires. Veronica kissed and licked her nipples until they were almost sore, then almost daintily ran the tip of her tongue along the edge of Lile's sallow throat, eliciting shivers of cold delight. Their mouths met once more, tongues like seals twisting in water; sweet sodden spirals.

And then Veronica was on the floor, kneeling like a dressmaker, forcing back Lile's hem and hauling off her boots. Lile watched almost abstractedly, still reeling from the onslaught, missing already the feel of hands and lips upon her bosoms; wondering if it was permissible to touch them herself. Veronica pushed and pulled, hauling up the dragging drapery of Lile's skirt; the complex lattice of crinoline collapsing upward in unison. Not until the virginal fabric of her drawers was exposed did Lile finally know a frisson of fear - she looked at Veronica, seeking reassurance, finding only reflections in those deep dark eyes, that dour expression. Veronica offered no comfort, no warmth, not a smile: instead, having bunched Lile's skirt about her waist like a collapsed sail, she purposefully grasped her ankles, lifting and separating them so that Lile's legs were draped over the armrests. As Lile looked on with a searing admixture of uncertainty and anticipation, Veronica reached down to slip the bow of her drawers: moistening her fingers with indolent patience she let them separate of their own accord; exposing the mossy, fragrant delta of Lile's pristine womanhood. Finally, with a haughty, almost cruel glance, she put two fingers precisely 'twixt Lile's labia, and pressed.

Lile cried out, a piercing shriek like a raptor. The shock of violation was overlaid by the even greater shock of her lack of resistance. Her body pulsed, opened, almost oozed about the slow, determined intrusion - become a thing of liquid elasticity. Lile gulped in her breath as she was gently, implacably filled; sensation resonated out from between her legs, skittering across her flesh like patches

of sunlight on a windswept ridge. It was unsettling, almost maddening - parts of her were utterly numb, others totally afire.

Disturbing though the entrance had been, the withdrawal was worse: a measured, sickly retreat that had her inner folds clutching and rippling, unwilling to release the invading digits; all but kissing the fingertips as they slipped free of the scented scarlet cleft. As her body ebbed and fluttered, Lile exhaled - a drawn out, guttural gasp of releasing tension. Everything within her felt raw, like red flesh exposed: visceral and hypersensitive. Then came the second thrust, and her body blossomed, rising in tribute - she cried again, from the shock of her own eagerness; the eagerness of her flesh, more willingly seduced than she felt herself to be. Her arms, unbidden, curled up about her head, fingers stroking the battered leather of the chair back - she suppressed an urge to kiss the soft skin of her inner elbow.

Veronica was as patient as she was tenacious in her attentions. Brow creased in concentration, she carefully weighed each thrust, her gaze flicking between Lile's face and the silvered progress of her fingers. And when something - something in the nature of Lile's virginal pliancy, of her cries, of her harried breathing - gave her the signal, she dipped her head and applied her tongue to the engorged, shrouded bud that 'til now had been the detached overseer of the steady, sustained pummelling below. At this new shock of distilled sensation Lile all but screeched, her body bucking in the chair, wracked by uncontrollable quivers. This was desperate, intolerable torture, and yet she could not, would not call a halt. The fingers inside her, conquering her flesh by fractions of an inch with each implacable surge, reducing her to jelly; the tongue at her clitoris a flickering flame, reducing her further; making her liquid, torrential. Grasping the back of the chair she gasped and writhed, seized by a dread sense of inevitability that transited to a sudden, gushing joy. Her tummy muscles fluttered frantically, almost bubbling - she opened her eyes, a beatific smile on her face as she poured milk and honey. She tried to say 'Veronica', but all that emerged were random moans of dizzied delight. As the soft wave began to recede she glanced down, saw Veronica's face between her legs, drinking the sickly gift of her body; and she wept with the bizarre perfection of it all.

After a time - a gentle, trembling interlude - Veronica rose, taking Lile's arm and pulling her

unsteadily to her feet. If Lile had imagined her seduction complete, Veronica's still impregnable expression spoke far more of beginnings than endings; and Lile found both her fear and her excitement reigniting under the endless dark sweep of those eyes.

Veronica turned her like a ballet instructor, positioning her before the window, bending her across the desk. Lile felt the pull in her buttocks, the backs of her legs - she felt deliciously vulnerable, like a schoolgirl waiting to be spanked. Below her she could see the turbid Sound, the little boat that must eventually take her back home, back to normality: she wondered if its passengers might look up and see her like this, her hair wild, breasts hanging free. With no preamble Veronica's hand slipped up between her taut thighs, a single finger penetrating her once more. Lile tossed her head and moaned, but in truth there was already an ease, a familiarity about how her body opened. Sweeping Lile's hair from her neck with her free hand, Veronica applied her soft, sumptuous lips to the nape, making Lile shiver. Long, sucking kisses interspersed with feather light dabs of Veronica's tongue slowly made their way down Lile's spine, warm and wet like honeyed raindrops; all the while the finger lingered inside her, slowly thrusting, teasing, making her whole being pulse with wanton pleasure. Veronica planted a heavy, wet kiss at the base of her spine; one on each ripe buttock; two more to the backs of her thighs and knees. Then Veronica plunged her face forward, and her tongue slithered precisely over the exposed puckered eyelet of Lile's anus. Lile gave a little squeak of shock and delight, her whole frame quivering deliciously. As the tip of Veronica's tongue probed and swirled in her secret vulnerability she almost giggled with the sensation - so intense, so naughty, so wonderfully tinged with hints of the utterly forbidden (but then, wasn't everything Veronica had done to her so far forbidden?). There was no denying the effect it was having on her - Lile could feel herself oozing, the complex inner musculature of her vagina contracting against the marauding finger; the liquid fire of climax stoking in her pelvis.

"Veronica," she blurted, bubbly as a student trying to impress, "I'm going to... oh Lord, it's happening again..."

And at that moment there was a great feeling of intrusion - a fingertip, pressed to her moistened

backside; filling her, stretching her seemingly beyond reason.

"Veronica!" she ejaculated, momentarily numb with shock, "Dear god, you mustn't - that's so..."

'Disgusting' was the word she might have used, and surely 'twas beyond the pale to have one finger penetrating her vulva, a second invading her rectum. Why, she thought absurdly, it simply wasn't the done thing for a vicar's daughter. Except that it wasn't disgusting at all - this second orifice flexed and opened as eagerly as its neighbour, turning her innards to molten wax. It took but a few twinned thrusts for Lile's excitement to boil out of control: orgasm erupted through her, sudden and shattering, her body juddering with violent release that smashed her down onto the desk's cool, smooth surface. It stole her breath, robbed her of consciousness: for an instant, she had become pure physicality, lust incarnate; flesh bereft of mind.

*