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‘Back to the sea with you, bloody animal!’ A brown-clad shoulder left me sprawling as my rescuer raised the rough club again. The naked man showed his teeth with a hissing growl, but backed off beyond the boulders. There was a chorus of moans and howls from the seal colony as they splashed into the water in panic at the uproar, and I lost sight of him as the newcomer stepped in front of me.

 

‘Do you not know better than to stray by the sea alone, woman?’ he pulled me upright, roughly, ‘..and you can make yourself decent now!’

My fingers shook as I buttoned my shirt up again, all the way to the neck. I was still not certain I had wanted to be rescued. I set that thought aside firmly, folded my arms firmly across my chest, and took stock of my rescuer.

 

Grey haired, lean and rather shabby, his face deeply lined, he was dressed in a grey-green tunic and trousers, with a leather belt and boots. Broad leather wristbands on each arm, and a brown cloak slung across bony shoulders (no, Malin, don’t go making comparisons) and the glint of gold at his throat, he was an outlandish sight, but the concerned look in bright blue eyes seemed real enough.

 

The seals had vanished.

 

‘Thom Arkledown, at your service, lady, and as well that I came when I did.’

I swallowed hard and managed ‘Thanks. What …?’

‘The lure of the selkie is a strong drug, madam. Had I not happened along when I did…’

I put my hand up. ‘Stop right there. Selkie?’

‘Aye lady, one of the seal folk that cast their skins to come to shore and mate with mortal women...’

‘I know what a selkie is, thank you – I just didn’t think they existed!’

He looked confused, and I had to agree that what I’d said made little sense. But then, a lot of things weren’t making sense at the moment. I tried again.

‘What I mean is… I’ve heard folk songs and stories, but that’s all they are... isn’t it?’

‘You came close to finding out today, I think!’ he grinned, somewhat maliciously I thought.

‘Well, thank you for the timely rescue.’

‘Glad to be of service, milady,’ he made a bow, and a quaint old-fashioned sweep of his hand, and looked up at me with a smile. The sun glanced off the gold torc around his neck.

‘P-please, call me Malin. Umm…..Can I offer you a drink?’

I could be leaping from frying pan to fire, I thought, but on the other hand, if this odd man could give me information on the weird stuff that seemed to be happening, it was worth the chance. And I had Rosie back at the house…

 

***

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Rosie didn’t seem impressed. She sniffed Thom briefly, turned round and lay down again, head on paws, watching us. I busied myself making tea for him and coffee for me; he sat at my kitchen table as if he belonged there. I wasn’t sure what I felt about that.

 

‘So… Thom - Arkledown, wasn’t it… why does that ring a vague bell in my head?’

‘I’m known to many, lady Malin. Perhaps my name has come to you from another?’

I shook my head.

‘Maybe it’ll come to me. Anyway – selkies and things… I mean – I’ve read stories, but I’ve never believed in them.. well not until now, that is. But… things have become a bit odd these last few days, y’know?’

Yay, go Malin. Eloquent or what?

‘Since the Return, you mean?’ he raised an eyebrow, reminding me vaguely of Gandalf.

‘The ‘Return’?’ You could hear the capital letter.

‘Aye. The time has come, and the Seeliefolk have returned to take back the land that was theirs.’

I looked at him sideways. He sighed.

‘They left the land to mortals many years ago, turned sideways to the sun and dwelled in dream and legend. Now they are back, to restore the land after all the ill that has befallen it.’ He sipped his tea, holding the cup in long, ring-heavy fingers.

I could feel my face settling into an expression of incredulity.

‘Seeliefolk? You mean faer..’

‘Do not speak that name! Call them the Good Folk, the Sidhe, or the Seelie Court, if you must name them.’

‘Oh come on! You’re telling me that all that fantasy elf-crap is for real?’

He just looked at me.

I decided to cut to the chase.

 

‘OK, Thom… where has everyone gone?’

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He set down the cup carefully, precisely, then stood up, the cloak swirling dramatically. I wondered how long he’d practiced to get the effect right.

‘For the main, they have been placed…elsewhere. Where they can do no further harm.’

‘Harm? What bloody harm were my neighbours doing? Playing the fucking ceilidh music too loud? They’re farmers, fishermen, they care for the land…’

‘I said ‘for the main’. Some are… merely in waiting…’

‘Waiting for what?’

‘For a decision to be made. There are some who would remove all mankind from this world. The Folk have merely... made things safe, for the meantime…’

‘You’re telling me that some of your ‘Good Folk’ want to exterminate us, like cockroaches?’ I felt like spitting, to get the bad taste from my mouth. No, not on the kitchen floor.

He hesitated, picking his words with care.

‘Some of the Folk, yes’ he admitted. ‘there are others who would wait and see if the harmony can be found once more.’

‘So where do …selkies, and …pixies… come into the equation?’

‘They are the UnSeelie.’

‘UnSeelie. Like…come over to the Dark Side, Luke? Is that what you mean?’

‘I have no idea.’ He shook his head, obviously confused, ‘but there are the Seelie and the UnSeelie folk. The UnSeelie are… wilder, rougher, less - civilised.’

‘So.. you’re saying the Dark Side want us wiped out and the Good Folk want to see if we can save ourselves?’

He steepled his fingers, looking more like Gandalf than ever.

‘Not exactly in those terms, lady, but if that’s how you want to render it…’

‘Well excuse me if I don’t open the champagne just yet. What are we supposed to do to ...restore harmony. Is anyone on our side?’

‘That I cannot say.’

‘Oh, you’re just full of good news.’ I scrubbed at my face with both hands, sat down hard in the kitchen chair and swallowed a mouthful of tepid coffee.

 

‘So how come you were on the beach today, Thom?’

‘Your good luck’ he smiled thinly, ‘I was passing on my way to an…appointment.’ the hesitation was almost imperceptible.

‘Just passing. In the middle of nowhere. At the foot of a hundred foot cliff. Just at the right time to... do I look stupid?’

‘The honest truth, lady Malin. I cannot tell you elsewise. I travel paths that do not follow the ones you are familiar with.’

It sounded like bullshit to me, but I didn’t push it.

‘And speaking of appointments, lady, I can tarry no longer, or I face the wrath of one who I hold in high regard. Thank you for the tea. I hope that you will find a way through what lies ahead.’

And with that, he left.

Just like that.

 

Rosie lifted her head to watch him go, then laid it in my lap, slobbering gently.

‘Yeah, girl. Weirdoes. I attract them.’

 

***

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So what did I have?

 

The disappearance of most of the human race, with whistles and bells and weird lights in the sky.

A weirdly dressed mystic whacko who spoke like something out of a renaissance fayre and claimed it was all the work of the faeries.

Two factions of faeries, ones who wanted us gone, the others who were willing to give us a chance.

A gorgeous, if over-enthusiastic, naked man on the beach, who addled my brain and made me feel like a randy 17-year old.

Pixies in the stable.

A pony needing feeding and grooming.

A dog who had left my lap a damp puddle.

 

Some things a girl can deal with. The rest, I would think about later.

 

***

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Cat watched from his perch in the rafters as I ran the brush over Raven’s gleaming hindquarters.

‘Well? What do you know about it?’ I addressed him sternly. ‘You’re the expert on spooky stuff.’

He tucked his paws neatly under him, and enigmatically half-closed his eyes.

‘Smug bastard.’

I filled the hay net and hung it up again, and was on my way out when it finally hit me, and I stopped in my tracks.

 

Surely not.

 

‘Thom Arkledown? Erkledown? Thomas of bloody Ercildoune? You have got to be kidding me.’

I headed for the study.

 

***

 

There he was, in black and white and blood-and-peat-stained legend.

‘Thomas the fucking Rhymer?’

 

The lyrics from the old Steeleye Span number went through my mind.

“True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank when he beheld a lady gay

A lady that was brisk an’ fine

Come riding o’er the ferny brae….

 

The poet, taken away to Elfland by the Queen herself, to be her lover for seven years, and to return with the gift of prophecy but without the ability to lie…

 

‘That’s mad. He just thinks he is.’

 

I looked up Selkies, too.

 

Seals that can shed their skins and take human form. Find their sealskin and you have power over them. Hmm. The females are supposed to be very beautiful. The males... well, the song ‘Sule Skerry’ has it that the male was ‘a grimly guest’ …but the stories from Orkney reckoned them to be handsome with almost magically seductive power over women. Aye, well… a good enough excuse for fisherlassie’s bairns born out of wedlock…

 

I could feel another hot flush coming on.

 

Leaning out of the window to catch the evening breeze, I could hear the seals below.

 

***

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I didn’t have a good night’s sleep. Dreams of blood-red rivers and darkness, silver bells becoming thorns tearing at my flesh, morphed into frankly shocking erotic detail that woke me, gasping and shivering with fear and desire in equal measure, in a tangle of bedclothes well before dawn. My skin felt electric, every nerve ending jangling, and my oversized t-shirt was soaked with sweat. I staggered to the bathroom, lobbed my shirt into the washing basket and stood under the shower until the lash of the water brought back some degree of sanity.

 

I towelled my hair roughly, and threw some clothes on. I didn’t figure I’d get back to sleep, so thought I might as well find something useful to do. I was halfway down the stairs when Rosie burst into the hallway, barking and snarling. I paused, thinking fleetingly that I was the object of her attack, but quickly realised that she was directing her rage at something outside, beyond the door to the yard.

 

‘Enough of this crap.’

Whatever was out there wasn’t friendly, as far as the dog was concerned, and her verdict was good enough for me. I kicked back the rug, exposing the wooden floor, and tipped up one end of a short plank near the middle of the room. It pivoted smoothly, and my fingers found the recessed metal ring concealed below. With a heave, I lifted the concealed trapdoor, and knelt to dial the combination lock set below, where the base of the lighthouse’s turning gear had once been. The heavy metal door of the safe opened and I reached down. The smooth wood of the rifle stock in my hand, other hand reaching for the ammunition, sliding the action back and loading without thinking, I moved to the side of the doorway.

Rosie continued to snarl, pawing at the bottom of the door. I glanced out through the small window set in the thick timber, and could see nothing in the porch. I slid the bolts back, eased the key in the lock, and thumbed off the safety catch on the rifle.

The dog was out of the door as soon as I started to open it; I followed, finger over the trigger-guard, ready to repel attack.

 

The yard lay empty, silver-white in the cold light of a three-quarter moon. The vegetable garden formed irregular hummocks, thick with frost. There were few places to hide, and I could see nobody there. Rosie raced across the yard to the gate, sniffing and growling, a low rumble in her throat. The stable door was still firmly shut, although I could hear Raven stirring, restless with the disturbance.

 

In the thick frost on the flagstones in front of my door was a line of foot prints.

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I called the dog back indoors and shut her, disgruntled, in the kitchen, before going back to investigate. The prints led from the field gate, stopping briefly at the stable door before crossing to the side of the kitchen. Whoever had left them had carefully inspected each door and window, leaving traces in the frost-crystals on handles and catches, before coming to a halt at the porch. They lingered there, just by the step, leaving darker patches, before moving off, running with longer strides to clear the main gate and take to the road beyond. I stooped to look more closely at the prints. Boots, or perhaps shoes, narrow and long. I measured my own size seven against them. Maybe an eleven or twelve… stride length tied in with someone very tall. Beyond the gate, the tracks were less clear on the rough surface, and vanished rapidly. There were no further signs of anyone. Deeply uneasy, I made my way back to the house, locking everything up as I went.

 

I closed the gun locker, but I didn’t put the rifle away.

 

In the kitchen, I put the kettle on, and made a fuss of Rosie, telling her what a good and excellent guard dog she was. The clock showed four-thirty.

 

Several cups of black coffee did nothing for my wired state, but my brain was buzzing. Life was just getting crazier by the minute. Who the hell had been lurking round my yard – and where had they gone, so quickly? Why had they checked all the doors and windows apart from the front door? They could have been put off by Rosie – but then, they’d stood out there for the time it took me to get the gun out, before vanishing.

 

Was it that bloody lunatic Thom again? I thought back, conjuring him up in my imagination. Too short. He was only a few inches taller than me, and no way could he have made those tracks. Besides, his feet weren’t that big.

The selkie? Certainly tall enough, but my night visitor had been wearing boots, and that didn’t seem to fit. My thoughts drifted for a moment, and I pulled them sternly back on track.

 

So. Someone else. This place was becoming a regular Kings Cross. I still couldn’t figure out how they’d vanished so fast. Unless they’d doubled back and hidden behind the buildings. But the tracks went up the road. And I was definitely not going out of the yard to look any closer until daylight.

 

But the question of the front door remained. Something struck me, and I went to check.

 

Over the porch, not long after we had arrived, I had hung one of Raven’s worn out horseshoes, for luck. It was still there, but one of the nails had come out, and the shoe had twisted round, the open side facing downwards. I checked the books. My memory was right.

 

Open end up to hold in the luck, turned downwards to ward off evil.

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four

 

 

Daylight finally appeared, and a wan sun slowly began to burn off the frost.

 

I opened the gun locker again, and extracted a few more things, then went back to the kitchen to check them over and load a few clips of ammunition. Settling the pistol comfortably in the webbing hip-holster (hint – an easier option than a shoulder holster if you’re female, even a flattish one like me; likewise, never stick your gun down your trousers – you’re likely to get it caught in the waistband and shoot your own arse off), I pulled on my bulky jacket and went out to check around the perimeter wall. I found the same boot tracks in the mud by the field gate, but no other sign of the intruder.

 

So what now? I wondered how MacLeod was managing, back in Rubha, and if anyone else had turned up. There had been no-one in Caol, but maybe there were others in Inver. What had actually happened up at the base? If I believed what Thom had said, they’d probably vanished, but I wasn’t going to take his word for that. I did my morning chores, let Raven into the field, and whistled to Rosie as I headed to the garage.

 

***

 

Inver is a small fishing port, and, I suppose, the main settlement of the area, though it’s still no more than a village. It took just under an hour to get there, taking care on the narrow roads, avoiding the inevitable sheep and watching out for any sudden deer. The dog curled up on the passenger seat and went to sleep. As I crested the last rise before the descent to the village, I halted the car, and checked the radiation meter I’d stuck in the door pocket. (Again, don’t ask.) Normal background stuff, the sort you get from our native volcanic rock. So far, so good. I drove down the hill and parked up by the store. I pulled the rifle off the rack in the Landy’s cab, slung it over my shoulder, and went to investigate.

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The village streets were deserted. A few cars stood abandoned, and there was one embedded in the front wall of the kirk as if the driver had aimed it, and then left it to run. The police station was empty, the emblazoned Range Rover outside with the doors open, seats soaked with rainwater. I tried the police radio, but there was no response. I wasn’t entirely surprised.

 

We walked down the single street, pausing to check houses, occasionally calling to see if there was any response. Nothing but the cry of the gulls and a few rustles that sparked Rosie’s interest and were probably rats. I began to feel like something out of a science fiction novel – maybe Harlan Ellison’s ‘A Boy and his Dog’ – well, maybe not quite – or the guy in ‘I am Legend’ sprang to mind, until I remembered how that story ended. Maybe I shouldn’t read so much.

 

The door of the pub creaked in the breeze. I slid the rifle off my shoulder and, Rosie in close attendance, went in to check it over.

 

A number of tipped over beer glasses, several spilled crisp packets (they didn’t last long, thanks to the Rottweiler appetite) and a microphone stand made me think it had been karaoke night. The till was open, change on the bar counter. I liberated a bottle of malt, on account. Heading for the door, I pulled the dog away from a half full glass of heavy, got back in the Land Rover and headed down to the harbour.

 

There were half a dozen small working boats tied up, shrimp and lobster fishers mostly, rocking gently on the tide. The gulls were having a fine time. A truck stood, half loaded with now-rotting prawns, on the quayside, baking in the sunshine. The smell was unbelievable and all my latest encounter with the species came rushing back to me.

 

I threw up into the oily water.

 

It took me a while to persuade Rosie not to roll in the spoiled seafood on the road. I loaded a few crab pots into the back of the car, and tried the door of the chandlery.

Locked.

 

No problem. This time, I’d remembered the lock-picks.

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After filling the back of the Land Rover with everything I could think I might need, and could cram in, I headed north. Not that I wanted to, but I needed to know. The day grew warmer, big expanses of blue sky with small cumulus clouds and the last of the frost patches on the road drifting away before me in wisps of mist. I cranked open the window a few notches (partly for the fresh air, partly because Rosie was steaming the place up again) and hummed along to the iPod playing through the car radio. Some technology still works, I thought, immensely cheered by the counterfeit normality.

 

My mood soon changed when I reached the base. It looked like there had been a series of explosions (not the Big One, thank whoever), buildings blown apart, blackened and burned, twisted metal and ominously charred lumps lay strewn around. Smoke was still rising in places. There was nobody moving, as far as I could see through binoculars; I drove cautiously down to the remains of the main gate.

 

Shutting Rosie in the car, I carefully picked my way through the tangle of fence-wire and crumbling concrete posts. A clanking noise; I looked down and read the sign I’d kicked “Beware; guard dogs loose”. I winced mentally – these would be nothing like the Rottweiler (you don’t get lucky like that twice) – I’d need to be on my guard. The guardroom revealed nothing, shattered glass and charred paper and a heavy stench of burned meat. I shifted my rifle to the high-port position, wondering if they’d had a chance to fight back or if it had all happened in a sudden blast of heat. The base was mainly a refuelling point for ships and submarines, the stored fuel had all gone up in the conflagration MacLeod had seen. I suspected there would have been few survivors to be ‘taken’. And nothing much worth salvaging, either. The armoury might have survived, not that I knew where it was. And if I found it, would I be able to get in? Unlikely. Still, I stored the thought for long term consideration.

 

For now, I thought I’d seen enough, and my already iffy stomach was rebelling against the smell. Back to the car, to Rubha, and to check on MacLeod.

 

***

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He was still holed up in the kirk, and it took me a while to persuade him that I was really me.

 

When he finally let me in, he was making very little sense, rambling on about angels and still trusting to the protection of the Lord. The dogs slumped unhappily by the font, looking thinner and unkempt. Cam himself was even shabbier and shakier than before, but his conviction that the holy place would protect him burned in his eyes like napalm, and he wouldn’t be moved.

‘I hae the Lord’s protection, I am safe a’neath his hand, his angels hae come and they shelter me wi’ their wings.’

‘Angels, Cam?’

‘Angels. Bricht, shining, angels. I hae seen them wi’ ma ain eyes.’

 

I turned for home with a feeling of unease.

 

I couldn’t persuade him to come with me; I wish now that I had been more insistent, that I had forced him somehow. That I could have prevented what happened.

 

 

***

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That evening, I really didn’t feel like eating much. I sat at the kitchen table with a coffee and some toast, and a pad of Post-it notes, and started seriously planning for the future. Survival stuff. Shopping lists. Contingencies. Changes to be made. Write an item on a Post-it, then link it to the other things; move it around until you get a sensible strategy. Or the P7 method, as another old acquaintance had called it: ‘Perfect Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.’

 

Bread. Milk. Eggs. Problems. What was still in the shops would fast become mouldy or rotten. Tinned stuff. Make a list of what’s in the pantry. Stop using electric – dig out the old kettle for the stove top. Coffee! Oh gods, what was I going to do when the coffee ran out? Ammunition. If I have to get a goat or a cow, where will I keep it? How would I get it home? And then it needs keeping in milk, so I’d need to find a bull…it occurred to me – what had happened to the cows in the village? Was MacLeod milking Ishbel Macdonald’s house cow? If not – how long had it gone un-milked. How long CAN a cow go un-milked…come to think of it, what day was it today? Everything had sort of run together, and I had no idea. Did it matter? I supposed not, but knew it would bug me if I didn’t figure it out. Maybe that’s how humans cope, by imposing arbitrary order on chaos. Tell that to my butterfly mind…

 

Okay. Take the ceilidh as day one. I knew that was a Friday, and that was when - whatever – had happened. I was still reluctant to refer to it by Thom’s words ‘The Return’. Day two ... I went to Rubha, and everything changed. Day three . Dead pixie. Yeah. Day four, hangover, serious hangover. Day five, I acquired a dog. Day six …my insides flipped over slowly. I may – or may not- have met something out of legend. Which made today day seven, and Thursday. The twenty-third of October. Just over one week to Hallowe’en.

 

Which was in itself an uncomfortable thought.

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I made another coffee, and added a large slug of whisky. I needed to know more, but how could I find out anything sensible about imaginary beings? My library was all well and good, but hardly hard fact. No internet – okay, not so bad, unlikely to tell me anything of use anyway.

Thomas the Rhymer? How reliable a witness was he – if I could find him again – give that he seemed to believe himself to be a five hundred year old poet who had been taken away to Elfland? (Or was it that I believed him to be that – he’d never made the claim, to be honest)

MacLeod? Unhinged, as far as I could tell.

One other sprung to mind, but I shelved that thought; I didn’t even know if he could speak human. Well, that was one reason.

Which left… what? My night-time visitor? For some reason the thought sent an unpleasant shiver down my spine.

 

And what the hell did I think I was going to do with the information anyway? Save what was left of humanity? Perform some valiant act of redemption to convince the Dark Side that we should be left alone to eke out an existence? I wasn’t even sure that any of this was real, apart from the physical destruction and the lack of people. Stolen away by the faeries? Give me a break! I’d rather it was aliens, to be honest.

 

I snorted into my coffee, making Rosie jump. Come on, Malin, you’re no hero on a white charger, just a middle aged woman, on a black pony. So I did have a few odd skills, but this was way beyond anything I’d ever tackled, officially or covertly. We would live or not, and the best I could do was to keep my own small patch viable.

 

On that note, I let the dog out for her bedtime necessities, checked the yard, said goodnight to Raven and Cat and, Rosie settled once more in front of the range, locked up and went to bed.

 

***

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Despite being pretty shattered, sleep was a long time coming. When it did, my dreams were uneasy; shifting images and looming shadows, flickering fires, hoof-beats and always the bells, ringing high and clear, shivering through my head like tinnitus. I woke several times and went to the window to look out into the yard, empty in the moonlight, and free of footprints.

 

***

 

Morning was clear and cold, so I figured it was as good a day as any to work in the garden, and get it ready for winter. The frosts had started early, so it was urgent I got the root veg into the store where they would stay rot-free through the coming months. The last of the spuds needed lifting, the soil needed composting and turning over to break down with ice and frost and be ready for the spring.

 

It was routine work, and I settled into a rhythm that needed little mental effort. Barrowing well-rotted manure from the stable midden in the field, digging it in, wheeling the parsnips and neeps to the shed, laying them deep in dry straw to keep the frost out, turning the fork to shake the soil from the potatoes. I cut a couple of late cauliflowers and a cabbage, and took them to the cold store room in the end of the house, and was checking the state of the apples on the rack when I heard the snap of a mousetrap in the pantry next door, followed by a small screech.

 

Oh bugger.

 

I hated it when the traps didn’t kill cleanly. I didn’t like trapping, truth be told, preferring to leave it to Cat to do my pest control, but in the house, and particularly the pantry, his methods tended to be more trouble than help. I remembered the incident of the custard. With a sigh, I went to put the poor creature out of its misery.

 

I suppose I should have expected it.

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‘Will ye get this damn thing off of me? I think ma bloody leg’s broken! What in the name of the wee man were ye doing, leaving a savage great thing like that around?’

 

‘What the hell are you doing in my pantry then? Creeping around like a mouse, you should expect to get trapped!’ My mouth engaged well before my brain took in what I was seeing. I took a deep breath, and a half step back.

‘And what the hell are you, anyway?’

 

It – or he, I should say – was a hand under two feet tall, with a round, pointy face and small snub nose. Hair like spikes stood out around the sides of his head, more like bristles than anything else, like mutton-chop whiskers, and a scruffy woollen cap was crammed over the top, rammed down as far as expansive eyebrows. The eyes were boot-black buttons, giving him the general look of like a squashed hedgehog, and he had – oh no, not again – pointed ears.

 

‘Do ye not know an urisk when ye see one, carlin?’

 

‘Well, seeing as I’d never even heard of one until now, no!’ I was starting to get a little pissed off with imaginary creatures invading my life. ‘If you sit still and shut up, I’ll get the trap off, and then you can bugger off and leave me alone.’

 

‘And what about my broken leg, ye great brute? Will ye leave me with that and the cat outside?’

‘Should have thought of that before you broke in.’

‘But I didnae break in! I live here!’

‘What? This is my house and I’ve never seen you before in my life!’

‘Of course not, that’s the whole point o’ it – ye don’t see me, I avoid you, we get on fine. I look after the house - and woman, that is no easy deal, ye are not tidy – ye accidentally leave food out and that’s the deal. Although that dog is another matter.’

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