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I opened my mouth to respond, and then shut it, firmly. Food left out in the pantry or kitchen had been vanishing; cheese, the occasional half cake, milk left on the draining board. I was an indifferent – or at least unenthusiastic – housekeeper, but the place never looked a real mess. I’d never given it a thought.

 

‘What about my pony? You call that looking after the place?’

‘Pixies.’ He spat on the stone-flagged floor, then wiped it up with his tatty sleeve. ‘Only just appeared, but ye’ve got an infestation in the hay store. Not my department, outside. I leave that to yon slit-eyed savage.’

 

I ran my fingers through my hair, trying to make sense of the situation, and eventually gave up and gave in.

 

I squatted down to his level. ‘Let’s have a look at your leg, then. I don’t expect it’s broken, those traps are pretty useless.’

‘Say that with your leg in one!’

The trap was caught around one scrawny ankle, and came free easily, leaving a dent in the scruffy leather boot. Which was smeared with peanut butter (better than cheese, as it doesn’t come off the trap in a chunk, if you’re interested in these things).

The urisk groaned, and held his ankle.

‘Broken like an eggshell, I tell ye!’

‘Wiggle your toes. I presume you have toes?’

‘Auugh!’ but the end of the boot moved.

‘Probably just a bad bruise. Anyway, can’t you just magic it better?’ I was feeling out of my depth, and hence a little sarcastic.

‘What do ye know of magic, woman? An urisk does’nae do magic. An urisk IS magic!’

‘Right. I’m supposed to understand this? I don’t even believe in magic!’

‘Ye’d better start believing, human. It’s real, it’s here, and it’s here to stay.’ He peeled off the boot, to reveal a long thin foot, and a scrawny leg with a red mark that failed to break the skin. He groaned as he tried to rotate the joint, but it didn’t look broken. Of course, I was an instant expert in imaginary physiology.

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It occurred to me that here was a possible source of information. If I could trust it…him…whatever. No harm in trying.

‘What do you mean, here to stay?’

‘The Gentry have brought it back,’ he looked at me under a hairy brow, ‘and that’s nae good news for the likes o’ ye.’

‘Care to explain?’ I recalled one of the other creatures I’d come across whilst trying to identify the pixie… ‘Is an urisk anything like a brownie?’

‘Well, aren’t ye the clever carlin?’

I took that as a yes. Meant that I couldn’t offer him anything directly, without causing offence, and potentially causing grief for myself. I silently cursed JK Rowling for not giving me all the relevant information.

 

‘Can we have a chat? ’

‘What’s in it for me? Given ye’ve already tried tae kill me, and all?’

‘What would be… appropriate? Given I owe you, but I don’t want you to feel... indebted? By the way, I’ve got some arnica cream you could put on that…I could leave it out, accidentally.’

He grinned. Small, very sharp teeth. Hedgehog, definitely.

‘It’ll take a wee bit more than arnica…’

 

***

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I shut Rosie out in the yard, and went up to the study, leaving the doors open.

 

Only lunchtime. Ah well.

 

I sighed, and poured myself a shot glass of malt whisky, allowing it to overflow into a small saucer.

‘Oops. Too full.’ I tipped a bit more from the glass into the saucer, and took my drink over to my armchair, carefully ignoring the slurping noises behind me.

I took a small sip, and leaned back.

‘So… what can you tell me about what’s going on?’

The urisk hopped up onto the library stool, balancing the saucer on a bony knee.

 

‘I’ll have ye know from the start that this is nothing to do wi’ me,’ he declared. ‘I’ve been here all along, after their high and mightinesses decided your lot were all too crude and dirty for them and hied themselves off to ponce about on the other side.’

He took another slurp of whisky.

‘I’ve been minding my own business, keeping things proper, staying out of trouble – and sight – nae bother tae nae-one. Sure I’ve moved around a bit, sometimes ye have to, but I’ve been here for a fair while. Long afore ye came along.’

‘So not all the …Seelie Folk left?’

‘Who’s been telling ye that?’

‘Bloke calling himself Thom Arkledown. Though I figured he might have other names. He was kind of mysterious about it all.’

He laughed, slightly maliciously. ‘That scunner? Aye, the Rhymer is fond of building up his part in things. Fact is, he’s the Lady’s pet, and willnae set against her.’

‘I heard a legend said he couldn’t tell a lie?’

More laughter. ‘Aye, that’s right, but it does’nae mean he has to tell ye all of the truth, does it!’

 

I thought about that, and poured myself another whisky.

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five

 

‘It’s like this. In the beginning, there were your lot, and our lot. The humans and the Fae. We lived side by side, and most of the time we ignored each other, oh aye, there were times when there’d be meetings, and sometimes these were fine and other times things could be a wee bit …difficult. What ye know about us comes most from those meetings. Which is to say, ye know bugger all.’

 

The urisk seemed to be enjoying himself, or maybe it was just the whisky.

 

‘Now, what ye have tae understand about our lot is we’re not all of one mind where your lot are concerned. Some of us live quite happy alongside ye – like me, I find ye useful, for the main part. There are those who traditionally hate ye, and ye’ll most like be knowing of them.’

‘Redcaps, Jenny Greenteeth, that sort, you mean?’

He nodded, ‘Aye. They’d mostly see ye dead and gnaw on your bones, given half a chance. Then there’s the rest, most of who live their lives and take nae notice of ye, unless ye get in their way. The Gentry are like that, mostly, though they can be playful.’

‘Playful?’

‘Aye. Like yon cat can be playful wi’ a mouse.’

That image gave me pause.

‘So the ones who like us, or don’t care, are the Seelie Folk, and the ones who hate us are the UnSeelie?’

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‘Ach, now that’s what I mean by ye know bugger all! Trouble wi’ humans is ye’ve forgotten how to remember!’ he waved his hand generally at the books lining the room. ‘Ye got lazy, ye forgot the way and the truth of it, and then ye came up with this writing thing, which means ye set down your half-guesses and half-memories, and they get passed down, until they’re what ye believe, not what is. And then ye make things even worse when ye come up wi’ yon device…’ he pointed at my silent computer, ‘which means ye can spread your daftnesses even wider, and what is and what isn’t gets even more mixed up until ye have’nae a bloody clue!’

I thought of some of the entries on Wikipedia, and had to admit he had a point.

 

He shook his head in exasperation, and put the empty saucer deliberately and pointedly on the table by the bottle. I went through the overflowing glass routine again, and he chuckled appreciatively.

‘Ye catch on fast, carlin!’

‘Hmm. Less of the “old witch,” if you please!’

He tipped the saucer to his lips again, drank deeply, and continued.

 

‘Ye have the wrong end of the pointy stick wi’ the Seelie and UnSeelie Courts, lass.’

‘Thom said that was right… no, hang on, that’s not actually what he said, was it.. . “not exactly, but if that’s how you want to put it” or something like that…?’

‘Which means exactly what? Ye have nae got it right but if it pleases ye to think it so….? Told he was a scunner.’

‘Clever bastard!’

‘Oh aye, he’s all of that. Anyway, back to your education. Ye humans have been getting that part wrong all along. But then, as I said, ye were always good at that. And ye’re easy tricked by a pretty face, even when the heart behind it is black.’

He shook his head sadly.

‘We are all the Fae. Ye call us all manner o’ names: the Good Folk, the Sidhe, even faeries, though that’s a bit o’ an insult. The Seelie Court is what ye might care to think of as the Gentry. The Lady and her attendants, lords and ladies, the dwellers under the hill. Fair and cold as winter frost, full of glamour and pride, think they’re better than the rest of us, they’re the ones who turned their backs on ye when ye got too strong in science and the working of iron, who lifted themselves and their magic away to the other side.’

 

‘So the thing about cold iron is right, then?’

 

‘Cold, hot, it does nae matter. Blood heat is worst –if it’s your blood doing the heating… now shut up and let me go on! Where was I? Oh aye… Now the rest of us are the UnSeelie – the dark ones, the small, unimportant ones, the outsiders, not shining and beautiful like the Gentry. Most of us stayed behind, but hid away. And ye’ll find friend and foe o’ humankind in both Courts.’

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‘And it’s the Seelie Court that’s come back, with all their magic, and it’s them that’s responsible for everyone vanishing?’ That much Thom had stated plainly.

‘Some of them. Not all. Beware of judging by appearances.’

‘Where did they take them? Thom said they had been put somewhere, where they could do no harm.’

‘Ye can do nae harm if ye be dead. Which is likely what he meant.’

 

I felt my stomach drop, and an acid taste in my throat.

 

‘He said some were…waiting.’

‘There’ll be a few kept over, as slaves, or worse, under the hill.’

‘They could still come back?’

‘Aye, maybe. Even the Rhymer was allowed back, though he chose to return to Her.’

‘So what’s happening now? I mean, there’s a few of us left…are we all going to end up dead or enslaved? Don’t we get the right to stand up for ourselves?’

‘Now that I don’t ken. I keep well clear of the Gentry. I’ve not been over the other side proper since I cannae remember when, so I cannae say where your fate lies. I have no good feelings about it though, lass.’

‘So who wants us all dead?’

‘Again, I cannae tell ye.’ He shook his head. ‘But I think the time for finding out is short. The turn of the year is almost upon us, and all things can change then.’

 

***

 

We sat in silence for a while, he sipping the malt, me with my head spinning. It was all too much to take in for the moment. The best I could say was that it made my brain hurt. I didn’t think it was just the whisky. And I didn’t dare think of how this could be playing out elsewhere in the world. Wendigoes and bunyips and trolls, oh my…

 

My informant finished his saucer, and slipped off the stool.

‘I have things to do. Yon hound makes a terrible mess with those great muddy paws. If I hear anything, well, we can maybe come to another… arrangement.’ He winked, and faded into the background, vanishing in plain sight. I tried to focus on him again, but it was useless.

 

Damn. I hadn’t asked about the night visitor. Not that I expected to hear anything good.

 

One of my instructors, way back in another life, had made a point of impressing on me ‘Always know your enemy – who he is, what he is capable of, how he operates, how he lives. Know him and you know how to defeat him.’

 

I had to start by finding out who was the enemy, and take it from there. If I didn’t, who would? Somehow, somewhere along the way down the whisky bottle, this had become my problem. And if the urisk was right, I had a week to figure it out.

 

***

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I spent the rest of the day on a bit of a hamster wheel; working like crazy but not really getting to grips with anything. I’d start something, think of something I needed to check or do, do that and found I’d forgotten what I’d started. By the time I’d got to the end of the evening, it felt like I’d worn a path between kitchen and garden and study, and I was still no wiser than when I’d begun. I needed to stop thinking, let all the stuff I’d crammed into my head sort itself out. A good night’s sleep would help. I made a mug of cocoa and went up to the tower to the lamp room, to wind down and watch the stars come out.

 

It started with a faint glow to the north, a greenish pulsing in the sky. Shafts of light spreading upwards, like distant searchlights and I felt a thrill; the Aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, the Merry Dancers, seen occasionally here in the north west, one of nature’s spectaculars, a lightshow brief and beautiful.

 

It looked like this would be a good display. The light spread out like voile curtains hanging across the sky, stars shining through the glowing green, red and violet. Shimmering edges of brilliant green, dark ribbons running between the veils, pale pulsing patterns like ripples on a still pond, running outwards. A burst of shooting stars arrowed across the sky, fire arrows shot from an invisible bow. I’d read that sometimes you could hear the crackling of the ionisation; I pulled open the door and stepped outside to see if I could hear it.

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Something like white noise, something like bacon frying is the best way I could describe it, far away, growing slightly louder and then fading in time with the pulses. The colours changed, glimmers of iridescent blue like peacock feathers, brighter spots like emerald beads along the edges of the curtains, moving and chasing. The noise changed, more rhythmic, like the distant calling of geese, and below in the kitchen Rosie barked, deeper and louder and I recognised the sound of hounds coming ever closer. The glimmering green beads slipped nearer, like droplets running down a branch, getting lower to the ground, twisting and winding towards the tops of the trees up the hill, and I felt a shiver down my spine that was nothing to do with the cold air.

 

The lights dropped down beyond the ridge, and the aurora faded away, last lingering traces of green and red drifting away like wisps of evaporating fog. The stars shone down, brilliant, cold and impersonal, and the moon started to rise.

 

I shut and locked the door and went downstairs to the kitchen. Rosie whined and pressed close to my legs as I washed up my mug, and when I sat down on the old sofa, she climbed up beside me and curled up, her head on my lap. The oil lamp cast a soft warm glow, and the range gave off a good heat, but I felt a chill that even the warmth of the dog could not remove. Somewhere in the distance, a night bird screamed.

 

I must have dozed off, despite my apprehensions, because the lamp wick had burned down and gone out when I woke with a crick in my neck and a half-numb leg from the weight of the dog. The kitchen windows let in a weird greenish light; I figured the aurora must be back, and, stretching, decided to head off to bed. The light grew brighter and, faint and far off, I could hear the sound of bells. I stood up, almost falling over on my numb leg; there was something moving outside. Rosie woke, growling. I hushed her, stepping into the hall and shutting her in behind me. The shotgun stood by the door, cartridges in a box on the window ledge; I loaded the gun and took off the safety, before swinging the door open.

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They spiralled down out of the sky like angels descending, to the soft ringing of silver bells, glowing with their own light, radiant and beautiful, cold, pure and terrible. Their horses made Raven seem like an old swaybacked nag; they shone in shades of dappled cream and silver, tails brushing the ground, manes spilling in silken waves down their arching necks, woven with bells and ribbons. Silver and gold glinted on bridles and saddles, and they touched down in the yard with a shivery clink of silver horseshoes.

 

The riders outshone the horses. The leader slid gracefully to the ground, a movement like leopards and gazelles. Clad in silks and satins, shimmering silverblue and greengold, jewels glinting on the penannular brooch at his throat, a thin gilded fillet at his brow containing long pale hair. He held out one impossibly elegant, long-fingered hand.

 

‘Come out and dance with me, lady...’

 

Held in his chatoyant gaze, I took a half-step forward, and my foot touched the triple row of iron nails I’d pounded into the decking of the porch floor. With a shock like a sudden icy shower, the spell broke.

 

I gripped the shotgun firmly, and shook my head. I didn’t trust my voice to work properly; this was a far stronger magic than the selkie had wielded.

 

‘Then shall I come to you?’ he took three steps towards the door. Long, narrow feet, in fine boots. I knew now who had stood in the frost in my yard the other night.

 

‘You cannot come in.’ My voice sounded like a croaking frog. I swung the shotgun up to aim at him. His laughter was merry, but there was an undertone of mockery that raised the hairs on my neck.

He shook his head; definite mockery. ‘Lead shot cannot harm me, madam.’

‘You have been away, haven’t you? We don’t use lead, not any more. Nowadays it’s steel, and I don’t think you’d be so cavalier about that. And I do not give you permission to enter.’

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The perfect jawline tightened, and his lips thinned. Nonetheless, he moved closer, reaching out a hand to touch the wood of the porch upright.

 

With a hiss, he pulled the hand back, nursing his fingertips where they had brushed the iron filings I had painted onto the uprights with PVA glue. His eyes narrowed, lips drew back from perfect teeth.

 

‘You will come to me.’ Malevolence underlying the music of the voice.

 

Behind him, his horse shifted, swinging round. A dark stain spread down the gleaming shoulder, dark spots dripping onto the flagstoned yard. Something hung from the saddlebow, something lumpy, dark and wet. I couldn’t make it out; then the horse shifted again and the moonlight revealed wide, empty eyes, coarse sandy hair, a human head held up by a cord through the ears.

 

Cameron MacLeod’s head.

 

I remembered the sound of the hounds, and the shriek in the dark, and with a cold, sick fury, I understood. His ‘angels’ had lured him out of his sanctuary, chased him into the hills, hunted him down, slaughtered him.

 

‘Is that what you have in mind?’ I gestured with the barrel of the shotgun, ‘is that what we are to you? Prey, animals to be hunted for fun?’ I felt my finger tighten on the triggers, and the hint of a red mist bloomed around my vision.

 

‘Milord…’ one of the company broke in deferentially, ‘we linger over-late…the Lady expects us…’

With a hiss of annoyance, the leader swung up into the saddle. He looked down at me.

‘We are not finished, you and I. Your resistance will make your ending all the sweeter.’ He lifted the reins and started to swing the horse away.

 

‘Bring it on, you pointy-eared freak,’ I said, bringing the gun to bear, ‘and I will have your fucking head, you bastard.’

 

If he hadn’t ridden the horse straight up into the air, I’d have got the son-of-a-bitch with both barrels.

 

***

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When the blind rage left me, I sank in a heap on the stairs, shaking hands wrapped around the shotgun.

 

‘Well, ye’ve opened a world of trouble and pain now,’ the urisk appeared by my elbow, sitting beside me on the stair, ‘of all the Gentry to fall foul of, he’s maybe the worst. Except perhaps the Lady.’

‘Good to know. Who the hell is he?’

‘Calls himself Lankin. Not his name, of course – for if ye give your name to another, ye give them power over ye.’

‘The Rhymer knows my name…’

‘All of it, your whole, true name?’

‘No… no, not my real name.’ I’d almost forgotten I hadn’t been Malin Gregory all my life. But that’s another story.

‘Then no real harm. But take care.’

‘Why did they kill him? Was it just for fun?’

‘I said they were playful.’

‘You call that playful?’

‘I said it was like cats’

I wiped my hand across my face, only half-surprised to find it wet with tears. When I turned back to him, he’d gone.

 

I spent the rest of the night in the kitchen, curled up under a quilt on the sofa with Rosie, the shotgun close at hand. I don’t think I slept much, if at all. I felt exhausted. And I wasn’t looking forward to the morning; there was something I knew I had to do.

 

***

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I thought I knew where to go.

 

Beyond the forest, up on the hill, the track petered out below the lower cairn. I left the Land Rover and walked on up between the peat hags towards the false summit, where the three tall stones stood, angled together like wicked gossips frozen in the act of spreading a scandal.

 

It was pretty much as I’d expected.

 

MacLeod’s body sprawled between the stones, fingers clutching the heather as if he’d been trying to pull himself into their shelter. The dogs huddled beside him, vainly trying to keep him warm. Most of his blood had soaked away into the peat.

Skye lifted his muzzle as I approached, and whined; Jess nudged her master’s hand, trying to wake him. No chance of that, not now.

 

‘Come on, dogs. Let’s take him home.’ I hefted him across my shoulders; he didn’t weigh that much, really, and I made my way back to the Landy, my sad escort trailing behind.

 

***

 

I drove slowly down to Rubha, the blanket-wrapped body in the back of the car. The kirkyard lies a short way from the village heart, on the edge of the machair towards the sea, and the sandy ground made for easy digging. Maybe not six feet, but I didn’t think MacLeod would mind.

 

I’m not religious, I’ve done too much, seen too much, to believe in a benevolent deity, and when I filled in the grave, there were no prayers. I just made MacLeod a promise: to look after his dogs, and to exact revenge.

 

I hammered a piece of driftwood in to mark the spot. I wanted to be able to find it again, when I brought him his head back.

 

***

 

Turning for home, I wondered just how I was going to keep the second half of my promise. Exactly what would kill a Fae?

Iron seemed to be effective, at least in warding them off; lead bullets wouldn’t work which fact rendered half my armoury useless. Iron. Iron filings…iron filings made them burn…the thought made me smile.

 

Burning. Burning bright and hard, iron burning into perfect white skin….

 

‘Damn! Yes!’ I braked hard, and headed back to the village shop.

 

***

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six

 

 

There was a bit of argy-bargy between the dogs when I arrived back home, Rosie and Skye sighting each other up with raised hackles, Jess backing her partner, until they sorted out their relative pack positions. The collies weren’t indoor dogs, so I made room for them in a corner of the hay store, with old blankets and their food and water bowls.

‘And while you’re in here, you can chomp on the pixies!’

Cat hissed indignantly from the rafters, and dropped down into the hay-rack next door in a huff. Raven watched with interest over the stable door, eager to be out, so I took him to the field to let off some steam while I unloaded the car. I was worried that my ever-growing menagerie was my weak spot, so I spent time adding various safeguards; more iron nails, horseshoes, red ribbons and sprigs of elder. When the time came, I didn’t want to be distracted.

 

I leaned on the field gate, watching Raven and the dogs chasing each other around, full of high spirits. I wished fervently that I could be so carefree. Cat stalked along the roof, hopped onto the oil tank and dropped onto the wall, to perch beside me, tail twitching in annoyance at the barking.

‘I know,’ I said, ‘but what else could I do?’

He gave me a sidelong glance, green eyes slit-pupilled against the bright sunshine, and began to wash himself. I turned to lean on the gate, and raised my face to the sky, soaking in the warmth of the sun on my back.

 

I felt absolutely knackered; I think I half-dozed until Cat gave an almighty hiss, and I felt hands on my shoulders. I reacted without thinking, my hands came up and I grabbed the little finger of each of the hands that held me, wrenching them out and back, and was on the verge of breaking both when I caught sight of the webbing between the fingers. I twisted round, ducking and spinning to slam him into the gate, arms crossed painfully.

 

‘May I say, lady – that hurts!’ his voice was deep and slightly rough, and sent shivers all the way down my backbone. Behind him, I could see the dogs and my pony, standing, watching. They didn’t seem upset by my visitor; Rosie was even wagging her stump-tail, the traitorous madam.

‘Then you shouldn’t creep up on me, should you?’ I let him go, with the gate safely shut between us. ‘What do you want?’

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He rubbed his hands together, shook his fingers to see if they were still attached, and looked at me from under the shock of hair that fell across his face. The look was intense, and I felt my insides do a lazy roll and flip.

‘What else would I want?’ his mouth widened in an almost-smile, and he leaned towards me. I took a step back from the gate.

 

As before, he wasn’t dressed. This time, I didn’t let myself look. Honest, I didn’t.

 

This was ridiculous.

‘Stay there!’ I stomped off to the workshop to find a set of overalls. They might be a bit of a tight fit, (although I always get them big so I can wear lots of layers, and roll up the arms and legs) but it had to be better than… well.

I threw them at him over the gate. ‘Get some clothes on, for goodness sake!’

He caught them, laughing, and obediently climbed into them, although the process was made more difficult by Rosie trying to grab a sleeve and engage in a tugging match. I called her off, and she lay down, sulking.

The overalls were tight, in certain places. The zip would only go halfway up his chest, and the fabric strained as he tried to get his shoulders in. In the end, he gave up and tied the sleeves around his middle.

On the whole, the result did little to slow my pulse-rate.

 

‘Right. So what do you want?’ I was determined to keep the upper hand.

‘You called, I answered. That’s the way it has always been - a compact between land folk and sea’.

‘I did no such thing!’

‘You came to the beach, with the seals. Always alone. The seals noticed, told my people you were there. So I came for you…’

‘I was just watching the seals. I wasn’t looking for … company! I’m no fisher lass looking for a bit on the side!’ I snorted inelegantly, and added, ‘…and I’m far too old for any of that sort of nonsense anyway!’

He looked confused, and maybe a little affronted.

May as well use it to my advantage, I thought.

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‘So.’ Keep it brisk. No-nonsense. ‘Where do you fit into the Seelie-UnSeelie set-up?’ I thought I knew, but wanted to be sure.

His eyes widened in surprise at the abrupt switch of subject, white showing round the dark centres, but he regained his poise quickly.

‘The Seal People belong to the UnSeelie Court, naturally.’

‘So what do you know about the Gentry taking back their lands, and wiping out most of the humans?’

He frowned, turning to look out to sea, and then back to lean on the gate.

‘I know very little of their doings, especially those on the land. But still…there has been much that is strange in these days just past. The sea itself has altered.’

‘Altered? In what way?’

 

He thought for a moment.

‘When you are in the water, you are part of the sea… you hear things – far-off whalesong, the noises made by humankind, for sounds travel far beneath the surface. But now…’ he hesitated, gesturing in frustration as he sought for the words, ‘…those far-off noises are no more. We hear the dolphins and the whales nearby, the clicking of the prawns, but no ships, and no sea creatures beyond the last of the land… and the sea itself is wrong.’

‘How?’

‘Too slow, too calm… the waves are tamed, as if they cannot run free. They do not bring the news from afar, the tastes and smells of other lands.’

I followed his gaze out across the water. The outer islands sat in a flat calm, the small waves hissing gently on the beach below the headland. It had been like this since the night of the storm, since the time everything changed. Even the weather, after that first day of rain, had become calm. Bright, clear sunny days, cold frosty nights. Stable, static, unchanging. Unusual.

It was like being in a bubble.

 

Hold that thought, I told myself.

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