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‘How far out do you go? I mean, not just you, but any of your folks...’

‘To the farthest islands, where your kind do not come except to send down their machinery into the sea bed.’

 

St Kilda, Rockall, perhaps the Faeroes. The far edges of our islands …Sule Skerry; I almost smiled... Ultima Thule.

 

Hy Brasil.

 

Tír na nÓg.

 

The half-formed idea in the back of my head took a vague shape, like a ship seen through fog. Or perhaps it was an iceberg.

 

‘Has anyone been right out there, recently?’

‘No…maybe. Maybe the whales, or…’ he stopped, looking at me intently, ‘Why? What do you think we might find?’

‘That’s what I’d like to know. I want to know what’s out there…’

He scratched the tip of his long, slightly Roman, sometime-broken nose thoughtfully. ‘It would take me days to get so far. And I do not think we have days to waste. But perhaps…’ something occurred to him, and he made a decision.

‘Wait here.’

He turned away, and headed towards the cliff path, vaulting easily over the dry-stone wall and shedding the overalls as he went.

 

Damned if I was going to just stand around and wait. There were still things to do. I went back inside to check the address of the nearest blacksmith. I wondered if I could get hold of a mobile forge capable of melting iron.

 

***

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It was the middle of the afternoon when I heard the dogs barking. I left the workbench, and went out with the shotgun to investigate.

 

He was wearing the overalls again, and stood, leaning on the field gate, with a serious look on his face. The unreality of the situation made me blink, then I shrugged it off – weird was becoming normal.

‘Well, we shall know before nightfall’ he announced, running a hand through shaggy hair. It took me a moment to think what he was talking about; of course – what lay beyond the islands.

‘That’s fast! How’d you manage that?’

‘I asked one who can find out.’ As if it was the easiest thing in the world. ‘Though it will cost me dear, soon enough.’ Maybe not so easy, seeing the shadow that crossed his face as he said it.

The dogs were milling around him, looking for attention. Jess licked his hand. Probably after the salt on his skin, I thought off-handedly, and caught myself drifting down an unwanted track.

 

If the dogs thought he was OK… they’d been reasonably reliable so far…

 

‘Are you going to stand there all day?’

‘I would come further, lady, but you have to invite me in.’

Oh.

‘But it’s only the yard – it didn’t stop Lankin and his troop dropping in!’

‘Aye, but if you noticed, their horses can fly…’

Oh yes. I’d noticed that.

‘And I cannot. It makes a difference.’

Well, then.

‘Will you come into the yard?’

 

***

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His presence seemed to fill the place, and suddenly, I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to a half-naked drop-dead-gorgeous guy who also happens to be a seal in his spare time, who may or may not be on your side although he’s being helpful, and your dogs seem to like him?

 

This was not a situation I was trained to deal with, so I left him to wander around looking at things in the garden and went back into the workshop, where I was experimenting with some of the stuff I’d got from the village store. Something sticky, something that burns, iron filings, for starters. What was the ideal combination? Petroleum jelly on cotton wool was a good basis for fire – it burns for ages - so I was hoping that would do the job. If I could make the whole thing explode, so much the better.

 

Look, I never pretended I was nice.

 

I looked out of the door once, to see what my guest was up to and was amused to see him sprawled flat out on the garden bench under the kitchen windows. South-facing, the yard is a sun trap, and all three dogs were flopped on the flagstones beside him. What was rather surprising was that Cat had joined them, a round fur cushion curled up in the middle of the selkie’s flat stomach. Wonders never cease. I shook my head and went back to work.

 

When I found my head falling forward onto the bench, and I was in danger of setting my hair on fire, I knew it was time to give up for the moment.

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I walked slap-bang into him as I went out into the yard, half-blinded and blinking in the sunlight. He was propping up the doorway, watching what I’d been doing; he caught me as we both staggered, and the temptation to just lean into him and let myself go was almost overwhelming.

He set me back on my feet, and stepped back.

‘You need sleep, lady. I would guess that you have not rested properly.’

‘Well, there’s observant.’ I can’t help it, I get snarky when I’m tired.

‘Aye. I’ve been watching.’

‘What, watching me?’

‘After our meeting, I thought it wise. The Rhymer is a sly one, if powerful, and I feared he would not give you best advice.’

‘So you’ve been spying on me? What right do you think you have to do that?’

‘I believed you had called me. I do not take that lightly.’

I could feel my mouth opening and shutting like a goldfish. Indignation warred with something else, something I wasn’t sure of yet.

‘I’m…sorry. I didn’t mean to drag you into this.’

His hands still held my shoulders. Held me up, if I tell truth.

‘Whatever. No matter. Too late to back out now.’ He grinned wryly. I wished I could be as relaxed about it, and said so.

‘Us and them. It has been a long time coming. Now or next year, it is all the same. Although I think you may tip the balance.’

‘Huh?’ I admit it, I was not at my brightest.

‘There has been unspoken war between the Seelie Court and the rest of us for years. They feel we are less than they, fit only for servitude and to provide amusement.’

I knew all too well which way that led.

‘This new amusement of theirs… the re-taking of the old domains – makes me think they are ready to start the open hostilities once more.’ His eyes narrowed, and his fingers tightened on my arms.

‘Ouch.’ I said.

‘My apologies.’ his grip softened, and he tilted his head slightly.

‘If it’s going to get ugly, why are you staying around here?’

‘Lady, you may not need a lover, but I think that you most certainly need a friend.’

Which somehow told me a lot that I needed to know.

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‘I think we need to trade some information,’ I said, extracting myself from his grasp and heading into the house.

He paused on the doorstep, and looked at me.

‘You need to be invited?’

‘Yes. In the first instance. ’

‘OK... Come on in.’

He stepped very carefully over the nails, and kept well clear of the uprights. His skin broke out in goose-bumps as he passed the threshold.

‘The iron affects you too?’

‘Yes. If you had not invited me in, I could not be here.’

‘Reassuring. Right then. Urisk, you here?’

There was no answer.

‘There is an urisk here?’

‘Yeah. I only just found out, though. He’s been explaining stuff I don’t understand… which covers just about everything.’

The selkie sighed. ‘He…may not want to speak to me. Those on the UnSeelie side do not tend to band together.’

‘I don’t want to sound like I want to teach you to suck eggs, but that sounds like it could be part of your problem. If you all got together instead of arguing, maybe you could force some agreement out of the Seelie Court?’

‘Why should I want to suck eggs?’

‘Ack! Just ... forget it. Do you get what I’m saying?’

‘I do. It makes sense, but sense is not always in abundance.’

 

There was no sign of the urisk. I knew the damn fellow was around, but he wasn’t showing up. Guess he wasn’t able to be helpful if asked directly. I leaned against the sink in the kitchen, feeling drained. Appropriate, huh?

 

One cup of strong coffee later, I felt a little more alert. He turned down the offer, preferring water.

The sun was getting lower, shadows lengthening, and I went to fetch Raven in from the field. The selkie joined me, and seemed to be listening for something as we stood by the gate.

Suddenly the breath hissed through his teeth, and he caught my arm.

‘Now, lady. Take him in quickly, and get into the house. Keep the dogs inside.’

‘What’s up?’

‘One comes with news.’

‘Then I should come with you and hear for myself!’

He shook his head violently. ‘That might be the last thing you did. And you would not understand what is said. Quickly now – inside!’

He took off over the wall again, heading for the beach.

I was damned if I was going to be sent in like a child; I quickly led Raven to the stable, and headed up to the top of the tower.

 

More than one way to find out what was going on.

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I slid the door open quietly, and stepped out onto the balcony, to look down to the beach below. The sun was just touching the rim of the world away to the south west, twilight shadows hastening from the landward side, and a shimmer of cold gold lying across the water. Calm, almost oily water, with something stirring under the surface.

The selkie - or rather, a large bull seal which I assumed was him - was on the beach, at the precise point where the land met the sea. There was no sign of the usual seals. I crouched down behind the railings, sat on the deck and then lay down to look right over the edge.

Something was definitely moving down there, something huge. It rose out of the water, towering half as high as the cliff, great coils sliding over each other as it squeezed between the rocks, long narrow head bending to loom over the seal on the shoreline. Something like a dragon, something like a snake, something like an eel, with vast fan-like fins just behind the head, tendrilled and festooned with ragged filaments, waving like water weed, green and brown and ochre and yet slightly nacreous, a long fin like giant kelp running down the spine, seawater running in sheets down fine scaled sides, the creature opened long, jaws to reveal teeth like crystal daggers and hissed like a steam engine.

:blank100::blank100:serpent-1.jpg

I couldn’t hear what the selkie said, or understand the reply. My fingers gripped the edge of the deck, white-knuckled. I understood now why he had wanted me out of the way. My mind was numb, mouth dry, pulse hammering in my ears.

The strange communication seemed to be over, and the serpent creature slid back a short distance into the sea. The head lifted, and it looked straight at me, with the oldest, coldest eyes I have ever seen, oily black and tarnished gold. There was a sense of amusement, and malevolence in those eyes; they seemed to see right down inside my head and to be unimpressed by what they saw there. Then it was gone, sliding away back under the surface, a couple of coils looping briefly before the entire beast vanished.

 

I rolled onto my back and lay there trying to breath.

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Eventually, I went downstairs. The selkie, human-shaped again, was lounging on the sofa, scratching Rosie behind the ears. She was drooling happily on his overalls. He looked at me with a hint of amusement as I stood in the doorway. I sat at the table and didn’t say anything, waiting.

 

‘The Serpent told me that there is a barrier, out in the ocean. It slows the movement of the sea, and curbs the tides,’ he eventually said, in a quiet voice. ‘It follows an inward curve to the seabed, and arcs away to north and south.’

I tried to imagine it, to shape it with my hands.

‘Like a bubble.’

‘Yes.’

‘And we’re inside the bubble.’

‘Yes. There is a spell of forgetting, and of distraction on it.’

‘Which means what?’

‘Should anyone come close, from inside or outside, they would not remember what they found. Or what they were looking for.’

 

I thought about that some more. We were in a bubble, isolated from the rest of the world.

 

Why? Why cut us off? Unless…

 

‘What exactly are the old lands that the Gentry ruled, that they wanted back?’

‘The boundaries? The Gentry held dominion over the lands of Albion, and of Ierne.’

‘Albion, I know. Ierne? Eye-earn…’ I tried the word out. If Albion is mainland Britain, Ierne should logically be Ireland…I’d need to check that out later. Go with the flow for now…

 

‘So it could be that all they have “taken back” is the British Isles…’

 

…stuck us in a bubble…isolated us from the rest of the world…which wouldn’t remember us if they came looking… taken us back to the other side.

 

If they’d flipped us out of the world, they could damn well put us back into it.

 

For now, though, I had other concerns. I had a Fae-lord to kill, and a selkie on my sofa.

Or rather, not on my sofa, but standing next to me. Very close to me.

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‘Lady, you need to rest.’

‘I’m okay; I just need a short while to pull myself together.’

He squatted down, caught hold of my chin, and turned me to face him.

‘Sleep is what you need. And soon. Else you will be easy prey for the hounds of the Gentry.’

I said something unrepeatable.

Twice.

‘Put horse and hounds to bed, lady,’ he said, imperturbable, 'and get some rest for yourself.’

‘Damn you. I’ve got too much to do. And it’s only teatime!’

‘Done today with errors, and again tomorrow, or once in the morn, done right?’

I was hearing echoes of days and people long gone. The conflict between a driving need to keep going regardless, to prove myself, and the need to stay sharp and accurate – well, it always was a fine balance point with me. I’d generally managed, by luck, or fluke, but maybe now I should listen for once.

‘Put horse and hounds to bed,’ I agreed, and went to do just that.

 

***

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I was operating on automatic, stumbling thorough the motions, but managed to get Raven and the collies properly sorted before Rosie and I headed back into the kitchen. She immediately awarded the selkie her best drooling kiss; he laughed and I apologised, and the dog was banished to the mat in front of the stove. He sprawled back on the sofa.

 

‘Look…this may sound daft but – what am I supposed to call you? Do you have a name?’

Oh, good grief, how unutterably gauche, Malin, are you out of your mind?

‘Names have power, lady. And anyway, you could not pronounce mine, in the Seal Folk tongue… you choose - what would you call me?’

Talk about put on the spot…

‘I don’t know! I was just asking… does your name mean anything translatable? I can’t just keep on calling you “selkie”, dammit!’

‘Why are you so angry?’

‘I’m not angry… I’m…’ Angry. At myself. For what I was feeling. For the feeling of being off-balance and out of control.

‘If you like, you can call me Hal.’

‘Hal? What does that mean?’

‘It’s not selkie-tongue. It’s from the scientific name you humans gave to the seals.’

Okay. That shut me up and whacked me over the head with any preconceptions I had.

‘You are angry!’ It seemed to amuse him immensely, and a wry smile crept over his face. ‘And what should I call you? It seems fair that some form of name should be exchanged.’

‘Malin. Just call me Malin.’ Now I knew the rules, there seemed no harm in it.

‘Malin.’ That deep, surf-on-shingle voice. My name had never made me shiver before. I slammed the kettle down on the hob.

‘Whatever. I need coffee.’

‘You need sleep, not more coffee.’

‘Who are you, my mother?’

He sighed and stood up. Walked over to me and picked up the kettle. Put it back on the draining board. Turned back and kissed the hell out of me.

 

After a while, he picked me up and carried me upstairs.

 

It crossed my mind that it was as well I’d gone for a pine bed frame rather than the cast iron one I’d originally chosen…

 

***

 

Some time later, there was a pause in proceedings.

‘Huh?’ I said, intelligently.

‘You still have to invite me in…’

Well, then…

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seven

 

 

All things considered, I had a good night’s sleep. When it came, it was deep and apparently dreamless. As for the rest of the night – well, that’s nobody’s business but mine, and Hal’s. I can say that certain aspects of it lived up to the good parts of my earlier dreams; the rest was even better.

I woke at first light, with a heavy arm wrapped around me and warm breath stirring my hair. I extricated myself carefully and headed for the bathroom; when I returned, he was sprawled on his back and taking up at least two thirds of the bed. I sat on the edge, and as I debated what to wear I felt a finger trace its way slowly down my spine, to be replaced by a warm mouth that retraced the route to the back of my neck, nuzzled under my ear with a prickling of stubble. I was dragged back under the duvet, by arms as strong and relentless as the undertow. I gave in, and let myself drown.

 

Surfacing some time later in a bit of a haze, my head on his shoulder, I focussed on the network of scars on his body.

‘How did you get these? It looks like you’ve been scratched or bitten by something!’

‘Have you ever watched seals fighting?’

I thought back to last autumn. The bull seals scrapping on the beach, barging into each other with brute force, tearing at each other’s throat and chest with teeth and claws.

‘Yes…’

‘That’s how.’

That brought up a number of disturbing thoughts that I didn’t want to pursue…

 

***

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Breakfast was relatively simple. I had my normal cereal, toast and coffee, and Hal went fishing; I had to introduce him to the notion of toothbrushes afterwards. He did, however, bring us a nice salmon for later. I found him an old baggy t-shirt and sweat pants to wear, which highly amused him.

‘Why bother? No need to be shy now, is there?’

‘I can do without the distraction,' I growled, ‘and now I need to get back to the workshop, so find something to do!’

Something turned out to be sleeping in the sun. Seals do that very well, so I wasn’t surprised and – fair enough – he maybe had some sleep to catch up. It lasted until the dogs found him and wanted to play; I left them to it.

 

The forge idea was a non-starter; most blacksmiths – I read – using iron bars and heating them to make them malleable, but not melting completely. Scratch that idea, then. I went indoors and dug out my archery gear from the hall cupboard. Better luck there –the arrows had iron heads in various shapes depending upon what target they were designed to hit. I took them back to the workshop to check out the fletching.

 

At lunchtime, I made tuna sandwiches, and we took them upstairs. Actually, we started to take them upstairs, but when we got halfway up the curving stairs to the lamp room, Hal stopped, grasped the handrail and I thought for a moment that he was about to fall back down.

‘Iron. So much iron, all around – it’s like a cage! Malin – I cannot go up there – I’m sorry…’

‘’S alright, I didn’t think – it’s me who should be sorry. Are you okay?’

He went down to the study, and leaned against the wooden banister, catching his breath. He nodded.

It hadn’t occurred to me. The whole of the upper deck was riddled with iron – the window frames, the galvanised railing running round the balcony, and under the centre of the wooden floor was the curving base of the old lamp, hidden under the wooden decking.

So much iron, in our world.

‘We’ll be going nowhere in the Land Rover then, will we?’ I grinned ruefully, and we went down to eat our lunch in the yard.

‘And I have a good excuse for not cleaning out the fire box of the stove…’ he sighed theatrically. It needed doing, and I had suggested after breakfast that he might help.

‘You can still carry an aluminium ash bucket, sunshine.’

Cat wound himself around our ankles, purring like a power-drill, and friendly as only tuna seemed to make him.

For a short time, the world seemed an almost normal place.

 

***

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I still needed to know more about my enemy. Lankin was my enemy, of that I was certain; if I had stepped outside the other night, I was sure my head would have joined Cam’s in decorating his saddlebow. Hal knew very little that was helpful. I needed advice, someone who was able to tell me more. I thought about it, went up to the study and poured myself a whisky, making sure it spilled into the saucer I’d carefully placed under the glass. Then I sat back with a book, and waited.

 

‘Ye don’t want to trust that creature!’ he sounded agitated, ‘and don’t go following him into the sea now, will you?’

‘No, that’s not in my plan, my friend.’

He slurped at the whisky thoughtfully. ‘Your friend, am I?’

‘I can but hope so. The problem I have is, I don’t know what’s really going on, and – well, I think I need to find out, quickly.’

A long hairy eyebrow rose quizzically.

‘It does’nae take a genius to work that out. I think I may have said as much meself. So what IS in your plan… friend?’

‘I need to know how I can kill that bastard Lankin, for one thing.’

There was a singular sound, a combination of sharply indrawn breath and sucking of whisky through teeth, followed by a coughing fit.

‘Did I not tell ye he was pretty much the worst of the whole pack of them? Were ye not listening to me? Has yon flipper-foot screwed your brains as well as...’

‘That’s quite enough of that!’ I interrupted quickly, ‘and no, it’s nothing to do with him. I swore it when I buried MacLeod.’

‘A vow is it?’ there was a deep sigh. ‘Well, that puts a different light on things. A powerful thing is an oath of revenge. And much as I’d like to help ye, I’m not the one that can tell ye what ye need to know.’

I pinched the bridge of my nose, frustrated. I shouldn’t ask him outright, and I didn’t want to offend him if I could help it.

‘So this is where you are!’

Hal leaned against the door frame, arms folded. He scowled when he saw the urisk.

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‘Hodge. I might have known it was you.’

‘And who else would it be, fish-breath?’ the urisk’s scowl matched the selkie’s in annoyance. ‘I’ve been around this place since you were a mewling pup, too small to swim. Or bring grief and destruction to those around ye.’

‘I gather you know each other,’ I tried to sound casual, ‘so I don’t need to make introductions. Hal, if you’re going to come in, come in, don’t just lurk in the doorway.’

He sat on the bottom step with a growl, and we all sat in silence for several minutes. I half-expected the urisk to vanish, but he remained on the library stool, finishing his whisky.

 

‘There is one who could tell ye, of course.’

‘There is?’

‘Tell her what?’ White rings round the dark eyes, tension in the sudden set of the shoulders.

‘About the Gentry.’ I shushed him, willing the urisk to continue.

‘There is considerable risk.’

‘There’s certain death in doing nothing. Would it hurt to tell me?’

The urisk glanced sidelong at Hal, then back at me. He continued in a subdued voice, no joking, nor arguments.

‘To know the way to the heart of the Court, to know the weakness of the one ye seek, ye need one of the old ones, the ones who have no fear of the Gentry or their powers. One who was here before they came to the land, one who shaped the land itself.’

There was definite alarm on Hal’s face, but he held his tongue.

‘And aye – much as I hate to admit it, ye may need the help of yon murderous sea-beastie. For ye need to find the Cailleach, and right now, she’ll be doing her washing.’

 

With that, he vanished.

 

***

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‘Okay, let’s get this out of the way first. Why does he hate you so much?’

He stood up and went to the window, looking out to sea. Keeping his eyes on the calming blueness, he sighed.

‘It goes back a long way. Hodge used to live over on the island out there,’ a nod of the head, ‘in a house with a family. If a urisk settles with a family, they become like his own to him. Over the years they married, brought children in to the world, and some moved away. Gradually, there were fewer and fewer of the family left on the island, until the last generation was just a crofter and his wife.’

 

I’d been over there, a few years back, with MacLeod when he went to check the sheep that grazed there in the summer months. The island hadn’t been inhabited for in living memory, and only the scattered ruins of a few buildings remained.

:blank100::blank100:kaths2006019-1.jpg

He went on, expressionless. It was like something out of a folktale.

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‘They were well into middle years when they had a son – unplanned, unexpected, but they loved him all the more for it, and maybe they spoiled him more than a little. Anything he wanted that they could give him, they did.

When he was nineteen, he went out on a midsummer night and on the ocean shore he saw the selkies dancing.

Selkie girls are very beautiful. The lad couldn’t take his eyes off them, and in trying to get closer, he gave himself away. Instead of running into the sea, they laughed and asked him to join them. One of the selkie-women drew him into the dance, and that was that. He was in love, or something like it; he wanted her for his own. Through the summer, he went down to the sea each evening to meet with her, and I think maybe she loved him a little, in her own way.’

 

A small smile curved the corner of his mouth, and he shook his head ruefully.

 

‘But of course, she was a selkie, and he knew she wouldn’t stay unless he found her sealskin and hid it from her. So he planned and watched, and finally he saw her leave it in a hollow of the machair; before he went to meet her he crept round and took it from its hiding place and hid it again amongst the rafters of the tool shed.

When the time came for her to go back to her folk, she could not find her sealskin, and although she pleaded and begged him to return it, all he would do was laugh and say she would have to stay with him now. And so she did, for she could not go home, and the selkies had moved on to their autumn grounds.’

 

‘That wasn’t fair!’

 

‘But that is the way it was… anyway, she came to stay with the family, and she and the lad were as man and wife, and his parents were happy because he was happy . But she could not go home, and it ate at her, little by little, day by day, year by year. And one morning, when she was gathering driftwood, she came upon her brother, returned from a long journey and hauled out on the rocks, and she told him the whole sorry tale.’

 

Something in the tone of his voice gave it away.

‘Her brother…that’s you, isn’t it?’

No reply, but I knew I was right.

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