The Sea by the Castle
By Eve McLachlan
Chapter 1: in which a message is found, and an offer given
Where do you go, when you have nowhere to go? To the sea, of course. (I do, at least, and I like to think of myself as sensible.)
Margaret Connor was in the habit of going to the sea. Here are some of the reasons why: it was nearby; it was very beautiful, but partial to wind and rain, and so often she had it to herself, particularly late at night; she could say things while looking at it and not feel like a madwoman, because she was talking to something other than herself. Finally: it was a good place to think about things found in jars, particularly things found in jars by the same sea.
What she had found in a jar was a note. It read:
WOMAN WHO STANDS BY THE SEA BY THE CASTLE BE THERE DIDOMHNAICH THANK YOU STOP
in letters blotched with water. Minty, who shared her room and had pasted a star-chart to the ceiling over her bed, said it had come from a selkie.
“Because that’s Gaelic, and you found it by the sea,” she said.
Margaret said that she thought that was unlikely, but Minty had insisted on showing her an illustration that she had collected, faded yellow and squirreled away in a drawer, of three figures: a seal cresting a wave; a strange, grey shape that seemed half-human; and a woman, standing on a beach, naked except for the skin of a seal draped over one shoulder. Margaret looked at the last one for longer than was perhaps necessary.
She did not believe Minty, although she liked her; she thought, in fact, that the two were probably related. Minty studied classics and named the spiders in the corners of their room, and Margaret was her second roommate this year, after the first one had gone to the head of halls and complained about something.
Still, the next day in the library, she walked to a shelf she’d never been to before and pulled out a Gaelic dictionary, heavy and bound in sweet brown leather, and saw that Minty had been right, and that DIDOMHNAICH meant SUNDAY. Minty had once told her that she spoke sixteen different languages.
That was Friday. On Saturday night, she filled a flask of tea. wound a scarf around her neck, pulling it over her mouth, lit a lantern, and headed for Castle Sands.
Minty had a book, written by a woman who claimed to have communed with selkies in Glencoe for thirty-two years, and now it sat with Margaret’s third-hand books in her second-hand bag, alongside a biography of John Keats and Songs of Innocence and Experience. The author (E. S. T., and never anything else) said that a meeting-time, unless specified, was always at the dawn of the given day. Margaret had had a nice daydream, half-realised, that she would fall asleep waiting by the sea, lulled, perhaps, by the rhythm of the waves, and that she would be awoken (here was where the daydream went somewhat out of her hands) by a fall of damp hair over her face and a quiet voice like a song.
Instead, she sat up all night, paralysed with cold, cocooned in a wool dress and cardigan and coat, with her red robe over the top of it all, hands wrapped around the flask, trying to absorb the heat that filtered through it. She rationed her sips. The lantern, which she had put out when she sat down, stood like an empty jar at her feet.
Twice she heard the loud clamour of drunk men (boys?), curses at the cold and a brief clink of bottles before the group moved on. There was the sound and smell of an attempt at a bonfire; Margaret shrunk her back against the rock she was sitting against, terrified, somehow, of being found to be a woman who sat alone, looking at the sea. After a few minutes, the cold and damp won out and they left, laughing to each other. Margaret let out a quiet breath and glared at herself from inside her head. Idiot coward, she thought. Selkies — or whatever strange person existed in the absence of selkies — would probably not associate with idiot cowards.
Impossible things, she thought, as she edged towards a frozen half-sleep, were possible by the sea in the dark. The sea in the dark was itself very near to impossible: huge and loud but invisible, forever moving. Who really believes in the magnetic forces of the moon?
There had been something else in the jar, along with the note: a frond of bladder- wrack, some of its bubbles pierced, although in no clear pattern. She examined it with her fingers as she sat, trying to understand it, trying to keep her hands busy and warm.
It was approaching four o’clock when she saw the seal. It was only a dark shape beneath the water, but Margaret’s eyes, which had spent the night staring almost ceaselessly out at the waves, fell immediately to her lap. The force of her sudden hope, and hopeful belief, surprised her; she shrunk from it. Then she heard footsteps, soft on sleek sand, and decided that she couldn’t reasonably keep looking at her knees. Steeling herself for the impossible, she raised her head.
There was a woman walking towards her out of the sea. She did not hail Margaret, who, for her part, was unsure if she should raise a hand in welcome or run in the opposite direction; in fact, she did neither, waiting in an agony of disbeliefand indecision until the stranger was in front of her, standing still and as straight as any human soldier.
The rational part of Margaret’s mind would have insisted that she was human, despite the pelt of seal-fur that she wore as a cloak, and the sword at her side with a nacreous glow; but the eyes that regarded Margaret were the pure, liquid black of a seal. Even so, ridiculously, the thing that most struck her was that the selkie was wearing, over her skin, a red woollen robe to match hers — only different in that it was dark with water and fastened with a cockleshell.
The woman — which seemed the most sensible word — laid a hand over her own heart, but did not bow.
“I am Eimhir,” she said, “First General of The Sea by the Castle, and guard to her Ladyship, who is heir to all of the waters of Cill Rimhinn.”
“Oh.” That was not a good enough answer. “I am — Margaret Connor. Margaret Ruth Connor, I suppose.” There was a pause, as she grasped for more shreds of formality. Not for the first time, she wished that Minty was there, with her double-barrelled surname and father that knew the Duke of York. “Fourth Year student, reading English.” The silence stretched. “Literature,” she finished, rather feebly.
Eimhir’s eyes were unreadable. Margaret tried to stand up as straight as possible. “Very well,” said the former. “Walk with me, Margaret Connor.”
She set off towards the wide stone pool, and Margaret scrambled to obey.
“I will speak plainly.” Margaret gave a mumble of assent. “You should know, Margaret Connor, that my people plan to go to war with yours.”
Whatever Margaret had expected her to say, it hadn’t been that. She very nearly tripped over a rock, and hurried to right herself as Eimhir turned on her heel to face her, her eyes cold fire under a dark sea.“
War? But, I mean —” Margaret’s mind raced through all the reasons to protest, landing on, “we don’t even know you exist!”
Eimhir’s expression made her add, hurriedly, “Not in a — a bad way, just... well.”
“So, you say that it is a coincidence? Your repeated and violent invasion of our territory?”
“Every year,” said Eimhir, “without fail, three moons from now, great numbers of your people crowd into our — my — sea. They make battle-cries; they terrify our families and our livestock; they leave it filled with filth. Do you deny it?”
Margaret opened her mouth to do so, but realisation dawned on her before she could. “Oh! Oh,” it would be very, very unwise to laugh, she thought. “There has been a misunderstanding.”
Eimhir’s eyebrows nearly touched the silver hair, so Margaret wasted no time before explaining. “It’s a... tradition. Students at the university here,” she gestured at her robe, and Eimhir nodded, “run into the sea, on the first of May, for...”
“For good luck. On our examinations.” A seal in human form is looking at me as if I am mad, thought Margaret. I should have thrown that seaweed in the bin.“
So,” said Eimhir warily, “there is no malicious intent?”
“None,” she said; she wanted very much, she realised, for Eimhir to trust her. “I — I give you my word.”
Eimhir turned back to the beach in front of them, muttering something to herself in her language. “It is true,” she said, “that it is only recently, that these — revels — have become so destructive. We had assumed,” she addressed Margaret again, “that you were merely becoming bolder.”
“Maybe,” said Margaret, daring a smile, “but not out of malice.”
Eimhir made a thoughtful noise. “Malice or no, that does not change the result. And such an explanation will not be enough to cool the anger of the Prince.”
Oh, more fairy-tale royalty, thought Margaret, giving Eimhir a questioning look. “The commander of our soldiers is her Highness’ younger brother,” she explained, “he is himself... bold, and has decided that, this year, your people will be met with an ambush. And he is not one for mercy.”
The sword at Eimhir’s side suddenly seemed to be shining very brightly in the cold moonlight.
“No!” Blurted Margaret, and she repeated the word several times, unable to think of anything else to say. But then, after replaying the horrible words for the dozenth time in her mind, she paused. “An ambush,” she said, slowly, “that you are telling me about?”
Eimhir tilted her head, showing the smallest of smiles. Her teeth were sharp. “My Lady advocates for more peaceful tactics. I have been sent to negotiate a union between our two peoples, that we might not come to war.”
“Anything less than the strongest of bonds is unlikely to appease his Highness,” said Eimhir. “My Lady is happy to offer her hand in marriage, if it results in peace.”
“Ah.” And now I’m to play matchmaker for a fantastical princess, Margaret thought. Which is something Dr. Errol will probably not accept as an excuse. “Well, I know a few sons of fairly important people, not personally, I mean, but...” she trailed off at Eimhir’s look of confusion.
“You misunderstand,” she said. “The princess proposes to marry you.
”At first, Margaret was sure she had misheard. Then she opened her mouth; then she shut it again. “I — I cannot,” she said, almost automatically, at the same time remarkably, horribly aware of how much she wanted to be able to. It was a feeling very much like, she had time to think, when she had first seen the selkie coming out of the waves.
“You do not consent to the match?” Eimhir’s voice was surprised, but not offended. “I would have thought,” she looked Margaret up and down, one eyebrow raised, “that it would have been an... advantageous one.” Margaret, very aware that her hair was in rat-tails from a night of sea-spray and that her stockings had a ladder in them, blushed ferociously. “Very well. I shall tell her Highness —”
“No!” She yelped, surprising Eimhir and herself. “No,” she tried again, “I would be — honoured? — it’s just...” She trailed off, caught on how ridiculous it was to explain to a woman - who was also a seal - why two women could not get married. “I will have to think about it.”
Eimhir gave her another one of her appraising looks, but, at length, nodded. “Pru- dent,” she said, before turning her attention to the dawn, which, by now, had lit up almost all of the sky and sea in its colours. “Two days from now?
”Tuesday morning. “I — have class, I’m afraid,” said Margaret. “Ah — romantic poetry.” Pathetic idiot coward, she thought, as she said it.
She waited with worried certainty for Eimhir to say something such as, you would rather study than discuss the terms of marrying Her Highness?, mainly because she had no idea how she would answer, but Eimhir only nodded slowly, said, “A week, then,” and turned back to the sea before Margaret could agree.
She watched her go, hoping — although not admitting her hope to herself — to be able to see the moment of metamorphosis, the strange second figure. Instead, like a fairground trick, she could not have said when the tall, proud figure changed; her eyes watered from forcing herself not to blink, but suddenly there was only a seal, dappled grey, disappearing beneath the waves.
It was a long, cold walk back to her room. Her shoes had gotten so filled with sand that by Market Street she gave up on them, and swung them loosely by the straps as she walked, thinking. The pavement was pale in the half-light with February frost; it numbed her feet through her stockings. She kept her eyes on them as she walked. Did seals feel cold of the sea? Would she be cold, down in the depths where humans were not meant to go?
Her thoughts were half-interrupted by a shout, jeering, from what sounded (she very deliberately did not look up) a boy her age, or younger. She walked on, stiff with shame. And what do you expect, said the voice in her head that always managed to sound like herself and her mother at the same time, walking the streets at five in the morning, alone, looking like a drowned rat? She was not by the sea anymore. Things, she reminded herself, were impossible again.
“I shall marry the Selkie Princess,” she said out loud to the silent streets. “I shall, I shall, I shall!” Her voice shook just a little, with something between rage and grief, and with a sudden resolve that, by the time she had crawled into her bed, avoiding waking the gently snoring Minty, had drained almost entirely away. Sleep came immediately and heavily, and, for the first time in months, she had no strange dreams.