The Sea by the Castle
By Eve McLachlan
Chapter Two: In Which Decisions Are, Eventually, Made
Margaret woke late, feeling disordered and distracted. The last night’s frost had melted into a damp grey; even the wind, which in the freezing dark had buffeted her like a Gothic heroine, only seemed to muster the courage to half-heartedly nibble at her hair and ankles as she walked to class.
She (as I mentioned in my previous Chapter) had not had any dreams; it was easy, therefore, to slot the events of the night before into that space in her mind. The figure of the selkie captain, with her moonlight hair and velvet cloak, fitted all too easily into fantasy.
This was comforting; dreams could be listed next to the sea, as places where women could do very scandalous things. Margaret deliberately did not look at the jar with the inexplicable note and seaweed where it sat on her desk, or at the path leading down to Castle Sands, as she passed it; and she very deliberately ignored the flock of seagulls that had been following her from a distance since North Street.
She came back to find a telegram waiting for her. Her parents were visiting, apparently, for lunch on the next day; Margaret read the message and immediately threw her coat back on and went out again, her steps forceful enough to send a particularly bold feathered attendant squawking.
Streets and trees and acquaintances passed by, unseen by her, as she thought of something to tell her parents when they asked about graduation, and her plans that lay beyond it, foggy and ill-defined. How they would laugh if she told them that she wanted to live by the sea! Never mind beneath it, whispered a swiftly quashed thought. Still, her steps led her there. She let herself look out over the grey expanse, breathing just faster than the waves, thinking unhappy thoughts.
These were interrupted by a thump on the back. Margaret turned to see Minty, her mass of dark hair impressively disordered by the wind, grinning at her.
“I noticed you looking exquisitely melancholy.” Margaret muttered a response.
“Forbidden on pain of death from entering the Undersea Realms?”
“My parents are visiting.”
“Oh, good Lord.”
Margaret thought for a moment, and then, quite suddenly, asked, “What’s James about, these days?”
“My parents will be expecting a full report, I’m sure.”
Minty, who sat three seats away from James Rupert Ellis in Greek Epic’s Beasts and Monsters (Fridays, ten o’clock), shrugged. “He thought Charybdis was a dog.”
“Not terribly helpful, Minty.”
“Well, what do they want?” Minty stopped to pick up a marbled stone, turned it over in her hands, and dropped it over the wall and into the sea. “Apparently Lizzie Knott went with him to the ball last week.”
“And apparently she tried to kiss him in the castle at midnight. Tried being the operative word.” Margaret made an ambiguous noise. “And he asked me if I thought you would want to go and see who-were-they-called playing at the pub. With him.”
“Oh God —”
“I said that you don’t like folk music.”
Margaret threw an arm around her shoul- ders. “My hero,” she said, and Minty laughed and shoved her off.
“Unless you actually put your foot down, you’ll be married within the year, you know.”
There was a confidence in her voice that annoyed Margaret; a breeziness that seemed to blow straight past the mire of her thoughts.
“Then who do you see me as, Minty?”
“An excellent question!” Minty’s smile turned sly. “The consort of a selkie Princess, perhaps?”
A blush, scalding hot, seemed to paralyse Margaret’s whole body. “How did...you don’t...”
“I can guess,” said Minty. “Although it isn’t my business, and doubtless I’ll be spirited away in the dead of night for trying to.”
“Leave it, please,” said Margaret. She looked down at her feet, trying to move them in the way of a woman who did not talk to, and certainly did not think about marrying, women who were seals. Minty didn’t argue, and they walked most of the way back to their room in silence.
“I do wish you wouldn’t be quite so silly, Minty.”
“The seagulls are looking at you.”
“No they are not.”
The seagulls were looking at her.
Margaret picked at her lunch and very much hoped her parents hadn’t noticed. One of them (a seagull, not a parent) was perched on the windowsill of the cafe, knocking its beak against the glass in semi-regular intervals. Almost in time, her mother’s questions came from the other side of the table.
“His mother thinks he’s going to do his masters in Durham,” she said, punctuating her interest with a boiled potato on a fork.
“Oh.” There were now two seagulls.
“Durham’s lovely,” said her mother, patiently.
“Yes,” she said. Durham was not too far from the sea, although she wouldn’t be able to walk there.
The fork and the potato were lowered, slowly. Her mother looked at Margaret with an air of seriousness that made her throat dry up. “He plans on proposing, you know.”
Margaret choked around a sip of water. Her mother frowned.
“We’ve barely spoken for four years!” Since you stopped being able to lock us in the same room, she didn’t say.
“Well, you spoke plenty before that.”
The seagull was knocking harder on the glass. A corner of Margaret’s mind worried about it breaking. Her mother was still talking from across the table, but the knocking seemed, somehow, much louder than the words.
“You know how much it would mean to us,” her father nodded silently, “for you to be settled, when you graduate.” She did know. “And he’s such a lovely boy. And he’s been so hoping.”
Her hand came to rest on Margaret’s; she had to resist an impulse to shrink away.
James Ellis would propose to her, and she would say yes, because — because she would. That was it. He knew it. Her parents knew it. Everyone had known it, oddly enough, except her.
She resolved, over the week, to never think about selkies, anything fantastic, or indeed anything below the surface of water. Perhaps ever again. The jar with the seaweed was put away in her lowest drawer; she returned the Gaelic dictionary. But she tossed and turned every night, and dreamt of a woman with pearls in her hair.
Sunday, before dawn, found Margaret lying stock-still on her bed, no more comfortable than she had been on the windswept beach. Her resolution felt at the same time certain and yet fragile; the line between this choice and that as sudden and easy-difficult to cross as that between her warm blankets and cold floorboards. She thought of Gothic heroines again, and what they said when in their chamber and some unknown force was lurking behind the door: “Only an inch between me and utter, utter ruin.”
Her window was slammed shut by a sudden gust of wind. All at once, she was struck by an image, shockingly vivid, of how the waves must look in this weather: wild and awful, thrashed to pieces by the rain. Staying inside was thunderously sensible. She pictured herself lying next to James Ellis for a hundred, a thousand nights of rain.
And then she was up, out of bed, pulling her robe over her nightgown and shoving her feet into her unlaced boots. They stayed unlaced all the way to Castle Sands, and by the time she stopped under the shadow of the cliff her bare feet were soaked through, and her breath short.
The first mists of dawn were over, a stain of blue spreading up from the horizon, and, for a moment, she thought Eimhir was already gone. Disappointment choked her, and her knees almost buckled; but then she saw the shape of a grey seal among the dashed iron of the waves. She picked up her run again, tripping over the loose sand.
“Wait! Wait for me!” There was the sound of tears in her voice.
The seal turned its head, and Margaret caught a glimpse of those liquid eyes in their other face. It ducked for a moment beneath the waves, and, when the waters at the shore were breached again, it was by Eimhir’s long strides.
She did not come quite out of the water; it broke around her calves, and Margaret was left to finish her stumbling run, although she stopped with several feet of distance between them, abashed.
Eimhir studied her. Margaret tried hard to calm her breathing; her face felt very red next to the eerie composure of the selkie. “You are unsure,” she said, finally.
Margaret opened her mouth to say “no,” but it would have been a lie. “I am not unsure of what I want,” she said, slowly, “only of whether to do what I want.”
“You have duties?”
Margaret thought of James Ellis’ kind, boring face. “Of a sort,” she said.
“But you want to marry her Highness.”
“Yes,” she said, before she could stop herself from saying it. Something seemed to break open inside of her; sweet, if a little painful.
“Then come with me,” said Eimhir. Margaret at first expected her to turn back into the waves, and stiffened, preparing herself for the shock of icy cold; but she strode forward instead, limbs strangely soundless as they moved through the water, and then past Margaret, back to to the overhang of the cliffs.
Margaret hastened to follow. Eimhir waited until she was at her heel, and then slipped into a gap in the shadows. It was a crevice that Margaret had investigated before — she had taken shelter there, on one of her nighttime haunts, from a sudden shower — but she had never known it to be anything more than a cranny in the clifface. Indeed, when they stepped inside they were left facing a wall of stone; but Eimhir, without looking at her, unclasped the cockleshell brooch from her red robe. Margaret, thinking of secret locks and trap-doors, expected Eimhir to press it into a hidden indent, or something similar; instead, she simply held it up to a shaft of dawn half-light that fell through some aperture. She waited for a moment, until an invisible signal seemed to have been given, and she pushed the stone wall inward: a door that made no noise on its invisible hinges.
Since this was only the last in a long listof impossible things that had happened since the previous Friday, Margaret decided not to remark on it. Mutely, she followed Eimhir down the narrow flight of steps that the door had revealed, feeling more like a Gothic heroine than ever. Her steps were loud in the damp silence of the passageway.
“May I ask you a question?” She asked, wincing at her voice; it echoed back at her, high-pitched and tremulous.
“This passage was carved by the sea, in the hands of our people. It is hidden from yours, although you are not forbidden.”
“No, not about that,” said Margaret, blushing. Eimhir was excellent at making her feel a perfect fool. “I meant — about your robe. It’s the same as ours,” she finished, holding up the hem of hers, feeling rather like a schoolgirl holding up a painting for her mother’s inspection.
Eimhir glanced from the path to Margaret’s timid face, and then to her robe. “It is,” she said, touching the refastened cockleshell.
“We call them rosan a’chladaich.” As she spoke, Margaret’s fingers, which she had been running along the rough walls of the tunnel, found carvings: intricate whorls and swooping lines. “We find them, although rarely, on our beaches; and so we give them to our finest warriors.”
It seemed unwise to mention that what they gave to their finest warriors had likely been lost on a drunken night out.
“You don’t mind,” asked Margaret instead, “that they come from our — from my people?”
“Your people’s robes,” said Eimhir, “and the cockle’s shell.”
There seemed to be a smile in her voice. Margaret could think of no good an- swer, and so they carried on.
Neither of them spoke again until they reached another portal: this time an archway, the room beyond lit with a limpid glow. “This is the antechamber of the Talla’ard, the palace we use in our upright form,” said Eimhir as they ducked underneath it. Margaret could only nod, not trusting her voice.
The walls of this room were pale marble, contrasting with the stone of the passageway; they were lined with many similar arches, although none leading to other tunnels. Instead, underground streams led into a myriad of interconnecting pools that Eimhir had to guide her carefully between. The smell of the sea still came from them, and they were tiled with patterns of shells and precious-looking stones. Light from delicate lamps played on the water, filling the room with pale, wavering shadows.
A splash came from the pool next to them; no more, perhaps, than a loose pebble shifting in the water, but enough to snap Eimhir’s head to the side, with Margaret’s following. She was just quick enough to catch a swift-moving shape disappearing back through a river-tunnel.
Eimhir tutted. “News spreads fast.”
“Was that — did you know them?”
“Not by sight,” said Eimhir, now frowning at every archway they passed. “Some underling of the prince, I think, sent to tell him of your arrival.”
Margaret’s heart thumped horribly; she was sure Eimhir could hear it. “I am...expected?”
“Of course.” Eimhir now turned her frown back at her. “You are to meet the King and Queen. They are waiting for you.”
Her last words were almost drowned out by the panicked throbbing in Margaret’s ears.
“Naturally.” The chamber ended in an ornately carved door, its latches built into the decoration, and Eimhir paused to flick them open. “Time is short, after all.”
Margaret swallowed, and nodded.