Set in 19th century Ireland, this is the story of a wounded seal-shifter and the fisherman who rescues her.
There are tales the mothers tell as they gather each year on the moulting grounds. Stories, good and bad, of the experiences they'd lived through, the men they'd met or mated with here on the dry side. How many times had I listened, spellbound, as they spoke of them--our clever-handed cousins, so frighteningly brutal, so treacherously kind.
The dwelling was close enough that I could see a light shining in a downstairs window. And I could both see and smell the smoke that curled from the chimney. Even with the crashing surf and the din of the gulls, I was close enough to hear a door slam shut, then the crunch of footsteps on loose stones as someone approached. And, once again, I panicked.
I'll admit to having fantasized, from time to time, about having taken one of the landwalkers as a lover. Who among us hasn't? But I'd always intended that it stay a fantasy. I'd never actually thought to meet one in the flesh--nor, if I were honest, had I ever wanted to.
Now, however, it seemed I would have no choice.
It was still within my power to decide as to which guise to take, however, which face to show him. With no time to consider all the ramifications, I reached for the magic within.
The wrenching power caught me by surprise. I may have cried out as I felt my limbs elongate, as my skull contracted, and my cracked ribs shifted and creaked. The pain--there are no words to describe it. I can only assume it was due, at least in part, to my injured state. Because otherwise, surely, one of the mothers would at least have hinted at it. It was so intense I barely noticed as my hide split open and sloughed away leaving me naked. Wet. Cold.
The winter wind seemed twice as bitter as before. I was trembling as I gathered up my precious pelt. Fumbling. Clumsy in my haste. So anxious to...to what? What did I imagine I could do at this stage?
It was too late to hide, too late to hope he hadn't seen. The man was already there, no more than an arm's length away, a wooden oar clutched like a club in one clenched fist. His eyes were grey and hard like chips of flint; they narrowed as his gaze locked with mine. His expression gave nothing away, but his face was as stony as the ground around us. I found no comfort there.
What have I done?
My heart fluttered in fear. I struggled to my feet, glancing quickly from side to side. As though there were anywhere to run. As though I were not too weak to even attempt it. I was too weak even to keep safe the shed skin I held clutched so tightly to my chest. It was part of me, part of my magic. I would need it if I were ever to change back. Yet I was helpless to protect it, helpless to stop him from tearing it from my grasp, if he chose to do so. Would he?
Oh, why would he not?
The enormity of my mistake crashed over me then. My breath deserted me. The beach spun around me as I started to fall. With a startled cry the man threw down the oar and sprang into action, reaching for me as my knees gave way and the ground rose to meet me. Whether or not he caught me in time, I couldn't tell you. My consciousness fled and for a very long time, I knew nothing more.