A Skerry Story
by Pam

ALL HALLOW'S EVE

 

"But the night is Hallowe'en, lady,
The morn is Hallowday:
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may."

Horatio Hornblower winced as the singer's voice rose to a particularly discordant squawk behind him and quickened his pace. Five minutes' walk to the nearest beach, the innkeeper had said, when he and Archie had asked after they arrived earlier that day. Ordinarily, he'd have waited until the next morning and gone exploring with his friend but the din in the barroom had driven him out into the night in a desperate attempt to preserve his sanity--to say nothing of his eardrums.

All Hallows' Eve. Horatio shook his head, exasperated. That such superstitions should still exist--and resurface every thirty-first of October to beguile grown men who should know better! And yet . . . the day had begun pleasantly enough with their arrival in Falmouth, for nearly a week's leave. Captain Pellew's own family lived here and, eager to see them again, he had been more than generous in granting his officers a furlough. Originally, Archie had hoped to take Horatio to Truro, to meet his sister Margaret, who'd married a Cornishman, but the receipt of her latest letter had put paid to that scheme.

"She's visiting my other sister, in London," Archie had reported regretfully. "Pity. You'd have liked her, Horatio--she's eminently sensible . . . unlike me."

"I like you well enough, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio had replied, knowing his friend hadn't been fishing for compliments but paying him one anyway. "So--what shall we do, instead?"

What they had done on coming ashore was locate comfortable but inexpensive accommodations, arriving just in time to secure the last two rooms at the Grey Gull, located in the heart of town. In other circumstances, they'd have doubled up, but on viewing, both chambers had appeared smaller even than their shared cabin on the Indefatigable. Archie had privately sworn to Horatio that he was convinced they had originally been one room, divided in two for the purpose of charging more money. At least the difference in price had turned out to be negligible--and for once, they both had full pockets and might as well enjoy the privacy.

It had been a few hours later, while they were finishing up an excellent repast, that Horatio had finally remembered what day it was--thanks to a burly, bearded patron who had seated himself before the fireplace and, with much encouragement from his drinking companions, begun a story of ghosts and goblins. Although inclined to shake his head over such foolishness, a comfortably replete Horatio hadn't minded too much. And it had been pleasant to observe Archie listening with bright-eyed interest to that tall tale and the equally lurid yarns that succeeded it.

And then . . . the singing started. Stories about ghosts, ghouls, and demon lovers were exasperating enough to one of Hornblower's rational bent, but wailing ballads concerning the same subject matter were insupportable! Tone-deaf since childhood, Horatio barely tolerated *Archie's* singing, and his friend could at least sing in tune, unlike most of the Gull's patrons. With a murmured excuse to Archie, who was still showing every sign of enjoyment, Horatio made for the solitude and relative silence of the street.

Even from some distance away, however, the caterwauling was still audible.

"The night it is gude Hallowe'en,
The fairy folk do ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide."

Horatio snorted. Fairy folk indeed! In the unlikely event that the Little People were abroad that night, the cacophony emanating from the Gull would surely drive them all back to their hiding places! He broke into a trot, still mindful of the sometimes-treacherous cobbled streets. But the moon, almost at the full, gilded the path before him and he made his way out of the town without mishap.

Soon enough, soft sand crunched beneath his shoes and a brisk sea breeze ruffled his hair. No sound at all but the muted roar of the surf. Peace. Breathing in the crisp salt air, Hornblower thrust his hands into his breeches' pockets and strolled down the beach at his leisure, a man in his element, fully comfortable at last.

He had gone no more than twenty feet when he nearly fell over what looked like a straggling heap of kelp. But kelp didn't move, didn't open wide startled eyes, nor hug itself with slim, pale arms, all goose-fleshed with the cold.

"Ma'am! Miss!" Alarmed, Horatio dropped to his knees beside the cowering figure. "What's wrong? Are you hurt? Can I help you?"

No answer but those huge eyes staring up at him. Lips nearly blue with exposure parted but no sound emerged.

Shock, Horatio thought. He began to talk to her gently, in soothing murmurs, hardly knowing what he said, all the while removing his jacket. She flinched away when he first tried to put it around her--he drew back, held the jacket up for her to see before making a second attempt. This time, she remained still as he wrapped it around her shoulders, as tenderly as if he were swaddling a new lamb.

"Miss, can you walk?"

Again no answer. Horatio silently cursed himself for a fool--very likely she couldn't and he ought to have realized it. "Will you let me carry you?" he asked in his softest tone. "You cannot stay out here in the cold . . . " Arms outstretched, he approached her tentatively, the way he would some shy forest creature.

She eyed him warily but, as he drew nearer, seemed to realize that he meant her no harm. Unresisting, she let him place one arm about her shoulders, slip another beneath her knees, and lift her bodily from the sand.

She weighed scarcely more than a child, Horatio thought. And like a child, she laid her head trustingly upon his shoulder, her wet, salt-smelling hair brushing his cheek. Clasping her close, he turned and hurried back the way he had come, towards the glowing windows of Falmouth.

Light though she was, he found himself breathless, his arms aching, when he finally reached the Gull again. To his dismay, the singing--if it could be called that--was still going on, and the girl burrowed against him as though terrified, for which he could not blame her.

Inside, a lusty baritone bawled on:

"Her head hit the roof-tree o' the house,
Her middle ye weel mot span;
He's thrown to her his gay mantle,
Says, 'Lady, hap your lingcan.'

Her teeth were a' like teather stakes,
Her nose like club or mell;
An I ken naething she 'pear'd to be
But the fiend that wons in hell--"

Setting his other shoulder to the door, Hornblower shoved against it with all his strength. The heat and noise crashed over him like a tidal wave as he stumbled inside, nearly dropping his precious burden. "Archie!" he cried, trying to make himself heard above the din.

In an instant, it seemed, his friend was there, blue eyes wide with concern. "Horatio, what's happened?"

"I found her on the beach!" Horatio indicated the girl in his arms. "I can't tell if she's hurt but she won't speak, and I think she's in shock!"

She certainly looked it, Archie thought, noticing how the girl had turned her face into the shelter of his friend's shoulder, how her slight frame was racked by long, bone-deep tremors. If nothing else, she must be half-perishing with the cold.

Several patrons had turned around in their seats and were eying them curiously. Glancing over his shoulder, Archie saw the stocky figure of the innkeeper bearing down on them. "Take her upstairs, Horatio! I'll deal with this!"

******

Too concerned to care about the proprieties for once, Horatio peeled off the girl's clothes--he'd thought her naked at first, except for her long, loose hair, but the thin chemise she was wearing was so soaked she might as well have been wearing nothing--and rubbed her dry with a towel. His nightshirt was too big for her, but it was dry and he was able to get it on her without too much difficulty. As with the jacket, she flinched away until she understood what he meant to do, and then she offered no resistance. Nor did she protest when he set her down on the bed and began to heap the blankets upon her; instead, she lay quietly back upon the pillows, still watching him with those unfathomable eyes.

Archie arrived as he was stoking the fire. "Well?" Horatio asked, looking up from his crouching position by the hearth.

His friend grinned wryly. "Tedn't right, tedn't fitty, tedn't *proper*," he said in a fair imitation of their Cornish innkeeper. "I believe good Mr. Penhallow was worried about the proprieties of you taking your guest upstairs. I pointed out that the young lady had clearly met with some mishap on the beach and no Christian soul would turn her away in such circumstances. Also that there's no other room available tonight and you are both an officer and a gentleman. A few shillings did the rest--hot broth is coming, Horatio, and some more blankets." He dropped into the nearest chair, stretched out his legs with a sigh. "Sometimes there are advantages to being the son of a lord!"

Horatio stood up with a grateful smile. "Thank you, Archie."

Kennedy glanced over at the bed, where the girl lay in her nest of blankets. "Has she spoken at all?"

"Not one word. She seems calmer, though."

"Are you sure that she even understands English, Horatio?"

"I hadn't thought of that," Hornblower confessed. He looked over at the bed in his turn. "I don't see how she could be anything but British--but I suppose, just on the off chance, we could try French or Spanish."

"Or Gaelic."

"Irish, do you think?"

"Possibly. Or maybe Breton."

"Whichever it is, it can wait until morning," Horatio said firmly. "Clearly, she's been through some terrible ordeal--and she's in no shape to answer our questions tonight."

"No. I suppose, tomorrow, we could ask around, see if her people are looking for her. I could make a sketch--"

A rap on the door heralded the arrival of the broth and blankets. Archie dealt with the inn servant, thanking him for his pains, deftly thwarting his attempts to peer into the room, and sending him away with another coin.

Horatio tucked the blankets over one arm, then reached for the tray. A basin of oyster broth, gently steaming; bread; a pitcher of water--he carried them over to the small bedside table. "I'll see if I can get her to eat something--and then I'll sit up with her. She might wake in the night and be frightened. But you should rest, Archie," he added, with a pointed glance over his shoulder. "I can handle things from here."

"So it would seem." His friend eyed him thoughtfully. "I suggest you keep one of those blankets for yourself, though--it's going to be a cold night. And . . . take care, Horatio. On your own account as well as hers."

"Of course," Horatio agreed absently, his mind already on his duty.

Frowning slightly, but unsure why, Archie let himself out of the room, leaving Horatio alone with his charge.

 

******

ALL SAINTS' DAY

 

"Mademoiselle," Horatio cleared his throat self-consciously. "Comment vous appelez-vous?"

No response.

"¿Cual es su nombre?" his friend offered from the other side of the bed, where he sat sketching.

That too yielded no reply, and neither did Kennedy's halting attempt to repeat the question in Gaelic.

Archie sighed. "It's no good, Horatio. Either she does not understand, or, as you say, she's too . . . troubled to speak." He glanced again at the subject of their discussion who looked, at least to his eyes, curiously untroubled. No longer shivering or cowering, the girl lay tranquilly in the bed, her long hair fanned out upon the pillow. Last night it had been the color of wet sand--today it had dried to a paler, almost silvery hue. The huge eyes--so dark a brown as to appear almost black--gazed up at the ceiling with eerie calm. "Or," he hesitated before voicing this possibility, "maybe she cannot speak at all."

Horatio glanced at him speculatively. "Mute?"

"Possibly. From birth--or from shock." Archie frowned as he added more details to his sketch. "I suppose--she might recover the power of speech, once she grows to trust us."

"I hope so." Horatio leaned back in his own chair with a sigh. "At least she trusted me enough last night to let me feed her."

"Ah--I'd meant to ask how that had gone."

"Fairly well. She drank the water--and the soup, after it cooled. In fact, she seemed to prefer it that way. She wouldn't touch the bread, though." Horatio stretched his long legs. "Still, it's liquids that matter most when one hasn't eaten in some time. As we both know," he added with a sidelong glance at his friend.

Archie smiled wryly, remembering a prison infirmary in Spain and a ceaseless stream of liquids--water, broth, spirits--that had been spooned or poured down his own throat. And there was something about Horatio now that recalled that time: the same intensity, the same dogged determination that had dragged Archie back to life was being turned upon the girl. Along with another quality Archie couldn't quite put a name to.

Names . . . another thought struck him. "Horatio--what should we call our young friend? We can't just go on addressing her as 'miss' or 'you.'"

Horatio considered the matter. "Well, what would you suggest, Archie? She doesn't exactly look like a 'Jane' or a 'Mary.'"

"'Jane' or 'Mary'?" Archie rolled his eyes. "Really, Horatio! What a lamentable lack of imagination!"

"I suppose you'd prefer 'Beatrice' or 'Gertrude'?" Horatio retorted, stung.

"Not 'Gertrude,'" Archie corrected absently. "'Nerissa.' That's what we should call her."

"*Nerissa*?"

"From 'The Merchant of Venice'--it means 'sea sprite.' You must admit it's appropriate, Horatio." Archie studied the girl, his head tilted to one side. "She's a dainty little thing."

"You think so?" Horatio inquired sharply, feeling a sudden, unpleasant twinge of something he did not care to examine more closely.

"Hmm? Yes--'uncanny,' perhaps, might be closer to the mark." Archie grimaced at his sketch. "Damn. Can't seem to get the line of the jaw right." Brow furrowing, he rubbed out his previous effort, began anew. . .

"Archie." There was a pained note in Horatio's voice. "Do you mind?"

"What?"

"You were humming."

"Ah--forgive me. Can't think why I was doing that." Archie reflected on the tune with which he'd been inadvertently tormenting his friend. "I believe it was a lullaby . . . "

"Well, it's clearly unnecessary." Horatio nodded towards the girl. "She's already fallen asleep."

And so she had--as quietly as she did everything else. Uncanny, indeed. Chewing on his lower lip, Archie finished the sketch in thoughtful silence, then held it up for Horatio's inspection. "Will it do, d'you think?"

Horatio glanced from the drawing to the subject. "It seems a fair likeness."

"I'll start showing it round Falmouth, then. With any luck, somebody will recognize this--and come to claim her." Archie got to his feet, careful not to wake the slumbering girl. "I should be back by evening, at the very latest. Sooner, I hope."

"Good luck, Archie," Horatio said, almost automatically. He was leaning forward in his chair again, chin resting on his folded hands, dark eyes once more intent on his charge. He did not even look up as Archie left the room.

******

Hours passed, but Horatio could not have said how many. Time hardly seemed to exist at all in his little room but eventually, a pale autumn sun gilded the window and he heard footsteps outside his door, accompanied by the clatter of dishes.

More food. Bread, cheese, and cold meat for him, more broth for her. Water and ale to drink. Horatio consumed his meal almost without tasting it, wondering if he should wake . . . Nerissa, persuade her to eat some more. Remembering that she had seemed to prefer the soup when it was almost tepid, he decided to let her sleep instead.

Finished, he set his empty plate and cup aside, wandered over to the hearth where he had spread out her chemise to dry the night before. The thin cloth--palest grey in color--felt like nothing he had ever touched before: lighter than muslin, finer than linen. And a curious, rippling pattern in the weave, rather like watered silk. Yet the surface of the cloth was almost velvety beneath his fingertips. Only a few times in his life had he touched velvet--a girl's hair ribbon, the trimming on one of his mother's gowns--but this was softer, lusher than either. Fascinated, he ran his palm along the seductive smoothness again and again, marveling at the sensation as he stroked . . .

Of a sudden, he felt himself being watched, turned swiftly towards the bed, and saw the great dark eyes were open--open and staring at him with the faintest trace of wariness.

"Your clothing is dry, miss," he said gently, laying the chemise back down across the hearth. "You can put it on again once you are feeling better."

A considering silence--then the tension in her slight frame eased. Sitting up, she looked directly into his eyes . . . and smiled.

The air grew as heavy as water and he forgot to breathe until the sharp pain in his chest reminded him to do so. Somewhat dizzily, he rose from where he had been kneeling, found himself moving to her side, almost without conscious volition.

"Miss . . . " His voice sounded far away even to his own ears. "N-Nerissa. I hope you don't mind--if we call you that. May I--may I . . . help you with something?" Dazedly, he noticed the silvery tangle falling over her shoulders. "W-would you like me to--to comb your hair?"

He did not remember fetching the comb. But soon he was drawing it slowly, almost languorously, through her long, pale tresses, dreamily watching the play of light through the fine, rippling strands. There was a sound in the room, he discovered vaguely as he combed--a low, thrumming sound that made his very bones vibrate, but not unpleasantly.

Nerissa was . . . singing, he realized. Or rather, crooning, making a low, wordless sound deep in her throat. Odd, he thought, when he was so often driven to distraction by other people's humming, even Archie's--but this song, this sound filled him with the strangest sense of complete well-being. How odd--and how wonderful . . .

*****

A weary, footsore Archie returned shortly after sundown, dropping onto the one vacant chair with a groan. "Nothing!" he reported, grimacing. "Not a single person recognized her." He glanced morosely at the sketch he had made. "I can't be that bad an artist!"

"No, of course not." Horatio sounded oddly distant as he leaned over the bed, drawing the topmost blanket over the sleeping girl's shoulders .

Archie cast his friend a worried glance. He'd seen Hornblower distracted before--as well as preoccupied and fiercely single-minded, but he seemed different tonight. . . remote, somehow, almost as if nothing in the world concerned him much at all. "I think I've done as much as I can on foot. Perhaps, tomorrow, I can hire a horse and go further afield."

That got Horatio's attention. "Are you sure you want to go to that trouble, Archie? Not to mention the expense--"

"It won't be so much for just one day. And how else am I to get results?"

"I was thinking . . . we could put an advertisement in the local newspaper."

"An excellent idea. If my search turns up nothing tomorrow, that's what we'll do."

"Ye-es," Hornblower said slowly. "I suppose so."

"Horatio--don't you *want* to find Nerissa's family?"

"Of course." The reply came almost too quickly. "Why wouldn't you think that?"

Archie sighed, rubbing his temples. "No reason. Don't mind me, Horatio--I'm just . . . blue-deviled, that's all."

"You look weary." A trace of warmth crept back into his friend's voice, something Archie hadn't consciously missed until he heard it again. "Have you supped?"

"Not yet. I thought I'd offer to sit with Nerissa, while you went down first. It must have been difficult for you--being cooped up all day."

"It was no difficulty, Archie. She--spent most of the time asleep. And I have eaten; the innkeeper sent up a tray about an hour ago. You, on the other hand," Horatio's voice took on a distinctly "senior-officer" inflection, "look about ready to fall over. Go and have your supper, Mr. Kennedy--that's an order."

Archie sighed again. There was no point in arguing with Horatio when he was like this. "Aye-aye, Mr. Hornblower, sir." He thought of saluting as he limped to the door but contented himself with an offhand wave instead.

It was absurd to worry, Kennedy supposed, as he made his way downstairs. Horatio was sensible and clever--much more so than Archie himself--and it was only natural that he should concern himself so thoroughly with those in his care. He wouldn't be Horatio if he didn't. All the same, Archie hoped his friend would not be too distressed once Nerissa's people did come for her.

Odd how he'd taken to her so quickly. Archie had not missed that little flicker of possessiveness--almost jealousy--he had seen in his friend's dark eyes when he offered to sit with Nerissa. Ordinarily, Horatio was shy to the point of awkwardness around young ladies, even those who blatantly set out to beguile him. Of course, Nerissa wasn't quite like other young ladies, not the respectable daughters of admirals they sometimes encountered at naval functions, nor even the girls they met ashore on liberty days. She drew the eye, though, with that liquid dark gaze, silvery hair, and lithe form.

Not mine, though. Archie wondered why this was so. He was not in the least immune to feminine charms--a deep bosom, a trim ankle, a pair of eloquent eyes could set him dreaming for days--but with Nerissa . . . nothing, or near enough. It was almost as though something deep inside and long asleep had roused to warn him: she is not for you.

Then--was she for Horatio? And had his rational, level-headed friend lost his heart or, worse, his wits, to this uncanny girl from the sea?

Archie shook his head at himself. He was growing fanciful, probably the result of fatigue and hunger; no doubt the matter would wear a different face once he had eaten and slept. Still, he thought, as he entered the barroom, he would be vastly relieved if his search tomorrow prospered and Nerissa was restored to her family.

******

Darkly velvet night succeeded dusky evening. Drowsing in his chair, Horatio listened to Nerissa's untroubled breathing and the sounds of the Gull as it too settled down for the night. Once he heard a familiar tread in the passage, then the door to the neighboring room opened and closed--Archie had also gone to bed.

Good. Sleep, my friend--long and well. I'll keep watch over our--MY--charge.

In and out. The rhythm of her breathing. In and out. Regular as the tides. Peace--peace and tranquility. Horatio's heavy eyelids drooped, his head falling forward onto his chest . . .

He woke with a start as something soft, warm, and heavy settled onto his lap, as fingers began to caress his face.

"W-what . . .who . . . " Horatio stuttered, struggling back to full consciousness and receiving all the answers he required as dark eyes gazed meltingly into his.

"N--Nerissa." Horatio sought to disentangle himself from her warm, clinging embrace. "You--you shouldn't be here," he told her, frantically casting about for a way to get free without injuring her. "Come--let me help you get back into--" His breath escaped him in a gasp as slim fingers undid his shirt buttons, reached inside to tease sensitive nipples. "This--this is most improper," he managed to get out. "Miss--you can't know what it is you're doing--"

Speech and rational thought were again cut off as she slid one hand down the waistband of his breeches, found more soft, responsive flesh to stroke and fondle.

"Oh God--" Horatio groaned and writhed, feeling himself rouse beneath her touch. A small part of his mind shrieked a warning, reminded him of duty, honor, propriety--but the rising tide of sensation drowned it out. And Nerissa's other hand was stroking the curls at his nape, drawing his head closer to hers.

His last conscious thought, as her mouth descended upon his, was that she tasted of the sea . . .

*****

ALL SOULS' DAY

 

"Horatio?" Archie rapped lightly on his friend's door the following morning. "I'm sorry, I overslept. I meant to get an earlier start today, but I'm setting out now. Horatio?"

There was no answer. Frowning, Archie tried the door, found it locked. "Horatio," he began, then stopped, shaking his head at himself. Doubtless he was letting his imagination run away with him. He had the room next door--surely, he'd have heard if something were wrong. Horatio was probably just sleeping late, as he himself had.

"Horatio," he called again, through the lock. "I'm off to hire a horse--to do what we discussed last night. I'll see you on my return."

Again no reply. Archie smothered a sigh, donned his hat, and made for the stairs, not without a last glance over his shoulder at the unresponsive door. Sleep well--or whatever it is you're up to, my friend.

******

Moist, nibbling kisses at the base of his throat roused him from the deepest slumber he had known in years. He moaned pleasurably as those kisses worked their way down from his throat to his breastbone, came fully awake as a warm tongue lapped delicately at a nipple.

"Ahhh . . . " His breath escaped him in a long sigh. Nerissa's dark eyes gazed up at him through a tangle of silvery hair. Languorously, as though moving through water, he lifted a hand to brush back those gleaming strands, then cup one smooth cheek. "You are--so beautiful . . . "

She smiled at that, reached out in her turn to stroke his curls, then, with an undulating motion, she wriggled atop him, her hips pinning his own to the mattress as she rubbed against him. He moaned again as his body awakened--and responded--to her demands.

"Oh, God, you'll be the death of me!" Frantic with need, he rolled over so that she was beneath him again, kissing and caressing her hungrily. Burying his face in her neck, he could hear her humming once more, the sound seeming to fill his entire being. Desire surged, crested, broke like a wave around them--he drove forward and forward, thinking of nothing else but the warm woman's body that embraced and encompassed him . . .

*****

It was hours later when he awoke again--he could tell without even opening his eyes that the light was much dimmer. Late afternoon, perhaps? Or early evening . . .

Smiling drowsily, he turned over in the bed, reaching . . . and started awake with a gasp when he felt nothing but a depression where another body had lain.

Empty. The bed was empty. Gazing wildly about, he saw his nightshirt lying in a crumpled heap on the floor--and Nerissa's chemise, which had been spread across the hearth, was gone.

As was Nerissa herself.

*****

Lungs nearly bursting, Horatio pelted through the streets of Falmouth. Miss had left the Gull not twenty minutes before, Penhallow had said with a curious glance at the younger man's dishevelled appearance. No, he hadn't asked her destination, nor paid her much heed, but he'd thought he'd seen her headed towards the beach.

At any other time, Hornblower would have subjected the innkeeper to a scathing diatribe about the stupidity of letting a mute girl clad only in her shift wander off in a strange town. Now, however, his only thought was to find her . . . before something terrible befell her.

Cobblestone gave way to sand--he stumbled and slithered as the fine grains crunched beneath his shoes but just managed to retain his footing. Sand and more sand and beyond that a tumbling, seething expanse of chill grey water whose roar filled his ears. Above him, the red-tinged sky was darkening, the light fading . . . but, straining his eyes, he thought he could see a sleek dark head some distance out, just visible among the surging waves.

"Nerissa. . . " It emerged as a gasping wheeze. Painfully drawing air into his lungs, Horatio raised his voice in a shout. "Neriiiiiissaaaa!"

His call was borne away on the wind, thinned to insignificance by the booming thunder of the sea. And, giving no sign of having heard, the head suddenly bobbed beneath a wave and did not resurface.

"NOOOOOOOOOOO!" With a harsh cry of denial, Hornblower raced into the billowing, churning surf . . .

 

******

ALL SOULS' NIGHT

 

"Christ . . . " Archie breathed, staring in horror at the roiling sea, at the curly dark head and wet white shirt he could just glimpse through the gloom, wading doggedly through the water. "Horatio! HORATIO!"

But his friend either did not or could not hear . . . and the water already reached to above his waist. Dear God, had he run mad? "Half-saved," the innkeeper had said when he described Horatio's appearance on leaving the inn.

Tearing off his jacket and kicking off his shoes, Archie dashed into the water after his friend. The cold took his breath away and the force of the waves nearly knocked him off his feet. He wallowed upright, gasping. Cornish sea . . . in November . . . at night--how could Hornblower not feel the chill?

"Horatio!" Archie shouted again, the salt spray bitter on his lips as he floundered towards that distant figure. "Horatio!"

No response. His friend continued on, the water now surging around his chest.

Desperately, Archie flung himself forward and swam, arms and legs working furiously. Childhood summers swimming in the Solway Firth stood him in good stead now. Despite the current, he surged determinedly forward, diving under waves that would have borne him back to the shore. Surfacing at last, he shook the wet hair from his eyes, saw Horatio just a few feet away, the water now swirling about his shoulders.

"Horatio!" Archie lunged towards his friend, drew a sobbing breath of relief as he touched solid flesh and bone beneath wet linen. "This is madness! We must turn back! Horatio--"

Further words died on his lips as Hornblower's head swung slowly towards him . . . and the brown eyes stared at him blankly, with no trace of recognition. In another instant, Horatio turned away from him and resumed his dogged progress through the water, shrugging off Archie's hands as though they were of no more consequence than flecks of sea foam.

"No!" Archie made one last effort, seized his friend's shoulders once more, and pulled him over backwards with all his might. They fell together, the water closing over their heads. Thrashing around in the freezing, choking darkness, Archie feared for a moment that the undertow would take them both. But then the immediate danger was past and they broke the surface again, Horatio spluttering and coughing from his unexpected ducking.

Archie spat out a mouthful of seawater and tried once more to reach his friend. "Horatio!" The face that turned towards him was bewildered and confused but not, thank God, as blank and indifferent as it had been. "We must get to shore! D'you understand, Mr. Hornblower? We'll drown if we stay out here!" We're heading back to land if I have to knock you down again and drag you by the hair!

Dazed brown eyes, under lashes beaded with brine, gazed into his. No sign of understanding but no resistance either. Throwing an arm around Horatio, Archie began to tow him back towards the beach. The waves helped this time--Kennedy let their buffeting push them along to their destination, careful not to let his head or Hornblower's drop below the surface again. It seemed an eternity but at last he felt soft muck just at his knees. Gasping, he put his feet down and stumbled out of the shallows, pushing Horatio before him. Staggering forward, the taller man fell to the sand, just above the waterline. Archie seized his friend under the arms and dragged him a few more feet up the beach for safety's sake before collapsing beside him with a groan.

For several minutes, the sound of their harsh, exhausted breathing rivaled the thunder of the waves. Then Archie hauled himself upright again, sought his discarded jacket and shoes which, fortunately, he managed to locate, just a short distance away. Shoving his wet feet into the latter, he picked up the former and squelched back to his friend's side.

"Come, Horatio." His own teeth chattering, he tucked the jacket around the shivering Hornblower's shoulders, coaxed him to his feet. "We must get back to town."

Horatio swayed where he stood but contrived to remain vertical. Archie gazed worriedly into his face, pale as milk, the brown eyes staring glassily. Christ, what kind of *lunacy* could have prompted him to do this? Uneasily, Kennedy glanced up at the night sky, where the full moon glowed with a bright, silvery smugness.

"Oh, you're no help at all," he told it crossly and urged his friend forward once more.

********

Under normal circumstances, the distance between the beach and the Gull could be traveled in five minutes. But it was fully fifteen or twenty before two drenched, shivering young men staggered through the inn door that night.

"M-met with an accident," the shorter, blond one explained with a shaky, slightly apologetic smile to the astonished Penhallow. "G-got a wetting. H-Horatio's worse off. He needs--needs-- " he sneezed, swore, then tried to continue, "b-blankets, hot broth--"

"I'll fetch enough for two," Penhallow cut in. "Ye both look half-saved!"

Archie nodded gratefully, ushered Horatio up the stairs before him. MY room, he decided, shepherding his friend along the corridor.

Once inside, he half-dragged, half-carried Hornblower to the bed, then darted next door to Horatio's room to scavenge the extra blankets. A remote corner of his mind noted the marked disorder of the bedclothes but this was no time to dwell on that. Gathering up the blankets, along with Horatio's nightshirt, which lay on the floor, he hurried back to his own room.

Shoes, stockings, breeches, shirt, even smallclothes were tugged off and tossed aside to make a wet heap on the floor. Archie rubbed his friend vigorously with a towel, trying to restore warmth to his chilled flesh, before pulling the nightshirt over his head and heaping blankets on top of him. There was, no doubt, a certain grim irony in this--that he should be giving Horatio now the same attentions Horatio had given someone else a mere two nights ago. If the missing Nerissa were to walk through that door right this second, Archie strongly suspected he would wring her neck for leaving his friend in such a state!

However, it wasn't Nerissa who entered the room but Penhallow with the promised blankets and broth. An inn servant filed in behind him, bearing a steaming bowl that gave off a distinctly spiritous odor.

"Hot buttered rum," Penhallow informed him proudly. "Me mother used to swear by it!"

Better than swearing at it, Archie supposed. Thanking the innkeeper for his pains, he tucked the blankets around Horatio, persuaded him to swallow some of the broth. The rum could wait a little--he did not think his friend's other problems would be helped by intoxication.

"Eh, he's in a state." Still lingering by the door, Penhallow eyed Horatio, hunched and shivering in his nest of blankets, with mingled sympathy and curiosity.

"Indeed he is." Archie straightened up from the bed with a sigh. "But I'm hopeful that hot food and a good night's sleep will bring him round. Now--how much do I owe you, sir?"

"Settle your reckoning when you leave," the innkeeper said gruffly. "There's no call for haste."

Falmouth might be freezing but at least Cornish hearts were warm. "Thank you," Archie said with real gratitude. He shivered suddenly in his still-sodden clothes and sneezed. "Damn."

"Best get off those wet things yourself, lad," Penhallow advised, taking his leave. "Before you catch your death."

Archie thanked him once more and did not even take umbrage at being called "lad." Especially since he was about to sneeze again--several times, as it happened; he cursed like a rating between spasms, then fished a handkerchief from his pocket that, unfortunately, turned out to be as wet as everything else he was wearing.

Regarding the sopping linen ruefully, Archie concluded that Penhallow was right. Contracting an inflammation of the lung would help neither Horatio nor himself. Locating his nightshirt and robe among his own gear, he donned both hastily. Dry, if not yet warm, he spread his discarded clothes before the hearth as he had Horatio's, poked up the fire, then ladled hot rum into two cups. The first swallow, rich with butter and spices, caught at his throat but sent a rush of warmth through him. It was tempting to gulp down the entire cup after that, but Archie restrained himself--he needed to keep his head for various reasons, one of which was lying in the bed, staring unseeingly off into space.

"Horatio?" Archie padded across the room, knelt to fold Hornblower's icy hands around the cup. "Here--this will warm you."

Brown eyes gazed through Archie as if he wasn't even there. Alarm bordering on fury seized him; he reached out, caught hold of his friend's chin. "You're going to *drink*!" Oh, God, where had he heard THAT before? "You're going to have more of this broth, and you're going to come back to us! I don't know where you've gone, Horatio, but you're not staying there, d'you understand? Your duty is here!"

Duty. Archie thought he saw the smallest flicker of acknowledgement in his friend's eyes at that familiar word. At any rate, Horatio consented to drink when Archie brought the rim of the cup to his lips. He choked a little over the rum but swallowed it nonetheless--once, twice, again . . . Archie set the cup aside, reached for the basin. About half a dozen more spoonfuls of broth went in--then, suddenly, Horatio's eyelids were drooping and he sagged back against the pillows, drifted into a light doze.

Archie put the basin on the table and stood up, almost lightheaded with relief. Oh, his fears would not be wholly eased until Horatio woke and was himself again--but at least he'd taken some nourishment, had seemed to understand some part of what Archie was saying. Sighing, Kennedy pulled a chair up to the bedside and sat down, nursing his own cup of toddy.

Hours crawled by and Horatio sank deeper into slumber. But he still shivered, Archie noted with concern. Despite the fire, the blankets, the hot drink, his friend still shivered--as though the cold of the sea had penetrated to his very bones.

Nor was he the only one. Archie stifled a groan as he stretched his own limbs, chilled and stiff from his swim and his vigil in a chair. I ache in muscles I never knew I had.

A thought occurred to him and he glanced speculatively at his friend. Two are warmer than one, he reasoned at last. And if Horatio were to walk in his sleep, I would know--and be there to stop him. Rising from the chair, he drew back a fold of blanket, climbed into the bed beside his shipmate. It was a close fit but not uncomfortable. Horatio stirred slightly, murmured uneasily in his sleep; Archie patted him lightly on the shoulder and murmured back reassuringly. It seemed to work--his friend subsided once more against the pillows. Archie eased one pillow out from the pile for his own use, flung a companionable arm over Horatio, and, astonishingly, slept.

*****

NOVEMBER 3

 

 

Warm. He could not remember the last time he had been so warm. Or so comfortable. It was a temptation to burrow deeper into the blankets and let the world go whistle for him. But he'd been trained to duty--and the service took a dim view indeed of sloth. Eyes still closed, he began to turn over, stopped as he encountered a warm, breathing lump beside him.

I'm not alone. I'm not ALONE. Horatio's eyes flew open as his heart began to race. Frilled nightshirt cuff, blond hair, compact build . . .

Oh. Archie. Horatio relaxed, feeling his heart rate returning to normal. His friend's familiar presence was, as always, reassuring. What's he doing in my bed, though? No, wait--his eyes scanned the room, noticed slight differences in the arrangement of the furniture . . . what am I doing in ARCHIE'S bed? And how can someone so small take up so much space?

He shifted restively, wincing at an unexpected twinge of discomfort in his shoulders-and Archie came awake all at once beside him.

"Horatio!" Kennedy's voice was morning-husky but his faculties were sharp as ever. "Are you all right?"

The alarm in the blue eyes confused Hornblower. "I'm fine, Archie. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Because last night you tried to drown yourself," his friend said baldly.

"WHAT?" Horatio tried to sit up, exclaimed in pain as sore muscles shrieked a protest.

Archie eyed him with grim amusement. "The legacy from last night's misadventure, Horatio. I have them too. D'you believe me now?"

"I don't understand." Plaintively, as he sank back onto the pillows.

"You don't remember, then?"

Horatio shook his head.

"What about the night before last? Three nights ago?"

"I--" For some strange reason, his recollections of the time Archie mentioned all seemed very vague. "It's--it's. . . no, not really," he admitted.

Archie exhaled--a long, slow breath. "Then--you don't remember . . . Nerissa, at all?"

Nerissa. As if the name had been the key to some forgotten door, the memories suddenly came flooding back. Blurred and hazy rather than sharp-edged and distinct but clear enough--oh, God, clear enough. He shut his eyes in distress.

"Horatio?" The concern in Archie's voice was palpable. "You know she's gone, then?"

"Yes." It came out as a groan. He opened his eyes again, stared bleakly at the ceiling. "It was my fault! All my fault! I should never have--" he broke off, realizing with horror what he'd nearly blurted out. With a moan of self-loathing, he turned over, burying his face in the pillows.

"Horatio!" Archie stared at his friend, redder than a boiled lobster and burrowing into the bedclothes as though he never wanted to come out. Frustrated beyond endurance, Kennedy leaned over and firmly pinched one scarlet earlobe, drawing a surprised yelp from Hornblower.

"What . . . happened?" Archie ground out, practically through clenched teeth.

Brown eyes glared at him balefully for a moment, then suddenly brimmed with misery. "I . . . I never meant for it to happen." His voice was barely audible. "But I should have stopped . . . "

"Never meant . . . Horatio, are you saying that you and Nerissa--?"

A tight, wretched nod. "Two nights ago--I think. I was asleep--in the chair--and suddenly, there she was."

"Standing before you?"

"No." Horatio's flush darkened to a painful crimson. "She was--she was sitting on my lap!"

Archie blinked.

"She came to me for protection," Horatio continued unhappily, "and I--I took shameful advantage of her! And now she's gone--drowned! I'm not fit to live, Archie!"

"Belay that, Mr. Hornblower!" Kennedy's voice cracked like a whip. Blue eyes glared into his with a ferocity Horatio had never seen in his friend. "Did Nerissa show any sign, give you *any* indication, that she was an unwilling or reluctant participant in what took place?"

"W-well, n-no," Horatio stammered, "but--"

"Did she struggle? Did she bite you? Scratch you? Did she even hit you?"

"N-no, but--"

Archie held up a hand. "'But me,'" he quoted sternly, "'no buts.'" His tone became gentler. "I'm afraid I must disillusion you, Mr. Hornblower--you are not at all a wicked ravisher and despoiler of innocents. At the very least," he paused, attempting to choose his words with care, "the lady appears to have been willing."

"Then why did she leave?" Horatio demanded. "She walked into the sea--"

"Did she?" his friend countered. "Horatio, did you actually see her go into the water? Was she there on the beach when you arrived?"

Horatio shifted uncomfortably in the bed. "Mr. Penhallow said--she'd gone in that direction. When I got there, I saw this head bobbing about twenty yards out, and I feared . . . " his voice trailed off as he belatedly realized the hastiness of his assumptions. "I didn't--I couldn't--think of any other possibilities."

Archie was frowning thoughtfully. "By his own admission, Mr. Penhallow did not pay much heed to Nerissa after she left the inn. She might have turned in another direction--and not gone down to the beach at all. Or if she did--well, there are places to hide if you don't want to be found. Or she may have been picked up by a boat."

"A boat?"

"Fishers, smugglers--this is Cornwall, Horatio. Or, as a last guess, perhaps she just--went back to where she came from." And good riddance, he nearly added but stopped himself in time. However annoyed he himself was by the confounded girl's inexplicable behavior--not to mention her ingratitude in haring off like that when they'd been trying to help her--he did not wish to distress his friend any further. "As for what you saw in the water--at that distance how could you possibly be sure? It could have been a porpoise. Or a pelican. Or even a gull!"

"No, Mr. Kennedy," Horatio corrected him bitterly. "I was the only gull!" He lay back against the pillows, clearly determined to be miserable. "I ran into the sea like some moonstruck fool, bent on my own destruction!"

"Well," Archie mused, "it was a full moon last night, come to that."

Horatio glanced sharply at him. "Archie, you brought me out, didn't you? You saved my life!"

It was Kennedy's turn to flush. "You'd have done the same for me, Horatio--"

"Oh, God!" Hornblower groaned. "You could have drowned! You could have died! And it would have been all my f--"

"Horatio!" Archie brandished his own pillow menacingly. "If you say that one more time, I swear, I'll smother you!" To his relief, that threat startled his friend momentarily into silence. "We might have drowned, but we didn't. In fact, apart from some aches and pains this morning, we're both fine. I haven't even contracted a cold--which is an improvement over the last time I visited Cornwall."

His light, rallying tone drew a wan smile from Hornblower, though the dark eyes remained shadowed and woebegone.

"Horatio," Archie touched his friend's shoulder gently, "no one has ever died of embarrassment--only wished they could!"

Hornblower's wide mouth twisted. "Then I'll probably end up being the first!"

"Unlikely. If it were truly possible, the churchyards would fill up every time a man had to deal with a woman--and our species would be on the verge of extinction." Folding back his share of the blankets, Archie gingerly swung his feet to the floor, began to ease himself upright. "Seriously, Horatio . . . you mightn't agree but--I think it may be as well Nerissa's taken herself off. There was---something uncanny about her. As though she wasn't quite of this world. You did find her on All Hallows' Eve, after all."

"Oh, not that again!" Horatio exclaimed, his melancholy temporarily banished by irritation.

"I tell you, Horatio, strange things have been known to happen then. It's said that the walls between the worlds grow thin, and the impossible becomes--merely improbable."

Hornblower sighed. Most of the time Archie was as sturdy and sensible as any Englishman, but there were occasions when a certain wild, fey quality--possibly the legacy of his Scottish heritage--surfaced in him, heralding either the telling of an especially tall tale or the perpetration of a particularly lethal practical joke. He looked completely serious now, though--innocent as a choirboy in his dark robe and ruffled white nightshirt. A slightly debauched choirboy, Horatio amended, noting his friend's tousled hair and sleep-smudged eyes, and felt a rush of affection for him. Archie had saved his life last night, just as he had at Muzillac--it was little enough to humor his present flight of fancy. "Well, perhaps--just perhaps--there might be something to what you say, Mr. Kennedy. And I concede, Nerissa was a bit 'uncanny.' But you're not going to convince me that she was a ghost!"

"No, not a ghost," Archie agreed, his expression oddly somber. "But . . . depend upon it, Horatio, I'd be vastly surprised if anyone round these parts ever saw her again!"

*****

EPILOGUE

 

As their last two days of leave drew to a close, it seemed that Archie had been right. Although Hornblower braced himself for the worst, neither of them heard of a girl's drowned corpse being washed up on the beach or fished from the sea. Nor were there any reports of mute young women found wandering the shore. Nerissa had simply vanished--as mysteriously as she had first appeared.

Archie accepted the situation with a philosophical shrug. He and Horatio had had a brief encounter with something beyond their ken, from which they had ultimately emerged unharmed, if not unaffected. They were safe now, and on their way back to the Indy, where normal life would soon catch them up in its familiar rhythm. It was harder, he knew, for Horatio, whose rational brain persisted in trying to find explanations for what had occurred, refusing to accept the possibility that some things were, indeed, unexplainable.

But once they were back at sea and dealing with their duties aboard ship, even Horatio seemed content to let the matter drop, recede into distant memory. In time, he came to wonder if he'd dreamt the entire incident, though he'd never have uttered that fanciful thought to Archie.

So Falmouth and its mysteries remained a mystery--and, for the most part, both young men were content to leave things as they were. Nor did the subject arise between them again . . . until they returned to Cornwall the following year.

******

Falmouth in summer, Archie decided contentedly as he lifted his face to the sky, had all the advantages over Falmouth in autumn or, God forbid, winter. The sun was pleasantly warm, the foam-laced water gleamed richly blue-green, and white sands stretched before them as far as the eye could see. He was conscious of a deep sense of well-being, one which Horatio, walking beside him, actually seemed to share. His friend's expression today was tranquil, rather than tense, and his entire bearing seemed more relaxed than usual. They were both expected back on the Indy by nightfall, but perhaps that made the day's liberty seem all the sweeter.

They said little as they strolled along, content merely to be in each other's company and to listen to the waves as they cast themselves upon the shore. After about twenty minutes' walking, they came to an outcropping of rocks that seemed to mark the end of this particular beach--and possibly the beginning of another. Archie raised questioning brows at Horatio, who shrugged lightly in response. Neither of them, it seemed, was quite willing to turn back yet, so, of one accord, they carefully scaled the rock ridge at its lowest point--

And paused at the top, amazed by what they saw. The rocks had sheltered a cove, a tiny pocket of land and sea. And sprawled upon the sand,--fat, sleek, and content--were about two dozen seals.

Horatio and Archie exchanged delighted smiles. It was seldom they saw seals, except from a distance, and the opportunity was not to be missed. So they remained where they stood, watching in silence. Glistening mounds of grey and brown fur--some enormous, some half-grown, some drowsing in the sun, some blinking bright curious eyes and calling to each other in bleats and hoots. A few whiskered faces turned towards the rocks but did not seem alarmed by their visitors . . . at least not until Horatio's foot slipped and he stumbled forward onto the sand.

A chorus of barks and a flurry of motion ensued, the latter almost comical to witness as a score of unwieldy bodies lurched and floundered on their bellies towards the shallows and their natural element. As graceful in the water as they were clumsy on land, the seals swiveled and revolved, gazing back mistrustfully at the intruders who had disturbed their afternoon siesta.

"Our apologies, good beasts," Archie called brightly, grinning as he assisted a winded but uninjured Horatio to his feet. "It was unintentional, I assure you."

He was answered by a sharp bark, not from one of the swimmers but from one of the stragglers, still heading towards the water. A sleek, pale grey female, rather slimmer than the rest of the group, who now turned her head and gazed straight at both young men with huge dark eyes. She barked again, twice, imperatively, and two fat pups, their coats the color of fresh cream, came tumbling over the sand--and promptly lurched off in a completely different direction than the one their mother apparently desired them to take.

Archie chuckled appreciatively. "No more obedient than human children, I see!"

Horatio smiled. It was impossible not to, as the pups flopped and floundered across the beach with the boundless energy of the very young. "They're headed in our direction, Archie!"

And so they were. About six feet away from the young men, the baby seals came to a halt, and, rocking precariously on their rounded bellies, looked up at their visitors with melting brown eyes. Hornblower blinked, surprised. He'd never been especially good with animals--and it was rare that wild creatures came this close to humans in any case. No doubt the pups were too young to know better. And there was something disconcerting about their unwavering regard, he decided, trying to smile benevolently down at them. Almost as if they were looking him over. He dismissed that notion as pure fancy but was relieved when the pups' mother uttered yet another ringing bark. This time, her young heeded the call, awkwardly pushing themselves through the sand to join her at the water's edge.

"I thought seals had only one pup at a time," Horatio mused aloud, watching them go. "At least that's what I remember poor old Finch telling me."

"Finch?"

"Yes. He was something of an expert on seal lore. He said they were supposed to have human souls--the souls of drowned sailors, as I recall."

"He said . . . that seals have human souls?" Behind him, Archie's voice sounded rather odd.

"Yes," Horatio said, a bit impatiently. His friend was usually much quicker to grasp his meaning. "Dolphins too, I think. At any rate, you can supposedly tell a seal was once human by looking into its eyes." He sighed. "If I were a superstitious sort of man, I might be tempted to believe that. It would be comforting to think of Finch coming back as a seal, except that he didn't drown. But he was a good man, Archie--he saved my life on the Papillon, and he told such colorful tall tales--" he broke off at the sound of a choked whimper behind him. "Archie!" Horatio spun around and saw his friend sitting on the rocks, face buried in his hands and his shoulders shaking.

"Archie!" He hurried to his shipmate's side. "What's wrong, man? Are you ill?"

"N-no--" The word forced itself out through a series of muffled gurgles. "N-not at all!"

A mystified Horatio stared at his friend, then drew back indignantly as he recognized the sound he was making. "And just what do you find so amusing, Mr. Kennedy?"

"Oh, God!" It was almost a wail. Archie lifted his head, revealing a flushed face and eyes brimming with mirth. "Oh, dear. Oh, poor Horatio!"

"Why 'poor Horatio'?" Hornblower demanded furiously. "And damn you, Archie--will you stop laughing?"

Kennedy strove manfully to regain his composure, although his lips and voice still trembled suspiciously. "You've--you've really no idea, have you?"

"No idea about what?" Horatio demanded, resisting the urge to grab Archie by the throat and throttle the answers out of him.

"There are other stories about seals than the ones Finch told you. I regret more than ever, now, that I did not know him better--we might have enjoyed swapping yarns." Archie wiped his eyes inelegantly on the back of his hand and stood up. "Remember the last time we were here--on All Hallows' Eve? When you found Nerissa?"

"Nerissa," Horatio began blankly, then, "oh." He felt his face starting to burn as memory returned. "You mean, that girl."

"Yes. Only . . . she wasn't a girl--any more than the Duchess was a Duchess!"

"You're raving again!"

"No, I'm not. But I am a fool--I grew up on those stories, my nurse used to sing me that song! How could I be so stupid as to forget?"

"What song?"

Archie sighed. "'I am a man upon the land,'" he recited, out of deference to Horatio's tone-deafness. "'I am a selkie, on the sea; / And when I'm far frae ev'ry strand, / My home it is in Sule Skerry.'"

"What?"

"Unless I miss my guess--Nerissa was a selkie, Horatio. One of the Seal People. They--they change shape . . . they're seals in the sea but they can take human form on land. Especially when they come into season."

"S-season?" Horatio stammered, his stomach doing a slow, queasy somersault.

Archie flushed slightly. "Breeding season. They're--a rare people, Horatio. Not many are left. And when they can't find one of their own . . . they take a mortal lover, to keep their kind from dying out."

It took several seconds for the impact of what Archie had said to sink in. The moment it did, however, Horatio began shaking his head in frantic denial. "No--no, it cannot be! She's . . . they're . . . it's just a story, Archie!"

"But it all adds up! Her coming ashore, what . . . happened between the two of you, her sudden disappearance without a trace, and now this." He gestured towards the shallows where the seal and her young were now playing.

"Archie, you've lost your mind!"

"Can you think of a better explanation?"

"Well, there's . . . it could . . . it might . . . " Hornblower's voice trailed off, helplessly.

"Think about it, Horatio. There were two pups, when you know true seals have only one--and they certainly seemed very interested in you!"

"That was curiosity, nothing more!"

"And it's the wrong time of year!" Archie continued, as if Horatio hadn't spoken. "Those pups were at least four weeks old. Margaret told me the seals here do breed in the autumn, but they wouldn't be ready to give birth for nearly twelve months!"

As opposed to human females, the doctor's son suddenly remembered, who only carried for nine months. From mid-autumn to late summer. . . oh, God. Temporarily beyond speech, he stared at his grinning friend.

"It's all right, Horatio. You needn't worry about facing a breach of promise suit from a seal!"

Outrage loosened his tongue. "Archie--"

"Or a paternity suit, for that matter. Although," Archie paused, "now I come to think of it, I do believe those pups had your eyes! And twins too! I'd say you've more than done your duty, Mr. Hornblower!"

Horatio's frustration found expression as a wordless growl.

Archie's grin widened as he threw an arm around the seething Hornblower's shoulders. "Come, Horatio--let me buy you a drink. It's not every day a man becomes a father!"

END

An earthly nurse sits and spins,
And aye she sings, "Ba, lily wean!"
Saying, "Little ken I my bairn's father,
Far less the land that he dwells in."

For he came one night to her bed-fit,
And a grumlie guest I'm sure was he,
Saying, "Here am I, thy bairn's father,
Although I be not comely."

--"The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry"

***********************************
Notes to "A Skerry Story"

For readers who like knowing extra details:

*I apologize for perpetrating the terrible pun in the title. Well, maybe not . . . <g>

**The ballads quoted in Part One are "Tam Lin" and "King Henry", both of which deal with shapechangers. So does the ballad Archie quotes in Part Six, "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry."

***In some legends, human warmth and contact are considered cures for those whose wits have gone astray after an encounter with the otherworld.

****Also according to legend, the way to keep a selkie in human form is to steal its skin. Without the option of donning their seal skins, selkies cannot change shape. There are several stories about unhappy selkie brides who made tracks from their human husbands' cottages the nanosecond they found where their pelts were being kept. Sule Skerry, the magical home of selkies, is supposedly located off the coast of Scotland, near the Orkney Islands.

*****Grey seals are found throughout the world, including the North Atlantic. Breeding season varies, covering a span of months from September to March. In general, grey seals in Britain breed in the autumn, the females giving birth about 11.5 months after conception to one pup, white in infancy, which spends about 3 weeks nursing on land before growing strong enough to swim. Females do not feed but live on their fat and blubber reserves while the pup is nursing.