The oar sliced the air with a whirring noise, and clipped the side of Durn Helzie's skull neatly. Not a killing blow, but it was enough to spin the man like a top and sling the gray pelt from his fingers as he measured his length on the mossy stones of the holm. Mairead put herself between him and his prize, kicking the skin well behind her just to be sure.
Around the seaward edge of the holm, seals were diving from every stone, speckled gray and honking in alarm at the sudden intrusion in their basking night. In only a few seconds, the tiny islet was empty of all but herself and Helzie, who was curled up tight as a limpet, clutching his head and cursing her soundly.
"You mind your tongue, Durn Helzie," she snarled at him in the very voice that had always reminded his sort at school that she'd three older brothers and a very protective Da waiting on her displeasure. "You've no business out here but for thieving, and we both know it!"
"You cow, you bloody cow!" he spat, making as if to rise until she brandished the oar again. "This were no business of yours--"
"And isn't it my business when you come poaching on Meur lands then?"
"Aye," she said, choking short her grip on the oar so she could stoop to catch up the sealskin one-handed. "There's other names for it too, but as I'm a lady, I'll refrain."
"You, a lady?" He spat and grimaced. "It's you're a--"
"It's I'm well prepared to soften that skull of yours again if you come at me, and I'll thank you to remember that," she called over the crash as the sea battered the holm, filling the air with salt spray and the promise of a turning tide. "You're drunk, you're poaching, and you're trespassing. I won't have you insulting me into the bargain. Now up you get. Back to the trink and off our land before the tide comes in, or see if my Da and his gun don't have something to say about it."
He snickered, then yelped as she sliced the air just above his head, so close the oar snagged in his fair curls. "Augh, you're as mad as he is, you wretched cow!"
"Furious," she agreed. "Now march!"
He did stand, and carefully, holding one hand against his head while the other crept toward the pocket of his mac. Mairead hefted the oar again, and he thought better of it, though bitterly. "Aye, I'll go," he said, "but not without what's rightful mine."
Mairead shook her head, clutched oar and pelt tight in her fists. "You're taking away only what you brought, Helzie. Nothing else here belongs to you by any right."
"That skin's mine," he said, taking a single, wobbly step. "I won it square--"
"You wasn't born wearing it," Mairead replied, "and her that was will be wanting it back again." He took another step, teetered again, and clutched his head, but even in the moonlight Mairead did not miss that canny look in his eye. She was not surprised when he sprang at her, arms wide to tackle her down.
Her second swing at his head was not quite so polite as the first had been. This time when Helzie spun and dropped, he lay crumpled where he'd fallen, panting and moaning as the spite leaked out of him along with his ale. "Been robbed..." he mumbled against the lichens as his eyes rolled closed.
"That, I'll allow," she answered, "though you've had it coming for years." Then she turned and left him there.
The moon was full and high, fat and silver in a sky dark and clear of cloud--a rare night indeed in the Orkneys, which saw cloudless skies a bare handful of times in any given year. The moon offered light aplenty for Mairead to search the holm for the seal girl, and return her skin.
She knew which it had been--the freckled hide had one hind fin slightly ragged, as though torn in some fight, and one of the seal girls always danced with the ghost of a limp when they all came ashore on the holm. It was easy to pick her out among the whirl of flashing limbs by the way her moves did not quite match, and so it was she whom Mairead usually watched, hid in a crevice of rock above the steep path from the trink.
The moonlight revealed no soft curve of white skin on the river-mouth island; no trembling whorl of wood-dark hair in the shadows of sea-carved stone. Mairead quickly crossed the holm, peering into every crack of stone she could find, knowing there could never have been an extra skin among the seal folk, knowing that her limping girl must surely be hiding somewhere close by.
But soon she had to admit defeat. There were not many places to truly hide on the narrow spit of stone. The sea was relentless, and polished all it could not swallow down to smooth humps of rock where only weed and lichens could cling. Even the sandy beach on the lee side, where she dug cockles in the summer, was empty and white as a shell beneath the moon, marred only with the beached rowboat that must have brought Helzie down from the fisheries upstream. She climbed back to the top of the holm one last time, soft-footed as she could go, just in case the girl might have crept out of hiding while she'd been below.
And there she was, perched on the seaward edge of the holm, looking beautiful and forlorn with her dark hair carving waves down the soft curve of her shoulders. She made no sound, did not shiver or moan, but Mairead felt sure her lovely girl was weeping. And before she thought better of it, she found herself drawing the silky pelt from beneath her coat, and calling soft, "It's all right, I've got it right here--"
In a flash of white skin and dark, startled eyes, the selkie girl was gone, over the side and into the thrashing sea below without so much as a squeak of alarm. Mairead rushed to the edge, stared down the thrust of stone, twenty feet or more into the water, but the moonlight helped her pick out no human shape against the foam.
"Come back," Mairead called to the restless wind, knowing it useless. "You can have it back, I don't want it, I promise..."
She was disappointed to get no reply, but she couldn't say she was surprised.