The woman placed a final clump of heather to seal the void from prying eyes, brushed her hands against the unfamiliar cloth of her dress, and turned to walk across the narrow stone causeway to the beckoning shore. She sang softly to herself, relishing each syllable of the ancient tongue as it wafted across the stillness of the autumn afternoon. Her foot felt the stone rock sideways but she was too new to walking to prevent herself sliding into the abyss. She shrieked at the touch of the loch’s chilling water but managed to clasp a secure rock and heave herself back onto the snaking stone path and stagger the last few steps to land. She sat, feeling stupid, cold, and lonely as she fought to hold back her tears. Then she reminded herself that she, this daughter of the King of Norway, wasn’t going to let a little dunking divert her from her task.
The shepherd stirred the broth in its small iron pot which hung low over the fire on a long, smoke-black chain. He turned the barley bannock on its hearthside stone, then lit his pipe before he sat on the cist. The thick, dark tobacco drove dreams by the firelight and he wasn’t sure whether the knock on the door was real or revery. The door swung inwards, a shape dripped into view, and a woman’s voice called “Hallo”, may I come in?”
He didn’t recognise the blonde-haired apparition, and it certainly hadn’t been raining when he was out tending to the master’s flock, but he recognised that she was delirious with cold and leapt to her side to guide her to the fire for warmth. He stirred the pot, split the bannock and served two bowls of steaming broth, careful to pass her his cleanest spoon as she shivered on his cist. The woman ate as if she hadn’t eaten for a month, pausing only to wipe the last of the broth from her bowl with the remains of her piece of bannock. “Thank you”, she said, and he smiled and nodded his head, pointing to his mouth and making a ‘closed’ gesture with his hand. “Ah, a mute!”, she exclaimed, then apologised saying, “Sorry, I meant to say, I understand. I’m sorry for my rudeness.”
He smiled, shook his head, and took her empty bowl and his to the small dresser to be cleaned. He turned and saw the woman was lying beneath a blanket by the fire, fast asleep. He re-lit his pipe, put on his coat, and crept past the sleeping form to leave the bothy. The door closed slowly, silently, behind him.
Birdsong, and snoring, woke the woman who took a second to recognise her unfamiliar surroundings before seeing the source of the snoring asleep in his small box-bed at the end of the bothy. She put a pair of peats on the fire, blowing gently on the smoored embers to rekindle the flame, and sat combing the tangles from her hair with an intricately carved whalebone comb which she hastily hid when she heard her host stirring. She looked at him, wondering how it must be to not have a voice, to be silent, to be cut-off from this oral culture, and she realised why he was alone in this isolated home at the fall of the year.
The man rose from his bed, smiled, and prepared them both a hot drink with some unfamiliar herbs. The brew was thin and clear with a slightly bittersweet, but highly aromatic, flavour. She liked it and gestured her appreciation for she had decided to communicate with him in his language as a matter of courtesy. He frowned. Then she started singing, rather than signing, and he smiled. Her song finished and the man took his coat and stick and went out to see to the sheep. The woman followed him until he started to walk away from the shore of the loch that lay far below and disappeared from sight. She ran to the loch.
The crossing of the causeway took some time as the woman tested each and every stone and she was surprised to find the only tipping-stone was on the other side of the causeway to what she remembered from her fall. A trick of memory, she thought, and continued until she reached the timeless safety of the dun. She located her secret store, tore the heather from the narrow entrance, and reached inside. It was gone! She crouched low and peered into the pit of peat but there was nothing there. She tasted the air and there, between the smell of silverweed and the merest hint of mussel, she caught the faint whiff of familiar, dark, black tobacco.
He was waiting for her when she returned. “Where is it?”, she asked before opening the cist and searching, before turning to the dresser and searching, before running to his bed and searching, before running to him and screeching, “WHERE IS IT?”. He smiled, took her hands, and said, “Nowhere that you will discover, my dear, and now I have a wife and company in this lonely space.”
She wailed, a wail from the sea, from home, from far, far away; but there was nothing she could do.
Many years passed, several children were born and raised, the bothy extended to accommodate them all, but not a day passed when the woman did not seek her skin. Until one fine summer’s day when she had all the blankets washed and drying on the heather and she noticed that one, the one she and her husband lay together under each night, was slow to dry. She looked more closely at the heavy cloth and saw a fine row of woollen stitches where there should be none. She took the precious whalebone comb from her clothes and tore at the stitching, breaking many teeth of the beautiful comb in her frenzy, until she released the precious skin from its secret space.
She ran to the shore of the loch, not needing to cross the cursed causeway, threw off her earthly clothing and slipped into the silky silence of her selkie skin before sliding head-first into the depths of the loch. Her seal-eyes wept for her children, and for the man who had been so kind and yet so cruel, before returning to the distant shore of her father, the King of Norway.
She returns to the loch to see her children and to leave them gifts amongst the ruins of the ancient dun, a dun that is forever known as the Dun of the Daughter of the King of Norway.