Changeling’s Island – Snippet 09
“Tim? It’s me, Molly. From the plane,” the girl with the braces on her teeth said from the passenger seat.
“I would have recognized you even without Bunce and his moustache,” said Tim, quite proud of that line. It made him smile. It made her flush red, which wasn’t what he’d meant it to do.
“Can we give you a lift somewhere?” asked the driver. She was a middle-aged woman, who looked like an older, shorter-haired version of Molly, only with glasses, and a few creases between her eyes. “Only we have to rush for the school bus. We’re running late.”
“That’s where I am supposed to be going.”
Molly spilled out of the car. “I’ll sit next to Bunce. He’ll drool on you, otherwise. Hop in the front.”
Tim did so. Clicked in his seat belt.
“Are you going to school here?” asked the driver, accelerating fast enough to push him back in the seat.
“Um. Yes.” Tim was worried they might ask why. They had to wonder.
“The headmistress will be doing her happy dance,” said the driver, focusing on the road, not looking at him.
“We need numbers,” explained Molly. “There are too few kids in the senior grades. It’s, like, just a handful of us.”
Great, thought Tim. And I wanted to be invisible in the crowd.
“What on earth are you sniffing at, Buncy?” asked Molly.
Tim was grateful for the distraction provided by the dog, head cocked on one side and great big black nose and moustache twitching as if he’d smelled a really bad fart.
“Don’t bark! You’ll send Mum off the road,” said Molly, grabbing him.
“Fortunately, we’re here,” said Molly’s mother, pulling off the road and onto the broad verge. “And we’ve beaten the bus. Let the big moo out, Molly. He can have a run around.”
Molly leaned across and opened the door, but Bunce wasn’t going anywhere. Just sat there, staring cross-eyed at something, and giving a little wary burr of a growl.
“Goodness! I hope he’s not sickening. We really can’t afford vet bills now!” said Molly’s mother, only, it seemed to Tim, half jokingly.
“He was fine ten minutes ago!”
“I think he’s defending you, Molly,” said her mother, suddenly, chuckling. “Tim, hop out, and let’s see what he does then. Oh, how funny!”
By the look on Molly’s face, she did not find it so funny at all. But Tim got out. “Thank you for the lift,” he said awkwardly. In the distance he could hear the bus, and, now that he was out, Bunce bounced out too, and ran around like a mad thing, barking and leaping over bushes. His mistress had to run after him and drag him back to the car, and then grab her bag while Tim got onto the bus, feeling slightly awkward.
The bus driver gave him a lopsided grin. “Ah. You’ll be Tim Ryan. I was expecting you.” Molly also got on, her face as red as her hair, and promptly got called to “come here, Molly” by the two younger children in uniform. She did. Tim had already sat down near the front. He’d been hoping to find out a bit more about what he was in for, but he never got a chance. The driver did chat with him, however. “So old Mary Ryan’s your nan, is she?”
“So your parents are in Melbourne, then? I remember your father. Hasn’t been back for a long time.”
He felt like it was a police questioning or something. “Mom’s back in Melbourne. My dad” — his voice shook briefly and he was ashamed of it — “is in Oman. In the Middle East.”
“Ah,” said the driver, nodding. “Explains it.”
He said no more, and Tim wasn’t too sure what it explained. They drove on over the hill and past the airport and some scattered houses, set in fields with sheep, and cows…and a flock of turkeys wandering around as if they owned the place. Onwards towards the mountain. And then they arrived at a cluster of red-roofed buildings.
“Well. Here you are,” said the driver. “Better go and see the headmistress, son. She’s expectin’ you.”
Inwardly Tim groaned. What had his grandmother said about him?
* * *
Áed had been amused by the dog. It hadn’t known what to do with him, or quite what he was. He’d been tempted to tease it, just for the mayhem he could cause. He’d been a lot less pleased to see the selkie, when he’d explored and his master slept. The seal-woman was still in her natural place, the sea. She sat on a rock sticking out of the water, and combed her long wavy hair in the moonlight. She’d seen him too. She’d smiled. It was not a nice smile. Predatory…and pleased.
It was the same fae he’d glimpsed from the flying device. Áed knew there could only be one reason the selkie was here. She was following him, or perhaps his master. In the water the seal shape-changers were dangerous. On land, less so, but they were not confined to the water, the way the lords of the hollow hills were confined to the land by the salt water. Like Áed’s kind, the selkies could go anywhere, even if they did not enjoy it.
She’d beckoned to him. “Come here, little one.”
Áed, sensibly, had fled as fast as he could from even the sight of the sea. He’d sought out the other creature of air and shadow, the one living around the farm, one whose scent he’d recognized. The one who came to the kitchen and the barns and sheds, but no further.
The hairy creature was at work in the barn, no longer moving the beasts, as he had been earlier. It was a small fenodree, as suited the agricultural nature of the place. Hardworking, and not very bright, and a little wary about Áed. “You make trouble, I hurt you,” he said slowly, nervously fondling the wooden shaft of an old two-handed scythe.
In the hierarchy of those of the hollow hills, of the creatures of air and shadow, the fenodree was low, below Áed. But they were strong and determined. “I don’t wish to fight,” said Áed. “I just saw a selkie.”
“She’s back, then.” The fenodree seemed unsurprised and relatively unworried. He’d stopped clutching the scythe and was back to untangling his long fur with his blunt fingers. “She won’t come out of the sea.”
That was a comfort. “Why not?”
“She’s afraid of the others. The old ones.”
Áed had sensed them, caught the shimmer of them. But they had kept their distance. “What does she want here?” he asked. If the fenodree could live with these others, so could he.
The fenodree shrugged. “The boy. The key.”
“What key?” asked Áed. The word in the old tongue they spoke had many meanings.
The fenodree shrugged again. “I do not know. She has looked for it for a long time. She is from Finvarra.”
That was enough to frighten Áed even more. Finvarra was a king of the Shee and a great power still, in the hollow hills.
Áed would have to guard his master carefully.
* * *
Alicia Symons drove home slowly, thinking about the youngster they’d picked up. She’d not, at first glance, been too impressed. Actually she felt sorry for him. He was small and looked defeated and rather lost walking along the road with a lunchbox.
And then he’d smiled and confused her daughter. And it seemed Molly’s dog had caught that confusion. It was something for a mother to think about!
She drove down through the she-oaks toward the house on the promontory. Not, for once, looking at the view from their hill and losing herself in the rapture of it. From the minute they’d seen the view, she and Michael had loved the place. They’d known they couldn’t really afford it, and had gone ahead and done it anyway, because they couldn’t bear to lose their chance. They should have looked at the school issues first. It wasn’t that the school wasn’t trying. It was just dying for lack of children. She should have been delighted that there was another child. But…well. Perhaps she was being overprotective.
Her husband was out working on the turbine. It was all very well being self-sufficient, and saying there was lots of wind for power, except the wild wind here was forever breaking something.
“We picked up a boy on the road today,” she said, looking up at him.
“Ah. Molly picked up one yesterday, on the plane,” he said, coming down and wiping his hands on his jeans. “Remember, I told you last night. She’s growing up.”
“It’s the same one. He was on his way to school.”
He knew her well enough to need no further explanation. “I’ll phone a few people. This is Flinders. Everyone knows everything in twenty-four hours.”
A few minutes later he came back. “Seems his parents have got divorced. He’s staying with his grandmother. She’s apparently an old tartar. They’re ‘real islanders.’ Old family.”
She smiled at the “real islanders” — you had to be here for fifty years to get considered more than temporary flotsam by some of the islanders. “That…might explain the look. Poor kid.”
“He looked like the whole world was on his shoulders. And Bunce growled at him.”
“Good grief. Well, if he gives Molly any trouble I’ll growl at him too.”