There was a land of elven halls and hollows, of fairy mounds and great cathedrals underground. Hapless mortals went in and danced until their feet gave out, and sometimes they came out again.
But far beyond the merriment and the music and the trapped mortals, there was a campfire, and around it sat a half-dozen men, and a great bull selkie, and a horse the color of night.
The men were faerie boys, first to last, tall and sharp-boned, with cheekbones like swords. The selkie was a great hulking brute with his sealskin draped around him, muscle smoothed with a layer of fat, and a gleam in his eye like the last light on the sea.
The horse was a horse, except when he wanted more beer, and then he was a man with a mane of black hair and eyes that glowed like rubies in his face.
They sat around the fire, far from the fae court, and stared into the flames. Fire is older than faerie-kind and even they can be hypnotized by its dance.
“What gets me,” said one of the men finally, “what really gets me is that she went and married the blacksmith.”
He’d met Rose MacGregor out on the hillside, where the grass met the sky and flowers lay spangled across the green. He was slim-hipped, broad-shouldered, and handsome as the devil.
She was short and plump, well-endowed in all directions, and she looked at him with a gleam in her eyes like a hawk spotting a rabbit on the downs below.
“What are you doing out here, my lady?” he purred. He moved his head so that one lock of hair fell down his forehead.
“Looking for my father’s lost sheep,” she said. Then she smiled. She had dimples.
There was, at the time, one sheep on the downs, who was not anything like lost. The old bellwether was deaf and mostly blind and he had forgotten that his flock no longer came out this way, so he doggedly made the same trip every morning, despite the fact that there were no other sheep with him.
“Is that him?” asked the slim-hipped man, looking doubtfully at the bellwether.
“No,” said Rose. “He’s not lost. He knows exactly where he is.”
“So it’s another sheep you’re looking for, then?”
“Oh, aye,” breathed Rose. “A ram sheep, if you know what I mean…”
He did indeed know exactly what she meant. He took her hand and said “Come then, my lady, let’s go look for one.”
The bellwether, fortunately deaf, continued to graze despite the sounds coming from elsewhere on the hillside.
“She was supposed to pine,” said the slim-hipped faerie glumly. “They always pine. You make passionate love to them and then you vanish and they pine away and die of love.”
“Ha!” The faerie next to him poked the fire with a stick. “Not our Rose. Did she give you the line about the lost sheep, too?”
“That sheep gets lost a lot,” muttered a third one. He had darkly tanned skin and shocking green eyes. “I’ve my doubts that it ever really existed.”
“We looked for it for three weeks,” said the slim-hipped faerie. “I had to stop looking. I couldn’t keep up.”
The other fae raised their beers in silent tribute to the stamina of the absent Miss McGregor.
“Are you sure that’s not your lost sheep?” asked the green-eyed fae, stretched out on his belly in the grass. He had tufts of hair on the tips of his ears, like a cat’s. Rose liked to stroke the long sweep of them, then work her way down his back.
“No, that’s Saul. He’s the bellwether.”
“He’s got no flock.” The green-eyed fae was descended of satyr stock, which gave him certain dramatic endowments but also a vague concern for the well-being of herd animals. Rose appreciated both these attributes enormously.
“Nah, they’re all long dead. He sees their ghosts.” Rose had not been able to lie on her belly since she was fourteen, owing to her own dramatic endowments, so she was propped up on her elbow beside him. “He’s a good old fellow. Leads his ghost flock up the hill every day, leads them back down again.”
“Have y’tried telling him they’re dead?”
Rose stopped stroking his back. “And what’s Saul ever done to me, that I should break his heart?”
This was too good an opening for the green-eyed fae to pass up. He’d been planning another few days of passion, but there was such a thing as style.
Also, he wasn’t sure if he could keep up much longer.
“Speaking of broken hearts, my lass…” He rolled over. “‘Tis grieved I am to leave you, but my time in this country has grown short.”
“Oh, has it?” Rose picked up two blades of grass and began attempting to make them squeak between her fingers.
“I must be away, to my own land.”
“Err…never more to grace these hills…”
“And you’ll not see me ever again.”
She patted his arm. “It’s all right, duck. You’ll find someone else. In fact, I—Saul! Don’t eat that!”
“And since he was deaf, yelling at him didn’t help. She had to go take it away from him. I believe she cared for that sheep more than me,” he told the others at the fire morosely.
“Certainly stayed with him longer,” said the slim-hipped man, sighing.
One of the fae, who hadn’t spoken, was quietly plaiting the stems of foxglove together. Foxglove is not a flower that plaits, so he had to use a fair bit of magic to do it. The slender pink bells trembled as his fingers moved over the stems, exactly the way that Rose McGregor had trembled in his arms.
“Yer a lot of wilting lilies,” growled the bull selkie.
“And you’re here drinking with us,” snapped the green-eyed man, “so what does that make you, eh?”
The selkie grumbled and hitched his sealskin up higher on his back.
Selkies, like seals, come in many varieties. There are the elegant, dark-eyed young men who make maidens sigh, the doe-eyed women that enchant fishermen with their songs… and then there’s the bulls.
Bull seals and bull selkies have no necks and no manners and they rut like boars. Human women are advised to avoid them.
Rose MacGregor was never one to follow advice. She picked her way down the beach, the small stones turning under her feet, whistling to herself.
“Yer on my beach,” said the bull, having hidden his sealskin behind a rock. He put his fists on his hips.
Rose looked him up and down. Evidently she liked what she saw, because she ran her tongue over her lips.
“Have you, by chance, seen my lost sheep?” she said.
“And afterward, I told her I was going back tae the sea,” he said. “And not tae try to find my sealskin. And d’ye know what she said tae me?”
The other men all knew, having heard this story multiple times, but let him tell it out of courtesy.
“She said, ‘I’d only want yer skin if I planned tae keep ye!’” He hunched his shoulders. “Can’t even go back tae that beach now. All the rocks remind me of her.”
“How does a rock remind you of her?” asked the green-eyed fae.
The other men at the campfire stared at him.
“Ye know. Flows. Big and rounded-like…” He made hand gestures.
The horse fae snorted. The selkie glared at him. Selkies and pookas mix like freshwater and salt.
“Don’t give me that, horse-face. Ye didn’t fare any better.”
The pooka looked like he might argue for a moment, then his shoulders slumped. “No,” he admitted. “Did my whole friendly horse trick. Come climb up on my back for a ride, lass. And she smiled at me with all those dimples and said that wasn’t the sort of ride she was after.” He sighed. “Stayed in human shape for nearly a week for her.”
The faerie plaiting foxgloves picked up another stem and began to weave them into the mass of flowers in his hands.
“And then I turned back into a horse, planning to drag her down into the lake and drown her—”
A low, angry sound from the others.
“Excuse me! I am a pooka! We drown people! None of this waiting around for them to die of a broken heart! We are efficient!”
“Yer a bunch of cads,” said the selkie. “At least we don’t go killin’ the ladies after.”
“Assuming you don’t smother ’em during, with all the blubber,” growled the pooka.
“The lassies like a little more meat to keep ’em warm at night, ye horse-faced gob.”
“Settle down, the both of you,” said the slim-hipped fae, and poured beer all around.
“Anyway,” muttered the pooka, “I turned into a horse. And she petted my nose.”
He sighed and gazed into his beer.
The others waited. After a minute, the selkie said “That’s it?”
“What? It was very nice. Not everybody knows how to pet a nose correctly. And then she slapped my flank and told me to run along like a good pony.”
“She did that to me, too,” said the slim-hipped faerie morosely.
“…Err…She called you a good pony?”
“No!” A greenish flush rose to the tips of his ears. “But she slapped my ass and said she’d look me up the next time she was around.”
The fire crackled. The fae with the foxglove held a great sheaf of flowers in his hands, spilling over the sides of his fingers.
“Are we pining?” asked the green-eyed fae suddenly. “Is this what it’s like when they pine away after us?”
“We are not pining!”
“No one’s dying of broken hearts here.”
The pooka turned back into a human long enough to get a refill of beer.
“So… same time next autumn, then?”
“I’ll be here.”
“Grandma? Grandma, there’s something on the back step.”
Rose MacGregor was in her late sixties, but she moved like a much younger woman. She kept an iron horsenail in her pocket, partly in memory of her late husband, partly because cold iron keeps the faeries polite.
Her youngest granddaughter was about five years old. She was built a bit like a selkie herself, with no discernible neck, and she had a bull selkie’s stubbornness to go with it.
Her mother hoped she’d grow out of it. Rose told her not to worry.
“It’s all attitude, duck. All of it. She’ll do fine in the world.”
“It’s flowers, Grandma,” said her granddaughter doubtfully.
“Ah… that time of year already, is it?” Rose pulled the back door open, suddenly smiling.
There was a snap of frost in the air and leaves from the big oak tree had drifted down across the step. Rose could scarcely see them, though, under the enormous bouquet of foxgloves, all pink bells and spotted throats, that someone had left there for her.
“Why’d somebody leave you flowers, Grandma?”
“Oh, it’s a long story,” said Rose MacGregor. “Your grandma had quite an adventurous youth. I’ll tell you all about it when you’re older.” She paused, looking down at the stubborn little face. “Much… much much older…”
(Editors’ Note: “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society” is read by Erika Ensign and T. Kingfisher is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 25A.)
© 2018 T. Kingfisher