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Tim made his way back to the kitchen. It was a bit smoky in there, lit by a single bare bulb. Two places were laid on the scrubbed boards of the big, rickety table. A plate full of food—a generous plateful—stood steaming at one of them. His grandmother was dishing a second, much smaller plate of food from pots on the stove. Tim hovered, uncertain if he should sit and where. She turned from the stove. Gestured with an elbow at the plate at the table. “Yer making the place look untidy. Sit down and eat up. It’s getting cold.” As he moved to pull the chair out, she said. “Wait. Yer’d better give it a welcome.”

She put her plate down at her place, went to an old rounded refrigerator in the corner, rummaged in it, and pulled out a bottle…of beer. Well, it was a beer bottle. She handed it to him. “Here. For your little friend.”

Tim looked uncertainly at the stubby bottle. It had a cork shoved into it. Not a new cork, either. The bottle was about half full. Not quite knowing what he should do, he pulled the cork out.

“It’s flat, but they don’t mind,” said his grandmother.

“Er. What is it?” he said, sniffing it from a distance.

“Beer. Not for you to drink, boy! Get a bowl from the dresser and put it in the corner where I won’t kick it.”

Tim did as he was told and came to the table. He was hungry, and it smelled good, even if she was crazy enough to have him pour stale beer in bowls.

“You’re supposed to say ‘Be welcome to the house and hearth,’ when you put it down. My nan taught me that. They behave then,” said his grandmother.

“Who behaves?” he asked warily.

“The little people,” said his grandmother. “Go say it, boy. He’s waiting.”

She was crazy. But what could he do? It was dark out there, and he was hungry and tired. So he did it. “Be welcome to the house and hearth,” he said awkwardly. Then he came and sat.

The food was good. More vegetables than he would have chosen to put on his plate, but the gravy was thick and herby and rich to disguise it, and the stewed meat was fall-apart tender. And there was lots of potato. Later he would say that was how he knew his gran’s cooking, there was always lots of potato.

“You like it?”

He nodded. “It’s great. What is it?”

“Roo-tail stew. They’re a pest here. What you’ll eat most of.”

Tim thought of the little hoppers on the track. It wasn’t exactly pizza or Chinese, which had been what they ate pretty often at home. But he supposed it was the nearest you’d get to delivery here.

When he got up from the table…he noticed the bowl in the corner was empty too.

But he was too exhausted to think much about it that night. He’d barely coped with being shown to a painfully neat bedroom and wooden frame bed with a patchwork quilt on it. He must have gotten his bag, brushed his teeth and collapsed to sleep in it, because he was in the bed the next morning, and his toothbrush was in the bathroom.

* * *

Áed took the welcome as both a comfort and a threat. A comfort: she knew the old ways and words, a pleasure in the tasting of the beer, as was his rightful reward. A threat: if she knew the words of welcome, it might be that she also knew the words of punishment or banishment. Áed did not sleep. Rest has a different meaning to the spirits of air and darkness, and he didn’t need much. He was wary about leaving his charge, but he made several brief forays to explore.

There was another of his kind about. His kind weren’t gregarious, and it was busy working on the farm.

* * *

Mary Ryan went to bed too, not even listening to the radio as she usually did in the evening. She had a lot on her mind. Mostly, money. She scowled to herself. There was probably money to be had from the Social Welfare at the Centerlink office. She wouldn’t take the dole for herself; it went against everything she believed in. She was damned if she’d demean herself to ask, anyway. She had her pride, and if she lost that, she had nothing. For the boy, well, it was different. But…once they started sticking their beaks in, they’d find out about her eyes. They’d say she couldn’t live here, let alone look after the boy.

She did the sums in her head again. Food, well, the basics, fruit, meat and vegetables anyway, were not going to be a problem. She couldn’t see to shoot anymore, but her father, and his father before him, had snared wallaby. The garden provided. But it was the rest: sugar, vinegar—or there’d be pretty few vegetables and no fruit in the winter. Tea, cooking oil, clothes, boots, soap, the extra electricity. She tended to sit at home in the dark most evenings, just to save that bit. You could listen to the radio perfectly well in the dark. The farm needed more work than she and her little helper could do these days, and the scrawny boy wasn’t really up to it yet either. It needed work and money, and the stock just wasn’t fetching what it used to on the sales. Dicky took her beasts in, and he said she was lucky to be getting what she got back for them.

Eventually she got up, opened the tin box, and took out the thin fold of money. It was so awkward having to turn the light on to see the value of the notes. There wasn’t much there, as she’d known. But there was nothing else. The only other things in the ditty box were worthless to anyone but her, and too precious for her to ever part with. She couldn’t see to read them anymore, either, but she knew all the words on those letters by heart anyway.

Her fallback money would just have to be enough, or she’d have to sell something. Heaven knew what.

* * *

Tim woke to the sound of a teaspoon being clattered around a cup, looked up from the pillow to see the spare figure of his grandmother pushing open the door. She put the cup down on the little bedside table. “Yer better get yourself to the kitchen pretty quick or I’ll feed your breakfast to the chooks.”

He didn’t want to be awake. He really resented being woken, but there was no suggestion that she was not dead serious. Tim felt himself simmering with the feeling of being unfairly used…and she turned to the corner of the room. “And don’t you even think of it, or there’ll be no beer.” And she walked out.

His stomach said it was hungry, and a hungry day had no appeal, even if he had no idea what the day held. Boredom here, he supposed.

There was a pot of porridge on the table. No cereal. Just a bowl, a spoon, a jug of milk, and an old sugar bowl.

“Go easy on the sugar. It doesn’t grow on trees,” said the old lady. “I cut yer lunch.” She pointed at the plastic lunchbox on the corner of the dresser. She reached into the apron pocket of her pinafore. Pulled out an envelope. “Here. That’s for the uniform. I spoke to them at Bowman’s yesterday. Look after it.”

“What?” he asked, feeling as if he were being spoken to in Japanese, for all that he understood. Uniform? Bowman’s?

“Yer got to be waiting for the school bus at half past, at the corner. Eat up, or you’ll be late. Have some more milk; it’ll cool it down. We got lots of milk.”

It tasted odd though. It had yellow stuff floating on the top of it…it wasn’t actually sour or anything. Just not normal, like milk from the Coles around the block back home.

“Is this milk all right?” he asked.

His grandmother’s hand wavered across the table. Tim noticed she didn’t look directly at the table either, but side on. She picked up the jug, held it to her nose and sniffed. “Smells fine. Fresh out the cow this morning. You can learn how to milk her this evening.”

As a reason to rush back to his grandmother’s, that wasn’t on the top of Tim’s list. As a reason to go in a hurry, it wasn’t bad. It was brisk and windy out, scudding clouds ripping across the tops of the old twisted pines. The place didn’t look so frightening in daylight. It did look run down. The fences were rusty. The wire sagged, had been mended here and there.

He walked along to the main gravel road and looked about. He wasn’t sure which way it was to the corner where he had to meet the bus. Probably back toward the airport. He’d had time now to start dreading it all. What did they know about him? About what he’d done?

A car came past in a flurry of dust…and stopped. It reversed, and a huge hairy head, with a windswept moustache, stuck itself out of the window and barked loudly.

“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.”

“The look?”

“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.”

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