"Look," Merida said, pushing her hair out of her face. It was wet and kept trying to cling to her face, and she was very, very tired. "I'm really very, very sorry about your skin, all right? My brothers are, they're stupid sometimes, right?" Another wave of water came down from the roof, the downpour overflowing, and Merida had to wipe hair out of her eyes again. "But if you'll just, you know, stop the rain just a minute so I can get upstairs without drowning, I can get it back and we can all go about our merry ways, all right?"
The selkie stood with her arms folded. She was also mother naked and all the men of the keep were trying their best not to stare at her, seeing as she was in a pretty damn foul mood to start with. She tapped her foot in the water, little splashes with each tap, and had her lips pressed flat together.
All the stories, Merida reflected, talked about how beautiful selkies were, and how they'd fill your nets if you had one as a wife, and how to steal their skins. Somehow, they left out that selkies were bloody stroppy witches with power over the weather and touchy pride, who got insulted if it happened to be wee boys who stole her skin instead of a handsome fisher-lad she might (let's be blunt about this) want to take to bed anyway until she got bored, smashed open whatever he'd hid her skin in and then gone home to the ocean. Merida was going to bloody well make sure they put those bits back in.
After what felt like an age, the selkie nodded. And after a moment, the rain slacked off and the water ran out and Merida ran up the stairs to her brothers' room, yanked Hubert down from the top of the wardrobe by the ear and shouted at him until he told her where the skin was.
It had to be young Mackintosh, of course. MacGuffin, now, Merida thought. She might not be able to understand more than five out of twelve words he said, but he had a good sensible head on his shoulders, he was steady in a crisis and he did what he was told. And young Dingwell, well. He just followed her around like a good wee lamb until something attacked, at which point the lad turned far more terrifying than was right in someone his size and with his empty gaze.
But no. No, neither of them would be pretty enough for a sidhe lady to make off with on her hunt, so it had to be Mackintosh. Maybe Merida would drown him on the way home and tell his father the faeries killed him.
No, she wouldn't.
But she'd want to.
At least Angus was reliable. He stood firm in front of the strange fairy horses, snorting and pawing the ground from time to time but definitely making it clear that compared to witches and strange demon bears, he wasn't going to so much as twitch in face of some ladies and gentleman on weird steeds.
"No," Merida said, very slow and careful. "He's not my betrothed. I'm never going to be betrothed to him. Come to it, I don't even like him that much. But that doesn't matter. He's the son of one of my father's vassals and you're going to take your spell off him and give him back, or I'm going to start putting cold steel through you from here. D'you understand me?"
Then she sighed, because she saw in the lady's eyes that she was going to have to shoot people.
Hubert and Hamish glared at the ground as they walked, occasionally glancing up at the shape of their brother strapped over Angus' back and then glaring at Merida again.
"What is wrong with you?" she demanded as she tramped behind them, walking alongside Angus with one hand on his bridle. "I mean y've been turned into bears, y've seen Mum turned into a bear, y've seen both of us near killed by another demon bear, y'almost got the whole bloody castle drowned by a selkie, y'were there when I dragged young Mackintosh back and saw how poorly he was for days after. Y'did, right? All that."
There came eventually a resentful mutter from her two conscious siblings, so Merida went on, "So what in the name of every Dunbroch for the last, for the, for as long as there's been any Dunbrochs - what possessed the lot of ye to go looking for a damn kelpie? They drown people, for the love of life. What were y'thinking?"
"Y'sound like Mum," Hubert muttered, and Merida held back on her urge to smack him as hard as she could.
"Good," she snapped instead. "Right now y'deserve Mum at her worst. And ye'll get it, too. I'll tell her everything when we get home."
There was a lake up north that, supposedly, had a great underwater dragon that put its head up occasional.
Merida told her brothers that if they ever went to look for it, she'd lock them in one of the cellars for the rest of their natural lives.
She and her mother had reached an accord about how Merida would dress for formal audiences. She would wear the dress her mother made so long as she could sit in it without tottering over, and she would wear a coronet so long as her hair was only braided up in its own crown, not hidden under the damn wimple. Mum had agreed.
As such, Merida didn't complain about audiences anymore. They weren't that common in Dunbroch, and, well. She was a princess. A princess had duties. She didn't bring her bow to the audiences either. And she sat up straight and tried her best to pay attention, though for some of them it was harder than others.
This time, though - well. This time.
"Your majesty," said the messenger, when he'd finished his bowing and stood up, hand on his spear fiddling a bit, like he was nervous. "I have come from my king to beg your assistance in a matter most strange and . . . unexpected."
Merida's father's brow furrowed. "Go on," he said, a touch warily, and the messenger cleared his throat.
"Word has travelled far and wide," said the messenger, "of the gift your daughter possesses," and here he bowed to Merida as she stared at him, "for solving problems of a . . . well. A strange and magical nature."
Merida felt every eye in the hall turn to her, and didn't put her face in her hands.