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We were asked to write about the sea.I started with an image of a seal swimming through the waves, but I had no idea what to do with it. So I wrote the opening scene and then watched as the rest of the story wrote itself. I had no idea where it was going or what would happen until I got to the end and realised that it was finished. Sometimes they work like that.

The Return of the Ring

The seal, streamlined and elegant, arrowed through the waves, heading towards the shore. She splished and splashed in the water, just for the fun of watching the sun cast rainbows through the droplets. She slowed down as she got close to the land and when a final wave pushed her gently onto the sandy beach she was barely moving with any speed at all. She flopped in an ungainly fashion up the beach, away from the rising tide, heading for the dry sand. Once she reached the dunes, well away from the domain of the sea, the touch of the land transformed her from a seal into an elegant, naked lady who scratched herself vigorously and cursed the itching caused by the sea salt and sand drying on her skin. She headed purposefully for the cave where she had stored her clothes. When she got there, she was rather irritated to find a leprechaun sitting on them, "What are you doing here Patrick?" she asked. "And stop sitting on my clothes. I need to get dressed."

"Sorry, Maeve," said Patrick, getting up and moving further back into the cave.

Maeve wiped herself down with a towel in a vain attempt to get rid of the sand and the salt. She was looking forward to a nice hot shower when she got home. She clambered into her clothes. "Well, Patrick," she said again, "why are you skulking in my cave so early in the day? It’s only just after dawn. You usually stay in bed until at least lunch time. What’s got into you?"

The leprechaun had the grace to look embarrassed. "I need your help," he said. "I’ve lost my wedding ring." He held up his left hand. Maeve could clearly see the mark on his third finger where the ring had once been.

"What’s that got to do with me?" she asked.

"It fell off my finger yesterday when I was out fishing, just past the headland," explained Patrick. "And now it’s somewhere on the bottom of the sea. It’s way out of my reach down there, but what with you being a selkie and all, I thought you might do me a favour and get it back for me."

"So that’s why you’re up so early," said Maeve. "You wanted to catch me after I finished hunting for breakfast and before I went off to work."

Patrick nodded. "That’s right," he said. "Also I wanted to get out of the house before Wendy noticed my naked finger. She’ll kill me if she ever finds out I’ve lost my wedding ring."

"Do you have any idea how big the bottom of the sea is and how tiny a wedding ring is?" asked Maeve. "The chances of me finding it are vanishingly small."

"Oh you’ll have no trouble finding it," said Patrick. "Rings really want to be found. They’re always slipping off people’s  fingers and getting themselves lost. Then they start to regret what they’ve done and so they make sure that somebody finds them as soon as possible. You know how it works. You’ve seen The Lord of the Rings."

Both Maeve and Patrick were huge fans of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of movies. Patrick even owned two copies of the extended DVD versions because the documentary material about the making of the movies was slightly different on each set.

"Are you saying that your wedding ring is a magic ring?" asked Maeve.

"Well, not like the One Ring," said Patrick. "It’s not super powerful or anything. But it does cast a little love spell. I find it very useful for keeping Wendy sweet. That’s another reason I want it back."

Maeve sighed and began to get undressed again. "Well, since it’s you, and since you asked so nicely..."

She ran down the beach, moving faster and faster as the siren song of the sea called to her. She dived straight into the waves, transforming immediately into a seal. The water was cold and refreshing on her skin. She swam out towards the headland where Patrick said the ring had fallen off his finger. When she reached the approximate position, she took big breath and dived down to start hunting. She swam methodically just above the sea bed, tracing a rectangular search pattern, looking for the glint of gold, hoping the ring was getting bored with sitting all alone on the bottom of the sea, praying that it would signal its presence to her. Every so often she surfaced to take another gulp of air before diving down again to carry on searching. Back and forth… Back and forth… A flatfish flapped away in sudden panic raising a huge cloud of sand into her field of vision. She waited patiently for the sand to settle before resuming her search. Back and forth… Back and forth… Seaweed strands waved seductively as hidden currents caressed them. The occasional crab scuttled with great determination from rock to rock, engaged on important crab business. And still she searched. Back and forth… Back and forth…

There! A sudden gleam of gold. She swam down for a closer look. Yes! Half buried at a jaunty angle in the sand, the ring beckoned to her. She couldn’t pick it up – her flippers were far too ungainly for that – so she opened her mouth and scooped it up, along with a clump of sand. She shook her head, irritated by the gritty feeling in her mouth, trying to keep the ring safe while the sea washed the sand away. It was all too complicated and she lost control. The ring dropped to the back of her mouth triggering a swallowing reflex in her throat. And just like that the ring slipped down to her stomach. Oh well. At least it was safe there.

She swam leisurely back to the shore. Every so often, as shoals of tasty looking fish fluttered past, she swam after them and gobbled them down. After all, she needed to keep her strength up, and a snack was always welcome.

* * * *

Maeve walked back to the cave and collected her clothes again. "You were right," she said to Patrick. "I think the ring really did want to be found."

Patrick looked relieved. "Oh, thank goodness," he said.

"But," said Maeve, "the bad news is that I accidentally swallowed it."

Patrick frowned. Then he reached down behind a rock and picked up a sieve. He handed it to Maeve. "I thought that might happen," he said. "So I came prepared."

Maeve laughed, and handed it back to him. "I’ve got one of my own," she said. "Your ring isn’t the first shiny that I’ve rescued from the sea. At least half the time I end up swallowing what I pick up. It’s a bugger, not having hands when you’re down at the bottom of the sea!"

"I’ll see you back here at this time tomorrow," said Patrick. "That should be long enough, don’t you think?"

"I imagine it will be," agreed Maeve. "Do you think you can keep Wendy’s eyes away from your empty finger until then?"

"With a bit of luck," said Patrick, and he turned to go.

"By the way," said Maeve, "you might want to think about the reward you’re going to give me tomorrow."

"Reward?" asked Patrick.

"Reward," said Maeve firmly. "I don’t work for free, you know. And I don’t want any of your leprechaun nonsense. Don’t try giving me fairy gold fresh from the pot at the end of a rainbow. We both know that the gold will turn into ashes after twenty four hours."

Patrick looked hurt. "Would I do that to you Maeve?" he asked

"Of course you would," she said. "You’re a  leprechaun. It’s in your nature."

* * * *

After such a dramatic start, the rest of Maeve’s day was a bit of an anticlimax. Nevertheless, she noted that it did seem to go a lot more smoothly than usual. The faerie folk she met were uniformly polite and obliging and even her interactions with humans had none of the rudeness verging on racism that humans so often exhibited when they dealt with any of the fae. She put it down to the love spell that the ring was generating inside her. The effect was so peaceful and calming that she began to wonder if she really wanted to return the ring to Patrick. But a promise is a promise and so, the next morning, she went back to the cave. Patrick was there, clutching a brown paper parcel to his chest.

"Have you got it?" he asked anxiously.

"Of course I have," said Maeve. She handed him the ring. He took it from her and sniffed it suspiciously. "Don’t worry," she reassured him. "I washed it thoroughly with anti-bacterial soap. Wendy won’t suspect a thing."

Patrick slipped the ring on to his finger. It clung tightly to him. "It seems glad to be back home," said Patrick. "I don’t think it will run away again." He handed the brown paper parcel to Maeve. "Here’s your reward," he said.

Maeve unwrapped the parcel and stared in bewilderment at what was revealed. Her reward appeared to be a small square of fabric. "What is it?" she asked.

"It’s a gadget," said Patrick. He took the fabric square from her and unfolded it, revealing a wide-mouthed, fine-mesh net with two straps on it. "One strap goes round your neck," he explained, "and the other goes round your chest. Make sure you put it on before you dive in the water because after you change into a seal you won’t have the dexterity to fit it properly. It won’t get in the way of your flippers while you swim and it won’t slow you down. Water will just pass through the mesh so there will be almost no resistance. And the best thing of all is that if you pick up anything with your mouth you can just spit it straight into the net. It will be quite safe in there – the mouth of the net is a one-way valve. It lets things in, but it won’t let them out again until you do this." He twisted the net’s mouth through 180 degrees anti-clockwise and Maeve saw that the net opened up so that its contents could be removed. Patrick closed the valve again by twisting it clockwise. "You’ll love this once you get used to it," he said. "And nothing else you find will ever have to go through the terrible experience my ring has just had to endure."

"Thank you," said Maeve. "I think..." She sounded doubtful.

The ring giggled as it listened to the conversation, but neither of them heard it.

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