In a land of black rock and white snow, of grey sky and green sea, of winds and waters, of beauty and cruelty, the Selkie is a creature of two faces. In the winter it hunts in the dark waters of the Ice Sea, singing through storms. In summer it stalks the land, transformed in almost every respect. The sea Selkie is a fleeting, swift and strange creature, a vision of a darker world beneath the feet of every sailor. The land Selkie is a silent, grey predator, which kills with swords of bone and feeds the dead to its mewling children. The Selkie as a whole? Well, who knows how those dark eyes view the world? Only one thing is for sure: something gives it a reason to smile. - The majority of the information in this entry is taken from the observations of Rossmarus Doben (see Researchers).
Appearance. The Selkie is generally likened to a large, four-limbed pinnip, though in actuality it looks like no pinnip you could expect to encounter. A seafarer described to Rossmarus Doben his encounter with an adult male Selkie thus:
were big, bigger than any pinnip, ‘tleast 3
peds long, heavy
built, too, I woulda hated t’be in the
water with it. As it were, it reared out, turned this great big head
round and jus’ looked at me – ‘is face had a muzzle like a pinnip, but
much blunter, so it had a proper face, nearly flat, with the roundest,
darkest eyes I’ve ever seen, like it’d taken a couple bucketfuls o’
darkness up from the bottom o’ the sea, held in it’s head. And if that
stare weren’t enough, it had massive great tusks, yellowish orange an’ all
scratched, curvin’ down from his top jaw and making ‘im smile at me, like
he knew everythin’ about me. ‘Samattero’fact, it was just like ‘e were
puzzlin’ the best way to get them teeth round my own skull, an’ all the
while, twitchin great bushy white whiskers at me. Like I say, y’can tell
they’re intelligent by lookin’; anyone says there’s nothing similar ‘tween
us’n them’s never set eyes on one, ‘n that’s the truth.”
much as a fore in length,
the tusks this man described are equally developed in adult males and females,
as they are used as deadly weapons when
hunting. It is not particularly unusual to see a Selkie with broken or missing
tusks (though frankly it is fairly unusual to see a Selkie at all) as, with the
support of other pack members, Selkies can still play a key role in hunting
effectively (see Diet), even without the yellowish tusks
which give their mouths such strange, knowing grins.
As seen in bleached skulls washed up on beaches, the mouth of a Selkie contains a few large, square teeth used for breaking bones, with sharp inner edges that can shear off small pieces of meat. The tusks are placed about midway along the jaw, with no teeth behind them, and are wide enough at the base (around 3-5 nailsbreadths in cross-section) that they lift up the lips of the Selkie in a permanent smirk.
Selkies have a flexible neck and body, with a strong, curving spine, but generally sturdier than most aquatic animals, as it has to support itself outside of the water as well. The front limbs are very like short muscular arms, with large, blunt nailed and surprisingly dexterous hands on the ends. Perhaps the most extraordinary physical attribute of a Selkie, the hands have only four webbed digits, with the outermost two of those acting like opposable thumbs, which allow the animal to exert a vice-like grip on slippery prey. The palms of the hands are hairless, covered by supple pink skin. This skin is soft, but leathery and slightly rough to the touch, like a cat’s tongue.
Instead of simply tapering down to a tail, the hindquarters sport two flipper-like limbs, a little like those of the great sea monster the carteloreen, but heavily clawed and articulated, so it can also act as a foot on land. Examining the skeletal structure of these muscular oar-shaped flippers have finger bones much like those of a pinnip, but rather than being rigid within the flipper they retain their autonomy, being hinged much like a human hand, minus the thumb, and therefore able to curl outwards, forming a foot on which the Selkie stands. Its fingers are wrapped in a thick leathery skin, with long, sturdy claws protruding from these.
The hips supporting these formidable swimming aids are large, strong and heavy. When looking at a skeleton of the animal, their importance is clear; the rear flippers have to be big and strong enough to propel and steer the animal underwater, and to carry the whole weight of it on land, as it often walks on its hind legs.
A Selkie’s build gives it a distinctive, swaying gait, with swinging hips and slouching back. Whether on all fours or hind legs, they undoubtedly swagger, holding their heavy heads low in a decidedly predatory fashion.
During the winter months, the Selkie has a beautiful thick pelt, coloured in a subtle mixture of soft grays and browns. Thick fur with a white downy layer underneath traps warm air. In a manner unusual for a mammal, the Selkie sheds its whole coat during the first weeks of spring, in order to avoid overheating on land. After that it has much darker skin, usually with only a faint velvety fur growing on it, until the pelt grows back after several weeks. When it has shed its fur, it is often remarked how small and slim it looks, though this is also partly due to the weight loss that many Selkies undergo at that time of year (see Habitat/Behaviour).
The quagmire of folklore surrounding the Selkie makes it hard to discern which
of its supposed magical abilities stem from any
real abilities, but what is known of this reclusive animal suggests that the
stories could be only a small portion of the truth. The legendary thick pelt of
the Selkie, combined with a layer of blubber under the skin, means it can
withstand the perishing waters of the Ice Sea
through the long winter months. A Selkie will barely ever even venture near land
until the winter is well and truly dead.
As has been remarked, the Selkie is undoubtedly intelligent, and research has indicated it has the intellectual capabilities of a wolf or other social predator, at the very least. This is indicated in its behaviour – they form long lasting packs with strict social hierarchies, pair for life, sustain two entirely separate sets of behaviour throughout their lives, take part in elaborate singing rituals with others, and they have even been observed using primitive tools (see Habitat/Behaviour).
Perhaps the greatest ability of the Selkie lies in the bipolar nature of its lifestyle, perfectly suited to its challenging habitat. Whilst the winter months are spent far out at sea, the summer is spent entirely on land, and heralds a remarkable change in the behaviour of the animal, to the extent that they were long regarded as two separate and unrelated animals. The aforementioned thick pelt is shed when the animals leave the sea, so females can gather it to use as a lining for their nests. There have been suggestions that this dual life fosters a high level of intelligence.
The large eyes, made up entirely of pupil, offer excellent night vision, as well as helping them see well in the dark waters where they hunt. Whiskers also offer an excellent sense of touch underwater, and long tusks make for a quick kill of any prey that falls into their webbed clutches.
Finally we come to its more romantic abilities. The Selkies communicate, settle rivalries and seem to generally express themselves through strange, mournful songs, loud enough to be heard above the water, and consisting of whooping, ululating howls which unfailingly send a shiver down the spine. They seem to sing most when storms are approaching, which is unsurprising given that they hunt during storms. Their uncanny ability to apparently sense the approach of a storm, better than the most experienced sailor, is as of yet unexplained, though the Selkie researcher Rossmarus Doben suggested they had some means of feeling the build up in pressure, even pointing out an unusual cavity he found in the skulls of the animals, which he felt could have had such a purpose. Nobody is sure why they so often hunt during storms either. One would expect them to take shelter, but then the seas they live in are largely shelter-less, so perhaps they are merely taking advantage of other animals less able to cope with such conditions.
Territory. A northern species through and through, the Selkie is confined to the ice sea of Northern Sarvonia. It comes ashore only at the more isolated coastal areas of Caael'heroth and the Peninsula of Iol, though bodies found preserved in the ice of other such areas suggest they may have been more widespread in ancient times. Strangely enough, these bodies show significant differences from living Selkies. They are larger, and more beautiful and refined in their features.
Habitat/Behaviour. It is important to note that the Selkie is a creature which, as mentioned earlier, divides its life into two utterly distinct sections – the aquatic and terrestrial periods, which respectively take up the winter and summer months of the year. The animal behaves so differently at these times that it seems sensible to deal with them separately.
At the onset of winter, Selkies return to the sea, and form strictly hierarchical packs of up to ten, consisting of roughly equal numbers of males and females, and mature animals usually pair up with a mate. Once the pack is reunited, and adults have become acquainted with any new juveniles, breeding begins (see Mating section), and a social hierarchy is re-established with bouts of singing. This is the point in the year when people are most likely to encounter aquatic phase Selkies, as their loud songs seem to coincide with increased fearlessness and curiosity as they re-explore their territory; they occasionally even approach boats.
Once the packs are again familiar with each other and their home, they start hunting pinnips and large fish, moving vast distances, and frequenting the stormiest areas.
Little is known about their lives at this point as they’re very shy, but they are occasionally seen by sailors, especially before storms, when they become most active, and at night, when they’re at the surface more. It appears that they hunt in the deeper water in the day, and at night move towards the surface, though this is not a hard and fast rule. From the end of summer until the beginning of spring a Selkie will not touch land at all.
As temperatures rise at the beginning of spring, Selkies move towards the shore, and after a short period spent fattening up in the shallows, they come ashore for the whole summer.
Having built up large stores of body fat over the latter months of winter and throughout spring, the Sedna, or female Selkies, find a nest. They don’t move very far from shore, usually choosing nearby rocky ground well away from people, though they are slightly less shy at this point. The Sedna builds her nest from shed fur, helped by her breeding partner (or Sidh), who usually remains with her for the rest of the summer. He helps her to provide for and feed the pups.
The female raises the pups in the nest, not leaving even to feed until they’re weaned, by which time she’ll be a lot slimmer. She then starts going out to hunt with the male, and is a potential danger both to livestock and people she might encounter. They roam large distances, as the pups become more independent, and may go many strals inland in the summer, before lowering temperatures and re-growing coats make them head back to sea. Once the pups are hunting for themselves, the parents split up to pursue their own ends until the end of summer.
Pups learn to hunt for themselves on land, but have to relearn in water, something often cited as a reason for their apparent high intelligence.
In the water, Selkies mainly prey on large fish and
pinnips, in particular the common and caped varieties. They hunt them by
ambush, lurking in the deeper
offshore, and singling out pinnips which venture
out to hunt. What follows next has never been observed, but, from his knowledge
of their habits, Rossmarus Doben speculated that they might force the animal
down into the deepest parts of the sea, where the Selkie’s better vision and
larger build allow it to out navigate and exhaust their prey. Prey is then
grabbed by as many Selkies as possible and quickly dispatched with a bite to the
head – tusks easily go through the skull – and devoured by the animals that
caught it, with scraps going to other pack members.
Often the pack will split into two groups which hunt in different areas along a shoreline, preventing pinnips from adapting to their hunting methods by simply moving along the beach before heading out to sea.
During the short time in spring, between the aquatic and terrestrial phases of the Selkie’s lives, they have also been witnessed using a novel technique to catch shellfish, as this woman describes:
been hearing noises down on the beach at night. My husband said I was
imagining things, and he always says things like that, I was tired of it,
so I took him down just as it was getting dark one night, and we sat and
waited. There was a good moon, so when the first ones came out of the
water we could see clearly. They looked
like walking carteloreen; they seemed so big,
shining silver in the moonlight. The only noise was their heavy soft
breathing, the waves on the shore, and our two hearts thudding with shock.
They seemed to be looking for something; they were shuffling around in the
shallows, their great heads lowered so their noses were underwater. Every
now and then one would raise its head and take a big loud breath, and we
could see all the bushy whiskers highlighted in the moonlight, then it
would dip its head down again. As they shuffled along, they’d pick up what
I thought were stones with those strange hands, and put them to one side.
After a while they’d have quite a pile, and I started to realize that they
were gnackers. Then they would choose a single shell, pick it up in those
strange webbed hands, and put it on a flat rock. Next they’d find another,
smaller rock that they could hold easily in one hand, and started hitting
the shell, again, again, until they broke, and these great beasts would
bend down and lick up the fishy mush left on the rock, before picking
another shell and starting again. That was the noise I’d been hearing, the
Selkies smashing gnacker to eat. Well, my husband wasn’t so quick to cast
aspersions after that, I can tell you.”
land, Selkies prey on almost any animal they can catch, including livestock,
foxes, and tar’andus deer.
There are many stories of them taking unwary
humans. They hunt by stealth, assuming a concealed position, waiting for
prey to come near, and then creeping closer,
nailsbreadths at a time,
until a short, bear-like bound will land them on top of their prey. Again, a
bite to the skull eliminates any need to struggle with prey, and in some areas
it is not uncommon to find animal skulls with two neat holes through the top.
Mating. Except in extraordinary circumstances, Selkies are monogamous, pairing for life. Both male and female are fiercely protective of each other, and it is reasonable to assume that elements of stories where males come after humans who have stolen their mates are not entirely untrue (see Myth/Lore). Certainly there are several reliable accounts of these animals intentionally attacking and even wrecking boats that have captured or killed Selkies.
Breeding takes place at the start of the aquatic season, when packs meet again after summer. This time of year is very important to a Selkie pack, as new young join from all over – how a juvenile Selkie locates a pack is not known, though it seems likely they follow the sounds of singing - and usually it will be accepted into any pack that does not have too many members already. If for some reason there are no packs with space for juveniles in an area, adult pairs will leave their packs and start new ones.
When they return to the water, pairs will sing together to cement their bond, and mating would appear to follow after this, though it has never been observed. Considering the rigidity of the pack social structure, breeding seems not to be aggressive, as competition for mates is kept to a minimum by the monogamous nature of the Selkies.
What rivalries exist between pack members, including day to day competitions, are often settled by singing matches and intricate dances which form tests of strength, stamina and mental ability. Selkies begin any such interaction with the whole pack becoming excited, and swimming very close together in a spiraling pattern, then beginning to sing, each individual’s unique voice joining the others, building up the volume and complexity of the song until it reaches a crescendo. After this the song will continue, but Selkies will start to strike away, leaving the group one by one until only the original pair is left, oblivious to the others, still singing to each other. In this way Selkies are able to gauge each other’s memories, commitment and loyalty.
In the case of more trivial competitions, the pack will often take sides, splitting off into two dancing groups, which circle each other, gauging the support that the opposing individual has, and deciding whether there is any real division within the pack. Should this be the case, the individuals who started the dispute will again break off from the pack, and begin aggressive singing contests, with sounds even human listeners can distinguish as much fiercer, more akin to roaring. These contests seem simply to find the loudest roarer – who is inevitably declared the winner.
Usages. Though rare and hard to obtain in any quantity, the shed fur of Selkies is highly prized, not only for supposed magical qualities, but also because it can be woven into a fine, silvery wool, unrivalled in the warmth and protection from wind and rain it provides. When dipped in water it is easy to see why; it has a waxy, water repellent quality not unlike the feathers of a shupsh bird, which ensures the wearer will remain untouched by the weather.
The tusks of dead Selkies are also used as charms, and carved into knife handles and other small ornaments by Remusians and other local Ice tribes, though by the time they are found they are usually too brittle to be of more than symbolic value.
Selkies are also occasionally hunted for food by the Ice tribes, though most other peoples would abhor the killing of creatures with such anthropomorphic qualities. Either way, Selkies are not often eaten, being both fairly uncommon and inclined to move on quickly if they know they have been noticed. Rossmarus, however, remarked that some of the best specimen bones and skins he saw were those kept from animals killed for meat, or for coming too near to settlements.
Myth/Lore. The mysterious nature of the Selkie lends itself to storytellers as an ideal subject, and as such there are many myths, legends and folk tales about them.
Perhaps the most popular of these, told by people throughout Northern Sarvonia, but probably originating among the Ice tribes of the Iol peninsula – even those living far from the Selkie’s territory, is the tale of the Three Dark Eyed Sisters. Here follows a retelling of it as recorded by Rossmarus Doben:
The Three Dark Eyed Sisters. In a small
village, perched on the rockiest, stormiest area of coast in the whole of
Iol, three fishermen lived near the shore. They were excellent fishermen
and gale-hardened sailors, but they were lonely, living far from any
people and, all of them unmarried.
Researchers. The information in this entry is taken largely from the writings of Rossmarus Doben, an Arthyrón elf whose travels in the northern seas of Sarvonia introduced him to the myth of the Seductive Sedna, and her vengeful husband the Sidh. Intrigued by the stories, he sought to find out if there was any substance to them, and set about researching the reality of Selkie habits. In his inspections skeletons washed up on beaches, recordings of the wounds suffered by livestock and wild animals on the northern coasts, interviews with others who have seen them, and his diaries of the long sea voyages that attempted to watch Selkie hunting in the midst of storms, we can see not only the clearest ever picture of an elusive and extraordinary creature, but a man’s lifelong obsession with the creatures he dubbed “wild and callous sirens”.