It was hard for Claire to understand seasons. Her returning memory had told her nothing of the way the leaves in summer showed their undersides as a storm approached, then withered and dropped when the nights were chill. Now there was the cold, and she could not remember it. She had never had a coat before, or shawl, she was sure of that. And rain! It had been new to her in summer, and now, with the cold, it was mixed with spits of ice, and who was to guess what might follow! Each day came as a surprise, though Alys, realizing, tried to prepare her and explain.
Claire knocked at the door of the wood-slatted shed where Lame Einar lived, but there was no answer. She pushed the door open, peeked in, and saw that the ashes of his fire were still hot; wisps of smoke drifted from the chimney and disappeared with the wind into the gray sky. He would be up in the field, she knew. She closed the door tight, pulled her shawl closer around her, and climbed the path.
She found him rubbing salve into the leg of a sheep that had caught itself in a thorny bush.
“Here—help hold him still, would you? He keeps pulling away.”
Claire wrapped her arms around the neck of the impatient creature and tried to soothe him by murmuring meaningless sounds. “Shhhh, shhhh,” she said, as she had heard Bryn whisper to the baby when she cried. She leaned her head against the matted fleece of the sheep’s neck. It felt like a pillow, though its smell was strong.
“There.” Einar released the leg, and the sheep shook itself and pulled loose from Claire’s grasp. It bounded away through the high, dry grass, and she could hear the nasal bleats of greeting from its flock.
He looked at her and said, “You’re cold.” Claire laughed at him because he had said the obvious. She was shivering, and breathing again into her own cupped, mittened hands. “Come down to my shed,” he told her. He looked out over the flock, saw that they were huddled together, heads hunched low, out of the sleet. Then he went down the path and she followed.
She sat on the heap of skins that he used for sleeping while he poked the ashes into a red glow and then added a thick piece of oak branch. She could feel the warmth expand.
“Tell me why you’ve come out on a foul day like this,” he asked her.
She hesitated, uncertain how he would react. Finally she said carefully, “They tell me you climbed out, once.”
He glanced over, then turned back to the fire and rearranged it a bit, though it seemed to Claire unnecessary. She thought that perhaps he simply needed to look away.
“Aye. I did,” he acknowledged. “Do you want to know the why of it?”
“The how. I want to know the how. I look at the cliff and it looms there, unclimbable.”
Einar sighed. He rose with an effort from where he knelt on the ground, then moved over to sit beside her on the skins. They both stared at the fire.
“I best tell you the why, first, so you understand.”
Claire nodded, knowing she would need to tell him her own why when the time came.
Spatters of sleet tapped against the roof of the shed. But they were warm inside.
“I never knew my mum,” he began. “She died when she birthed me. Alys came, they said, and helped, but I was big and she labored too long, and bled, and she died. It happens sometimes.”
Claire nodded. Alys had told her that it did. She remembered how interested Alys had been, hearing her tell her own story, of the cutting. “It be different here,” Alys had said.
“My father was a fisherman, and he was out with the boats. It was this time of year, with the cold and the wind. He likely had a bad time of it too. But he was a hard man, my father. Strong. Used to the weather.”
He shrugged. “As I am,” he added.
“But you’re not hard, Einar.”
“Hardened to the weather, I am. I must be, for the creatures.”
She knew he meant his flock of sheep.
“I don’t feel the cold as you do,” he told her.
“You’ve always been here. You’ve learned to live with it.”
They sat silently for a moment. Then he began again to talk. “They say he came in from the sea that evening, and emptied his nets and tied his boat. All who saw him fell silent, for no one wanted to be the one to tell him that his son was birthed healthy but his wife was already stiffening and being readied for a coffin.”
He looked away. Then he said, “They say he had wanted a son. But not the one what took his wife.”
Outside, a branch broke in the wind, skittered across the dooryard of his shed, and slammed against the wall. Claire could picture the fisherman arriving home in weather just like this to find a squalling infant and a wife turned blue and lost.
“It was Alys kept him from flinging me into the fire. Others came and held him down. He roared into the night, they say, cursing all flesh and the wind and the gods, even cursing the sea that be his livelihood.
“He was a hard man to start, they say. My mum, she softened him a bit, but when she was gone he turned to stone. And the stone had an edge to it, sharpened against me, for I had killed her.”
“But it wasn’t—” Claire began, then stopped. He hadn’t heard her.
“Others raised me. Village women. Then, when I was old enough, he tooken me back. Said it was time for me to pay for what I done.”
“What did that mean, ‘old enough’? How old were you?”
He thought. “Six years, mayhap? My front teeth had fallen out.”
She shuddered at the thought of a little boy expected to atone for his mother’s death.
“I didn’t know him. It was as if a stranger took me. I went to his cottage, for they said I must, and that night he gave me food and drink, and a blanket to wrap around me as I slept on a pile of straw. In the morning he kicked me awake before it was light and told me he would make a fisherman of me, for I owed him.
“After that, every day, until I was growed, I went with him to the boat and on the boat out onto the sea. He never spoke a soft word. Never told me about the kinds of leaves, or creatures, or pointed to the stars in the sky. Never sang a song to me, or held my hand. Just kicked me across the deck if I be clumsy, laughed when I be twisted in the ropes and sliding pure froze in the water that washed aboard. Slapped me in the head when the sea was rough and I puked over the side. He hoped I would wash overboard and drown. He told me that.
“He made me climb the mast to untangle the lines and he laughed when my hands slid from the salty wood and I fell onto the deck. When I broke my arm he kept me on the sea all day, hauling nets, then sent me to Alys that night and told her to have it fixed by morning or he’d break the other.”
“You should have killed him,” Claire said in a low voice.
He didn’t speak for a moment. Then he said, “I had already killed my mother.”
He stood suddenly, leaning on his stick. He went to the door, cracked it open, and breathed the wind. She was afraid he was going to go out into the bitter cold, that telling her his past had now forced him to punish himself in some way. But after a moment he pulled the door tightly closed and came back. He sat down again, leaning his stick against the wall, and took several deep breaths.
“I growed very strong,” he said.
“I growed taller than my father and so strong, I could have picked him up and flung him into the sea. But I never thought to do that. I stayed silent. I obeyed him. I cooked for him like a wife and washed his clothes and was a wife in other ways too terrible to mention. I made myself into stone. I willed myself deaf when he cursed me and blind to the look of hatred in his eyes. I waited.”
“Waited for what?”
“To be old enough, strong enough, brave enough, to leave. To climb out.”
“What went wrong?” she asked him.
“Naught in the climbing out. I trained for it. I was ready. I knew I could do it and I did. It went wrong after.” Einar moved one damaged foot slightly, staring at it. His tone was bitter. Then it changed and became more gentle, and curious. “Why do you be asking about this?”
“I must try,” Claire told him. “I must try to climb out.”
He stared at her. “No woman ever done so,” he said.
“I must. I have a child out there. A son. I must find him.”
She had known he wouldn’t be scornful, for that was not his nature. She had thought, though, that he might laugh at the impossibility of her plan. But he did not. And she realized that he already knew of the child, that he had heard the talk of it.
He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then said, “Push against this.” He extended his arm toward her, his hand held out upright at if to shove something away.
“Like this?” Claire held her hand up against his.
He nodded. “Push.”
She did, summoning her strength to try to move his hand, to bend his arm. It was firm. Rigid. Immobile. Her own arm trembled with her effort. Finally she gave up. Her hand dropped back into her lap. It ached.
Einar nodded. “You’re strong, at least in the arms. Can you climb?”
Claire pictured the vertical rock cliff that hung over the village and hid the sun for half the day. She shook her head. “I climb the path up to the meadow where you keep the sheep. You’ve seen me do it often enough. And sometimes, gathering herbs, I go up into the woods near the waterfall. I never get tired. And it’s steep there. But I know that’s not what you mean.”
“You must start to harden yourself. I’ll show you. It won’t be easy. You must want it.”
“I do want it,” Claire said. Her voice broke. “I want him.”
Einar paused, and thought, then said, “It be better, I think, to climb out in search of something, instead of hating what you’re leaving.
“It will be a long time,” he told her, “to make you ready.”
“Not days or weeks,” he said.
“Mayhap it will take years,” he told her. “For me, it was years.”
“How do I start?” Claire asked.
Einar says I must do this every single day. It strengthens my belly, where the scar is. Watch.”
Alys glanced over from the fire, where she was stirring a pot of onion soup. She watched for a moment as Claire, lying on the floor of the hut, wedged her feet under a slab of rock that jutted from the base of the wall, and then lifted the upper half of her body and held herself at a slant, taut, for a moment before she lowered herself slowly back down and took a breath.
“Surely you didn’t show that lad your scar?”
“Of course not. But I told him of it.” Claire bit her lip, held her breath, and raised herself once again. Then down, slowly. And again.
“There,” she said, gasping, after a few moments. “That’s ten. He told me to do it ten times every day.”
“Here. Have some soup and bread now,” Alys told her. “I’ll start bottling some strengthening brews for you, as well.” She glanced up at the dried herbs hanging from the beams that supported the hut’s roof. Claire could hear her murmuring the names—white willow, nettle, meadowsweet, goldenseal—and knew she was pondering what combinations to create.
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