She had told Alys of her plan. No one else knew.
Claire thought of Alys as the calmest person she knew, the person who had seen the worst of things over her long life and was not surprised or distressed by any of it anymore. Claire had watched her stitch the flesh and wrap an astringent poultice around the leg of a small child gashed by a fall on the slippery rocks, soothing both the terrified mother and the screaming toddler at the same time with her reassuring voice. She had seen her, quiet and commanding, attend the most difficult births, with the babies upside down or sideways and the mum begging for death and the dad puking in the dooryard. Claire had been there at deaths—Andras’s mother from fever and cough; a fisherman with his skull crushed by a broken mast; a young boy racked by fits from the day of his birth, finally at five dead with foam on his lips and his eyes rolled back to white. Alys had tended them, tended their families, weighted the eyelids and folded the arms, then returned to the hut to wash her tools, cook supper, and wait for the next frantic villager who would come to the door begging for help.
She had never seemed alarmed—until the day Einar and Claire told her that Claire must climb out.
“That canna be,” she had said loudly, and began to rock back and forth in her chair as if to try to soothe a deep pain. “Oh, no. Canna! You’ll die!”
She turned to Claire fiercely. “You’ll die on the cliff. You’ll fall and be broken to pieces! I’ve seen the others who was! And look at him, who was once fleet and sure-footed—look at him now, ruined by climbing out! I’m sorry, Einar, you’re a good lad and I loved your mum, but you’re bloody ruined by that mountain and I won’t have you do it to my girl!”
“It was not the mountain ruined me, Alys,” Einar said firmly. Claire, listening, was startled by the sudden sureness of him. He had always been so shy and halting in his speech. But now he spoke with certainty to Alys. “I strengthened myself for it and did it. I climbed out. It was after. And I’ll teach her of that. But for now I’ll make her strong. That’s how we’re starting, and we need you to help, Alys, for she wants her son and must have a way to find him.”
“Boat,” Alys wailed. “She can go forth on the sea, surely, if she must go.”
“No. Not by sea. I won’t.” As much as she feared the cliff and the climbing she must learn to do, Claire feared the sea more.
“It’s winter now,” Alys said to them, weakening a bit. “Mayhap in spring we can toughen her up. The sun, and air. That’ll be good for strength.”
Einar laughed. “We’ll start now, Alys,” he said, “and spring will come before we know it. It always does.”
It did. Spring came. Through all the months of winter she had, each day, lain on the hut floor, put her hands behind her head, and raised herself. Her scarred abdomen had become tight and smooth, and she no longer breathed hard at the effort.
She told Einar, “I’m ready.”
He laughed. They were standing beside the door of the hut, and he told her to run up the hillside path, up to the waterfall, and back down to where he stood.
There was a fine rain falling, as there had been all week. The path was slick with spring mud. Claire made a face.
“It’s too slippery.”
“It’s smooth and dry, if you think on it compared to the mountain.”
“Run up it. Grip with your feet.”
Claire looked down at her own feet, encased in thick wool socks under her coarse leather sandals.
“Take them off,” Einar said.
Claire sighed and obeyed. She pulled her sandals off, and the socks. The ground was very cold, still. Spring was young and the drizzle was chilly. She wiggled her toes into the cold, wet earth, to get the grip, and then began to run.
The path steepened partway up and she slipped, scraping her knee on a rock. She righted herself and now her hands were thick with mud and a red trickle of blood patterned her leg. Catching her breath, she eyed the wet path above; then she took a breath and continued. Run, Einar had said. She had climbed this path often before, but always slowly, placing her feet carefully. Now she ran. She tried to dig her toes into the ground, but they slid and she fell again and righted herself again. By the time she reached the top of the hill and stood by the rushing waterfall, she found herself in tears. She was coated in mud, shaking with cold, and her knee was swollen and sore. From where she stood, she could see him below, looking up, watching her. She hoped he couldn’t see her crying.
“Now down!” she heard him call.
Sliding partway, grasping tree roots to keep from falling, she stumbled down the treacherous path to the bottom. She wiped her tearstained face with muddy hands and hurried to where Einar was waiting.
“Good,” he told her. “Now do it again.”
Each day through the summer she ran the hill path. On fine days, the mist of the falls made rainbows, and she began to smile when she reached that place, instead of weeping as she had the first time. It began to feel not easy, but doable. She began to come down grinning and proud.
Einar grinned back at her. “You’re growing strong,” he said, then added, “for a girl.”
She glanced at him and saw that he was teasing her. His look was fond. He turned away quickly and tried to hide the fondness, but Claire knew. She had seen him look that way at a half-grown lamb prancing in the meadow on a midsummer afternoon, admiring its agile charm. She had seen him look that way at her, and knew there was a longing to his gaze.
When she felt she had mastered the path, he made it harder. He tied her hands together so that she couldn’t use them to steady herself. When the spring moisture had dried, the path became gritty and treacherous in a different way. She couldn’t grip it with her toes. When she fell, bruising her shoulder because she couldn’t break the fall with her tethered hands, he taunted her. When she wept, he ignored her. She dried her tears and ran.
One afternoon Bryn, her baby in a sling on her chest, stopped by the hut to get a remedy for a spider bite on her ankle. Alys and Claire looked at the hot, swollen sore. “Comfrey root oil,” Alys told her. “I have it here. Sit while I heat it.”
Bryn handed little Elen to Claire. “I’ll take her outside,” Claire said, and she carried the sturdy, curly-headed girl to the dooryard to show her some black-eyed Susans in bloom.
Einar appeared. He came every day now, if Claire didn’t run to the sheep meadow and meet him there.
“It’s Bryn’s baby,” she told him. “Isn’t she sweet?” She handed a picked flower to Elen, who grasped it in a fist and waved it in the air.
“Run with her,” Einar said.
Claire was startled, but she laughed. Then, holding the baby, she ran around the small dooryard. Elen waved her arms in delight.
“Let me feel her weight.” Einar took the baby from Claire. She could see that he had no experience with a human infant, though he was sure and facile with lambs. She watched as with his large hands under her, Einar assessed how heavy Elen was.
“You must start running with weight,” he said, and handed the baby back. “I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
The next day he was back with a crude leather sack half filled with rocks. He tied it to Claire’s back and told her to run the hill path. She did so, and arrived panting at the waterfall. She was tempted to throw a few of the rocks into the rushing torrent, to ease the burden for the run back down. But she didn’t. She ran with the weight, and then ran the path again, and found that her breathing changed, to accommodate the heaviness. After a few runs, the longer breaths she needed came naturally, and it was as if she had always carried it. Alys told her that it was the way of women, to tote a newborn and then adjust as it grew until by the time the child was plump and heavy, the weight seemed naught. Einar left a pile of rocks beside the base of the path and told her to add one more to the sack each day.
Her legs grew muscled and firm. She showed him, one day, how strong and sure they had become. He felt where she showed him, pressing his large hand against the taut, smooth skin above her ankle, and nodded. Then he left his hand there, encircling her leg, and they looked at each other for a moment before he took it away. She felt his fondness again, and her own for him, and the futility of it for them both. She could not stay here.
One morning Einar set a thick log on end. It reached to her knee.
“Step up on that,” he said.
She reached for his hand, needing it for support, but he backed away. Claire checked the log to be certain it was firm on the ground. Then she measured the height with her eyes, raised one leg up, placed it on the top of the log, shifted her weight, and picked up her other foot. But she lost her balance and fell back.
All afternoon she stepped onto and down from the log. At first she held her arms wide, using them for balance. Then Einar approached with the coarse rope he had used to restrain her hands on the steep path.
“Wait,” she told him. “I don’t need my arms tied.” Firmly she held her own hands at her sides. Wobbling at first, she tested herself again and again until without moving her arms she could maintain her balance as she mounted the log.
“Good,” he said. The next day he brought a higher, narrower log.
Winter came. Outdoors, she ran and climbed on ice. He began to teach her to use a rope, to knot it and twirl it and fling it so that it caught on a rock or a branch. At first it caught things at random. Then, after a bit, she found she could aim with the noose of the rope, that she could choose a log or a bush and catch it precisely on most of her attempts. Then he made the noose smaller. He directed her to capture smaller things: a seedling pine reaching upward from a crevice; a stone balanced on a tree stump. He took away the thick, coarse rope and gave her a thin, woven cord that whistled when she spun it out into the cold air and snapped a twig with its tiny noose.
Inside the hut, in a corner that Alys had cleared for her, she walked back and forth on a piece of rope stretched taut between two posts, her toes gripping the rope, her breath even, her eyes focused, her arms at first stretched for balance, and then, as spring approached, her hands at her side and her movement steady and controlled. She walked the rope forward and backward. She stood on it still as a post: on one leg, then the other. Slowly she bent one knee, lowered herself, remained there poised, then rose again.
Yellow-wing twittered and pranced on his perch, excited as he watched her. Alys, watching, held her breath and then gasped at each new move.
But Claire was calm. She felt strong. She felt ready.
“Now?” she asked Einar.
Einar shook his head. “Next, we begin to strengthen your arms,” he said.
By the following spring, Bryn’s baby, Elen, was sturdy and walking. Bryn was expecting another and hoped for a boy. Bethan, Delwyth, and Eira were tall now, with long legs and secrets that made them whisper and giggle.
Most of the village had lost interest in Claire. She was no longer new and mysterious. The scandal of her child was forgotten; there had been more recent disgraces—a woman who took up with her sister’s husband, a fisherman who was caught stealing from his own brother. The villagers took little note of Claire’s odd new hobby; the hill paths were not visible, and Alys’s hut was separate.
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