As it always did, their word game dissolved into nonsense and they laughed as they carried the basket back down the hill.
Time passed quickly now. The seasons flowed into one another and Claire was no longer surprised as the changes came. Like the other villagers, she bundled herself against the increasing cold as each winter approached, and welcomed each new spring. The growth of the children made her aware of time passing. Bethan and her companions were no longer giggling, exuberant children; they were becoming taller, quieter, preparing for womanhood to come. Elen, no longer a baby, was the small, mischievous one now, playing the imaginative games that her sister once had. The redheaded twin boys scuffled and scampered together while Bryn, their mother, fretted over their misbehavior and laughed at their antics.
Each spring the snow melted and Claire took Yellow-wing’s cage outside to hang it once again from the tree. Each fall, when the wind swept in from the sea and the leaves fell rustling on the ground, she brought her little companion into the cottage once again.
“How long will he live?” she asked Einar one day when she was feeding the bird. Suddenly she was aware that each life had a beginning and an end.
“Birds have a long life. He’ll be here to keep Alys company when you be gone.”
Claire glanced at him. He had not mentioned it in a long time, the fact of her leaving. He tested her strength, still, and kept her working at it, but he had not spoken of the climbing out for many months. It had been six years now since the day she had been carried in from the sea, and five since the morning that Elen’s birth returned the memory of her son to her. Somewhere he would be a half-grown boy: running, shouting, playing.
Einar saw her questioning look.
“Soon,” he told her.
With summer approaching, plants coming into flower, and Alys in need of more help as her strength began to ebb, there was a great deal to do. The daily exercise had long been part of Claire’s routine. She rose before dawn each day and lifted sacks weighted with stones many times with each arm before she put the kettle over the fire. Then, while she waited for the water to boil for tea, she practiced the lifting of her legs, and the raising of her upper body as she lay flat. She could now do these things with great ease. It made her laugh to remember how difficult they had been when she started. Now she tied heavy rocks to her ankles and wrists but still performed the familiar motions without effort.
She cleaned Yellow-wing’s cage as she did each morning. It had been raining for some days, but now the rain seemed to have ended; it was a simple cloudy spring morning. She carried the cage outside and hung it from the willow tree beside the hut. She whistled and chirped back at the bird, who was excited at being outdoors. Then she heard a familiar answering whistle and turned to greet Einar, who was approaching from the meadow path.
“Alys baked bread yesterday,” she told him cheerfully. “And she made extra. We have a loaf ready for you.”
“Look at the sky,” Einar said.
She did. Above the looming cliff, the pale wadded clouds reminded her of Einar’s sheep when, after the snowmelt, they still huddled for warmth but with heads down moved across the meadow nibbling at new shoots. But somehow she knew that wasn’t what he meant.
“There’s sun behind. The rain’s done for a while.”
Those who tended stock, like Einar, or who farmed, like Andras, or all of the village fishermen—they knew the sky. Claire nodded cheerfully at what he said. “Good. I can do the washing and hang it out on the bushes.”
“No,” Einar said. “No more washing. It’s time to climb out.”
There were still stars visible in the night sky. A sliver of spring moon was low, just above the quiet-moving sea. In the meadow, the huddled sheep were silent. The only sound was the rush of water from the falls above, through the woods to the side.
They stood there together. Then Claire said, “I’m sorry for what happened to you.”
“Aye. I know.”
He had told her, at last, how he had been damaged. It was worse than she could have imagined. But she knew she must not think of it now. When she reached the top would be the time. She would have to plan, then, and what he had revealed to her would be part of her planning. But for now she must concentrate only on the climb.
“He’ll be there at the top, do you think?”
“Not at first. You’ll wait there and he’ll come. Don’t think on it now.”
“But I will know him?”
“Aye. You will.”
“Do you think I’ll make it, Einar?”
“You will.” He laughed and touched her cheek. “I’ve given you what’s been in my mind for all these years, since I climbed out. Every night since then I’ve climbed out again. I’ve felt again each rock, each bit of moss, each twig and hollow and cleft and turn: at night, when other men are mending their nets or sharpening their tools or making love to their women—I’ve been remembering the climbing. I have a map in my mind and I’ve given it to you and you’ll be safe.”
He chuckled and hugged her. “You must. If you don’t, I’ll be made a fool of, for I was the one what made you strong! Let me see your pack now, to make it tight against you.”
Claire knelt on the path at the base of the cliff while Einar leaned his walking sticks against the rock wall and adjusted the pack on her back.
“Knife?” he asked her.
She showed him how it was firmly knotted onto the cord that hung around her neck.
It was coiled neatly and wrapped around her shoulder.
“The water gourd’s in your pack. Don’t try to reach it when you’re on the rock, even if you thirst fierce. There are places where you can stop and rest. Ledges, they’re called. If you climb steady you’ll reach the first one at midday. You can stop to drink there.”
“Yes, I know. You told me.”
“What’s this?” He was feeling her pack. “Down by the water gourd, with the gloves?”
“Alys put that in. Herb salve for healing.”
“Aye, that’s good. Mayhap when you use the rope, you’ll burn your hands, even with the gloves. If you slip on the rope, it pulls against your skin. But don’t let go.”
“I won’t. You know I won’t.”
“Don’t put on the gloves lessen you use the rope. You need to feel with your fingers.”
She showed him. “Alys made this. You can’t see it because it’s too dark, but feel.”
She handed him the flat, round object and waited while he felt it.
“It’s just an ordinary rock. But Alys sewed a piece of cloth around it. It’s bright red. She made it from the woolen hat I wore last winter.”
“When I get to the top? You told me there’s a very steep place just before. The place I must be so careful . . .”
“Aye, the place with the rock steps. Don’t look down.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll do it just the way you told me, feeling for each step, being so careful, not looking down, not being gleeful because it’s the top.”
“When I finish climbing all those steps and am at the top, and feel my feet in the solid earth? Then I’ll fling this rock out into the air and down.”
“The sun will be setting.”
“Yes. I’ll fling my rock out into the sunset. You look tomorrow. Look on the ground down here for the bright red. Then you’ll know that I did it. That I climbed out.”
“Aye. I’ll look. It’ll be a sign.”
He touched her cheek and held his hand there tenderly for a moment. “I will miss you, Water Claire,” he said.
“I will never forget you, Fierce Einar,” she replied.
They both smiled at the long-ago names. Then he kissed her, turned away, and reached for his sticks. She would not see him again. It was time for her to start.
The base of the cliff was large boulders, some of them slippery with damp moss on their shadowed sides. They were easy for her to climb; she had practiced here occasionally, after dark. So her feet (bare, though her sandals were in her pack for later) knew the feel and shape of them. But it would be too easy to dismiss the dangers even of this familiar beginning place. A slip on the moss, a misplaced step, a turned ankle, and her mission would end before it began. So she reminded herself to be vigilant. She focused on each move, placing each foot meticulously, feeling the surface with her toes, assessing the texture, shifting her weight before she took the next step. Once she jostled a small rock in passing and sent a shower of stones clattering down. She scolded herself for that. It was a small misjudgment and caused no harm. But she could not afford a single mistake this day.
Einar had told her to think of nothing during the climb but the climb itself. But now and then, during this early section that she could maneuver with ease, she found her thoughts straying from the cliff. If only, the voice in her mind whispered. What if.
If only I had taken the baby that day. What if I had brought my little son here, and he could have grown up with Einar teaching him about the birds, and the lambs . . .
He would have died in the sea. She shuddered, thinking of it.
What if Einar had not tried to climb out? What if he had stayed whole? Then he and I could go together, and find my son, and . . .
She willed her thoughts to stop. Concentrate, she told herself. Concentrate only on the cliff. On the climb.
There were plants here, in places where wind-borne seeds had dropped into the rocky crevices and been nourished by melted snow, sprouting now in this early spring, their stems reaching up. By daybreak she would be able, perhaps, to see them move as they sought the sun. Now, in the dark, she could only feel them there, tendrils brushing against her bare legs. She tried not to trample their fragile growth.
Ah. Here. This was why Einar had told her not to let her thoughts wander. Here was the place he had described, where suddenly, in this massed section of boulders, was a rift, a deep gap in the rocks, a place where she must jump to the next foothold. He knew it would still be dark when she reached it.
“Why don’t we go there now, in daylight, just for practice?” she had asked him. “Then I’ll know exactly the length of the jump, and—Oh.” She caught herself, realizing that it would be impossible for him. He struggled each day, making his way with difficulty down from the sheep pasture in order to teach and help her. He could not scramble up this mass of uneven rocks.
But he had helped her to create the practice place. He measured the distance and height; they built the shapes from mud and let it harden. She jumped it again and again. It was not difficult. She was to leap from the top of a jagged boulder across the gap to a flat granite surface. He had her do it repeatedly on moonless nights, so that she could not see, and she began to feel the distance so accurately that her feet found the same landing place every time.
“You’ll come to a place where you must squeeze betwixt two rocks as high as your shoulder. Matched. Same size, like Bryn’s boys,” he had told her. “When you get yourself through—mind you don’t catch your pack in the squeeze—then you go upward to the top of the next rock. It slants up, and there’s a sharp edge you’ll feel. That’s where you plant yourself, on that edge, and jump outward and down.”
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