Máiréad stretched and opened her eyes, blinking against the late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the window. Yawning, she got up and went to look for Liam and the Cailleach. She called out, wondering where they had gone while she’d slept. When she couldn’t find them in the house, she went to the front door. Opening it, she saw them sitting on the stone wall and stopped to watch them, their heads bent together, clearly talking intently enough that they hadn’t heard the door creak as she’d opened it. She leaned against the doorframe, watching them and thinking about how much she would miss them when she left. She decided to ask Liam to look in on the Cailleach from time to time and ask the Cailleach to continue to help Liam figure out what to do with his gift but also to be there for him to talk to. She smiled to herself, feeling good about leaving the two of them in each other’s care.
When the Cailleach finished talking, Liam looked down to absorb what she had said and caught movement out of the corner of his eye and then realized it was Máiréad. When he looked at her, she had a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth and his heart twisted a little, thinking about how gray his world would be without her around. The Cailleach heard the sigh he didn’t even realize he had let out and felt bad for the boy, but she knew both Máiréad and Liam had important work to accomplish. She wondered if they were strong enough to follow through on their destinies. Would they be able to stay the course?
She wasn’t sure, but she hoped they would both be able to bear up under the pressure they were going to face. Their way would not be easy, she thought, but she knew it was something they were capable of, as long as they believed in themselves. She considered telling them exactly that, but decided against it. She remembered being young and thinking she knew better than her elders. She chuckled inside, remembering the times she had learned a lesson the hard way because she had ignored well meant advice.
The Cailleach motioned to Máiréad and suggested they join her inside to continue their discussion. She wanted to be sure the list they were creating was exhaustive, so Máiréad was as prepared as she could possibly be when it came time to leave. As they walked back to the house, the Cailleach added a mental note to the list, to make sure to prepare Máiréad emotionally for her arrival in the Selkie Kingdom. She hadn’t been able to forget the other day as they went to trade in the pearls when Máiréad was unable to hide her thoughts. The Cailleach knew Máiréad would be able to withstand the physical rigors of the journey, and that she was mentally strong enough to handle meeting a family who did not know she existed, but emotionally she wasn’t sure Máiréad had considered what it would be like to be surrounded by her selfie brethren, or what it would feel like to be in a home she had been denied by palace intrigue and someones conniving to kill her parents while she was still a young pup. The Cailleach was also aware that whoever had killed Máiréad’s parents might not be thrilled at her arrival and would be watching her and looking for weaknesses to exploit. Máiréad was too young and too innocent to even be able to imagine the depths of hatred someone can have for their monarch and her family. Which reminded the Cailleach to have a private conversation with Máiréad about not allowing herself to be matched with anyone before she had regained her rightful place and had time to consider the pros and cons of the match. The Cailleach didn’t think for one minute that there wouldn’t be unscrupulous people at court looking to make their family part of the royal lineage. The Cailleach rubbed her chin as she walked through the door, eyeing Liam and his concerted effort to avoid sitting next to Máiréad, and decided she also needed to talk to her about Liam and what their relationship was and how that could change if she wanted it to but that she would be better off waiting to make that decision until after she had gone to her kingdom and found her place and decided what she wanted out of her life. The Cailleach doubted Máiréad understood how much she would hurt Liam if she chose him now and then chose her kingdom after getting there. Yes, she thought, as she watched the two of them, assiduously avoiding each other’s personal space. I will need to have that conversation sooner rather than later.
The three of them sat and talked for the better part of an hour, listing anything and everything they could think of, from how to get into and out of the ascension jewelry by herself since she wouldn’t be able to carry it with her in her seal form, to how to make sure she had memorized the map so she wouldn’t get lost as she travelled, to how to assert her right to the throne when she arrived. The exhaustive list was overwhelming to Máiréad. She couldn’t believe how many things she had to learn or figure out in the next month. She turned to the Cailleach and thanked her, saying, “I wouldn’t have been near ready if you hadn’t stopped me and convinced me I needed to think before embarking on this journey.” The Cailleach nodded, thankful Máiréad had listened because there were things she hadn’t even thought of that Máiréad and Liam had added to her already long list of what Máiréad would need to learn before she was prepared for her journey.
“Well children”, the Cailleach announced, “you both have work to do and your chores as well. Máiréad, why don’t I start afternoon tea while you get everything done and Liam, after you bring in some wood for the fire, you can head home. I’m sure your Auntie has been wondering why she’s barely seen you for days on end”. Liam shrugged, but was feeling dismissed. He knew the Cailleach was right, but that didn’t make it sting any less. Just then the Cailleach added, “Tomorrow morning you and I will meet in the field where your garden path ends and I’ll walk with you so we can talk about what’s next for you.” With that, Liam realized the Cailleach just wanted time to talk to Máiréad alone, decided he was being childish in begrudging her that, and set off to bring in the wood the Cailleach had requested. After he was done, he went off home, leaving Máiréad and the Cailleach to talk privately.
When Máiréad was done feeding the cow and giving the chickens their scraps, she came back and found the Cailleach had set a full table. Which was fine with Máiréad, because she was as hungry as she could remember being for a long time. Probably since the old woman’s death. It was astonishing when Máiréad thought about it, it hadn’t even been a fortnight since the old woman had passed and yet it felt like a whole lifetime ago when she had been here at this table eating a full afternoon tea with Máiréad.
Máiréad’s throat closed up, and she felt the tears welling. But unlike when she was with Liam the other day, she didn’t try to stop them. They poured down her cheeks and pooled on the table, left tracks down her dress, and speaks across her face. The Cailleach handed her a kerchief from a pocket somewhere and started to whisper, “It’s fine to feel like this Máiréad. The world knows you are strong enough to bear it but you don’t always have to feel the sadness alone. You have people who want to shoulder that burden with you.” She signed, “We might as well talk about one of those people now instead of waiting for another time. I need to talk to you about Liam.” Máiréad froze, her throat now closed completely. The Cailleach pushed her teacup towards her and motioned for her to drink some. She did and it soothed the knot in her throat a little.
“I don’t mean to add to your overwhelm, girl, but we need to talk about Liam because he’s got eyes for you and you for him.” Máiréad started to object, but the Cailleach waved her back. “Don’t try to pretend, he’s not here to be embarrassed in front of and I know what I know.” Máiréad swallowed painfully and took another sip of tea to loosen her throat. She started by saying, “I don’t think this is something we need to talk about.”
“Oh, I know you don’t,” the Cailleach chuckled. “But just because you don’t want to doesn’t mean it isn’t something that should happen.”
Máiréad was stuck between sadness and embarrassment and, truth be told, a tiny bit if resentment for the Cailleach involving herself in Máiréad’s inner thoughts. She didn’t want to talk about Liam. She didn’t even know what she thought about him yet.
The Cailleach patted her arm and said, “I don’t mean to get into your personal affairs, but Liam has to stay here while you go off on your own. That will already be hard for him. If you two make promises to each other…no, I see you about to say something, don’t. I know what it’s like to be young and full of feelings.” The Cailleach looked at her sternly and continued, “If you make promises to each other he’ll stick by them. Have you thought about what happens if you get to your kingdom and decide to stay? Have you considered how that will upend Liam’s life? Can you imagine how hurt he would be if you made promises to each other and then didn’t return?”
Máiréad realized he hadn’t thought about those things, and she hadn’t thought about what would happen to her friend if she didn’t return. Or worse, if she did return and had to tell him she was going back under the ocean where he could not follow. The Cailleach added, “Have you thought about what will happen to Liam if you find a mate while you are below the waves in your kingdom? They will want to match you with someone powerful, but as Queen, you’ll have your pick of anyone. Can you honestly say you would choose Liam and a life on land over anyone else on land or in the ocean? Because if you can’t then you shouldn’t make that choice with him now.”
Máiréad sat there, no longer hungry because it felt like there was a rock in her stomach. It hurt and weighed her down and she was so tired of feeling like this.
“What do you want me to do?” Máiréad whispered.
“I don’t want you to do anything”, the Cailleach said back, her soft voice trying to cushion the blow. “In point of fact, I want you to do nothing. Nothing that will endanger his well being or yours while you are away deciding what you want out of your life.”
Máiréad nodded and then excused herself. The Cailleach understood and said she would put the food away so Máiréad could have it later. As Máiréad fell into bed, fully dressed with her shoes still on, she started to cry, giant sobs that shook her whole body, bursting out of her throat like an agonized scream. She cried until her head hurt and she had no more tears and then promptly fell asleep, exhausted by the day and the conversation and the loss of the old woman to talk to and console her. When she fell asleep the Cailleach quietly eased the door open and, turning to send a quick wish for deep sleep, closed the door behind her, leaving Máiréad to her dreams.