Liam tossed and turned all night. He couldn’t have explained why, but he was unable to get comfortable and fall asleep. But when morning finally broke, and it was time to meet the Cailleach, he was awake and ready. He had questions he wanted answered, and he was going to get those answers today. 

The Cailleach was leaning against the stone wall at the end of the garden path when Liam walked out on his way to school. She seemed comfortable, wrapped up in an old coat with a shawl around her shoulders and puffing on a little pipe. Liam stood in front of her, his arms crossed in an unknowing gesture of slight defiance, trying to read her face for a moment when the Cailleach chuckled and coughed out a whorl of rich tobacco scented smoke. “You can’t see inside my mind, boyo. Not yet, at any rate. Who knows where you’ll end up if you decide to go into training with another Seer.” She paused a moment and pushed off the wall and started the walk into the village. Liam, not sure what he had expected, followed after her. He cleared his throat, and the Cailleach looked over at him, curious to see what he would say. She waited, but he appeared to have lost his nerve, so she asked, “What questions do you have?” The floodgates opened and Liam’s questions poured out. Questions about his skills as a Seer, questions about her skills and how she could help him, and eventually, tentatively, questions about Máiréad and her journey and what might happen to her. The Cailleach answered questions about his skills as a Seer as completely as she could, explained her skills as a cailleach as best she could, and his questions about Máiréad as gently as she could but she knew that it had been hard for him to ask so she decided to teach him some simple techniques to improve his focus before approaching the topic of Máiréad and what he felt for the girl. 

The Cailleach stopped on the road when they were about halfway to the village and showed him how to close his eyes and breathe from his belly, and how to use his breath as a way to calm the thoughts spinning around in his mind. She showed him how to connect himself to the earth and feel the rhythm of of his breath to ground himself and get himself in a mindset where he was physically strong and stable and his mind was free to wander. Liam practiced taking deep breaths a few times, but he felt silly and, if he was being honest, afraid someone would see him and think he had lost his mind. The Cailleach understood without Liam having to say anything and told him they would meet at Máiréad’s later and practice in private after school. But she stopped him when he began to lope away towards school. She heard the bell ringing to start classes and knew she had to be quick about it so she decided to just say what she needed to say. 

“Liam…” she paused only long enough to give him a chance to stop and turn around, his eyebrow raised as if already asking ‘what?’. “Liam, I need to talk to you about Máiréad. I know this isn’t easy but you’ve been thinking about her often and it’s making it difficult for the two of you to think about separating and saying goodbye, possibly forever.”

Liam had been looking at the ground, but with that statement, his eyes flew up to the Cailleach’s face. “I know, you don’t want to hear this, but I need you to make sure you are making decisions with logic, not your emotions.” Liam looked confused and began to protest. But just like she had with Máiréad, the Cailleach cut him off. She smiled gently, but her words were anything but gentle. 

“You need to make sure you aren’t getting attached to her as more than a friend. I know you fancy her. I can see you look at her when she’s not watching. No, don’t deny it. I’m not trying to embarrass you, but it’s obvious. To me, not to her, but if you keep watching her like you have been, and she’s going to start to look back and then the two of you are in for heartache.”

Liam objected, saying, “You don’t know that, you could be wrong.” Even as the words came out of Liam’s mouth, he knew they were ludicrous. Here he was telling the Cailleach, the woman who was training him to use the sight, that there was something she didn’t know. When he knew full and well, she was right. He sighed. “So what do I do?” He asked. 

The Cailleach laid an old hand, crisscrossed with scars and veins and wrinkles but somehow more alive than he felt himself to be in that moment, and said, “You need to let her go. Let go of the wishes and daydreams and the ‘what-ifs’ and just be her friend. If the two of you don’t leave it that way, you’ll both be pining for each other the whole time she’s away. And what if she doesn’t come back? Have you thought about what you would do? Or what if she comes back after years, thanking you will feel the same but you’ve met someone who is here in your day-to-day existence and have decided to be with them? Would you want Máiréad to feel that kind of hurt? Could you live with the feeling that you had betrayed her?”

Liam swallowed hard, feeling like his stomach was full of rocks. If he were alone, he would have run until the horrible thoughts were blown out of his head and he could go back to thinking about Máiréad with warm feelings of expectation and enjoyment. But he wasn’t alone. And he had to go to school because he had exams coming up and if he passed them, he would pass the grade and then he would be free to leave school and get a job in the village if he wanted to. Or he could just stay on Máiréad’s farm and grow it into something self sustaining and magnificent, like he had been thinking about ever since she asked him to stay there while she was gone. That thought brought him up short. What if the Cailleach was right, and she never came back? He didn’t like the thought of that. A tiny voice in his head questioned what the Cailleach had said about him finding someone to be with while Máiréad was gone and while he wanted to deny it was even possible, he wondered what would happen if she was gone so long that he got lonely. Would he find someone else? Could he? He’d never met anyone like Máiréad, and he couldn’t imagine liking anyone the way he liked her. But the Cailleach was wise, and he supposed he should take her advice. 

Liam nodded and then shook his head, looking so dejected the Cailleach almost wished she hadn’t said anything. But she knew she had to protect both of them from the kinds of wild promises and emotions that only the young can feel. The utterly unrealistic and, to their elders, laughable plans that got made for ‘someday’ and the lives plotted based on intricate ‘what if’ scenarios. She knew she had been hard on them but she knew they needed to be focused on their own goals as they both grew into the future they were making for themself. She watched Liam walk away and had a moment’s niggling doubt, but reminded herself that she was doing what was best for both of them.

The next few weeks went by quickly. The trio spent most of their waking hours together, whittling the list down to a few final things. Máiréad continued to work on memorizing the map as well as learning about the world’s oceans from a book Liam had borrowed from school. Liam worked on his ability to sense things, using the exercises the Cailleach taught him. And the Cailleach worked to get both of them mentally ready for hardship and emotionally ready to be separated. 

As Máiréad’s final week before her journey started, the three friends, led by the Cailleach, gathered together in the comfortable living room and looked at the list. Máiréad couldn’t believe how many things she had accomplished in such a short time. She looked at Liam and the Cailleach with gratitude in her eyes, knowing she would never have made it this far without them and that if she had tried this on her own she would never have made it. 

The Cailleach made notes about the last few things to be done and told Máiréad they would need to create some kind of hasp that she would be able to unclip herself and a way to keep the ascension jewelry from getting tangled as she transitioned from seal to human and back again. Since the jewelry was for her to wear as a seal, it was too big to fit her human form. All three of them knew this was important because without the ascension jewelry she had no proof that she was a descendent of the former Queen. But they also knew she couldn’t change the jewelry in any significant way or she would likely be killed as an imposter. A pretender to the throne would not escape punishment, and Máiréad had no wish to have her life end as her trip ended. The Cailleach told them she would think on it and come up with some ideas overnight, but now it was time for them to have some dinner and get some rest before they tackled that problem. 

Liam grinned. His stomach had been rumbling for the better part of an hour now, and he was so hungry he’d eat anything. Máiréad and the Cailleach laughed as they heard his stomach growl and realized they were all equally hungry. As they hurried to set the table and lay out a meal, Liam talked about the jewelry, unable to wait until tomorrow when the Cailleach had taken time to think. He suggested adding wire to have it hold its shape, but Máiréad quickly pointed out that when she was not a seal, she had to be able to carry the jewelry without drawing attention to herself. Liam suddenly realized that without her clothes, she would have no pockets. He then realized she would have no clothes. He swallowed hard, trying desperately not to imagine that set of circumstances. The Cailleach almost laughed as she watched him go bright red but Máiréad, her back to them while she was cutting meat and cheese, had missed it, and the Cailleach was thankful. In spite of talking to them both, she could sense they had not come to grips with the idea of being separated. She wasn’t sure what else to do, so other than trying to be a chaperone whenever the two of them were together; she let it be. 

After their meal was finished and goodbyes had been said, Liam went out to milk the cow before he went home, not thinking anything of it. The Cailleach must have forgotten because she left and began walking in her direction when he turned towards the barn. Liam hummed while he worked, soothing the cow and himself with an old Irish lullaby his Auntie had taught him. He had just finished when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. It had been so fast he hadn’t really seen it, but he knew something had passed. Aware that there shouldn’t have been any movement at that time of night, Liam slowly walked towards the end of the barn, peering out when he got there and watching as a little figure, already so far away, ran towards the ocean. 

He knew it was Máiréad as soon as he recognized the dress she had been wearing. He wasn’t sure what to do. Should he follow her to be sure she was safe? Should he leave? Should he wait? Liam had no idea which of the three he was supposed to do. He knew what his instincts were telling him, to go and be sure she was safe, but he thought about what the Cailleach had said and wondered if he was reacting from emotion and didn’t need to worry. After all, Liam thought, Máiréad was fully capable of swimming in the ocean by herself. Which was when his fickle mind reminded him of the fishermen’s nets she had gotten caught up in the day she had showed him her true form. He decided to compromise and wait for her, just to be sure she got home safely. And so he settled in to wait for her to come back. 

After what felt like an eternity, he saw a little blur that was her dress coming towards him. He didn’t want to frighten her, but he also didn’t want to have her find him and make her think he had been spying on her, or that he didn’t trust her to take care of herself. He was torn and stood there a second too long. Máiréad, feeling free and light after her swim, started to hum a tune and dance in the yard. She knew she should go inside and get some sleep but she could feel the seasons changing from winter to spring and she knew the earth was starting to quicken with life. It was times like these when she felt so in tune with every living creature that she knew the power of her seal side. She could feel the tides changing, she could feel the animals nesting, and she could feel the air shift and smell the clean scent of faraway places blowing in on the westerly winds that floated over the island. She could feel the raw power of nature and as she sang, she began to dance. Liam stood there, frozen in place, wishing he had said something so she wouldn’t have started, and also wishing he could join her and dance with her. He was transfixed.

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