Máiréad was overwhelmed. Tomorrow morning? She thought. How could she leave in less than 12 hours?
The Cailleach looked at Máiréad’s face and saw near panic. She put her arm around her and walked with her as they headed towards the cottage. The jumble of things circling inside Máiréad’s head were making her stomach hurt. She wanted to protest, but there was nothing left to do and no reason to stay longer. With that, Máiréad looked over at Liam, wishing the Cailleach had come a few minutes later so she could have talked to him. She desperately wanted to ask him why he had stepped back, but it wasn’t something she wanted to talk about in front of the Cailleach. She was trying to think of a way she could politely separate them from the Cailleach when she finally heard the Cailleach talking to Liam over the cacophony in her head. “…and you’ll need to go work on the pin and the catch now so it will be ready.” And watched as Liam, barely looking at her, nodded and headed off home, taking any answers she might have gotten with him.
As she walked home, she barely noticed where she was walking, relying on memory to walk the path until she stopped by a fork in the trail and realized it could be the last time she walked it. She looked at the Cailleach and burst into tears. The Cailleach smoothed her hair gently and told her, “So you’ve just now realized you’re walking away from your life as you know it?” Máiréad nodded. “You know you’re not really scared?” the Cailleach asked soothingly. Máiréad knew she wasn’t, but too much was happening too fast. She needed time to adjust. She knew that was a ridiculous thought because she’d had a month. It just hadn’t seemed entirely real until right now.
She looked up to see Liam disappear around a bend in the path, knowing that even if she wanted to follow him, his long legs would outpace hers and when she did catch up, they’d be at his Auntie and Uncles house, no more alone than they had been since the Cailleach arrived on the beach with the news that she would have to leave ahead of the storm. She shook her head, sternly reminding herself that she needed Liam to work on the catch for her ascension jewelry quickly if she was going to leave at dawn wearing it. She steeled herself to do what she needed to do to get ready, wiped her face, and told the Cailleach they should get back to the cottage and get things ready for her departure. The Cailleach followed behind her, but she looked at the back of Máiréad’s head and wondered what was going on inside. Whatever it was, and she thought she knew, Máiréad had better put it behind her, or she’d be in danger of losing her focus, her actual path, and possibly even her life.
As they were eating dinner, the Cailleach and Máiréad talked about what her journey would be like as she left the colder waters off the Irish coast, traveled across the ocean until she reached the warmer waters off the South American continent. Everything was detailed on the map Maeve had left her. Maeve had made fathom marks, drawn in places where the currents would work for and against her, and gave her landmarks she could see when she reached land again so she would recognize the location of the entrance to the Selkie Kingdom.
They had lapsed into silence as Máiréad did the dishes and the Cailleach slowly traced a finger along the markings Máiréad was to follow. Personally, the Cailleach knew nothing of the faraway places Máiréad would be going but she felt fear dance along her nerves, suddenly sure that Máiréad was going to come up against some powerful beings who did not have her best interests at heart. What she wasn’t sure of was whether Máiréad would survive the encounters. The Cailleach was torn as to whether to tell her or not. Did she already have too much to think about? Would it dissuade her from leaving? Would she defeat herself because she was sure she would fail? The thoughts swirled around in the Cailleach’s head until she decided she had to stay something lest Máiréad be caught unawares so as Máiréad put away the last dish; the Cailleach motioned her over to the seats by the fireplace.
“Máiréad, there are some things you need to know before you go. We’ve talked about claiming your rightful place in the kingdom’s hierarchy and watching to see who is on your side during the process, but I’m not sure you understand how desperately some of the selkies will want to see you defeated and possibly even dead.” the Cailleach said. She watched Máiréad’s face, searching to see what emotions she displayed. If anything, Máiréad looked thoughtful. The Cailleach continued, “Some will want to be your friend, some will want to be your ally, and some will care about you and your success but remember that there will also be those who pretend to be your friend, who pretend to be your ally, and pretend to care about you and your success.”
Máiréad thought about what the Cailleach had said for a minute and then replied, “How will I know who is who?” But the Cailleach just shook her head and said, “You won’t. None of us ever do until someone’s actions speak for them. Let them show you who they are, not just tell you who they are.” Máiréad nodded pensively as she sat and stared into the fire. They both quietly immersed themselves in the warm, flickering yellow and blue flames and drew what comfort they could from it. Máiréad, knowing it would be a long time before she sat in front of a fire again and the Cailleach wishing she had better advice for Máiréad.
They hadn’t been sitting like that for long when Liam knocked on the door and entered dramatically, and with a humorous flourish, he handed the jewelry box to Máiréad. She smiled at his obvious pleasure. Clearly he had solved the problem of her not being able to grasp the pin in her mouth while in her seal form. As she opened the box, she saw he had made the pin longer but had also made a round flat head on it so she could grip it easily in her mouth. What she hadn’t expected was to see the four interlocking circles. They looked almost flowerlike because the design was engraved so delicately, but she knew it was a friendship knot. She looked up at Liam, a sheen of tears in her eyes, and didn’t know what to say. Liam seemed to understand though, and when the Cailleach leaned in and clapped her hands in joy, Máiréad took a minute to blink and swallow hard. She hadn’t expected to feel like this about leaving. After all, the old woman was gone, and she had no family here. But then she looked at the Cailleach and Liam and thought maybe she had a family of sorts after all.
“Well, boy, you’ve done it. You crossed the last thing off the list. Now Máiréad can leave at dawn and we can all get a good night’s sleep tonight.” the Cailleach said. Her statement brought Liam up short. He had a hard time keeping the smile on his face, thinking about how Máiréad would be gone before the sun rose. When he glanced at Máiréad she was looking less than happy herself so he decided to make the best of it and make this last night full of fun and merriment to hold them all through the rest of the winter and hopefully, he thought to himself, make their separation sting a little less. And so, with that thought, Liam grabbed the Cailleach by the hands and started singing a sea shanty they all knew and making as if he was going to dance the Cailleach off her feet. Máiréad laughed at the look on the Cailleach’s face and swung into the dance as the pair linked hands with her to make a circle. They sang and laughed, and everyone felt a little lighter for it.
When Liam was done singing, the Cailleach bade him stop dancing as she was tired even if they weren’t. She chuckled a moment, knowing it would give him a graceful way out of ending the dance she wasn’t sure he even meant to start. He was a good boy; she liked him and she’d be glad to have him around now that the old woman was gone and Máiréad was leaving. As the Cailleach she never quite got close to people but as a Seer, Liam would experience the same distance from village life so if he decided to work on his gift she would have a kindred spirit to share her thoughts with, and her memories of Máiréad as well.