Kira flew in excited circles overhead, emitting such a series of anxious klees and chirrups as Liannis had ever heard from her. Liannis opened her inner senses.
Man comes, the little kestrel sent to Liannis. Wooden leg! Wooden leg comes on horse!
Liannis had gone deeper into the forest in search of early greens and stood, bent over a patch of cress at the edge of the stream from which she took her water. The snows had almost all melted, leaving only a few dirty patches under the evergreens where the sun could not penetrate. Merrist! It had to be.
Wooden leg was the name Kira had given Merrist. She did this with all people. She could not understand names and referred to everyone by some identifying feature.
Liannis’s head shot up in alarm, resulting in a painful crack as it met with an overhanging tree limb. She fell into the water with a splash and saw her precious harvest of cress and wild garlic float downstream. After pulling herself out by the same offending branch she wrung out her cloak and the hem of her gown, silently cursing herself for her clumsiness.
She looked up at Kira. Are you certain, little one? Where is he now?
Wooden leg comes! On big horse! Come! Come see!
Part of Liannis wanted to hide.
She had grown accustomed to the rhythm of life, alone in the forest all winter with only her horse Cloud and Kira for company. It demanded little of her, just the day to day practicalities of snaring rabbits for meat, gathering what greens she could find to supplement the meagre provisions she had brought with her and caring for Cloud. Kira hunted her own food. Liannis had found a measure of contentment here, away from the reminders of the death of her father or the demands of her mother and friends … or the goddess, Earth.
She mused that perhaps her fall into the water was the goddess’s way of making sure she returned to the cabin quickly.
Answering some unspoken call she must have sensed, Cloud appeared between the trees. Go back now? Need ride?
Liannis gave up on the idea of running. The cold from the icy water had chilled her skin and she began to shiver. She needed a change of clothes, and soon. Thank you, Cloud. Yes, I need to get back to the cabin.
Why are you wet?
Because I fell in the stream.
The disdain in Cloud’s tone pricked Liannis. Yes, she had been careless to let herself be caught unprepared. But Cloud was a horse. She did not need to be chided by a horse.
Just get down so I can climb on. And hurry, I am freezing.
Chagrined by the rebuke, Cloud hurried to obey, and Liannis climbed onto her back. Ever since they had been isolated here Liannis had not bridled nor saddled her. There was no one here to question how she controlled a horse.
Kira had flown off when Cloud appeared and now returned. Wooden leg close to cabin. Come!
Thank you, little one. You may show yourself to him. It will let him know that I am coming.
I go. The little kestrel hurried away.
Liannis had no time to sort out how she felt about being found, or about seeing Merrist again. She knew it meant that her respite had ended. Was she ready? Just as she approached the last trees that sheltered her from view she heard his familiar voice.
“Kira? Is that you?”
Kira’s excited answering klees left no doubt.
“It is you. I have found you. Where is Liannis? She must be near. There is a fire in the hearth. I see smoke. Is she coming?”
The eagerness in his voice awakened something in Liannis that had lain unacknowledged all winter. She no longer wondered if she ought to flee. She urged Cloud into the small clearing.
“Merrist! How did you find me?”
Merrist turned to meet her eyes. “Liannis! At last!” He stumped in her direction, his wooden peg leg causing a hitch in his step.
Liannis slid off Cloud’s back so they stood face-to-face, each at a loss for words.
“How did you find me?” Liannis asked again when she found her voice.
A puzzled look came over his face. He opened his hands wide. “I do not know. I left as soon as the snows had melted enough to pass. I had to, though I could not tell you how I knew. I had no idea where to begin. And every time I chose a different direction, Warrior refused to budge so I finally gave him his head.” He threw his arms wide in triumph, his mission accomplished. “And here I am.” The last words brought the familiar grin that made him so dear to her.
At her answering grin the shyness fell away and he enveloped her in a great hug. Just as quickly he drew back, taking in her wet attire.
“Liannis, you are soaked! You need dry clothes!”
He grasped her hand and pulled her, laughing, into the cabin.
Seeing Merrist again, after a whole winter alone, woke a jumble of sensations and emotions that had lain dormant ever since the death of her father. Liannis had almost forgotten what feeling was. The winter had passed in a sort of half-trance and she had thought of friends and family only in a detached dream-like way. This fresh flood of sensation coursed into every part of her body and left it tingling, like a foot that has been sat on too long and suddenly receives blood again.
Now, her respite was clearly at an end. Merrist had found her.
She understood the time had come to re-enter the roles she had abandoned in order to rest and heal from the ordeals of the past two years. She needed, once again, to take up her duties as Earth’s seer, however reluctant she might be.
Merrist’s delight at finding her made him garrulous so she let him talk on while she got into dry clothes and he made tea. She needed those moments to gather her wits. While pulling a dry gown over her head Liannis looked at her arm. The wound there, the symbolic mirror of the one Earth bore from the strife in Lieth, had refused to heal since appearing the previous summer. She had not examined it since her arrival at the cabin four moons ago. In her perpetual stupor it had not occurred to her to do so. Now the scar, her reminder of the injuries Earth had sustained in the chaos that had befallen Lieth, showed a healthy pink. It had healed. She understood this to mean that Earth had also healed and now they were both ready to face the real world again. Part of her rejoiced at this. Another wanted to crawl back into her solitary cocoon and resume her dream existence where she needed no one and no one needed her.
The warmth from the fire gradually put an end to her shivering. She sat at the rough plank that served as a table and watched Merrist perched on the stool opposite, both with a hot mug cupped in their hands. Merrist had run out of things to tell her and now sat, regarding her.
Liannis met his eyes, suddenly speechless.
Merrist broke the silence, his voice unable to hide a slight quaver. “Liannis, I truly thought never to see you again.” He stopped, seemingly unable to continue.
“Merrist, how … what …?” Words failed her.
She took a deep breath, looked away as she tried to regain her composure, and began again, choosing questions that would not challenge her so much.
“Merrist, how fares Mama? How have the people come through the winter with so little to eat? Is there still peace?” Underneath lay the unspoken question of what she must face now that Earth summoned her back.
“I do not know how I got here,” he said, answering her unspoken question first. A look of puzzled awe gave way to his infectious grin, “But I am heartily glad I am!”
“As am I, though I know it means I must leave this peaceful place. I suppose it will no longer hold repose for me. Can you tell me more about what led you to search for me?”
Merrist sobered as he remembered. “Your last words to me before you left were ‘look after Mama’. Liannis, I have never seen such grief. She never fully understood that you had no choice, that you followed a call from Earth. I admit, I, too, have wondered at this. Why could we not have helped you to recover your health? Could we not have aided each other better if we stayed together?”
The death of her father had stripped Liannis of the last bit of life force she had to offer in Earth’s service. At that time Earth had placed a compulsion on her and led her to this cabin, to rest and recover while the land slept under its blanket of snow.
Merrist shook his head as if still trying to solve that puzzle. “But I came to accept that it must be so, else you would not have been called away. The others, too, Lord Gaelen, Lady Marja, Lionn – we have all made our peace with it … but not your mother. She has aged ten years and barely speaks.”
Mama sat in the small walled garden off Lord Gaelen’s apartments. Her needlework lay untouched on the bench by her side. A warm blanket rested on her shoulders. She stared, unseeing, at the wall opposite.
Liannis saw a frail old woman, with unkempt grey hair, slumped shoulders and thin claws where she remembered warm strong fingers.
Her heart wrenched at the sight. “Mama!” Of course her mother did not hear.
Was this all her fault? Had she selfishly abandoned her mother?
As she came back to awareness, Merrist placed another mug of tea in her hands. “Here, drink; then tell me what you saw.”
She gulped gratefully before speaking. “Merrist, we must hasten back! Poor Mama! Merrist, why did you not come sooner?”
He gaped. “Come sooner? Liannis, I did as you bade me. I have only found you now because Earth willed it.”
Seeing his hurt and shock, Liannis realised how unjust her remark was and felt immediately contrite. “Forgive me. Of course this is none of your doing. Earth has her own ways.” All her joy at seeing Merrist again eclipsed by her vision, she added, “We must leave immediately. It is clear Earth calls me back.” She rose and made for the door but he put a restraining hand on her arm.
“Liannis, look outside. It is dark. We must wait until morning. Tell me what needs to be packed. We need some provisions. Those need to be carried as well. I am ready as I brought only what I could carry on Warrior. We can leave at dawn.”
It took a moment for his words to reach her. “You are right. We cannot leave until then.” She sagged and burst into tears, the first she had shed since beginning her apprenticeship with Liethis at age twelve. She felt as though she was that young girl again. “I want to see Mama.”
“And we shall.” He wrapped her in a gentle embrace. “We shall”.