They did take that day off about a week later. While Anaria was very slowly improving at most tasks, the holiday was declared after a second gardening session that had aggravated and infected one blister to the point that both Sarah and Maggie had declared her an official invalid for a day, only good for stories until the blister had a chance to dry and start to heal. This led to Liam being irritatingly reasonable about it making sense to relax and let it mend by taking up his invitation.
It was the talk of the bath house that morning, with various predictions on the weather and recommendations on where to go, what to do (the snickers from the older women managed to completely pass over Anaria’s head – Sarah shook hers in amazement), and what to pack for lunch.
Martha was naturally furious and predicted all sorts of dire outcomes for the day, most of which she would have liked to take an active hand in bringing about. She was thwarted however, by a quiet word from Maggie in her mother’s ear. Martha found herself up to her ears in menu planning and forward preparation for the End of Harvest Festival.
Maggie, and some of the other more astute members of the village, had seen a drive and ambition in Martha that was being completely misused by its owner. It was a great pity, Maggie thought, that the silly girl was actively alienating the one new member of the community who could potentially help her get out of the village and into a wider world where her talents could be better harnessed. She wondered if there was any tactful approach and concluded there wasn’t. The end result was a very frank conversation on future ambitions and potential between the two of them while Anaria and Liam were exploring the late autumn treasures of the forest around the village.
It gave Martha food for thought and, while it didn’t bring a halt to hostilities, there was a degree of caution and assessment in later interactions.
Anaria had no inkling of the diplomatic work being done on her behalf as she and Liam set out after breakfast. It was a clear autumn day, crisp and cold but no sign of the rain that had been dogging village spirits for the past week.
She teased Liam as they walked, “Were you as reasonable and persuasive with the weather as you were with me? You’ve clearly done something.”
Liam laughed and shook his head, “I’d call this the forest’s approval of our decision to spend the day enjoying its beauty.”
Anaria humphed, “Trust you to have a whole forest on your side.”
Liam swung their joined hands, “Maybe it’s glad you’ve come to visit.”
Anaria rolled her eyes at his talk but couldn’t help the smile that broke free.
“So what are we visiting?”
“There are a couple of places I particularly want to show you. One’s a hidden treasure but its hiding makes it dangerous and I want you to know of it. The other is not so much hidden as just not visited and I want your opinion on whether it’s a treasure.”
“Tell me more.”
“You don’t want them to be a surprise?”
“Surprises have a habit of not being very nice, at least for me. I’d rather know beforehand and be able to look forward to it.”
“Alright then, I’ll tell you about the first one on the way to it, we can explore and then I’ll explain the second one when we’re on our way there.”
“Makes sense”, she nudged him, “Start explaining then.”
“The first is a ravine. I’m not even sure it fully warrants the name but it’s a hidden fold in the forest with a stream at its base and all sorts of plants growing around it. Because it’s so sheltered, but still open to the sun, you can find strawberries there in winter and it’s the first place in the forest that spring arrives.”
Anaria eyed him, it didn’t sound that exciting but it was clearly one of his favourite places in the world.
“You said something about it being dangerous though.”
“Yes, it’s not too deep but gets narrow enough in places that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it. The end result has been some nasty falls for people who don’t know how to keep an eye out.”
Anaria digested this, feeling even more dubious about the place.
A short time later, Liam slowed their pace and started pointing out landmarks, showing her how to recognise the area around the ravine and when to step carefully.
They came to the top of it and peered down. It did seem pretty, but the steep, rocky sides made access impossible for anyone who wasn’t a mountain goat. She eyed Liam’s careful review of the area with misgiving.
“I’m not going to be able to get down there, let alone back up again.”
“Oh, we don’t get into it from here, I just prefer to check it first. This is the only section near a path and if people or animals are going to get into trouble with it, this is the place it will most likely happen.”
“You’re not making me feel any better about going in there.”
“There’s an easy way in to a very pretty spot further down. Come on Ana, I promise it’s nice.”
She bit her tongue and allowed him to show her how to follow the edge of the ravine, close enough to see, not close enough to stumble.
The forest floor dipped into a hollow as the ravine widened and there were able to get down to the stream with little more than a scramble. Liam pointed out a rope he and John had strung off some convenient tree branches to make the return journey easier.
It was a pretty spot, holding the last of the summer warmth in fresh greenery and even some determined blooms bordering a clear stream, splashing merrily over boulders and swirling around trailing tree boughs that bent to stroke its surface.
The ground beside it was rather muddy though and Anaria hoped it wasn’t Liam’s planned picnic site.
He grinned at her and turned to walk further downstream, the ravine narrowing again as the the walls rose up around them.
“How determined are you feeling town girl?”
“Liam this is supposed to be a relaxing day off, not a trek to the ends of the earth. What are you hauling me into now?”
“Most others don’t come past this point, it looks too hard, but it’s not so bad and there’s a proper secret if you’re prepared to work for it.”
Anaria huffed. He had her and he knew it. Curiosity had been getting her into (and occasionally out of) trouble for years.
“Wait here, I want to put the bag down further in so I can help you properly.”
He disappeared around a sharp turn and, when Anaria moved forward to watch his path, she was dismayed to see him vanish into what could almost be called a cave. The ravine had been completely closed overhead by leaning trees and overhanging branches, blocking all but the faintest dapples of light.
Liam reappeared, bounding out of the gloom, and grabbed her hand, “Ready?”
“Not really”, she took a breath, “but that’s never stopped me before, let’s go.”
He smiled, squeezed her hand (it was the one without the blister) and led her forward.
They paused shortly after entering the tunnel for their eyes to adjust, and Anaria was relieved to see a glimmer of daylight not too far in the distance.
There was a tricky spot where they had to climb over and around some large rocks, and Liam picked up their bag on the other side.
They were maybe halfway to the far light when he paused, listening.
He looked at Anaria, all playfulness gone, “We need to run, now.”
She swallowed her questions and flew after him, racing to the light. She stumbled several times but his firm hold on her hand kept her upright. They burst into a clearing, one under normal circumstances she’d be delighted with, a sweet tumbling waterfall falling into a serene forest pool. There was no time for admiration. Liam kept going, his grip tight as he pulled her sharply sideways and up the near-vertical bank bordering the tunnel opening.
Half-hauling her up the slope, he scrambled and pulled until they reached a ledge with a broad, solidly-rooted oak. He pulled her around to the side furthest from the stream and pinned her between himself and the tree.
Now they’d stopped, Anaria registered a sound she’d been hearing for much of their mad dash. A deep, earth-shaking rumble, louder every second.
The noise grew until it was near deafening, then a dirty brown wall of water, soil, wood and stone erupted from the tunnel’s entrance, exploded over the waterfall and rained chaos into the pool. Chunks of wood, stone and mud sprayed even as wide and high as their refuge, Liam curled protectively over her.
It didn’t stop, a furious, surging tide raged out of the tunnel, smashing and roaring at anything in its way.
Anaria gaped at it from her safe nook until the flood finally began to slow and Liam near-collapsed on her, gasping and shaking.
She wrapped her arms around him and helped him sit, murmuring soothing nothings as his chest heaved.
He looked at her, eyes wild with terror, “Ana, I nearly killed us. I nearly killed you.”
He was near incoherent and getting worse. Anaria put her hands on either side of his head and kissed him.