Aithne watched from her doorway as the two figures melted into into the forest. She had promised to meet them again before next sunup, and now she had a few precious hours to make her preparations to be gone, who knew how long.
She entered her cave, made breakfast for herself and the insistent Cullen and started making mental lists, deciding what must be done, what might be done, and what, sadly must remain undone. Cullen, always happy after a meal, lay on his back at her feet while she dug her toes into his warm fur.
Finally she rose. She pulled, from an almost invisible crevice, an old tapestry Bag, shaped like a long triangle with an open top, with lightly glowing carry straps, covered with embroidered runes, and with charms of power and protection woven in its fringe. This Bag had been her traveling companion for centuries. Together they had walked the Shadow and the worlds. The ages had not dimmed its colors nor its aura. Through the years the Bag had absorbed power, knowledge, and even a dim form of life. She almost felt it was glad to be on the move again after so long a rest.
She began to fill the Bag with things she knew would be needed, but might be hard to find while traveling. Another robe, a few books of spells and recipes, a few candles that burned and were never consumed, a bejeweled dagger covered with glowing runes. Then some food because although she could go without, Cullen became most disagreeable when meals were too late. She shook her head and wondered if over the years he wasn't becoming too much like a cat.
Finally she began to wrap herbs, roots, and the specialized ingredients that would be unlikely to be available elsewhere. Her mind slipped into her own type of meditation. Slowly and systematically she searched through years of learning. What was she most likely to need to do, and what would she need to do it? One small packet, then another and and another were tucked into her Bag. Someone watching her pack might, by this time be starting to feel vaguely uneasy at the amount of material that had gone into the Bag without any signs of overcrowding, and without in fact, any sign the Bag was not completely empty. Without even realizing she was doing it, Aithne began to sing under her breath, and though there were no breezes in the cave, the fringe on the Bag waved in time with her song.
The rest of her day was spent wandering through her woods, placing protective charms on places where her herbs grew, cleaning out some winter detritus from a sacred spring, doing whatever she could to keep things safe until her return.
When the shadows began to lengthen she and Cullen returned to her cave for one last meal for a long time in the coziness of their home. After dinner she lay back against her cushions and peacefully watched the shadows dance. Gradually in one corner, a shadow appeared that did not seem to have been cast by anything in the room. It pulled away from the wall and stood, dark and wavering by itself. Slowly it thickened, changed color and became a tall young man, dressed in white, with dark hair flowing down his back. He bowed deeply to Aithne. She looked up with a smile and said, "Cai! I was hoping you might stop by."
"I see you are packed to travel, my sweet. Is it too much to hope you have come to your senses and are leaving this cave and coming home?"
A low chuckle escaped Atihne. "Cai, my dear you are just arrived. Please save that for later. As it happens I am leaving my cave, but not, at the moment, to come home. Things are amiss in this world, and I hope to put some of them right. You know how very fond I am of the creatures here."
"Who knows better than I of your fondness? How many hundreds of your ridiculous years have I waited for you to tire of indulging that fondness?"
"You have been a miracle of patience my love. Now come,sit with me. Tell me of home and of your life."
Cai lay on the bed next to Aithne, put his arm around her and drew her close to him. He looked at her face and softly touched the wrinkles at the corners of her eye with his fingers. "Do they hurt, love?"
"No Cai. They only hurt my pride a little. It is the price I pay to live and learn here. You are always welcome to join me."
Cai pulled her close and laughed. "No my love, this is not the world for me, even with you here. I'll wait until you grow tired of this.... place. You will grow tired, won't you? You will come home to me?"
"Someday my love. I promise. But I still have much to do here, and in fact, much to do before I can leave in the morning." She started to rise, but Cai pulled her back down to him.
"Spend the night with me. Together we two will finish your tasks... later." Aithne laughed and settled into the cushions next to him. As she wrapped her arms around him and first touched his lips she thought, "What journey that begins so pleasantly could end badly?"
And so it was in the deep hours of the night two figures stood with joined hands at the cave door and sang. As they sang the stone grew across the opening. Soon there was no sign that any cave existed. No unwelcome visitors would disturb her home during her absence. With one last fond glace Aithne looked around her home, and said one last farewell to Cai before he stepped into the Shadow to go home. Then, at last she picked up her traveling cloak, woven with strands of Shadow, woven to hide her anywhere. She fastened the cloak around her shoulders with a clasp made of glowing red wires interlaced in a way that made you dizzy if you looked too closely. She raised the hood over her head and, with Cullen, melted into the Shadow and left to start her journey.