Mara had been carrying the sword now for maybe fifteen miles. The same sword, the same pack, the new ache in her left thigh because she had bent down too quickly, the feeling like she was stumping instead of stepping, the half limp, the scabbard rubbing a hole into her tunic, the weak spot in her boot leather.
She did not know if she would find Him. She had not seen Him in several years, not since the last time she had refused Him, this time in the form of a glistening centaur. His hair as short and smooth as His flanks, which she had not touched.
He had come to her when she was younger in the form of a kitten, a golden-furred puppy, an otter, a fawn, once a chicken. Every time she had refused. At first she had run. She had lost so much, in those early days, running from Him.
Now she was limping towards Him, keeping an eye out for rustles in the trees or bird calls overhead, knowing the noise of her sword and her pack and her boots would scare away any animals that weren’t Him in whatever form He had chosen this time.
It was dark. The lantern oil stank, and Mara tasted it on her fingers as she sat on the ground and ate her dry bread and drier meat. She thought of the taste of hot dogs, the half-remembered slithery feel of the boil still on them. She thought of crayon-red ketchup, like plastic sugar. Eventually she slept.
He came to her while she was washing her face at a stream. He took the form of a grackle, this time, like the ones that used to gather in her backyard.
“There are no grackles in this world,” Mara said to Him. “Only blackbirds.” She reached to touch Him, and He launched aloft and perched in a tree.
“I want to go home,” Mara said. “I’m ready now.”
“But you refused, Earth’s Child,” said the grackle. “You ran from me.”
Mara eyed the grackle. She had spent too much time sizing up enemies. “Please send me home.”
“You were the only one of all my children who refused.”
“I know,” Mara said. Even three years ago she would have said I was the only one of your children you couldn’t catch. Now she stood awkwardly, wondering if she should be defensive or penitent or try to feign a reverence that she had once felt for His magical powers.
Then her eyes met His black one, on the right side, and she hoped that the truth would be her best shot. “I want a home,” she said. “I didn’t realize what that meant, when I ran from you.”
“You told me I could never send you home,” He said, cocking His head.
“Yeah, well, I was twelve,” Mara said. “The other kids at school called me dyke and witch. You fucking think I wanted to go back to that?”
“All my Earth Children must go back,” He said, “when they finish their stories.”
“And now I want my story to be finished,” Mara said. “I’m ready. Please send me home.”
The grackle left His tree and flew close by Mara’s face. She held her breath without expecting to. He landed next to a stream, claws becoming fur as He transformed into a red fox.
“Why are you ready now,” He asked, “when you refused me so many times before?”
“Because I was wrong about what I thought growing up meant,” Mara said. “I thought it meant having adventures.”
The fox walked slowly around Mara, still not near enough to touch. “And your opinion has changed?”
“I’ve had so many wonderful and amazing and terrifying adventures” -- Mara heard herself slipping into flattery, and stopped -- “Look, I’ve done a lot for the Kingdom. And now I’d like to stop sleeping on the ground and eating dried meat and going on these never-ending quests. I’m done. Pick some new kids to take my place. I want a bed.”
It almost seemed as if the fox smiled. “You can ask the Elven Women of Thornshire to craft you a bed, if you wish.”
“I’m sorry,” Mara said. “Do you want me to expand my fucking metaphor? I want an actual house, with an actual bed, and a real job with money, and a car, and friends, and a family. I want all the stupid things I thought I didn’t want.”
“Why do you want them now?”
“Because now I realize how important they are,” Mara said, wiping her nose on her sleeve in front of Him and feeling embarrassed for it. “Can’t you already read my mind or something?”
“I can always read your mind,” He said. “That is why I let you stay.”
“I haven’t seen my parents in twenty-two years,” Mara said, leaving a huge slick snot trail on the edge of her tunic. “Every time I visit Horvard and Genna in Thornshire I see their little gnome baby and every time I think where is my baby? The last time I was at the library in Kaxharis I thought about begging them to let me reshelve the books, just so I could stay in the same place for once.”
“There are many more qualified to reshelve the library at Kaxharis,” He said to her. “And why do you envy Horvard and Genna the choices you did not make?”
“That’s why I want you to send me home,” Mara said. “Because I want to live in a world where those choices are at least possibilities for me.”
“Possibility is not certainty,” He said. “And you may find that your assumptions about the home and family you want are wrong.”
Then He transformed into the kitten He had first been, the day when He had appeared to her and told her that her quest was completed, the day she had refused and ran. “But if you believe it is time, I will do my part to grant your wish.”
She stretched out her hand, tentatively, towards Him. He raised His paw.
“I love you, Earth Child,” He said to her.
“I love you too,” she said, for the first time honestly. They touched. She disappeared.
After she had gone He began licking the underside of His leg, carefully cleaning and tasting the area around His anus. “Earth’s changed a lot in twenty-two years,” He said aloud to no one in particular. “She is going to hate Facebook.”