The second time she saw her, her heart leapt into her throat and took up residence.
Rúna* was never what her parents expected of her. Born to a life of hardship, a female when a male was desired.
"Rúna, you'll never make a suitable wife," her mother would sigh at her when she would disappear from the house to practice horsemanship and swordsmanship with the village boys.
"Rúna," her father would rumble, his voice dark with disappointment when he saw her wild hair, skinned knees, and torn trousers.
"She's as ungainly as a colt," her grandmother would say in a harsh whisper to her mother when she didn't think Rúna could hear.
Freckle-faced, ginger-haired, knobby-kneed Rúna always heard.
The most significant thing about Rúna, however, was that she was kind in an unkind world.
When Rúna was grown, a small village boy, no older than six or seven, approached her because his hound hadn't returned from a boar hunt with his father. She smiled gently and told him she would find the dog. Rúna spent eight hours tracking the animal. When she found it, it was in a state; front leg mangled, wheezing, and terrified. Deftly splinting the animal's leg, she hefted it over a broad shoulder and carried the hound back to her small hut on the outskirts of the fishing village. On a dirt floor, next to a small, popping fire, she removed the animal's mangled leg and cauterized the wound. She kept vigil until the early morning hours to make sure the dog would make it through that first night.
In the morning, when the dog was sleeping, breath even and heartbeat steady, she left the hut to find the village boy and his family. When she found them, the boy was overjoyed to hear that his beloved hound had been found and was healing. The boy's mother, however, rejected the notion of taking the animal back. The hound was another mouth to feed. One with no use if it wasn't able to contribute to the food on the table.
Mouth drawn in a hard line, Rúna nodded her understanding and turned to leave. The boy tearfully followed her for a few paces. Heart aching for the child, Rúna turned and knelt to look him in the eye, face softening.
"When your chores are through, follow the deer trail on the east side of the village. You'll find me and your pup in the hut there."
The boy nodded.
"What's your name?" Runa prodded with care.
The boy sniffed. "Conor."
"Well, it's lovely to meet you, Conor. Come visit me and your hound any time you wish. When he's back on his feet and able to hunt again, I'm sure you'll be allowed to bring him home. We'll get him better together, yeah?"
Wiping his eyes with grubby sleeves, the boy nodded again. "Yeah, okay."
That's how a boy and a three-legged dog became Rúna's closest family in her adult life.
She went about her days taking odd jobs about the village, clearing bandit camps, fetching resources for the herbalist and blacksmith, or tracking down wolf packs that were helping themselves to too many of a local farmer's flock. They weren't glamorous jobs. She avoided jobs that involved the expansion of the feudal lords' land. She wasn't in the business of taking. Instead, she helped where she could. She got paid what people could afford to pay her. Sometimes it was coin, but more often than not, it was bread or goods, or, in one particular case, a new breastplate. It kept her belly full. She had enough.
So, you'll understand that when she saw the strange woman struggling in the ocean by the shore, why she was immediately compelled to assist.
The next time she saw the selkie woman, her heart took up residence in her throat.
It had been some time since she had returned to her camp on the shore. In the first few days that followed the selkie's departure, Rúna returned every day. Eventually, however, she gave up hope that she'd ever see the woman again.
The vibrancy of summer faded. Winter held her little village tight in its icy grip. And, after what felt like an eternity of cold, spring began to thaw the landscape. The braided bracelet gifted to her remained on her wrist. Always.
Rúna's heart bloomed with the first sighting of lavender-petaled, black-eyed sea asters on the cliff face. That very day was the day she returned to her seaside campsite only to find that she wasn't there alone.
Wrapped in her seal coat, tousled raven hair tumbling over a fair, freckled shoulder, the selkie woman was perched like an elegant egret on a flat rock near the opening to the cove that sheltered the campsite.
When their eyes met, the selkie's head tilted slightly, a ghost of a smile playing on her lips.
Rúna swallowed. Hard. Heart fluttering. She wet her chapped lips trying to find her voice. She opened her mouth once. Twice. Nothing. She felt her face heat.
The selkie woman's smile broadened revealing dimples and crinkling the corner of her eyes.
"Well, hello to you, too." Her voice lilted musically with an accent unfamiliar to Rúna. Belatedly, she realized it was the first time she heard the woman speak.
Rúna cleared her throat and lifted her chin in an effort to pull herself together. She meant to say hello. She really did. What came out instead was an abrupt, "You're here!"
The seal maid laughed, her whole face alight. She gracefully lifted herself from her perch and picked her way carefully with bare feet over the rocky shore to stand within an arm's length of Rúna.
Rúna watched helplessly as the selkie's gaze darted around her face as if trying to read her expression. Feeling ungainly (yes, as a colt) under the scrutiny, she lifted a hand to rub self consciously at the back of her neck. It caught the seal maid's attention, her large dark eyes immediately noting the braided bracelet on Rúna's wrist.
"You're still wearing it."
"Why did you give it to me?"
The selkie's smile softened to something quieter, more thoughtful, but she said nothing. A silence stretched between them that could have been seconds, but felt like hours.
When Rúna's nerves couldn't take the silence anymore, she broke the spell between them with the first thing she could think of. "Would you-I mean, are you hungry?"
The seal maid nodded and Rúna, with not just a little bit of relief, moved to put some space between them and begin setting up camp. They shared a quiet meal of dried venison jerky, cheese, and bread from Rúna's pack. Neither speaking. Rúna was surprised to realize that this silence didn't feel uncomfortable.
Rúna finished her small meal before the selkie woman and she used the time to study the creature before her. From what she could tell, the spots from her coat seemed to mirror something like birthmarks on the woman's back. When she noticed that the skin on her exposed shoulder was raised in goosebumps, she pulled an extra set of clothes from her pack, warm, fur-lined trousers, tunic, and woolen cloak.
"Here. These will keep the spring chill out. You can change and hang your seal coat over there," she said pointing over her shoulder.
The selkie stopped mid-bite into the hunk of cheese she had been nibbling on, staring at the offering in Rúna's hands. She looked uncertain, her lower lip catching in her teeth, her eyes hesitantly catching Rúna's.
"Go on. It's okay. Your coat will be perfectly safe. Promise." Rúna offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
The selkie reached out and took the clothes. Rúna stood and moved out of the cove to give the woman some privacy as she changed. After a few moments, she felt a presence to her left.
Rúna glanced over her shoulder, warmth spreading in her chest as she took in the sight of the selkie woman dressed in her clothes. "Better?"
"Yes, thank you. I feel warmer already."
*Rúna (ROO-nah): Female. Origin: Old Norse. Meaning: Secret, secret lore, secret knowledge, magic