Updated: May 15, 2021
Rúna could taste blood. Thick and cloying, it clung to her nose, her blade, her armor. Smoke and steel, the shouts of soldiers and the cries of the dying around her drowned out her thoughts as she cleaved her blade through another soft body. Before red even stained the soldier's lips, she was pulling her blade free and driving it through the shoulder joint of another’s armor, piercing yet another beating heart.
Again and again. Cut after cut. She took life after life.
Her heart weighed leaden in her chest.
As she twisted to deal another killing blow, something sharp bit into her side. The world went wobbly. She looked down to find a sword sliding out from the gap in her plate armor just over her ribs. Gasping she looked up at her attacker.
He was sneering, blonde braids and beard matted and blood stained. He raised his sword for the killing blow.
“Rúna,” he said, his sneer softening.
“What?” she breathed.
“Rúna. Rúna, wake up.”
Rúna’s senses slowly returned to her as consciousness flooded her. She heard the ocean, smelled the saltiness of the water, sweetness of the sea asters, and a familiar, earthy warmth. There were gentle hands on her face, in her hair, the old ache in her ribs from a wound long healed.
“Rúna, it’s alright. You’re dreaming.” A soft voice cooed.
Rúna, finally, opened her eyes. Blinking, she took in her surroundings. The cove. The flowers hung to dry from the ceiling. The embers of the fire were dark and cold in the early morning. The warm light of dawn filtering into their little shelter.
Fiadh’s fingertips at her hairline. Her brow slightly furrowed with worry, her eyes soft as she searched Rúna’s face.
Rúna realized she was warm. Warmer than usual. She glanced down only to realize Fiadh had covered her with her seal coat.
Alarmed, Rúna’s eyes met the selkie’s once more and Fiadh must have read the questions there.
“You were shivering and sweating,” she said, voice warm and low. “I worried you’d catch a chill.”
“Thank you.” Rúna’s voice was rough with sleep. “I’m sorry.”
Rúna groaned and rubbed a hand over her face.
“I must have fallen asleep while we were talking last night.”
The corners of Fiadh’s mouth pulled up in amusement, revealing dimples. “Mmmhmm, seems so.”
“I’m sorry if I startled you. I-I get nightmares sometimes.”
Fiadh arched an eyebrow, “So, I gathered. Care to talk about it?”
Rúna clenched her jaw, lips pressing together as she considered, eyes staring at the stalactites over Fiadh’s head.
Then she felt those gentle fingers in her hairline again, softly stroking, grounding her.
Rúna sighed, avoiding Fiadh’s gaze, but wetting her lips to speak.
“A few years ago, I took up arms not as a mercenary taking the odd job, but as a soldier.”
“That seems...unlike you.”
“Yes,” Rúna breathed, her voice wavering. “I grew up the daughter of a Norseman. He was...rigid. And, I was not what he expected in a daughter. I was too soft. Too...kind. I could outfight, outride, outwit all of the village boys. But, that didn’t matter when I refused to deliver a killing blow on a hunt.”
She took another steadying breath before continuing. “I understand, of course, as an adult that you have to do what you must to survive, to eat, to weather hard winters. But, the level of violence, of cruelty, of disrespect I saw my father and his friends treat the world and its people with, the women in our village with, it didn’t sit right.”
“There were a few Gaels in our village. My father treated them like they didn’t matter, even worse than he treated others. As if they weren’t here before we were. As if the Norse didn’t raze their towns and take their crops and-” Rúna choked, taking a moment to breathe, to refocus again on Fiadh’s fingers in her hairline.
“I spent time with a few of the Gaelic children as a girl. In secret, of course. They were kind and careful and believed such beautiful things about the earth and its creatures. They respected life, even as they had to take it to nourish their bodies and their families.’
“Mmm,” Fiadh murmured acknowledgment, thumb brushing Rúna’s brow.
“It was unfair. That a people like the Gaels would be conquered and subjugated by a people like mine. So, when High King Brian united the clans to rise against the Norse to win back their independence, I joined. I was labeled a traitor and more by my people. The Gaels, however, they, erm ...tolerate my presence now.”
“That seems more like you; trying to atone for the sins of your entire people.”
“Well, you’re safe here. With me. And, I think you’re remarkable. The choices you made, the obstacles you had to overcome. What you’ve done. Who you are.” Fiadh cupped her cheek as if to emphasize her words. “Rúna, you’re remarkable.”
Rúna felt herself flush, warm from her heart to her toes. The air was thick again with that unspoken thing between them. She cleared her throat, finally meeting Fiadh’s eyes.
“Yes, well, the feeling is mutual. Safe. Remarkable. You, too. With me.”
The tension broke with Fiadh’s laugh. “Well said, mercenary.”
Rúna sat up, Fiadh’s hand falling from her face. Rúna felt the loss in her gut.
“Listen, I’m a mercenary, not a wordsmith,” Rúna said, laughter in her voice.
Fiadh only laughed harder.
Rúna grinned, feeling lighter than she had in years.
“I understand, you know,” Fiadh said later that afternoon as they picked their way together across the shore.
Rúna watched as the selkie woman tried to push a lock of wavy dark hair from her face to tuck it behind her ear. It was a futile attempt. One that made Rúna smile. Even Fiadh’s wild locks couldn’t be tamed.
“What do you mean?”
“I understand feeling…” Fiadh paused, chewing her lip as she searched for the right word. “Untethered? Different. Like I don’t quite fit.”
Rúna tilted her head in a silent invitation for Fiadh to continue.
“I’ve always been more curious than others of my kind.”
Rúna grinned, “You don’t say.”
Fiadh rolled her eyes and lightly smacked Rúna’s arm. “I’m being serious.”
Rúna nodded, grin changing to something much softer. “I’ll be good now.”
Pretending to glare at Rúna, Fiadh continued. “I always asked too many questions. I wandered off. I was never home by curfew., always getting into trouble.”
“Mmmmm,” Rúna murmured knowingly, reminded of the day they met.
“That made it difficult to make friends. As I got older, I preferred to explore on my own anyway.” Fiadh paused, stopping to push that unruly lock of hair out of her face again and look up at Rúna through long dark lashes. Hands tugging at the hem of her tunic, she said, “I don’t think I truly realized how lonely I was until I met you.”
Rúna reached for Fiadh’s hands, stopping their fidgeting and cradling them in her own. “I love that about you. Your curiosity, I mean. I never would have met you had you not been, well, you. I’m grateful for that every day.”
Fiadh’s smile turned shy. “Me, too.”
Rúna’s heart gave a thud.
Rúna was not a stranger to fear.
She had fought in the war. Thigh-deep in fresh corpses, some still hanging to life with their last desperate breaths, she kept a stranglehold on her courage as she fought to survive, to protect the comrades around her.
She had weathered unforgiving winters and treacherous seas. And even while her lizard brain cowered, she marveled at the innate, visceral beauty of barren white dunes and perilous seas.
Fear was familiar. Fear she had mastered.
What she felt when she realized that Fiadh had been abducted was not fear.
It was something squirming and painful, dark and cavernous. It felt like a hole had opened up inside of her, yawning, and bottomless. Sweat broke over her skin and for a few infinite moments, she thought she would never breathe again.
When the world came back to her, it did so in a rush. The ocean roared. Her chapped lips stung with salt. Her hands buried in the sand, in the drag marks indicating that Fiadh had been taken against her will. The sweat on her scalp cooled by the biting air sweeping inland from the sea and chilled her to the bone.
There was a landslide inside of her. Every ugliness, every cruelty, every twisting, anguished, gut-wrenching emotion she had ever experienced flooding in to fill the yawning void that had opened inside of her.
Despite the chill, she felt hot. She felt furious.
She felt murderous.
The world had taken much from her. It would not take Fiadh.
Filled with an urgency only an impending loss can fuel, Rúna hoisted herself to her feet and followed a trail that had not yet gone cold. With a grace and speed that Rúna didn’t know she possessed, she pursued the interloper across rocky shores, over grassy slopes, and up craggy cliff faces.
She hiked through the night, unwilling to allow the trail to grow cold. Just before dawn, she spotted the smoking remains of a fire, embers still glowing at its heart. It had been snuffed in a hurry.
Thighs already burning from the day's exertion, Rúna dropped to a crouch in the tall grass still several feet away from her quarry.
A man-shaped lump rose from the farthest bedroll. Standing, he stretched and murmured something low and quiet.
Rúna’s sharp gaze tracked movement off to the right, several yards away.
He wasn't alone, then.
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