You can hear me read this story on episode #69 of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast.
The prompts for this episode were “August”, and this photo:
The tent in my story might be a bit different than the tent in the photo, but, you know, poetic licence and all that… I also added in a couple of lines that I cut for time when reading this story for the podcast. Nothing major, but a bit more sense of place perhaps?
Rúna is looking at the fly. It’s buzzing around her mother’s dried herbs in the summer tent, raised in Frigga’s meadow, while the village burns beyond the trees.
She can hear the distant screams and the clang of metal, but inside the tent it’s quiet, except for the buzzing fly, crawling down the inside of the tent now, glistening black with quivering wings.
Rúna hates the fly – its filthy carapace and twitching legs and whirring wings – and she’s trying very hard not to clench her hands in anger.
“No fists,” mother always says, creasing her forehead and raising a finger. “Never use your fists. Not ever.” It doesn’t matter if Rúna tells her that the other kids in the village use their fists all the time – even the adults do, she’s seen them, in the fighting pit, or at the feasts at midwinter and midsummer when they all get drunk and loud, striking each other with fists and blades of bronze and iron.
“This rule is for you, not them. Open hands are for peace and healing. Fists are for anger and fear and hate.”
Rúna thinks of mother’s frown and tries to keep her hands from tightening.
Mother’s herbs hang in bunches from the tentpoles above, each kind of herb carefully tied with a piece of string, swaying gently as it dries in the August breeze.
Rúna knows them all: lavender for sleeping, sage for fevers and headaches, chamomile to help you sleep, lady’s mantle to help a woman bleed less.
Rúna knows much more than mother thinks. She knows mother’s songs and runes, too, even though mother won’t let her use them.
Last time she saw mother, a man struck her from behind and clapped an iron collar around her neck. Iron to bind and quell. Mother bled. She fell. Rúna watched through the warped boards of the byre while mother was dragged off with the rest.
Rúna’s hands tremble but she keeps them flat in the dirt.
Beside her, Idun is curled up, her small face pressed into Rúna’s ribs.
Mother made Rúna swear to take care of Idun when she hid them underneath the hay. But Idun is just a stupid baby, and when they first got into the tent, Rúna had to hold her hand over Idun’s mouth so she wouldn’t cry out.
Far away, someone is screaming. It’s not mother, because the man gagged mother with a strip of cloth so she could not speak.
Iron around her throat, rope around her wrists, cloth to silence her.
Rúna feels her hands tremble, fingers curling.
“No,” she whispers to herself, whispers to the smell of burning wafting through the tent, whispers to Idun. “No.”
The men came at dawn, carrying steel and fire, chains and spears. Their ships pulled up in the shallows near the village, fearsome beasts leering from every prow, open mouthed and hungry, devouring the early morning fog and smoke.
Mother could not stop the men. Could not fight them off. All she had time to do was to hide Rúna and Idun in the byre, telling them to run through the woods to the meadow once they would not be seen.
The fly is crawling on Idun’s arm now, its legs tickling her dimpled elbow. Idun does not stir.
Rúna does not clench her fist, she only pinches the air with her right thumb and index finger, like when she pinches Idun sometimes when she can’t stand her sister’s wailing or her drooling or her grabby, fat fingers.
The fly, though she does not touch it, stops crawling, stops buzzing. Rúna thinks of the men putting the iron around mother’s neck, thinks of the houses set aflame, and pinches her fingers together so tight it hurts.
The fly’s legs curl up. It drops off Idun’s arm and falls into the dirt. Rúna knows it will not move again.
Heart pounding, she puts her hands flat down on the ground.
Never use your fists.
Did I clench my fist when Idun cried? Rúna thinks, and does not dare to turn and look, because Idun has been so still and so quiet for so long.
She was just angry at Idun for crying, for not listening, for being a baby, and the smell of smoke and fire and blood and iron choked her.
They saw a man in the grass when they scurried away from the village. His head was split in two and flies crawled inside his mouth and eyes. Idun would not stop crying after she saw him, pappa!, pappa!, she cried, even when Rúna told her to shut her mouth.
It didn’t look a bit like pappa, Rúna thinks, even though she recognized the braids in his beard and hair just like Idun did.
The light fades. It gets dark outside, mostly quiet, too.
Except now, there’s a dog outside. Rúna hears it sniffing. Closer. Closer.
She lifts her hands, curling her fingers loosely, then straightens them again.
Never use your fists.
Besides, she likes dogs.
Outside the tent, the dog whines and yips as if in greeting.
“What you find there, Ulv, what you find in that tent?”
The man’s voice is deep and soft. Rúna hears his footsteps – heavy, booted feet – hears the clink of chainmail, the scraping of a sharp edge against the scabbard as he unsheathes his iron.
The dog whines and barks and Rúna’s heart beats so fast and heavy she cannot think, cannot feel, cannot speak, cannot move. She thinks of the iron collar around mother’s neck, the rope, the gag.
Her hands grasp at the dirt, grasp at Idun’s cold, cold hand. Rúna knows she will not move again.
Then the tent flap rips open, and a glint of iron flashes through the dusk.
Rúna closes her eyes and clenches both hands into fists.
© Maria Haskins 2017.
Note: the rune stone in the cover image is from a stone in Tjangvide, Gotland that was raised around 700AD. It depicts the god Wotan/Odin, the goddess Frigga, and a lot of other rather dramatic happenings. Cover created by me, using Canva.