Runa stood at the entry to the room full of bubbles and swallowed. It was one of the most beautiful sights she had ever seen, but the thought of what she was likely to see set her stomach churning. Einarr had not hesitated: she owed it to him – to them – not to flinch. As he ducked under one of the green-glowing globes, Runa entered the room.
She took sideways, gliding steps, ever mindful of where the bubbles were, knowing she was going to make a mistake. Do not fear, she told herself. He’s right in front of you: you can face anything. Runa swallowed again, willing herself to believe it.
She stopped. In front of her, the bubbles floated in a solid wall. On the other side, she was sure, the exit would be in view. All she had to do was step forward.
Runa wiped sweaty palms against her skirt and set her mouth in a determined line. With a deep breath, she gripped her skirts and strode forward, into the wall of memory.
Runa studied the harbor from her perch high in a tree, hoping to see a draken on the horizon. Not just any draken, of course: she wanted the Vidofnings to come this winter. She was old enough to know there was no rational reason, just that she thought things would be better if they were here.
“Runa? Runa, where are you?” Her nursemaid’s voice called, still a ways off. Runa hurried back toward the center of the tree, where the woman was less likely to spot her. It would be even odds whether she was madder about Runa shirking her chores or that she’d climbed a tree.
Where are you, Einarr? You need to come back this winter. It had been four years since the Vidofnir had wintered with Father. Surely he would want to see their Captain, too? Especially with Mama sick…
“Runa, your mother is calling.”
Runa sighed. Well, shoot. I can’t very well ignore that, now can I. Frowning, she scrambled down the tree as quick as she dared. Her knees were scraped by the time she dropped from the lowest branch to the ground.
“There you are!” Her nursemaid bustled up from down the path even as Runa reached down to straighten her skirts and brush away the pine needles. “Up in a tree again, really! Aren’t there better things for you to do with your time than risk your own neck?”
“Yes’m,” Runa muttered. She knew it was irrational, and so there was no point in trying to explain. She would let them think her spoiled; in this one way, they were right.
Her nursemaid took Runa by the arm and roughly brushed at the forest leavings stuck to her clothes. “Never mind. The Lady is calling for you, you don’t want to keep her waiting.”
Runa shook her head. “Did she say why?”
“Does she need a reason to want to see her only daughter?”
Runa met her nursemaid’s eyes and saw worry there, too. She swallowed the lump that tried to form in her throat. “Let go. I’ll go straight there.”
“Your face is all smudged, dearie. Let me clean up the worst of it.”
“It’s fine. Let’s not keep Mama waiting.” She didn’t give her poor nursemaid a choice. Runa yanked her arm free and ran up the path through the woods toward Kjell Hall. I’m coming…
The miasma that had hung over the hall all year had not changed, for better or for worse. That was some small comfort: it meant Mama was still there. Still, the path had never felt so long as it did that afternoon. It almost seemed as though the path were growing longer as she ran. I was walking by the time I made it to the palisade, that day. Runa slowed her footfalls, not out of breath but allowing the dread of that summer, of that day, to grow in her breast once more.
Finally she was able to reach her father’s Hall. The air was heavy inside, and smelled of medicine. Even when she hadn’t been sneaking off to watch for ships Runa had sought excuses to be outside all summer. The smell of death was almost impossible to bear.
Her nursemaid arrived only a few minutes after Runa. As the girl walked, calmly and with her head held high, towards her mother’s sickbed she followed a pace behind. Runa was only a little bothered when the woman reached out to pluck a twig from where it had caught in her braid on the way down the tree.
Father’s herbalist stood in the doorway, mortar in hand, mixing up the concoction that hung in the air and filled Runa’s nose. She cleared her throat.
“Nurse Arga tells me my mother wished to see me?”
The herbalist stepped out of the way and wordlessly continued crushing the herbs in his mortar. Inside, Mama was propped up on pillows and smiling, but nearly as pale as snow. What little hair she had left hung limp and stringy from her head.
“Runa, dear. Come here, let me look at you.”
Hesitation slowed her steps, but Runa entered nonetheless and took her mother’s hand. “Mama.”
“You are… such a beautiful girl.” Her mother smiled, and for a moment it was as though the sickness had never touched her. “Sit down. We have much to discuss, and I fear I have little time.”
Runa blinked, and saw that she was once more surrounded by the fairy lights. Her eyes stung, and her stomach did flip-flops as though she would throw up: after that day, her mother had never spoken again. Not far before her the exit door stood open, and, just on the other side of it, the proud straight shoulders of her hero.
“Einarr!” She breathed, and dashed for the exit.
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