STORY: The Rune Hag's Daughter
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
Author's Note: This story is set completely with the Kheld people and their culture. Because readers will see more about Khelds and their ways in THE KHELD KING and the remainder of the series, I thought this story would be of interest to those who want to know more about the people Stefan calls his own.
Kheld beliefs differ in significant ways from those of the larger Triempery and they practice their own kind of magic.
Also of note is that this story was previously published in The Pagan Fiction Anthology.
We need a daughter, to hold our lands. Her family’s plea pricked Rusa’s heart. Even now, when her hands and mind were busy with meaningful work, the words spoken in the spring pressed like a thorn into her thoughts. Now her aunt Edda stood over her, a basket filled with early apples hanging on one arm, telling her she was being a bad daughter. Soft as the Mother’s sighs, wind rustled leaves in the trees that ringed the protective hollow where she worked and provided melody for Edda’s voice. “Summer ends, and you have not taken a man.” “I told you, I do not want one,” Rusa said. She did not look at her aunt, instead attending a long lead-lined tray. Using stained tongs, she turned thumb-sized stones in the cooling, heavy liquid. “Our mothers have held this land and nursed its gifts since the High King gave it to our people. Now you will slay all our generations with your refusal!” Rusa gripped the feet of another tiny Mother figure and flipped it over. The figures’ tiny breasts glistened in silver dots above the dark surface. She did not answer her aunt’s accusation and Edda took another path. “Surely this batch is finished?” “The sheen must be thick and sure. You’ve seen the stones of careless crafters, the ones that barely last a year and often read false. Our stones are prized for good reason.” “Our stones show true because our land is true.” To that, Rusa had nothing to say — or add. All Kheld folk knew the best rune rock was quarried from Rappeleye land. A single vein of blue-green stone ran through the hill at her back, stone so precious and true women came from all corners of the land hoping to acquire runes made from the few measures of it quarried each year. More than that, they prized the nurse stones Rusa so diligently fashioned. Creating nurse stones required skill and deep knowledge. Rune hags, people called the women of her family, and rune hags they were, spending more time working stone than their farm. Having turned every figure, Rusa set aside her tongs and reached for a long-handled ladle carved from a single branch of holly. She dipped it in a nearby pail, scooped precisely the right amount of vapor bath. She tested the liquid with her fingertips and judged the temperature fit, then poured. The golden liquid, steeped from willow root then reduced for two days, flowed into the dark shimmering tray. As clouds of steam engulfed the open area around her, Rusa closed the damper over the pit of coals and poured another ladle of fluid over the stone. Edda placed her basket of apples several paces away, beside the steps leading into Rusa’s cottage. “Mother Rappeleye wishes to see you.” “I cannot leave until these have cooled.” “That’s what you said last week.” Edda removed her shawl and rolled up her sleeves, revealing ample, well-muscled arms. Much of her life, she had been a stone-shaper, the runes she crafted prized by the priestesses of Aurdollen. “I will see to the cooling, and I will put them away. You, go see the mothers.” She felt like a girl again. Edda had that way about her, matronly but stern, reminding her that her lapses had long since passed the point of censure. The only line Rusa had not yet crossed was that between resistance and disrespect. The house of the Old Mothers lifted sturdy stone walls at the edge of an expansive oak grove dotted with clumps of graveflowers. Beneath those shady expanses greened by sparse grass rested the bones of thirty-five Rappeleye generations. To the back of the house, a hedge of hollyhocks, still throwing up spires of flowers, stood watch over a well-tended kitchen garden. Inside the house, Rusa knew, five elderly women would be baking, spinning, and weaving. The old mothers might have more years between them than amaranth had seeds, but they kept busy. When she reached the skirt of packed, swept earth at the front of the house, she saw the eldest of her family seated in a quilt-laden chair, waiting for her. Mother Rappeleye, she was called, for being oldest. She had given birth to twelve children, of whom Rusa’s mother had been the youngest. A shawl covered her knees and a soft leather bag of runestones, such as every Kheld woman carried, waited on her lap. Memory vines wove on pergola overhead, dangling chains of sweet-scented bellflowers. A for Alm, Rusa recalled, old lessons revived. B for Bess, and C for Caul . . . “Daughter, we have missed you!” Her grandmother’s voice was soft and slight, with the memory of song. Rusa kissed the ancient cheek. The old woman’s cool face felt frail against her skin, more bone than flesh. Self-consciously, she reached into the pouch of her work apron and drew out two vials she had retrieved before leaving her house. “What’s this?” Mother Rappeleye asked. “Tincture of antimony to quiet the pains in your joints, and tincture of rune stone to clear your eye.” “Ah, our maker of potions!” The vial of brown glass, held up to the sun, gleamed darkly, against the blue of Mother’s good eye. Though one eye was clouded, the other was large and a clear, lively blue. “Thank you, child.” She touched Rusa’s arm with a thin, bony hand. A youth spent crafting stone runes showed in the twisted fingers. “I wanted to be sure you enjoyed the colors of this year’s leaving.” “This will be the last year I watch the grove shed its leaves.” “I’ll make sure it’s not!” “You, child,” Mother Rappeleye said, “cannot reverse the years. You will be the last of all of us.” Rusa ducked her head. She had known her foot-dragging would lead to this hour. “Would it be so bad to let some other family settle upon our land, for their sons and daughters to work its fields? The bottom land is rich and fruitful. If they would let me stay in the cottage, work the hill — there would still be runes enough.” She touched the gleaming nurse stone upon her breast, hung from a cord of hair. Her mother’s hair, brown and lustrous, the hair of a woman who’d died young. “And so they might, should the Cruihcil make an exception in our case. They would, I think, for the sake of your gift. But after you who will speak to the stones and know which of them can be trusted? Would you trust runes made by the low-schooled witches of Eastmeary Brenna? Would you trust a Darm woman to listen to our hill?” She shook her head. There would be no one, and she knew it. They knew it, too, the other women of her clan, who held their tongues but pleaded with their eyes, beseeching her to heed their wishes. Even now Mother Dillys had wandered around the corner of the house, ostensibly shooing away one of the cats, but casting glances in their direction. “I honor the Mother.” “You know better than that. You deny Her.” Rusa lifted her head. “You know why.” For the first time in years, the anger returned. It clamped about her heart, squeezing reason aside. “Do you think we’ve forgotten? Every day for sixteen years, our kin have cursed that man for what he did to you.” “To no avail. He was never found, never punished.” He had come to their farm, seeking work, maybe a wife. A man could make a good living for himself as a Rappeleye husband. Though the land itself must pass to a daughter, a hard-working husband might accumulate a herd or master a craft that would pass to a son, who would take that heir-portion to support a wife elsewhere. If the Rappeleyes had few cattle and sheep, it was because they’d had too many sons, who year by year had left to settle their new wives’ land. Mother Rappeleye sank back into her cushioned chair. “He has been punished, you may be sure. The Mother visits misfortune upon such men. Make no mistake, She curses their loins and makes their staffs wither. No woman will look upon him with favor. Other men will know his weakness and despise him. Only you give him strength, by the power he holds over you still.” She refused to remember that day, had banished it to a place in her mind even she could no longer find. Or so she’d thought. Every child’s laugh, every woman’s smile upon naming a man, cracked open the door to a threshold she could not bring herself to cross. “You want me to have a child,” she said, “before I am too old.” “Thirty years is not old, daughter. I am thrice that, plus ten, and I had children into my fiftieth year. You are young enough to have many children.” “To have a child, a woman must couple with a man.” In that acrid truth lay the root of her repulsion. “We had hoped that if enough years passed, you would learn to like one man, at least.” “I like Almar Thornson,” she named the red-haired smith who made her grates and tongs. “I like Nobb, the baker.” “Men with wives.” “Safe men,” Rusa snorted. “Men found worthy by the Mother. There are many such—” She shook her head. “I will not take a husband to rut and give orders.” “There is another way.” “No. I cannot go into town—” “Be a bower bride. Take a shadow-husband.” Her heart pounded, with awe as much as fear. “You want me to go to the Valley, to be mounted like a mare—” “Like what we are, like a true daughter of the Earth. What shame can there be in it? You do not want to know the man, so be it. The Mother will see to it you do not know him, nor he you.” Shadow-husbands were not shades. The supplicants of the Mother were flesh and blood, men who made the pilgrimage to her Valley to demonstrate their adherence to Her ways. Often they did this in preparation for marriage, for men once wed did not often make that journey. The rites of the Mother were the last remnant of the Old Way. The way women had conceived children before the People of Alm had come to this land and learned the habits of the men to the north, of Essera, who kept their wives close by their sides, forbidden to other men. More and more, Kheld men sought to ensure a woman’s children would theirs alone. Rusa’s hands shook as Mother Rappeleye reached out and pressed the soft leather bag of runes against her palms. “Take my stones, the Rappeleye Stones. Use them to fashion the Wheel. Let the wisdom of your mothers guide you.” The old woman leaned back again and closed her eyes, the clouded and the clear, shutting out the sun. “Give us a daughter to hold our land.” That night in her cottage, surrounded by trays of amber beads and lead bottles of vitriol, Rusa knelt on a carpet her mother had woven and laid the Wheel. Candlelight flickered in firefly golds, reds and greens from the vials holding the secrets of her trade. From a heavy oak chest at the foot of her bed, she retrieved her wands, wrapped in linen and dust. She picked loose the knot and folded the cloth back from four wooden staves, each the length of her forearm. They were polished and true, flat across the upper surface, with a deliberate notch in the middle and a smooth hollow at each end. A faetha’s wands, the mark of a healer and seer. She had made them during years spent at Aurdollen, learning the Mother’s ways. With her own lore she had found each tree, with her own hands taken the wood, worked the shape with knife and sand: alder, hazel, rowan, and yew. The four sacred trees of the Mother. Even as she took the wands again in her hands, she felt the wisdom that she had put aside in favor of her own counsel. They spoke to her because she had made them, and because the Mother had given her the gift of bespeaking the things of earth, of wood and stone. With a steady hand, she poured fresh birch shavings in a ring, then laid the wands upon the circle. She aligned them with the four quarters of the world: cold sky, warm earth, life’s fire and death’s water. Alder first, as the first-created and beloved of the world, then yew, to open the gates of life and death. The staves crossed at right angles, their notched middles locking. Bisecting these, she laid hazel, for wisdom, and lastly rowan, for truth. With the wands set, she placed a lighted candle pot at each end, then sat back on her heels to study her work. How many years had it been? Fourteen years ago she had consulted the runes. They had not lied then. They would not lie now. Reverently, she turned the bag and poured Mother Rappeleye’s runes out onto the dense red pile of the carpet, scattering the stones across symbols of life and fire, earth and ruin. She touched one blue stone, amazed at its inner fire. Runes passed from mother to daughter, though some women might own several sets. Rusa herself owned a set she had shaped the same year as she had fashioned her wands, but these… these runes were ancient, round with use, surely shaped by Rappeleye hands from the first stone their Hill had ever yielded, and they possessed the wisdom of the ages. She laid the runes in a line and found she had all twenty-four. Taking the nurse stone from around her neck, she placed the tiny figure on the carpet, face up, breasts and belly prominent. One by one, she touched the nurse stone to each softly glowing rune, watching the silver surface to see if the touch produced a shadow. Sometimes a rune’s energy turned and no longer vibrated to the heart of the Mother, so that its readings would prove false. A nurse stone would reveal the alteration by turning dark. Healers and farmers, and the faetha who served the mighty, depended on their runes being true. The nurse stones Rusa so painstakingly created, first carving the stone, then steeping them in vitriol and tinctures of rare metals, ensured health and good harvests and imbued wisdom into the decisions of Kheld leaders. Mother, she beseeched, show me what path awaits my choice. Every stone was true. Rusa replaced them in the bag, rolling the smooth runes within, then reached inside. This time, she whispered her invocation. “Birch spirit, truth diviner, this willing hand rule. Alder everlasting, life seeker, this life finger guide. Yew death-branch, guardian, this long finger summon. Hazel deep-sighted, revealer of secrets, this heart finger warm. Rowan quickener, bane of lies, this ear finger force confessions.” Drawing a breath, eyes focused on the alder wand, she slid her hand into the bag and chanted the pattern she sought: “Nine items of knowledge show… this heart… my trouble… my hope… what bars the way… the place… the person… the path… the price… the outcome.” One by one, matching her movements to the words, she picked a rune from the bag and laid it in the hollow of the wand corresponding to her order, beginning with the sky-quarter and alder. She worked her way around the Wheel, laying a rune in every hollow, then sealing the reading by placing the ninth rune at the center, where all wands overlapped. As soon as the weight of the stone left her fingers, she dropped her hands to her lap and huddled, eyes closed, dreading to learn what the Wheel might reveal. Wand by wand, she had laid it. Stone by stone, she had watched its unfolding. Her training as a faetha had given her weapons of skill but no protections against belief. She was a Rappeleye woman, from a line of mothers descended from All-Seeing Bess, the Mother Rappeleye whose runes had guided Alm to the Door and brought her people to a new world. A Rappeleye woman, gifted to divine the secrets of stone and speak to the land, to Rappeleye Hill and oracle pools and sacred groves. A woman who, though violated as a girl, had been fortunate in not giving birth to a child of violence, who had served the Mother well as a priestess and penitent. Since leaving Aurdollen, Rusa had functioned for many years as guardian of the Hill, protecting the oracles of others but not looking after her own. She slaved to perfect the Mother’s image, but she had taken no apprentice, no husband, no child to her heart. That remained as untouched as the rune stone yet to be mined in the depths of the Hill. The rune at the center of the Wheel glowed blue, a solitary remonstration. The Valley of Moons lay two rivers over from Rappeleye Hill, a long journey by foot. Rusa undertook it, not wanting to deprive her kinswomen’s husbands and sons of the horses, which they needed for working the fields. Edda walked with her, well-armed with bread loaves and cheese. Rusa wore her best wool cloak, blue, the hood and hems embroidered with flowers and rune signs. Any who looked closely at the markings would know her as a Rappeleye. The women stopped first at their family oak, in the center of the grove wherein the dead were buried, and gathered some of the acorns fallen from its mighty branches. This season’s crop had not yet dropped but many from the previous year still littered the ground. “At least our oak will continue,” Edda said, a pouch bulging with acorns swinging from her hip, “for I shall plant these as we go.” The Mother honored those who spread her fruit. Was it easier, Rusa wondered, to be a man, ordered to seek fertile ground upon which to cast his seed, while a woman must guard her field? Oaks ruled much of Amallar, stood tall upon hills, lording over lowlands rich with other trees. The oak was, of all trees, the most male, beloved of the Mother yet the very staff of the Sun. The Faeduadan, the Priests of Lud, carved their runes from oak, cast them onto the naked earth in daylight and studied the resulting patterns of light and shadow. Always they sought to divine the future and the fate of not their people but their nation. The ruling clan of Thegn had, of late, come under the leadership of men who adhered to the cult of Lud. Less and less did Kheld-folk follow the ways of the Mother. Rusa curled her hand within her skirt-pocket, around the heavy shape of a rune. She carried it with her, the rune that every time out of three castings had come ninth to her hand and rested at the heart of the Wheel. Laaz. The symbol for woman, for moon. Two priestesses greeted them at the valley entrance, one standing in the shadow of a menhir draped with garlands of white flowers. Both wore robes of gray the color of rain clouds, and one held a staff carved with the Mother’s symbols of shield, tree, and moon, hoods raised to cover their hair. Rusa did the same, lifting her hood so that it concealed all but her face as the priestess not holding the staff walked forward to greet them. She handed the priestess her handful of acorns, with a murmur hoping the Goddess would be pleased by her offering. The priestess smiled. “Fruit of the Rappeleye Oak! Why would she not be pleased? That is a noble tree, child of the oak that sheltered All-Seeing Bess and gave Alm his spear.” Rusa bowed her head at the reminder of her family oak’s legendary lineage. “Come, daughter.” The priestess directed her to follow a stony path leading into the valley. Edda followed behind, a chaperone comfortable with her charge’s companion. “Is it true you seek to conceive an Earth-fathered child?” It was wrong to mislead a deity, but what of a priestess? Rusa remembered the lesson of her trade, that lies surfaced when touched by truth. “I seek to conceive, true. However, I do not want to see the man, or know him. Though my family depends on me for continuance, I fear I may not be a proper vessel for such a gift.” “No woman here receives a man unless she so wishes.” “I know. That is why I am here.” “Do you fear that you will conceive a child without joy?” “I did so once before.” She had been laughing, chasing the ball he had thrown too hard, when he had caught her up in his arms and carried her kicking into the cornfield. He had thrown her down between the rows and ploughed her like one of his furrows, planting his seed. Had he watched her courses to know when her body was ripe, or had his lust been random, her misfortune a cruel chance? That day had seen a child conceived against the Mother, in fear and pain, no joy at all. The Rappeleye mothers had whispered fearfully, always around corners, when they thought she could not hear, predicting a dire future for any child so conceived. The day she lost it, Rusa had run out in the field in a thunderstorm, blood running down her legs into the dirt, filled with wild, gluttonous joy, her one triumph against him. “The child did not live?” “No.” “The Mother’s mercy,” the priestess murmured. Rusa did not disagree. Others had said as much, at the time and for years after. Only she knew how virulently she had hated the baby growing inside her, or how happy she had been at its death. In her heart, she knew she had killed it with her hate. Unwanted, unloved, it had withered like a seedling without water or sun, until it had died. Not wanting anything to survive of the man who had raped her, she had starved it even of hope. What she feared now was that her hate had not diminished, that it still lay in wait — and that it would kill again. The temple of the Great Mother emerged from a high mound crowned by oaks and ringed by ranks of the Five Guardian Trees. The mound itself was honey-combed by passageways and chambers devoted to Her mystic rituals. A deep well said to lie in the heart of the temple cured infertility. Penitents buried in the Moon Hill under the guidance of priestesses, clawed their way forth again, reborn and cleansed of whatever ills had afflicted them. Rusa could not tell which of the men along the path had come to be cleansed and which had come to fulfill their pilgrimage. Many of the men were young, like bullocks in their prime, with eyes that followed her cloaked and modest form with a knowledge she dreaded. Just as she did not know their business, they could not know hers, and yet she felt as though it were emblazoned on her somehow for all to see. Only when she had passed into the part of the temple reserved only for women did she feel her equilibrium return. Here the priestesses instructed her in the sacred rituals that prepared her to receive the Mother’s blessing, a child fathered by a man in the Mother’s name. She visited and gathered twigs from the five guardian groves, burning each kind one by one on the altar with prayers for health, wisdom, unburdening, remembrance, and strength. She bathed in the sacred pool, promising the Mother she would yield even as the earth to the sky. She anointed her skin and hair with herbs for fertility and quickening. The kind priestess who lit the lanterns they would carry on their walk to the chamber told her the man, too, prepared to perform a divine act, an act of worship. To that end, both were expected to be silent, to give that space to the deity. The deed itself would take place in darkness, in a womb of earth. When Rusa saw the place, she recoiled. In a deep passageway beneath the Moon Hill, the priestess took away her lantern, setting it upon the floor beside a squat door framed with stone. The lintel piece bore red ochre symbols. Moon for protection. Rabbit for fertility. Rusa stood straight as the priestess opened a door into darkness. It was a hole, a cavern under the earth. Damp air billowed from within, bringing with it the smell of mud and worms, of freshly turned fields and uprooted things. I am mad to want this, Rusa thought. The Mother had other names, names just as true to her nature. The Frightful One, birth-giver and consumer of the dead. The Three-Faced Lady. Milk-giver, the Udder of the World. Enticer of Bulls. She looked into the priestess’s eyes. The woman had never given her a name; no priestess would, though the Mother had ordered that each thing in the world possess its own, unique name. The priestesses were themselves aspects of the Mother, interchangeable with each other and with Her. What looked back at Rusa wasn’t kindness, however patient it might seem. “The answer to all questions lies within,” the priestess said. Rusa drew a deep breath. The taste of earth clung to the air. “And if at any point I do not wish to continue?” “You have but to call out.” With trembling hands, Rusa undid the clasps of the shift she wore, dropping it from her body. She had no need for clothing here. Though heavy with water, the air from within was warm. Ducking under the lintel with its red ochre drawings, Rusa entered. On hands and knees, she felt her way into the center, soft earth yielding beneath her fingers, then turned to raise a hand overhead, felt the shadowy ceiling of interlaced roots. Her unbound hair spilled over her arms. Though not high enough for standing, the chamber had room enough. The door closed, cutting off light, and she filled her lungs with the Mother’s breath. The priestess had said a man would come, so she lay on her back and waited, trembling. The floor beneath her felt cool, smooth, the earth itself. Small sounds filled the surrounding silence, worms burrowing overhead, roots tunneling deeper into the earth. Animals lived thus, rabbits in burrows, shrews and lizards nesting under stones. Little by little, her body relaxed, her heart slow and breathing soft. Here, in truth, she could indeed become one with the Mother. When the door opened again, her heart leapt and the muscles in her limbs drew taut as ropes. Light flickered for a moment, only to be blocked by the shadow of another entering the low-ceilinged chamber. The man. She heard the door close again. She heard his breathing. In the darkness, he moved over her. Perhaps he followed her warmth, for his enveloped her, his scent of smoke and moss folding about her even as his hands found her body and she stiffened at his touch. His hand slowed, dropped away. In that movement, she felt his puzzlement, wondering if he were mistaken. She released a ragged breath. Movement again. Breath brushed the skin just below her breasts, accompanied by a tickle tracing a path just beneath it. His lips, a crisp crush of hair. Bearded. The kiss shocked her and she stiffened. Unbidden, a small sound like something wounded escaped her throat. Please. Even she could not have said what she wanted then, for he had done nothing to be accused of, save obey his own nature, as she had known he would. He drew back again and she felt the bulk of him, his male weight moving to her side in the dark. He settled beside her. “What is it, girl?” His low whisper conveyed concern. “Are you virgin?” She almost laughed. Any who knew her would not have asked. She had not been virgin long enough to now remember she had ever been one. In many ways that still mattered, she was one still. He could not see, in the dark, that she was not a girl. Whether by design or oversight, his hand remained upon her hip, a warm reminder of connection. She turned toward him, this shadow-man whose breath mingled now with hers. Here in the Mother’s bosom, a single cry from her would banish him. Shame him. What would he feel, when she sent him from her, rejected his seed? Would he shy from women, knowing that in the Mother’s temple he’d been found unworthy? Or would he be angry at them, determined to prove his vitality? Not for me to decide, she realized. That knowledge settled over her, washing away fear, acquiring a priceless power. Here in the Mother’s womb, it was not for her to decide this man’s worth. Her hand found his arm, followed the hard shape of it to his shoulder, looped around his neck and drew him near until her lips touched his. They parted to hers, pliable with gratitude and purpose. He governed his caresses, being neither rough nor crude, but left no doubt as to his ardor. With wonderment, Rusa measured him with her hands, learning what she could. He was as tall as she, broad of back and shoulder, strong in the legs. His beard, full and thick, clipped close, teased her skin. He owned knowledge of a woman’s body. Her scant knowledge of a man’s left her surprised by turns. How strong he was… how hot his masculine shaft felt against her thigh… how hard… how deep he penetrated her and how little pain there was. She had expected worse, and was grateful. How efficiently he performed his service. How tenderly he stroked her after. Did he want as much as she that the Mother grant a child? Head on his chest, Rusa listened to her shadow-husband’s heart, its slow, steady beating. His body in the aftermath felt familiar. She invented a story for him… that his wife was barren, that he hoped the Mother grant him a gift. Here, deep in the Earth, his seed might yet take root. She left him recumbent on the earthen floor, the fluids of their joining soaking into the Mother’s being. Her thighs were slick, as they’d been before. She looked back once, when the door opened, but saw only that the arm across his chest was brown from the sun and that he had raised his head, to look after her. The door shut as soon as she cleared the threshold and stood barefooted on the cool, smooth floor. She shivered as the priestess helped her dress and placed a shawl about her shoulders. “May your womb be blessed,” the priestess said. “Earth-fathered children are favored by the Mother. Such was Alm, in the days of our mothers.” “Indeed he was.” Rusa walked quickly from the passage. Another priestess would come to the chamber, but not until she had reached the temple, secure from the shadow-husband’s eyes. She remembered something and smiled. “All-Seeing Bess was also. The Mother’s gift and a Rappeleye.” “May her line continue.”
They exited the passage, stepped into open places. Night had fully fallen and their lanterns cast golden circles of light onto the path. Across the inner courtyard, women clustered around the sacred pool, waiting for the moon’s image to emerge fully within its basin. They would enter the pool then, and bathe in its fertility. At the door to the chamber where she and Edda would spend the night, Rusa paused for another word with the priestess. She smiled to hear snores coming from the other side of the door. “You will plant the acorns, I hope.” “We would be remiss if we did not.” Rusa nodded and watched the priestess walk away, her work done. Her own work, of course, had just begun. With child or not, the time had come for her to claim her place as a Rappeleye woman. She entered the room and changed into her own bed gown. From the pocket of her traveling shift, she retrieved her nurse stone and looped it over her neck. The shining weight upon her breastbone brought a smile to her lips. I will take an apprentice, she decided. There will be no more nurse stones until I have had this babe. She did not know if she would make another visit to the Valley of Moons, or if she would ever take another man. Now that she was not near him, the particulars of the man who had fathered her child did not seem important. Rappeleye men ever remained in the shadows. Maybe that was what he had been unable to accept, that man who had thrown her down that day so long ago. You little rune hag, he had called her. You won’t forget me. And so she hadn’t. Yet memory of him had faded and now barely recalled him ever having been. The event lingered longer than the man. When she looked into the future, her past was transparent. Rusa laid her hand upon her belly and the daughter her laying of the Wheel had foretold. I will be as Bess and teach you to make all-seeing runes.