Runa’s Song

Runa’s Song

Something in the air, something astir, something creaking and settling, a sadness in the house, fear buried in the walls,  ….not now, not now, but then, once it was … once long ago.

Runa felt the fear even where she was, hidden behind boards in the wall space beside the chimney. She couldn’t see them, but she heard the pounding of hooves as soldiers came thundering up the track, she heard the clatter of swords striking the walls, and stabbing the thatch, she smelled the fire as they tossed brands onto the roof. She heard her brothers cursing, dragging down the burning thatch and emptying buckets over the smoldering cottage and bothy.

“Mam, Mam,”
“You’ll stay there,” said her mam, “until they’ve gone from here, stay quiet now, not a peep, or it will be the worse for you.”

So Runa wound her shawl over her head and crouched against the chimney. The swearing and shouting went away, maybe the soldiers were only going after the cattle in the pens; last time they had only taken  cattle and left the cottages alone. Runa had peered out from the tiny attic window then, to see them; tall soldiers in their uniforms, driving the cattle ahead and ignoring the curses called down on their heads by the old women, her mam among them. But bold Mairead had ignored Mam’s orders to stay hidden and ran after them, tossing her red hair, catching the bright coins thrown down by a young officer, following the horses for more.  And then she hadn’t come back. For three days she was missing. It was Dom who found her under the bracken on the hill, caked in mud, her shawl torn and her skirts wet and bloody.  He brought her home wrapped in his plaid and they buried her that night by the stunted oak, right under the wall of the cottage.

“She’ ll know we’re here,” said Mam, “we’ll tell your da she took the grippe, you hear me now, you boys, he’d never stand the shame.”

“He’ll never come back to know it,” growled Dom, “he’s long gone out of here, probably away across to Ireland by now; it’s us has to bear the shame.” His younger brother, Finn nodded, “But they’ll be back looking for him, that’s for sure, they have him for a rebel and a leader, they won’t let us rest.”

After that Runa was hidden in the wall space all the time.  The soldiers had thundered past several times; it was said they had been chasing off families in the next valley, there were shouts and cries and the wild keening of the women and she smelled the burning; and then there was silence.

“Mam, mam!”

“Haven’t  I told you to be silent, there’s soldiers all around yet, be still now, I’ll let ye out for a wee while tonight .”

Late, late into the night Mam pulled back  the boards and Runa crept in to the room;  it had a cold desolate feel;  Mam had only a tiny fire going, the smallest pot nestled in the ashes, oatmeal simmered,  “ No noise now, I’m letting the fire go down, I’ll not light it again, if they come by they’ll think we’re gone, they look for the smoke from the chimneys Dom says.”

Runa ate her oatmeal, and took a sip of the whisky Mam produced from her pocket. She turned the little silver flask in her fingers, “That’s Da’s, where is he Mam, will he ever come for us?”

“Dom and Finn say he’s away to the coast, they’ve gone to get news of him. It’s bad all round, fields burned, crops stolen, women taken.”

“Can’t we go to after them? “

Mam was shocked. “And leave Mairead all alone here, no one to hear her, keen with her, are ye daft girl?”

Runa said no more. Very late when black clouds hid the sliver of moon she stole out to the necessary. A grey shroud hung over the valley where she had lived since she was born; the threadbare silhouettes of trees stood barely visible against the hill. A goat tied nearby bleated plaintively and an owl swept past on silent wings. An omen? She shivered superstitiously then hurried back inside. Mam packed her away in the wall space and gave her another old shawl and a napkin of bannocks.

“Stay there now, whatever you hear, not a peep out of you, be a good girl, here take the flask too, I’ll not leave it for those bastards.”

“But where will you be Mam?”

Right here in my chair where I always am, with my knitting, waiting for your da.”


A sleety cold rain set in rattling against the door, and the wind rose and whipped the burn into frenzy, she could hear the water leaping against the stones. Runa crouched in the wall space, sipping from the flask and singing with Mairead; only she and Mam could ever hear Mairead and only she ever saw Mairead.  Sometimes she was a bedraggled grey shape, and sometimes like now she was her old bright self, tossing her red hair and rushing on ahead. “Come with me, Runa.”

But Runa couldn’t leave, she was waiting for Da. When the soldiers came again with their swords and their fire she shrank down in the wall until they had gone away. Other folk too came, over time; she heard  laughter, or crying, or singing and  the clear, bright chatter of children.  And still Runa waited. Mam’s shawl unraveled, and her skirts, wet and soiled, disintegrated under her, the flask fell onto the floor boards.

When  the wall was opened they found Runa. And that night Mairead came again for her and this time Runa would to go with her. The children saw them twist away into the evening. They waved their little hands and sang the songs they had heard on the nights when Mairead came for Runa.

– The End