Perhaps the rabbit served as a replacement now that Cole and Alvor, the two mountain lions she had once spared and raised, were gone. They had matured, as beings tended to do, and had gone off to claim their own territories and find mates. Not that they would have been welcome in town anyway. But with their absence, the woman’s world was a little lonelier. So though the rabbit’s antics were undeniably foolish (and thoroughly unconducive to continued survival), it was company and soothed something she had been missing.
Besides, the fearlessness with which the little creature treated her was oddly endearing. It trusted her. It acted unafraid. Such things, from a species normally so skittish and timid. Valonia knew better than to become too attached to such a short-lived little being… but its trust was precious to her. And the presence of the rabbit was perhaps a small sign that things were healing. Slowly, and with many setbacks, Valonia had to admit. But healing… probably?
She sat the sack of prepared skins on a crate in the corner of the room, then set the other smaller bag of prepared oak branches on the table next to her books, and finally took a seat next to the rabbit. The little menace promptly hopped into her lap, demanding petting. Valonia complied, at least for the moment, stroking the soft fur and rubbing the rabbit’s head between its ears. It was just as comforting to her as it was to the rabbit, even if she could not spend all evening petting it. She had things to do.
In a way, she had taken leave from Britain partly because of the rabbit. Not because she was trying to avoid it, escape it, or drive it away with her absence (which had clearly not worked), but because of some idea of protection. Protecting it, protecting this little area of hers she had claimed. Even if the rabbit wasn’t exactly tame, and her little area was part of the city rather that anything inherently hers, it was still something she had claimed and therefore counted. So she had spent the last several days gathering suitable branches for her project, and preparing them for carving. That was one of the reasons, anyway.
The other reason she had taken leave of Britain was to prove to herself that the trees weren’t… false? Liars?, as Vern had seemed to think. She didn’t know what he meant, but his words still bothered her more than she’d like to admit. She almost felt insulted, even if she did not believe the wanderer meant to cause offense. She was a druid, or at least was trying very hard to be one. So nature was part of that. She had spent all this time dedicating herself to it. So how could trees be false? If anything, the woods were truer than the city, she felt.
Valonia felt she had been patient and tolerant, and had not responded in anger or impulse. But Vern was clearly wrong. That was all there was to it. She would prove it, and she would use trees themselves to do it.
She retrieved a piece of wood from the bag she’d set on the table. Oak. She had already cut the wood into small discs, so all that remained to do was etch the runes. Her uncle Robert was the one who started teaching her the symbols, during one of his moments of clarity. She remembered them even now, and had lately found value in such things since her studies had given her better context.
The first symbol she carved was the need-fire, a sign of invocation, necessity, need. Valonia’s understanding of it was that it was to make, rather than to call, but semantics aside, the symbol itself was bound with the idea of urgency.
The next to be carved was the sign of the thorn. This brought to mind energy, power, might. An amplifying force.
The next, the symbol known as the elk, for defense and protection. It was what she was trying to enact, after all.
And finally, the symbol of the gift.
- “There are those that would dispute me on this choice. But I find it is a closer representation of materia," her uncle explained, carving the last rune himself, then showing her. “The gift rune represents the material of this world, the physical. And the implication of a boon or a blessing is appropriate for what we are doing. Now you try. We need three more of these. And remember to infuse it with intent. Otherwise, you are merely a child carving lines.”
Valonia looked up from her carving. “I’m seven, uncle. I am a child.”
“That is no excuse, Valla!” he said with a grin, gesturing for her to keep carving. “Consider this recompense for burning the ginseng syrup.”
“-I- did not burn it. –You- did,” Valonia returned, a bit cross about being blamed for something that wasn’t her fault in any way. “When you had your fit. And set the kitchen on fire. Again.”
The last time had been the third of such events, actually. And it was why Val was here now. If Robert did anything that looked like it would result in fire, Val was supposed to run to the fields to get her parents.
“And besides,” Valonia added. “I wasn’t even the one who threw it away. Mother did.”
Robert waved off the accusations as well as mentions of his “condition”. “Yes, but you could have explained to your mother not to throw it away. It was supposed to be black. Do you know how many times I had to boil that? All for naught!”
“It smelled weird.” Valonia stuck out her tongue. “And so you do.”
“You smell weirder,” Robert retorted, clearly the adult of the two of them. “At least that smelled of ginseng. And I smell this way for important reasons. You, however, smell like animals.”
Rather than being offended, Val thought the 'insult' was funny. And she -did- smell like animals. She liked them and liked petting them. “I like animals though.”
“As do I, but I would rather not smell like them, yes?” He shot her a semi-pointed, semi-amused look that also amused her. “So perhaps we shall agree to disagree on what smells weird.”
He took another bite of the raw garlic he had in his hand, even if it made his eyes water.
It was at that time the door of the cabin opened, followed by footsteps and a stern, disapproving voice. “Robert. What are you doing?”
Valonia’s grandfather was back from whatever journey he had made, apparently. She hadn’t expected him for two more days. Neither had her parents, which is why they had left Valonia to monitor Robert. Her brothers were needed for the harvest, and her sister was too young to be without the supervision of her mother. Val was the only one left. But as he entered the cabin, her grandfather’s gaze took in the mess in the kitchen, the half-carved runes, the young Valonia with a rune in her hand, the younger man’s garlic-chewing… and settled into a dark scowl on the younger man himself.
Robert swallowed the raw garlic, blinked away the tears, then looked up from his carving. “Ahh, Holtraed. I had wondered where you were. You should approve of this - I am teaching the girl something of her heritage.”
Her grandfather did not look impressed. “And what, exactly, are you teaching her of ‘her heritage’? Are you trying to break her mind like you have broken yours?”
“No, no! Nothing of the sort.” Robert placed the carving knife down and raised his hands defensively. “I am teaching her runes, nothing more.”
He grabbed the rune he’d finished, and tossed it to the old man who caught it with surprising ease. “See for yourself. Safely filtered through pieces of wood. The risk is minimal.”
Holtraed pressed the rune between fingers calloused like gnarled roots. And though Valonia had not been sure it was even possible, her grandfather looked even more stern and disapproving than usual. “You said ‘minimal’, Robert. Not ‘non-existent’.”
“It was a turn of phrase, not an exact measure of risk. Holtraed, your son is as a brother to me,” Robert said, his expression becoming more serious than Valonia had ever seen him. “You know I would not willingly bring danger upon his child, let alone the children of my own sister. What problems I have are, I admit, mostly my own doing. They will not affect the child. If I believed there was danger in this for the girl, I would not allow her to do this, let alone ask her. Upon my life, I swear it.”
The old man studied the younger for a moment, but appeared satisfied. “Very well. But you have used yew.”
He tossed the rune back, and Robert caught it and placed it back on the table before them.
“…yes?” Robert appeared slightly confused by the old man’s disapproval. “After all, it is your ancestral farmstead… I felt it appropriate. Is the yew not a symbol of protection, connections between the past and present, a symbol of generations-”
“That is what I do not approve of,” replied the old man. “I disagree with what Yew has come to represent, and want no part of it here.”
Robert raised a brow. “Surely the pieces of wood are not to blame?”
“There are connections between all things, regardless of whether you wish to see them or not. You should not have picked that up.”
“Was I wrong about the meaning then?”
“No. But the roots have become poisoned, deceptive, and duplicitous. The heartwood has rotted away and become something else. I want no part of it here. If you must indulge this folly, use something else, Robert.”
“Hm, as you say then.” He studied the older man. “But to reject it… Well, surely you can see this also means rejecting tradition, the connection to family—”
“I am aware.”
“—and this will apply to all within.”
Holtraed looked at him, his craggy face grave and solemn. “Do I seem ignorant of the weight such matters carry?”
“No… you do not.” Robert let out a long sigh. Unlike the younger man himself, Holtraed was not a flippant, cavalier sort. The old man practically reeked of gravitas. “You believe things to be that bad then? That you would knowingly choose against those ‘connections’ you speak of?”
Holtraed said nothing in reply.
Valonia looked between them, not really understanding what they were talking about, but knowing it was serious. And she knew better than to speak up when the adults were being serious. But she also knew that they were in the middle of carving their runes, and that the runes weren’t finished.
“Um. Are we… going to finish these then?” she asked haltingly. “Or pick something else…?”
Robert and Holtraed looked at each other for a moment.
“I am running out of options, Holtraed, but I have not given up yet,” Robert said to the older man. “Poultices are useless -- and even the girl here says I smell odd. Potions have not been working, so even if Deanna had not thrown out the ginseng I doubt I would have gained anything from it. I know why she did so, and I know well her opinions on the matter, but I am telling you she was wrong. But perhaps runes may yet provide some manner of protection. As the reagents themselves have limited success—”
He suddenly held up a bit of the raw garlic he had been chewing. “Look at this! I am resorting to –this-. I have tried everything else.”
“Everything but putting all this aside,” Holtraed stated pointedly, gesturing to the rune on the table. “I am not without sympathy, Robert. But your actions will not help you the way you wish them to. Accept a simpler life and keep what senses you have. You and I have ever been at odds, but you have my word I will not turn you away. So for the sake of the friendship you bear my son, cease. For the bonds of family you bear your sister, my son’s wife, cease. This aids you not.”
The younger man slammed his hand on the table, uncharacteristically angry. “You say such things as if it was so simple! You believe it is simple to surrender up my own arm or leg, or tear out an eye?? I cannot! Furthermore, I refuse! Not just for my own sake, but out of principle! Should I give up what I am for, what? Mere survival?? No! I will not become useless to save myself. For the sake of the friendship I bear your son, I cannot! For the bonds of family I bear my sister, and the children of my sister, I! Will! Not! This is important! I-… will not… have it forgotten! Knowledge is… is important!”
He shook his head angrily, and to clear it. It was a futile gesture, as were all the others. But he did so more out of defiance than an expectation that it would work. But his focusing on all of this in fact made his condition worse, and his eyes began to glaze over.
“More important than your own mind?” the old man asked quietly, knowing there was little he could do. The ‘ailment’ Robert suffered from was not something the old man could heal.
“MOREso!” Robert struggled to form the words, but when he did so, he practically shouted them. The younger man sat back into his chair, a look of rebelliousness on his face at whatever was taking hold of him. And in spite of his rapidly unfocusing eyes, he regarded the old man with defiance too. “More than my-… Cannot be forgotten-… surely you understand-… Of all people…”
His body froze, and his eyes were beginning to stare into nothing as another one of his fits took him.
“If you will not-… will not speak, then I shall! Of the knowledge you hide too, if I-… if I must!… And of mine! This cannot-…”
For a moment, Holtraed studied the younger man, waiting. Perhaps the old man was hoping for more. Or perhaps he was disappointed. It was hard to tell. But Robert said nothing more, his mind having retreated into itself.
Valonia frowned a bit, then looked at her grandfather. “What’s wrong with him?”
“A great many things,” her grandfather replied. “Stubbornness, mostly. Pride. Like many of his ilk. Though I suppose they are not unique in that. But this ailment… No, regardless of what he believes, it is not entirely of his making. A result of his choices, perhaps, but not his actions. It is a cruelty he must make such a decision.”
“What do you mean? What is this anyway?” Valonia didn’t understand, and his earlier answer didn’t exactly make things clearer.
Her grandfather was silent for a moment, deliberating.
“It is a cost or a consequence,” he said finally. “Sometimes knowledge comes with a price. And these are troubled times.”
Valonia didn’t understand what he meant. His response brought up more questions than it answered. But she knew better than to question him further. Her grandfather could be exceedingly enigmatic when he chose to be, and it felt like it was going to be one of those times. He had never been the sort to simplify matters to make them easier for her to understand.
The old man retrieved a piece of wood from the woodpile, set down his walking stick, then settled himself in the chair across from the frozen Robert. For a moment, he simply studied the younger man, an unreadable expression on his aged face.
“Oak,” he said then, turning to the girl, taking a knife from his belt and deftly carving the branch before him into disks. “Your namesake, Valonia. It represents strength, resistance, perseverance, and the ability to endure. This is what we will use.”
“Will this help him?” she asked, glancing toward her uncle.
“I do not know,” Holtraed admitted. “Your uncle’s ideas are not without merit. But these are troubled times. He is correct about one thing, however. Some things should not be forgotten.”
She expected her own runes now would find less resistance. Or perhaps she simply hoped so?
The final step of all of this was to place the runes she had carved. She shooed the rabbit out of the way, then dug her own holes to place the warding runes into.