“Nightfall watch!” the cry came from above their heads. They had just made it across the drawbridge when the great creaky chain winch began hoisting the bridge planks they had just walked over. The portcullis lowered with a deep, vibrating finality. “No more cross bridge dealings. No more wayfarers, travelers, players, peddlers, vagrants, nomads or soldiers of fortune. No more wandering this night!”
The edict was given and the thick oak doors inside the walls were slammed shut, obscuring the gate from sight, and a sturdy beam was thrown in place. A keyed padlock the size of a man’s head was locked with an oversized black metal key. Meruself studied the barrier with an apprehensive consideration. Hopefully they didn’t find it necessary to flee. The only way over the wall would be to fly; and unless Meruself or Wolf sprouted wings that would be impossible.
Unease prickled along Meruself’s spine. She hated being caged in behind walls of any kind. Always she longed for the freedom of wide open spaces. In the wild unknown she was free, free to live as she pleased, even under the wrathful eyes of the Mother Norns. Yet outside in the darkness of night away from the safety of her cozy heima the Beast of Hella would find her. Here in Saga a powerful enchantment had been placed upon the surrounding walls by the city’s Druidæi. This enchantment was as ancient as the monster itself and it prevented the Beast of Hella from entering the city and slaughtering every living soul. Wolf was right. Within the walls of Saga Meruself would be safe from the fang and claw of the great beast that hounded her every step. Yet even now behind the protection of the great sandstone walls she could feel its clawing and ravenous presence, as if its malevolent eyes were upon her watching her every move.
Distracted by her thoughts Meruself didn’t notice the glares of passersby or the eyes quickly shuttered and averted from her existence within the gated city. When she realized she had stood at the drawbridge for quite some time Meruself chided herself. Hadn’t Wolf warned her not to draw attention to herself? Standing in the street gawking at the gates as if she were planning to break them down would do her no good service. She ignored the unfriendly and worried stares; she was used to them and the minute sting of pain she felt she ruthlessly stifled.
“Come, Wolf,” Meruself said, reaching to stroke the direwolf’s soft fur.
When her hand touched naught but the cold evening air concern spiked a jagged shaft through her chest. Meruself looked around, trying to spot the direwolf’s form in the twilight to no avail. Had the direwolf left her? Had it been a wraithe after all? Then she remembered how the direwolf had reduced its size to that of a timberwolf and looked around again. Disappointment began to fill her with a stifling rush until she saw a little movement in the darkness at her feet. Relief flooded her, more relief than she wanted to acknowledge considering Wolf had only been a part of her life for less than a day. How had she become so attached so quickly? It should be alarming to her yet the sight before her caused her not only relief but mirth.
Meruself stifled a laugh. “Wolf! You are so tiny now you’re a pup. Be careful or you’ll disappear in a small wisp and puff of fur.”
Wolf made a sound that was somewhere in the vicinity of a growl, a mewl and a squeak. The big bad wolf had become the sweetest pup and was so small Meruself wondered if Wolf would fit in a pewter goblet. She bent down and picked up Wolf, easily holding the little body in one hand.
“Norns love us, you are so cute I can barely stand it,” Meruself said, unable to suppress the laughter that was bubbling up inside her. “No one will ever suspect how dangerous you are.”
“The ruse is necessary. I’m glad you think it’s funny.” Wolf’s tone was curt, but Meruself could sense the underlying mirth. Though physically tiny, the direwolf’s voice had lost none of its power or majesty, only now it emanated from a creature that would hardly be a threat to exposed ankles. She had been surprised when Wolf had grown to fight the daemon, but this unexpected ability of Wolf’s caused Meruself to nearly double over in laughter.
“State your business!” A gruff voice demanded from the darkness just before a hastily lit torch was thrust in front of her face. Meruself stepped backwards quickly, wanting to save her eyebrows, lashes and her miniature direwolf’s fur. The now Little Wolf let out a tiny growl.
“I have business with Helga and Bjorgen at the Apothecary,” Meruself answered in a firm voice, quickly suppressing her merriment. She realized she must look as if she had lost her senses, laughing as if she were a mad thing out here in the darkness of the city streets.
“What business?” the sentry asked, not caring if it was intrusive and not really any of his concern.
“Business of the apothecary kind,” Meruself said, intentionally vague. The man’s face went a dangerous shade of purple.
“I do not like your smart mouth, girl. Perhaps a visit to our hospitable dungeons will make it less smart,” the burly man said, his tone aggressive and threatening. He stood to his full height but he was still a head shorter than her and this seemed to make him even more irate. Meruself knew that this was a mean ruffian who was always able to frighten those at his mercy into submission. Men like him had ruined this world. He stepped closer to her and touched her cloak, rubbing the finely woven material between rough and dirty fingers. “And perhaps I will come visit you in those dungeons and we shall see how smart you are once I leave you.”
“Perhaps you shall visit me. And when you leave me there will be less of you. So how smart are you, miscreant? Time to use your smart mouth,” Meruself said in a venomous soft whisper, her dagger pressing against the bulky protrusion of his soft belly.
The man understood her meaning all too well. She watched the greasy sweat roll down his forehead and temples, watched as his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down half in fear and half in indignation.
“Do not let me catch you on the streets beyond twelve bells, girl,” he said with false bravado, trying to salvage his authority while simultaneously backing away from her and her dangerous blade. He eyed her with malicious intent, contemplating whether or not she possessed any real strength. “I won’t be so kind to you next time.”
Meruself sheathed her deadly blade with practiced ease and nonchalance. Her eyes never left his dull brown pits of cruelty. She felt the forgotten power rise up within her once again and her own eyes flared with bright violet light for the slightest of moments, and she wondered how frail and fragile she looked to the sentry now. The surly guard’s eyes widened in alarm and he retreated hastily, disappearing down the barrack lined streets and into the dark. Meruself wondered if he would raise the alarm or try and rally some cohorts to attempt to apprehend her for threatening him.
“Hel’s bells,” Meruself cursed beneath her breath.
“The man won’t raise the alarm,” Wolf stated, her tone confident. “He’s not sure what he saw. And to the naked eye we pose no threat.”
“You read minds as well, Wolf?” Meruself asked. She wondered if Wolf could also tell her why the power that seemed to course within her blood, the power that Meruself had forgotten existed, was choosing this time to awaken from slumber. It had lain dormant for so long Meruself didn’t know how to use it or when it would rise to life. It was unpredictable and the guard wasn’t the only one who feared it. Her gaze watched the empty street where the guard had disappeared, her ears straining for any sound of the night watch’s boots on the cobblestone approaching in her direction.
“What happened to not drawing attention to ourselves?” Wolf chastised her mildly.
“I can’t abide a bully,” Meruself answered, her tone a mixture of contrition and annoyance with herself.
“You have made another enemy and you have been within the gates of Saga for less than two minutes.”
“Another enemy? I have more than one then?” Meruself said in a half-joking tone.
“Have you already forgotten Craven? I do not think he has forgotten us, Meruself.”
“This is why I live alone. In exile. In a haunted forest. Where a terrible beast roams terrorizing all who live and enter there.” Meruself paused. She knew her heated words and actions would only prove to serve them ill. “The anger I feel…I am not myself.”
“You must choose your words carefully for now, Meruself. Do not let anyone bait you. Temper your words and your actions. Or all will fall to ruin.”
“Forgive me, Wolf. I would not have careless thought, word or action put you or I in harm’s way. I —” Meruself’s voice trailed off. Embarrassment made her words falter. “Long have I known the depths of mankind’s cruelty, and when I encounter those of a more vicious nature I can’t abide it. I’ve seen what the unkind words and actions of mankind can do. Most times I can turn a blind eye and deaf ear, though now…” Meruself sighed. “I will try harder.”
Wolf licked her fingers. The feel of the direwolf’s tiny paws in the palm of Meruself’s hand and the gesture of affection was somehow immensely reassuring.
“Thank the Norns you are handy with a dagger. We may have need of your skills before over long.” Wolf said.
Meruself smiled at Wolf’s attempt to lighten the mood. “Yes, I have practiced long.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Wolf said. “Nor did that man.”
Hasty footsteps came up behind them in the dark and Meruself felt a brush inside her cloak against her side where a purse would normally be. Her hand reached out quick as lightning and snatched the arm of a slender waif. The orphan looked up at her in surprise, her mouth falling open but no sound of protest came out. She stood frozen for a moment, snagged like a hare in a trap, staring at Meruself, fear flickering to life in her pale, pale blue eyes. Within those strange eyes Meruself saw panic swell, panic that was instantly and ruthlessly squashed and the would-be pickpocket began to struggle, trying to escape Meruself’s tight grip.
“Unhand me! Unhand me before I call the Vultures!”
Meruself was puzzled. “The Vultures?”
“The Watchmen. Release me before I call out for help.”
“I do not think you want to draw attention to yourself. I do not think you will call for aid. I do not think that there is anyone to help you. There is only you and only me here. And my direwolf,” Meruself said in a stern tone, gesturing to Wolf. How she knew these things was part of the gift of her Knowing. The waif glanced down at the tiny blonde pup, doubt flashing across the ashen face.
The thief was a girl, no older than twelve summers, hollow of cheek and gaunt of frame. Her height gave her the appearance of someone a lot older and more imposing, but upon closer inspection Meruself could see just how alone and vulnerable she truly was. Her golden brown hair was dirty and hacked short, her clothing thin and frayed, and her feet bare. Meruself saw the fight leak out of the girl’s thin frame and felt her body sag. She stopped struggling yet Meruself could see her nimble mind working, trying to find a way to escape.
“I never stole nothing from you, Lady. The street’s crowded is all, I bumped into you. Let me on my way,” the waif pleaded. The girl’s mind was agile but the lie, though it came effortlessly to her lips, Meruself knew that the waif despised herself for uttering it. Meruself saw it plain as day in those strange pale eyes.
“The streets are hardly crowded, child,” Meruself scolded.
“Release me and I will bother you no more, I swear it.”
Meruself studied the girl. She heard the shame hidden within the pleading words. Meruself felt a tingle begin behind her eyes. The long dormant sensation of power was rising once more. Already it was beginning to become more and more familiar, urging Meruself to remember it. It was a force she knew she must begin to remember to trust. The tendril became a stream of fire and worked its way swiftly down her arm. A spark stung the tips of her fingers and surged into the waif’s body. The moment Meruself’s burgeoning power touched her, the waif’s body stiffened, shocked into a state of fleeting paralysis. It surprised Meruself as much as it surprised the girl.
“What — what are you? Release me!” the girl almost yelled and began to struggle in earnest.
“Stop!” Meruself bid her, her breath a harsh whisper. She urgently needed to quiet the girl before they drew unwanted attention upon themselves. She locked onto the girl’s eyes and the waif’s struggles instantly ceased.
“What are you called?” Meruself asked. The voice that came forth from her was and was not her own. It was fathomless, commanding and filled with a nameless power that drew its force from a wellspring that dwelled within both Meruself and Wolf. As the power grew it bound Meruself’s, Wolf’s and the waif’s lífneisti and sál gildi, their lifespark and soul force, together for the strength it needed. Time slowed around them, locking them in a shielded orb of charged silence where only the three of them existed.
The answer came, but not from the waif’s lips. It was as if Meruself reached into the heart of the girl and pulled it out.
“Kitsura, I am called Kitsura.” As the name dropped from Meruself’s tongue it felt foreign yet also familiar somehow. Stunned, Meruself released the girl named Kitsura and they both fell back. Wolf’s tiny form fell from Meruself’s grasp as she crumpled to the ground, and the waif known as Kitsura was barely able to keep to her feet as the power that coursed through them all finally released them from its implacable grip.