The hair on Wolf’s back was bristling. Meruself walked to stand beside the direwolf, her left hand resting between Wolf’s shoulders, her right hand clutching the hilt of her dagger. Wolf looked back at Meruself then turned her penetrating blue stare up towards the forest path once more. The heavy tension in the afternoon air was carried on the wind. What was coming down the path that Wolf would growl in warning?
A flash of lightning brightened the gloom and rain of the afternoon. It was followed by a loud explosion of thunder that was so strong the ground shook. The downpour intensified, pelting Meruself’s face and making it hard to see. Determined that she and Wolf would not be caught at a disadvantage again, Meruself closed her eyes, some wisp of instinctive memory prompting her to still her mind. She then used her lifespark’s energy to push beyond the boundaries of her physical body and pulse gently into the area surrounding her and Wolf. The action was done before she had a chance to think about doing it, as if it was reflex. Though startled by it, Meruself gave into the momentum of it, faithfully following the tendrils of her tentative and unexpected power. She would explore this forgotten yet new supernatural gift later, once she had discovered if a threat loomed on the mountain path.
For now Meruself allowed her quintessence to reach and stretch beyond her as far as it would go, coaxing it to shift. With a strenuous effort she attempted to harness the power of the rainstorm. Somehow Meruself knew that it had been a very long time since she had commanded the elements, and she struggled to blend into storm’s energy and merge with it. The angry tempest of storm and wind fought her for control and Meruself’s untried power faltered. In her mind’s eye Meruself saw a Rain Maiden, the vatn anda or water spirit and breath of the storm, hurling her wrath and fury at Meruself.
Meruself pushed back against the deity’s strength, but to no avail; Meruself wasn’t equipped for this battle of wills and she was losing. She had let her once mighty gift become frail. A sharp blinding pain shot through her head and exploded behind her eyes and Meruself grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut against the pain. She saw the water spirit’s victorious face and heard its mocking laughter as Meruself retreated, pulling back her energy.
Meruself shook her head to clear it from the agony and dizziness of the Rain Maiden’s ferocity. The lesser deity had defeated Meruself’s meager attempt easily. It was disheartening yet Meruself accepted it as another torment provided by the punishment the Norns visited upon her.
“Lady Eir, help me,” Meruself said under her breath. At those words, Wolf gave her a blunt and insistent stare, and Meruself knew the direwolf had felt her power even if the callous water spirit had not. Chagrined Meruself looked back up the mountain to the path she had just descended. Come what may, she would be ready. It was then that Wolf howled, a long and mournful sound, haunting in its lonely beauty. The howl was still echoing in the air when the rain ceased to fall.
“It seems you have some powerful friends, Wolf,” Meruself said, her tone filled with reverent respect. Wolf nodded and focused her attention to the path.
A moment ticked by and then Meruself thought she heard the chink of a bridle, the metallic rattle of chain mail and the solid plod of hooves on mossy earthen ground. As she watched a group of soldiers emerged from the trees of Hella Wood. Most of the men were mounted on horses wearing green and gold armor, one of the knights in the foreground carrying a bedraggled banner of the same colors aloft. There were twelve knights altogether, and in their midst four of them walked instead of rode, sharing the burden of a body on a shield.
Meruself knew the body on the makeshift stretcher wasn’t injured or unconscious. She knew for certain without anyone telling her that the body of a dead man lay on that shield. Her heart dropped and settled like a stone in her belly. She was too late. She pulled the hood of her cloak down and smoothed her rain wet hair off her cheeks. There was only one place that these soldiers could be going, and she and Wolf stood directly in their path.
The closer they came the heavier the dread in her belly became. The leader finally brought his large black horse to a stop with a gentle tug on the reins. He was an imposing figure, obviously a knight of some renown due to the richness of his armor and the fine workmanship of the bluish silver hilt of his sword. The weapon was Ælvish, and Meruself was certain that it had almost as fine a name as its wielder. The destrier stopped directly in front of her, so close Meruself could feel its warm breath on her forehead. The knight removed his ornate helmet, the metal tinged emerald green and carved in such a way that it resembled that of a fierce gryphon. Meruself stared up at the green knight, hoping the kindness he showed his horse was a harbinger of good character and honor.
“The Lady’s blessing to you, Knight,” Meruself said, inclining her head briefly and touching first her lips then her forehead in the customary greeting of the Nornfallen peoples.
“And to you, Lady,” the knight returned the greeting and gesture. Meruself gazed at his golden head, the hair damp and curling slightly, flattened by his helmet. His moss green eyes were clear yet dark, intelligent and reflecting the confidence of a man used to leading warriors. His eyes were large and deep set, his jaw and chin firm, his mouth strong yet without the tinge of someone jaded by life. His broad shoulders carried the immense weight of his armor easily, his gauntlet clad hands holding the reins in a relaxed manner. Tied around the bicep of his sword arm was a golden ribbon.
Before they could exchange more words, another man pushed his way forward, his smaller horse jostling the knight’s black destrier, causing the big horse to whinny in disagreement and toss its head in irritation. The lesser soldier paid it no heed, leaning down from his horse and staring at Meruself with distaste.
“Step aside, woman, or be trampled. You are blocking an honored knight of the realm and delaying king’s business.” The hatred in his eyes was palpable and Meruself resisted the urge to cringe and give way.
“Yield, Craven. Since I am on a Queen’s Errand the king will not mind a delay.” The golden haired knight’s voice was even but an undercurrent of steel ran through it.
With a last contemptuous look at her person, the soldier known as Craven reluctantly backed up his horse.
“Forgive my man’s rudeness, Lady Meruself. We return home with sad tidings and the burden of death.”
“You know me?” Meruself asked with a slight frown, as startled at his use of her name as she was by the title of Lady.
“Aye, you saved the life of my sister,” the golden haired knight in green armor answered.
This work, “Kael’s Gryphon”, is a derivative of “Creative Commons Griffin at Wikipedia” by Bastianow, used under CC BY. “Kael’s Gryphon” is licensed under CC BY by Kyra Dawson.
Meruself looked up at the wet and wilted banner, the sigil hidden in the folds of green and gold cloth. Her gaze took in the twelve knights, all of them wearing golden ribbons on the biceps of their sword arms. Her eyes returned to settle upon the first knight in the green and gold tabard. She studied both the smaller golden gryphon rampant emblazoned upon his heart, and in the center of his chest the golden emblem of the sacred tree Yggdrasil blazing against a green background that proudly proclaimed his status.
“You are a knight of Saga? Who are you?” Meruself asked.
“I am Kael of Saga, Queensguard, Riddari to Queen Annika of Saga, and to the Royal House of Marion. We are all men of the Queensguard, Ridarrin to the Queen, hence the golden ribbon tied ’round our arms.” Kael gestured to the golden fabric, the trailing ends damp with rain. “Your compassion has never left my mind. I did not get to thank you properly then. I have much gratitude for your kindness and skill as a healer, Lady. How may I be of service? May we escort you to Saga? We return there.”
“My thanks to you, Riddari Kael. I have safe escort enough, do not be troubled,” Meruself said, declining his offer with a gesture to Wolf. Wolf was watching the knight intently, silent and wary. Meruself’s eyes went to the covered figure on the shield. “Another fallen warrior?”
“Aye! Another good man felled by that Hel spawned beast,” Craven shouted, his glower and voice scathing.
The golden haired knight turned to glare at Craven, the authority in his stare subduing the nasty man into resentful silence.
“He was defeated by the Beast of Hella. We carry him home to his people in Saga,” Kael said, his eyes stoic yet woeful.
Meruself hesitated and licked lips that were suddenly dry. “Might I see his face before you resume your journey, Riddari Kael?”
Surprised registered in Kael’s eyes and he studied her evenly. It was a strange request. One he had no obligation to permit, no matter her prior kindness to his kinfolk.
“She’s a witch!” Craven shouted this accusation, his voice slightly high pitched with the edge of panic. “You cannot let her near the body! She’ll desecrate it! She’ll curse his mortal soul to walk in the wasteland of Asunderland for eternity instead of rejoicing a hero’s death in Valhalla.”
“Silence!” Kael commanded in a thundering, harsh tone. Even the wind seemed to heed his command. “Another superstitious outburst from your mouth and you will be ordered to quarry a new trench for the privy.” Craven looked angered by the command, but despite his obvious inner rebellion he remained silent, the threat of spending time digging a pit for stinking human waste a formidable deterrent for further speech.
The men were beginning to look uneasy, muttering their agreement of Craven’s words.
“Any more of this dissent and all of you will be joining Craven in his folly.” Kael turned back to her, his green gaze questioning, clearly trying to discern the intent of her request. Meruself met his gaze steadily.
“Please, I fear I may know him,” Meruself pleaded insistently, approaching Kael and placing a tentative hand upon the sharp ridge of his gauntleted hand.
The riddari gave his assent with a slight nod. “I fear you will not like what you see,” Kael cautioned.
Meruself nodded briefly and approached the body. The face of the man in the pool flashed across her mind’s inner vision. Her journey could well be over before it even started if it was his face she revealed beneath the cloth. The entire body and identity of the fallen man was shrouded in a shredded, bloodstained cloak. The earlier rains had done nothing to wash away the stain, it only served to darken it and tiny drops of blood were falling to the ground beneath the body mixing with the wet earth. Nausea roiled in her gut, tightening its grip on her throat as Meruself extended a shaking hand to lift the rent material from the man’s face.