From the shrouded darkness of the forest Meruself watched the men lift the mangled body onto the shield. Another noble son of Saga carried away by death, his dark hair made darker still by the deep crimson of his life’s blood. The group of soldiers were silent and nervous, looking behind them and scanning the trees for any whisper of danger. They did not want to end up like the fallen knight had, torn and bleeding and carried home upon their own shields. And these were no meek men; they were roughly hewn by many battles fought and won, yet they feared the great Beast of Hella.
And they were right to be frightened. She was frightened. The monster of Hella Wood was no myth or legend invented to scare wayward children. The dead young man on the shield was proof enough that a true monster hunted in these woods every night.
Meruself continued to watch the men until they were out of sight and she could no longer hear the chink of chain mail or the muffled sound of their horses’ hooves. Only then did she begin the trek back to her small cottage, her head lowered in sadness. She thought of the wailing of the women, mothers, sisters, daughters, wives. Their tears weighed heavy on her heart.
The people called Hella the Haunted Forest, Meruself called it home. And it was haunted; haunted by shades and specters of all sorts. Haunted by monsters and a living shadow, a living shadow that was just a shell of the girl she had once been. She was the pale wraith that roamed within the hush of trees. She was the living ghost that shared the æther of the forest with the wood nymphs and ær sylphs, the water deities and spirits of the earth. Meruself existed here, and perhaps when her penance was over the Mother Norns would let her die here. Perhaps, but that fate was still uncertain.
Dawn had just passed and she longed for the comfort of her small home on the other side of the forest. She knew this forest; she had lived here for as long as she could remember. Long before man had come and chopped down trees to build their town and homesteads she had dwelled in this woodland. She knew the secret pathways and the hidden trails so it did not take long for her to find her way back to the safety and solace of her hearth.
Her little cabin basked in the warm morning sunlight nestled in a glade on the eastern most edge of the Hella Wood. It was a welcome sight. She allowed herself a moment of happiness, enjoying the gentle heat of the sun as it bathed her face.
Then in the stillness she heard the shimmering voice of the small enchanted and scintillating pond that was just a few steps outside the doorway of her little house. It was the sound of wind over the stones that surrounded the pool’s edge, yet there was no wind. Meruself’s heart stopped, clutched by foreboding, her mind shrinking away from the summons. She stood still and suspended as a doe caught in the eye of a hunter’s bow.
Again the pool called to her, more insistent now, and Meruself felt the pull. It was irresistible as it was repulsive. The still crystalline depths shook with a ripple of vibration, as if a small pebble had been tossed into its center. Except instead of the ripples moving outwards the rings moved inward into the center and the clear blue water turned to a white, hovering fog. The Dread Pool was ready to give her its dark vision of doom’s Urðr already told.
“Can you not leave me in peace? For one moment can I not be happy?” Meruself said to the pool of beguiled water, her tone pleading and full of despair. The water was silent. It knew that Meruself would heed its call and it had no mercy.
“But I don’t want to see,” Meruself cried in a small voice. But her feet moved unbidden by her, beckoned as she was by the siren call of the pool. And once at its edge Meruself was compelled to look into the water.
Within its depths she saw a great beast, with the face and claws of a lion, the wings of the raging griffin, and the pincers and tail of a stinging scorpion mauling a dark haired young man, killing him without much effort. The knight hadn’t stood a chance against such a terrible creature. He had been a babe in the woods, a sacrifice to a monster and cruel gods. She closed her eyes feeling hot tears stream down her cold cheeks.
“No more,” she begged the water. But the water was relentless. It was not done with her yet. An unseen power forced her eyes open, giving her no choice but to look into its unforgiving depths. And always it showed her the same thing, tormenting her with endless images of death and destruction, blood on the fangs and talons of the giant creature. All Meruself could do was endure, watching until the scenes of death and carnage subsided and all she could see was her own haunted reflection staring back at her from the water.
Though this time, she did not expect what she saw next.
Instead of more slaughter, she saw the face of a handsome young man. He had dark hair and hooded blue green eyes that reminded her of the great glaciers she remembered seeing long ago. He had a straight nose and wide mouth with full lips but there was a hardness to his features, as if he had known much violence and brutality and it had shaped him. But despite this Meruself was drawn to him, to the kindness she saw in his eyes, and a pain that mirrored her own.
The deep familiar sadness settled into her as she realized the pool had shown her the next victim of the Beast of Hella.