The day was waning. The rain had started again then stopped after it had soaked Meruself through to the bone. Now a chill wind blew from the north, determined to steal what warmth Meruself had left in her body. Wolf lay by her side, asleep and peaceful. The direwolf’s fur was wet but the heat she radiated acted like a living breathing hearth and Meruself huddled close, thankful once again for her companion.
Exhaustion settled deep into Meruself’s soul. How long would she have to wait for the Norns to allow her to go home again? Meruself reached out and placed a cold hand upon the invisible barrier. Longing for home swelled in her heart and her throat tightened. Had she lost her home again? Would this little life she’d carved out for herself be forever lost to her, too? Meruself rested her weary head on her drawn up knees and closed her eyes.
“Mother, Sister, Crone, when will you forgive me?” she whispered, refusing to weep. She refused to let the familiar pain gain purchase on the frail hope she still held in her heart. They had not interceded or helped earlier for her sake when she had prayed for the fallen warrior. If Urth, Verthandi and Skuld had heard her prayers it was only because she prayed for another who had earned their mercy. He had won his reward with blood. Yet when it came to the succor Meruself so badly needed she was yet again denied. Here she was again denied her home. And yet again the Norns were silent. Meruself sighed and placed her hand on Wolf’s neck, stroking the soft fur.
Wolf opened her eyes and looked at her. The direwolf yawned, stood and stretched, then lay back down again. Wolf raised her head to the darkening skies, her eyes tracking a murder of crows as they flew across the cloud ridden sky. Once they were out of sight, Wolf turned to look at Meruself again.
“It’s time to go.” The words of the direwolf were clear and definite in Meruself’s head.
Meruself’s eyes opened wide and her mouth opened but no sound came out at first. “You can speak!” Meruself exclaimed.
“I knew it was your voice I heard telling me your name. Who are you? Where are you from? Who sent you to watch over me? Is that why are you here?” The direwolf studied her with its vibrant blue gaze, assessing Meruself as if it would see into the very heart of her. Meruself wondered what the direwolf saw.
“The time will come when there will be answers to all of your questions, Meruself. However, that time is not now. Now we must be on our way.”
“So where do we go from here since we cannot go home? Or since I cannot,” Meruself said, her voice flat. She stood and touched the barrier again, trying to will it away to no avail.
“You were moved to seek out Saga. It is there that we will go.”
It was Meruself’s turn to stare at the direwolf, wondering what forces were moving her in the direction of fate. She bent down to retrieve her satchel full of goods. The journey wouldn’t be what she had expected it to be. The man in her vision was dead; her intention to save his life was like ashes in her mouth. And for now at least, her home in Hella Wood was lost to her. She looked at the grey skies, wondering if the Norns were pleased with what they saw. Somehow she felt they were not, and perhaps would never be.
“To Saga then,” Meruself said in acquiescence. What other choice did she have?
Wolf started down the trail, past the blood stained pool of rainwater, past the creek and finally down onto the plateau trail. She stopped and turned to look back up at Meruself, waiting.
Meruself started forward, her steps stilted and reluctant. She halted at the patch of rain soaked ground where the dead warrior’s blood had merged with rainwater, staining it with the color of life. Meruself stood rooted to the spot, wondering who he had left behind, wondering who he had been in life. Wolf was suddenly at her side, pressing against her leg and her tongue affectionately licking her hand.
“We must go. The night comes and so will the Beast if we are not within the walls of Saga by nightfall.”
Meruself nodded. “Yes.” She followed Wolf down the trail and past the creek and onto the plateau road. She turned back towards the mountain trail to gaze up at Hella Wood once more, etching the way back to her home in her memory.
* * *
The plateau road had been gradually descending into a verdant valley bordered on three sides by a ring of jagged mountains. The city of Saga lay before them, nestled safely behind a tall wall of golden sandstone and iron. Light from a million candles and fires and hearths were sparking to life, dotting the cityscape and beckoning to them with the promise of comfort, warmth and cheer.
Cottages of stone and timber mingled with simple huts of daub and wattle. Along the great walls stood the golden sandstone soldier barracks and every hundred meters stood a tall, tawny sandstone sentry tower, twelve in all. Peppered between them were the buildings for the town farriers and blacksmiths and other master tradesmen and skilled workers. Meruself saw granaries and parks, the market square and public gardens and baths, and the modest buildings of the artisans and craftsmen. The clear crystal spire of the Three Sisters rose above the city at the Eastern Wall and the majestic bell tower housing the silver Bell of Tyr rose proudly at the West Wall. Opposite the main entry gate at the south of the city and ascending the North Mountain stood the grandiose villas of stone and glass of the merchants, landed gentry, and the great halls of the nobles and the monks and mages. Above that, partially etched into the mountainside and rising proud and strong beyond the town was the Castle Marion, the great white and emerald royal castle of Saga, the seat of power and home to the king and queen of Saga.
Meruself could not help but marvel at Saga’s beauty. She had watched it grow from a simple grouping of mud huts and sticks to this great and shining city. She knew she could no longer think of it as a town and she was filled with a sad nostalgia. Where had the time gone? How had so many years past? How had her life endured the changing of the seasons without a change in her physical appearance? The only proof in Meruself’s existence that time went on was the evolution of Saga and the weariness of the ages she felt in her soul.
A sudden movement from Wolf who stood at her left caught her eye. When she turned to look at the direwolf, the great wolf’s ears were no longer where they usually were, which was usually near her shoulders. Meruself was caught off guard when she looked down and saw a smaller sized blonde timber wolf instead of a direwolf.
“I do not want to draw more attention than we already will. A smaller size will keep you safer within these walls,” Wolf explained. It was clear that Wolf anticipated the possibility of danger.
“From whence will it come?” Meruself asked silently.
“Danger always comes from the places we least expect it,” Wolf answered. “It is best that they underestimate the danger we bring.”
Meruself and Wolf descended from the plateau path and into the valley, walking the last mile of dirt road that led to Saga. They crossed over the large oak drawbridge that spanned the deep moat protecting the city. Above their heads the torches on the outer walls on either side of the looming South Gate flared to life. The main entry point to the city of Saga was guarded by fierce looking soldiers who watched their every move.
As Meruself and Wolf entered Saga through the open South Gate, a violent chill crossed over Meruself’s skin and down her spine. A great and terrible foreboding crept into her heart filling Meruself with apprehension and wariness.
What fresh doom awaited them here?