Her fingers tentatively touched the fabric. Meruself closed her eyes and took a deep breath, steeling herself for the revelation to come. She hoped against all the odds that the man from her vision would not be laying under this shroud, his beautiful blue green eyes closed forever.
Meruself gently and slowly pulled the cloak away to reveal the identity of the man, holding her breath all the while. She folded the material at his shoulders and touched the man’s cold cheek gently. The right side of his face had three deep furrows running from temple and brow to mouth and chin, and down across his life vein at the side of his neck. All his features on the right side of his face were mangled beyond recognition, the eye missing from its socket. But the left side of his face was left intact. Sorrow settled like a lodestone in her heart. She felt his dark hair, smoothing it off his brow. She traced his dark brow lovingly and closed his beautiful green blue eye so it no longer stared lifelessly into the sky. Her fingertips brushed his lips and lingered in the cleft of his chin.
It was him. This was the man she’d seen reflected in the pool. This was the man she saw now laying lifeless on his battered shield. This was the man she’d wanted so desperately to save. Grief stung her chest and she bowed her head against it. She placed her right hand upon his chest, just below the gaping hole where his heart should have been. She would entreat the Norns, though they no longer answered her directly and she feared that they had no care for her prayers, even if they were on the behalf of another.
“Goddess Eir, let this warrior’s soul find succor at your healing hearth in death as his body could not find it in life. I beg of you aid my prayers to reach the loving ears of the Mother Norns. Mother, Sister, Crone hear my lament. Hear the prayer I beseech Goddess Eir of mercy to bring. Spare this brave warrior’s soul from wandering in the dark wasteland mists of Asunderland and from suffering in Hel. Let him find Everrest in Sölustaðir Allra Ævi, your Halls of Ever Life. Let his feet find the cool grasses and his tongue taste of the sweet waters in your Garden of Meru. Or let the Valkyries of Odin watch over his valiant crossing to Valhalla if he so choose, where he can live again and laugh and drink in the halls of Asgard with the other fallen warriors like him. To let him one day fight alongside the Einherjar as they make ready for Ragnarok.” Meruself raised her bowed head to the heavens to release her prayers and give them flight, her left hand upon her heart.
She had no candle to light, or power to cast flame, but when the celebrations of Valkyrie Prime arrived with the new snows after Fæddurhald, she would light a lantern in memory of his life’s grace. This man she never knew but felt responsible for in some way. What would his soul choose? Would he choose the Grace of Norns? Or would he choose to make the Valkyrie journey and ascend instead to the golden halls of Valhalla or to the green fields of Folkvangr and Sessrúmnir?
Without warning she felt the grace of his sál gildi, his soul force, stir beneath her hand. He had made his decision.
“May your Everrest be full of wonder,” she said the fervent blessing under her breath, her lips barely moving. She turned her words to the Norns next. “Thank you for hearing my prayers, Allmother. Thank you, Eir, once more for your aid.”
The wind whispered in her ear, “You could have loved this man.”
A tear fell upon Meruself’s hand, bringing her back to the present. Wolf was watching her, as was everyone else. She became aware of the tension in the air. It was so thick it was stifling. Meruself wiped the tears from her eyes and covered the fallen warrior with a deep reverence, once more shielding him from the cruel cold of the world.
“His soul walks in the Garden of Meru and finds Everrest in the Halls of Ever Life tonight with the Allmother,” was all Meruself said out loud so all the men could hear. “Victory or death,” she hailed for the fallen knight, her left hand a fist over her heart.
The men made the same gesture with their left hand, and with their right they unsheathed their swords and raised them high in the air.
“Victory or death!” they repeated her words, honoring the fallen dead.
Their cheers became deafening. Only one did not celebrate. Craven eyed her with a clear threat and definite hatred. Meruself met his gaze, raising her chin and her violet eyes gleaming, daring him to try to ever strike her down. His face turned a dangerous shade of dark red that bordered on purple and Meruself thought to herself that if he wasn’t careful he would fall off his horse in a fit of apoplexy from a burst blood vessel.
“Riddari Kael,” Meruself said, “I thank you for your kindness.” She inclined her head as Kael rode his destrier to stand directly in front of her. He looked down at her, his eyes searching her face as if he was committing it to memory. Out of respect he did not ask her who this knight had been to her.
“It was he,” Meruself answered Kael’s unasked question.
“I am sorry, Lady,” Kael said, his words and voice as kind as his eyes. “Are you still for Saga?”
“No, good herra —”
“Please, Lady Meruself, you may call me by my birth name Kael, or the Green Knight, but please do not stand on such formality and call me sir.” A very attractive dimple appeared in his right cheek. Perhaps in another life this man, or the man on the shield, could have been part of that other life in another time. And things could have been simple. But even the simplest of things could never be. Not for Meruself. Not now, not ever.
Meruself stroked the velvet soft nose of his black horse as it nuzzled her looking for a treat of some kind. Meruself produced an apple and the horse took it gently. “Safe journey to you, Riddari,” Meruself said to Kael in farewell. “Safe journey to you and to each of your riddarrin.”
“Safe journey to you, Lady Meruself,” Kael answered. “If ever you have need of me, leave word at the castle with any of the guards who wear both my gryphon sigil and the sigil of the royal house. Tell them that the Violet Lady has need of the Green Knight and I will come to you.”
Meruself smiled. She was feeling suddenly shy beneath Kael’s scrutiny.
“I shall,” was all she said with a nod and a small sad and wistful smile.
Kael bowed to her in the saddle, took her hand and touched her knuckles to his warm lips. His green eyes stared directly into her violet ones. After a moment, Kael released her and turned his mount around, once more a stern knight of the realm on his way back home to Saga. Meruself watched the pallbearers lift their burden and follow as the other knights fell in line and continued on their way to Saga. All except one.
Craven held his horse motionless until the rest of his contingent were a short distance away. He then spurred his horse over to where Meruself stood, malevolence burning in his mud brown eyes. The intensity of the hatred he had for her was staggering. When he came to a stop his horse’s hooves had splattered mud all over her cloak, and it was nearly standing on top of her. From atop his mount Craven leaned down as close as he could, the large nose on his face almost touching hers.
“Have care, woman. These lands are filled with brigands and more dangerous men,” Craven said in a tone so malevolent it made the skin on Meruself’s spine crawl. His fetid breath was a miasma that polluted the air between them. Despite her disgust Meruself stood her ground. She had dealt with sterner things than this weak man, so she raised her chin defiantly. This only served to make Craven angrier.
“Your dog has the look of a wolf,” he observed with an unnerving menace.
“That’s because she is a wolf. A wolf that does not take kindly to the likes of you,” Meruself retorted, though her voice was low and calm. She was fed up with this bully masquerading as a man. Wolf growled low.
“That’s no wolf,” Craven’s voice was smug. He eyed Wolf with a troubling and too discerning a gaze. “A direwolf would make a fine pelt,” Craven’s words made Meruself’s skin prickle with disquiet.
Anger flooded through Meruself’s blood. She felt an ancient magic stir to life in the soul of her like a great beast who had long been in slumber. She felt the power crackle along her limbs and spark at her fingertips, she felt it spill from her eyes and take control of her voice.
“Be careful what you wish for, cretin. You may find you end up with a pelt all of your very own.” The words were spoken before Meruself could give a thought to rein them in.
Something in the way she said the words frightened him. Or maybe it was something he saw. Maybe he felt the power without even knowing. Or maybe it was all of it combined. He sat up abruptly, unwilling to be so close to her. Furious that she could frighten him, Craven roughly sawed on the reins and swiveled his horse around, galloping after his fellow soldiers.
Meruself and Wolf watched the riders until they couldn’t see them anymore. Feeling demoralized and saddened Meruself turned to go back to Hella and to her safe little heima in the woods.
“Come on, Wolf.”
The pair walked back up along the trail the way they had come. Meruself hadn’t expected to be returning home so soon. She should have known better than to try to divert fate. She should never have tried to defy the gods. Not then, not now, not ever. She felt guilty about this man’s death. Was he already dead by the time she had seen his face in the pool? Or had she caused it by deciding to save him? He had seemed familiar to her for a reason she did not know. The sadness she felt was stronger this time. Stronger than what she usually felt for all those dead warriors who had come before to fight the Beast and die in Hella. She knew she would never know. The only thing she could know was that more men would die in Hella. Thus was her life.
She was just about to enter the forest when she was stopped mid-step. Her forehead banged into an invisible barrier and she was almost knocked to the ground.
“Ow!” she cried out, rubbing her aching forehead. Feeling dizzy Meruself sat down. What in all the worlds? She reached out a hand to touch the barrier she could not see. Her hands touched something warm and buzzing with a powerful energy. She could feel it and see through it to the forest on the other side. She tried pushing her hand through it to no avail. Meruself looked at Wolf who was sniffing the ground at the base of the invisible shield. Resigned to their situation Wolf lay down beside her where Meruself sat on the ground.
“That I did not expect,” a bewildered Meruself said.
Wolf whined in agreement.