Meruself woke upon the stones of the mystic Dread Pool. She was cold and damp, her body shivering so violently she could barely breathe. The forest was dark but she could see a hint of sunlight creeping over the mossy ground, inching its golden way towards the high boughs. Dawn was coming again, and Meruself welcomed it, though her eyes felt gritty and the light hurt her head. Stubborn and resistant, Meruself ignored the impulse to shut her eyes against the new daybreak. She wondered how many mornings she had missed, how many days and nights she had slept, for it felt like an age had passed. How many suns had risen since she’d seen the dead knight’s body on his shield?
She lay for a time, her cheek against the stones, enduring their cold condemnation as it seeped into her. She knew better than to succumb to such deep slumber. Shame claimed her, filling her heart.
Every night Meruself resisted sleep until exhaustion finally overcame her. She was afraid to close her eyes, knowing that at the other edge of slumber terrible nightmares lay in wait. As if in penance, she would lay awake in the dark refusing to close her eyes, thinking of the Beast of Hella and all the dead young men, making a tally of their wasted lives and praying for the morning light. When she did sleep she slept lightly, waking at the slightest sound.
Unless the Dread Pool called to her. When the ancient waters called to her she would be tormented by its harrowing visions of blood and death, and when it was done with her its power of befallen tidings released her and she would plunge into a deep, enchanted sleep. The spellbound slumber was always the last gift of the Dread Pool. Always she would sleep as if she were one of the dead. Always she woke weary and devoid of hope, knowing that something terrible had happened and would continue to happen until the Beast of Hella had its fill.
This morning the dread was twofold.
Not only did she know that dreadful things had continued to happen while she’d slept, now she also knew the face of the next knight that would come to the Haunted Forest, and she had seen the terrible death that lay before him. Never had the pool done this before. In the past all the Dread Pool had offered her was Urðr, a measure of fate already foretold and come to pass, leaving her with only the promise of dread things to come. This vision of the young knight was a rare offering of Skuld’s foresight. The man’s face would haunt her for an eternity. The knight she had seen carried away on his shield the dawn past was not the same dark haired man she had seen struck down by the Beast of Hella in the vision — this she knew with certainty. But while she had slept had the Dread Pool’s divination already happened?
Meruself stood on shaky legs, the world spinning and nausea washing over her. Unable to stand she fell to her hands and knees, crawling on the cold stones that surrounded the pool until she reached the tall grass, all the while fighting against the sickness that threatened to pour from her. She crawled until she reached the stone effigy of the three Mother Norns cradling a child. It was a nearly life size depiction of the deities, the light grey rock they had been carved in was weathered and speckled white in places. They stood as guardians over the Dread Pool yet Meruself would visit the modest menhir often, wondering what child they held in their arms and whether or not that child lived or lay dead in their embrace. Most times Meruself found comfort in their carved presence and serene expressions. Would they offer the comfort she so desperately needed today?
Meruself placed one trembling hand against the hems of their hard stone robes, her other hand clenching fistfuls of soil and grass. Weary and overwhelmed with anguish, Meruself finally gave in to the need to squeeze her eyes shut, resting her forehead against the rough gowns fashioned out of unforgiving stone.
She railed silently against their feet. When will this be over? When will you forgive me?
Meruself waited for an answer that she knew would never come. She waited until she felt sunlight warm her back and flicker gently over the backs of her hands and heating the stone. Once she felt strong enough she rose slowly to her feet, thanking the Norns for their solace, though meager it might be. Her entire body was shaking and she felt dizzy, but she walked the short distance to the doorway of her cottage. She must get on with her day and face whatever it would bring.
Once inside she removed the torn and dirty tunic from her body and poured cold water into a basin, using a clean linen cloth to wash herself. She combed the tangles and twigs and dead leaves from her hair with a comb made of antler, and scraped her teeth with a green branch then rinsed her mouth with clove oil. Feeling somewhat more in control of herself, Meruself pulled on a fresh tunic gown made of hemp and linen dyed a rich crimson.
Gentle golden sunshine was streaming brightly through her open windows and Meruself watched the dust motes dance in the light. Her mind wandered. She didn’t see the trees or the blooming wildflowers beyond her window. She saw the face of the knight. What kind of man was he, she wondered. What debt did he have to pay that he would gamble his life away? Or was he a chivalrous knight with thoughts of damsels and honor and glory? Who would mourn for him when he was gone? If only he wouldn’t come into the woods at all. Then there would be no reason for tears to fall, no funeral pyre to build. If only she knew who he was she could —
Meruself’s thoughts halted abruptly. She could feel her heart begin to pound like a wild thing in her chest. She could warn him. She could find him and warn him. Tell him of the death that waited for him if he dared enter the forest. She was a seer. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for her to tell someone of things to come. She’d cast the runes for much less important things many times over. She would go under the guise of one of her monthly forays into Saga. Surely he lived in Saga or had journeyed to Saga from far and wide to kill a monster. Where else could he be? All the men came to Saga, and it was there that they swore oaths of fealty to King Ruiseart Marion in return for the reward offered to any knight who slayed the Beast of Hella.
If she left now, today, Meruself could prevent another death and deny the monster its martyr.
She would save this man. She would defy fate and she would win. That cursed pool be damned.
Determination fueled her every move as she filled her basket with the things she would take to town with her. She gathered her herbs and oils, honey and rose hips, as well as the special medicinal salve blessed by Eir, the Goddess of Healing. She would go and see Helga and Bjorgen. They always had need of her goods and welcomed her as no other in Saga ever had or would. They would hear her and help her the best they could. She would gift them the healing salve to show her gratitude.
A smile of exhilaration widened her lips. It had been a long time since Meruself had felt this way. Her nerves tingled with a sense of commitment, her mind resolute that she could change things and not just endure them and that it was the right thing to do. The force of this feeling had been gone from her for so long that she had forgotten how it felt to have a purpose. She embraced it fully, even if it was only for a moment in time. Then an awful thought came to Meruself that caused a sickening fear to rise within her and her spirit wavered. Meruself’s flurry of excited activity came to an abrupt halt.
What she had planned was far more then just the giving of prophecy or a glimpse of fate. This plan of hers was venturing into the realm of the Norns and attempting to twine the rope herself. It was arrogant and filled with hubris.
What if meddling with fate and destiny only made things worse? What if trying to change something that was meant to be irrevocably altered the course Urth, Verthandi and Skuld had woven with their skeins of thread? What if this knight’s fate was already carved into the wood of Yggdrasil? What then? What new hell would she bring down upon this land? Who was she to place herself within the wheel of the gods? Had she not learned?
Yet despite all this the choice was clear. She must try. She must try to save this man. Knowing what she knew how could she not? The Dread Pool had never shown her this kind of vision before. Wasn’t this the very reason for the face in the water?
More cautious now, Meruself finished packing for her journey to town. She wrapped herself in her violet cloak and sheathed one dagger to her right calf and another at her waist on her right. After one last look at her humble and beloved little home she closed the door. In her mind and heart it felt as if she was closing the door on a life she was leaving behind forever more.
Meruself took a deep breath, her eyes falling upon the stone Norns and their precious burden. She thought that for a moment she saw them turn their heads to look at her but it was only a trick of the light. She approached the menhir with great trepidation, frightened that the effigy would become suddenly possessed of life and the Mother Norns would strike her down where she stood for her arrogance. She knelt before them and bowed her head in supplication.
“Mother, Sister, Crone,” she whispered. Suddenly Meruself’s words faltered. What could she say? Were there any words that would prevent the Norns from levying their wrath upon Saga and the man she was trying to save? Finally she said the words that weighed heavy on her heart. “Let me do this, I beg of you. Find favor in what I do.”
No one answered. Not even the wind.
As she walked undisturbed into the gloom of the wood she noticed the morning sunlight was now long gone and hidden behind dark storm clouds. She hoped it did not hold ill tidings for her plans.
A furtive movement on her right caught her eye and Meruself turned to see what it was. She saw nothing and so she walked on, yet the feeling of being watched would not leave her. And when she turned to look again she saw a large golden wolf watching her intently from the cover of trees.