Chapter Two

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     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?

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