Arethu lived in the hills outside the reach of the lords on the high hall. She knew the man who ruled it was named Balra, who had taken it when his father Torgged was slain the last year. She knew there was a war somewhere, and she had watched the comings and goings of the men without much interest. She had little cause to care about these things. She lived in the forest and took care of herself, and she asked protection from no one. They called her a weirwoman, when she heard them speak of her.
She did not remember her mother very well, she only knew they had always lived in the same small house made of branches and logs and thatch up against the side of the hill, sheltered in the small cave cut into the side of it. Her mother had died ten years ago, and Arethu had been on her own since then. She did not know properly how old she was, but she thought she was perhaps twenty years. It did not really matter to her. What mattered were the seasons, and the sun, and the ways of the forest that she knew very well.
In spring she hunted deer with her bow and arrow, with slight javelins for throwing and her long knife for finishing the kill. She dug roots and gathered berries and fished in the streams and pools. In summer she hunted bird’s nests and gathered their eggs, and in autumn she hunted fat rabbits and smoked their meat for the long winters. She knew the best places to find things, and she knew paths that the men who lived in the hall could not even see.
Sometimes she saw them, walking the trails and hunting for stag, or coming to cut wood for their fires. They did not see her, but she sometimes heard them talk about her. She was like a forest spirit to them, and it amused her to know they feared her as if she were a small goddess. Sometimes they even left offerings for her, and that was amusing as well. If they left food or flowers she was glad of them. Once one had left her a knife, which she prized, and one had left her a golden spear-shape on a leather thong, and she sometimes wore it around her neck.
Once in a while a goat or a sheep would wander into the hills, lost, and she would collect it and tie it to a tree and wait to see if anyone came to look for it. If no one did, she took it as a gift and ate it, and that was something she did not have to hunt. She wondered if they thought she stole from them.
There was a war, somewhere, for she saw the men gather and march away, like a caterpillar spined with spearpoints in the thin sunlight. They went away, and they were gone for a while, and then they came back. Arethu was curious, because she didn’t understand the things they did. Why did they go? Why did they come back? She knew Torgged was dead; she had watched them bury him on a burning ship. His son Balra was lord now, but he went away and came back and went away again.
When he came back he made barricades of logs and posted men to guard them. They gathered in their herds and kept the children close, and she wondered what was coming. After a while more men came, a ragged band of warriors and women and old men all together, and they went into the hall, and they all seemed to wait for something, but no one came.
And then something did come. She felt it in the trees, a shadow that was cold, even in the summer night. Like a grip of ice that would not break loose and wash away. She hunted by day, but she felt watched in her forest, and kept watching behind her, as though something stalked her as she went about her business. She was afraid at night, as she had never been, huddled in her small house, hand on her knife and watchful.
Game was hard to find, and she saw fewer tracks than ever before. She stalked deer and found only a few dead ones, mutilated and hanged in trees by their broken horns. She saw prints upon the earth that she could not give a name to, and she wondered what was here, what had come to her forest home. She hated it, even as she feared it.
She smelled blood on the morning air one day – the blood of men – and she went out, cautiously, seeking it. She paced her narrow trails with her bow in hand, arrow to the string and ready to draw. The summer day was gray, with clouds cast over the sun, and she heard no birds in the trees, no insects buzzing in the underbrush.
She found a trail in the long grass, blood turned to black, and she followed it over the rocks and up the side of the hill, silent as a phantom. She found a dead man, his face already gray, his mail stained with blood. He had a broken sword in his hand, and a look of terror on his face. The trail went on, and she followed it onward, and she found another dead man, his head twisted backward on his body, blood a black pool around his mouth.
Arethu heard a sound and froze still in her tracks, listening. She heard it again, and she sniffed the wind, smelled more blood, and something else beneath it, something deep and feral. Her heart beat desperately as she crept around a great rock and found a third man, and this one was not dead.
Not dead, but terribly wounded, covered in a great deal of blood. He sat with his back to the rock and his bloody sword clutched in his right hand. He was breathing slowly, and she thought he was asleep, but then his eyes opened, and he looked at her with a terrible awareness.
“Have you come to take my soul, weirwoman?” The man gripped his sword so fiercely his hand trembled. “I will not surrender it easily.”
Arethu took her hand from her bowstring and held it out, open. “I am not come for you,” she said. “And I do not eat souls.” She stood up. “I smell the evil in the forest, and I came to seek it, to follow the scent of blood.”
“Are they all dead, then?” he said.
“I found two corpses,” she said. “And you, who are not yet a corpse.”
“I soon will be,” he said. “I am sore wounded.”
“What has wounded you? Is it near?” She heard nothing from the trees – not a single bird sang in the daylight, not a bee buzzed among the grasses.
“It is a monster,” he said. “It was sent by the evil ones to kill us. Every night for seven nights it has come to the hall, and it slays men where it finds them and then it vanishes into the dark. My brothers and I swore to stop it, and we lay in wait for it as night fell.”
He leaned back against the stone, and he breathed deeply through his bloody lips. “We fought it in the dark, but our swords would not cut it, and its claws rent our armor. We thought to return to cover ourselves with glory, to be rewarded by the king. Instead we are slain.”
“So the lord of the hall names himself king now,” she said, musing it aloud.
“King Arnan came here for refuge, after the royal hall was burned by Hror, Son of Herun.” He looked at her. “There has been a war for almost two years now, know you nothing of it?”
“Almost nothing,” she said. “I keep to myself.” She set down her bow. “Let me see your wounds. Perhaps you need not die today.”
He looked at her, as if deciding whether he would rather die, but then he lowered his sword and he nodded feebly. Arethu wondered if perhaps she should mind her own business, but instead she crouched down beside him and studied his bloody wounds. His leg and arms were slashed deeply, and she tore through his shirt to get at them more easily and then used the fabric to bind them up. She had some moss in her pouch to stanch blood, but those she saved for the deep gash in his side. His guts were not showing, and it seemed the torn mail had saved that much of his life, at least.
She packed the wound and bound it tightly, and he grimaced with the pain but did not cry out. She gave him a pouch with dried meat and some nuts in it, and he ate hungrily. His wounds were not swollen or angry, though perhaps he was simply not fevered yet; it could take time. “You may live,” she said. “The wounds need to be cleaned better, and you need rest and food, and yet they may become inflamed regardless, and you will die of it.” She wiped her hands on her breeches. “There are herbs I can give you to help guard against that, but I do not have them with me. Come back to my house, and I will help you.”
He shook his head. “I must avenge myself upon the enemy,” he said. “If my brothers are dead, then I cannot live unless I give the uttermost to revenge for them.” He gripped her shoulder. “You are wise in forest lore, witch. Can you follow the tracks of the beast to where it lairs?”
Arethu sighed. “Don’t be a fool. You are half dead, and if you fight this thing as you are, it will finish you. You would throw your life away if you tried.”
“My brothers have given their lives, I would not be left behind. Please.” He held onto her and would not let go. She felt the weakness in him, and she knew she could pull away and escape him if she wished it, but she felt for him, and did not want to just abandon him. Even with his wounds bound he would never be able to return to the hall on his own.
“You live, that is a gift,” she said. “Take it, and return to your people.”
“I would return in shame, left alive when my brothers fell in battle. I do not wish to live as such.” His stare was intent and desperate. “Please. Help me find this thing’s lair. If it slays me, then so be it, but I cannot simply crawl away.”
She looked at him, and she saw how much of the pain printed on his face was not from his wounds. She did not think he would make it very far. Even if she helped him, he would give out, and then she could persuade him to go back, or she could simply lie and say she was following the trail, and lead him back to her home. He had no power to compel her, save that she felt for him, and she knew if she deceived him he would not forgive, and for some reason that mattered.
“What is your name?” she said.
“Thunn,” he said.
She let out a breath and looked away. “We will go a little way,” she said. “We do not know how far this lair might be, and if we are still in the forest by nightfall, we shall be in great danger.” She picked up her bow and hooked it over her shoulder, then she bent down and took his hand, helped him rise to his feet. He grimaced and grunted and swayed, but he did not fall. She hooked her arm around him and bore him up. He was heavy, but he stood on his own. “Come then,” she said. “Lean on me, and we will see what we can find.”
It was not a difficult trail to follow, and she led them through the darkness beneath the trees. The path was marked by torn earth and broken branches, crushed flowers underfoot and drying blood dripped on the roots of the trees. It was something large, that much she could see from the marks upon the black soil. It walked on two legs, like a man, and that disturbed her more than the rest. Arethu did not hunt things that went upright.
Thunn held himself upright, leaned on her as little as he could. He did not sheathe his sword, but carried it, blooded and scarred, in his right hand. She bore him up on the other side, her bow in her left fist. She kept listening for the heavy tread such a beast would make upon the earth, for the scatter of birds as it came for them, but the forest was silent as a tomb. It unnerved her, because she had never heard it so silent before.
They reached a place where the path began to lead downward, in among rocks and through twisted trees with blackened bark. She saw the mist that hung in the shadows and knew they were drawing close to the mere, and there she did not wish to go. She slowed, and they struggled down the slope. At the bottom the ground became sodden, and the smell of decay and growth tangled together. A little farther on she saw the edge of the water, and there printed upon the mud was another deep track, filled with water.
“We cannot go on,” she said. “There is nothing but mire ahead, and it is an evil place.” She looked up. “The light is fading. Please, let us turn back.”
He nodded, and then he shook her off and stood on his own, wavering only a little. “You have helped me, and I thank you. Would that I could repay you, but I go to meet death.”
“Do not,” she said. “Please.”
He leaned against a tree and scraped away the moss with his hand. In his right hand he gripped his sword ready. “If this is an evil place, then the thing I seek will surely lair within.” He nodded to her. “Farewell, weirwoman.”
She sighed, then nodded. “Very well, a man has his own fate.” She pointed onward into the mist. “The ground will become lower, and wetter. Stay on ground where flowers grow, or you will founder and sink. At the center is a mere, and at the center of that stands an island with a stone circle upon it. If there is an evil place, it is there.”
He nodded, and she thought he would say something else, but instead he only turned and lurched onward into the mist, and she watched until he was gone. She was torn inside, wishing to dissuade him, but she knew she could not. Part of her wished to go with him, but she turned away. If he sought death, she did not. She would not die fighting another man’s vendetta.
She made her way back up the slope, pulling herself over the slick, wet earth by handholds on the rocks and the slimy tree limbs. She had almost reached the top when she heard the scream. It came out of the mist, rose up higher until it was piercing, and then it was suddenly cut off.
Arethu flinched, turned and looked down into the misty hollow. She held still for a long time, listening, straining to hear some hint of something moving in the mire or in the trees, but she heard nothing at all. She breathed slowly in and out, and she swore bitterly to herself for a long time before she turned and made her way back down the hill.
The mist was thicker now, and she set an arrow to her bowstring, stalked silent as a wolf through the long grass and tangled reeds. She could see the flattened path where Thunn had made his way, saw his tracks in the wet earth, and she followed his trail. It led along a spit of land that extended out into the still waters. Mist rose from the water, and small ripples drifted across the surface of it.
She heard something heavy move in the water, and saw heavier ripples come towards her, and she dropped down to one knee, watchful and tense, every muscle and fiber tight with readiness, but nothing came for her. She heard a deep-voiced grunt out in the mist, and more splashing, as if something waded ashore.
Cautious, she reached into her pouch and drew out a single red berry, handling it cautiously. With a trembling hand she spitted it on the tip of her arrow, being sure to avoid the red juice that dripped down. She knew it would stain her fingers, and it would not fade for a very long time. If it got in her blood, it would do far, far worse.
With the berry still dripping on the tip of her arrow, Arethu crept deeper into the mist, moving like a hunting serpent, sniffing the air, tasting it with her tongue. She came to a place where the grass was flattened down, and here she found blood, and Thunn’s sword broken in two. The mud at the water’s edge was gouged and torn, and blood floated there.
She slipped to the edge of the land, and there she could see across the waters of the mere to the little island. The standing stones leaned there like moss-covered guardians, shadows in the fog, and something else was there as well.
Arethu saw a huge shape, hulking and malformed. It came shambling from the stone circle, an ill-defined mockery of a human shape with long arms and a head hunched down between massive shoulders. She saw eyes glint like silver fish in the mist.
Quiet, deadly, she drew her bow, pulling the arrow to her eye and sighting down it. The shadow in the mist was huge, and she could hardly miss it. It began to wade into the water towards her, and she loosed. The thing paused at the small sound of the bowstring, and then the poisoned arrow struck deep in its left breast, burying itself almost to the fletchings.
The thing gave a howl that shook the dank trees and rippled the surface of the water. It thrashed towards her and she drew another arrow, loosed again and struck it in the neck. It bellowed and clawed at the darts, and then she saw the poison catch and begin to work. The juice of the berry caused terrible, burning pain, and the beast roared and dug its claws into its own flesh, drawing blood as it sought to drag the arrow free.
She thought it would rush upon her, but instead it plunged into the water and dove out of sight, vanishing into the blackness. She waited, another arrow ready, breathing hard. The water stilled, the mist settled, and nothing moved.
When she heard the first moan, she thought it was the beast, but it had not emerged from the mere. Another moan, and she realized it came from the island. It was low, pained, and she knew it must be Thunn. She held still, wondering if she were being deceived, but it came again, choked and filled with agony. He was alive, trapped on that island, with a water monster lurking somewhere close.
She cursed the gods again for becoming caught up in this, and she wished she had stayed home. She watched the water for a little longer, wondering if the beast was waiting below the surface, watching for her to make a mistake. Perhaps it was dead. The poison was deadly, and she had never known even a large animal to survive it this long. But this was no animal – this was some monster born of the dark at the world’s rim.
Another moan and she cursed. She wanted to leave him but she could not. She shrugged off her cloak and her shirt, left her boots and her breeches in a pile. She could not take her bow into the water without ruining it, so she had to leave it. All she took was her belt and her knife sheathed at her side. Naked, she slipped into the water, moving as slowly as she could, disturbing the surface as little as possible.
She drew her knife and held it in her mouth as she swam across, moving slow, almost drifting, even as every instinct screamed for her to hurry. She felt for currents in the water, knowing if it came for her she would feel the wave and have only a moment’s warning.
Then she felt the bottom slick under her feet, and she crept out of the water, waded ashore among the moss and strange fungi. The stones were ancient, slender and tapered like fingers reaching up from the mud, taller than a tall man. She did not know who had reared them in some ancient age, a dark age when men worshiped only blood. Moss grew thick on the rock, and vines laced back and forth between them.
At the center of the circle was a sarsen stone draped with moss and mushrooms, and Thunn lay upon it in a bloody ruin. His legs and arms were shattered, and she could see plain he would not live much longer. His glazed eyes brightened when he saw her, and he seemed to come to life for a breath. “Weirwoman,” he moaned. “Weirwoman save me.”
Wet and alone, she looked down on him, took her knife from her lips and held it in her hand. She felt a sting of tears in her eyes and wondered at it. He was a fool and she wanted to curse him, but she did not. Instead she put her hand on his cold, pale face and shut his eyes. “I will,” she said, “I will save you.”
She cut quick, opening his throat, and there was little blood left in him. It splashed out across her arms and her belly, and she smelled it strong as it flowed from his veins. He stiffened for a few moments, and then he lay slack and dead, beyond the pain of life.
Now her fear was gone, replaced by anger, and she left the body where he lay and went to the edge of the water with her bloody knife in her grip. The beast had not arisen again, and if it had died it would have floated. Either it lived somewhere hidden, or was snagged on a root or a stone somewhere below. Arethu gripped her dagger and dove into the still mere, and she kicked for the bottom. She felt her way among clawed roots and darting serpents, seeking a corpse, and instead she found a dark opening in the island, hidden beneath the water. A cave yawned in the gloom, and she swam into it, chest burning for breath. She swam hard until she saw a light, and then she rose.
She broke the surface in a cave lit by fire. Here, under the island, was a hidden place from out of old times. She saw carved stone and broken monuments, and she knew this had once been a place of tombs. Broken sarcophagi spilled bones and gold across the floor of the cavern, and it gleamed in the light of the bonfire that blazed there in the dark.
The beast was here, hunched beside the flame, eyes red with the venom that coursed inside it. When she came ashore it rose and turned to face her, baring long dagger fangs. It snarled and clawed at the rock with talons longer than her knife, but she saw the weakness in it, the tremble in its limbs. What terrible vitality it possessed, to live so long with the red death in its blood, but it was weakened.
She came towards it, bare feet treading on gold coins, and it roared, slashed at her with its claws. It was too slow, and she drew back. It breathed heavily, and she saw it stagger. She gripped her dagger, chose her moment, and sprang.
Her first blow sank the blade into its neck, and she jerked it free in a gush of stinking dark blood. It dashed her off her feet, but she was up again in a moment and came in under the reach of the other arm, stabbed it in the belly and the chest again and again. It roared in her face and those long arms locked around her, dragged her in toward the reaching fangs.
Arethu raised her arm and stabbed her blade into its eye, driving it in deep, feeling it wedge on bone. For a moment she thought it would crush her, and she cried out as her bones bent under the force of that deathly embrace, but then it sagged back, and she felt the strength go out of the flesh, leaving it slackened. She fought free of the dead arms and lay panting on the cold floor, feeling where she had been scraped and gashed and battered – wounds she had not felt in the rush of battle.
When she caught her breath she sat up and looked around her. She did not know what manner of men had been buried in these unhallowed graves, nor what this hulking beast had been. It lay dead, its fur soaked with water and blood, her dagger wedged in its eyesocket. It was shaped like a man, but had the fangs and claws of a beast.
She looked at the gold and scooped up a handful, let it run through her fingers. Here was the fortune of a king, but she wanted no part of it. She got to her feet and left that unclean place. She dove into the water and swam out through the cave mouth, and pushed up to emerge into the fading light of the day. Somewhere beyond the mist the sun was setting, and she wanted to be away from the mere before it was full dark. She swam across to the far shore and climbed out. Already there was less of a pall in the air, and the mist smelled cleaner, and as she bent down to take up her bow, she heard the song of crickets begin in the hollows.