She fell asleep crying under her blankets, from fear and confusion more than hurt. The curses her father flung at his "demon-spawn" daughter had replaced indifference rather than love.
Having become a monster, it seemed right that she dreamed of monsters. A huge eight-legged horse whose hide shone the black-red of blood in an old painting moved slowly through a misty, ambiguous landscape. Its rider was a tall stately woman in storybook clothes of wool, brocade and fur. One half of her face seemed bathed in shadow no matter where she turned.
The girl crouched in the undergrowth and closed her eyes; she knew they glowed now, and didn't want them to reveal her hiding place. She concentrated hard, willing her skin to darken to the blue-black-green of the shadowed leaves. The girl risked opening one eye to check her work and saw that the horse was almost near enough to touch. Don't let it hear me, she prayed to no one. Don't let it smell me.
No, you stupid baby, she chided herself, that's dogs. People don't track with horses. …If they sent dogs, could I hide? The brush crunched quietly as eight hooves stepped closer to her. She heard the rustling of stiff fabric as the woman dismounted.
"There you are, young one," the woman said, pushing the leaves aside. In the moonlight one of her hands was blue-white and one blue-black. She wore two silver rings on each; none looked like wedding rings. "Come out where I can get a look at you. That was a good try, but you need to mimic the pattern of the leaves." She pointed to the mottled shadows on the ground. "Like that, see?"
The girl stumbled forward, surprise making her clumsy. The woman took her hand to steady her and lead her nearer to the monster horse. "Come stand by my friend here, isn't he warm?" He turned his great head to look at her and the girl saw more intelligence in one of his eyes than she had ever seen in her father's stable.
"Are you really friends with your horse?" the girl asked in her most grown-up voice.
"Oh yes, otherwise he wouldn't carry me all over creation looking for scared girls. And he's not my horse." A small satchel hung from the saddle and the woman reached into it, pulling out a sloshing leather bag and a linen handkerchief. She poured some water onto the handkerchief and gently began to wipe the tear stains from the girl's face. "There, let me look at you." Her face stilled as she scrutinized the girl head to foot, drawing her upright when she flinched away.
The girl wanted to hide from the sharp gaze. The woman's left eye shone brighter from the dark half of her face. The girl imagined changing: making her skin creamy pink instead of scale-patterned blue and her eyes gray instead of glowing yellow. I should have done that as soon as I saw the horse, she thought. I could even pretend I was wearing clothes. With that thought, she realized she was naked and recoiled from embarrassment.
But the woman pulled her up till she was standing straight and gently tugged on her red hair. "I'll wager it's been a good many generations since your family has seen this hair."
"What do you know about my family? Why were you looking for me?" the girl asked, wishing she could keep the concern from her voice.
The woman smiled then, and her teeth were strong and white. "A seer told me to, and one of the things that's important when you're in charge is knowing whose advice to take." She stepped away from the girl abruptly and put the water and handkerchief away. "That's two lessons now, and I hope you'll remember them when you wake."
"You mean I'm sleeping? Am I home? This is a dream?" The girl's lambent eyes were wide with hope. Maybe she would wake up and things would be like they had been.
"It won't be your home much longer, girl," the woman told her firmly, "but you're lucky and can choose when to leave, if you plan it well. I'll help you." A sorrowful expression flickered across her face as briefly as a candle flickers in a draft. "You will be prepared."
"What are you?" the girl asked in a wonder-filled voice. She had noticed for the first time that the woman's eyes were the rich gold of a night-hunting beast and reflected green in the moonlight.
The woman stood to her full height, which the girl guessed to be almost seven feet. "I am a queen, a witch, a monster, a giant, a thief and a warrior. I take what is forgotten into my hall. I gather up what others would let pass by. Do you know me?"
"No, I don't," the girl said, looking down. She was strangely ashamed of this lack.
But the woman didn't seem offended; she was looking up at the thin clouds spooling across the three-quarters moon. "Old Ygg has two ravens that bring him news of all the worlds, but they roost each night on the back of his high-seat. …I am the Lady Hel. I will help you, and you will be my raven and show me your world."
"But I can't turn into a raven, only people," the girl protested.
The woman smiled again. "That's all right. Your cleverness will get your farther than wings. And I only meant that I'd trade my help for a little help from you. Oh, not forever" she added as the girl parted her lips to speak, "I don't need you as a thrall. Do you agree to that?"
"All right… You're going to help me find somewhere to go?" The girl realized that she wanted that more than anything else, tonight.
"Agreed then, young one." The woman, Lady Hel, bent to smooth her red hair back, then rose and swiftly mounted the strange horse. "Sleep well, my little raven."