Thursday, October 15, 2009

Phantom Snakes

These were dangerous times, so we closely guarded the cave that was the only entrance to our valley. I happened to be on guard that day. I had an arrow notched and was prepared to send it through the eye of any who approached. They came more often these days, strange men who wanted to find the valley and conquer it for their own.
So I was not unduly surprised when I saw a man, dressed in armor that glittered in the sunlight, ascending the path. “Halt!” I called down.
He looked around, saw me standing on a ledge a little above the cave, and deliberately took a large step forward. “Surrender, savage!” he demanded, “And our armies will be merciful.”
I released my arrow, and the man fell down dead. But he had said “armies”; this wasn’t the end. I blew my horn and waited for our warriors to come rushing out through the cave. But before they could, a surge of men in armor swarmed up the road. My heart nearly stopped when I saw their numbers. This was no small raid but a full-scale invasion. I shot several more of the men before one managed to sneak up behind me. I heard a footfall and began to turn, and then there was blackness.
I woke up again. I was rather surprised. Everyone knows the Denzorians don’t let nonhumans live, even as captives. And yet, I was alive, my hands bound and tied to a tree. It was very dark out, so I’d been unconscious for hours, at least, and I recognized my surroundings as the base of the mountain with the cave. Around me, the army was camped. I didn’t see any other prisoners. That filled me with dread, but not surprise. I wanted to hope that we’d won, or that some of my people--my family, my friends, even strangers who were still my people--had survived, gotten away somehow, even been captured. But I was no fool. If we’d won, the men around me would be dead or far gone. So they’d won, and that meant there were no survivors.
Except me. I still didn’t understand that. I look human enough, besides for my hair, but even with my hood on, my snakes would wriggle, and they would notice. And at that thought, my blood ran cold. For I had been woozy and shocked, enough so that until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the lack of weight hanging from my head, the lack of smooth, scaly bodies moving about my shoulders, or that the pain in my head was not from being knocked out but from having my snakes cut off.
I wanted to scream and kill and gouge out eyes. This was worse than the loss of my family and friends and everyone I’d ever known, far worse than my capture. My snakes were part of me, there with me always, yet individual beings, and I loved them. Keythi, who grew from above my forehead on the far right and reached just past my chin and loved to curl around my ear and stroke her head against my cheek; Elth, the largest, who’d wound up and sat on my head and swayed with my emotion; Jinsha, who loved music; Meiltho, who was shy and hid in my clothing; Saols, who would reach out and touch anyone near me; Pli and Yithey and Srey, who would knot and braid themselves into intricate patterns around my head, and Shiiki, who liked to play tricks like covering my eyes or wrapping around trees or furniture as I walked past them. They were gone, dead, all of them. What is a gorgon without her snakes? Nothing.
I was crying, and against my will I let out a loud sob. The soldier sleeping closest to me woke. “Shush,” he said gently, coming over to me. “It will be alright. You must pretend to be human, and when you are questioned in the morning swear your loyalty to the Denzorian Empire.”
“Did you do this to me? Kill my snakes?”
“They would have killed you, otherwise. I saw your face and just couldn’t help bring about the death of such a beautiful woman. No one needs ever know you’re not human. You can wear a hat or a wig, and I will marry you and cherish you forever and never tell anyone your secret.”
“You killed my snakes!”
“Don’t you understand? I had to!”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand. It would have been kinder to kill me.” I looked in his eyes, trying to make him see what it meant. He didn’t, but maybe he got an inkling or at least knew my words were true without quite knowing why, and I could see in his eyes that he meant what he’d said. He was fool, of course, and a selfish one, and a member of an evil people, but he was not, himself, evil. So I said, “You can take me to your home and marry me, and I will live with you in misery, and someday when I get the chance stab you in your sleep. You can tell your companions what I really am and have me killed. I don’t know if you’d be punished for hiding it in the first place; you could probably pretend not to have known. That would probably be best for me; to have the chance to rejoin my people and my snakes. Mine wouldn’t be the only blood you have on your hands, I’m sure. Or you could untie my hands and let me walk away from here, alone.”
He thought about it for a long time, then, wordlessly, drew a knife and cut the rope binding me. I was stiff and my head still swam, but I managed to lurch to my feet.
“Wait,” the soldier said softly. “At least tell me, what’s your name?”
“Anemone.” I didn’t ask him his name, and I didn’t look back. I felt nothing but sorrow, not even the thirst for vengeance.
I don’t know for how long I wandered aimlessly, foraging for food and sleeping wherever I dropped when I could walk no longer. I could feel always the absence of my snakes, and sometimes their presence as well. I would feel Elth swaying on my head, or Keythi touching my ear, or most often, Shiiki reaching out to grab a tree. I felt them as strongly as though they were really there, and I died anew inside each time I remembered they weren’t. I often cried while I walked, and while I slept.
The stumps of my snakes had healed into smooth scars by the time I found a destination to wander towards. I had lately been remembering everyone I’d once known but would never see again, and I thought of Heia, a woman who’d lived across the road from me, and was one of the best warriors I knew. We hadn’t been quite friends, but we’d enjoyed each others company, and the image of her lying dead, her sword fallen at her side, renewed my tears. Until I remembered that she hadn’t been in the valley when we’d been attacked. She’d left several months before to fight the Denzorians. “There’s a camp, where the Rondal Forest meets the Meolian Sea, and all kinds of free people who wish to remain so make their base there,” she’d told me. “I mean to go out and fight the Denzorians before they come here.”
So at least one of my people might still be alive, and in a place where I could give myself a purpose again, stop what had happened to me and mine from happening to others, where I maybe could even get some measure of revenge.
So I made my way to the Meolian Sea. It was to the west, I knew that much, and I eventually came across a road leading west, so I followed it until it ended in a small town at the edge of the sea. I was wary of people, but I at least could tell the town was not yet under the yoke of the Denzorian Empire, for while the people I saw were mostly human, I also came across a woman with the head of a blue ox and a family of Starthans. They were having a picnic on the beach, and seemed happy and carefree and innocent. The two children were playing inside a shell the size of my fist, and their parents were sitting on a small blanket nearby, watching them. At seeing them, even I could only feel nostalgia, not real sadness.
“Excuse me,” I called down to them. “Do you happen to know which way it is to the Rondal Forest?”
The woman smiled at me. “Going to fight the Denzorians, are you? My cousin’s there. It’s north of here, far north. You’d do better to catch a ship.” She turned to her husband. “Has Efril left yet?”
“I don’t think so. He lives up there,” he told me, “But comes down to trade for supplies, and he takes passengers. His ship’s the Dishonorable Confidant; it’s anchored down at the docks, you can’t miss it.”
“It’s bright pink,” his wife added. “And he won’t even charge you, if you’re against the Denzorians.”
I thanked them, and went to find the Dishonorable Confidant. It was a brigantine, and it was indeed bright pink, from the hull to the deck to the sails. “You’re just in time,” Efril told me when I asked about passage. “We’re leaving tonight.” He looked curiously at the scars from my snakes, but said nothing. During the voyage, I could often sense that he wanted to ask, but he never did. He mostly bragged about voyages and exploits, his own and others. I expected most of them were tall tales, but they were entertaining, and I was less miserable than I had been since my snakes had been killed.
The weather was fair, and the voyage lasted just over two weeks. Finally, we dropped the anchor and rowed up to the dock in a dinghy.
There were several other ships around. None was as flamboyant as the Dishonorable Confidant, but none was exactly ordinary, either. Several flew Jolly Rogers, and one seemed to be made of glass. I noticed merpeople in the water as well, and an enormous sea serpent that reminded me of how Jinsha had swam as I bathed. A human woman and a woman with rainbow skin tanned on the beach, and a group of children of several different species were racing around and giggling. A man with nine arms stood at the end of the dock, holding four fishing rods, and a griffin soared in circles overhead.
“The main camp is right up the cliff; there’s a path there,” Efril said, pointing. “I have to unload the ship, but I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“I’ll help,” I offered, partly out of kindness and to repay him for my passage, but mainly because I didn’t want to enter the camp alone.
“No, no, you go in, my crew and I will be fine,” he insisted. “And so will you; the camp’s a little hectic but you’ll get used to it.”
“A little hectic” did not begin to cover it, I discovered when I reached the top of the cliff. It was a jumble every type of person or animal imaginable, and many that weren’t, until you saw them. I walked around in amazement, to shy to approach anyone. I saw a few other gorgons, from a distance, but I couldn’t bring myself to go nearer to any of them. Any gorgon would know what it meant, that my snakes were gone, and I couldn’t bear the pity right then, especially from people with snakes happily swinging from their heads.
I wanted to go back down to the beach and wait for Efril, but I wanted to be braver than that. So I gathered my courage and deliberately approached a group of friendly looking women about my age.
“Excuse me, I’m new here….” I began.
One of the women, a sphinx, smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Mirthidia, people call me Mirth because, you know, I’m mirthful. Are you a gorgon? I’m usually good at telling what people are. What happened to your snakes? Ouch! Elizabeth, what was that for?” The woman next to her, a human, had kicked her. “Oh, was I being rude? Sorry, I didn’t mean to be. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do anything here if you don’t want to. Isn’t this place just amazing? Are you going to fight the Denzorians? Lazulia does,” she gestured towards the third woman, “but I don’t usually, I just help her with strategy, I‘m smarter than I sound, and I watch the kids during battle, I‘m good with kids. And Elizabeth is a healer, or she‘s learning to be and her boyfriend is. She‘s even newer here than me, I came from Senthoria a few months ago.”
“Um….” I had no idea what to respond to.
“You must be overwhelmed,” said Lazulia. “I think everyone is, when they first get here.”
“I can see why.”
“I didn’t even know there were people other than humans, when I came here,” said Lazulia. “I was Denzorian, originally. Elizabeth too.”
I tried to figure out how I felt about that. “Nobody minds?”
“If anyone does, that’s their problem. Most people don’t. It’s not my fault where I was born, and I hate them as much as anyone.”
“They killed all my people,” I found myself saying. I hesitated before adding, “And they cut off my snakes.”
All three of them were horrified; they knew other gorgons and had at least some understanding of what that meant.
We talked for a while, and they showed me around the camp and helped me set up a tent. A little before sundown, a Starthan man riding a large dog pulled Lazulia away for what she said was something urgent.
Her face was grim when she returned a few hours later. “An army is approaching the camp,” she said, pulling on leather armor as she spoke. “We have to ride out at once and meet them as far from here as we can.” Horns of every tone began to trumpet.
“I want to come,” I said.
Lazulia nodded. “What weapon do you use?”
“A bow, mostly.”
“Hold on.” She rummaged around her tent and pulled out a bow and quiver of arrows. “Will this do for now? There isn’t time to find one better suited to you, now.”
I examined the bow; it was a little longer than I was used to, but it would do. I had no armor, but I wasn’t alone in that. Lazulia directed me towards a group of archers, and I joined them as we marched out.
It was night by the time we reached the Denzorian army, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. They were in their formation, rows and rows of soldiers, as neat as cross-stitch. Our army wasn’t quite as haphazard as it seemed, but it could not by any stretch of the imagination be called organized. I couldn’t see how the fighting began, but soon someone yelled to us, “Draw…and FIRE!” and I did so, and was in the thick of it.
Each time I drew my bow I could feel Shiiki wrapped around the arrow. It renewed my anger and hatred, and though my arrows flew farther than anyone else’s and buried themselves deep in my enemies' flesh, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to be able to see my targets.
The battle ended, eventually, and we’d won, or at least, we hadn’t lost. The Denzorians had retreated; they hadn’t pushed past us to devastate the camp. We hadn’t lost, but I didn't feel victoorious.
“We just haven’t lost yet, here,” I said quietly to Lazulia as we worked to bury the dead.
“That’s how I always feel too,” she admitted, “But we’ve been not losing yet, here, for five years since I’ve been here, and a lot longer than that.”
I could feel Elth raise up to his full height on my head. I put my hand to the scar where he’d been, and knew that Lazulia was right. I’d lost once, and even if we could never win, I would always keep fighting to not lose again.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is one of your most amazing stories yet! I can almost feel the snakes too. I hope to see Anemenone again.