by Nadia Hutton
The Gorgon stirred from her meditations when she heard the snakes rattle for her. Her eyes still closed, she rose slowly to her feet. The snakes hissed in warning, coming forward to face the threat encroaching on the cave.
“I caution you, mortal,” the Gorgon called out. “Those born of men perish upon my gaze. If you value your life, turn back now.”
She heard footsteps still and she turned away from the entrance, opening her eyes slowly. She saw the shadows of a figure on the wall of her cave, the darkness lengthening as they grew closer to the fire. The Gorgon turned to face it, baring her teeth. The figure slowed, pulling back their linen hood. They removed the sand mask and goggles from their face.
The woman stood short in stature. Her cinnamon skin and long black hair were not uncommon among the people of the Haven. What struck the Gorgon were her pale blue eyes, clouded nearly completely with a milky white.
“I fear you not, Medusa,” the blind woman said softly.
The snakes lowered and the Gorgon barked, “If you are here to slay me, try quickly, before you lose the sound of my voice. You are not the first mortal to try this trick.”
The woman shook her head, placing her waterskins on the ground, laying her staff and sword beside them.
“I mean you no harm,” she promised.
“Then what do you seek from me?” The Gorgon laughed, gesturing to the nearly empty cave. “Have you come to mock me in my exile? A lone desert nomad is in no position to judge, even if you carry weeks worth of water.”
“I seek your aid, Lady Medusa.”
The woman knelt in reverence, laying her empty hands forward, “I must go into a realm from which I cannot return without your help.”
The Gorgon touched her shoulder and said kindly, “Rise, mortal. You need not show such deference to me. I am no goddess to petition. Come and eat with me. We will share your water and you will tell me what you need of me.”
The Gorgon carefully took the first waterskin and poured it into two cups. She went into her own pack, bringing out the flat dense bread that had sustained her for days and the roasted roots of the poisonous kaftna plant. She laid these things in the hands of the blind woman who took them with a bow. She drank the water first, waiting to hear the Gorgon also take a drink. They both paused to see if the water was potable before the woman began.
“We are the last, you and I,” the woman explained, “We are the last of the heathenness. Gal’goth, the rapturous terror, has taken each of the Haven for months, enthralling all who gaze upon his monstrosity. All but you and I. For I cannot see his face nor he can see yours without fear. I need your eyes to defeat him. He has taken my daughter. She lurks now in the realm of Gal, worshipping his filth as she starves to death. The Haven grow hungry, hungrier each day he feasts on their praise. The only way to release them is to slay him.”
The Gorgon asked, “Did he not see you when he took the others?”
“I hid myself among the horses. He could not smell my heart over theirs,” she said. “But that trick will not last long in his realm. Your venom will slow my heart enough that he will not recognize it and your sight will prevent any of his followers from harming me.”
“I do not see what benefit this does me,” the Gorgon said. “I am free to roam the desert without the persecution of the Haven. Your people have hunted me for some time. You need me, I do not need you.”
“What is a kingdom without a subject? In return…I offer myself. Your servant, your companion, for all of my days. You have been alone for so long. Is it not comfortable to have another approach you without hesitation or fear? How long has it been since you have shared water with another?”
The snakes hissed, rising up into the air.
“When I said you could speak to me without devotion, I did not say you should insult me,” the Gorgon spat.
“I meant no insult,” the Mortal apologized. “It is simply the only thing I can offer.”
The Gorgon watched her still expression, hearing the pleading in her voice.
The Gorgon asked, “Do you know what I am, mortal? What story have your mothers told you? What lore?”
“That you have the power to turn a heart to stone with the cast of your eyes. You are more serpent than woman, an adder slithering in the sand, waiting to strike. Your anger is enough to taint wells with poison and your rage strong enough to turn sand to glass. But you are a woman still.”
The Gorgon said quietly, “That does not mean what you think it does, girl. Regardless, some is true. I was given this form as a curse and blessing, meant to both protect and isolate me from the rest of the world. The gods who came before me chose this body after your Gal’goth attempted to sway me.”
“It is said he attempted to make you his bride,” the woman said.
“That is a polite way to say what happened,” the Gorgon chuckled. “I need not go into details. If you claim a share sisterhood with me, I would imagine you understood what occurred. So you seek vengeance for us both, do you? Your blade through his heart in exchange for my protection? An alliance could work…what is your name, Mortal?”
“Nera of the Haven, fourth of the sixth Matriarch, mother of the seventh Matriarch.”
“Your aims are political as well as personal…let it be so. We rest upon this day, Mortal, and in the evening we shall go into the encroaching realm of Gal. When your daughter is in her ancestral lands and leading the remnants of your people, you will retreat with me into the mountains. We shall live in the halls of Refuge, where you will spend the rest of your days. Do you accept?”
Nera nodded, “Yes, my lady. You have my word.”
“Then rest, Mortal.”
The Gorgon did not need sleep as mortals did so she returned to her meditations, slowing the hearts of the snakes, letting them breathe through her own body. Nera rested in her tent outside the cave. The Gorgon watched silently, watching as the sun went down. When the first stars shined, she let go of her breath, the snakes stirring from their rest.
Their rattlers woke Nera, who slipped on her mask and goggles.
“We should go, my Lady,” she said, her voice muffled through the filter. “There is little time left. The nights are not as long as they once were.”
Under the desert moon, the Gorgon and the Mortal went forth. The Gorgon dressed as a mortal woman of the Haven, the long linen dresses, the leather armour covering her throat and wrists. She wore the hood over the snakes, who protested at the sudden blindness. She did not wear the goggles, but she kept the mask over her mouth, tying it high around her ears.
She walked with softness, leaving no trace of her on the sand below. Nera walked alongside her with a strength in her side that has unmistakable. She was indeed a daughter of the Matriarch, even if she was the fourth. What had occurred within the clan to leave the daughter of the fourth child as Matriarch?
The night grew shorter as Nera had warned. They returned to the caves at the edge of the mountains, finding shelter in an alcove as the sun began to rise. The Gorgon found herself oddly tired and laid on her belly, letting the snakes coil around her. The Mortal did not set up her tent, but simply lay beside her on the cool stone. She touched the Gorgon’s hand, who flinched and pulled away.
“We reach the edge of the Gal,” the Gorgon said, “and we must rest our strength. When we cross, I will use my venom to hide your heart and he will think you a creature like me, a demon of the realm. But the disciples will see your face and know you as human. If one dares you to touch you, I will protect you, but each will be another loss to the Haven. You must not leave my side, or we will be discovered.”
“My blade is ready,” she promised. “I need no sight, I will recognize that foul beast by his very smells. It lingers…like rotting fat, sweet and sickly.”
“I know the smell,” the Gorgon murmured. “Better than you. I no longer need sleep, but if I do…it is what I remember most of his vile presence in my dreams.”
“They speak of your great wrath,” Nera said slowly, “and yet you have not sought revenge before…”
The Gorgon hesitated and explained, “There is too much of him in me already. I was not unlike you once, a mortal woman, even if I was of the mountains. The same venom that flows in my veins flows in his. Or it better to say his blood flows in mine. If I kill him, only more of me will be transformed and changed. I will become a host for his evil and what I am will be destroyed.”
“And what will happen to me?” Nera asked.
“I do not know,” the Gorgon admitted.
“It does not matter,” the Mortal said. “My daughter needs me. I will not fail her.”
“There is no night in the realm of Gal,” the Gorgon said, “You must rest your body now while you can. The eternal light will break through your skin and flesh. When you wake, I shall prepare your body.”
“I do not think I will be able to sleep,” Nera said, “It is not far now…the longer I wait, the more will die.”
The Gorgon sat up and Nera followed her lead, sitting cross-legged in front of her. Nera held out her arm and the snakes hissed happily, reaching out to caress her skin, wrap themselves around her. The Gorgon could feel her through their touch, feel the weathered skin, sense her heartbeat through her flesh.
The Gorgon felt a rush of pleasure as the snakes bit into her skin, feeling her blood in her many mouths. Nera whimpered, but did not cry out. The Gorgon called the serpents back and they obeyed, leaving the Mortal to fall to the ground. Nera wrapped her body close to her, trying not to scream.
The Gorgon put her hand on her injured arm, feeling her heartbeat slow. When it steadied, Nera’s eyelids fluttered and she stirred. The Gorgon helped her to her feet and gave her back her weapons.
“You are ready,” she said quietly.
The Gorgon paused at the edge of the realm, the brightness almost lapping at her feet. It burned to the touch, feeling drier than the desert around them, devoid of moisture. The Mortal sensed her hesitation and stopped, putting her hand out to sense where the Gorgon was.
She put her hand on Nera’s shoulder and the blind woman relaxed under her touch.
“The ground will be hard beneath your feet,” she warned, “Take off your boots before we enter. Keep your sword close at hand. You will not feel thirsty, but you must continue to drink from your waterskins.”
Nera took off her boots and tossed them to the ground. She stepped forth onto the withered earth and hesitated.
“This does not feel right,” she murmured, “This land is…a husk.”
“Gal’goth drains,” the Gorgon said, leading her forward, “From man and earth alike. It is his very nature. You must keep drinking and keep walking. Do both slowly. Your poisoned heart is beating slow enough that you will pass unharmed. You must do nothing to raise it.”
They kept moving, the Gorgon breathing slowly in order for Nera to mimic it. They both heard the chant resonating across the ground, cracking the dry earth.
“They call his name,” the Mortal said. “They praise it again and again until their mouths grow dry. They are starving for his glory.”
“We come closer to them,” the Gorgon advised. “I will keep my eyes down. Refresh yourself.”
Nera drank from her waterskin, offering some to her. She declined and the Mortal tied it back to her waist. She hesitated before drinking again, consciously tying the waterskin to the other side.
“I must save some for the journey back,” Nera said. “Take my hand, Medusa. I will lead you through the crowd.”
The Gorgon closed her eyes, letting the blind woman lead them into the masses of Gal’goth’s worshippers. Her body was surrounded by the thin and boney humans, pressing in on her, the sound of the deity’s name echoing through her very skin. The snakes hissed loudly, protesting every assault to their scales.
She was afraid. It had been a long time since she was afraid.
She stopped suddenly, running into Nera’s back. The Gorgon called out her name, but the woman did not reply. The Gorgon heard the young, sweet voice above the din. She felt Nera’s trembling fingers grip into her skin.
Nera cried out, “Hester!”
The bodies pressed in on them. The Gorgon opened her eyes, looking down at Nera’s back. The hands started to grab at them, tearing at their clothes.
The Gorgon growled as raised her head, screaming into the multitudes. A few froze on sight, the others pressing forward, throwing themselves at them as they screamed out Gal’goth’s name again and again.
“Mortal!” she warned, “You must fight back!”
Nera unsheathed her sword and cut through the bodies ahead of her. The Gorgon put her back against hers. Her snakes reached out, biting those who came close, and her eyes scanned, striking down those who dared to touch her.
Nera struck another down with her pommel and climbed up the base of a statue. She reached down and pulled the Gorgon up with her. The creature closed her eyes, letting the Mortal put her own body ahead of hers. The chant continued, but they did not climb after them, merely clawing at their feet.
“Why do they not follow?” The Gorgon asked over the din.
“I do not know,” Nera shouted back. “You must bite me again, Medusa. I need you to slow my heart. If they do not stop attacking, then I will be forced to kill more of my people.”
“It will kill you,” she warned. “There is already too much-“
But the Gorgon could not help herself. Her snakes were already brushing against Hera’s neck, their fangs already pricking her skin. Hera slumped into her arms as the venom pumped into her, but she kept her footing. The Gorgon felt her uneasy breath against her neck and she held tighter, fearing she would fall into the chanting masses below them.
“You will hear your daughter’s voice again,” she warned. “You must not grow angry or afraid. Listen to your breath and protect your heart.”
Nera listened and the worshippers moved from the base of the statue, turning back towards Gal’goth.
“We are growing close,” Nera said, “I can feel him.”
The chant grew loud, too loud for anything else. The Gorgon could not even hear her own heartbeat. Suddenly, the mantra stopped and they froze. The Gorgon grabbed Nera’s hand and brought her body close to hers. She could feel the endless hands of Gal’goth upon her, his fingers caressing her scales as one he had her flesh. The serpents rattled fiercely, but their fangs could not pierce his skin. The Mortal shifted, putting her hand on the pommel of her sword.
“Nera,” the rapturous terror crooned. “Last of the heatheness, last of the Haven. How far you have come. Liar…traitor to your kin. The slain Haven lie upon your own feet. Your blood pours on the ground as easily as rain.”
The Gorgon shivered in fear, opening her eyes to see the current embodiment of Gal’goth. He looked almost human. Gal’goth smiled with unearthly lips.
“You bring with you one already defeated, Haven. Strike me down and you shall sffer as she has. You know better than most, Medusa, that a woman is nothing next to a God.”
Nera swung her blade, slicing through the air. Her sword pierced through his shoulder. She sensed the resistance and cut through his chest. Medusa looked up, meeting his gaze. The terror in her heart fell as she saw the fear in his.
His body grew brittle, snapping, shattering. Dark blood oozed from him, seeping into the arid ground. His lips still held together last, breaking down as the gore seeped into the earth. Nera fell and Medusa caught her. She heard the voice of a young woman and she gestured her to stay in her place.
Medusa looked only upon Nera when she said, “Hester. Do not dare to come to your mother’s side now. The poison of Gal’goth is within her veins. If you touch her, you will surely die as she will.”
Nera turned her head, trying to hear her daughter’s cries. Nera reached out, touching the Gorgon’s face tenderly. Medusa took her hands in her own and kissed them. She felt the breath leave the Mortal’s lungs and laid her upon the ground. She knelt beside her.
“Go,” the Gorgon ordered, “take your people from this place. His poison has tainted even the best of the Haven. His venom has tainted the very earth we stand on. If he is not stopped, his evil will rise again. Your Mother has bought us time. I shall build a tomb for her unlike any other. She will be encased in crystal, and such light will reflect that any who dare look east will be struck blind. Nothing will grow in this land, no water will reach the surface. I shall be the only living thing that remains. Go, Seventh Matriarch, and never let your people follow this false God again. Find them water, shelter, nourishment. Do not look back to the realm of Gal, not even to mourn.”
Medusa heard footsteps as others walked towards the west. She knew the daughter still stood before her, her mask and goggles still resting at her feet.
“I will tell my people of the Palace of Eternal Light,” Hester promised. “I honour you, Lady Medusa. I honour you.”
The Gorgon said nothing as the Haven began their trek out of the realm of Gal, into the great desert that had sustained them for so long. In the quiet, the Gorgon went to Nera’s side. She crossed the woman’s arms over her chest, laying her sword between them. She lovingly brushed back her hair and closed her eyes. She kissed her forehead, the snakes nipping at her skin.
Medusa walked to the edge of the realm, seeing the sky darken with night. She turned to face the endless light of Gal and placed her hands on the ground. The sand rose, burning as it turned to glass, twisting and shaping until it encased Nera from the very sky. The fortress shone brightly in the night sky, the realm of Gal trapped for now from the living desert.
The Gorgon rose slowly and walked south towards the mountains. She did not look back.