My father can be a cold, hard, and ruthless man.
The story is told that he once did something so terrible, he angered the very Gods themselves, causing them to lash out and render my father and mother childless. For many, many years they were barren, before my father decided, due to his dangerous life, he needed an heir. As many of these stories go, the couple did everything they could think of to conceive, even visiting those reputed to have extraordinary power, but all to no avail.
In desperation, my father went to the temple honoring the Gods, and stayed there for many days, offering gifts and prayers. At the end of this period of time, he made a vow to give up his violent ways, if only the Gods would give him a child. He cut off his own right hand, his sword hand, as offering and to show proof of the vow. Receiving no reply, he returned home in sadness, believing he had not been heard and that his days of being a war lord were now over.
But the Gods were very impressed with his offering, and his vow, and they fashioned a child from his severed right hand. And thus, as the story goes, a girl-child was born. It seems the Gods do indeed have a sense of humor.
My father, unfortunately, does not…
So here I sit, watching for my prey. The red cloak my mother had made spread out beautifully behind me. Absently I run my fingers over the gold stitching along the edges of the cloak. It is a beautiful piece of artwork, painstakingly done, all by my mother’s own hand. I remember how stricken she had looked when she discovered how I intended to use it.
“But it is bright red! You will be seen!” She cried.
“Yes.” I answered simply.
“But wouldn’t a deep brown or green do better? To risk yourself so casually!” She exclaimed, distressed.
“The point IS to be seen, mother.” I calmly explain. She nearly fainted at that point in the conversation. I distinctly remember the look on her face and slightly tilting of her body.
“Your father approves of this? To risk his only daughter and child on such a fool’s errand?” She suddenly had steel in her voice as she asked me this.
“Yes.” Another simple answer given.
“We’ll just see about this.” Cold, hard iron in her voice this time.
My mother, I mused.
They tell me that she is what keeps these lands from ruin. My father brought them all together, with an iron hand, but she is the velvet glove that soothes and keeps the people all together.
Once, when I was a child, I went with my mother on one of her many visits to nearby villages that are under my father’s control. I remember being frightened because of the large armed guards that my father sent along with her on these trips, thinking they must be dangerous. But I needn’t have bothered worrying or being afraid-and neither should he. The people love my mother, dearly. She makes routine journeys to help judge difficulties and strife amongst the people, brings food and clothing to those in need, helps tend to the sickly, and I’d even seen her dig right into a barn-raising once. This woman, soft and delicate like a gentle spring flower, pale and fair, was hard as steel on the inside. I had once even had an older villager explain to me what it was like hearing the news that my father was coming to conquer their people. Most, she explained, were terrified because of his reputation. Some tried to put up a fight, and some simply ran. But after the fighting was over, and the people had resigned themselves to his rule, my mother would show up. Like a soft, gentle spring rain after a terribly hard and cruel winter. She brought aid to the injured, food and clothing to the poor, gentle words and sage advice. The people immediately loved her and decided being under my father’s thumb might not be such a terrible thing after all, if she was attached to it. It was even rumored, the villager told me, that the only reason my father conquered other villages and lands, was so that my mother could care for them like a kind and gentle shepherdess, especially during the trying time before they had children and he felt she needed someone to mother. The villager went on to say that my mother and father were perfect opposites, he the fire and she the soothing balm.
I release a breath. It was a beautiful sentiment, but knowing my father as I did-it was completely wrong. He conquered just to do that-conquer. Even lost in my musings, I had been ceaselessly watching the surrounding area, running my fingers up and down the gold stitchery. There was still no activity, and I can feel myself sighing. It was probably time to get up and start moving again. I’m definitely not going to catch a monster sitting on my duff.
“Ha! Catch a monster! There probably is no monster, just drunken villagers’ hallucinations, exaggerations or a large animal wandering just a little too close to the main dwellings.” I mumble to myself as I stand up again, stretching limbs that are slightly numb and heavy, and a back that was quite frankly getting sore from the walking and hauling of my leather bag. Although the pretense was I was out gathering herbs in my bright scarlet cloak, I was really more bait than anything else. Every detail, down to my brightly colored clothes and heavily perfumed brown hair and scented bronzed skin was designed to attract attention, while conveniently hiding multiple weapons. I was meant to look to be easy prey, easily spotted and tracked for the “humongous beast” that had been “attacking and eating people near the village”. I snort. Despite being meant to look and smell like a tasty little weak morsel for the “beast”-if there really even was a monstrous beast-and I doubted it, he or she would be in for a surprise if he or she dared to go after me. Grimly, I check to be sure once again that my blades and weapons are still easily accessible.
They tell a tale about me in many of the villages. It’s a tall-tale of a sort, I suppose but it goes back to the story of my father sacrificing his hand for a child. They say that because I was fashioned from my father’s right hand, his sword hand, that from the day I was born I was master of any weapon laid within my grasp, this even despite the fact that I am a woman. I snort again, chauvinism.
“They” of course do not know that since I could walk my father had raised me as if I was the son he knew he would never have, plus the female heir that will have to fight twice as hard to keep her kingdom than any male heir ever would. To say my father’s training methods were hard would be an unfortunate understatement. I learned quickly and efficiently how to handle any weapon my father threw at me, and soon had a reputation for being the fiercest lady-warrior known in my father’s domain. Although he never did place me in very grave harm’s way, after all I was the only child granted him, he still expected me to prove myself. And soon, I had taken over his position of defending his lands, though he was no longer concerned with conquests, or at least, I was not privy to any conquests during my years of life.
Of course, semi-dangerous missions, such as the search of the elusive man-slaying monster, fell to me. Though no real threat of death must have been perceived, else I never would have been sent.
“To protect the land from evil…” and all of that. In the end it was a show of strength to cement my position in people's minds.
Which of course all led me to walking within the forest near the latest sighting of the beast, bright red cape, leather bag, smelly perfume, noisy trampling around, boredom and all.
“And a big goose-egg.” I half-mumble to myself, once again checking weapons positions and readjusting a few articles of clothing that had -ahem- slipped into uncomfortable positions.
The beast was not restricted to any particular times of killing or hunting, but was most often seen around dusk, and of course, very near people. It was already that premature dusk the thicker trees gather to them like cobwebs, and I had promised myself only a few more hours of walking before I called it a day (and possibly a hoax) before I had sat down earlier. I safely judged those few hours were swiftly drawing to a close, and begin meandering my way back towards the village. While in the forest, I stayed very close to the edges of the village, but still far enough away to not see or hear people, and I suppose I became much too adjusted to the silence caused by a lack of people. The sudden snap of a twig causes me to jerk around in search of the noise like a frightened rabbit, hand at the hidden blade at my waist. I see nothing, but that does not calm the sudden flutter of anxiety that maybe my poor drunken villagers have been right. I quell the fear response I feel racing through my body, taking slow, deep breaths to slow my heart rate and calm my mind, allowing everything but my breathing to fade slowly away. There is still nothing to be seen, so I turn my head slightly as if giving up the noise as my imagination. My senses on high alert, I take a couple of steps away from the noise, still watching with my peripheral vision and listening carefully. I stoop, as though to pick a flower, though really I am planting my feet and centering my body, ready for an attack. A man stumbles out of the treeline. I feel the tension drain from my body. A man I can handle. He staggers just a bit, finding his footing on the path. He appears to be intoxicated. Great. He grins at me. The kind of ridiculous lecherous grin of those who have lost their wits to drink, and their teeth to poor health..
“Hello pretty..” Ok quite honestly, I have no idea if that is what he meant to say. I came out more like “Whewoo fwelly..” I only assume he meant the above. Definitely intoxicated. I decided he's probably much too intoxicated to do me harm, and turn my back to him to continue on my way back to the village. There are a few stumbling steps behind me and an angry shout.
“Whey emma tookin ooo!” Which I can only assume meant “Hey I'm talking to you!” But I could seriously care less, other than gritting my teeth and stiffening my shoulders with a sigh. I walk on, still believing this one is too drunk to mean me any harm. Besides, he has no idea who he is dealing with. The stumbling behind me quickens, so I increase my pace as well.
“Ooo (incomprehensible string of sounds) fook ah we fwahn ah tek tah ooo!” The sounds which I suppose were a demand to look at him when he talked to me, with a string of curse words for good measure. Of course I keep walking, I can already see the lights and slight shapes of housing beyond the trees. The village is coming into view. There's a sudden dizzy sensation and pain as I'm spun around by the drunken man, who is now shouting unintelligibly in my face.
“Oo (string again of curse words?) ah watah..” I am certain it is a threat this time. My right hand is at my waist as my left sends a powerful blow to his sternum to free space for the hidden blade. An abrupt scream and flurry of motion occur in front of my eyes. Even playing it over in my head, I have a hard time digesting what I had seen.
Something-in this moment I cannot tell you what, had jumped out, dragging and tumbling the drunk off to my right, and is now methodically killing the man with absolutely no haste whatsoever. I can feel my body freeze in place as I stare, knowing I should do something, but unable to. Brown hackles are raised on this beast, teeth bared, eyes hidden by blood and the closed expression of an outraged animal. My mind shrieks bear, but no, it's too large, the wrong shape. Wolf? Not possible! THING! What is it? And finally the moment catches up to me and I realize I should be doing something to capture this beast and help the man, the annoying drunken man, who has finally stopped screaming. The part of my mind that is still functioning informs me that this means he's probably already dead. I have nothing in my arsenal large enough to handle this problem, but I find my body racing forward anyway, with the thought that I could at least maim the beast until I could return to trap it and kill it. Preferably with an army.
The logical half of my brain screams at me NO STOP! Animals are most fierce when wounded! But it's too late, I have run right to the creature and slipped my blade between its giant ribs. And then the stupidity of what I have done catches up with me and as the animal rears with my blade sticking from it's monstrous side, I fall backwards, red cloak tripping me, and scramble back on hands, knees and buttocks. The animal is screeching in pain, much like a human being, its front legs kneading patterns of pain in the air, it falls to all four legs again, but its front legs give out. Its breathing becomes immediately horrible, shallow and labored. Blood froths at its mouth and it turns two very human and very wounded eyes on me. It seems to be asking me why? Why had I done such a thing? And I feel tears on my face for this beast who I had just witnessed kill a man.
The animal struggles to its feet weakly, its legs continue to give out on it, and it stumbles a few feet away from me with each fall and each faltering step. I begin to notice the animal is looking smaller and smaller. Soon it is no bigger than a man-and the hair is falling out in patches all around it. As the animal falls one last time out of sight, I am certain my tear-stained eyes deceive me. This time when it tumbles it falls down a small incline. Throwing caution to the wind yet again this night, I decide to follow after the creature without waiting for help. Dimly, I notice there is a din beginning behind me in the direction of the village. I suppose all the noise we'd been making drew some attention. But I'm desperate to see for myself what has happened with the beast.
I draw my red cape around me, suddenly wanting comfort from some imagined chill, and walk over to the crest of the incline to look down. In the gathering gloom, it's hard to see exactly what I'm looking at, but I know it's very pale. I stumble my way down the hill. Ah how very stupid I am being, but my curiosity draws me. What I am seeing truly has me confused, but not too seriously. I have heard such stories you see.
There at the bottom of the incline is a man.