The Snake and the Mirror

Things Taken, Things Found

 

Tegwen walked across the lowland hills with the practiced ease of someone used to a life on foot. The ground here was hilly and occasionally marked with boulders and crags, but it wasn’t overly dangerous as far as terrain went, so there was little stopping her as she made her way across the land, simply needing to keep a weather eye out for anything that could be lurking behind the rocks or over the next hill.

She had her modest supplies and gear in a travelling pack over her shoulders and she moved at a brisk pace with a folded map in one hand and a cracked compass in the other. One problem with steep rolling hills was the ease with which one could get lost in them. With an irritated glance, she looked back down at her compass, shaking it gently as it spun wildly this way and that.

“Now that’s not right…” Tegwen said. “Even magic doesn’t stop compasses from working. That’s just physics…”

“Caw?”

Tegwen glanced up, and she saw a crow looking back at her from a small pile of boulders, head cocked as it regarded her with black eyes.

“Well, yes,” Tegwen nodded to the crow. “Magic can’t just arbitrarily shift the poles. Compasses only change due to spatial distortions, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t wander onto another world.”

The crow fluffed its wings before cawing loudly at her again.

“I’m not in another world, am I…?” Tegwen asked, but the crow, being a crow, remained silent.

Tegwen shook her head. “Nope, still on earth and you’re just a crow. Shoo!”

She shook her walking stick at the crow, which remained where it was. Rolling her eyes, she continued past the crow, climbing the closest hill in order to try and gain a better view of the area, still puzzling over the strange actions of her compass. When she crested the hill, however, she saw that it leveled out into a broad flat plain of knee-high green grass. The sky overhead was a uniform pale grey that caused shadows to vanish.

Spread out before her across the field were dozens to perhaps hundreds of piles of stacked stones, cairns of all shapes and sizes scattered for a kilometer around before her. Between them, rising from the earth, were scores of spears and swords, all of them rusted past the point of usefulness and all of them with their points buried in the earth so that they stood upright among the cairn, many adorned with helms on their shafts and pommels.

The world seemed quiet as Tegwen stepped forward among the cairns, no birds or insects sang despite it being midday, and the wind had died completely where before it had been relatively constant. Almost unconsciously Tegwen pulled her traveling cloak inward around her shoulders as if bundling against an unfelt cold.

A sudden movement caught her eye, and she froze in place as she saw a black shape move among the cairns. She relaxed somewhat when she saw it was another crow, the sizable bird hopping with an inelegant flap atop a close by cairn.

This one did not caw, however, it merely looked at her, head tilting this way and that as if observing her with curiosity. Taking the time to look around, Tegwen realized it wasn’t alone, and that dozens more crows were gathered in the plain around her, all of them sitting on sword crossguards, helmets, or stone piles as they regarded the strange new intruder.

Her sense of disquiet returning, Tegwen hurried forward, hoping to clear this strange and unnerving plain before things got any stranger. Tegwen might have prided herself on her dispassion, curiosity, and fearlessness in the pursuit of knowledge but she was also not a fool. There were countless things in this world she was simply not skilled or powerful enough to deal with. Of course, she wanted to know what was going on here, to find the answers behind her compass and these strange cairns and their corvid guardians, but Tegwen knew best when to let sleeping dragons lie; one thing at a time after all.

She was halfway across when the first sounds came to her ears. They were undoubtedly crows, but unlike the others they had broken the eerie silence and were now making a raucous sort of cacophony nearby. Weighing her fear against her curiosity, Tegwen turned to find the source of the noise and soon caught sight of three crows battling over something atop a stone slab.

Unlike the numerous cairns, the slab was a single massive piece of rock laid long like a fallen standing stone. Atop it, the three crows battled and squawked over an object which glimmered gold even in the pale light. Spotting the shine, her inquisitive mind sent spinning at the sight of it, Tegwen rushed forward to investigate.

“Shoo! Shoo! Get off that!” She shouted, yelling as she swung her heavy walking stick to get the crows to abandon their treasure. The trio cawed at her angrily before settling on nearby stones or debris, watching like the others as Tegwen marveled at the object.

It was a long gleaming rod of gold with a flared head, like a scepter though a more modest one. Picking it up with a gloved hand, Tegwen could tell it really was solid gold. The shaft of the rod was engraved with images of wings and feathers, while the finial at the tip lacked any sign of eagles or a cross, instead holding a fist-sized stone as black and shiny as obsidian wrapped in gold bindings. Still, the thing was no doubt worth a fortune, though Tegwen had little intention of selling it. This was a pristine artifact found within the center of a mysterious and clearly supernatural battlefield graveyard, she couldn’t possibly sell it without examining it first!

It was then that she realized that she had just taken an artifact from the center of a mysterious and clearly supernatural battlefield graveyard. Tegwen stood stock still for a moment before breaking out into a sprint, running as fast as she could towards the edge of the plain and the relative safety of the hills.

All around her the crows had gone from silent to a discordant symphony of angry caws, staring at her with large eyes as they shrieked, all the while the witch-hatted supernaturalist ran with all the speed her legs could muster.

“Nope, nopenopenopenopenopenopenope,” She repeated over and over again as she ran, the scepter still clutched in one hand with her walking stick in the other as she ran.

It only took a minute or so for her to clear the edge of the plain and rush back down the slope into a winding hillscape not unlike what she had been in before, prize still in hand. She only began to slow down, however, after she had rushed another kilometer or so from the plateau, leaving it far behind her.

Her run brought her to a river, and it was at the edge of the water that she finally came to a halt, her breath coming in heavy pants as she bent over, dropping her staff and the scepter as she rested her hands on her knees and took a moment to recover her thoughts.

“My, seems you ran quite a long ways.”

Tegwen’s head flew up as she looked for the source of the voice. Sitting on a stone rising from the water was an intensely beautiful woman. Wait….intensely beautiful? Tegwen checked her brain for a moment to make sure she was still heterosexual. Her mind replied back with a shrug. The woman was certainly not human, even at a glance. Her ears were lightly pointed at the tips, her eyes a bright sea-green, her dress was long and thin and looked to be almost made of drops of crystal water, and her hair was strikingly blue.

“Uuugh”, Tegwen went back to leaning over, still panting from her flight. “Sorry, could you just…give me a minute. That was a hard run. Ergh, thought I was in better shape than this…”

“I erm…” The spirit looked perplexed at her. “H-how about you go back to looking at me?”

“I will, I will, just one minute,” Tegwen said, picking the scepter up off the ground. “I just…whew, probably beat a personal record there. Damn, should’ve timed it…”

“Are you quite done?” The spirit asked.

“Ya, ya good to go,” Tegwen nodded, standing back up straight.

“Then how about we start over” The spirit’s smile grew wide, almost predatory as she set her eyes on Tegwen’s, and instantly she felt a pull like a lure of sensuality tugging the back of her mind.

“Oh, neat,” Tegwen smiled. “This is some kind of mental seduction, right? Like you’re luring me in? That combined with the whole water thing and…oh you’re a Morgen!”

The Morgen blinked, taken aback. “Umm…yes, now if you could go back to being seduced?”

“Oh, don’t worry I’m totally there,” Tegwen said, her hands no longer under her command as she unclasped her cloak. “I just kind of have a multi-track mind so I…heeeey, spirits don’t usually have a no-strings attached seduction thing do they?”

“Umm…yes, we do,” The Morgen nodded hurriedly. “Seriously just come on in, no repercussions.”

“No, no that doesn’t sound right…” Tegwen shook her head, even as she continued to unbutton her shirt. “Wait a minute…Morgens were like sirens! And sirens kill people!”

“No, no! That’s all propaganda, honest,” The Morgen said hurriedly. “Now if you could just get in the water…”

“Mmm…I think…I’m going to have to pass,” Tegwen’s hands froze as she began fortifying her mental resistance.

The Morgen rolled her eyes. “Oh, for the love of…” In one swift motion, she lunged from the water, tackling Tegwen to the ground as her teeth grew sharp and long like a shark’s.

In a panic and only half-thinking, Tegwen held the scepter up to defend herself, holding it sideways in her hand and pressing it to the biting Morgen’s throat to keep her jaws at bay.

“H-hey!” Tegwen shouted, pressing her head to the ground to avoid her lashing jaws. “N-no hurting me! That’s not allowed!”

There was a shift in the air, as if something imperceptible but all-encompassing had suddenly changed, as if the air had changed taste or the weather had shifted in an instant, even though all the world seemed the same.

The Morgen ceased her biting, pulling her head back as she seemed to recoil in sudden pain and horror, flinching as she raised an arm towards Tegwen.

“W-what did you do to me!?” She demanded as Tegwen rose, confused, to her feet.

“Ummm, I didn’t do anything…” Tegwen said before glancing at the scepter in her hands. The black stone at the tip seemed to be shining, though not in any way Tegwen could adequately describe. It was if it was shining black, emitting a kind of shadowy un-light around it, though the effect was fading rapidly. Tegwen took rapid mental notes even as the Morgen cowered in fear.

“But it made you stop,” Tegwen said. “So that kind of works for me.”

“That’s because I can’t hurt you!” The Morgen shouted. “Oh no…do you know what you’ve done!?”

“No, not even a little,” Tegwen shook her head.

“You’ve lain out a geas over me!” She shouted. “H-how did you even manage that!?”

“I guess this helped me do it.” Tegwen said, eyeing the scepter.

“A geas is a taboo of fate itself, you idiot human!”

“Hey, that hurts,” Tegwen said, she liked to think that was pretty bright.

Instantly the Morgen shuddered, as if lashed with pain “Ah! Sorry! I didn’t mean for that! Wh-what I mean to say…is that a geas is like a curse or a doom…it’s a command that can’t be broken governed by the laws of fate…humans aren’t supposed to meddle in that kind of thing…”

“Oh, right,” Tegwen nodded. “Like how Macbeth was fated never to be killed by a ‘man of woman born’, that kind of thing right?”

“I-I guess?” The Morgen said. “I don’t know who Macbeth is. But that sounds right.”

“Well if that’s the case then the geas is…oh, you’re fated never to hurt me now? Neat. Well that fixes my problem.”

“It’s not that simple!” The Morgen objected. “You worded it too broadly! I can’t just not hurt you…I need to do my best not to let other things hurt you!”

“Oh true…” Tegwen nodded. “Hurting by inaction still counts. Wow fate’s a real stickler about the wording…”

“No, you are” Morgen said. “The geas works by your command not fate you…where did you get that thing?”

“Spooky graveyard up the hill,” Tegwen jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “Like a kilometer that way.”

“There’s no graveyard over there…”

“That explains a bit,” Tegwen said, checking her compass quickly and seeing it was working again. “Say…what’s your name anyway?”

The Morgen looked at her with a mix of confusion and irritation. “Why do you want to know?”

“Well if you’re unable to let me come to harm, then naturally you’re coming with me, right?” Tegwen asked.

“I…”

“So what’s your name? I’m Tegwen.”

“…Meredydd,” The Morgen said. “That’s my name, Meredydd, A-and who said I was traveling with you?”

“Well I’m not staying here,” Tegwen said as she picked up her walking stick and started to ford the river. “Besides, it’ll be nice to have company on the road. I’m sure you’ll come to like it eventually.”

Meredydd made no move at first, but soon she followed Tegwen into the river, crossing it with the ease of a water spirit.

“So you’re a kind of…explorer?” She asked.

“Of a sort,” Tegwen said. “But it’ll be nice to be traveling as two instead of one.”

A caw behind her made Tegwen flinch, and she looked back to see a trio of crows seated upon the branch of a nearby tree, all three of them with her eyes on her.

“Well…” She said. “Maybe more than two.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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