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Authors: Tanith Lee

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Presently the bride went up from the feast and quickly enough the groom
followed. There were good wishes and certain jests. They shut the door, the two
lovers, having glanced about politely and from gratitude at all the riches
there, the bowl of purple grapes, the jug of wine, the embroidered cushions,
the wonderful shimmering curtain on the wall... The lamp burned low, they
barely saw anything, and besides, had eyes only for each other.

They lay down in passion, forgetting all else.

Midnight came and went. Below, most of the wedding guests departed. The
streets of the city grew subtly quiet in the last hours before sunrise. Here
and there a cat prowled, a dog padded, here and there a robber sidled, and a
string of girls with withered hyacinths in their hair, having sold their bodies
for a few pieces of money at some lord’s banquet, walked dolefully homeward to
their hovels, arm in arm. And something else was abroad, too, something not
clearly seen. It scuttled into the shadow of the wall of the bridegroom’s
father’s house, eddied up a creeper there, so to the upper story. A window
stood ajar. The strange night shape paused, peering in. It was like a little
dwarf. It carried something over its arm.

A Drin. Azhrarn’s messenger, this work being too crude and ugly for an
Eshva to achieve. And over the arm of the Drin, a patchwork drapery, like the
flaccid skin of some creature, yet set together wrongly, part bristled. part a
dull sheen of scales, part a matted fringe of hair. Surely it could not be that
somewhere someone had selected the hide of a boar, its chest and forefeet only,
the tail of a giant lizard, scaly and reeking, the severed head of a wolf, and
combined these three with the stitches of a spell, the rivets of an
enchantment?

The slithering dwarf darted over the sill into the bridal chamber. The
dwarf grinned at two lovers still entwined, fast asleep. He rolled the young
man aside, ran his squat drinnish fingers over the lean torso and strong loins,
stared and poked at the girl’s milk-white figure bound by ropes of yellow hair.
But dawn was near. The Drin sensed its coming as the horse scents fire. Quickly
he flung down over the youth’s body the hideous amalgamated skin. Azhrarn’s
second gift—the first being the tapestry upon the eastern wall, where he had
influenced the old man, unawares, to hang it.

The vile skin writhed as it settled, seemed to take on life, then lapsed,
covering Bisuneh’s bridegroom totally. Now a shiny tail twitched where the
hard-muscled legs had been, a boar’s muddy belly and forehoofs and barrel neck
jerked where the young man’s breast had quietly breathed. The handsome face,
sated and serene, was replaced by a wolf’s grizzled and nightmare face with
lolling tongue and yellow teeth.

The Drin was gone. The first rose patina of light appeared on the eastern
horizon. The glow of dawn spread over the house, and washed in eventually through
the western window of the lovers’ room.

Bisuneh opened her eyes. Drowsily she noticed the gentle luminosity of
the western window, looked where it fell about the chamber, a glow here, a
flush there. Looking, she saw the tapestry at last, hung on the eastern wall,
catching the window light. How marvelous the tapestry was, the woods of
many-leafed trees, the clashing falls, so lifelike she could almost hear them.
Above, a sunset sky, the tired sun declining, that darker sun of evening that
cannot be mistaken for the fresh pallor of dawn.

Gradually something horrible began to suggest itself to Bisuneh’s half
lucid mind. She could not think what it might be, for she was happy, tranquil,
and the tapestry exquisite. Then she remembered. Upon the eastern wall a sun
was going down—sinking, as in the wise-woman’s curious foretelling—in the east.

Inevitably, as she started up, Bisuneh’s eyes sought the young man beside
her. And found a monster.

She screamed until the two fathers and the guests remaining in the house
came running. And still she screamed, as the rest of the company stood stricken
with nauseous terror, screamed till the thing on the bed stirred, and tried to
speak her name, and grunted and barked, and would have pulled itself forward on
its two stumpy hoofed feet, dragging its reptilian tail uselessly behind it,
save that a man struck it down, then another and another, till it lay
motionless.

 

They believed
that the monster had come in at the window and devoured whole the bridegroom,
intending next to ravish or devour the bride. Finding no blood or trace of its
grisly feast, merely increased their horrified awe. They were doubly terrified
now, for the monster appeared dead, its black ichor spreading where the blows
had struck it down, and they feared some obscure retribution from a source more
obscure—for clearly the creature must be of demonaic origin. None thought for a
moment that it was a changeling. Not surprisingly, for none could see in it a
vestige of the youth it had been, the handsome and wholesome son of the
scholar. And as the frightful skin had grown into and absorbed his own, it
might be supposed his brain and his heart were similarly refashioned into some
sub-human travesty.

The bride’s screams had sunk to whimperings, and the women led her away,
themselves in tears. The neighbors who had gathered to gawp when her cries had
roused them, were sent off with lies. Rather than thinking to ask help from the
city, the wedding guests and the two fathers were at one in their desire that
the atrocious matter be kept secret, and not merely from fear. They were
ashamed at this contact with horror, felt obscurely it must be the punishment
for some sin, collective or particular. The dead creature they loaded in a
covered cart. Drawing lots, it fell to the wine merchant’s two strong sons and
the three strong sons of the mason to take the cart with its contents, under
the mask of darkness, to the city limits. There, among the rocky hills, in a
barren gulley seldom visited by men, they tipped the tell-tale stigma away and
cast down burning straw to be certain of the work. It never occurred to them
the thing might still live; it did not stir, it seemed quite dead, its stench
could easily be interpreted as the fetor of decay.

But perhaps something so ensorcelled and deformed could not die.

As the five young men were hurrying homeward, they heard a faint echoing
intermittent howling in the gut of the rocks behind them. The mason’s sons
glanced at the sons of the wine merchant. No, it was not their concern, the noise
was only thunder. They told each other this until they believed it, by which
time the sounds had long since died from their ears.

 

Bisuneh lay
sick in her father’s house a long while. It was feared she had lost her wits.
They brought her flowers to cheer her, and gentle Bisuneh tore off the flowers’
heads. They brought her a singing bird in a little cage, but she opened the
door and let it free and a hawk spied it in an instant and slew it in the sky,
and when she saw that Bisuneh only nodded, as if she had expected nothing else.
She cut off her beautiful hair, she shed no tears, she said no word. She was
saving herself, letting her hatred and her bitterness swell inside her. She did
not know this, it was her instinct.

The physician whispered to her scholar father.

“She must not continue as she is. You must take her away to some other
place. Her womb is tenanted. She is with child and does not care. She will die
and the child will die.”

Bisuneh drew no comfort from the prospect of this child, the last vestige
left to her of her lover. She was sure the child would perish and she with it.
She understood quite well who had harmed her, and why. She grew thinner as her
womb increased.

One night her hate was ready. She knew it, and woke knowing it. For the
first time in months, Bisuneh spoke, and the force of her hate overflowed her
words. She did what no mortal dared to do, she did it, hoping for death. She
cursed Azhrarn. Having done so, she sank back exhausted, and waited readily for
death to follow.

In those days a curse or a blessing was like a bird. It had wings and
could fly. And the stronger the blessing or the curse, the stronger the wings
and the farther the bird could go.

The curse of Bisuneh was very strong, for everything in her, who had once
been named Honey-Sweet, had turned as bitter as gall. And the bird of the
curse, which was of a color never seen by mortals save with an inner eye—the
vivid color of pain and the dark color of brooding—flew unerringly towards the
earth’s center. It had no eyes, the bird, yet it could see, and no voice. It
got through into the Underearth by way of chinks and crevices smaller than a
mote of dust, yet it was quite large enough that when it had passed between the
towers of Druhim Vanashta, and gone in at an emerald window, and perched upon
the shoulder of Azhrarn, he both saw and felt it.

Azhrarn smiled. Perhaps winter smiles when it bites dead the leaves on
the trees.

“Some mortal has cursed me,” said Azhrarn. And he shook off the bird into
his hand, and looked at it, and saw the pattern of the brain that had formed it
and presently the skull and the head and the face behind which the brain lay.
Then Azhrarn kissed the bird’s icy wings. “Does she not realize,” said Azhrarn,
“that no curse comes home to me, who am the father of all curses?” But her
foolhardy hate pleased him. He had punished her before through others, could do
it again.

“Little bird,” he said, “misguided little bird.”

 

2. Shezael
and Drezaem

 

At the time
of the earth’s flatness, the soul did not enter the body of a child until some
days before its birth. The embryo grew in the womb, a plant, without thought or
motive, until the moment that the elected soul flooded invisibly into the
sleepy chambers. Presently, the unborn child, inspired by the arrival of its
soul, would begin to scent its life, and at length contrive to be birthed.
Sometimes no soul was ready for the child, in which case the pangs of labor
were merely the body’s rejection of inanimate matter, and the baby born was
lifeless.

But a soul was ready for the child—a girl-child as the charm had
discerned—in Bisuneh’s womb. One perfect amorphous soul bathed clean in the
abstractions of the misty limbo that lay beyond the world, one soul half female
and half male, as in those times all souls were.

The road of the soul was life. But on the threshold of smokes that lay at
the entrance to that thoroughfare, a dark shape stood with a dark sword in its
grasp, barring this soul’s way, while other souls flashed past like meteors.

The soul was afraid, as a child would be afraid since it was to a child
it had been going. It did not know that one of the Eshva stood before it, nor
what the sword portended, nor even why it should fear.

But then the sword swung, and the soul was cloven in two parts. There was
no pain, but a sense of bewildered loss, also divided. Each portion of the soul
was aware separately of its plight. Then the female half of the soul, dashed on
by unreasoning forces, was swept and tossed into the portals of warm human
flesh, and sinking there into red-darkness, assumed the posture of the embryo,
while its desolation melted from it with the rest of its memories, the residue
of its incorporeality. It slept.

The male portion of the soul, swirling with its anguish, was wrapped
within the womb of a black flower. The Eshva, this prize in his hand, listened
attentively at the gate of life. And somewhere he heard a woman’s lament begin,
a woman wailing at the still-birth of her child.

The Eshva darted through the unworld on to the earth. He rushed through
air, erupted out of it upon an empty plain where thin sheep were grazing, and
there, in a stone shepherd’s hut, he found the woman sobbing on her bed, while
the husband stared in the wicker cradle at his unliving son, born dead a few
minutes before.

The Eshva smiled, standing in the doorway.

“I must bury him,” said the man. “He would have been a fine boy. Hush, my
wife, there is nothing to be done.”

The Eshva laughed—soundlessly.

The man looked up in alarm, in rage.

“Who dares mock human sorrow?”

The Eshva came into the hut. He brushed the lids of the man’s angry eyes
with his fingers so they fell shut. He breathed on the woman so she lay back,
quite drugged with the deliciousness of his breath. Then the Eshva went to the
cradle, opened the baby’s mouth and crushed the black flower within it. The
male half of the soul was shot into the child’s body like juice squeezed from a
fruit.

The Eshva scattered the bruised petals of the black flower upon the
baby’s now breathing body. The baby began to bellow and cry.

As the shepherd and his wife opened their eyes in amazement, a black dove
flew from the hut.

 

Bisuneh’s
child was born. How beautiful it was. It grew each day more beautiful, each
year more beautiful. A girl child, slender as a stem, white skinned, her
mother’s hair of pale primroses yet paler still—the ghosts of primroses—eyes
like grey pools between dark silver rushes.

How beautiful the child was. And yet, how strange. She did not speak, she
did not hear what was said to her, at least, she
would
not speak,
would
not hear. Her tongue and throat were sound, her ears were sound, also her eyes,
though often she would appear blind, staring at a void, walking silently past
the hand of the mother or the grandparents or the friends. not from malice, but
as if she truly did not see . . . Poor child, poor Shezael,
Bisuneh’s daughter. Was she a half-wit or a cripple? Was she possessed?

“I know where the evil has come from,” said Bisuneh listlessly.

No one spoke of it. No one chided her or assured her it was not so. Once
or twice a traveler had come from the rocky hill roads, and recounted tales of
strange howlings and moanings and rumblings from a steep gully or a deep
cavern.

“The child lives, but she does not know me,” said Bisuneh. “When she is
older I will enter some sisterhood of priestesses. I have no use for this
existence of mine.”

Bisuneh had become more withered and more plain as the years went by. As
if in contrast, the child bloomed and shone. If the child had loved her,
Bisuneh might have healed from her wounds, but beautiful Shezael, the
half-souled, stared at a void and walked by silently. Fifteen years Bisuneh
waited. On Shezael’s name day Bisuneh kissed her old weeping father farewell,
and kissed the forehead of the beautiful child, and went away to a far desert.
Here, in a fane of stone she ended her days, a shaved priestess of a grim
unloving order.

Shezael perceived her departure without giving any sign.

She saw this only as she saw all else, like movement through a screen,
something unrelated to herself. Hers was the female portion of the soul, the
negative portion of passivity and stasis, of the obscure and inconclusive,
which, unbalanced by the masculine counterweight all other souls possessed,
produced this utter inertia.

The grandfathers were both old, two old scholars, unworldly, troubled.
They would not live much longer. Maybe they should wed Shezael to some kind
youth who would not mind her—she was unusually beautiful, and many would be
glad of a silent wife.

 

Across three
lands, mountains, quantities of water, the stone hut stood upon the hill and
the thin sheep tugged at the unwilling grass.

The shepherd’s wife washed garments in a narrow stream. She kept one eye
for the sheep and for the boy. He was supposed to be watching the sheep, this
son of hers, but she could not trust him. Something might distract him, he
would leap up with a sort of fury, fling a stone into the air for no reason.
His temper was violent. He was brash. He would crush a butterfly, unthinking,
beneath his fist; he had slain two of the precious flock one day, by beating
their heads together with enormous force, and braining them. It was not from
cruelty, it was a strange insensibility, a kind of blindness. The shepherd’s
wife sighed. Who did not know her son was addled, and also violent? Mad Drezaem
they called him in the village. Since his eleventh year, the men had been
afraid of him, and the women ran when he came near. They would have liked to
murder him for sure, the villagers, if they could get at his back, but he was
too strong and too quick for them, his instincts sharper than a fox’s though
his mind was dull. Yet they would slaughter him like a mad dog if ever they got
the chance, and he only fifteen and, despite his wild ways, as handsome as a
prince.

The shepherd’s wife sighed again, looking at her son. He was still now,
but it would not last. And that hair of his, so fair that it was like the color
of the silver-grey bark of particular trees, and the unnerving beautiful eyes
of him like hot bronze, and the strong brown limbs of him lithe as a
leopard’s—and he was as destructive and unpredictable as one. For the third
time, the shepherd’s wife sighed. She did not think of the adage of that
district that declared: When a woman sighs three times, it bodes ill for someone.

The boy was staring, animal like, alert for nothing in particular, tensed
to spring at shadows. To Drezaem, the world was a jungle, he knew neither fear
nor law. When he harmed a thing he would feel the brief surprise of regret, but
it never lingered. His thoughts were always racing. He must leap this way and
that to keep up with them. He loved to fight or to couple, straightforward,
brutish deeds. Some nights he would rise with the moon and run till he
dropped—a long while—over the burned barren countryside. He had learned to swim
as a dog learns, by falling in water. He had learned nothing that did not come
as easily and suddenly as that river.

His was the male portion of the cloven soul, the positive portion of
action and volatility, of the flagrant and the unswerving which, unbalanced by
the female counterweight all other souls possessed, produced this unmitigated
ebullience.

Abruptly there came the alarming note of the big ram’s horn, sounded from
the village only in times of urgency.

The shepherd’s wife started up, flustered, did not move, only called for
her husband. Drezaem, however, roused by the clarion, vaguely aware of its
significance, was already bounding towards the village.

There was a new sight in the street there, to be sure. One hundred men in
armour of shining bronze, soldiers of the king of the land, and a plumed king’s
messenger in silks and gold.

The messenger read from a scroll. He spoke of danger, loyalty, death and
reward. He spoke of the king’s decree, that the ten bravest, most vigorous
youths from every town, and the single bravest and most vigorous from every
village be sent forthwith to a certain mountain beyond the king’s capital,
there to offer themselves in combat with a dragon. Already five hundred youths
had perished, but no matter. The king’s magicians foretold that a champion
should finally come who would slay the frightful beast. Then should vast riches
be heaped upon him. In any case—the messenger here gestured to his brazen
escort—to refuse to provide the required young man would be to invite disaster.

To Drezaem most of the speech went unheard, the threat unrecognized. But
he grasped the words ‘combat,’ ‘dragon,’ ‘vigor.’ He was about to rush forward
when he found the men of the village had already seized him and were offering
him frantically: “This is the bravest one, no doubt of it—slew a wolf in the
spring, tore it apart with his bare hands—look at his eyes! Crazy to fight and
to kill.”

Drezaem laughed. The captain of the soldiers beheld his fine white teeth,
his hard body, his eyes like a lion’s. Usually there was reluctance and
trouble, this made a pleasing change. Within a few minutes the soldiers had
marched off, Drezaem with them, running freely behind the messenger’s horse. By
the time the shepherd and his wife arrived in the street, the dust had settled,
and their son was lost to them for good.

 

It had
happened like this. The mountain that lowered seven miles beyond the capital of
the king was old almost as earth itself, and a molten cauldron lay at its core,
though snow crowned its peak. One night the mountain stirred in its millennial
sleep, and stirring, woke another thing that dwelt there. The dragon also was
old, old nearly as the mountain. It came of that menagerie of villainous
perverse things left over from the beginnings of time. The color of the dragon
was scarlet. the color of blood, but its mouth and tongue were black; even its
teeth were back, though adamant as ossified wood. It had two short horns, and
the bone at the tip of its tail was bare, as were the bone ridges along its
spine. Yellowish, ugly, naked bones they were, too, sharp enough to split a
man, which they had frequently done. It was the length of four stallions, snout
to hindquarters, the tail an extra.

It emerged on the fertile mountain slopes, among the groves there, and
the obnoxious breath of it destroyed the trees, and the animals which came in
its way. Where it passed it left a trail of blackened, twisted, unrecognizable
litter. It ate men. It needed a man for every day of its life, a strong tall
man, juicy and young. It needed heroes, or, at least those forced to imitate
heroes.

The king did not actually believe that any would ever come who could
destroy the dragon. The conscripts he sent to the mountain were fodder, a
bribe, to keep the dragon from his city. If a day arrived when all the
available peasant youths had been devoured, then the soldiers of the king would
have to pick marked chequers from a dish, and whoever the chequers elected
would have to go to supply the dragon. Thus, the soldiers worked diligently to
find heroes among the farflung hovels and cots of the land.

Some were dragged screaming or insensible to the city, shovelled on to
the mountain clad in ill-fitting armour, died with only a squeak or a curse to
mark their passage. Some went roaring, puffed up with bravado, believing the
lying prophecy meant themselves, till the dragon’s teeth met in their vitals.
Now a different kind of hero entered the city gates. He did not speak, he
laughed, jumped to wrestle a dog, struck at a bird in the air. He did not stare
at the splendor of the metropolis, did not narrow his eyes at promise of
reward. He turned impatiently from the armour they showed him. He pointed at
the mountain, grinned and raised his brows in query. They conducted him, and he
raced all the way, galloping over stones and chasms, whooping, to meet the
dragon. The soldiers stared, a couple wept. The dragon coughed on the slopes,
and the soldiers hid themselves.

It was the heat of the day, and the dragon was drowsing among a wood of
dead trees blasted by its breath. As things had turned out, it had found a man
to eat already, a murderer who had been driven up on to the mountain by a
vengeful crowd. So the dragon was not hungry or alert, not looking out for a
meal, though still dangerous enough.

Suddenly the dragon heard an odd clamour. Not cries of terror or
bellowings of challenge, but a clear merry yelling, quite out of keeping with
the slopes as they had become.

The dragon yawned, and belched lively, and looked about.

Between a gap in the blasted trees a wild youth appeared. He was neither
crawling nor swaggering, he was not armed or dressed in armour. The dragon was
used to three reactions in men at the sight of itself. The first reaction was
to run, the second to fall prone and senseless, the third was to advance
cautiously, muttering threats, sword lifted.

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