Despite the old saying, you may do well to look certain gift horses in the mouth.
"Come, lay down. I've a story to tell you."
The woman, the stranger with the soft voice and the veiled face, pulls back the coverlets on the small straw mattress in invitation. "It's not so very long, and the ending -- well, the end of my story will surely capture you. So please try to stay awake, Argyst."
Argyst comes into the room, pulls off his dung-covered shoes, strips off his shirt. He kneels by the mattress for a moment, tempted to remove the veil from the face of this woman-stranger. "No," she says, "there is no time for that. I must tell you this story." Her voice is magic, a soft, musical voice that enchants Argyst. She pats his mattress impatiently. "Come, quickly now."
How he wishes this stranger would climb in with him! Instead she kneels by the bed for a moment, waiting for him to get himself comfortable.
Argyst is in bed now, under one of his small coverlets. It's too warm for anything more than just one. He wonders a moment about this situation, but it doesn't seem as odd as it might. He waits now. The small, graceful woman sits down next to him and begins to speak.
"There was a man, a young man in a small village. He tended the cows, as he was poor and a few cows were all that his father had to give him. This young man has few friends, and many of them tease him about his stench after a long day of work when he comes to the cantina for drink and a little companionship. He pretends the taunts don't bother him, but they hurt. He wishes he had a friend, a wife, perhaps, to talk to and listen to."
"That's strange," admits Argyst. "He sounds like me."
"Hush, Argyst. I must tell this quickly -- time is running short. One evening, having returned home after a long day of selling milk in the market, he hears a knock on his door. He opens it and finds a woman waiting. A rather normal-looking woman. He asks if she is waiting for him; she says that she is a gift from her parents. Her parents say that, though he is poor, he is strong and will sire good, strong children. For a moment, but no longer than that, he is surprised. He takes her in, listens to her talk about her life for a while, saying nothing of his. He feels there is nothing to tell.
"After a short while, he is aroused. And now he has a woman. He takes her to bed, she neither protesting nor inviting. They--" The woman pauses, gestures with both hands. "We can imagine what they do. And they do this many nights thereafter, as well, following long days of showing the woman his cows and training her to talk to them, soothe them, milk them. And clean up after them."
The woman-stranger is silent now, but Argyst thinks she must be smiling.
"After a while, the woman begins to feel sick and can't join her mate in the fields. Her belly begins to swell. And near nine months from the time she had arrived, she gives birth. Twins. Fine young male twins. Their parents celebrate, when their mother is strong enough to do so.
"The man and woman raise these twins as best they can. The boys are beautiful, strong. They reluctantly help their parents out sometimes, but they sneak off at other times to watch the warriors training in the town." She pauses for a moment.
"Young girls pine for these twins and spend many hours talking about them and how pleasing it would be to serve them, wife to husband." There is distaste in her voice. She continues, "The twins do not pay attention. All of their attention is on the warriors. They ignore offers to work and to apprentice.
"Eventually they are old enough to join the small town military, and the captain takes them on without testing of any sorts. They are the perfect warriors, strong, quick, silent. Oh, I'm taking too long." She is speaking to herself. "Must hurry; she's readying herself." Argyst wonders what she's speaking of and waits for her to start again.
"The twins are favorites with the captain; they become his enforcers, his right-hand -- and left-hand, I suppose -- men. When he dies, they are at the top. They quickly show their true nature: they are violent and cruel. Any who choose to disobey them are tortured. Soon no men thwart them; now the military is under the twins' control. They make rounds of the rapidly growing village, enforcing production as they see fit. Any women who take their fancy are captured, locked in a chamber, raped as the twins will. Many die. Some give birth. The twins kill the babies; they see no purpose in keeping them.
"A woman comes to them one day, a beautiful, proud woman. One twin attempts to grab her -- he thinks she would be a beautiful addition to their growing collection. She has him on the ground in an instant. 'I am not weak, as you are,' she tells the twin on the ground. 'Now,' she says to the standing twin, 'I have come to offer myself to you. As a proper wife, not a bitch in a jail. Come with me, let us be married.' And so they are. This woman bears a child, a female child. Many would be disappointed, would blame the woman for this curse. A female! But her husband does not, because any child of hers will be strong, will join him in battle. She is unique, so different from any other woman. He is glad to have her, and he does not take advantage of her. He couldn't; she could kill him in a moment.
"One day, though, the woman becomes sick. No one knows what the ailment could be, and no one can help. She dies after a long struggle. Her angry husband becomes more vengeful than ever before. He and his twin dominate the village and make plans to extend their rule.
"The daughter is growing, and she is even more beautiful than her mother, and stronger. She is trained as a male and fights as a male. Her father watches her grow, and he begins to desire her. He follows her sometimes, and he beats any man or boy who looks at her." There is fury now in the woman-stranger's voice. "He rapes her now in the night, takes her against her will. He would like for her to become pregnant with his child, but it doesn't happen. She had earlier found a witch-woman to make her sterile -- she would never want to be burdened with a child. That she will not become pregnant angers her father; he abuses her and rapes her more violently than ever before.
The woman-stranger speaks calmly to Argyst now, who is enthralled and horrified by her story.
"She leaves one day, when her father is off torturing the poor villagers, enforcing his duty levels. She leaves with a stranger, a woman who claims that she has many magics to teach her. This woman tells her many times how strong her magic will be once it is developed.... Oh, no, she's leaving just now!" The woman-stranger is distraught. "I'm sorry -- I must hurry and leave some things out.
"The woman learns these magics, all manners of spells, and becomes a more powerful sorceress than any have ever seen or suspected. When her teacher dies, she reads through the childish writing of her once-instructor, finishing the lessons on her own.
"She goes back to her village, travels through many villages that are now controlled by her father and uncle. It has been years, but she is as angry as ever.
"She waits in the forest by her village until night. She feels her uncle's presence, hurries to him. He is alone in bed. She wakes him and runs him through with his own sword, though she has her own -- the action appeals to her sense of humor. It is her uncle's misfortune that he had claimed no need for guards, relying on his own skills.
"Now she hunts for her father. She finds him with many guards about and challenges him. He does not recognize her voice and cannot see her through her veil. 'I do not fight women, bitch,' he says. The guards are laughing, and one attempts to grab her. She pulls him toward her, snaps his arm. He is wailing now, and none of the guards are laughing. They aren't quite sure what to do.
"'You will fight a woman now.' Her father draws his sword, and the guards move away. It is a short fight. Before he even advances, she has him spilling his insides: she is superior. The guards grab her, though she has won fairly, and a physician is called to heal her father. She is thrown into jail to await her father's wrath.
"Soon he comes to her--"
"Hello? Argyst?" There is a woman's voice calling from the door.
"Tell her to wait, Argyst -- tell her you must get dressed!" the woman-stranger hisses at him.
Argyst shouts. "I've got no clothing on. Let me make myself decent!" He is impatient now -- the story must be coming to an end. "Get on with it, if you're in such a hurry." Argyst is tense, wondering who is at the door. He has more than one reason for wanting her to hurry.
"Yes... her father comes now, unveils her. He is shocked. There is a man with him, a man with odd equipment that she has never seen before. 'Do it, mark her skin. Her forehead.' He stands at the door while the man marks her. Despite her pain, she is silent.
"The marking-man leaves, and her father stays for a moment. 'Just think of the pleasure we will have, you and I.' He laughs. 'But now I've more pressing matters to which I must attend, so you must wait for me.'
"Argyst, what is taking you?" The woman shouts impatiently from outside.
"Tend your cows, woman -- it'll be another moment or two!" Argyst is burning with curiosity about what is going to happen in the tale, not worried about the woman waiting outside his door.
The stranger continues quickly. "The woman knows she cannot kill her father now; he has thought to put magical protection put on himself.
"Something else comes to mind. She puts her veil on after touching the mark on her forehead, crouches in the center of the floor. She closes her eyes.
"In a moment, she is gone. She hasn't simply left the cell, transported herself away from the jail -- she has moved to another time. It is the only way she knows to win, to undo all of her father's evils, rid the people of this demon-man."
"Where did she go?" Argyst asks, utterly caught in the story.
The woman-stranger reaches for her veil now, pulls it off. "Can you tell me, Argyst, what the mark on my forehead is? I have no way of knowing."
"Why, yes," says Argyst. "It's a dragon wrapped around a sword--" Something comes to him. "No," he whispers, and moves back toward the wall.
"The only way I may undo all of these wrongs is to kill his father. His poor father, Argyst."
Argyst closes his eyes. "There's no way around it, is there?" A tear slides down his face.
"No, Grandfather," she says, and holds him to her. "This is how it must be. I give up as much as you, remember: I will never live." She holds out her hand, closes her eyes. A form takes shape in her hand. It is a small vial. "Drink this, Argyst. Quickly." He does so, more quickly than she would have even imagined. He has no desire to dwell before he slips away. He has never sacrificed so much, and never sacrificed so quickly.
"Damn it, Argyst, I've been waiting long enough!" A woman marches into his room, stopping when she sees the beautiful stranger in white holding Argyst, her long red hair flowing over his face. This woman is at a loss for words, stands at the doorway mute.
The woman-stranger closes her eyes now. The end is very near. She begins to cry. Never in her life has she cried, and now the tears fall freely. "Oh, good-bye... I don't want to leave...."
Argyst falls limp and the marked woman in white spasms briefly. "Never tell anyone of this, woman," she whispers, and vanishes.
The woman runs to Argyst. "What has happened to you? In God's name...." She leaves quickly, to find someone to help her with the body.
Everyone presumes the causes for Argyst's death are natural, as there are no reasons to believe otherwise.
And yet, as an anonymous woman walks by his small hut, she remembers something for a moment. She stops, tries to catch hold of it: a memory of things that never happened. She shakes her head.
Deborah Bryan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, majoring in Zoology.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Deborah Bryan.