One to Love and One to Fear
Vidya stared, vacant, into her mother’s face. She studied the skin stretched tight and yellow around the mouth and eyelids, disfiguring her once flawless features. Exquisite cream-tinted wings laid to rest over her body, primary feathers freshly plucked. Dark, loose curls, just dusted with white flecks at her temples—the only perceptible indication of her fifth decade.
She was such a beauty . . . then who must this be? She didn’t look real much less beautiful. Her slender neck was blackened with bruises and broken veins, the handprints of the one who inflicted such mortal injury now engraved upon her olive skin. Vidya’s fists clenched and unclenched. Her cheeks burned with a sudden familiar heat from the smoldering fire in her stomach, making her want to vomit and scream at the same time.
Few women on the Island of Credence commanded the attentions that Councilor Sarta once did. Even now, as her lavender adorned body lie stiff in rigor mortis on the marble slab before the Mothers’ Assembly, she was monumental.
The island’s most prominent mothers gathered around the Grand Altar to pay their respects and receive the words of the Archon Xenith who stood between the effigies of the Siren and the Harpy, waiting for all to arrive.
Vidya could no longer bear her mother’s diminished form and turned her gaze to the sea instead. The swiftly fading sun cast fiery pink strokes across a heavily clouded sky that reflected down on the rolling water’s surface, the wet beach glistening like stained glass.
When Vidya lowered her eyes to the crowd ahead of her, she gulped at its size. Not only was the Mothers’ Assembly in attendance, but their daughters as well. Even some male faces appeared amongst the throng—most of them husbands, some of them military commanders and their lieutenants. The Citadel’s ground floor was almost full. Only a few stragglers, some slow-moving elderly, continued to plod up the white marble steps to take their places before the altar. The sun bathed half their faces with a warm glow, but its falling draped the other half in damning shadow.
Her sister Demeter, standing beside her and left of the slab, kept darting her eyes between the corpse and the crowd every few moments, struggling to keep her expression stoic with little success.
“I had hoped to see her before they defiled her wings,” she muttered with a venomous air.
“Such is required for the ritual,” said Vidya.
Demeter pursed her full, red lips that matched the color of her wig. “Mother believed you were meant for great things—even said the Harpy in you was more of a blessing than a curse.” She exhaled sharply through her nose as if repelling a sour odor and stretched out her pale blue wings as a not-so-subtle reminder of what she possessed that Vidya did not. “The opportunity has finally come for you to prove her right. See to it that you don’t waste it.” Demeter again stood sentinel and stone-faced, as if her sister were not there, or maybe it was just that she wished she weren’t.
Vidya shook her head. She would never understand why Demeter despised her so much. But she didn’t care anymore. There were more important things to worry about now; their mother’s death was only the beginning.
A humid coastal breeze swept over the altar, blowing Vidya’s mess of brown ringlets behind her and chilling her through her thin, linen ceremonial gown. Nerves hollowed her stomach.
It was time.
The Archon stepped toward the altar’s edge. She wore a light orange wrap-around dress, spirals of gray hair in abundance, held in place with a gold headband. Upon fluttering her flaxen wings, the chattering crowd silenced and instantly fell under her rapture. For a woman, nearly in her seventh decade, Xenith still inspired undivided obedience. Frailty was not yet a trait she possessed, which was partly why the Mothers’ Assembly continued to elect her Archon all these years.
In a clear and disarming voice, she addressed the audience. “We are gathered here, at the Altar of Yasharra, to mourn the horrific loss of our Mistress of Foreign Relations and Trade.” Xenith breathed deep and lifted her chest to steady her next words. “Her siren’s song forever silenced by a man from whom she had no reason to suspect ill will.”
The crowd remained silent, but uneasy eyes glanced off one another as the woman’s meaning sank in. “As your Archon, it is my duty to inform you, good Mothers of Credence, that Councilor Sarta was murdered by the Overlord of Herran, Nas’Gavarr.”
The throng erupted in a frightful chatter. “No!” a Mother called out. “How could a man hold any violent desire toward a siren?”
“Impossible!” rang other voices.
Xenith beat her wings again and hushed the crowd. “Nas’Gavarr is no mere man. The desert tribes worship him. They call him the Immortal Serpent. He has lived for two hundred years. Maybe more. Somehow, he is able to resist the touch of a siren, and one of Sarta’s caliber. . . .” Trailing off, Xenith turned her head away from her audience and frowned at the sight of the dead siren on the slab. Her gaze did not hold for long. “He is a threat, the level of which our Republic has never before faced.”
Gasps and frightened chatter picked up tenfold. Vidya glanced down to her mother’s corpse once again. She is a Goddess compared to the likes of him. And he took her beautiful neck in his hand and crushed it like a thin reed. Her nostrils flared, and she began to shake. Demeter’s bottom lip quivered. What does she know of fear—of rage! Vidya thought. She didn’t bear witness to it. All she did was greet him at the gate along with Mother and me, then watch him disappear behind the chamber doors.
Xenith continued, the fatigue of hard memories clear on her face. “Sarta wished to discuss peace terms with the invader. She took him to the War Council already in session, and it was there he murdered her in front of the entire Siren Council and our military leaders. ‘Man will rise, and the Siren will fall. Your Goddess cannot protect you now.’ Those were his words of peace!”
Vidya closed her eyes tight. That single word clawed at her insides. Protect. She had joined the infantry to protect the Republic from her enemies and yet in that moment when Nas’Gavarr snapped her mother’s neck with one hand, she could do nothing to protect her. After tonight, I will be set on course to avenge her.
“Blasphemy!” women screamed.
“Why would he do such a thing?” shouted a siren, her voice on the verge of cracking. “The Herrani pulled back their fleet yesterday!” An older siren next to her wrapped a comforting wing around her.
With a steady hand to the buzzing crowd, Xenith calmly continued. “The recent attack on our ports was nothing more than a show of force and a distraction. Just a few months ago, Nas’Gavarr killed a Senator of Del’Cabria, and they have since declared war. It appears Credence is next.”
“Does that mean we must join with Del’Cabria?” Mother Delphina asked in horror.
The Mothers of Credence were anything but comfortable with such an alliance. For hundreds of years, the insatiable Kingdom on the mainland had threatened to expand their dominion to the little island nation to the south, and they didn’t allow women the right to their own lives let alone the right to govern.
“Absolutely not,” Xenith reassured everyone. “King Tiberius will undoubtedly demand that we become another province of theirs. No matter the protections offered, we will not accept. Even if it allows for peace tomorrow, the cost of such—our sovereignty, our way of life—is a price far too high. We can continue to rely on Rangardia in the event of an invasion.”
“Well then, what do you plan to do about this, O Archon?” a father blared, a few paces from the altar.
“That is why the Siren Council invites you all here tonight!” Xenith said with a sudden fervor. “For we are not here to eulogize our departed Councilor. No! We are here to bear witness to Yasharra’s true might. Tonight, good Mothers of Credence, we will prove just how false the Overlord’s claim is. Our Goddess will not only protect us. She will avenge us!”
A potent silence enveloped the crowd, making way for the harmonic and soothing voices of three young sirens walking up the altar steps. Three male prisoners in chains followed dutifully behind them. They were shirtless and unkempt, but tall and muscular. Enraptured by the sirens’ song, they allowed themselves to be led to a large square pool filled with water before the Harpy’s effigy. Vidya could taste the men’s fear from where she stood a few feet away, but each was powerless to the wishes of the sirens who accompanied them. And that power had no effect on Nas’Gavarr. A tremor ran down her spine.
Xenith stepped toward the Siren’s effigy to her left and gently grazed her fingertips along its base. The statue stood twelve feet tall, body and face immaculately chiseled in white marble with glowing wings raised into the air and delicate fingers playing the harp. “Yasharra has two daughters. The Siren: beautiful, wise, and just,” she began. “She requires a man’s total devotion. She keeps them contented and grants them purpose. As women, we must care for Yasharra’s creation as we do our own children.”
The Archon then walked over to the other statue on the right. The Harpy’s effigy was crouched atop its pedestal, face contorted into a frenzied shriek forever fixed in bronze. Her wings extended as a menacing vulture, casting their shadow over the prisoners, standing in the pool beneath.
Xenith stepped under its left wing and placed her hand on its stone base. “Then there is the Harpy, wayward and fierce! She requires no such gifts of spirit like the Siren, only the flesh and blood of dishonorable men. For those who disobey Yasharra’s will by disrupting the peace, the Harpy punishes them and thus restores order. . . . One to love and one to fear.”
“One to love and one to fear,” Vidya repeated reverently with the rest of the crowd.
And fear they will, thought Vidya as every Mother, father, and daughter in the crowd squirmed in anticipation of what was to come.
“And by honoring that balance,” Xenith said, “we honor Yasharra’s creation. The status given to all womankind is because of the blood we share with her. In every Crede woman, there is a piece of her within us, be it the Harpy or the Siren . . . but only the Siren governs here.”
“The Harpy shall never rule Credence again!” everyone declared in unison. Demeter’s voice more manifest in Vidya’s ear.
“We rely on the Siren for stable leadership. This stability is more important than ever. But, now it is time for the Harpy to wake from her slumber and inflict her wrath upon our enemies!”
The silence of the crowd was then swallowed up by an eruption of cheers. Demeter cast her eyes down to her mother, refusing to meet her sister’s eyes.
Xenith turned toward the three men, still kneeling in the Harpy’s fearsome shadow, and lifted the middle one’s chin up to meet her gaze. His wide, bloodshot eyes begged for deliverance, but he said nothing. “These three dishonored warriors will give their lives and be absolved of their crimes. For the first time in one thousand years, the Harpy’s power will be made flesh!”
Mothers cheered, the sirens sang, and the three criminals trembled. The young sirens assisted them to their feet and shackled their chains to the effigy’s base above their heads. The Harpy needed her sacrifices to suffer, and the law was such that they needed to have committed violent crimes to warrant that suffering. These men were either rapists, murderers, or both, but the ritual technically required none of these. They need only be warriors. Unlike sirens who were born, harpies were made.
“Step forward, Vidya, daughter of Sarta,” Xenith beckoned. Vidya’s stomach flopped as she went to stand by the Archon. She kept her arms taut at her sides.
“Do you accept Yasharra’s gift so that you may become her instrument of war?”
Amongst the crowd, Vidya caught sight of her two closest friends whom she knew from infantry training. Phrea gave her an encouraging nod, and Daphne waved awkwardly, not smiling, but not frowning either. Vidya nodded back to them while trying to keep her nerves under control.
“I do,” she said as loud and clear as she could.
“And with the power she grants you, do you swear to only use it to serve and protect Credence?”
Every eye in the audience fixed on Vidya. She glanced back to her sister for reasons she wasn’t sure. Demeter nodded subtly out of reassurance or acceptance. Vidya couldn’t tell.
“I do.” She bowed. “For Yasharra and for Credence.”
The crowd erupted in cheers again. Vidya turned to the Harpy’s effigy and the men shivering in the knee-deep water.
They’d slumped over, hanging from their chains in defeat. One of them with tears streaming down his face, the other two shaking in terror as each siren stepped into the pool, knives in hand. A vacuum of silence fell over the audience once more. Standing before their sacrifices, each siren made deep incisions to the femoral arteries of their respective charges, as they had been trained to do when performing the annual sacrifice made to the Harpy. The prisoners screamed in pain, but it didn’t take long for them to weaken, and the sirens left the pool, exposing the men and their gushing blood to the audience.
Vidya watched the dark droplets sink to the bottom of the basin then disperse through the water like a faint crimson smoke. The sight of it paralyzed her. It brought her out of her body for a moment, and she barely registered Xenith’s gentle hand coaxing her forward.
“Now enter the bath,” she whispered in her ear.
Vidya snapped out of her stupor and made way toward the pool. She lifted her dress and stepped in, doing her best to ignore her own reservations and the agonizing moans of the dying sacrifices. The water was much warmer than she expected, which gave her a stab of nausea. Uncontrollable shivers coursed through her, and she could no longer feel her hands and feet. Vidya was no stranger to gore since she had enlisted in the infantry. Even before then, she had enjoyed watching the men fight each other for sport. She also had contended with more than her fair share of that same violence inflicted upon her by her husband in Rangardia and she upon him in return. Memories of her time there bubbled to the surface, and she was too anxious to send them back down.
Macabre images of a marble tub filled with bloody water flashed through her mind. Don’t look in it . . . it’s too late. A scream threatened to burst from inside her. Reflections formed in the glassy pink water, and she couldn’t be sure they were her own.
Taking deep breaths, she tried to calm herself, but standing up to her thighs in a pool of blood only made her want to clamber back up to the altar and throw herself into the sea. No, I must do this. Vidya walked to the center of the pool, then turned to face the audience. She forced a smile through tears overflowing from her eyes.
Xenith began to recite the invocations. “With the blood of three, she will be given the strength of three, the resilience of three, and the longevity of three.”
Vidya kept her eyes closed as she knelt down in the water. The blood was slippery beneath her knees, the metallic smell overwhelming her senses. The water grew colder, now up to her waist. She swallowed hard, trying her best not to vomit before the Assembly.
“Their flesh and bone will become her flesh and bone,” Xenith said.
The sacrifices passed out, and their whimpers were reduced to naught. Their once tanned, olive complexions rendered slate gray, their blood almost completely depleted. If they weren’t already dead, they would be in a few more minutes. Their paleness brought back a flash of what she had found in the blood-filled bathtub of her past. Don’t look!
Vidya snapped her head away from the drained bodies and watched one of the young sirens empty a bag of her mother’s beautiful cream plumes into the pool. They floated around her, becoming stained instantly with blood. It’s all right. Mother would have wanted this.
“And the siren’s feathers will become her feathers,” Xenith announced. “Tonight, let us sing our siren’s song to the Harpy and may our voices lead Yasharra’s wayward daughter home!”
With a mighty beat of her wings, she ignited the crowd once again. The cheers, mixed with the siren’s ever-singing voices, danced across the Grand Altar like a hallowed wind.
Vidya sat down in the water, now neck-deep. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and held it before laying her head back and letting herself be fully submerged. The symphony of voices turned into a distorted drone. Vidya’s skin prickled, becoming numb as her mother’s blood-drenched feathers clung to her body.
Then, the water took on a mind of its own as it whirled over and beneath her, pushing the feathers around to her back as she struggled to hold her breath. Her arms and legs started convulsing, forcing her screams into the thickening liquid.
Shrieks from her own memories ripped through her to join with the muffled ones in her present. What did you do? You sick bastard!
Vidya’s chest heaved—I need to get out!
Bursting from the surface, she gasped for air, choking back the blood running down her face and gagging on its brackishness. She clawed for the pool’s edge and dragged her limp, trembling body out of the water, her dress stained red and clinging to her like a second skin. Pain shot through every one of her bones, in her shoulder blades worst of all. She tried to get up, but her legs were too heavy, her arms were too weak to support her weight even on all fours. She collapsed to her stomach, blood dripping into the cracks between the marble.
Storm clouds swirled above the Harpy’s effigy, and a thundering boom cracked through the sky. The audience gasped and murmured, all their fears returning at once.
The pain in Vidya’s back grew insurmountable. Each muscle and sinew stretched and contorted inside her, making her wheeze with every agonizing breath. Her bones popped and snapped—she could not find the wind to cry out. A new appendage tore through the skin, then another, extending from her flesh, and reaching for the thundering sky.