can’t quite grasp the dream, just remember elegance, a mansion and fine dresses, but blood amid all that finery, something wrong, running down the paved garden paths past guards, into the hall full of revelers, why? something wrong, very wrong, danger, a knife or something else but blood, definitely blood, on pale hands? maybe, maybe, it must have been because they thought he was dead, they took him away in a body bag and left him in a cell but he wasn’t dead, he sat up when they weren’t looking, did he kill the guards? not sure but then later on a confrontation, an accusation and a broken nose, blood running down grinning lips, what do you do when your lover is the killer, so fragmented it’s all hard to remember but trying, grasping, why does everything feel important in the middle of the night?
The omen is ancient, almost an old wives’ tale by now, but the king takes no chances. Two yolks in one egg – the son will slay the father. With a roar he commands all of his sons be brought to him, from the oldest toddler to the youngest newborn. His wives rush to fulfill the order, carrying in their babes with tears in their eyes and lips clenched tight. The king takes each child personally, hurling them from the high tower window as if they have already sinned against him. Though once proud of these male children, of their potential as his successors and perpetrators of his line, he tosses them as if they’re nothing more than bundles of dirty rags.
Only the youngest princess, a worthless girl and bane of her father’s existence, dares intercede. She has always been too headstrong, too wild, and she tugs now on her father’s arms, at the guards, begging for mercy, for an end to this madness. None pay her attention past a swift push to get her away; none seem to care as half the royal family’s children are sent to their deaths. Beside herself, the princess begins to scream, a shattering wail like nothing such a tiny human should be able to produce. The sound is horrid and the king cannot ignore her any longer. He turns on the child, eyes blazing, and threatens to throw her out the window to join her brothers on the flagstones below if she can’t be silent.
It’s a threat he will act on without hesitation, the princess knows this, but she can’t sit by and watch this senseless slaughter. She continues her wailing until a guard makes to grab for her, then she runs. Down castle corridors, past bewildered servants and weeping wives, just out of reach of her pursuers. The doors to the outside are all blocked, so she heads for a first floor library, diving through an open window just large enough to fit a young girl but too small for an armored guard. The princess hits the ground running and makes a mad dash through the manicured gardens, mind racing to form a plan beyond mindless fleeing. She’s never been past the castle grounds; a princess only leaves the castle once in her life, and that’s to be shipped off to her husband. Where will she go?
This princess is determined to escape no matter what, though, and her tomboy proclivities, while shameful to the royal family, serve her well now. She vaults hedges and clambers up decorative walls, heading instinctively for the wall separating the castle from the surrounding nobles’ lands. While too high to climb, she uses the smaller walls like scattered stairs, jumping from one to another until with a final desperate leap she’s over the last hurtle and landing on the other side. Her sudden appearance startles a group of nobles’ children playing hopscotch. One of them, a boy the princess has often played with, rushes to help her up. Catching sight of the matron watching over the kids, she begins to babble her message of terror.
in a church full of shadows
the dark goddess parts her lips
and sucks from my womb an eldritch monster
stained glass rains down
the walls shake and crumble
I bleed out on the stones
What meaning, these symbols, this strange play? The monster’s bride, as it were, though who knows what was ever truly in her heart, seeking sanctuary in a cathedral though surely she doesn’t believe. But she wants to right now and she mutters to herself to believe, believe, drawn in and hunched over with the weight of the darkness clinging to her back. Does she see it? Does she feel it? Or does she think the church doors can block out all evil? Perhaps they could, if only this shadow wasn’t so much a part of her that she carries it inside as easily as her bones and blood. She tries to sit on a pew but she’s too restless, she feels like she’s being followed, watched, hunted. So she paces, wandering near the priests as they light the great tall candles, and as she passes the shadow reaches out to snuff the flames and shatter the white wax into black smoke. One, two, three, four, it sends out its drifting tendrils to douse each candle and usher the shadows in the corners closer. She weeps, maybe, but she cannot or will not control the hungry thing she carries. Soon only the faintest, most remote tapers remain lit, for shadow does need a small bit of light for casting. The priests and worshippers huddle in fear. They watch as the darkness rises from her back like a cloak swept aloft by the wind, until with newfound strength it tears from her completely and drifts down to settle into its own autonomous form. A living thing draped in darkness, staring out at the fear and the panic with a smile on its hidden, or perhaps missing, face. It catches sight of itself, then, in mirrors hanging behind the crowd. I see you, sir, I think to the reflection, and bow my shadowed arms. Then I laugh, and the sound echoes through the cavernous halls. So thus darkness entered, came free, and took form. Thus the church was invaded and infected. But why? Why her, and why him? Who was I, in her body, in the shadows? Who was I in the mirror?
in my dreams the goddesses of war
drumbeat blood, hungry ululations
slashstabcut and dancedodgedive
goddesses of the hunt
of the lion and serpent
goddesses of the red fields crowned in
In my dream I am Tanim, unhappy crown prince whose only joy is found in my lover and bodyguard Daren. Even this bit of peace is wrenched from me with the death of my father as the royal crown passes to me. In his wake the country is left in turmoil and I have no choice but to set aside my own desires, take up the heavy crown, and lead my people. Yet all is not well even then, and on the day of my coronation rumors spread that rebels seek to attack the castle in retaliation for crimes my family committed hundreds of years ago. When a panicked servant seeks the royal party out on the lake’s island pavilion with word of a direct assault, I have no choice but to send Daren to investigate, the one one in my court I trust implicitly.
The choice is my downfall. Even as he disappears over the hill the servant turns on me, panic replaced by cruel glee as he reveals a sharp little blade. I realize my terrible mistake and reach to draw my sword as I jump back, but it’s too late – the knife cuts deep into my torso and even though I try to call out to Daren as I fall, my voice is barely a whisper. Somehow my lover must sense the trap anyway, or perhaps has been enlightened to the falsity, because only a brief moment of the servant’s triumphant snickering passes before he turns in terror at the sound of Daren’s enraged howl. The bloody blade is little use against the gleaming sword and the skillful one who bears it, and the servant collapses before he can parry or flee.
The dream switches, then, and I am suddenly Daren, kneeling at my slain prince’s side as I try desperately to staunch the flow of blood. The wound is too deep, though, and I gather him into my arms as I call for the boat to the brought to take us back to shore. As petrified servants row us back toward the distant castle and its skilled doctors, I watch Tanim slowly bleed out onto the boat’s wooden bottom. There’s little awareness left in his clouded eyes but I speak to him anyway, pleading for him to stay with me, to hold on, to be strong. Soon my entreaty turns to angry despair and I’m alternately cursing the heavens, swearing the Fates won’t take him, and begging that if need be I’ll give anything to keep him safe, if only some deity will come to strike the bargain.
A light flares over my shoulder and I turn to see a woman standing in the boat amid the somehow unseeing servants. She radiates light, her entire being crafted of the cold white of the full moon, and around her neck and brow coils a serpent like ram’s horns. “Why have I been called?” the goddess asks in a voice both thunderous and silken as her blazing eyes stare down at us.
The dream switches again, then, and I am myself, no longer crouched in a tiny boat but kneeling in a pool of clear water, my head bent and lips pressed to the cool surface. Beside me my girlfriend lounges, and as I lift my head she asks, “Is one of them here?” I know somehow that she asks about the snake goddesses and I answer that I’m not sure, for I don’t yet know if the goddess who appeared to Daren is of a real-world pantheon or from the dream’s medieval world. My girlfriend nods and responds casually, as if recalling a sweet nostalgia, “Briar loved them, but I never knew what the Sixteenth Person was.”
And then I wake, truly, and lay in the warm dark with the name Inanna on my lips.
The crowd roars as the bodies are dragged from the arena and fresh sand scattered over the quickly drying blood left behind. Restless and hot beneath the high sun, the spectators grow tired of minor skirmishes and quick deaths. They cheer and howl in anticipation of the main event, a showdown which promises to offer far greater entertainment – and more interesting wagers.
A square of darkness opens up in the middle of the arena as a trapdoor falls back and the crowd’s frenzy increases. From the empty space a second platform rises, bearing on it the source of an entire colosseum’s ardor. Flanked by the crouched and hissing bulk of a tiger, The Tiger Prince raises armored arms to receive the praise. Bright bronze armor accents the young man’s sleek, muscular form and the black domino mask which covers both eyes and right jaw allows a glimpse of his self-assured smirk. Unbound black hair falls around his shoulders, the single stripe of orange against his temple supposed proof of the legend by which he earned his name; it is said this son of wealthy nobles was born so brave he’d slain a tiger when he was just an infant and had inherited the tiger’s soul and ferocity. Certainly he seems an imposing and fearless warrior, bearing as he does no shield and only a single weapon, a long foreign sword which has spilled the blood of countless slaves in this arena.
That another slave’s blood might be spilled this afternoon is what so many attendees, both peasant and noble, eagerly wager. The Tiger Prince’s next opponent is a true rarity – a slave who has won every battle into which he is sent, no matter the kind or number of opponents. He has become a legend and the crowd gathered is here to see him as much as the handsome nobleman. Cheers and good-natured booing answer the slow rolling open of the slave door at one end of the arena. Out of the gloom steps a man near The Prince’s age, though his scars, blade-thin body, and plain dark clothing age him. Called “The Ghost” as much for his black garb as for his eerie white hair, the slave is a crowd favorite for his deadly speed. Into his tarnished silver vambraces, the only armor allowed any slave, he has carved the word “death”. In one hand he grips his only weapon, a dagger made from what looks to be a sharpened piece of a soldier’s helm. The Ghost makes no motion to the crowd, only stands within the arena and gazes steadily out to where The Prince fixes him with an arrogant smile. In return The Ghost places his left hand over his heart and keeps it there, a strange and inexplicable capitulation which he retains throughout every fight.
A single red rose falls from the stands where the arbiters of combat sit and the fight begins. The Prince takes immediate control by going on the offensive, rushing at the slave with a roar and the sword gripped in both hands. The Ghost evades the first powerful blow like a snake slipping away from the strike of a tiger. He darts in as The Prince recovers but the other twists away as well, and so the dance continues. The Ghost never takes the offensive; he lets The Tiger Prince come to him, using the overreach of the sword to come in under his opponent’s guard. Sparks fly as metal strikes metal, each warrior gaining only the briefest advantage with each minor cut or stab. The Ghost’s hand never leaves his chest, yet even one-handed he seems a match for the unbeaten noble. Their movements form a beautiful, intricate dance as The Prince pushes his opponent toward the growling, pacing tiger and The Ghost fights to drive him back.
By the roar in the stands, the fight clearly pleases the crowd, which seems to cheer equally for both men. None have lasted this long against The Prince and even he begins to realize he’s underestimated his opponent. Impressed with the slave’s stamina and determination, he changes tactics and places his own left hand against his chest as if in allegiance. Now they both fight one handed, The Ghost wielding his small dagger and The Tiger Prince his elegant sword. The battle intensifies and soon both bleed from numerous wounds, nothing life threatening but certainly wearying, and their movements quicken as if this dance truly has been choreographed. They even disarm each other in the same move, both blades flying away toward opposite sides of the arena. Gasping for breath and trailing drops of blood, the warriors begin to circle each other with locked gazes.
An odd hush comes over the arena as if even the rowdy spectators sense the battle coming to its climax and want to miss nothing. In the sandy circle below The Ghost pauses and those in the lowest levels can see his dark eyes flicker from The Prince to the tiger still chained in the center of the arena. A cruel smile crawls across The Ghost’s lips and then he’s running – not toward The Prince, but away to where the fallen sword lays gleaming on the ground. The sudden understanding and resulting fury show clearly on The Prince’s glowering face and he takes off as well, running toward the abandoned dagger which lays closer by. His armor slows him in a way his opponent’s thin clothing cannot, though, and as the crowd holds its collective breath, it seems impossible to guess which man will reach his goal first.