• Maira Galabard

#19 The Sand Viper

This is it. This is the day Aiga Aelyn and I part ways. I had grown accustomed to the bard’s merry tunes and bright attitude during the past two years, and it feels strange to realise I’ll be on my own again.


She’s packed and ready to go, and her newfound lady patron will come for her in the evening.


“So, this is our last drink”, Aiga states the obvious as she looks down. Her hands are holding a mug of ale that’s too warm to enjoy in the remnants of a hot summer day.


I look at my empty mug.


“Not yet, I need another one”, I say, and signal the innkeeper, who is quick to refill it with more water. “Thank you.”


The old innkeeper winks at me, flirtatiously. She’s been doing that for months. Aiga chuckles and takes a gulp of the warm ale.


“She really likes you”, she says with a smile.


“Well, it’s not mutual”, I retort, and take a short sip of cold, clean water. “Granted, though, she does know how to take care of her guests.”


The inn isn’t very crowded. Most Arnwellii and visitors from other lands are taking their time to enjoy themselves outside before the rain season storms in.


“I can’t wait to sing in a grand theatre in Falkor”, the bard says. “Yet at the same time, I’m so devastated we’ll be parting ways! Perhaps you’d like to accompany us?”


“Oh no. No, no, no. No. I’ll be perfectly content with my solitude.”


“Oh.”


Aiga squints her eyes as she tries to look past the sunlight coming through the round windows. She then turns back at me.


“Do you think the audience will like stories about Vasarigæ? The one about the two friends was—”


“Please don’t.” I must halt her before her career under a patron’s wing is as short-lived as a mayfly.


“Why not? I’ve always believed there’s some sort of misunderstanding between Osvarii and Vasarigæ. Those who’ve joined the Temarigan Alliance get along just fine, so I don’t see why…”


“Common interests, young bard. Those joining the Temarigan Alliance have a very strong common interest called money. Yet most Osvarii and Vasarigæ have opposite interests.”


“Ah, but imagine!”


“Yes, I have a very vivid imagination. Perhaps I should illustrate this enmity with a tale?” The bard’s eyes lighten up. “If after hearing about this you haven’t changed your mind about Vasarigæ, I don’t know what will.”


There's probably enough water in my mug for a short story about the Queen of Pygia. One of the many examples of how terrible a relation between Osvarii and Vasarigæ can be.


***

The Sand Viper


When queen Xerxissa was murdered in her sleep it was her eldest daughter, Panaitheia, who immediately took the throne in Pygia. She was taller, stronger, more cunning, more beautiful, and more charismatic than her late mother.


Just like her and all other Pygian queens before her, snakes grew on her head. Panaitheia had the fangs of a serpent, matched with thin pupils that perceived every movement unfolding before them.


Because Pygia was a small region, Panaitheia wanted all other lands to know of her, the new queen, and for that, she organised a grand feast on her coronation day.


She sent messengers all over the world and invited all Vasarigan rulers, the admiral in command of the Temarigan Alliance, leaders and chieftains from independent regions, even the entire Council of the Osvarian Republic.


The letters were exquisitely written, and Panaitheia had taken good care to address each individual in their mother tongue, added unique scents to the letters, and promised a celebration like no other in the hopes of cooperation and prosperity with all the other lands.


Quick to doubt the queen’s intentions, the Osvarian Council debated on whether to attend the ceremony or to leave the invitation unanswered.


“She is inviting everyone. Everyone! Even the Temarigan Alliance and some chieftain from a speck of a village!”, spurted one of the councillors.


“Where in Firn’s name is Pygia?”


“Isn’t it that bothersome land controlling river Sagissa?”


“The one at the border? Why have we not crushed them yet?”


“We have tried, but the sandstorms in the area are unpredictable. Those people can’t move from there anyway.”


“Perhaps we should propose an alternative, then, not her palace”, suggested the Minister of Economy. “Somewhere neutral, closer to either side of the border. Assurance that the Osvarii we send there will not be harmed. And with a few proposals ready regarding the river. Have you seen Pygia from afar? Grand city. Impressive architecture.”


The Council debated for weeks before giving queen Panaitheia an answer with all of their demands. To their surprise, the queen conceded almost all of them, a sign of trust and a welcomed change. The Osvarian Council was pleased.


When the day of the coronation arrived, queen Panaitheia welcomed her guests personally.


Only a single Vasrigan ruler, King Volkgam II, had come with his retinue. The rest of the lands had sent envoys who looked forward to eating and drinking to their heart’s content.


The Osvarian Council had sent ambassadors to take their place. From the symbols on their masks, the queen could tell five of them were Illusionists, and there were three Speakers, two medics, twenty warriors, and at least one Elementalist. There was also a scribe who carried ten different scrolls, possibly treaties for her to sign in blood.


As for the Temarigan Alliance, they had gracefully declined the invitation but were open for trade. And the smaller rulers either had no means to travel there or had no interest in dealing with a region so far from their motherlands.


The Osvarian Council had chosen one of the many abandoned temples at the border, and it had been redecorated by queen Panaitheia’s subjects. Statues of serpents, tall gigantic columns, a ceiling so high it almost reached the skies. There were beautiful sand fountains and waterfalls in the vast room where the celebration would take place, something that captivated both Vasarigæ and Osvarii alike.


The seats had been carefully placed, and Pygian guards prevented Vasarigæ and Osvarii from interacting. Exotic wines and floral teas were served during the grand meal. Meat of beasts they had never seen before, exotic desert fruits, exquisite fowl that melted in their mouths, and all kinds of fish caught in river Sagissa.


Once dessert was served, along with a strong brew made of roasted berry seeds, queen Panaitheia stood up.


Heads turned from all corners of the room. There was no uneasiness in the air anymore. People had laughed and enjoyed themselves, and the queen had taken excellent care of them and had filled their stomachs.


“I’m so full I will explode”, jested one of the Illusionists. This was met with laughter from all corners of the room. Even queen Panaitheia granted a small smile, and the snakes on her head seemed cheerful and content.


“I am delighted to hear you enjoyed the meal, Vrai Gor-Leissa”, she said, and then addressed the entire room. “I am even more delighted to have you all here, to witness this very day in which I, Panaitheia, daughter of Xerxissa and granddaughter of Anharisia, will be crowned queen of Pygia.”


There was a scattered applause from some of the drunken envoys. King Volkgam II, however, remained impassive, arms resting on the fine table. He was so colossal that Pygians had had to build a seat and table solely for him, while his retinue had opted to remain standing.


“In Pygia”, the queen continued; “it is customary that the new queen crafts her own crown in front of her subjects and guests.”


As she spoke, she began to walk across the room, dragging her long robes as she lifted her hand in slow motion. Sand began to swirl on the ground.


Some of the Osvarii looked at each other as the warriors tensed up. King Volkgam II slightly leaned forward to have a better look at what was happening.


“My crown will symbolise the grandeur of Pygia. What our land is. What it was. What it will become.”


The sand was now shaping into a tall elegant tiara, and the snakes were whispering into the queen’s ear. Her expression, earlier tranquil, suddenly changed. Her frown deepened. Her fangs showed. Her pupils elongated.


“But how can Pygia grow when all of her resources are robbed from her?”


The shape of the sand began to change into the form of a viper. Unbeknownst to the other guests, for their eyes were focused on the queen, sand began to slowly swirl behind them.


“How can Pygia grow when her enemies, who are sitting at this very table with us today, who have eaten our food and have drunk our wine, have forgotten the curse their ancestors cast upon us? And you have the nerve to come with demands?!”


Before the Osvarii could move or even use their mahrym, the sand behind them became a den of vipers that, as quick as lightning, entered through their mouths, nostrils, and ears. The most fortunate died almost instantly. Queen Panaitheia observed the rest of them choke.


Sand fell from the air as she looked at the Osvarii with deep hatred.


“Finish them”, she commanded the Pygian guards; “all save for Vrai Gor-Leissa. Someone must deliver the message.”


Her thin pupils looked right at the Osvari who had jested about exploding. He coughed up sand and blood as he cowered himself into a corner.


“He won’t be needing his hands”, she told the Pygian guards, and then turned to the Vasarigæ. “I am queen of Pygia and queen of the desert. I reign over the dunes and the suns. This is my land, and these are my people. Should the day come when you betray our trust, I will show you no mercy.”


King Volkgam II, who had been silent up to that moment and had barely touched the food or the drink, stood up and looked at the defiant snake-haired queen. He then glared at the vipers made of sand that surrounded her and stepped forward.


The sand fell to the ground, and although the queen moved her hands to make the sand raise again, it remained still. The Vasarigan envoys, earlier laughing, now looked at the half-giant in absolute silence.


“Neither will we”, responded the northern king. “So long as we have a common enemy, we have an understanding.”


And Pygia has done nothing but prosper ever since.


As for poor Vrai Gor-Leissa, he delivered the message days before suffering an agonising death. Needless to say that, after the massacre, the Osvarian Council sent troops to Pygia. They would destroy them. Demolish their city. Slaughter every last Pygian until the city was bathed in crimson.


But the sandstorms grew greater at the border and, like a roaring sea, the shifting dunes engulfed Osvarian troops. Pygia has not suffered any other attacks ever since.


In the days of calm, when the desert is no longer famished for blood, if a few valiant warriors make their way into the Queendom of Pygia, queen Panaitheia hunts them down and they suffer all manners of horrifying deaths at her very hands.


To this day, the queen still has the custom to leave a messenger alive so that the tales of her power and cruelty fuel the fear in the hearts of every Osvari all over the world of Alor.



***


“I’m a little preoccupied about Vasrna and Mantras”, says the bard. “They’re on opposite sides of Pygia, right? But Pygia is now a Vasarigan land.”


“Indeed”, I reply. There is neither more ale nor water, and the innkeeper has left the establishment unattended to enjoy the sunset outside. “You do see why one shouldn’t chant the grandeurs of Vasarigan royalty, right?”


Aiga looks pensive for a moment, a hundred questions crossing her mind.


“But Pygia hasn’t expanded much, has it?”, she asks.


“They're cursed”, I reply. “They’ve been cursed for a very long time, and neither Pygians nor their descendants can leave their land. What originally was their land, that is. However, others can come and go as they please.”


“If they survive the deadly sandstorms”, observes the bard. Her eyes get lost in her empty mug for the hundredth time that evening. “So… No singing about Vasarigæ?”


“That’s all the advice I can give you.” There is a brief silence. “But regardless of whether you sing songs of Vasarigæ or Osvarii, mighty warriors, gods, goddesses, or heroes of old, you will become a great bard, Aiga Aelyn. Of that, I have no doubt.”


The door opens and the lady patron glances at the bard like a jeweller looks at an unpolished precious gem. She doesn’t have to say a word to make herself understood. Aiga grabs her bag full of instruments and spare clothes, and hangs it on her shoulder.


“Thank you for everything, storyteller”, she says, and bows her head. “If big crowds aren’t for me, where can I find you?”


“I’ll do my best to be in Nariv at least once every three years. That’s about two from now."


“In Ásterle?”


“Perhaps”, I concede. I then stand up, and we shake arms.


“Don’t grow too old and grumpy before our paths cross again”, she says with a smile.


“I have every intention not to”, I respond, and I smile back.


A beautiful carriage is waiting for Aiga outside the inn. I lean over the window and the bard gives me one last look before getting inside the carriage. She waves her arm with so much energy all passers-by look at her.


“I never got your name!”, she shouts.


I chuckle.


“I’ve forgotten it myself!”, I shout back.


“Good, because I’ll remember you as Gwildyth!”


Everyone, even the lady patron, laughs. Naming me after one of the mighty Osvarian heroes of our world is too much of an honour for an old, poor, lone storyteller like me.


The carriage disappears down the road right after the moon emerges in the clear summer sky, surrounded by a million stars.


Gwildyth. I could get accustomed to the name of my favourite chronicler.


I collect my things and prepare for a long journey to the very heart of the forest. To Arnwad. To new unforeseeable adventures, and unavoidable misadventures.


I miss the young bard already.