The Kiss of the Gods
From my earliest years, I have been marked to serve.
When it happened, I was playing a children’s game, though it felt anything but childish to me at the time. That morning had dawned crystal clear, with the ever-present biting cold easing beneath our tent flaps to wake us early. The camp was rousing around me as I stepped from my family’s shelter and scurried across the grounds to relieve myself. I caught more than one dark glance as I made my way, the sunlight reflecting all the shades of fall foliage from my red hair. I paid them no mind as I made my way back, per usual, until the young girl Maibh slid into my path with an armload of firewood, colliding with me and scattering her burden across the earth. Both of us went down in a clatter of sticks and grunts, but I caught a glimpse of the stocky girl’s snide, self-satisfied smirk in the tumble. I didn’t have to ask her to know the trip had been intentional, and she intended to blame me. So I hit her.
My father was along shortly to pull us apart by the scruffs of our tunics, cuffing us both for the trouble, but it was enough. Maibh’s venomous glare held a challenge that I had no intention of refusing.
Word spread, and a small crowd of children yet in their ninth or tenth winters had gathered to join in our game. This was one of the few activities we northerners find suitable for our children – a mock hunt and battle, complete with makeshift weaponry. Most of the other children had found sharp, slender sticks that whistled in the air when swung and stung like the kiss of a whip, but I had always preferred a more direct method. The instant my chores were done for the day, I had sprinted off to forage a thick, heavy specimen, suitable for powerful two-handed strikes.
I leaned on it then, full of confidence and youth’s immortality. I didn’t join in these games often, because I tended to come out of them with much worse than scrapes and bruises, and my father - guilt-ridden by the transgression that had created me - had banned me from such play both to protect me and to hide his shame from the others of our clan. As a result, the other children did not know that I had lately been training with my uncle in matters of warfare, weaponry, hunting, and survival lore. You might believe that I was too young, then, to learn of living and of death, having only survived nine winters myself. To you I say, all Cimmerians are trained so, and we come to our adulthood earlier than the softer southern races. It is simply that, at that time, I had a better instructor than most.
“You actually came, this time. Not too scared are you? I bet you’re so scared your knees were knocking the whole way here!” said Maibh, her big lips curled up in derision. She was my age, and big – bigger even than most pure-blood Cimmerians. Along with her build, she shared the same dark hair as the others of my clan. Next to her, I was raucously bright and pale and small, barely of a height with children two years my junior. That had never stopped me from a fight when goaded – and I was provoked often.
“Don’t be stupid. I’ve never been scared of you, Mammoth Maibh, not once,” I replied loudly, thinking myself clever. Maibh flushed furiously, and her broad hand tightened on her little stick so much that it creaked in protest, but she did not strike.
“You’re lucky your uncle’s a hunter, Aislin, or you’d be dead by now!” she hissed in reply, and a couple of her cronies snickered behind her. The other children watched steadily, accustomed by now to the baiting that preceded these games-that-aren’t-games. If one’s blood is up when play begins, it makes the endeavor that much more interesting.
In response, I laughed in her face. “Dead? By whose hand? You’re not fast enough to catch a greatmother, let alone me.” There were a handful of gasps at my irreverence then, for we are raised to venerate our elders.
Her ice blue eyes glittered with malice and her speech slowed deliberately. “That don’t matter, cuz you have to stop running some day, despite your cowardly blood. And when you stop, there ain’t nothing you can do to save yourself, not with those skinny arms. I got born with Crom’s strength, and you didn’t get nothing but ugly red hair from your bitch of a Vanir mother!” Her round, ruddy face had broken into a triumphant grin at the climax of her speech, but it didn’t last long, for I was already in the air.
I slammed into Maibh with ten years’ pent-up aggression at my back, and a solid length of branch in my fists. My shoulder struck her in the chest hard, knocking her breath from her and stopping my charge abruptly. Undeterred by the pain that lanced along my collarbone, I followed through, utilizing the momentum of my lunge to sweep my improvised club in a long, horizontal attack that smashed into my opponent’s sword arm. Even as she cried out and her stick fell from nerveless fingers, she was bringing her other meaty fist up in an under-handed blow that put stars in my eyes. By the time I had blinked them away, the other children had surged forward, crashing upon each other like waves onto the beach.
Each face was serious and fierce as we played at war, though none as ferocious as mine as I returned Maibh’s blow with a forceful kick to the knee which she only partially deflected. An amazon shriek escaped my lips as I rained blows upon the girl with my branch, and she retaliated with quick, stinging cuts with her recovered limb.
The battle went on for what felt like hours, with some individuals retreating, stalking, and rejoining the fray with cunning ambushes. Maibh and I never broke gazes but briefly when one knocked the other to the ground. Though time dragged out, the cold sun had only moved a fraction in the sky when at last I struck from a crouch, sweeping Maibh’s legs out from under her and sending her crashing to the earth at the edge of the frozen river winding past the camp.
The frost-crusted grasses along its bank cracked and shivered as she struggled to stand through her pain and the unfortunate incline of the ground. Planting one booted foot on her belly, I brought my mace to bear before me, held firmly in a two-handed grip, and raised it high above my head, poised to strike what could very well be a fatal blow. My blood was rushing through my ears with the fury of a blizzard as I looked down at my vulnerable foe. One strong swing was all it would take to rid myself of this relentless rival who had made my life a living torment ever since my half-Vanir blood was discovered. One last violent retort would remove her from my path forever, and frighten the other children into leaving me be. Blood on my weapon, at last. An enemy’s blood.
A clansman’s blood.
I stared into her frightened and angry eyes, storm grey meeting summer blue, and all of my muscles creaked with the strength of the blow I brought to bear on Maibh’s head… too late. Taking advantage of my hesitation, my weakness, she rolled to the side and shot her leg out, striking my ankle with considerable power. Pain shot up my leg and I fell, rocks and earth and ice opening my already abused flesh with fresh cuts and making the world spin around me as my head struck hard.
Time slowed to a never-ending instant as I heard the howling of the children around me, Maibh’s voice more piercing than the rest, smelled the cold and pine and wood smoke, heard the subdued power of the mighty water beneath its veneer of ice, felt the painful stabbing of cold as my fingertips went numb, tasted my own blood on my tongue, coppery and sweet. My eyes stared vacantly ahead at the horizon line, a worm’s eye view of the forest of trees and children around me. Then, an apparition of terrible beauty swam into my vision with all the sinuous grace of the gods themselves, curving through the dead grass before my face, raising its majestic head from the snow to stare into my eyes, now dark-rimmed gold meeting grey. I was paralyzed – nay, hypnotized by the power held in that gaze, and so I did not move as it turned from me, seemingly slowed from the cold, and vanished in a blur of coppery scales.
Low on my left forearm, exquisite agony bloomed.
At last, I succumbed to the darkness.
I spent an undetermined amount of time floating in that lightless place, muted, serene. I instinctively analyzed what small sensations bypassed the night-dark barrier with the mind of a budding strategist and warrior, just as my uncle had taught me, attempting to piece together the clues and track down the answers to questions I couldn’t be concerned to ask. Where was I? Was I dead? What happened to Maibh? To me?
Yet, instead of pursuing these mundane concerns, I could only focus on the vision of ophidian copper and gold which filled my mind with wordless whispers of power and splendor. Around my soul it coiled, easing tighter, tighter, until I no longer thought at all.
When at last I came to, it took only a moment of painful light and equally painful recognition for my mind to finally interpret the bits of sound, scent, and feeling I had experienced in the darkness. I was alone, abed in the clan shaman’s healing tent. The light slanting through the opening at the peak of the structure informed me that it was midday. The air roiled with heat and the fetid stench of moist, swampy plants and rotting things. Though the temperature constricted my lungs and made my skin seem to swell, my woolens were dry and my rough sheets free from sweat dampness. My lips were cracked and my mouth, achingly parched. And, I could not move.
A tiny, eerie moan escaped my lips as I struggled to control my own body, desiring to rise and find water, to see my father, to find Maibh and confront her yet again. As a Cimmerian, I had never been without my freedom. I barely felt my arm shift against the course bedsheets, and began to recognize the numb sensation that pervaded much of my body. Frightened by my vulnerability, my panicked nine-year-old mind scrabbled desperately to remember what had brought this about—
A brush of silky smooth scales. A flash of copper the hue of autumn leaves. The coiling god’s kiss.
—and relaxed, sinking back into serenity just as my body sank back into the pillows. The spirits had spoken to me, had chosen me, and had gifted me with their blessing.
Pride and eagerness swept through me in the wake of acceptance. The Snake of Wisdom had come to me to stop my petty, earthly squabbling and had commanded me take up a higher calling. Though rare in our culture, shaman are greatly revered and respected leaders of society, shaping their own souls into bridges spanning this world and the spirit world, and acquiring the spirits’ aid in many things, from healing to hunting to curses upon the clan’s enemies. And those spirits had sought me out.
My eyes were alight with wonder and knowing when the shaman entered the tent, bearing herbs and strange objects gathered to aid in the cleansing of the Great Serpents’ nectar from my veins. I allowed my eyes to flutter closed, long, dark lashes laying tranquil on a child’s cheek, and fell back into the careless sleep of the young. I knew the venom would not kill me.
For I had been chosen.