“Heart-Song” by Danielle Davis
Nycalla shifts on the dusty ground, unnerved by the shouting of the crowd. The voices of the Men rattle the soil beneath her, cluttering her senses with their vibrations and setting her tail to twitching. Her tongue flicks from her mouth, wicking information to the sensitive pores of her palate.
She scents many Men, and the musk of some sweated beast.
“Assavalh sizh,” she curses, rearing her head. Nycalla has grown long in her life – twelve bands last cusp – and measures half the height of her cruel enclosure’s walls. The Men nearest her draw back with a gasp.
“This one is a fighter, Amal. Where did you find her?”
Nycalla looks aside to her captors, yellow eyes flickering with intelligence. She watches the eldest’s face, its upturned protrusion and fleshy lips filling her with both hunger and disgust.
The Man meets her hateful gaze, unaffected. “By the riverbed outside the village. She was holed up with some worm of a mate, hiding underneath the brush. Didn’t put up much of a fight then.”
The younger one glances at her, and Nycalla kressths in challenge. Her hood unfolds from the base of her skull, revealing the intricate patterns of black on ivory, lines of scale intertwined.
“You should be more careful, friend. Cobras have the mind of the gods.” He gestures to her, then back to Amal. “She will not rest until she has avenged the male.”
“I suppose you believe those child tales, Kunja. That the snake marked my face when it died.”
Nycalla begins to move away, repelled by the guttural noises of the Men. Fear swells in her gorge, an acrid taste that muddies her mind. The eggs in her belly jostle as she slithers along the edges of the ring, a reminder of what she has lost.
The crowd seems to surge alongside her, obscuring her other senses with their sounds and scents. Sometimes a golden thing tumbles inside the walls, yet no Man dares his hand to retrieve it. Nycalla has not forgotten the faint beast-smell, and sends out her tongue in search of it.
A Man moves behind her, and she whips her head back to study his hands. He places a small cage on the dry ground before the largest of her coils, careful to hold her stare. She is frozen in place by those eyes, and by the image of her dead mate reflected there.
This is the curse of her revenge. She knows this Man, murderer, yet there is nothing she can do. The horror of Neshur’s death is paralytic; his suffering pins her to the ground.
Nycalla knows that she must strike, must thrust her fangs into his body, but she cannot. Instead she begins to sway, dancing to the unheard stamps beneath her.
A creature stirs inside the bars, swift and muddy as the river when it broke from its bank three Rains ago. It smells bloody, and its eyes are two stones of feral instinct.
“The battle of the season, friends!” Kunja shouts, throwing his voice over the many Men clustering around the enclosure. “Set your final bets. Bring your money here.”
Amal presses a finger onto the front of the cage, releasing the furry beast. Nycalla recognizes its rigid fur and glinting teeth. She hisses, spitting as it darts back and forth about her length.
“You are a mezshalla,” she tries. “Snake-slayer.”
“Tekur.” It answers in the Beast-tongue, words sounding clipped and dull. “Named Tekur. Kill you, kill cobra snake kill. Best killer, live long here.”
Nycalla pulls away, her olive scales slipping through the dust. She is moving with hesitation, feeling the weight of the eggs which grow inside her. She knows the mongoose can sense her heaviness, the younglings she must protect.
Without warning, the mezshalla rounds on her, closing the space with a few leaps. Its teeth close about her scales, driving through them with ease. It is a deeper wound than any she has known, bleeding freely and too near her womb. Panic slides through Nycalla’s blood, leeching the warmth of the sun from her flesh.
She trades a bite of her own, poison pushing its way into the flailing body between her jaws. When it pulls free, she strikes once more, catching the dumb thing in its face. She can feel as the left side of its skull gives way, the eye gouged by her smaller teeth. Tekur screams, claws raking her as he struggles to escape.
Nycalla goes for the kill, tightening her hold. Moans of disappointment swell in the crowd of Men as some watch their money slip away. Something hard connects with the base of her skull, driving the mongoose from her mouth, and forcing her hood closed.
The one called Amal stands at a distance, a wooden pole clasped in his large hands. Prey lost, she makes for him instead, head low to the ground.
He locks eyes with her once more, and Nycalla sees her mate in his stare. This one is Neshur’s killer, the Man whose face he marked in death. The memories flood back to her, stopping her mid-strike.
She remembers Neshur’s limp body on the riverbed, his thin coils slipping into the cracks of the earth. His head is severed, and has come to rest a few band-lengths away. His black scales are darker with blood, and the ground beneath him drinks it in with great thirst.
He has not been dead long, his tail is still twitching of its own accord. Neshur Star-Singer she had called him, her mate and clutch-father.
The Man is saying something, and, though she cannot understand, Nycalla knows that he is mocking her. She senses a vibration close by, a scuffling in the dusty soil. The mezshalla is stirring, coming back to his paws as the crowd cheers.
Nycalla tries to pull herself away from the memories, to reengage with Tekur before he can recover. But she sees, instead, the mouth of their den, the river rocks she had carried to the nest. She hears her mate’s low hum as he sings to her in the night, scales scraping against hers in the half-dark of starlight.
A sharp pain jars her back to the enclosure, where Tekur has ventured a nip to her tail. She whirls back and hisses, her hood unfolding once more.
“Fight cobra kill. No poison – blood strong. You die, Tekur eat well.”
For the first time, Nycalla notices the mongoose’s quaking sides, the way his good eye has begun to cloud. He has not eaten in many days, has been starved by the Men he fights for. She feels no pity, only cold calculation, and coils her body tighter about her womb.
Tekur advances hesitantly, his pain cautioning him. Nycalla guesses that he can no longer move with his former speed, though she cannot understand why her venom has not killed the ratty thing. She darts forward, murder in her eyes, aiming for his tender belly.
The mezshalla leaps, avoiding her fangs on nimble legs. An excruciating agony rips through her skull, blinding her with its force. Teeth grind back and forth in her mouth, yet they are not her own. She makes to open her jaws, but finds them drawn together by an unrelenting force.
The mongoose clings to her, even as she struggles to fling him off. Their struggles cast up the dusty soil, obscuring them from the crowds of Men. She can feel the blood of her wound trickling down her throat, and the soil clogs her nostrils. It chokes her, as it had the day of her capture.
She hears Neshur, at the edge of her consciousness, feels the bramble on her face. His song is soft, comforting, as the Man approaches. He slides from the underbrush, hissing and aggressive, hood displayed in threat.
Nycalla shudders, knowing he will die.
She does not love him for strength, nor cunning – he has none of these. It was his Szivish, his Heart-song, which had called to her heart during the Heat. His tales had astounded her, the susurration of his voice charmed as their scales slid together.
“Run, ‘Alla,” he warns beneath the hiss. “Go, my clutch-mother.”
But she did not, and she cannot now.
Nycalla comes back to herself in the blood and dirt, feeling Tekur’s weight upon her body. She lashes out with her tail, and catches him across the snout. The mongoose shrieks, releasing her as he stumbles back, away from the pain. She seizes upon the opportunity, attacking with fang and tooth.
When she wraps her jaws around his neck, Nycalla can feel the satisfying crunch of bone. The mezshalla whimpers and shakes, but her hold stays true, and she coils her length about the body. She can feel Tekur’s beast heart beating desperately, even as his breath slows.
The dust has begun to settle, and the Men wait with bated breath. Many groan in disappointment, while others cheer. Nycalla curls tighter about her prey, intending to swallow the corpse when they have gone.
Instead, Amal approaches, familiar pole extended towards her. She is pressed into the mezshalla‘s empty cage, too exhausted to resist. It reeks of rodent, but Nycalla lays down to sleep.
She wakes in a new pit, body clenching with hunger. For a moment she fears she must fight again. The blood has clogged her nostrils, the gash in her stomach a sharp pain. It is difficult to see in her new enclosure, and Nycalla buries her nose into the damp soil.
“The snake will not survive till next week, Kunja.” The voice sounds far away, and echoes like prey-sounds in a burrow. “We’ll have to find another cobra for the tournament.”
“You will, my friend.”
Nycalla forces her head up, and slides her body into a corner. A beetle scuttles by, but she ignores it, too exhausted even to eat.
Though it is difficult to move, she pushes her head from the dirt floor. When she slithers along the ground, half-healed scabs are pulled from her scales. Nycalla can feel the rage inside, whispers to the younglings of hate and blood-lust. They must succeed where she has failed.
She discovers a hollow in the ground where some unfortunate creature has tried to escape, and she lowers herself into it, knowing the time has come.
Her muscles contract and she feels the eggs drop from her body, one by one, into the makeshift nest. She will cover them with soil when they have been laid, hoping that they will remain warm until the Hatching. There is food here, the subtle scent of water and stone, and many places for hatchlings to hide.
“So much for your tales,” the Man says. “Or is a dead snake still out for my blood?”
Nycalla pulls away from the mound she has built, dreading what is to come. She can feel death calling her from the eggs, and she resists. Instinct tells her to remain with them, to kill the man imprinted on her mind. A little blood leaks from her mouth.
She hums to her eggs, and kressths with pride. They are her legacy, and all she has of her clutch-father. These younglings will carry out her purpose, will sing Neshur once more to the stars.
She weaves the notes of Neshur’s song into a gentle hiss, satisfaction growing with each sound. Her mate’s body lies warm beside her, lulling her into a light doze. They will be strong – Man-killers, he promises – and Nycalla knows this is true. He calls her to him, beckoning her with his Heart-song.
As she slips away, Nycalla dreams of the Hatching, and the tiny avengers sleeping within their shells.
|Danielle Davis has just begun her career in speculative fiction, and has the half-written novels to prove it. She can generally be found, book in hand, at the University of South Florida, where she studies creative writing and mass communication.|