Rookh’s eyes were the tinted windows to his soul.

Jet-black, and lidless, betraying nothing but their existence and the constancy of their perception. Behind them--hidden--lay terror. Before them, a body was laid - the incapacitated body of an ally a neutralized threat, and six units stood, now under his command.

Rookh’s ears were holes where words fell in, and only one word of each sentence he heard escaped, like an echo, from the tips of his forked tongue. So many words were crowded in his scaled head, that his quiet restatements of others’ last words meant slightly less crowding, like air, under pressure, hissing from a momentarily open valve.

He slithered awkwardly to an empty space at the table, where half of his rations remained on his plate, and where the nearby plate of his neighbor, the fallen warlord, still had most of the peas and carrots that had started on it. One female Naga, two humans, and three D’worfs watched him, shocked.

The words started coming out all at once, from several of them: “That was vicious!” “Oh, my gash,” and “That’s one way to get a promotion, can you believe that? Psshh!”

“. . . vicious,” Rookh repeated. He stabbed at some peas and carrots from his neighbors plate with his fork and began to eat them. “. . . gash.”

One of the D’worfs was backing towards the door, but she stopped, ran back and snatched the plate from her place with its remaining rations, before stepping back quickly. “Does anyone mind if I leave?” she asked, and stared at Rookh, as he finished the peas. “Leave?” he asked, as he put down the fork, and slithered around the crowded mess hall table towards her -- towards the door.

“Psshh. . .” he said, as he seemed to look down--not at her, but at her plate, which she clutched, with its peas and carrots and hard-tack biscuits. She shook, momentarily confused, and then held the plate out toward him, offering her food to him.

“Do you. . . want some?” she asked. “. . . some,” he repeated, quietly. The peas rolled off the plate as she held it, angled, and his face seemed to follow the peas’ fall, as she gasped, retracting the plate and trying to straighten it, abruptly.

He saw them roll, and seemed to sway side-to-side for a second, otherwise not moving.

“. . . Yes,” he said, looking down at the peas on the floor.

She crouched down and picked some up that were close and easy to reach and put them on the plate. She tried to read his expression, and failed. Flustered, she looked down, not sure whether to offer vegetables that had fallen on the floor, but since his attention seemed to stay on the plate, she held it in front of her again--this time, angled parallel to the floor, or close enough to not lose any more food from it. He didn’t take the plate.

“You. . . you did say you wanted some, so. . .” she began. He swayed, but still didn’t take the plate--he just kept looking at it. “So?” he said.

He stopped swaying, and the sudden lack of movement seemed to startle the rest of the room. One of the others, a human, tensely said, “Have all you want,” and waved his hand at all of the plates still on the table.

Rookh’s eyes darted toward his hand, then looked at the plates, the table, and two benches, and the two peas that were still on the floor--having rolled away from their previous owner--and fled.

The three D’worfs and two humans turned and looked at the remaining Naga, the female, who held up her hands, palms out. “Don’t look at me,” she said, “I’m just as confused as you are. That was weird as all get-out.”

 

Chief Soupcan: 

This is Hardinger, Hood Mountain. Trouble here with these new allies: newest warlord of theirs incapacitated Viscount Price in chow hall. One of their healers resuscitated him, but they won’t turn over the new guy - they think they can hold him responsible without our having a say in it, and we can’t hold their feet to the fire, on account of them not having feet but also because their new guy, the Rookie, has some kind of ‘stealth’ special and he’s making himself scarce.

Price is fit to be tied, even though it sounds like he started it, but he’s got everyone else worried that these Naga are gonna croak us in our sleep if we don’t lock ‘em up or throw ‘em out, first.

What if Price is right?

--Hardinger

 

Hardinger: 

Pick a random Naga and punish that one in place of the troublemaker, and call it square. If they want to turn over the troublemaker instead, let ‘em. You can tell Price that you got the one that capped him and I’ll bet you a barber’s dime he can’t tell the difference between ‘em, anyway.

If that doesn’t settle the Price down, tell him you’ll finish what the new guy started if he doesn’t shut his yap.

These snake-guys might be new, but that doesn’t mean you can diss ‘em without giving them a chance first. We want them to stay our allies--naturally--so there’ll be no gumming up the works by letting nay-sayers work their gums.

How we gonna start out on the right foot with ‘em, if we’ve got the left foot in our mouths? Whoever thinks that we “just can’t get along” needs to give it a few turns to find out. If they haven’t tried, they don’t know, and that leaves them without a leg to stand on, or a… snake belly to lie on, I dunno, you figure the expression out, ‘s’not my problem.

--Chief Soupcan

 

Viscount Price drummed his fingers on the wooden writing desk where crumpled papers were strewn and one clean sheet lay close to the half-full inkwell, which he began to stare at, thinking about how the ink could become strings of meaning, but only through contrast with the color of paper: black ink on black ink communicated nothing. 

Bittled up, as it was, it contained possibilities of meaning that were limited only by the minds of the beings who made use of it. The ink needed paper, or it was indecipherable, like the eyes of that half-snake warlord--eyes that had refused to meet his own. Black eyes surrounded by black skin, absorbing the light, taking it all in.

He abruptly stood up and took the blank paper, ink, and pen, and left the room.

Hardinger emerged from one of Hood Mountain’s tunnels with seven infantry units stacked with her. Aboveground, and in front of her, stretched a view of a tent-city where the allied Naga had encamped. She took a deep breath and ordered her troops forward, to the tent of the Naga chief, and imagined how well or how poorly the conversation which she was about to have would go. 

Two elite, trident-wielding Naga were posted as guards in front of the largest tent, and they pulled the door-flaps open when Hardinger reached them, and escorted them inside the tent.

It wasn’t exactly a seat, but the “throne” of the Naga chief had two armrests and a chair-back, and a thick pillow on the floor, and it had a chief on it, so in Hardinger’s mind, it was throne-like enough. The chief spoke first, before Hardinger managed to say anything.

“Rookh has been punished, and will apologize to your warlord, if the Viscount should desire it,” said the chief. Hardinger let out a held breath, and shook her head. 

“We need to show that our side does not and will not allow assaults against one of our units to go unpunished--especially not an assault against one of our warlords or commanders,” she said. “And for that to be established, the punishment must be given by one of us, and be public.”

The chief’s head began to shake side-to-side in disagreement, but Hardinger pressed on. “However, the subject to be punished need not be the unit that committed the assault--a stand-in, substitute, would be acceptable, since most units don’t know who the original perpetrator was, and couldn’t distinguish between him and. . .”

“No,” the chief said, and let out a low growl and a hiss. “We will not allow one of us who has done no wrong to suffer the lash for wrongdoing by another!”

“Not the lash,” said Hardinger, quickly, “one turn-cycle in the stocks.” The chief hissed again. “And you don’t have to choose one of yours who has done no wrong; you can find one that is guilty of something else, and have us punish them, instead.” The chief seemed to grow more hostile, and Hardinger folded her arms in front of her.

“If you don’t like it, you can always turn over the one who actually did do it, remember?”

“Get out,” said the chief.

 

Viscount Price held a light in front of him, and slowly progressed from stair to stair, repeating, in a low voice: 

“One, two, three, four;
Count your fingers, add one more.
Five, six, seven, eight;
Count the many strands of fate.

“Eight, seven, six, five
Turns remain to stay alive;
Four, three, two, one:
The time shall come, when all are none.”

He reached the lowest stair and entered the wine-cellar, pausing between each stanza, listening. The light cast shadows, and Price closed his eyes, thinking that all the shadows were merely feeding his fear, and paused to catch his breath.

After repeating the first three lines, he paused after the first four words of the fourth: “Count the many strands . . . “ During the pause, he heard a voice, coming from the dark somewhere in front of him, saying, “. . . of fate.”

“I knew it,” he said. “Rookh, I know you’re hiding down here.” The hidden Naga stayed silent, this time.

“You’re afraid. I couldn’t see that; I didn’t see that, before. You are, though. . . you’re hiding, because of it--you’re not hiding behind a door, waiting for someone to come through for you to attack. . . if you were, you wouldn’t be hiding here, in the wine cellar. You’re hiding here because it’s dark.”

“. . . dark,” said Rookh. “Yes,” he said, “it’s dark.” Price nodded.

“And you’re so scary, when you acted so differently, but you can’t tell the difference between what you did and what you should’ve done. You thought I was trying to croak you, is that. . . what happened?” he said, trying to not end his question with a word that would, if repeated, only confirm his existing suspicions.

“. . . yes,” said Rookh.

“So, you like it here, in the dark?” he asked.

“. . . yes,” said Rookh.

“Well, when you thought I was trying to croak you, it was because I was trying to be scary, because I wanted you to stop eating the food off of my plate. I threatened you, Rookh. I’m not trying to croak you. Nobody on our sides wants to croak you - they might just want you to stop doing something, or to do something differently. And they might make it seem like you are in danger of being croaked. If you want someone else to do something differently, though, you have to say so.”

He took a deep breath. “Can you do that?” There was a pause.

“If I let you write it down, can you say it on paper?”

There was another pause, and then Rookh said, “Yes.”

 

 

Comments

    • tadthornhill

      Real good.

      The use of the poem here reminds me of a quote by Stephen King (I think), "True terror requires mixing the familiar with the unnatural. It can't just be some monster in the kitchen eating live snakes; it has to be mom in the kitchen with the live snakes."