The Salamandress

Dariel Quiogue

She came to Alissar on a ship of ebony and brass with an agate-eyed serpent for a figurehead, rowed by a hundred and forty mute blacks of Herculean frame. Sixty-four maidens of moon-bright beauty attended her on her couch, some playing on flutes and lyres, some singing sweet, high choruses like cherubim, while the others strewed lotus blossoms in the galley's wake. When she betook to her palanquin, shaven priests in robes of whitest linen and yokes of gold crusted with malachite and bloodstone and topaz marched before her, swinging censers redolent of precious frankincense and the sweet, nameless spices of the farthest East, while behind her paced her single bodyguard, armored cap-a-pie in figured bronze.

Crowds gathered to gape at the pomp and splendor of her arrival, for no such sight had been seen in Alissar for generations.

And they gazed upon her with awe, and increasing adoration, for indeed she was the most beautiful creature they had ever set eyes on, aglow with a radiance that could scarcely have come from mortal flesh and blood. Tall she was, standing straight and proud as a spear, yet sweetly curvaceous, her charms but little veiled in her tight wrap of rugose silk shot with gold threads; her sable hair tumbled down in waves to the small of her back and framed her dusky, oval face like a pair of dark wings, highlighting the brightness of her eyes, in which a man must surely drown if he looked too long. She smiled liberally and returned all obeisance as though she were meeting each one face to face as an honored guest, and moreover, scattered gold coins into the throng with her own hands from jars at her side. Thus fascinated, the crowd followed her train all the way from the shore to the gates of Ilfar, the city of the king, and thence up the broad avenues to the palace of Attalus himself.

Along the way she espied four portents that piqued her curiosity, and she sent her servants to bring her a local to be her dragoman and answer her questions.

The first occurrence that had raised her interest was the curious activity around the great square at the center of the city, where sweating gangs labored with picks and sledgehammers to prise marble slabs from a number of mighty and graceful edifices, while other gangs hauled the heavy blocks with the aid of oxen to a nearby site where already a great, unlovely and angular mound had been erected of the scavenged material. "What labor," she asked her guide, "is that, and what is its purpose?"
And the man puffed up his breast with pride, both at the fact that he had been chosen for the asking of the question, and the fact that he had its answer. "That, my lady, is the foundation of the great temple we are erecting to our god, the Thunderer-in-the-Mountains. We are building it out of the rubble of the blasphemous fanes of the Pusaidians, who ruled in Alissar before we, the Hasmounean people, were led here by our god to cleanse the land and make it our own. The new temple is being built over the ruins of the largest and most evil fane, that of the false deity of the fiery Underearth the Pusaidians called the Salamander. Five-and-twenty years we have worked already, first destroying all the foul eidolons and melting the gold vessels inside each temple, then quarrying the worked stone for the house of our god, who is the one true god."

The woman blinked sadly, for she knew that of old the city of Ilfar had been famed for its beautiful temples. Then, pointing to yet another curiosity, she asked, "And what, pray tell, are those soldiers doing to those women?"

Following her finger, the man saw a trio of women - a maid, a matron, and a crone - being urged onto a pile of wooden faggots lying around a pylon of granite by armored soldiers wielding scourges and threatening with spears, and when the women had climbed to the top of the pile, a soldier went up and bound them with rope to the pylon. Once this was done, a greybeard in the ceremonial vestments of a priest began haranguing the bound women, evidently cajoling them to say something; but on getting only stony stares for an answer, he spoke angrily and signaled to the soldiers, who ran up with flaming torches and began setting the faggots alight.
"Ah, my lady," said the man sententiously, "those three are only getting what they deserve. They have been charged with the foul crime of witchcraft, and thou hast seen that even after being called upon to confess and repent, still they persisted in denying their obvious guilt, wherefore they are being burnt to remove their odiousness from the weal of decent men. Our god is merciful, but just."
"Alas for their suffering," said the lady softly.

Then she pointed out a procession that was entering the market square by another gate, a train of markedly martial nature, for it was headed by chariots and cavalry, followed by dromedaries piled high with all manner of treasure. Behind the camels were coffles of children, yoked in pairs with chains around their necks and trudging dispiritedly forward to the prodding of sharp spearpoints from the infantry behind them.

"Ah, that! You see yet another victorious army of the Hasmounean people returning from the wars, laden with riches. Seeing that the sorcerous taint of the Pusaidians was growing in the Crescent Lands, our god infused us with his strength and sent us from our desert home into these lands to destroy them. In his righteous wrath, he commanded us to spare no man of age to bear arms, nor any women who might try and corrupt our noble warriors with their charms; but the children he commanded to be spared, so that they might be our slaves."

"In time of old no amount of gold or silver would have been reckoned enough to buy a man's life, much less his freedom," murmured the lady. "Truly these are strange times."

At last they came to the steps of the king's palace, and there the lady witnessed the fourth occurrence which was to draw her curiosity. On the flagged square below the broad steps, many bearded and robed priests were gathered, and they were taking armfuls of cylindrical, linen-wrapped bundles and casting them into a tall blaze which sent a spire of sooty smoke into the cloudless sky. Above them watched a man in golden armor and robes of brocade, whom she immediately recognized as the king.
"Tell me, my good man, what is it the priests do?"

And the dragoman made a sign of aversion against evil and said happily, "Our revered priests safeguard our souls by burning the nefarious writings of the Pusaidians, for it is well known that in their libraries are stored works on knowledges that no mortal must have lest it damn his soul. Moreover, since all knowledge is already contained within our own ancestral scriptures, everything in the libraries which contradict those scriptures must necessarily be lies designed to mislead us, or if those alien scrolls are in agreement, then they are superfluous and can be done away with."

"Alas for the lost knowledge," the lady said to herself. "With that smoke goes the last surviving lore of lost Pusaid." She cast her veil over her face, so that none might see that she wept. And the Hasmounean walking beside her never knew that Alissar and its people had been judged, and found wanting.

She directed her servants to bring her up to the palace steps, whereon she alit and made obeisance to the king.
And Attalus looked at her in great wonder, for he wot not who she was, nor of what nation she must be queen, for her garb and her appearance were all alien to him. Nor did he fail to notice that here stood a woman of a beauty to rival the full moon as it shone above the desert in autumn, and he remembered that as yet he had no queen. So he raised her up, saying "Peace and be welcome, my lady; whoever thou art, thou shalt be an honoured guest of the king's house. But thou wouldst favor me greatly if thou toldst me thy name and thy country."

"I am Syleis," the lady declared, "a princess of Tartessos, which lies across the sea. My royal father hath sent me to thy kingdom in hopes that I might find favor with thee, for he wishes to seal an alliance with thy strength. And in token of his regard for thee, and earnest of my dowry, he presents these gifts." And she gestured to her servants to come forward, and they laid trays and baskets and chests of all sorts of precious things before Attalus; cardamom, pepper, lumps of frankincense, bolts of fine silk, vessels of bronze and silver and gold, musical instruments of strange shapes bedight with mother-of-pearl, and uncut gemstones of every kind, emeralds and amethysts, topazes and tourmalines, sapphires and sardonyx, and yellow adamants like frozen drops of sunlight.

Attalus took her hand and led her up to the uppermost steps, then turned so that she was beside him, and they faced the people in the square below. "Until now I have been a man of war and a tireless builder of cities and stout-walled fortifications; and I have grown past my prime without taking a queen, nor did I ever feel the lack, " Attalus said to Syleis in wonder. "But now I see the time is ripe to look to the future of my kingdom, and the great and good god hath sent thee to me. Verily, thou shalt be my queen, if thou art willing."

Then Syleis lifted her veil and kissed his bearded cheek, and said, "Yea, I am willing."

And so Attalus raised her hand in his and presented her to his people, proclaiming his queen-to-be, and the people broke out into loud rejoicing. Drummers and pipers began to play in the streets, and men and women in the crowd seized each other and began to dance, for Attalus was greatly beloved as a king and many had worried over his lack of a queen to bear him heirs. And so the people of Alissar, all unknowing, took their doom to their collective breast.

He feasted her at his table that night, and every night thereafter, finding to his great surprise that here was a woman of mind as broad-ranging and curious as his own, which was a rarity among his own simple people; they talked of poetry and argued the merits of ancient philosophers whose works were mostly dust, and in every wise he found her his equal, and so grew enamored of her.

The days passed and became weeks, then moons, and the total infatuation of Attalus with Syleis was the talk of the kingdom.

She took upon herself the task of serving him at his table, so that he took no meat save from her hand, nor any wine save that she poured it herself. He took her to see his treasuries, heaped with the plunder and tribute of nations, he took her along when he reviewed his armies as they maneuvered on the plain to the sonorous thunder of their chariots and the brazen calls of lion-mouthed war trumpets, he took her on hunts with falcons and trained leopards, and marveled at her grace and accomplishment when she drove her own chariot and speared lions from it in full career. And he showed her his many-fountained gardens, where they dallied in secret bowers to the songs of exotic birds, or talked of inconsequential things while trailing their fingertips in ponds alive with jewellike fish.

The king went nowhere without Syleis, and daily he grew more tightly meshed in her silken nets.

And at last, the people began to notice a change in their king.

Once, Attalus had always been foremost in war, ever ready to take the head of his armies as they fought for mastery of the Crescent Lands; for though the Hasmounean people had taken Alissar, the chiefest kingdom of the Crescent Lands, there yet survived many lesser kingdoms and they were ringed with enemies on all sides. But now Attalus stayed in Ilfar with Syleis, sending instead his generals to fight the kingdom's battles for him, and few of them had his skill, or his ability to inspire the soldiers to fight like lions. Once, Attalus had been a great builder, with a head full of great projects - new cities, aqueducts and canals to bring water from the mountains to the thirsty fields, walls and forts to guard the passes - but these he now left to his governors, who had not his vision.

Rumors began to come back to the city of Ilfar about various embarrassments in the field; supply trains ambushed, patrols lost, villages burnt by raiders who escaped without being sighted - and finally, a stinging defeat against the Nemurites. But rather than sally forth to take vengeance, Attalus made treaty with the king of Nemur, and sent forty camel loads of gold from his treasury in tribute.

Peasants came to the court from the mountains in the south, where at Attalus' command a long wall was being built to guard all the passes against reavers from the desert; they brought charges against their governor, who was padding the costs of the wall and pocketing gold from the laborers' pay and short-changing them even of their provisions. Attalus flew into a rage and cursed the peasants for their laziness, and caused them to be whipped out of his palace, then returned to being fed sweetmeats by the perfumed fingers of Syleis.

As the winter approached, the king began to be troubled by strange dreams, and these he confided to the princess from Tartessos.
"My love," he said, as they walked in the gardens one day, "I am sorry that I seem not to have paid much mind to thee of late; but my heart is troubled with strange portents that come to me at night when I sleep, and every night I dream the same dreams, which I find to be a very strange thing.

"I dream that I am a youth again, a young warrior in the armies of my father Seleucus, and we are again at the breaking of the siege of Ilfar. Three years we had laid siege to this city, hoping the defenders would starve; but they had great store of food within, nor did they run out of water, for there were hidden aqueducts bringing them fresh water from the mountains, of which we had no knowledge then. Daily we lost hundreds of men to the mysterious weapons and engines of the Pusaidians, and my father was about ready to give up the siege.

"But the mystery of how the Pusaidians could hold out so long set my mind to working, and I surmised that they must have hidden aqueducts bringing fresh water from the mountains; and so taking some companies of bold young men and some builders and engineers who would know about such things, I set about searching for the aqueducts; and lo, after three days' search, we found them, and cut them, so that no more water reached the city. Four days later - probably after their cisterns had dried up - the Pusaidians marched forth to give battle on the plain, and without sufficient horse or chariotry, they were quickly mastered and routed. We poured into the city right on their heels, and on the command of my father, who had received it through the priests of the god, we slaughtered everyone we met, man, woman, or child, even to the cats and dogs.

"I was one of those who was first to burst through the gates, and I led my men to the great square, to the blasphemous temple where the Pusaidians kept burning their sacred fire. And there - there I caused all the priestesses to be killed, and the sacred fire I extinguished with my own hands by oversetting the brazen idol of the fire-lizard - the Salamander - into the pit whence issued the flames. And in her dying breath the high priestess of the Salamander cursed me, promising that I, too, should burn in the flames of the Underearth one day.

"Now I keep dreaming of that moment, but in my dream a supernatural fascination comes over me, as if some seductive siren sang from the flames, leading me to bend my steps toward the pit. My will is shattered, and like some unsuspecting lamb I follow the call. Though I can see clearly me feet bringing me closer and closer to the lip of the pit, yet I remain helpless to resist … the pit yawns beneath me, and peering in I can see the maelstrom of fire and molten rock that must be the Underearth … and I cannot look away. My fascination impels me to take that one final step - and then I awake, cold and sweating, and my chamber-slaves are timidly asking why

I screamed in the night.

"Tell me, my love, what dost thou make of all this?"

"It may be more, but to my mind it may be no more than the shock of too much bloodshed returning, as it does to many old soldiers," she said wisely. "Therefore let me brew you this concoction of poppy juice and bhang that my nurse taught me to make, which is a sovereign remedy for pain and disturbances of the mind such as thou hast experienced."

"That is good," said Attalus, and he let her brew her draught, which she gave him mixed with wine in a golden cup. And lo, that night he did indeed fail to dream, and so took to taking a similar cup every night. He learned to set great store by the medicine, and soon he began demanding his draught in daytime as well as at night, luxuriating in the golden hazy stupor brought about by the essences of the poppy and cannabis.

Thus in the spring, when the Nemurites revolted yet again and made an inroad into the kingdom, Attalus could not be roused to betake himself to the battlefield, but instead sent a new general, a man but lately appointed to the post. When this man predictably lost in battle, Attalus had him beheaded, and set another in his place. Encouraged by the success of the Nemurites, the other tribes and kingdoms who had accepted the Hasmounean yoke began to stage their own uprisings, and soon the whole border was aflame with war. But still Attalus did not raise the troops of his house and lead them to battle.

Instead he busied himself with preparations for his nuptials with Syleis, and the building of various shrines and towers which Syleis had suggested as a means of invoking the favor of the stars. For she had gotten the king interested in Tartessian astrology, and now his belief in the signs and portents vouchsafed by the night sky was as great, if not greater than, his faith in his grey-bearded priests and prophets. Into these works he now poured the contents of his treasuries, and determined to have them finished in time for the vernal equinox, he caused the peasants to be rounded up from their sowing and put to work on the constructions.
At this the tribes of the Hasmouneans began to mutter angrily, and when a delegation of elders they sent to the court to protest were all strung up and hanged like common criminals, the cry went forth; "To your tents, people of the desert!" And six tribes immediately gathered up all their belongings, distributed swords and bows to their young men, and declared they were no longer of Alissar, nor subject to the will of its king.

Such a defection could not be borne, of course, and upon learning of it Attalus rose from his throne in fury and immediately called for all his generals to return with their armies and scourge the rebellious tribes for their insolence. The legions came home, leaving the borders unmanned, and in three great battles routed the rebel tribes; and the king ordered the tribes decimated, and the survivors sold off into slavery.

At this, the Nemurites, the Tarsunites, and the Gimmurites made alliance with each other and descended upon Alissar in force. The skeleton garrisons left at the southern walls made a vain resistance and were wiped out to the last man, so that the first warning of the great army that had entered the kingdom came from the mouth of a half-dead peasant who had fled his burning farm.
Then at last Attalus broke free of the cloudiness overhanging his mind, and he looked upon his crumbling estate with horror, and divined the cause of his fall. "What hast thou done," he cried to Syleis, "pulling the wool over mine eyes with thy coddling words and drugged draughts, and letting mine kingdom fall into these straits?"

But Syleis only gazed haughtily at him, and made him no answer.

"Thou art a witch!" he railed at her. "You captured my heart by sorcery, and turned my face away from my kingdom and my people so you could work your evil will upon it!"

And at that Syleis laughed in triumph. "Attalus, you fool. Dids't not remember that we of Tartessos are also descended from the people of lost Pusaid, close kin to the people thee and thy barbarians made war upon unprovoked and butchered to the last child? I came not to ornament the kingdom of Alissar, but to wreak rightful vengeance upon it! And aye, I am a sorceress, as thou hast accused me - for who but a sorceress could have brought down a king and his kingdom with no more than sweet words and a drugged draught?"
Quaking with anger, Attalus called for his guards to seize Syleis, who to their surprise made no move at all to resist. "As a self-admitted witch, there is only one sentence I can pronounce upon thee," he said with gritted teeth. "Burn her at the stake!"
And so the palace guards dragged Syleis down to the square of execution, where they piled wooden faggots high about the granite pylon of justice, and placing her atop the pile, bound her fast to the column. At the king's word, the torch was applied, and the flames leapt high.

And inspite of himself Attalus found that he had to turn away, dreading the screams of pain and terror he knew must inevitably begin to issue from the woman at the stake; and his heart was sick within him, for nothing is harder than to pronounce doom on the object of one's love. But to his surprise, it was not screams, but laughter - shrill, demoniacal, vindictive laughter - that issued from the mouth of Syleis. Turning in horror, he saw the flames engulf her body and burn away her clothing, but over her flesh the licking, lambent tongues played like windblown silk, caressing her naked limbs and dancing up and down her arms as she freed them from her bonds. Lizard-like shapes of pure flame cavorted in her wake, and he recognized at last the avatar of the Salamander.
Wreathed in flame she stepped down from the pile of fuel like a queen descending from her throne, and as on the day of her arrival, she mounted the steps of the palace and presented herself before the king. Their eyes met, and suddenly bereft of all volition, he took her proffered hand, brought her close, and enveloped her in a lover's embrace.

They kissed, and the fire, which was in her as well as about her, entered his mouth and his lungs, burning him from within, until all Syleis embraced was a column of ashes that scattered billowing in the wind.

Then calling upon the powers of the Underearth that were hers, the Salamandress caused the paved streets and squares to crack open with horrible groans, and the molten lava poured forth, rapidly inundating the city of Ilfar as it sank into the infernal depths even as elsewhere the flames of war consumed the rest of the kingdom. And when her work was done, she gathered her flames about her, looked around with what might have been a wistful expression, then returned to the Underearth whence she was born.

Thus perished the Hasmounean kingdom of Alissar.

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