I've heard of getting stoned, but this . . . Perseus after his men see the Gorgon

A Mortal Woman
by Tyus Barnwell ©2015

She was a demigoddess, this much is true. So much else told of her is concocted by time; the imagined glories of a legendary character. Yes she turned men to stone, but her flesh was still soft, her body nubile.

Born of a mermaid who lived on the shores of the Eastern Sea, the mortal third to two immortal sisters, Asudem became an acolyte in the temple of Chaste Wisdom. She learned from women with skills greater than her mother's; Priestesses from the central temple at Netanu, sorceresses who taught in whispers from the edges of secluded groves. They taught her because they knew her mother part progeny of gods, because they saw the dormant power in her.

The Water God saw it too and came to her in Chaste Wisdom's temple. Demigoddess against a fundamental God is scant contest, and he took her by force in the sacred hall. Not even Wisdom has absolute control over Water; she could not help her maiden then, only give her the power to prevent such advances in the future. So, as Asudem cried alone on the cold marble the Goddess came to her and touched her; as when the sun warms a rose inner power blossomed through her skin.

Your beauty tempted, now let it protect you, as I could not-- the Goddess bid.

But purity gone, Asudem returned to her mother, banned forever from her chosen life. Still, she grew exquisite, so stunning men saw her and were given up to despair; they stood transfixed as statues and so wasted into weakness. At first she wore an anklet of shells so those who wished to look away at her approach could do so, and then a chain of bells as her fortunes improved with her soothsaying gifts. She took to wearing veils made by her mother to spare the men she passed.

Her beauty was already better known in the realm than her skills with herbs and energy. Power attracts itself, and so the king was drawn to her, curious, angry and fearful.

How is this woman who causes such dread even a little loved? The king wondered.

Find her and find out, Advisors counseled.

Finally she came before him, veiled of course, but even covered she shone. The king was captivated; he would have her with him. Nor was he an unattractive prospect, especially to a girl sequestered by fear of her very nature. He went back to his border skirmishes, but when he dreamed, he lay between her veils instead of his sheets.

When her mother died it was Asudem's fate to be taken into the king's household. Her erstwhile linen veils were changed for silk, her bronze bells for the thinnest gold. She stayed always before the king, beside him, beneath him. When the wars began in earnest she put her powers to her king's aid.

Truly the concubine was heartless, people said, if she caused what helped her king to triumph. Leaders died. Locusts came. People starved. As her king's influence grew to Emperor, so her renown as Concubine grew to Seductress and Sorceress. Both titles held respect; this was before the Thuban Order began to set the tides of the emperor's bed sheets.

The order's precautions are not always arbitrary. Though he was First Emperor of the Southern Kingdoms of the Gihon, he was still just a man, ordinary compared to her. Fame was Asudem's future, but never to be Empress. She was too beautiful, too skilled. When one looked full on her the eye was lost, the mind wandered, a certain futility made so evident it overtook a person, crippling them. The terrible and awesome unknown dazzled from her face. She was too much a goddess to ever be queen to a mortal king and, kind as she seemed to some of her nation, to be ruled by her was too fearsome a prospect for most.

But the emperor would have an empress, and Asudem accepted second place with grace. She knew her powers, too. Those who reviled her said it was this self-satisfaction, her jealousy, or her fame that began to turn her toward her own path, her own blood-darkened altars and shrouded followers. Jealousy is a cruel shaper of fortunes and fates, but it was the empress' jealousy of her husband's concubine that grew in proportion to Asudem's fame.

The empress was tall, broad and handsome as all Autochthons. She bore the emperor two sons, both healthy. Custom dictated the emperor have more than one woman, if not wives. Yet the empress wished Asudem the succubus wasn't one of them. Bad enough she lived beneath the very same roof as they; what was the use of a fortress if it couldn't keep evil out?

Of course the empress never said these things. She was too proud, and too afraid. Fear is a powerful shaper of fortunes too; like water over rock it can wear down even the most resolute of women. The empress was such as that; never weak. The emperor had been proud to marry her, only, Asudem was of different stuff. Asudem was as inexorable as the sea; as water she wore slowly down the empress' good sense.

Eventually strange visitors began to appear at the court of the First Emperor. Calling themselves heroes, they claimed again and again the land was enchanted by a great evil, and spoke of a standing summons to rescue the realm and be rewarded with the Seductress' power. These foreigners came, and were at first laughed out of court.

Yet they continued to come: to cross the northern desert, to brave the crocodiles and hippos along the banks of the mighty Gihon, to bake in the heat of our intense day and hide from the lions, leopards, imps and demons that prowl the night. So many braved these dangers that the court began to murmur, who set this quest? From whence did this summons come?

Fingers pointed accusingly at border kingdoms unfriendly to the empire, those enemies who would send men such as these with grandiose ideas and greedy palms to dismantle their adversary from within. But behind her peacock feather fan the empress smiled at more than the red of these heroes' skin or the foolish looks of conviction on their faces.

Yes, many men came to Netanu in the first Golden Age as the unwitting tools of petty jealousy. Some spoke frankly and were received as jesters. Others had more guile with their greed, and came cloaked in the few disguises available to pale skinned men in our dark brown land: merchants, missionaries, philosophers, explorers, royalty, all these men, too, braved the dangers, and in greater numbers than before.

Persei hailed as royalty from the kingdom Seriphos in the Hellad Isles, the most convincing disguise. He was quite a specimen, with strong shoulders and a square jaw. He knew his own beauty well; he was often known to gaze into a mirror clearer than any the vainest wealthy wife had ever seen. He was wealthy too; he carried a beautifully embroidered, if a little battered leather wallet that always seemed full. And he was generous with its contents. He had a helm and sandals in the make of northerners, both glorious and shining, though he carried his helmet under his arm and wore the sandals only on special occasions, like the seasonal sport contests. He ran so fast they said his feet had wings.

Persei didn't come as a hero for women to laugh at behind their hands, like so many others of his kind. He came as royalty and explorer both, and grew to be well-liked among the chieftains and their wives. He grew to be familiar, perhaps even trusted.

Not so much that he was invited into the deep corridors of the emperor's seraglio, of course, but enough that the fortress guards didn't start in surprise at his presence. No men but the emperor were allowed into those lush passageways; the male attendants were all eunuchs. At the bottom of the wing, in the most lavish chambers nearest the grotto and overlooking the pleasure garden, Asudem slept. Persei heard rumors of the place and the doors that accessed it from pliable servant girls and lonely lesser concubines. Eunuchs too told their secrets and went away with heavy pouches.

Persei wasn't looked upon with suspicion, not of heroism, anyway. Of covetousness perhaps, lust, certainly. The attendants believed themselves to be at best arrangers of a tryst, at worst dooming the man to a fate he wanted, and well-paid for either. The emperor wasn't the only one who took lovers, though he liked to believe so. Asudem had taken none; some few who still speak of the woman and not the monster remember that. She was loyal to the emperor, though as the realm settled he came less and less often to her bed. She was wild, too much for him, and when he didn't need to use her power he preferred to forget about her. So for many cycles of the moon she slept alone while rumors of her beauty tempted men as far away as the Emerald Sea to the north.

Alone, until Persei got the last tidbit of gossip from one of the servant girls as she ran her pudgy dark fingers through his brown ringlets. Tugging, the girl told him of the hidden door behind the pillar in the second salon.

Oh, but she's never had any fun, the girl said. She'll turn you down, and maybe make you crazy for your audacity.

I won't look upon her, I've seen enough beauty for one lifetime, he responded, and laid her down on his suede-draped pallet.

Persei had the restraint to wait until the emperor was out of the fortress, until servants were resting and guards had less to worry over. He passed into the court proper as he always did and mingled with the other guests and residents of importance. He drank and smoked and heard the day's gossip. Drummers and flutists played their lulling tones, and as the evening grew later and couples began to drift away, no one thought to look for Persei. He'd donned his helmet and vanished.

The halls were quiet. Down he continued, past slumbering eunuchs, past the fragrant entry to the pleasure garden. He knocked softly on the last door. Inside, the gold bells jingled. She opened the door unveiled to stop what she knew to be an attacker.

He gazed full upon her face; the thick pink lips, the deep brown skin like cocoa and gold powders mixed, and hair such as he'd never seen; a thousand little locked black tendrils with gold rings stuck along their lengths. And her eyes. Her eyes were a tempestuous night ocean, he was lost there. But for him the skies cleared as they hadn't for so many others who looked at Asudem. Perhaps he'd gazed so often upon his own face that he recognized the god in her; it was familiar. To destroy such beauty would be like killing a side of himself. He looked at her, truly saw her, and smiled.

Years had passed since someone had seen Asudem's face and smiled. Persei was the first to look on her face without freezing since the theft of her maidenhood. Sweat sprung out on their skin.

I have seen you before, she said to him, welcoming him in after the initial surprise and pleasure became less than a shout for joy.

I've never seen you, he replied, his breath choked and close to her ear.

Perhaps seeing her was not exactly like looking in a mirror. It was more than that she was dark and he pale, she soft and curving, he chiseled and well-crafted. She was too much even for him, her beauty and power drove him mad, but slowly instead of all at once like other men.

They met in secret for months. As he donned his helmet to visit her he would think, tonight I will tell her. She will come away with me, surely. North and home. He thought these things, yet doubt nagged; a mortal failing. He thought these things, and never said them. Yet his stepfather expected him to return with her power.

Meanwhile, Asudem's name was becoming less than it was. It was expected that women who have the emperor's pleasure to live only for him, or at least to keep their affairs secret. When the volume of the rumors was loud enough to reach the Emperor's ear, he came to visit Asudem, the creature he'd thought to possess for so long. She stood before him veiled, eyes downcast.

It's true, was all he said at first. Then he sighed, and sighs are for men not gods, because part of every sigh is longing.

I knew this day would eventually come to torment me. If you were any other... I could say it is for the peace of the country that I keep you as I do, but you know I want you ever near me. Who could help but to love you? Yet I know you can't understand this. Power makes a body forget any sensation but itself.

His voice hissed like a threatened cobra and he paused to gather himself before he said, If you must continue this, you must leave. If I find that you haven't turned him away or left the fortress within one week's time, I will send him away to a land from whence he can never return.

He spoke of the outer realm, the afterlife. There were ways she knew of bringing people back should it come to that, but none were pleasant and Persei would never be quite the same. Her hands shook to think of losing him. The emperor watched her delicate fingers and thin wrists, the only skin he could see. Ah, how he longed to cut them off for her betrayal! But to do so would be like cutting off his nose.

Asudem' choice was an unpleasant one. She was mortal, not omniscient. She knew her emperor would keep his word, and she would be unable to protect Persei every moment of every day. Sooner or later she would find a dart in his back, or a froth of poison around the rim of the goblet in his cooling hand. The emperor said they could leave, but he would never let her go to another kingdom. He would make her an outcast and kill her lover. How many days with Persei were worth his life? And then she would be alone having buried Persei, the one man who had looked on her and kept his mind, and betrayed the emperor, the one man who feared her less than he loved and needed her.

Asudem decided she would be firm and resolute like the empress, who seemed to have nothing to speak for her besides that resolution and a fertile womb.

We are discovered and discussed, I must turn you away. The coldness of Asudem's voice was a slap to Persei, though initially she couldn't raise her eyes to him. Finally she managed to look up and saw his face become thin, sharp and hard. It was no longer her love glaring down at her, but her own reflection in a neat frame.

Have you seen this before? Persei asked, but he didn't expect an answer. It was a gift given me by a dear cousin.

His voice too was cold, and more determined than hers had been, but muffled. He put on his helmet and became invisible to her. She groped for him, her arms up, stiff, as though attempting to walk through unfamiliar surroundings in utter darkness. Yet the mirror remained. She saw there all the lies and fears she inspired, all the pain she'd caused innocents to hurt enemies only indirectly hers, and over that her crystalline beauty, a veneer of liquid silver.

Steel rang as Persei pulled his sword from its scabbard. He'd always planned on taking her back, but he only needed part of her. He cut cleanly through her neck. Her blood was red, mortal blood. It pooled quickly at his feet, wetting his sandals. He picked up her head by the hair, the gold ringlets sliding together with a metallic hiss. He wrapped it in her veil and placed it in his wallet.

That very night Persei left the city heading north with the speed of a horse's legs to his adoptive kingdom, Seriphos. There, after months of hard travel, he showed the court what he had been sent to fetch as his stepfather king P'dictes stared from beneath his sharp brow ridge, disbelieving.

Asudem still had a bit of her powers, though she hadn't traveled well. Preservation with salt warped her features into a grotesque mask, taut and snarling like a wild beast. Too much of the death of the gods reflected from her oozing blackening eyes. Her locks were mottled with old blood, caked with the salt powder; the gold ringlets glinted as Persei showed this visage to all. P'dictes died of shock there on the pearl-studded throne. Women fainted, men stood riveted by the horror. Those who managed only a glimpse from the corners of their eyes as they ran away remembered that horrible face.

Persei took over the empty court and set an honest man upon the throne so he could return to his ancestral home, Argos. Too powerful and awful for mortals, he left Asudem's head as a votive gift at the feet of the goddess she once served.

Attendants discovered Asudem's body the day after her murder. The emperor cried when he heard the news, yet there would be no grand funeral, no public offerings on her behalf. To do so would be to announce the empire's new weakness. The empress got her wish, and power over her household, though it was in exchange for the power of the realm. Priestesses of Gaea smuggled Asudem's remains to the central Temple and conducted rites for her in secret. Openly, her own emperor said she ran away to join her sisters and her name became reviled.

Not many generations passed before exaggerations repeated in legends made her fully a monstrosity. A dragon's age later the empire fell without the protection of women of her ilk. As they splashed last Priestess of the old order with lamp oil and ignited her, the new Priests cursed Asudem's name backwards and the once-priestess of Wisdom was hence known as Medusa.

x x x

I took 4 years of Latin in High School. Haven't spoken it much since. My favorite thing about my Latin class was Friday afternoon when Miss Auld-a wonderful teacher!-read aloud for the entire period from Edith Hamilton's definitive Mythology. Most of the other kids in the class were asleep. Not me. I fell in love with myth and am probably the only person alive who read The Golden Bough at 17. Unless you did, too. Let me know on our BBS - GM

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