art by Shot Hot Design
by Melissa Mead
Over her years of guarding her unseen Mistress, the she-beast has learned many things:
Strangers with swords are dangerous. Strangers with books are even more so.
Books are inside things, Inside things belong to the Mistress, not to her guard-beast.
Outside creatures should not think too much. It hurts. Perhaps thoughts are inside things too.
The she-beast has tried for years to puzzle out the mystery of books. Intruders who carry them seldom blunder about the way the ones with swords do. It's as though the paper tells strangers the way through the maze, how to avoid all the traps, and even about the she-beast herself.
The she-beast can read the clouds overhead and the tracks that smaller creatures leave in the sandy earth, but paper and ink refuse to speak to her. The she-beast has thought about asking the Mistress to unlock the magic symbols for her, but the Mistress stopped answering her silent questions long ago. The invisible perimeter confining the she-beast has contracted, taking away the slice of grassy meadow and scrap of shady woodland that used to be part of the she-beast's territory. The green land seems farther away each day. The she-beast fears she has angered the Mistress somehow.
But she still wonders.
Every day the she-beast prowls around the edge of her territory, sniffing for intruders. Intruders leave the smell of their wrongness on the dark stones and warm pale sand. Some of them get through the beginning of the maze and past the traps, into the she-beast's territory. They want to kill the Mistress and steal her treasures, but the she-beast kills them first. Even the ones with books.
From behind a pile of rocks, the she-beast watches this latest stranger. One of the ones with books, obviously. He's bypassed the sunny meadow with flowers that absorb nutrients from human flesh. He's ignored the fragrant, toxic fruits that grow all around the edge of the forest. Although he must be thirsty by now, he doesn't drink from the spring, with its icy waters that turn humans to stone--although he does pause before the petrified shapes ringing it as though guessing what they used to be. He stops at the edge of the perimeter, as though he could see it, or feel its burning cold touch, and shouts.
"She-beast! Are you there? See: I'm not on your land. Come out and talk to me."
Her ears shoot erect. An invader, calling to her? Perhaps he's gone insane from resisting the illusions that surround him.
There are no illusions in the she-beast's territory. Sand is sand, stone is stone, bones are bones. The she-beast doesn't believe that this stranger has journeyed from the lands of men and struggled through the maze just to talk to her. But this is something new. Something to make this day different from all the others. The she-beast decides to prolong her treat. When the stranger calls again she slips out from behind the rocks, her venomous tail lying flat across her back, her ruff smooth, her teeth hidden. The stranger doesn't see her at first, and when he does, he smiles. His body says No-Fear. Not-Hostile.
The stranger's body says something else, too. It's female, and young. The she-beast has never had to deal with a female intruder before. She listens for commands from the Mistress, but hears only silence.
The newcomer extends her hands toward the she-beast, stopping just short of the invisible barrier. She is dusty and battered from long travel, but a smile lights her dark eyes.
"Hello! I know the rules: Once I cross over I won't be able to get out alone. May I cross?"
The she-beast growls. The stranger takes a step backward.