Vinga and the Cloak of Snakes

by Alison Place

During the Greater Darkness, while Orlanth was absent upon the Lightbringer's Quest, Elmal acted as steward in his stead. Chaos had pressed the Air Tribe fiercely, and even untried warriors had been needed to fill the spaces in the ranks. Vinga Orlanthsdottir had asked Elmal for a warrior's task, but had only been sent on patrols and had not seen battle yet. Returning from such a patrol, Vinga came to her mother's tent to find Ernalda clasping Voria in her arms, and both weeping bitterly.

"O my mother and my sister, what is the matter?" cried Vinga, as she knelt to hold her sister, Voria. Voria raised her head from her mother's lap, but all she could say was "Barntar", before her weeping began afresh.

"Yes," said Ernalda, "Thy brother Barntar was captured while on scout across the Black Eel River, by Ragnaglar the Cruel. Ragnaglar has sent word that he intends to kill Barntar in a hideous way, to avenge himself on thy father, Orlanth."

"If that is so," demanded Vinga, "what is being done? For I have just walked through the camp, and there are none arming themselves to rescue my brother!"

"No," replied Ernalda, "for to attack the camp of Ragnaglar would serve for nothing, except perhaps to cause him to execute my son quickly. That, while it would be a great mercy for Barntar, would be bought at the cost of many lives, and the price is too great. So Elmal and I have both agreed."

"Yet, I cannot let my brother die without any attempt to save him." said Vinga. "Perhaps there is another way. Will you aid me, mother?".

Trusting in her daughter, Ernalda assented, and asked in what way she could assist.

"Summon to you, my mother, thy little daughters, the members of the viper tribe. Let them weave for me a cloak, that all may know that I am Vinga Ernaldasdottir."

As Ernalda called, the serpents came, smooth-sliding, ground-gliding, glistening in the torchlight. Vinga knelt, and they twined up her arms and down her back, the asp and the adder, the copperhead and cottonmouth, the rattlesnakes and the krait, many-banded. Last came the coral snake, to clasp the cloak as a living jewel, and the cobra, who spread her hood for the first time, to shield the red hair of Vinga from the sight of all. Vinga stood, and received her mother's blessing. Then the three embraced, and exchanged the kiss of kin. Vinga slipped quietly out of the camp and into the darkness. She moved silently and swiftly towards the Black Eel river beyond which lay the camp of Ragnaglar. At the shore of the river, she knelt again.

"O daughter of our mother," whispered the serpents, "what would you have us do?"

"Make for me a coracle," said Vinga, "so that I may cross to the other side." Quietly they slipped off her back, and wove themselves into a little boat. Vinga stepped inside, and drew her sword to scull across. There she dried her blade and sheathed it, and once again the snakes ascended her arms and cloaked her.

As she came nigh the camp of Ragnaglar, the guards saw her, and would have laid hands on her, but the very air around her hissed, and they saw that it would be death to touch her.

"Take me to Ragnaglar," she said, "for I would speak with him regarding my brother." Reluctantly they brought her to where he was holding court in a great tent. His soldiers gave way before the threat of her cloak, and Vinga stood before him. There the cobra folded her hood, and Vinga shook loose her red hair.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" demanded Ragnaglar, his lust stirring at the sight of her.

"I am Vinga Ernaldasdottir. I have come to ransom my brother's life with my own." she replied.

"You are Vinga Orlanthsdottir, and you are both fair and foolish. Why should I give back your brother, when you have come to my hand of your own will? No. I shall kill him, and keep you for my pleasure, and thus shall I be doubly revenged upon your father."

At this, Vinga buried her head in her hands, and sobbed. "Oh, oh, you are right, I have been a fool to think that I could save my brother thus. One thing only, then, do I ask of you. Let my brother not see my shame and folly."

Ragnaglar the Spiteful heard this, and called for Barntar to be brought before him then and there. When Barntar, bound with strong cords, was brought to the tent, he cried aloud with grief at seeing his sister there also. Vinga ran to his side, and as she embraced him she whispered in his ear, "As you love our lives, make it your last request to see me dance one more time."

"It is time for you to die," said Ragnaglar, "and I thought that your sister would like to watch."

"I can do nothing to stop you," replied Barntar, "but if you would grant a last request, I beg you to let me see my sister dance one more time before I die."

At this, Ragnaglar paused, and thought of how exciting a woman could be when she danced. Seeing that he agreed, Vinga removed her boots, and called for another sword beside her own to form the cross for the sword dance. For the sword dance had been taught to her by her father and brother, and it was this dance at which she was best. Then she stepped to the swords, and began to dance. She danced slowly at first, as if afraid that bare foot would meet bare blade, and then her bright blood would flow. Gradually, the rhythm of her steps increased, and as she danced the rattles that fringed her cloak kept the beat. As she danced, she whirled, holding the edges of her cloak in her hands, and the scales of the serpent cloak glinted red and silver, green and gold in the torchlight. Faster and faster she danced, until her feet were a blur above the blades, and the rattles buzzed without ceasing.

The cloak lifted as she spun till it was as high as her shoulders and her lissome body was exposed to the lustful gaze of Ragnaglar. When it seemed that she could dance no faster, she cried out, "Fly free, little sisters!", and the cloak dissolved into a rain of agony and death upon the crowd. The snakes which she had clutched she threw into the face of Ragnaglar, and as he screamed in pain, she swept up her sword and the other, and slicing her brother's bonds, thrust one hilt into his hand. Holding his other hand in hers, they ran from the tent towards the river.

Long had the viper clan warred with the chaos tribe and now they were among their enemies who were mostly unarmed and unarmoured. The serpents bit and stung, face and fess, heel and hand. For each foe that died of tooth and poison another died of terror and panic. Their deed done, the serpents slid into the darkness, and were lost in the night. Amidst the rage and confusion of the moment, no-one saw the captives escape at first. All too soon, the army boiled out of camp, hot upon revenge and recapture. As they reached the banks of the Black Eel River, the pursuit was close indeed.

Vinga cried out, "For the sake of Heler of the Water Tribe, our father's bondbrother, save us from Chaos, O Spirit of the Black Eel."

Without waiting for a reply, Vinga and Barntar leapt into the water, and let it close above their heads. When the creatures of Ragnaglar came to the shore, there was no sign of either Vinga or Barntar, neither upstream nor down. Thus they reported the two drowned in the river. The spirit of the river had heard their plea, however, and carried them safely away, hidden from the eyes of all searchers.

When they were abreast of the camp of Orlanth, the spirit brought them gently to shore, bidding them remember her service. As Vinga and Barntar rose, wet from the water, their kin found them. The word of their return flew before them, and all grief turned to joy. Great was the feasting, and great was the praise from Elmal himself.

From that day forward, Vinga Ernaldasdottir sat in council with the greatest of the warriors, and led women to battle in her own way.

The idea of the cloak of snakes I purloined from a Russian story about Zoulvisia, a warrior woman who was courted by the usual besotted prince. In this story, the snakes wove a raft for the wicked witch who sold the knowledge of how to grab Zoulvisia to a rival king. I just used the snakes as earth creatures who would help Vinga rather than the evil creatures in the original. I would obviously give Vingans the power to command snakes in any cult description. Everything else was frantically thought up on the night before and in the long drive down to RQ-Con.

Copyright © Alison Place