The arrow pins me to the door by my cloak. I try to remove it, but a second arrow pins my other shoulder. These are soon followed by two more under my arms. I am trapped.
For the first time, I hear footsteps approaching behind me.
“Apologies for the dramatic entrance, milady,” says a male voice. “I knew you would otherwise try to kill me straight away, and I wanted an opportunity to parley first.”
“Your prediction is accurate, though I want to kill you all the more after suffering such an indignity as this.”
“A thousand pardons, milady. I shall release you as soon as you agree to parley.”
I consider this for a moment. “I seem to have little choice in this matter, so I agree.”
“And I’m afraid I must insist that you veil your eyes.”
“Very well,” I reply. “I have a veil in my cloak here if you would just release me.”
I feel him walk up behind me and watch as he pulls the four arrows from the door. He then withdraws and waits. I adjust my cloak and remove the veil from my pocket as agreed. After draping it over my face, I turn around to observe my assailant.
He is an experienced thief by the looks of him. And his ability to enter my garden undetected and pin me to my door serves as further evidence of his chosen trade. He keeps one eye on me as he returns the arrows to the quiver slung over his shoulder. His dark gray cloak is open, and I see a dagger on one hip. No doubt he has another inside his boot. The thief smiles.
“Thank you for so graciously agreeing to parley, milady. It is an honor to meet you.”
I narrow my eyes behind the veil. “Grace plays no role in this encounter, thief. What is it you want?”
He furrows his brow as if debating whether to answer my question. Or perhaps whether to answer it truthfully. Finally, he speaks.
“I have two requests, milady. First, that we should sit and drink wine together.”
“I have no wine to drink,” I reply. “Perhaps you should bother someone else with your petty requests.”
“Oh, that is all right. I will supply the wine.”
He rummages inside his cloak and produces a small wineskin. I frown.
“I trust that is wine and not poison.”
“Of course, milady. If I wanted to kill you, would you not already be dead?”
I consider this for a moment. “Fair point. What is your second request?”
He looks me straight in the eye and says six words I never dreamed I would hear from any visitor to my garden.
“I want to join your collection.”
I raise an eyebrow and stare back at him. “You want to what?”
“I want to join your collection.”
The thief has clearly lost his mind. Perhaps it would be unwise for me to drink this man’s wine if it is responsible for his exceedingly poor judgment.
“You are the first visitor to my garden who has ever made such a request. To be honest, requests of any kind are rare. Most of those who encroach upon my land seek only to kill me and not engage in conversation.”
“Of that, I have no doubt,” he replies. “Though it is quite rude on their part.”
“Politeness is uncommon among warriors and thieves.”
“Then consider me an uncommon thief.” He glances around. “Do you have somewhere we can sit and share this wine?”
I lead him around behind my dwelling. A small stone table sits on the grass with a wrought-iron chair at either end. Two copper goblets rest upon the table. I motion to one chair as I sit in the other. He removes his bow and quiver and sets them in the grass before sitting down. He then opens the wineskin and fills both cups.
“Your wine, milady,” he says as he pushes the goblet across the table to me.
I make no move to drink. “You first.”
“Very well,” he replies as he drinks from his cup. “I assure you it is indeed wine and an exceptional vintage.”
Satisfied with his demonstration, I take my cup and drink. It is the best wine ever to pass my lips.
“Where did you come by this?” I ask. “I assume you procured it from its rightful owner.”
“Correct. I did not think he would miss it.” He smiles. “I only procure items from those I deem to have too much already.”
“So you fancy yourself an honorable thief.”
He sighs. “There is precious little honor in thievery, milady.”
“True enough,” I reply. “I have detected none of it in those who come here to liberate me from my treasure.” I peer at him across the rim of my cup. “So you have no interest in my treasure?”
“None at all. I have given mine away and do not desire to acquire more.”
I raise an eyebrow again. “Would I be correct to assume your present lack of possessions relates to your second request?”
He smiles. “It does indeed. I no longer need worldly things.”
“When you say you want to join my collection, I assume you mean these.” I gesture at some of the silent figures standing all around us.
He nods. “Yes, precisely.”
I study him for several moments before asking the obvious question. “Why?”
He sets down his cup and takes a deep breath. A weariness suddenly seems to overtake him.
“I am tired, milady. Thievery is not an effective way to make friends. Over my long career, I have gained not only much treasure but many enemies. Too many to count at this point. I tire of running from them, but they shall never tire of pursuing me.”
I narrow my eyes. “If you tire of their pursuit, turn and face them.”
“That would only hasten my inevitable demise,” he answers. “For I am outnumbered at every turn.” He shakes his head. “I cannot walk without glancing over my shoulder nor sleep with both eyes closed. Mine is a tiresome existence.”
“And yet it is an existence nonetheless,” I reply. “What you propose is not.”
“Of that, I am fully aware, but I see it as the better option.”
“Better than what?” I ask.
“The indignity of death at the hands of my enemies, of course. They would leave my broken body to rot beside the road. There are no gravestones nor eulogies for those of my profession. As soon as we draw our last breath, we are forgotten as though we never lived.”
I consider this line of reasoning. “That is a fair point, and in my mind befitting one who spends his life stealing from others. Do you believe you have somehow earned remembrance, thief? Should the tormented mourn their tormentor? I think you simply fear that which you deserve.”
He winces as his gaze drops to the table. “I have earned nothing—remembrance least of all. I would expect a celebration of my untimely end. I do not consider myself deserving of anything.”
“And yet you feel deserving of my consideration?”
“No, milady. I simply hope to receive it. Knowing, of course, that I may not. That decision is yours to make.”
I drain my goblet and push it across the table. He quickly refills it and pushes it back, staring at me expectantly. I regard him more thoroughly. His unkempt hair is dark brown, though his beard is streaked with gray. For lack of a better word, his face appears weathered. The creases in his skin seem to be formed not by age but by the erosion of wind and rain. A jagged scar runs along the left side of his neck. I gesture toward it.
“How came you by that?” I ask. “And how did you survive it?”
“By the narrowest of margins. A gift from the former owner of the wine which we drink. I fear that wine is not the only item of his that I liberated. If I meet him again, he will surely finish that which he started.”
The thief empties his cup and sets it on the table. “I would prefer not to give him that opportunity.”
“And so you have come to me with this unexpected request.”
“I have indeed, milady. Will you consider granting it?”
I nod. “I already am—considering it, that is.” I drain my cup again and set it on the table as I stand up. “Come with me. I have something to show you.”
He rises and follows as I walk deeper into my garden. We pass dozens of stone figures along the way. They cast long shadows across the path in the afternoon sun.
“Do you remember them?” he asks.
“These people. Do you remember each of them?”
“Yes,” I respond. “As though it were yesterday and not centuries past.”
I hear him stop behind me. “So the stories are true then. You are ancient.”
I stop and turn to face him. “Saying that to any woman is unwise. Even a Gorgon does not wish to be reminded of her age.”
“A thousand pardons, milady. I meant no offense.”
“Very well,” I reply. “Yes, the stories are true. I have lived for hundreds of years and intend to live for hundreds more.” I narrow my eyes. “Provided, of course, I am not skewered in the back by an arrow from another thief.”
He shakes his head. “Milady, I doubt that would happen as I am the best thief in the realm.”
“I certainly hope that is true.”
I turn and continue walking. He follows. Soon we reach a clearing with a dozen stone platforms. Statues occupy half of them. I stop and face him with a smile.
“Choose one,” I say. “An empty one, of course.”
His eyes widen, and his mouth curls into a smile. “So this means that—”
“Yes. I shall petrify you upon the pedestal of your choice.”
He bows deeply. “You have my gratitude, milady. It shall be an honor to join such warriors and treasure seekers.”
I narrow my eyes and frown. “There is no honor among this lot of thieves and scoundrels, nor will there be honor in joining them. Perhaps you have misjudged my intentions. I do not wish to bestow honor upon you. I wish to turn you to stone to avoid an arrow in my heart the next time you decide to visit me.”
“Understood, milady. Perhaps honor is not an appropriate word for my feelings.” He furrows his brow and strokes his beard before his eyes widen. “Privilege.”
“Privilege?” I ask.
“Yes, it is a privilege to join your collection.”
I roll my eyes. “Consider it what you will. Now make your choice before I reconsider.”
“Yes, of course.”
The thief scans around before bounding onto a pedestal between two young women.
“This one, milady.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
He glances back and forth between the two female statues. “Can you tell me about them?”
“I see no reason not to. They are mercenaries and arrived here together. I am quite skilled with a sword and quickly disarmed both of them. I assume they came either to kill me or steal my treasure. Or perhaps both. I did not ask them.”
“Forgive me, milady, but I have another question.”
He swallows and appears uncomfortable. “Um, why are they unclad?” He glances around at the other statues nearby. “Why are they all unclad?”
“Because I relieved them of their clothing. Do you not agree they are splendid without it?”
The thief turns red. “Well, if I must respond, my answer is yes.” He peers at me suspiciously. “Will you do the same to me once I am stone?”
“No,” I answer.
“Yes, I promise not to relieve you of your clothing once you are stone.”
“Oh, thank you, milady. I cannot tell you how—”
“Because you shall relieve yourself of your clothing before you are stone. It will save me the trouble.”
All the color drains from his face. I smile. His obvious discomfort is quite amusing. I feel like a cat playing with a mouse.
“Disrobe. Toss your garments on the grass. I will wait.”
He looks at the ground. “Yes, milady.”
The thief removes his cloak and then pulls his tunic over his head. I gasp when I see what lies beneath. The scar on his neck was but a preview. His chest and abdomen are covered with many wounds from swords, arrows, and lashes.
He turns to reveal even more scars along his back.
“I have cheated death a hundred times, milady. The proof I carry with me wherever I go.”
“I see. You shall make an interesting statue, thief.” I motion with my hand. “Please continue.”
His boots, belt, pants, and other garments soon lay upon the grass as he stands naked before me on the pedestal. I bend down, remove something from his discarded belt, and hand it to him.
“You should hold this. We don’t want your friends to think you went quietly without a fight.”
He smiles as he takes the dagger. “Of course, milady.”
I step back and examine his pose. He crouches, feet apart, and dagger at the ready as though waiting for a charge.
“Does my pose please you, milady?”
“Yes. It is a pose befitting the greatest thief in the realm. If you have anything else to tell me, I suggest you do it now.”
“No, milady. I am ready.”
I pull back the hood of my cloak to reveal the writhing mass of snakes upon my head. The thief’s eyes open wide. I frown.
“Do my serpents scare you, thief?”
His answer surprises me for the second time since our meeting.
“No, milady. They are beautiful. As are you.”
I narrow my eyes behind the veil and pull my sword from its sheath on my belt.
“If you dare to ridicule me with your last breath, perhaps I should gut you and feed you to my serpents!”
He recoils in horror. “No, milady! I do not jest! I implore you to put away your sword.”
I grip it tighter and consider relieving him of his entrails, but his expression stays my hand. Although he is a thief and not trusted in word or deed, I see no malice or cunning in his eyes. I return my sword to its sheath and stare at him.
“You do not jest?” I ask. “You find me beautiful?”
“I do, milady. I wish only to gaze upon your eyes.”
“Then gaze, you shall.”
I pull the veil from my eyes and look deeply into his. He smiles as we continue to stare at each other. In my peripheral vision, I see the change beginning already. The color drains from the thief’s feet as they fuse to the stone platform. The petrifying wave sweeps upward, claiming his calves and thighs. His loins are next, followed by his scarred abdomen and chest. The transformation reaches his neck and spills down his arms, turning his fingers to stone as they hold the dagger. The marble wave resumes its climb over his grizzled chin and mouth, followed by his nose and ears. His unblinking eyes lose focus as they fade to white. The wave crests his head and cascades through his tangled locks. And with that, it is finished.
I take one last look at the thief before turning for home. We are not so different, he and I. His final words are a painful reminder of my curse. While he may have found me beautiful, he would be the first since Athena bestowed this ‘gift’ upon me. Will he also be the last? And if not, what then? Could it be a sign the curse is breaking? Only time will reveal the answer to that question. Until then, I have a garden of stone to tend.
Copyright 2022 Veronica Malbec
Most people naturally assume Medusa’s victims are unsuspecting or unwilling. After all, who would want to be petrified? That got me thinking about exceptions to that rule and whether petrification could be a logical life choice for someone. After mulling this over for a while, I arrived at the thief in the story. Narcissists would be another logical choice, but those lovely people can be fodder for a future story.