Dreamsnake - Vonda N. McIntyre

Chapter 1

The little boy was frightened. Gently, Snake touched his hot forehead. Behind her, three adults stood close together, watching, suspicious, afraid to show their concern with more than narrow lines around their eyes. They feared Snake as much as they feared their only child’s death. In the dimness of the tent, the strange blue glow of the lantern gave no reassurance.

The child watched with eyes so dark the pupils were not visible, so dull that Snake herself feared for his life. She stroked his hair. It was long, and very pale, dry and irregular for several inches near the scalp, a striking color against his dark skin. Had Snake been with these people months ago, she would have known the child was growing ill.

“Bring my case, please,” Snake said.

The child’s parents started at her soft voice. Perhaps they had expected the screech of a bright jay, or the hissing of a shining serpent. This was the first time Snake had spoken in their presence. She had only watched, when the three of them had come to observe her from a distance and whisper about her occupation and her youth; she had only listened, and then nodded, when finally they came to ask her help. Perhaps they had thought she was mute.

The fair-haired younger man lifted her leather case. He held the satchel away from his body, leaning to hand it to her, breathing shallowly with nostrils flared against the faint smell of musk in the dry desert air. Snake had almost accustomed herself to the kind of uneasiness he showed; she had already seen it often.

When Snake reached out, the young man jerked back and dropped the case. Snake lunged and barely caught it, gently set it on the felt floor, and glanced at him with reproach. His partners came forward and touched him to ease his fear. “He was bitten once,” the dark and handsome woman said. “He almost died.” Her tone was not of apology, but of justification.

“I’m sorry,” the younger man said. “It’s—” He gestured toward her; he was trembling, but trying visibly to control himself. Snake glanced to her shoulder, where she had been unconsciously aware of the slight weight and movement. A tiny serpent, thin as the finger of a baby, slid himself around her neck to show his narrow head below her short black curls. He probed the air with his trident tongue, in a leisurely manner, out, up and down, in, to savor the taste of the smells. “It’s only Grass,” Snake said. “He can’t hurt you.” If he were bigger, he might be frightening: his color was pale green, but the scales around his mouth were red, as if he had just feasted as a mammal eats, by tearing. He was, in fact, much neater.

The child whimpered. He cut off the sound of pain; perhaps he had been told that Snake, too, would be offended by crying. She only felt sorry that his people refused themselves such a simple way of easing fear. She turned from the adults, regretting their terror of her but unwilling to spend the time it would take to persuade them to trust her. “It’s all right,” she said to the little boy. “Grass is smooth, and dry, and soft, and if I left him to guard you, even death could not reach your bedside.” Grass poured himself into her narrow, dirty hand, and she extended him toward the child. “Gently.” He reached out and touched the sleek scales with one fingertip. Snake could sense the effort of even such a simple motion, yet the boy almost smiled.

“What are you called?”

He looked quickly toward his parents, and finally they nodded.

“Stavin,” he whispered. He had no breath or strength for speaking.

“I am Snake, Stavin, and in a little while, in the morning, I must hurt you. You may feel a quick pain, and your body will ache for several days, but you’ll be better afterward.”

He stared at her solemnly. Snake saw that though he understood and feared what she might do, He was less afraid than if she had lied to him. The pain must have increased greatly as his illness became more apparent, but it seemed that others had only reassured him, and hoped the disease would disappear or kill him quickly.

Snake put Grass on the boy’s pillow and pulled her case nearer. The adults still could only fear her; they had had neither time nor reason to discover any trust. The woman of the partnership was old