Eating rotisserie wood pigeon, Sir Danielle Longbow tried to hide her fear. Though the hosts had welcomed them, cenaga were startling if not nightmarish creatures to behold. Their snake heads had antlers. Their torsos bore two strong arms which were tipped with vicious looking claws. The rest of their bodies looked like a horse’s muscles in a snake body. Thick long tails balanced their torso but restricted their speed to less than that of cavalry.
“How issss our food?” Asked the leader of the cenaga, who wore blue feather decorations on its antlers as a show of power.
“Delicious, wise one. We thank you humbly for your hospitality.” She bowed her head to show respect. The cenaga controlled the majority of Crann Kingdom’s coastline. The deal was that they kept the land and bore all responsibility for guarding it.
“We were mosssst honoured to be given armour by your new Queen Elsssspeth. The resssspect of your people to mine issss rare. Mossst humans have tried to exterminate the cenaga. Our numbersss have grown here asss othersss flock to the sssafety of our land.” The long blink of its yellow eyes was supposedly a sign of happiness.
“If I may ask, wise one, how many cenaga are there now in your lands?”
“Thoussssands, young one. Many thousssands.” The green scaled lips of the quadruped leader curled into a smile. The teeth revealed were all razer sharp. “Would you like to look?” Its head tilted. The sky-blue feathers in its antlers flopped.
“Can I? I can’t imagine how all of you have space in the forest. You’re so big.”
“We do not live in the foresssst little one. We live beneath in our caves.”
“Yessss. Follow me.”
“Stay here, enjoy the food,” Danielle told her party of five. Six was a sacred number to the cenaga. Seven strangers on their land were considered prey.
The old cenaga walked slowly with Danielle by its side. Younger members of the community cupped their hands over their eyes, a gesture of subservience to the wise one. Their scales were all colours of brown and green. Some were stripped, others had patterns or were plain.
Many wore armour that had the hallmarks of Leonor’s smiths. The steel lances they carried were easily eight feet long. Danielle doubted she could even carry one.
The track they followed inclined gradually and turned in a spiral. They walked into darkness beneath an archway that looked older than Leonor Castle.
“My kind have lived here longer than people,” said the wise one. “Once we were everywhere. Your kind hunted mine and little by little we were pushed into corners and exterminated. Everywhere but here.” In the dark, all Danielle could see were the eyes of the snake headed creature. She shivered.
“One of your kings struck a deal with us long ago. We could keep the forest as our home if we guarded the coast for the kingdom. We kept the deal. Your people kept yours. We have both benefited from the Peace of the Forest. You will see what we have done for you.”
A flickering torch was brought to Sir Longbow. In its light she saw ancient human skulls in the walls of the cave. In rows and columns, endlessly as they walked down and down.
The cave forked. The wise one chose the middle of the three paths. Entire skeletons were dug into the walls of that tunnel. Her mouth was dry from the contemplation of death.
“Thessse are the enemiesss of Crann. We have been killing for you for a long time.” The wise one waved his clawed hand to the endless dead.
Beneath her feet, eyeless faces watched her. Despite herself she felt like the enemy there. “I’m sorry for the pain humans have brought you,” she said. Her mouth was dry. Her words shook.
“Do not apologise little one. Our peace with your people ssssaved the cenaga from extermination. We are grateful. I want you to see my home.”
Theirs was a world unused to firelight. Insects scuttled from skull to skull to be out of the orange light. Wide serpentine eyes narrowed to slits as she passed them. Their path wound. She tried to remember which turnings to take but there were too many.
Something enormous glittered in the darkness before them. The cavern they were walking through was a seemingly endless shanty town made from wood and bones. Over it all loomed figures coated in gold. Six statues of cenaga dwarfed everything else. The six faced each other in a circle. Their antlers touched the ceiling. Their tails could be seen over the shanty rooves.
“They are the ssssix gods. We never depict the sssseventh. If the ssseventh god returnsss it meansss doom for our world.”
“You believe in the seven gods?” There were many religions, The Seven Gods of the Seven Worlds was the most common in the southern kingdoms. “I assumed you would have different beliefs.”
“Our religion wasss given to ussss when humans began their own. We ssssaw the ssseven alongside your ancesssstorsss. To our eyesss, they looked like usss.”
“Each saw the gods as themselves, for the gods had no form a mortal mind could envision. Their beauty and might were incomprehensible.” Danielle quoted the passage she knew from the Scriptures of the Seven.
“You know little one. We live far longer than you, we remember thingsss you have forgotten. We remember the magic you had. Magic cenaga and humans fought each other with.” They looked at each other, the wise one and the knight. “You are brave to venture so deep into our domain. I have assssked others before. All declined.”
“I’m a curious person. I would have hated to spend my life wondering what I would have seen here. It is incredible.” Danielle pointed to the statues, wondering what lit them in the dark.
“Certainly,” the wise one said.
“Can you explain the rule of six to me?”
“It comesss from the godsss.” He waved a hand to the statues. “When sssix come there can be piece, when ssseven come, destruction. When one comesss alone, they are tressspassssing. We do not allow trespassers.”
“How long do cenagas live?”
“I am three hundred yearsss old little one and not the oldessst of my kind.”
“How do you feed so many cenagas just from the creatures of the forest?”
The hissing laugh in the darkness made every muscle in her back stiffen as the hairs on her neck and arms stood to attention. “We fish the ssssea little one. We hunt down here in the pitsss beneath the world. What liesss above isss nothing compared to the world below.” There were hints of pride in those words.
“There are other cities like this, aren’t there, connected?”
“Clever little one. I like you.” He smiled. “Sssee the sssix.”
The wise one spread his arms as they came to the open space at the heart of the cavern. It was a circular pond, cut from the granite that was everywhere beneath Crann. Bioluminescent flowers floated on the water. Their pale light gave a soft glow to the six statues which all looked tall enough to loom over Leonor Castle.
“How brave are you, little one? Will you ssswim in the water?” It smiled with all its terrible teeth. It was teasing her. “There isss a gift for any who will ssswim with the dead.”
“The dead?” Danielle didn’t understand until they were at the water’s edge. Skeletons of endless cenagas lined the inside of the pool which was a sloping shaft into perfect darkness. “How far down does that go?”
“A looooong way down.” The wise one smiled. “Will you swim with me? I will go first. Are you brave enough to swim with a monster?” The cenaga began to pick the feathers from its antlers and to remove the combination of toga and saddle that was the standard garment for the cenaga.
“Promise not to eat me?”
“I promissse. I cannot make promisssessss for the thingsss beneath though. I hope you can hold your breath.”
“I’m from Fisher’s Gasp.”
“I don’t know what that meansss.” The wise one was already stepping over the lip of the water and parting the flowers on the surface as it waded in.
The adrenaline that had been coursing through Danielle since she had entered the darkness seemed spent. She rested her flaming torch on the edge of the water and stripped off her clothes. Her nudity no doubt meant nothing to cenaga. She didn’t want snagged clothing to be the reason she drowned somewhere deep beneath the world.
Her armour and her clothes kept her weapons company as she stepped into the cold water. Fisher’s Gasp was named for the sound of exhalation that many made when the water stole the breath from their lungs. It was best to get it out of the way and to dive in.
“If I die, Lupita, forgive me.”
Down she went, touching the bones of long dead cenaga to guide her down as the light faded again. Not completely.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to light from algae on the tunnel walls. Down she kicked, knowing that if there was nowhere to breathe at the bottom, she had nothing left in her lungs to return.
A hand grabbed her and dragged her from the water onto stone. Stale air hit her face. He lungs screamed for oxygen. Gasping only helped a little. What might have been just a minute’s recovery above took far longer as she adjusted.
“Very brave. Congratulationsss. I don’t think there hasss ever been another human down here.” It prodded her. “Ssso sssoft.”
On the rock beneath her were carvings of the cenaga fighting. The carvings were everywhere. The snake centaurs were hunting giant fish.
“My name isss Takssshanta. You have earned that knowledge.”
“Thank you Takshanta.”
“Thank you for your trussst in me. Look upon our kingdom.”
Danielle looked at a city greater than all those she’d ever seen combined. Every roof was covered with gold. Every surface was carved with the lore of the cenagas. Pillars held up the rock above. If not for them the city might have seemed endless.
“We mussst return you to your people. You have a journey to ssstart. I am glad you sssaw the kingdom of the cenaga. When you return from your adventure, you may visit me. Call for wise one Takssshanta. Knowing my name will prove I trussst you.”
Just when they were turning to leave Sir Longbow saw cenagas butchering a fish which looked as if it could have eaten them whole, two at a time. Her look of astonishment caused Takshanta to smile.
Back they went.
Danielle dressed herself again.
Up through the darkness they rose. She left the flaming torch. It hurt her eyes after being down in the darkness for so long.
Back passed the endless skulls. Were there thousands? Millions?
Her quintet waited for her near the fire where they were talking with other cenagas and laughing. Takshanta bid them farewell and told them they should ride their horses to the port before nightfall.
“Thank you for your hospitality, wise one. I hope to visit you again.”
“I hope you come again,” said Takshanta, blue feathers flicking as he bowed his head.
They rode through the Devil’s Wood to the Eastern Sea. Armoured cenagas watched them by a tiny pier where a boat filled with six sailors was waiting impatiently. The armoured bodies of imperial soldiers lined the shore above the tideline in their thousands. One or two armies had met their end on the beach there against the cenagas. Ships were wrecked on the rocks nearby.
For many years she would be having nightmares about the things Takshanta had showed her and yet her curiosity ate at her less than her hunger for their roasted birds. She would never regret making a friend among the cenagas.
Danielle was the last to get into the rowboat. She bowed to the forest, where yellow eyes were watching from the treeline. With that, she left Crann behind.