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The Gorgon Knot

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From the moment she picked up her hairbrush, Susan knew it was going to be one of Those Days.

They’d reached a truce, she and her hair: it allowed her to go through the motions of putting it up, and she didn’t bother with the pretense of hairpins. Occasionally it would stick up little tufts in protest if she tugged too hard, but on the whole the arrangement worked out well for all parties concerned. Or so she’d thought. At the moment, it refused any attempts at taming, coiling out from her head in loosely twined strands like a nest of snakes.

Eventually, Susan gave up the struggle. She was going to be late for work. Willing herself not to check over her shoulder for a garrulous raven or a rat skeleton in funereal garb, she gripped the door handle in firm defiance of the voice (or Voice) at the back of her head reminding her that the odds and ends of the material, mortal world were more removed from true reality than certain things she did not have the patience to deal with at the moment, and walked out onto the streets of Ankh-Morpork.

Her students were disappointed to have their scheduled field trip to ancient Ephebe canceled on such short notice, though she mollified them somewhat by reading descriptions of the Tsortean War’s bloodiest battles. Unfortunately, no such relief was available to her. Stopping by her favorite used book shop was too much of a risk under present circumstances; Az was a dear, but his shadow had a tendency to sport wings, particularly when his friend with the sustained lisp paid a visit. And a drink at Biers was right out.

So while she was already in a dark mood when someone – or something – came up behind her, pinned her arms, and hustled her into an alley, a part of her was almost relieved to finally be getting on with it, whatever it was. She still refused to pay any heed to the other, smaller part that found the whole thing exciting.

“Don’t turn around,” her assailant ordered gruffly, in a voice Susan was barely able to identify as female.

“I’ll need to see your Thieves’ Guild card at least,” she replied, keeping her calm.

“We’re not thieves,” said a second voice, this one quieter and more musical. “In fact, we need you to take something from us.”

She placed no special emphasis on the words, but they nonetheless carried a certain resonance that made Susan tense. “I think you have me mistaken for someone else.”

The strong one refused to relent. “You are the Duchess Susan Sto Helit, granddaughter of Death?”

Susan was about to object that at the moment, she was only Miss Susan, schoolteacher, and liked it that way, when she felt the weight of something dragging her hand down. She glanced down and let out an aggrieved sigh to find herself holding a familiar sword, with an edge so sharp it glowed blue. “Apparently.”

In the flat portion of the blade, she could make out her petitioners. They went robed from head to toe, but from the few visible patches of gray-green skin and writhing movements under the hood, she began to grasp their reluctance to be seen.

It took her a moment to realize the one holding her was speaking, and a moment more to realize the grip had been relaxed enough that she could run if she chose. “…Said you could help us.”

“Who said?”

“The green-eyed goddess,” said the other. “The one you call the Lady. She said you might be our only chance.”

Susan frowned. The Lady was known to work in mysterious ways, and her divinity was a matter of some debate, but the denizens of Dunmanifestin typically gave Death – or anyone called upon to fill his office – a wide berth. While Susan neither liked nor trusted this intervention, she clearly could not ignore it.

“I suppose it would be foolish to ask you what you want of me,” she said at last, surrendering. “Perhaps you should start by explaining why.”

“It’s a long story,” said the strong one.

Gently breaking free, Susan found a spot to sit on the cobblestones and settled her skirts around her. “I have time.”

“Good.” In the sword’s reflection, Susan glimpsed a wry, weary smile from the slender one. “Because that’s all we have any more.”

-

There had been three of them, once. Stheno, the mighty, whose feats of strength and endurance were whispered in the same breath as those of Heracles and Atlas. Eurayle, the far-seeing, who could spot an eagle on the wing before it saw her and from that single glance deduce its course of travel. And Medusa, the beauty, who despite being the youngest ruled over them all with her grace and easy charm.

It was that beauty which had been their downfall. Ceto, their ambitious mother, was determined that Medusa have a real crown for her golden locks. Boasting of her daughter’s modesty and virtue to the great Poseidon, who (much like his brother) could not resist a challenge, she contrived an encounter for the pair at Athena’s temple. Stheno and Eurayle were pressed into service to stand guard.

Perhaps Mother had overestimated them as well, to think they could stand against an enraged Athena when she learned what had taken place on her altar. Poseidon, with all the constancy one would expect from a god of water, blamed the four of them for the affair. No one dared - or cared - to speak in their defense.

Mother, as mastermind, was transformed into a ravening sea-beast as punishment for her pride, fated to bring forth only monsters ever after. Medusa lost what divinity she had possessed, along with her looks. Her shining hair became a tangle of slithering serpents, her ivory complexion grew dull and scaly, and she could no longer cast her flirtatious gazes without turning mortal beholders to stone. Stheno and Eurayle suffered the same transformation, with one difference. They retained their immortality, and were told to consider it mercy.

They did. In fact, after the initial shock, it almost came to seem a blessing in disguise. As demigoddesses, their lives had lacked direction. Without the gods’ intervention, they might never have known the suspense of the hunt, or the exhilaration of battle, or the glory of a hard-won kill. Being objects of terror was in many respects more satisfying than the admiration they had known.

(“The Patrician has a saying along those lines,” Susan mused aloud, then quickly apologized for interrupting.)

Medusa, still their natural-born leader, took to it better than any of them. Only in hindsight did her sisters wonder whether she had carried a certain desperate hope into battle with her as she charged into the fray. Had she stared down each sword praying that this time, its bearer would not flinch and freeze, but strike true?

They would never know. For better or worse, she was granted the wish of every mortal: death came for her in her sleep.

A few centuries or so – maybe longer – passed while they busied themselves with vengeance against Perseus’s descendants, with steadily decreasing returns. They paid little heed to the rise of strange monotheistic religions, or that fewer and fewer of their divine counterparts crossed their paths even long enough to shun them.

Then one day, they awoke in the ruins of Rome, and realized the world no longer had any place for them.

They sought out the gods, but Mount Olympus was empty and cold, diminished from the mighty temple they had known. There were no oracles: only prophets, who had nothing to say on the subject of Gorgons except to predict their destruction at the hands of the Father or Son in some distant war: a prospect which had long ago lost its charms. And while the gates of the underworld had always been locked to them, they wandered the earth in vain seeking even a sign of its entrance. Their punishment – or simply their tenacity – had left them alone, the last of their kind.

It was then they began to envy Medusa’s fate.

Tentatively at first, then with greater zeal, they began their flirtation with oblivion. Or would have, if the bastard had only paid them some attention. They bared their necks to the sword and arrow, stood fast against hurricanes and tidal waves and lava flows, allowed themselves to be burnt and hanged and buried alive (“which didn’t seem like a particularly good idea even at the time,” Stheno admitted). They sprinkled themselves with holy water and tried praying to the God who had taken the place of their old ones to release them from their shackles, but He remained silent as well as unseen. In a final bout of frustration, they turned their fiercest glares and nails and caustic blood on each other. All they had to show for their struggles was a long string of petrified villages and a crushing sense of futility.

Eurayle was the one who first proposed the theory that the solution might lie elsewhere, in another world – more like the one they had lost, but ruled by more sympathetic powers. The idea came by way of her lover, a wizard who by means of complex and subtle spellcraft was able to avoid her direct gaze without encumberment.

(“Such a genius,” Eurayle murmured wistfully. “And so unappreciated by his colleagues.”

“No one to blame but himself for that, what with that nonsense he was always spouting about wizard blood being divine,” Stheno scoffed. “Besides, I never liked the way he’d whisper to your hair. Like he thought you were that pet of his.”

Eurayle began to issue the rejoinder in what was obviously a long-standing argument, then remembered they had company and resumed the tale.)

When he determined he could not persuade her to stay, he set about harnessing the innate transporting properties of his library to provide them with a means of travel, then taught them the method. With thanks and farewell – a kiss from Euryale; a restrained nod from Stheno – they vanished into the stacks, emerging again in an ornate study where the books’ spines were stamped in an alien alphabet.

It was a scene they would repeat countless times over. What gods they found were largely indifferent, either not comprehending the problem or upholding their counterparts’ judgment. Some were apologetic, but hampered in their ability to assist by their followers’ lack of faith or in aggravating agreement with the majority in their refusal to tamper with a fate long since decreed. Stheno and Eurayle pleaded, cajoled, wept, shouted, cursed, and on a few memorable occasions attempted to inflict physical harm, but the result was always the same: the audience would end, and they, heads bowed and hooded, would make their preparations to move on.

So at last, they had wound their way to the Disc. By chance, they had arrived in Ephebe, and embraced each other with shouts and tears of joy, believing for one moment of wild, joyful delirium that they had come home. For another moment - or at least a moment as immortals measure time - it was close enough for them to postpone their errand.

Too close, in fact. Gradually, their longing for that which was different became exacerbated by that which was similar. Thus, at last, they began their pilgrimage to Dunmanifestin.

They knew the response they would receive even as they set out. But deep in their breasts, the traitorous ember of hope that had rekindled in their first glimpse of this world still burned.

-

“And that brings us here,” Stheno concluded.

With great care, Susan turned her head to wipe a tear from her eye, disguising the gesture amid her efforts to stand and compose herself.

“I’m sorry,” she said, when she felt she could trust herself to do so without her voice wavering. “But what the other gods told you is doubly true for my grandfather. He carries out the Duty. He doesn’t intervene. The few times he’s gone against that code, things have gotten – complicated.”

Which is why he has you, a voice in the back of her head that was decidedly not The Voice sneered. You and your ability to imagine solutions he can’t, to act on the unthinkable. He’d intervene enough to stop this meeting if he didn’t want you getting involved, wouldn’t he? And he certainly wouldn’t loan you that sword.

Susan’s gaze shifted away from the sisters’ reflections and down the length of the weapon’s impossible edge. Surely he didn’t expect her to use it?

No, she realized. He didn’t.

“…don’t need him,” Stheno was saying. “We came to you!”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Susan said, choosing her words with precision. “I’m like your sister: mortal in every respect that matters. If someone were to wrest this sword from me and slit my throat before I could react, I would be as helpless to prevent that as I am to raise it against you.”

She did not dare watch Eurayle’s reaction, but from the sudden blur which left her on the ground empty-handed before lunging in Stheno’s direction, she surmised the far-seeing sister had made the connection as quickly as she hoped.

Picking herself up, she felt along the ground for the sword, looking and then averting her eyes in quick succession. One hand touched the handle, and came away warm and wet.

Instead of flinching, she undid her second-best cloak with only a pang of regret and prepared to fashion it into a means of cleaning up the aftermath.

There would be complications, she sensed, as her hair knotted itself up in its most sensible bun: the one she wore to steel herself for parent-teacher conferences. Well, so be it. Let the gods condemn her for the mortal failing of compassion. Or let them try.

For she knew no part of her would bend before their notion of justice.