Nissa is the smallest cobra born of an aging queen. Her size, unmarked hood and dull scales are sources of endless torment from her siblings. All of the royal slither have been schooled by One-Fang, the oldest and wisest cobra, for one of them will rise to become the new queen. Despairing, Nissa chooses to follow the path taken by her teacher in his youth and venture forth among men. She is ill prepared for what she finds there, but even more so for what she learns about herself when she is forced to return home.
Learn more here about this book's voice actor, Sean Tivenan, and enjoy the audio sample below.
The branches of Knowledge Tree hung full with One-Fang's students. He studied Queen Asala's young. This, her largest slither, numbered thirty-three and all were present, all but one. One-Fang sighed and slid from limb to ground as if with wings, his students watching as he vanished into the foliage.
The sun sagged in the sky and One-Fang fought back his irritation. There was much to teach the royal siblings before the dawn on this their last night together. Among them would rise the new queen. They must be well prepared to survive and One-Fang would not fail his charges there, not even one, especially not this one. His thoughts raced as he sped to the place he knew he would find his missing pupil, Nissa.
Coiled and flat, Nissa lie watching at the very edge of the forest. In the distance, mountains rose, trees stood few and far apart and tall grasses swayed wildly in the evening breeze. The setting sun played on all this and on the smooth ash gray scales of Nissa's still young body.
One-Fang paused only a moment to appreciate her youth before he rose behind her in the brush and spread his hood.
"Nissa. You are late again."
She did not glance back at him as she spoke and her voice was pained. "I am sorry, but it is so beautiful in the dusk beyond the forest. I must watch."
"I have taught you the forest, Nissa, and it is the forest you must watch."
"Not if I do not make the forest my home," replied the princess.
"Why must you ache so for places we do not know? It is danger. You are of the queen and must live and grow long. Asala will bear no more young. Of you and your sisters, few fangs will grow full and the crown must be passed down."
Nissa twisted and turned to face her teacher. Small dark eyes stared up at him and One-Fang relaxed his neck, dropping hood.
"You are wisest among the Naja. Look at me. It matters not where I make my home. I could not be queen. My scales are plain and my color dull. My hood bears no mark, no fetish of my power."
One-Fang lowered his body and coiled beside his pupil at the forest margin. He was silent for a long moment, waiting for the sun to fall away behind the peaks. When it was gone he spoke again.
"Quick now before your eyes adjust, what do you see out there."
Nissa strained her eyes, but could only reply with a feeble questioning "Nothing".
"This is our time little one. Silent. Fast. Serpentes. The moon is our sun. In the forest, or there in the land beyond," One-Fang motioned past the tree line, "we are seen only at the moment we choose to be seen."
"In the forest, when the sun is high, there is shade and we may rest and hide. There where you wish to slither there is no hiding from the sun, no easy retreat or nest and as well beyond there is...."
The old Naja paused. His tongue darted in and out as he tasted the air and Nissa mimicked him.
"That is the taste, the smell, the sense. Mark it. It is man. Man is beyond the forest and we are no friend of man."
Nissa caught the faint mark and wondered at it. She looked up at One-Fang staring into the darkness.
"But you were not always teacher, and it is said that you traveled beyond the forest."
"There are many rumors of my Journeys, but I will tell you one truth. I lost my fang to man."
"It was a cold night and I sought heat. I found my way through the roots of one of man's square trees and found fire burning there inside. Man sat, his awkward legs dangling and his young on the floor before me."
"I remember spreading my hood, my glorious white twin circle fetish, and rising beneath his chair. I would have struck, but I heard his words and they stayed me. It was a poem that he read to his young and in it I heard truth and wisdom. It told of a man and a snake come together at once to drink from a trough. The man waited and watched afraid until the snake had his fill. When the serpent retreated the man threw a branch at him."
"That is an awful tale! How mean and cowardly to wait until he had turned his back. What stayed you teacher, why did you not strike the man for reading such things to his young?"
"It was the end of the poem that gave me pause. I remember it still "
"I turned to leave their tree but was seen by man's son. The poem was instantly forgotten and they could not conceal their fear or hate. Man smashed at me and broke my fang and would have killed me were I one second slower."
"Come," One-Fang turned abruptly and moved back into the trees, "your instruction concludes tonight."
Nissa waited only a moment before following her teacher back into the forest.
1. From Snake by D.H. Lawrence
Morning was upon them before Nissa realized. The sun shot through the branches of Knowledge Tree at odd angles as students and teacher alike made their way to the forest floor.
"Come Nissa! Hurry!" Shouted one of her brothers.
"Mother has come to see us off!" Called another.
But Nissa was not as excited about her Journey. Where she wished to go there were only One-Fang's warnings and the certain mark of man. She was the last to fall from the tree and join the others amid the roots.
The Queen's children nudged and jostled one another as One-Fang and Asala conferred some yards away. Anghor rose up and looked down on his siblings. "One-Fang is old beyond old now. Look at him." All of them did as he said and then waited for him to continue.
"He taught all of our mother's slithers and many slithers of the queen before her. Before that he had his Journeys and was a student himself. I tell you he is old beyond old and when one of you my sisters becomes queen, One-Fang will step down or I will make him. I will be teacher. I will be the wisest Naja."
The queen's children whispered and wondered at Anghor's brave words. He was the longest and sharpest fanged prince. His hood was wide, his fetish bright and his colors, gold and beige, suffered not a single blemish. If he survived his Journeys, and none doubted that he would, Anghor could well make good his words.
Nissa disliked her brother. Anghor often led the others in teasing her for her size or color or the lack of markings on her hood. Whichever way he chose to take his Journeys, Nissa would travel the opposite.
The whispering stopped suddenly as Asala approached with One-Fang at her side. She stretched her long glorious body out before them and rose to her full height. Spreading her mighty hood, she stared down at them until even the brave Anghor lay abject beneath her. Her voice was a mighty hiss.
"One-Fang says you are prepared. You had better be."
The queen paused and studied them before continuing. "My daughters, one of you may be Queen, but I will oppose you with all my strength. Grow long and strong and sharp of fang for I will fight and kill to keep this crown."
"My sons, one of you may be teacher," Asala shot a sideways glance at One-Fang, motionless beside her, "but One-Fang has held this honor many years and it will take much more than strength to depose him. May wisdom find you on your Journeys."
"Go now, your teacher and I tire of you." Asala slowly lowered herself until she was flat. She was still as her children slithered from the roots of Knowledge Tree and began their Journeys. Next to her, One-Fang also watched.
"Are you pleased, my Queen?"
"I am tired."
"Rest. I will find and bring you sweet eggs to dine on."
"Will you serve my successor as well as you have served me?"
"Yes. Oh, yes. I am old Asala, but not tired. There is much I would yet do."
With that, One-Fang moved off into the undergrowth and Queen Asala coiled herself into the protective roots of the great tree and passed into sleep.
Nissa found herself wandering again at the forest edge. The sun was hot and she was tired, but she wanted to put as much distance between herself and Knowledge Tree as she could before succumbing to sleep. She was more tired of seeing her siblings, their colors and markings and size always reminding her of own plain gray scales and diminutive form.
Alone she could be golden, long and sleek, her hood emblazoned with the brightest fetish any Naja ever knew. She stared into the plains and thought of One-Fang. He had almost met his death there by man. Was this why she hesitated? Was she afraid?
What was holding her to the woods? One-Fang taught that Serpentes were forever bound to trees. The forest, more than home, was both prison and haven. Naja could not escape it and if one left, the woods only called and burned that much more in the soul. If One-Fang, wisest Naja, could not Journey there safely and was himself drawn back, how could she hope to survive and stay out from beneath the captivating branches of these trees? She scanned the wide empty land one last time and then turned to find her Journeys in the forest when she heard laughter from the bushes.
"I thought I might find you here." Anghor spoke as he slithered into view. "Little Nissa loves the plains, but they would not love you."
"Stay your tongue, Anghor! Why do you follow me?"
"But my sister, I don't follow you. I follow my Journeys." Anghor moved just beyond the forest edge and looked back at Nissa. "There in the plains is where I must go".
Nissa reared back. "You can't!"
Anghor laughed again. "Why not? I am not afraid like you. One-Fang went and wisdom found him there. I too must go if I am to be teacher."
"Wisdom won't find you and you will never be teacher!" Nissa rose up, but her brother shot forward and towered over her.
"You will be lucky just to survive your Journey my little sister. Do not guess that you know what awaits me. Go!" Anghor opened his hood. "Hide in some crevice of some tree. Sneak at night to steal eggs, hoard your venom in case something attacks and dream that you are Naja and not some pale gray worm with teeth."
Nissa shrank back from him and edged toward the trees. Anghor watched her retreat. He turned then and faced the plains again. Still standing, he moved into the grasses and away from the forest before lowering his body to the ground.
Nissa watched him move away, crying silent tears, the drops crystal on her ashen scales. She remembered then the words of man’s poem that One-Fang had spoken last eve. When Anghor was gone, she too rose up and without fear moved into the grasses. There in their arms, she sped into the immense unknown.
As Nissa shot out of the forest, her slender and short ash colored flesh unmistakable amid the sea of greens and browns, One- Fang watched, hidden in the leaves of a low hanging branch. As she moved out of sight, the old Naja raised his body and threw his hood wide, his white fetish so bright in the sun it seemed to glow. Thumping his tail on the branch for a beat, he opened his jaws and hissed out a song, a spell, every word of power he knew, a prayer to the sun the moon and the sky, a warning to man and the vast treeless expanse.
"Come back to me whole my fetishless ash colored pupil."
Samantha's artistic talents span illustration, painting, digital art and even theatre prop design. She is currently enrolled in art college and will soon be studying abroad.