A sound startled her awake. She blinked into the darkness, listening attentively for any other disturbance, but at hearing none she rolled over atop her bed of furs, ready to fall back asleep. Noises in the night were hardly a rare occurrence, after all. The symphony of crickets, the hooting of a lone owl, the faint sound of crashing waves in the distance; they accompanied Miranda in her rest.
There was another piercing sound, and this time Miranda’s body tensed with tightly-coiled terror. She’d heard a cry. A very human cry. Adrenaline flooded her, heart pounding loudly in her chest. She felt the familiar, repugnant feeling at her scalp as her silver white hair gave way to hissing snakes; their slippery, lithe bodies coiling and twisting between themselves, ready to strike.
Resigned to her fate, she flung aside the blanket and stood. She grabbed the thick himation from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders like a cloak to ward off the cold. Barefoot and wary, she walked to the entrance of her cave with no small amount of trepidation.
It was always horrific for her to come across anyone, and it never ended well. At best, it would mean more people finding their way to her hiding place - more valiant heroes convinced they could rid the world of yet another monster, and forcing her to flee yet again. At worst, it would be another life she took away, another drop of blood on her already drenched hands. She hoped this time it wasn’t another innocent bystander, at least. They were always the worst - people in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were too many stony, terrified faces haunting her as it was. She did not need another one to plague her nightmares.
It was a woman, she realised. Dear Athena, why did it have to be a woman? She was sprawled on the ground several feet away from Miranda’s cave, clutching her ankle. The agony on her features was clear, even with her face in shadows. Miranda felt a desperation to avoid what was bound to happen, to turn around before it was too late. Yet, in that moment, large brown eyes lifted and looked right at her.
An apology tore up her throat, even though she knew it would be useless - the woman wouldn’t be able to hear it at all by the time the words slipped from her mouth. She braced herself for the inevitable, swallowed down her nausea and her guilt, nails digging into her palms as she curled her hands into tight fists.
The woman continued to breathe. Her eyes squinted at Miranda through the darkness of night.
“Is there someone there?” she called out. Miranda, frozen in shock, didn’t reply. “I know you’re there. Please, I need help. I’ve hurt my ankle.”
She should not help her. She should not put her in danger like this. What if the woman saw her in the light, and Miranda’s worst fears came to fruition?
“Please,” the woman begged, and Miranda knew she could not leave her there.
Letting out a trembling breath, she willed herself to calm down. There was no danger, no senseless soldier charging at her with sharp weapons intending to kill. It was just some wounded woman, no doubt lost and disorientated. Her scalp began itching once again, and the snakes mercifully disappeared, leaving behind silky white hair in their wake.
Slowly, she walked towards the intruder, heart still racing despite herself. The closer she got, the more clearly she could see the almond-shaped eyes seeking out her silhouette in the darkness. Ignoring the terror in them, Miranda willed herself to offer a hand to help the young woman to her feet. After a hesitation, the woman grasped it and hauled herself up, leaning her weight on one leg.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
Miranda nodded silently. Before she could talk herself out of it, she placed the woman’s hand on her shoulder and wrapped a supportive arm around her slim waist. They slowly made their way towards the cave, the woman grunting in pain and leaning heavily against Miranda’s side.
Miranda tried to ignore her body’s reaction to touching someone for the first time in over a decade. The woman’s chiton was wound tightly around her, the material soft beneath Miranda’s fingertips. The body underneath it was warm in a way that was unexpected and jarring. Everything had been so cold for so long, Miranda had forgotten anything else.
She led the stranger to the tree trunk closest to the fireplace, helping her as she lowered her body to sit. Busying herself with building a fire gave her a distraction, but her practiced hands took little time before a flame flooded the cave with light. A faint gasp from across the fireplace echoed in the silence of the cave, but Miranda dared not look up for fear of what she might find on the woman’s expression.
She knew she looked nothing like she once used to. Her hair had turned a pearly silver overnight many years ago; her once fairly tan skin had paled significantly until it looked almost ivory. She had lost so much weight, and even though it had been many years since she had laid eyes upon a mirror, she knew her cheekbones stood too sharply against her face, her unfortunate nose even more pronounced than it had been in her other life.
Turning her back towards the intruder, she gathered her lone pitcher of water, a peach, and several grapes. There was little else to offer. She had meant to go out tomorrow for more food. She needed to gather more fruit and check all the traps she’d set for rabbits in the woods surrounding the cave, as well as the ones in the river and nearby beach for fish.
Miranda dropped the food and water next to the woman before sitting across from her, the fire’s heat between them.
“Thank you,” the woman repeated, her voice soft and pleasant.
Staring into the flames while the woman ate and drank, Miranda tried to make sense of the situation. In the ten years she had been on the run, she had not had any person’s company. Unless one considered the countless men who hunted her as company, which she certainly did not. She’d never even gotten the chance to speak to them, tell them how much she despised them, how ludicrous their feeble attempts at killing her were. They always perished before she even opened her mouth.
So it came as no surprise that Miranda did not know what to make of this situation. She was out of her depth. What should she say? How should she behave around this unexpected guest?
“My name is Andrea,” the woman suddenly spoke, and Miranda snapped her gaze up to stare at her.
Part of her still felt incredulous when the stranger - Andrea - remained alive after their eyes locked. With the light of the fire, Miranda was finally able to see the woman clearly. The orange flames danced in the dark brown pools of her eyes. Thick, heart-shaped lips and high cheekbones gave the woman a classic beauty Miranda herself had never possessed. Long brown locks of dishevelled hair framed the beautiful face that gazed at her so openly. Her cream-coloured chiton was dirty with mud and dirt, and torn at the hip.
Oh. Well, she supposed this was how conversations between strangers usually started. It had been easy to forget such things, living in this kind of solitude. She cleared her throat, and spoke hesitantly.
“Miranda.” Her voice was rough, an uncomfortable, harsh sensation in her throat. When was the last time she had spoken aloud? She tried again. “My name is Miranda.”
“Miranda,” Andrea repeated, a small, pleased smile curling her lips. “Thank you so much for helping me.”
She did not know how to respond to that, so she simply kept quiet. The silence continued for a long moment before Andrea spoke again.
“I’m sorry for all of this. I got lost, you see.”
“Where are you travelling to?” Miranda asked, her voice a little less gruff, but grating nonetheless.
“Well, um,” Andrea hesitated, and bit her lip before lowering her eyes. “I-I’m not entirely sure, actually.”
Miranda frowned, puzzled. How could she be lost if she didn’t even know where she was going? There was something strange about this woman, something that didn’t sit well with Miranda. Should she be afraid? Could this woman be dangerous? Did she know who - what Miranda was, and planned to kill her in her sleep? Her distrust and worry must have shown on her face, because Andrea’s shoulders slumped.
“I ran away,” she confessed, defeated and ashamed.
“What?” Miranda asked before she could think better of it.
“My parents - they were going to marry me to someone. A man named Nathaniel. He comes from a wealthy family, but he’s horrible. I only met him a few times, but I heard him yell at his poor mother once, and he--” She cut herself off, swallowing thickly. Watching Andrea’s eyes fill with tears, Miranda felt horror grip her as realisation dawned on her. She knew exactly what Andrea was going to say. “One night, he tried to force himself on me. I refused him, and he- he became angry, and raised his hand against me. I knew I couldn’t marry him, but my parents would not listen. They said I didn’t have a choice. So I ran away.”
Miranda’s eyes fluttered shut, trying to keep her memories at bay. She had spent many years trying to bury that part of her past, but the pain and terror still gripped her at times, so tightly she could hardly draw breath.
“I’m very sorry,” she offered, even though she knew it would do nothing to ease Andrea’s torment.
Opening her eyes, she saw Andrea taking deep breaths and wiping away stray tears. The young woman seemed so defeated that Miranda’s heart twisted with sympathy. Before she could consider her words, she blurted:
“You can stay here until you figure things out, if you like.”
Andrea’s eyes widened in surprise, looking almost as shocked as Miranda felt. They stared at each other in stunned silence, until Andrea’s face broke down with gratitude.
“Oh, I would so appreciate that, Miranda,” she breathed, her smile nearly blinding. “Thank you.”
Miranda shifted, feeling uncomfortable under the gaze of those eager, grateful eyes.
Why did she do that? Why did she invite this stranger to stay? It was not safe. Miranda knew better than this. But instead of giving voice to any of her doubts and fears, she stood as gracefully as she could and set about making a bed for Andrea with a spare pillow and blankets she had made herself.
Once she was finished, Andrea tentatively stood on one leg, and Miranda helped her across the short space until Andrea could lower herself onto the makeshift bed.
“How is your ankle?” Miranda asked, watching Andrea make herself comfortable under her best fox fur blanket.
“I think it’s only sprained. I know it was irresponsible to wander around at night, but I was too afraid to settle down so close to the forest.”
Miranda nodded in understanding. The forest could be rather daunting in the darkness of night. She remembered what it felt like in the first few months of being on the run, how every noise had filled her with terror and dread.
Instead of idling for more conversation - no matter how much a part of her wanted to connect with someone after endless years in isolation - she turned and walked the few steps across the cave to her own bed. She made herself as comfortable as she could, even though she felt a disturbing uneasiness about sharing her space with a stranger. It had been so long since she had been around anyone, let alone slept so close to them with her guard lowered in slumber.
“Good night, Miranda. And thank you again, for everything. May Morpheus bring you peaceful rest.”
Miranda closed her eyes, trying to calm the turmoil inside her chest, and answered, “And to you, as well.”
In short time, Andrea’s slow, even breathing resonated faintly in the cave, and Miranda willed herself to sleep, praying to the Gods that she had not made a terrible mistake by letting Andrea stay. Praying to Athena, the only God that had ever taken mercy on her, for her continued protection, even though she had rarely prayed to her since Miranda’s life had been torn from her grasp.
With that last prayer, she felt herself slowly slip away until she knew nothing but darkness.
The next morning, at the break of dawn, Miranda’s eyes snapped open as she startled awake, fully aware of the rustling noises coming from the other side of the cave. She immediately recalled the events of the previous night. Before she could dwell on them too much, she rolled onto her side and made herself look at the source of the sounds.
Andrea was turning over in her makeshift bed, a small frown marring her otherwise smooth features. She was still deeply asleep, but it was obvious that it was not a tranquil dream. Perhaps a nightmare, or simple discomfort at lying practically on the floor of a cave, with only a pile of blankets to keep the cold away.
Miranda still remembered how restless she had been every night for the first few weeks on the run, away from civilisation and its comforts. Now though, her body was more than accustomed to living in such circumstances, and she had plenty of practice at making a fairly comfortable bed to sleep on.
Catching sight of the empty bowl by the dying fire, Miranda remembered that there was barely any food left, especially now that it was not just her who would need sustenance. Since the sun was starting to shed light on the outside world, Miranda decided to go in search of food for herself and Andrea. And maybe spend some much-needed time thinking about this new development in her life.
As quietly as she could, she got up and donned her warmest himation, wrapping it around herself tightly before slipping on her worn sandals. When she picked up her hand-woven basket, Andrea stirred again.
Miranda watched, frozen in place, as brown eyes blinked open and looked around disoriented until recognition dawned on Andrea. She found Miranda with her gaze and offered a tired smile.
“Good morning,” she murmured, her voice thick with sleep, and rubbed her eyes. “Where are you going?”
“To find food.” Miranda’s voice hadn’t lost its coarseness from last night, and she cleared her throat before speaking again. “Stay here, I will be back soon.”
“Oh.” Andrea blinked, and her features were filled with something Miranda could not decipher. “Alright,” she said, and pulled the blankets tighter around her, until most of her head was buried under them. “Good luck.”
Miranda did not know how to respond to that, so she simply turned around and made her way out of the cave. The day was brisk but pleasant, and there were no clouds in the sky. It would get warm later. Perhaps she would try her hand at fishing today, despite how futile her last attempt had turned out.
A few hours later, the sun was high in the sky, and Miranda had shed her himation in order to enjoy the warm rays on her bare arms. The chiton she was wearing was her preferred one out of the three she owned, the fabric lighter and softer, held together around her waist by a belt.
Despite her misgivings and anxiety about having a stranger in her cave for an undefined amount of time, she did her best to put her fears out of her mind, and focused instead on finding as much fruit as she could.
One of her traps had caught a hare and she picked up the limp animal tentatively. She always hated this aspect of living in the wilderness, but the queasiness had receded with time. The hare seemed free of any worms or other undesirables, so Miranda draped the animal in the basket and decided to make her way back to the cave.
When she arrived a short while later, Andrea was sitting on the tree trunk and staring into space. Her head snapped up the moment she heard Miranda’s footsteps approaching. They looked at each other for a silent moment, assessing, before Andrea smiled tentatively.
Miranda nodded in greeting, and set about placing the peaches, apples, grapes, and nectarines in the little alcove at the deepest part of the cave. She arranged them carefully, and placed a small cloth over them before reaching for the sharp knife she’d taken from one of the mindless men who had tried to kill her.
Straightening her shoulders, she grabbed the dead hare by its long ears and strode out of the cave. She had a specific place where she skinned the animals, away from the cave so the smell of blood would not attract any unwanted predators. It was by the river, and Miranda sat there for a quiet moment. She listened to the trickling water and the soft breeze brushing through the trees around her.
After finding comfort in the sounds of nature, she let out a deep breath, summoning the fortitude she always needed in order to complete this particular task. She slid the blade under the animal’s fur, and scrunched up her nose as she set about skinning it.
When the deed was finally done, she washed the animal and the fur in the cold water, watching as the blood flowed with the current. She washed her hands with vigour, wanting any traces of her actions to be washed away as well.
Upon Miranda’s return to the safety of her cave, Andrea visibly flinched when she laid eyes on what Miranda was carrying. The lifeless animal hanging from Miranda’s hand was a jarring sight, so she quickly placed it over the tower of sticks she’d built for exactly this reason, away from Andrea’s sight. She laid the hare’s wet, clean fur over a rock just at the entrance of the cave to dry in the sun, satisfied that it would make for a nice patch of blanket after cleaning it thoroughly with sea salt for at least a week. The cold winters were always the worst, and Miranda had learned the hard way to spend the rest of the seasons making sure she had plentiful furs to keep her warm.
“Hungry?” She asked Andrea, waving her arm vaguely in the direction of the hidden fruit.
Andrea shook her head, still looking queasy after seeing the skinned hare. Miranda wondered where the woman came from. Perhaps a big city, where most people were blissfully oblivious as to the process of having animal meat as part of their meals.
“The pitcher is almost empty, though,” Andrea said.
Miranda wordlessly nodded, grabbed the pitcher from its place on the floor near Andrea, and left the cave once again to fill it up with fresh water from the river.
Days passed like that, with Miranda getting up early and busying herself away from the cave while Andrea recovered. There was very little conversation, even though Andrea had made plenty of effort in getting to know Miranda - why she lived in a cave, alone and away from mankind, how she had gotten there, where she came from... But Miranda felt unnerved whenever Andrea did so, and she often grew quiet or evaded any questions thrown her way.
On the third day of Andrea’s stay, the younger woman attempted a new approach.
“Do you enjoy poetry?” Andrea suddenly asked, before taking another bite of the cooked fish Miranda had managed to catch that morning. Miranda looked up at her, startled at the question.
Not really waiting for an answer, Andrea started talking about her love for poetry. Miranda was astounded by her knowledge. She spoke of Archilochus, Alcaeus, and Hesiod - names Miranda knew well. In her other life, she had loved reading more than anything. She found solace in the written word, able to escape her reality with each verse that she revelled in.
Before she knew what she was doing, she was voicing her own opinions about the things she’d read such a long time ago, and they both became engaged in deep conversation that moved to art, architecture, fashion, and religion. She was amazed at how cultured Andrea was, how much she knew about the things Miranda had once loved so much but were now a distant memory. It revived her to think of them again, to remember how much beauty there was in the world outside her own isolated fortress.
Andrea even relayed all the recent happenings in their country, the many things Miranda had missed out on, hiding away. She was shocked at just how much had happened in the ten years she’d been on the run. It was unsettling to realise that even though her life had been stolen from her and she had been forced to live this solitary existence, the world kept turning without her.
And why shouldn’t it? She was an insignificant part of it. But the twisting in her stomach did not ease up, and she retired to bed early with a feeble excuse of exhaustion.
She felt Andrea’s concerned eyes following her, but she simply rolled away from that inquisitive gaze, and prayed for the mercy of sleep.
It became somewhat easier after that. Miranda no longer felt the need to keep her distance or hide away, despite her uneasiness at being so close to another person after all her years of solitude. Part of her wanted Andrea to stay, because her honest smiles and easy conversations were slowly healing something inside Miranda she hadn’t known was broken.
There was a constant fear, however, buried deep in her subconscious, that Andrea would find out who Miranda was - what she was. That she would run away as far as her legs would carry her, screaming for help from anyone who would listen, and Miranda would once again find herself hunted by men.
She had learned long ago not to get attached to any place, not to get too comfortable or make herself at home anywhere. But this place - with its ample cave, the fruitful forest that served as its protector, the river that nourished and cleaned her, the lonely beach that offered comforting memories of her youth - it had become her favourite place she’d lived in. It would be difficult to leave it behind if Andrea were to flee in horror and warn the nearest village that a terrifying, man-killing monster lurked nearby.
Thus, whenever Andrea asked questions, Miranda avoided giving her answers. No matter how comfortable she had become with the woman, how much she had come to appreciate her presence, Miranda would not risk her secret being revealed. Miranda distracted her by moving the conversation to other topics, away from her. Once, in her eagerness to avoid Andrea’s inquiries, she even offered to teach the young woman how to start a fire. Andrea had grinned enthusiastically, and proved herself a quick learner.
When Andrea was able to walk again, over a week after her arrival, Miranda showed her the area. She led her to the beach through the clearest path, and made sure to show her every animal and fish traps she’d set up. She took Andrea to the river, and offered her the mix of algae and plants she used to wash herself. Andrea gratefully took it, and started disrobing before Miranda had time to turn around.
“Don’t go, please?” Andrea asked, touching her arm when Miranda made to walk away in order to give her some privacy. “I’d like the company.”
Miranda stared at her, speechless, but then acquiesced, despite the strange curling deep in her abdomen. For a mere second, she caught sight of Andrea’s naked back, and Miranda jerked her eyes away. It felt wrong to look upon Andrea like this. She did not understand why, since she had seen women in states of undress before, but this was different, somehow. Here, it was just the two of them.
She turned around, facing away from the sight of Andrea, and carefully sat on a rock by the shore. She listened to the sounds of water splashing and the contented little sighs Andrea gave as she submerged into the cool water. Miranda closed her eyes, feeling like a living, breathing contradiction. Despite her need to face away from Andrea, there was an overwhelming desire to turn around and look. Instead, Miranda forced herself to stare up at the brightness of the sun until her eyes stung.
After long minutes that felt like hours, Andrea announced she was finished, and Miranda extended her arm without looking directly at her, offering her spare clean chiton. Andrea thanked her, and draped it over herself, tying it loosely at her hips with the belt. She made quick work of cleaning her dirty dress before they both traced their steps back to the cave. Andrea hung up her soaked chiton by the branch of a tree to dry in the sun’s warmth, and Miranda announced she had to go to the beach. A flimsy excuse, and without real reason.
She ignored the strange look Andrea gave her, and hurried to the seaside. She needed to get away, to put some space between them.
The sky turned to stripes of orange, red, and pink in breathtaking brush strokes. Miranda basked in it, gazing at the horizon with her bare feet in the water, toes curling around the soft sand. She stayed there as time stood still, even as the sky darkened and a soft breeze picked up, gently caressing through her hair.
She could not understand why she felt so unsettled, so strange regarding Andrea. Her mind scrambled for a reason, but came up empty and disappointed. Miranda took a deep breath, and surrendered.
Upon her return to the cave, Andrea smiled brightly at her. She had started a small fire - her first attempt without Miranda’s guidance - but Miranda knew she was still uncomfortable with preparing their meal, so she took it upon herself to place the rabbit over the fire and keep a careful eye on it as it cooked.
After a filling, quiet dinner of rabbit and mushrooms, they were both sitting side by side at the entrance to the cave, gazing up at the bright stars in comfortable silence.
It felt nice to share the silence with someone. Miranda had done exactly this many a night before, but it felt so much better with Andrea by her side. The sounds of the night were now accompanied by Andrea’s steady breathing, the shuffling noises when she moved, her melodic humming as she sang a quiet tune.
Long moments passed like this, each lost in their own thoughts, until Andrea turned to her with an open expression.
“Will you tell me how you ended up living here?” She asked, her voice quiet.
Miranda’s eyes were closed, her head tilted upward, pale skin luminous under the soft glow of the moon.
“I am a broken seal; a scarlet stain upon the earth.”
Andrea leaned back, startled. Miranda’s eyes snapped open as she realised she’d recited the words aloud.
“How do you mean?” Andrea asked. She stared at her with a strange expression, as if trying to remember why those words sounded so familiar.
Miranda’s heart was racing. She should not have said that. It felt like she was standing on the edge of a precipice, about to be discovered. Adrenaline shot through her, and she could almost hear the phantom hissing of snakes.
“Miranda?” Andrea’s voice trembled, and her beautiful face twisted with dawning horror. “Oh.”
“You look like her.” Her tone was filled with panic. “The-the white hair, and your skin--”
Terror gripped Miranda when she felt the tell-tale itching sensation at her scalp.
“Oh!” Andrea cried out in shock.
She scrambled to get up, but Miranda lunged forward and grabbed her arms. Large, horrified eyes stared at her, the tensed body shaking beneath her grasp. Miranda looked at her in dismay, silently pleading for the impossible. With a trembling voice, Andrea began to recite the warning words of spurned men.
“Medusa, eyes blue and sharp,
Serpent hair, white as bone.
Her voice is false, string of harp;
Glance once and turn to stone.
Slither, snake, away from here;
Back to the pits of Hell;
Whence you came, do not return.”
Miranda flinched, feeling as though she’d been struck. She had heard the hateful verse spat from the mouths of the countless men who had so often tried to kill her. They had never quite finished it though, for Miranda’s eyes had been too fast.
She had not expected it to hurt - the notion that people wanted her to go to Hell, where she belonged. Or perhaps what pained her more was the person who had said the words, whose face was now ashen with fear.
Miranda knew people regarded her as a monster, but she'd never truly felt like one until this moment.
Defeated, she loosened her grip. Andrea immediately sprung to her feet. Miranda curled in upon herself like a wounded animal, pulling her legs up towards her torso and burying her hideous face in the cradle of her arms. The snakes retreated, and her hair fell over her shoulders like a white curtain, hiding her from the world.
Just as Andrea turned to flee, Miranda found herself speaking up, the words slicing through her chest and up her throat, escaping her lips before she had time to reconsider.
“I have never hurt you.”
Andrea froze in her escape, shoulders tight with tension. She slowly turned around, looking down at Miranda with frightened, bewildered eyes, breathing ragged. A frown marred her features, but she hadn't left yet. Miranda knew she had to at least try.
“I have only helped you. I’ve given you food and shelter, kept you company while you healed. I am not what they say I am.”
Brown eyes regarded her differently now as Andrea studied her closely. The fear remained, but there was something else that Miranda could not decipher.
“Why did you do it? Why did you help me?”
Miranda pushed her hair back, her vulnerable face now in clear sight for Andrea's gaze.
“You were hurt. You needed help. And when you told me what had led you here, why you ran away,” Miranda swallowed thickly, shoulders lifting up around her neck to ward off the sudden cold she felt. “I knew I had to help you. Give you a safe place to stay.”
Andrea stepped closer. Miranda flinched at the sudden movement. “Yes, but why?"
“Because I know what it’s like!” Miranda cried out. Her hands were trembling. She wrapped her arms around herself, clutching her sides, desperately trying to keep herself in one piece.
Andrea slowly came closer, until she was sitting next to Miranda again, looking at her closely with wary eyes.
“Do you-” She began, and bit her lip. Her eyes darted nervously to the forest in front of them as if seeking an escape. “Do you want to talk about it?”
The question threw Miranda off. She had never spoken of this to anyone. She had only ever briefly mentioned it in her prayers to Athena, but never to another person. Deep down she wanted to. She longed to scream with fury, to cry and release some of the pain, to unleash all the pent-up rage and humiliation she’d carried within her for as long as she could remember.
“I prayed to Athena,” Miranda began in a quiet voice, looking down at the ground. “Every night, since I was a little girl. My father-” Memories of her life swam in front of her like a violent current, and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to drown. “My father was not a nice man. My mother died when I was very young, and he took his anger out on me.”
Andrea’s breath hitched, but Miranda was too afraid to look at her, even when Andrea moved closer. Miranda could feel the warmth radiating off her, and took comfort in the sensation.
“For years, I lived with him and my brother. He took after my father, and every day I would have to face their violence.”
She was trembling now, and she squeezed her arms tighter around herself in a vain attempt to not fall apart.
“As soon as I was old enough, my father forced me to marry a man older than myself. Stephanos-” His name tasted like scorching acid at the back of her throat, and she felt almost dizzy with nausea. She tried to swallow past it, but the sick feeling remained. She tried to speak despite her broken, quiet voice.
“He drank. A lot. He was worse than my father and my brother. Worse than anything I could have ever imagined. I tried to run away several times, but he always found me.”
Andrea was biting her lip, her gaze unwavering from Miranda’s downturned face. Miranda felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny, bare and naked as she revealed her darkest, most painful secrets. A sharp, vicious pain in her chest accompanied the remembrance of her past. It wavered in its intensity when Andrea moved even closer, their sides practically pressed against each other. Andrea’s voice was hesitant and laden with something like dread when she dared to ask:
“Did he, um--”
Miranda didn’t want to talk about it. This was difficult enough as it was without having to go into details of all the ways she’d been hurt. She needed to block out the memories, needed to drown out the agony that was tearing through her.
“I prayed to Athena,” she repeated, steadying herself with a deep, shuddering breath. “Every night. I prayed that she would set me free from the cruelty of men, that she liberate me from the torture that I was forced to suffer through for the rest of my life. I prayed for vengeance, too. I wanted Stephanos to suffer, and my father, and any other man who ever mistreated a woman.”
“And she answered,” Andrea guessed, and Miranda nodded.
“One morning I woke up, and when I saw my reflection… It was horrifying. I saw the snakes, and thought I was having a nightmare at first. But they didn’t disappear, and I didn’t wake up. I looked less human. My hair, my skin-- it was all different. Wrong. I remember screaming in horror, and Stephanos running into the room, and then…”
There was a loaded silence as Miranda couldn’t bring herself to finish that sentence. She remembered so vividly. Stephanos yelling, and Miranda looking at him, and then watching him turn to stone before her eyes, his expression frozen in shock and horror. Miranda had panicked. She couldn’t understand what had happened, what it all meant. She'd decide to wait, filled with dread and anxiety, to see if he would come back to life.
He never did.
After that, Miranda knew she had to leave, to get away. She took with her the most important things: a change of clothes, some food, her favourite poetry scrolls, and her mother’s gold necklace - the only thing Miranda had to remember her by, a heirloom that still hung around her neck to this day.
After that fateful morning, she had never been the same. She felt tarnished, broken, but free. She had escaped. She would never again be abused; her body would never again be beaten by the merciless hands of a man.
As the days passed, and she made her way further and further away from the town she had lived in all her life, she did her best to survive. She’d had to learn how to live in the wilderness. It took some time, but after many hardships and near-death experiences, she had managed to learn how to live in harmony with nature. How to be invisible.
That had been the most difficult thing. To not be able to have any human contact at all, even from a distance. To avoid people, because their lives depended on her ability to do so. She still remembered so clearly the old farmer with the kind face who had found Miranda sleeping by a creek mere days after she’d run away. And the little boy that had lost his ball at the edge of a forest where Miranda had been looking for fruit. And the young merchant who had stumbled upon her hidden refuge by the side of a mountain.
Yes, she had learned the lesson very early on to avoid going anywhere near humans. It was the most painful lesson she’d ever had to learn.
“So you escaped?” Andrea asked gently, jolting her back to the present. “And you’ve been on the run ever since?” Miranda nodded again, not trusting her voice to be steady enough after the onslaught of deeply buried emotions. “How long has it been?”
“Ten years, give or take,” she managed to rasp.
“Gods,” Andrea murmured. “I’m so sorry, Miranda.”
Miranda finally lifted her gaze, surprised by Andrea’s declaration. She had expected many things - terror, disgust, loathing - but she’d never expected sympathy. She did not know how to respond to such a foreign concept, so she remained silent.
“I’m sorry about what I said, earlier.” Andrea seemed genuine in her regret as she looked at Miranda with eyes full of sorrow. “It’s just that, well, people have created this story about you. The frightening, terrible Medusa.” Miranda scowled. Of course people would make her into the monster, some cruel woman who deliberately turned men to stone. “But now I see that those stories are wrong about you. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re as bad as they say.”
Andrea was grinning at her sheepishly, and it took a moment for Miranda to realise that she was teasing her. It had been so long since she had been on the receiving end of any sort of well-intended humour that she barely knew how to react, even though she was amused by the endearing way Andrea was looking at her.
“Sorry, bad joke,” Andrea grimaced, and then her expression became serious again. “But seriously, Miranda. I really am sorry.”
A tentative hand landed on Miranda’s shoulder, its warmth almost knocking Miranda over. Andrea’s thumb caressed her bare skin in soft, soothing circles, and Miranda suddenly had trouble breathing. She had not received any kind of comfort from anyone in all her life, and the burden she had been carrying on her shoulders like Atlas himself suddenly spilled over her. Andrea’s touch was so reassuring and tender that tears filled her eyes. Before she could stop them, they slid down her cheeks in streams of grief and bitterness and ire, all her pent up darkness pouring out of her in waves.
The younger woman moved even closer, shocking Miranda when she wrapped her arms around her, pulling her against Andrea’s body until Miranda’s face was buried in her delicate neck. Miranda felt all her strength suddenly drain from her, and she caved in, wilting into the embrace like a sunflower seeking warm rays of light.
The ache in her chest loosened its grip, and the weight on her shoulders felt less suffocating now. She let out a trembling, relieved breath, even as the tears continued to fall, and let herself drown in the warmth of Andrea.