From the author: A girl from the green valley is taken by the king of the dead lands for a wife and a prophet, and does what she must to make the world better.
The fields were golden and the vines heavy with fruit in the harvest of her eighteenth year, when Corra’s mother gave her to the king of barren places. It was later than they had expected, but the bone-faced king had been far in the east of his domain when Corra flowered, and he had only now returned to take his prize in person.
Corra stood at the arch of flowers in the square before her mother’s great house and granary, her cheeks rouged red as apples, golden stalks braided through her tight black curls, a crown of grapevines on her head—the sign and symbol of all the bounty they would pay in tribute to keep the fire and steel of the riders who followed the king away from the fields and storehouses of the green valley where her mother was the queen.
Mother’s eyes were red, as if with weeping, but it was only counterfeit from rubbing them with ash and onion milk. The dress that she had torn to make a show of grieving was her third-best, almost a rag already. Corra’s younger sister was no more sincere. She had been raised to rule after their mother, while Corra had been raised to marry the king of killers. Only Aunt Fallo had an honest tear to offer Corra. She had gone to the same tithe when she was young and come back strange and mad. She knew what Corra would endure, better than Corra herself knew.
The king rode into the square alone, on his black horse; so tall, so fast. He leaned down from the saddle, barely slowing, and threw her over his horse’s neck. Then he turned and rode away, while Mother and all the women of the town wept and tore their hair and crashed cymbals in a pageant of grief.
The ordinary tribute would follow later. They would load the riders’ wains with flour and bread, beer and cheese, fine cloth dyed red and blue with the blood of the river clay, and the best wine of the first harvest. They paid so much each year, to keep the riders’ swords at bay. They only played the memory of the first abduction once each generation.
The king stole Corra, and her mother wept and sang as if she were already dead.
Outside of the town, the king slowed his pace and helped her settle into a more comfortable seat. There was a cushion in front of his saddle for her to rest on. He did not speak. She could not see his chest rise with breath. Was he really dead already, a bad dream brought back by the demon wind of the steppes to trouble good people?
The motion of the horse was strange, and she could feel herself grow tender where she bounced against it, but the king kept the pace slow, and it did not hurt after the wild sprint was over. His bone face was a leather mask, painted with white, real teeth sewn in a yellow smile where the mouth should be. The eyes that looked out from behind it were brown, bright and fierce as a hunting bird’s. His hair was black as hers but straight instead of curled.
Riding even slower, they came to the riders’ camp while the tribute wains were only a cloud of dust on the horizon behind them. There were pens of sheep and a few of cattle and countless horses all around in the grassy sea of the plains, where nothing grew but the dry grass that rustled like the laughter of dead souls against the flanks of the king’s horse.
Inside the sprawl of animals were the tents, so many of them. The king’s camp was bigger than the town in the green valley. How many towns must give up the best of their harvest to keep these wild people fed?
The king’s people watched them as they rode among the tents, and they cried welcome and joy and said how rich a prize she was, saluting their king for his good judgment. Their skin was sun-scorched brown as any farmer, and there were beads and charms of bone in their straight black hair.
The king stopped his horse in front of two huge tents pressed against each other. One was taller, tall as the highest house in the town, and the curtain of its door was painted with a grinning skull. The smaller one beside was painted with a green fruit bleeding red, and two women came out of it; one grey-haired with a lined face, the other a stick-limbed girl.
The king stepped from his horse and lifted her down. His hands were strong, and they were warm, not corpse cold. He spoke from behind his mask, and his voice was ordinary, deep and confident.
“This is Rada, who keeps my household, and Dati will be your body-servant. They will make you ready for the feast to celebrate our wedding.”
He left her with the women and went into the great tent. They took her into the smaller one. The ground was carpeted with soft furs, and brass lamps cast in the shape of long-legged birds burned fragrant oil for light. There were cloths and curtains dyed with strange colors and stitched with foreign stitches that Corra had never seen.
The womenstripped off her white dress and flower-patterned apron, her bell wrap, and the binding that held up her breasts. Rada’s hands were sure and merciless. Dati was timid, but she followed Rada, not Corra’s wordless protests.
When Corra was naked, Rada cooed over her, smiling at what she said were the stamps of rich living, at her belly and her hips and her thick limbs. Rada pinched her cheeks and said that she would be a fine companion for the king, strong enough to bear the duty he would ask. She did not explain more, and Corra had to bite back fear.
The ordinary business of cleaning and dressing grated against her terror. She was coming out of the numbness of terror and the flood of new experience that had kept her from breaking down while she rode with the king. She had heard hints before that the king would want more from her than rutting and children and warmth at night, but no one would speak what. Maybe only Fallo knew, and she did not answer questions. Corra tried to ask Rada, but the old woman only said that it was the king’s business.
They dressed her in red and purple embroidered with gold, a halter around her neck bound under her breasts that left her belly bare, a skirt that clung to show the curve of her legs and backside when she walked. It seemed made to display the rich flesh of the green-land girl the king had stolen, as though she was a prize heifer in the marketplace.
They changed her crown of leaves for a tiara of pale gold, beaten with the shape of waves. It must have been taken from a place near the sea, which she had never seen. They rouged her cheeks again and painted her lips purple with a sour stain. They put rings of silver on her fingers and rings of gilded bronze around her arms and hung heavy golden bangles from her ears. All of the jewels were mismatched, marked by different styles of work and the luster of different lodes and castings. They dressed her in looted finery from all the towns that bowed to the bone-faced king, and they sent her out into the dusk and firelight.
He caught her arm in a firm grip one step outside the tent and guided her to the fire circle. His face was bare now, and he looked like an ordinary man, with a strong chin and a long moustache. He was not old; older than her, but not lined or greying. The skin of his face was pale, lighter than the rest of him. He smiled at her, as if she was an ordinary woman, as if they both chosen this.
He sat her on cushions at his left hand, and a plate was laid before her, good bread and soft cheese and beef that had been cooked in the fire wrapped in fresh bay leaves. Flagons of strong wine and barley beer passed round the fire. If she could have closed her eyes to riders, closed her ears to the strange songs they sang and only smelled and tasted, she might have been at home, feasting the harvest gathered in.
The cords of self-control or pride that had bound back her tears and kept her floating without feeling broke then, and she wept, not caring if they saw her tears and heard her sobbing. The banter of the king and his captains did not pause for her. They heard. They had expected this, of course. She was not the first girl brought by force to share their food and fire and company. She ate the feast still sobbing, with tears to salt her bread. She wouldn’t go without. It might be her last chance to taste home before the next year’s tribute.
The stars were out in the summer sky before he drew her from the fireside, back to his great tent with the skull-painted curtain. He would take his prize now, of course. Her time to grieve was over. Now it was time for new pain.
He drew her to a bed of cushions and furs and pushed her down gently and stepped back from her.
“How should I lie, Husband?” It would be best not to fight. It would hurt less if he did not want to hurt her.
“My name is Hadi, call me that.”
“Hadi. How do you want me?” She untied the halter and pulled it off to let him see her breasts. Was that what he wanted?
“You don’t have tremble like that. I won’t take you while you’re so frightened. I don’t plan to force you. I need you for more than a night’s enjoyment.”
There was that hint again. What was the doom prepared for her if not to be his broodmare?
“What do you want me for then?”
“Sleep beside me tonight. The warmth is good out on the plain. That is enough for my people to see that you are mine. If it is so terrible, you can sleep in the women’s tent after tonight.”
So she laid beside the bone-faced king of bloody raiders, Hadi, her husband, and he laid his arm across her belly, heavy and stern as a shackle. She lay a long time before she could sleep there next to him, but he had not lied. The warmth was good in the cold night.
* * *
The city of tents travelled east after they had eaten the bounty of Corra’s home. Each day, she rode in front of Hadi on his tall black horse. He wore his leather mask, to keep the pale face that the riders knew their king by, but he spoke to her now, told her of the lands they were passing, around the rim of the great plain that circled the hard desert. Hadi’s people marked the stations of their journey by the tributes they could ring from each village and town, by the watering places where they could rest their horses.
The sky was so wide above the flat country, bright as a bronze bowl reflecting sunshine.
She learned when to be soft and when to hold herself stiff with the rolling of the horse. She would not be taught to ride. Each morning, Dati put soft slippers on her feet, not boots. She would not run far across the grassland in the shoes they gave her. They did not forget that she was a captive and a prize or mistake her for one of them, because she belonged to their king now.
Even understanding that, Corra did not understand the raiders. Often while they rode, old women and men, grey-haired like Rada, would ride next to Hadi’s black horse for a moment and ask Corra what the weather might be tomorrow, or how their sons would fare in their first battle, or how to make their daughters choose a good husband. She shook her head as if she did not understand them. Why would they ask her? It only made the shadow of her hidden purpose darker in her mind.
At night, they fed her mutton spiced with strange hot flavors that they had taken in tribute from the other end of their range. It burned her tongue and numbed her lips, but she did not starve herself. She had to be prepared for something; for whatever torture made the king of the barren places take a soft-limbed green-land girl for his bride and not even take his pleasure with her.
* * *
They had traveled seven days from her wedding before Corra found out what he wanted her for. After the evening meal, when Hadi took her back to the great tent, Rada brought him a dark-skinned fruit and left them alone. Hadi tore the skin with his thumb, and the flesh spilled out, bright red flesh hugging little seeds; like a pomegranate but brighter, richer.
“Eat,” he said, and pressed the seeds one by one into her mouth. Seven and he was finished, and she bit.
The flesh burst sweet and rich as honey on her tongue, then puckered sour on the second taste. The juice coated her mouth thick as oil. The seeds were coals, and cold fire spread from them; hot at the edge, buzzing numbness at the expanding center. She could feel nothing but her mouth, and then not that.
She fell and tumbled in the dark.
Hadi had many altars, taken for their sheen and the skill of their making. One was some eastern god, four-armed, dancing in a ring of fire. She was the smoke, shaped by the god’s hands. She was the shadow of a bird across the sun. She was the salt of boiling tears.
She smelled sweat and many horses, and sour smoke. A gate shaded by plum trees swung open.
“A wall of thick tree-trunks burned at their roots and fell onto men in red-dyed leather brandishing spears against it.”
She woke to her own skin like a too-loose shift while she was already speaking to Hadi.
“Was the gate in a stone wall or a wooden one?”
She answered before thinking. Her tongue was stiff and sour like the morning after too much beer. She spoke to rhythm of Hadi’s hand petting her shoulder and his other on her cheek. “Stone, white and well-mortared.”
“And the spears the men held, were they bloody?”
“No, they were clean.”
Hadi smiled and took his hands off her, and she felt an ache growing in all her limbs. Like her bones were beating hammers against their prison of flesh. The blood roared like a waterfall in her temples.
“What poison did you feed me?”
“The prize of the desert. It only grows at the heart of the barren land, and the fruit brings true visions, but it is an ordeal. Did you think I only took you for a wife because I wanted to be feared for stealing children? Women raised on the plains die when they try to see, and men go mad. It takes girl who has never gone hungry to bear it and bring back truth.”
It hurt. She could barely keep herself from falling back onto the bed. “What use is nonsense like that dream?”
He smiled again, like Mother at a child asking foolish questions. “You are my oracle, but you may leave interpretation to me. I will show you the value of your sight by tomorrow’s sunset.”
Corra tossed all night in Hadi’s bed, sweating and falling between one dream and the next as if she had taken a fever. The memory of the burning fruit stuck to her tongue like tar. She dreamed fire and screams. She dreamed Hadi’s soft fingers on her cheek sliding inside her mouth, supple and long and intentional as serpents, forcing those seeds down, all the way into her belly, and she grew heavy with a child of hot coals and delivered wolves alone and screaming in a bed of blood and mud.
She woke for the last time when the wolves devoured her. Hadi was dressed in his riding gear, black armor hung with bones, and his riding mask.
“Thank you for your guiding sight, Princess. I will bring you a prize tonight.”
He left into the grey dawn outside the tent. She tried to rise and follow him, but her knees buckled under her and she fell back onto the bed. She didn’t have the strength to lift herself again. She called for Dati, and Rada came as well.
They pampered her, covered her with blankets, fed her thick barley beer and the mare’s milk the riders loved best, and later gave her broth and marrow. By the afternoon she was strong enough to stand, and to walk if she leaned against them.
Rada clapped her hands in praise. She said this was the strength of a green-land girl, fed and fattened on easy life to bear the burden of the desert’s prize. Corra had not felt so weak since she had been a child and spent days almost dead with the marsh fever that came in summer.
Rada brought her outside and had a chair set for her to watch the riders return. They came in a long column, with Hadi at their head. He was stained with smoke, and there was blood splashed on the rattling bones of his armor and across his mask. He sat in a chair beside her, and his killers laid their plunder at his feet and hers in tribute.
They brought golden ornaments and little idols, bright and well-cast, and the beaten silver coins that rich traders used; scarlet cloth and plum brandy in clay bottles, pepper and anise and cinnamon bark, swords and spearheads of good eastern steel, and seven girls with wide dark eyes and hair dyed orange with henna, trembling like captive rabbits.
Hadi took a few of the best pieces of gold for himself, and a long sword, and a bottle of spirit, and he gave Corra a curved knife in a silver sheath, a fine dagger for a queen to cut her meat with.
He gave the girls to his captains, and let his warriors divide the rest according to their stations, and he led Corra to the feasting fire. He let her lean on him and seemed to expect her weakness. He told her the story of the raid while the meal was prepared, unmasked and smiling in the firelight.
“Your sight was true, Corra, and it gave us a great prize. The treasures come from the white-walled city of plum-trees, and we have never broken it before. The silk merchants rest their caravans there, and it is full of wealth. I sent my best men through the unlocked gate you saw, and they set a fire that burned the main gate open, and we rode over the defenders before they knew we were among them. The cowards were nothing without their walls to hide behind.” He smiled and clasped her hands in his. “It is your victory, Wife, as much as mine. The sun and moon will count the treasure and the battle offerings for your reward as well as mine when the time comes.”
The riders told boasts and tales of bravery in battle around the fire, and Hadi pressed Corra to eat until she could hold no more. She had to keep herself fat and strong. She would need to see again for him soon. She should enjoy the bounty of their triumph.
It was her victory. Her traitor vision had let the fire and bloody-handed riders in. She heard that accusation in the laughter of the murderers that her husband called his best, and saw it in the eyes of seven frightened girls watching her from the places at the fireside, where their new masters had left them while they drank and danced with the other men.
* * *
Corra still felt hollowed by the fire of her first vision when, only a few days later, Hadi fed her the fruit again. He was waiting when she came to sleep, with the skin already torn and the guts spilled into his hand.
“You must guide the vision this time. Do not let it rule you. Ask what dangers come to shake my saddle and make it answer you.”
She might have argued. She could have said that she was weak and there was no way she could master the flood of fire and twist of shadows that came out of those seeds now. She should have demanded training, or at least an explanation of all he knew about these visions and how to read them.
She had never refused Hadi or argued with him. She did not want to try now, when she was tired and frightened of the power in his hands and she could not tell the difference between love and pride and hunger in his face.
She took the seeds he counted out, five this time, into her hand and ate them all together.
The fire did not know words, so she did not use them. She tried to fix in her mind with the same flashes it had shown her last time. She thought of arrows flying, leaping wolves, a hand pulling Hadi from the saddle, the tent around them burning.
The vison burst on her tongue, sweet, tart, and peppered. She stood among the tent town, Hadi’s city. Sword clanged against sword, and men shouted over the screams of horses, but that was distant, far and faded out of the sight’s pull. The people went about their business, carrying water, gathering dung to burn, spinning and weaving and mending harness. Little men, old and shriveled in the face, only as tall as her knee, stood up out of the grass, out of the ground. They had needle swords, and they cut ankles until people fell, and they stabbed and stabbed each one into a bloody ruin. The people did not see them until they were cut down. They did nothing, and they did not turn at the screams when their neighbors died. Three bearded vultures flew overhead as Corra fell onto her back.
This time, she woke enough to guide her own tongue a little, Hadi did not have to question her. He still pet her like a favored dog while she reported on the vision. When she was finished, he nodded and smiled again.
“You have seen what I needed. The people of the vulture banner have been restless under my tribute before. They will try to fight when we come to their range, but we will be ready for their tricks now.”
Corra dreamed of needles that night, of corpses being stitched to her skin to make twins on either side of her, of dancing round the evening fire sewn to the seven henna-headed girls in a circle of stolen flesh.
She did not recover from the seeing enough to stand or ride for three days. She was carried on a litter strung between two placid horses and shielded from the curious by curtains. Dati brought Corra rumors of her own death, from discontents who said Hadi relied too much on her; that he was only a strong king because his green-land wife could see the future by witchery. He was still a young king, new in the saddle, and he had won two grand victories in a month, but both had been at her word, and some of the raiders were not happy to see a green-land girl in a place of honor beside their masked king.
Two days after she joined Hadi again on his black horse, they came to the ranges of the vulture banner, and Hadi made his warriors ready. He sent out scouts, and they returned with word of the vulture riders gathered for war and coming toward the king’s caravan.
At dawn the next day, Hadi sent his warriors to meet the rebels, but he held back his best, the companions who had fought around him at the raid her first sight had dispatched, and he put his bone-faced mask onto another man’s face and set him to lead the charge.
Hadi and his picked fighters, and all who did not fight, shut themselves in their tents and waited at his order. Corra watched out of the entryway of their tent beside him, pressed against his side. She felt him stern, holding himself still. He was tense and eager for something to come.
They heard the battle joined in the distance, the grate of steel on steel, the murmur of so many horses running, the high whoops of the champions as they outpaced the rest. Hadi shivered, just a little, at the sound of a battle he was not fighting.
She wanted to ask what they were waiting for, what he had found in the nonsense of her vision, but he had commanded silence, and she did not want to see how he would make her obey.
The grass rustled at the edge of the tent city. Men came out, slight and swaggering even while they stepped quietly.
“They have sent their young men to burn our tents while the real warriors fight.” Hadi whispered in her ear, watching the youths creep past the sheep pens and among the tents like a cat waiting for a bird to land. “It is good trick, when no one expects it. They think my men will break when they see smoke rising behind them, and they will ride us down.”
The young men looked tentative when they saw no one going about the day’s work. They halted for a moment to look around. The tall one in the lead pointed the way straight toward the great tent, right at Corra hidden in the darkness of the entryway.
Some knelt to kindle torches, and all advanced with no more hesitation. They had come to burn, and they would do it, even if the bone-faced king had turned his people into ghosts to hide them. They came right to the royal tent.
Hadi slid his sword out slow and silent and a long knife in his left hand. When the tall vulture boy reached out to pull the tent flap aside, Hadi leapt out and opened his throat in one bright flash. He didn’t squeal like a calf did going down, only fell choking while she watched him; slow and awkward among the bright dance of blades all around. Hadi’s battle cry was solid as a fist boxing her ears. Three more young men were down before they started shouting. Hadi’s men leapt out and cut the youths apart. Hadi laughed and slashed and danced among the dying.
Very soon the fight was over, and women trickled from the tents to cut the throats of those left alive and take anything of worth the fools had brought with them. Corra had not looked away.
The green-flecked eyes of the tall youth stared back at her. Her hands went to her throat, where he was opened. She choked and doubled over, screaming into retching until her stomach spilled over and her throat was etched with bile and her cheeks were soaked with tears.
Hadi came back smiling. “Another good seeing, Wife. We’ve broken them here and in the battle.” He saw her face and her sick on the grass, and he patted her head as if she were a child. “That is why you green-land people need us. You live rich, but you have no steel in you. You will always be better bowing.”
That was all the comfort Hadi ever gave her; that he understood her weakness, and his strength left her free to be so weak.
* * *
For all his scorn of her, Hadi was easy with praise, and she sat beside him while he passed judgment on what was left of the people of the vulture banner, and he gave her gifts of jewels and silks taken from women he sent south to be sold. She tried to wear them with a smile, to look the part of a rider's princess.
She had time to learn the rhythm of life in the barren places then, and to harden herself to what she had been taken into. Hadi had shown that he was stronger, not weaker, after taking a green-land wife, and he did not need new victories to show his strength or increase his wealth, so he spared her from the desert’s prize for months. After the first weeks of relief, Corra began thinking how to keep his eyes on her. She needed his regard even when he was not hungry for the future she could dream.
The taste of their food changed as they traveled east, growing hotter and leaner, then rich with cream again as they turned north, and the treasures that each village offered changed in their seasons: silver and jade, silk and spice, bright swords, and hunting eagles. She learned to meet each new thing with resolve and to eat all that she was given. It made Hadi happy to see her fed and fattened, and she made sure to put on bangles and silks that Hadi’s eyes had fixed on. She could not afford to grow stale in his regard; to be packed away until he had a need for prophecy again. At night, she sent Dati away, so that they slept alone as much like wife and husband as kidnapper and prize.
She taught herself to imagine little prophecies for the old men and women who still asked for them, the ones who remembered Aunt Fallo and her visions for Hadi’s uncle. Rada smiled when she rode beside and heard Corra prophesying success in love and gentle weather for the questioners, and the young women began to come with their own questions. They called her princess, sometimes even queen, and bowed as low to her as to Hadi.
In winter, when the settled places had no wealth for a bone-faced king, Hadi ceased his wandering and made his camp in the middle of the great plain, with all the bounty that had filled his wains through the long march from harvest to harvest. His subject tribes attended him in the ancient place among the standing stones that was called the city of the horselords, and they paid him gold and steel and service for food to keep their children through the cold.
Corra stayed with Hadi in his great tent and made sure he and all his subjects remembered that she was his queen, not only one half of a magic that kept him on the saddle-throne. She wore the silks he had given her that left her belly bare, so that he would put his warm hands on her and hold her tight and jealous. She listened to his quiet mutterings as he debated politics to himself and let him rest his head on her soft shoulder and let go the iron strength that he had to show outside the tent. He trusted her, and her green-land weakness, to make it safe when they were two alone.
* * *
It was spring, and they were beginning the year’s slow progress at the northeast edge of Hadi’s kingdom, eating lambs slaughtered for their tenderness and winter roots baked in the coals, when he asked her to see again.
He put the unopened fruit into her hands. “The corner of the sun was bitten off yesterday, and there have been shooting stars and shadows on the moon. They are omens of treachery. You must see which of my subjects will rise, so that I can crush them. If one rises up and stays free even for a month, a dozen more will hear and break away.”
It would be the end of his rule. Any sign that the scourge would not come down on them was an excuse to ignore the overseer. Who would be bold enough to dare it first, though? All the towns that bowed knew what the king’s riders would do to their fields and green orchards and their children if they rebelled.
She knew the answer she should give before she opened the fruit and counted four seeds into her hand. She wouldn’t need more to find what she already knew, and she needed to be in control when she woke to tell her vision to Hadi. If he would not have objected, she would only have taken one.
The taste was familiar. Her first two seeings had never faded into dusty memory. They came back fresh as the sugared flesh on her tongue.
She saw wheat stalks sharpening to spear-points in the field. She saw riders drinking wine at the feast fire and falling dead, and women with dark ringlet curls devouring live horses, and a silver serpent slither from a bed of furs and cushions. She would not tell him of that last vision.
She woke in Hadi’s arms.
“I won’t need your interpretation this time, Husband. It is my mother. I saw the green valley, and her face. She always kept back the best of our harvest from the tribute. I know where she has hidden weapons and the money to pay for spearmen out of the west.”
Hadi smiled his fierce smile. “Then you will ride before me and show me your mother’s treachery, so I can punish it and teach the new queen the price of dreaming freedom.”
He never questioned that she would give up her mother and her old home so easily. Why would he? They had sold her to be used, and he had made her a queen.
* * *
The warriors rode light, not waiting for the wains or the pack horses. Corra was jounced and bruised against the black horse’s neck, and she ate salted meat and drank mare’s milk and slept under the stars beside her king. She was almost as tired after three days of riding as she had been after her second seeing, and she began to understand what Hadi meant by the steel the riders had.
They rode into the green valley with only crows to herald them. Men and women were in the fields planting. The gates of the town were open, and no one raised a spear to defend them until it was too late. The riders trampled the slow and the foolish under their horses’ hooves, and they caught every woman and man who wore fine cloth enough to be a landholder and dragged them behind to her mother’s great house, its whitewashed walls adorned with blue and red tiles. Mother stood in the doorway to meet them and prayed forgiveness for whatever confusion had made the great king angry with her.
Corra smiled when Hadi struck Mother across the face hard enough to make her fall. He dragged her by her long black hair, and Corra led the warriors through the house. She showed them the secret storerooms where the best of each year’s grain and cheese and wine was hidden, and the others where bronze spearheads and arrows and shields were kept against the day of rebellion, and the chest where her mother hoarded silver coins.
Hadi cut off Mother’s head himself, in the square in front of the great house and granary, where the wedding arch had been set up when he had come before. Corra let him see her smiling; let him see how the watching people, held back by his riders, hated her.
He let his captains do the rest, cutting until the square flowed with blood. Corra could not save Fallo. She could not even try without drawing suspicion, but the old woman did not weep when she was taken to the block. They killed Corra’s first sister as well, who would have been queen after Mother, but the rest of the queen’s household they only took to sell or to keep for themselves. Perhaps the captains wanted green-land wives like their king.
They killed every landholder who had sat in council with Mother, and their first sons and daughters, and penned what remained of the Fifteen Families to carry off as slaves. The blood and killing was as easy and as swift as the slaughter of the young warriors of the vulture banner, and Corra felt the hilt jar in her hands each time a blade swept down, as if she made the stroke herself. This was her killing; her design. This time she did not flinch or wretch. This pain she understood as well as her hardened husband: a tree must be pruned to make it grow as ordered. The rich who followed her mother had grown beyond the bounds of their submission, and so they were cut off. Corra could never have done so much with her own hands.
When it was done, Hadi declared a feast, and he shared the bounty taken from the granary among his riders and the girls and women of the town who they had taken for sport while they remained here.
She told Hadi that she would go among the women and tell him who would be the best to make the new queen; who would keep the peace and pay without demur. She talked with girls who remembered her departure while he nodded and drank wine and watched his captains dancing with their newest concubines.
He fell into a drunken sleep in her mother’s great bed as soon as he had spent himself, but he woke and looked into her eyes when she put the dagger he had given her into his gut.
“Green-land girls have steel enough, Husband, before we grow old and choose comfort.” She cut his throat before he could answer. Mother had not had the steel to keep her eldest from the tribute, but the other green-land girls had not balked at Corra’s plan when she had gone among them, and she heard the soft sound of their knives from the other rooms of the great house that the riders had taken for their own.
In the morning, she put on her mother’s crown, and Hadi’s leather mask, and she ordered the slaughter of the horses. They would set the heads as mile posts to show what waited if raiders came into the green valley again. They would not be ruled by a queen and council who bought comfort and security with the labor of subjects in the field and the terror of daughters sold for raiders' wives. They would build high walls and keep their small gates watched against clever raiders, and if she quickened with a straight-haired daughter whose eyes were like a hunting bird’s, Corra would not sell her for peace and safety.
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.