Lightning falls before
the right-hand queen’s advance;
she sings brass and bronze and
wakes the dead who dream
—Victory at Kimaliz Heights, Nehan na’Hak
The morning of her last day as queen, Nehan’s mouth begins to bleed before her attendants finish braiding her hair. The blood bubbles up between her lips, catching her and them by surprise, and dribbles onto her robe. No one speaks, or perhaps their words are drowned out by the brassy drumming in Nehan’s ears.
One attendant snatches up a copper bowl and holds it out before her. Nehan spits, and spits again, dark liquid spattering the curved inside. Another girl ducks out of the tent and returns a moment later bearing a skin of wine and a wooden cup. She pours with shaking hands, and Nehan gulps down a searing mouthful. She forces herself to hold it behind her lips for three seconds, five, ten. Then, convulsively, she swallows. This time when she spits, it is only faintly stained saliva that patters into the bowl.
Her attendants lurch back into normal activity. Half her hair has yet to be braided; two girls hurry to twist her rampant curls into tidy plaits. Two more bend over the fresh stain in her robe-front, trying to scrub the blue cloth clean.
Finally they give up and choose a different set of armor than the bone-splint vest Nehan has chosen. “The full bronze breastplate,” one says, and holds it out for Nehan to slide into. Neither style of armor will stop a Buskruten bullet. The bronze steals some of her freedom of movement, but it also conceals the stain. Better not to give a rifleman a convenient target over her heart. She shifts the breastplate’s weight on her shoulders and nods her approval. The attendants bow and move to dispose of the bloodied bowl and used cup. In between their busy movements, Nehan catches Ayake’s stare from across the tent.
He sits on a pile of furs and blankets with his skinny knees pulled up to his chest. Across his arms and young face, constellations of pitted pockmarks; a mirror image of her own. On him the red-brown scars stand out darkly against his golden skin; on her the marks are less conspicuous, only a shade lighter than her darker flesh. Sunspots and stars. The son of her heart.
She wishes she could tell him that everything will be all right. That they’ll ride forth under the banner of the leadwood tree and scourge the Buskruten from these lands forever; give them the metal for which they came to Watuk, but on the blade of a sword and the point of a spear. That he’ll be safe, not only from rifles but also from the vipers that sleep in the tall grass of the plains all around them. But she cannot say so; cannot say a word. She is not sure she would believe it, even if she could say it.
“My queen,” says another attendant, who approaches and bows as she offers Nehan her ivory-and-gold headdress. “The high priestess has been asking for you.”
Nehan grunts, and stands. Her attendant settles the heavy helm over her braids. Another steps up with a piece of mirrorglass. Nehan, the Blade of Watuk, the Hand of Strength, barely recognizes herself. She notes the faint bruises on her reflection’s jaw, the swelling that lingers under her chin.
She opens her black-painted lips to examine the ruined stump of her tongue. The attendant flinches away and Nehan clamps her lips together. A sharp swat with the flat of her hand, and the attendant stumbles away with the mirrorglass.
Three years before, Nehan first rode out against the Buskruten forces. The invaders’ pox had stolen much of her strength, strength she had yet to rebuild, but she could lift a sword and she could hold her seat ahorse and she could chant a poem. Her attendants robed and armored her and crowned her with the ivory helm, but she stopped them before they led her out to rally Watuk’s ragged armies. “Bring the Gombe child,” she ordered.
“That shepherd boy?” one girl asked, recoiling. The other slapped her on the arm, and she silenced her foolish mouth. They trotted off and swiftly returned to Nehan with the boy, Ayake, tagging behind them, though whether this was from sullenness or fear, Nehan could not say.
Her column had found him three weeks back, as they crossed the plains with the charred ruins of the capital behind them. Dehydrated and delirious from digging a pit to bury the rest of his herdsman clan, he swung his shovel at the spearmen she sent to retrieve him—the same way he had struck out at the carrion-birds that crept close to the fetid, swollen bodies. He screamed and spat and did not seem to see, until Nehan herself slid off her horse and knelt with him in the sun-ravaged grass. Kindred spirits, the two of them, with the beloved wreckage of everything that had once mattered to them trapped in an unreachable past.
“Look at me,” she ordered now, and lifted his chin. His gaze did not sidle away from hers, though she could see a shimmer of tears in his eyes. Her grip on his face softened, and she patted his cheek. “You,” she said, and jerked her head at the nearest attendant. “Find a woman’s armor, the smallest you can. Dress him in it. He’ll ride with me today.”
For a moment, all was stillness. Then the attendant said, hesitating, “O Hand of Strength—”
“You will do this thing,” Nehan said. “And the Buskruten will tremble to see that we fear them so little, we would bring our children into battle with us.” Her fingers grazed the stiff curls behind his ear, and he leaned into the touch. “You aren’t afraid, are you, boy?”
He shook his head, and she pretended to believe him.
Soon she sat astride her war-stallion, knees ready at his flanks, surveying once more the drawings of the battlefield which her scouts-general had sketched. The main Buskruten deployment occupied the plains outside the trading port of Bahar, and from the high point in the hills, the Watuk had a good chance to sweep the camp before Buskruten rifles could be marshaled.
When she guided her horse toward her waiting cavalry, they parted before her. She did not dare to raise her voice, not in the sight of the tricksome gods and perhaps the hearing of the Buskruten army, so a proper call to battle was not possible. Instead she made it roll low and strong like the sweeping sea as she launched into an old poem, written by one of the first right-hand kings:
“The peaks of Mlaz Nian
are our spears
and when their ice melts
the floodwaters will wash you
clean of our enemy’s blood;
they will slake your thirst.”
Whispers rolled away from her, joining her in quiet unison, as she launched into the second verse. By the time they ended the third and final verse, the horses stamped restlessly, stirred to nervous energy by their masters. Nehan hefted her spear, and a hundred blades rose skyward to answer her. She wheeled her horse, and the boy’s arms cinched around her waist like a second belt.
The Watuk came down from the hill like rolling thunder. They caught the Buskruten camp amid their morning routines: men dropping soapy razor-blades and boot polish, greasy sausages falling to the dirt and crushed under hoof.
The lines of another poem grated between Nehan’s teeth as she drove her spear-head home in a Buskruten ribcage. Two brass buttons sheared free and flew through the space between them like miniature suns. As they drifted, Nehan struggled to free her spear. Distantly, a rifle reported. Two bearded Buskruten turned to flee at the lash of her voice, the flash of her snarl. Two more lurched at her—one with bayonet fixed, the other struggling to bring his to bear.
She took a deep breath. In that sudden yawning silence, she could hear a small voice at her back. Ayake, singing a simple song as familiar as dreams and as old: that of the ever-true leadwood tree.
Her spear came loose. Nehan caught the bayonet-wielder in the throat. With her spear still lodged in his skull, she pulled the haft sideways and spun him into his companion. Together they fell, and she let the spear fall with them. Her heels dug into her horse’s barrel, and she leaned forward over his neck as he picked up speed. Ayake’s arms spasmed about her, and she took one hand off the reins to cover his fingers with her own.
Two young trees fell
together and crushed a kingdom
beneath their tender boughs.
—Eulogy for the Royal Daughters, Nehan na’Hak
Nehan steps out of her tent on Ayake’s arm to survey the field of battle. She has no desire to see her high priestess yet. Soon. Two attendants tail behind, holding a light cloak, a cup of mashed mango. They do not offer these things to Nehan, but it seems to make them feel better to have them on hand, so she does not send them scurrying to find some more useful way to occupy themselves.
From the slight rise of the plains, she can see the lines of Buskruten blue and white. A listless wind stirs the ragged banners held aloft by a pair of her spearwomen; at a distance, cicadas wail their warning. Dull sunlight picks out sharp-peaked helmets and long slender rifle barrels.
There are far fewer Buskruten than once there were. There are still a great many. But they are overconfident in their numbers and their guns. They believe that they have destroyed Nehan, and with her, the Watuk battleforce.
She hopes that they are wrong.
Behind Nehan, the Watuk are quiet. A man hushes a pair of excited dogs who leap and snort their thirst for blood, for flesh. The dogs are sacred, for they sing their own poems in a language no human understands. Their howls will put fear into many a Buskruten heart. While Nehan watches, the pair settle into a tense sit, ears cocked, heads canted forward. One opens its mouth, and a slavering tongue hangs out between its yellow teeth.
“O Hand of Strength, Battle-Crowned Blade.” The voice turns Nehan’s head. Her high priestess, Hilaj, stands beside her, head bowed. A broad gesture from Nehan bids her to straighten. Hilaj’s eyes glitter coldly from between the deep folds of skin. Her pox scars are so thick they give her the appearance of scales.
“Excuse me—mother. Learned One.” Ayake bows away, leaving the women to their talk. Hilaj does not look at Ayake, does not bow to him or acknowledge his presence. She does not grant him the honor that his adoptive relationship to Nehan affords him, the queen’s Gombe son. Nehan’s eyes follow Ayake to the spearwomen, where he speaks quietly. One of them dips her head and puts her haft in his hands. The wind lifts, and for a moment the faded leadwood tree is alive with imagined birdsong, its branches swaying in full flower.
“Hand of Strength,” says Hilaj, and the vision of the leadwood tree disappears into the noonday haze. “It’s not too late.”
Hilaj fears victory today, Nehan knows, as much as she fears defeat. The Buskruten terms would leave the Watuk a corner of their nation, a fragment of their former glory. Copper, tin, and silver mines would fall within the borders the Buskruten viceroys had drawn for themselves. With a stroke of a pen, Nehan might guarantee today that no more lives would be lost. With the same swift strike of ink, a proud people of traders would become beggars.
Nehan snaps her fingers. An attendant comes running, and Nehan mimes writing. From the satchel upon her back, the girl produces a slate and chalk stylus. Nehan writes in broad bold letters for Hilaj to see. No paper-bound surrenders for our right-hand kings and queens. Watuk have always written our own endings in blood. Cast aside our own crowns.
Over her shoulder, Nehan watches Ayake’s arms tremble to hold the spear upright. The soldier from which he took it says something in his ear, and he adjusts his grip, strengthening it. Whatever he says to her in response makes her smile and touch her forehead in thanks. Nehan’s lips turn upward too. She strikes the slate clean with the side of her fist. Signatures and smiles don’t unbloody my hands. My reign ends. No different from King Ayah-Izu or Queen Shab na’Mnel.
“Times change, my queen,” says Hilaj flatly, forgoing honorifics. Nehan makes a series of swift silent gestures with the stylus: her people, the waiting Buskruten army. The sun, rising to meet its zenith. Her son, striving toward his.
Hilaj’s lips thin when she looks at Ayake, but her hand goes to the sword at her waist. “As you will it.” Reluctant, but ready.
As is Nehan. Soon they will water the fields of her country with blood, as much as it needs to drink down to slake its thirst, though she would rather have given the dry soil rain.
Before the plague finished scourging Watuk, Nehan’s body betrayed her twice: to take ill in the first place. And to succumb to fever’s thrall while her daughters both sickened and died.
Udavi had gone first, her attendants told her after, in this as in all things. Nehan’s right-hand daughter, her raven, who would have smoothed the roughness in her sister’s life by spear and sword and then surrendered reign to her left-hand sister, her dove. Then Katif too, ever pious, unwilling to let her sister have the gods to herself.
A masked priest, leaning on a staff despite his youth, showed her into the temple’s Room of Peace. “O Hand of Plenty—” he started to say, as he bowed away from her at the door, but he caught himself and changed to her new title. “O Hand of Strength.”
Nehan walked toward her girls, her future and Watuk’s, and when she had not the strength to walk anymore she crawled. Soft veils clung to Udavi and Katif’s faces, and cloying perfumes failed to conceal the sweet smell of decay. Nehan pulled herself up on the dais, though her breath rattled in her breast. She crawled between the two bodies and lay down. Katif’s stiff fingers did not resist her grasp; with her opposite hand she caressed Udavi’s clenched jaw through the fine veil. An emerald beetle skittered away when she disturbed the drape of the veil. It took shelter in the corner of Udavi’s eye.
“You should have taken me instead,” Nehan croaked. In the doorway, the priest flinched at her breaking of the Peace. With a lie, no less. No great bargain to offer the gods one scratched and worldworn pearl in place of two bright, gleaming ones.
She rolled onto her side, cradling Katif’s body in the lee of her own. “I drew my first blood,” she whispered, into her daughter’s hollow ear. “I slew the Buskruten ambassador where he stood, when he dared to come back here, to put terms before us. They think to take advantage of this sickness. This plague that rode to us on the sails of their ships!” Her fingers clenched, crushing the delicate lace of Katif’s veil. “But what is a right-hand queen, without a left hand to hold out hope for the future?”
The stars wheel slowly
through the sky; do they wonder
that the people of the earth
exult at each new dawn?
—Three Hundred Lost in the Shadow of Mrope Na, Nehan na’Hak
After Hilaj goes her way, Ayake returns to Nehan’s side, spear firmly shouldered. He leans his shoulder into hers, turning her away from the grooms administering to her war horse. She signs to him in the rudimentary language they have worked out together. You walk with me little while.
He leaves the spear for now, and they move along the lines of Watuk horse-soldiers, toward the rearguard. Only a few of the warriors call out blessings or fragments of old battle-poems; they are frightened. Tomorrow they will be dead, or they will all re-learn together how to be Watuk. Today, they will fight.
The two of them leave the mass of the Watuk forces behind, spearfolk and sword-bearers and even most of the support train, until only the heat-shimmering day lies ahead. Then she stops him and signs again. I not choice you. You choice. Leave now, be—she had to stop and spell out the next word letter by letter. A cold bead of shame rolled down her spine, that she’d never thought to shape a gesture to fit before. G-O-M-B-E.
Not can choose be G-O-M-B-E. His hands falter, and he switches to speech. “I’ll always be Gombe. But I’ll be your son, too. I’ll do whatever has to be done.” Again his hands fly. He is faster with this gesture-speech than her. G-O-M-B-E is Watuk also.
It isn’t. Or: it hasn’t been. But tomorrow is a different day, and if they don’t all feed the carrion crows today, Watuk will wear a new face. She puts her hand on her son’s shoulder as he says, “It’s time, isn’t it?”
Three years of warfare, and never once did Nehan regret carrying Ayake behind her into battle; her good luck, her heart. Not until Lake Laanzi. There, when blood turned the white sand into mud, half a dozen Buskruten infantrymen wrestled Nehan off her horse.
She screamed when they pulled Ayake away from her. But his cries still reached her—he still lived. She’d already lost the ivory headdress. Her spear had been torn from her grasp, but she had a short sword on her leg. Her teeth found purchase in one of the hands that held her, so that she could tear one arm free. The sword came free of its scabbard singing shrilly. She opened another throat and two bellies before a boot ground down upon her wrist and she lost her grip on the hilt.
“Kill me then! Cowards!” She thrashed against the net of tightening arms, of bruising knees and boots. Her red-stained spittle flecked blue sleeves. Dark intersecting angles—backs and limbs—sliced up her view into shifting fragments of light and space. She reached for her verse-voice, which had always struck fear into Buskruten hearts: “My ghost will chase you across nations and years; my bones will be your only bed companion.” Her teeth snapped again but only met empty air this time as a man recoiled in fear.
The bodies around her shifted. For a moment, she saw the sky again. A single buzzard cut across the sun. Then another Buskruten blocked the light. A captain, or a general, by the golden ornamentation on his helmet. He said something unintelligible, and hands seized Nehan’s jaw, forced her mouth open. She gnashed her teeth and screamed when one cracked against unyielding metal. Something harder than fingers locked onto the end of Nehan’s tongue and pulled, bringing a wail of pain with it.
The knife flashed.
Nehan’s head dropped backward first. Before understanding, and before pain, which amounted to the same thing. The prison of hands let her go, and she hit the hoof-slashed sand wetly screaming. Drowning on dry land.
Hands found her again, but small ones this time, seizing her elbows, pulling her to her feet. Wet heat dripped down her throat, and it was Ayake there before her, speaking words that foundered in the roar of her ears. Something struck her from behind: the butt of a Buskruten rifle. She staggered. Only Ayake kept her from falling.
They walked away, backward, toward the retreating Watuk line. Stop, her son said in her ear and let go of her. She stood swaying for a moment, and then he was back beside her, steadying her. You’re strong, Mama, he said, like a prayer, and he pressed the weight of the ivory-and-gold headdress back upon her brow. Then they were hurrying again, Nehan stumbling over shifting sand and broken bodies. The Buskruten chased them, only for a while, with leadwood switches and laughter.
The war horse is comforting solidity between Nehan’s knees. A horse’s back is the same to her now as a throne once was: a vantagepoint from which she can understand the world. The weight of Ayake’s arm pulls the breastplate against her hips in front. His spear’s butt end rests in a cup sewn onto the horse’s harness. The spear-point cuts a line through the sunlight that spills down over Nehan’s face, and the faded leadwood-tree banner upon it dances and leaps like a cast-off cloud.
Waves of motion shift the distant Buskruten lines: rifles being inspected, loaded, shouldered. There are fewer Buskruten than there are Watuk, though they will thin Nehan’s numbers before her riders crash down upon them. The advantage between them skews and twists. The shifting wind might push more bullets off-course. Or uneven ground hidden by the long grass might cost the ankles of more horses than she can afford to lose.
Change hangs behind the horizon. Nehan hopes she lives long enough to see its shape.
Her line-captain signals her, alerting her that her army is ready to move. She finds the hilt of her sword and drags it free from its scabbard. Its weight battles the strength of her arm as she thrusts it skyward. A sudden stillness, from the warriors gathered behind her. A cold breeze off far-away Mlaz Nian, big enough to freeze the souls of an entire family. This is supposed to be the moment for a poem, to charge their blood with holy fire, to cleanse their hearts with song in case they should meet the gods today. They are steeling themselves to die unblessed.
Nehan’s mouth is dry, and a coppery tang clings to what is left of her tongue. She opens her mouth and stretches her jaw against the pull of pain. The words are there in her belly, waiting. It’s just that their shape has shifted—jagged rocks rolled together until they are smooth and round. Her voice tears her throat with the round, blunt vowels that she can still muster. “Ah eh-ai anh!” she cries. “Ah uhn-ai oh—”
She hammers the rhythm of the words, her composition from the battle at Five Wings. The shapeless song carries outward from her, like seed thrown to the wind in search of fertile ground. Only the echo of her own voice rolls back to her. Tears sting her eyes as she finishes the verse and starts again.
But now, but now. Other voices rise to join hers, to constrain her open-voweled rage with a precision of soundful substance. The chant picks up swifter than wildfire, a scourge that shakes the foundations of heaven’s palaces:
“The red-stained hand,
the sunbright sword.
My blood today
waters the fields of tomorrow.”
The Buskruten lines ripple. Their left flank gives way as riflemen break and flee. Nehan laughs—the language of laughter is the same, tongue or none. The horse leaps into motion at her urging, and she bears down upon the invaders with a sword of lightning in her hand and the blood-tang of a song in her mouth.
In her ears, Ayake’s soft sturdy voice, raising the song of the leadwood tree.
The sweat of the birthing-bed had not yet dried when Nehan held Udavi out for Katif to see. “There,” she said. “At last, a right hand to your left.”
Katif’s face, so small, so serious. “But Mama,” she said—not whining or complaining, only arguing the points of law that governed her young world. “You’re my right hand, if I need one.”
“I hope it will never come to that.” Nehan reached out to cup her elder daughter’s cheek with one hand. “But only once. A hand turned to war one time will seek it out again, and again. It must be turned aside. Put to gentler—and less glorious—pursuits.”
“Oh,” said Katif, and peered down again at the small creased face cradled against Nehan’s breast. “She is very small.”
“Babies grow. And when she is older, and you are, she will be there if a time comes when you need her. When Watuk needs her.”
“And where will you be, Mama?”
Nehan smiled, and her fingers slid away from her daughter’s petal-soft cheek.
After the battle, before Ayake’s moment comes, she is afraid that he will hesitate, that he will reach out to her in kindness rather than in power. But his jaw is set, a solid foundation in which to hold his sad, swimming eyes. When she kneels before him, to surrender her rule, he takes the headdress from her and throws it down into the dirt. She holds her breath as he lifts his foot; the ivory splinters and gives way on the first blow.
The priestesses approach, singing low in the secret, sacred tongue. Still on her knees, Nehan is gripped by a moment of panic: the silver crown is lost to the capital’s ashes. But here, Hilaj lifts her hands, and upon her palms rests a simple circlet of polished wood. “O Hand of Peace and Plenty,” she says neutrally, and holds the circlet low, at her waist. She gestures for him to kneel. Nehan’s teeth grind.
As quick as dancing candle-flame, he snatches the circlet from Hilaj’s hands. Hilaj, shocked, grabs for it once before wisdom and dignity prevail and she lets go. “Thank you,” he tells her, without sneer or smirk, “but the king doesn’t bow, though your wisdom is great and your years of service are appreciated.” And he settles the crown atop his own dark curls. The vipers may yet snap at the foot of their Gombe king, but they will fear the strike of his staff now, too. Shepherds know well how to deal with the snakes of the field.
With the wordless priestess still standing beside him, Ayake turns to his people, who shift from foot to foot. “O Hand of Plenty,” a few cry, but watchful silence carries the moment.
Ayake’s mouth moves briefly then, without sound. But when he speaks, his voice travels far. “My mother’s words led us here. Her words tore down the walls in our way; her words tore holes in our enemy’s hearts and drained away their courage. I wasn’t raised to be … I wasn’t raised to be a man of words.” He stops, and his throat jerks with a swallow.
Nehan knows what word is the pebble upon which he has stumbled: man. He is only a boy in an adult’s office, and he feels this as keenly as any. If his burden were hers to lift, she would. But she cannot, not without staining it. “But I’ll learn the words, in time. Not to tear down, but to build up. To heal hearts, not to wound them.” His fingers dart up, to touch the simple crown upon his brow. “And I know where to start.”
A pair of attendants help Nehan rise, as tentative voices lift in the melody of a sweet and simple song: a people finding their faltering way forward as one. Her bloodstained hands will not guide them. She will go to the cloister beside the sea, there to join her father, if he still lives. She will plant seeds in the soil, she will milk goats and ferment sour yogurt. She will learn to slake her thirst with sweeter drinks than blood.
As she walks away, her shoulders are back and her head feels light without the twin burdens of crown and fear. The words of the song bear her up, as familiar and strange as dreams of childhood. She does not look back, and she does not say goodbye. There are some things no words are strong enough to do.
Underneath the leadwood tree
My sheep rest from the sun
Underneath the leadwood tree
We rest till day is done.
The sun burns bright but quickly
Stars hide from day’s bright glare
The silver moon is cold and shy.
The leadwood tree is always there.
Underneath the leadwood tree
My heart dreams of its love
Underneath the leadwood tree
Who is it you dream of?
—Watuk children’s song
This story first appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her fiction has appeared in Fireside, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her novella "Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters" is coming from Tor.com in 2021.