Prologue: Goat Horn Woman
Hear now the words of Matawai….
I am who am Matawai am Demon of the North. Queen of Antwari, Queen of Kuwari, I have taken a jewel of the mountains.
There will come a time when scholars will speak as though I were a sorceress, capable of turning dust into gold. They will say my name as though it means death and recount with horror the blood I’ve shed.
This is not new. I am a goddess of rumors and speculation. Listen in the marketplace; you will hear the frightened chatter. Sit in the temple halls, hear them whisper my name.
For I am the Goat Horn Queen of the mountains, forged from barren rock and brittle furs. I have redrawn the lines of Anseti, and now not even history dares deny me my fame.
There were bodies, heaps of bodies, but not the ones you’d expect.
They were not clad in armor; they were not clutching weapons. They were not wearing servants’ clothes, nor the gear of their own guards.
There were so many bodies, so many bloodied bodies stacked on top of other bodies.
They wore finely cut and dyed silks and linens, emblazoned with ancient family crests; they wore sandals of the best leather. They wore silver and gold bracelets, necklaces, and rings. They wore headdresses with pearls, headdresses with precious gems, all sparkling in the torch light.
So many bodies in the torch light, in the silence of night when only winds and flames were able to speak.
The old general looked down at his feet at a body, a silk swaddled body with hair as gray as his own, and facial lines just as deep. He felt no remorse as he glimpsed the gray-haired corpse; in fact, all he could think was how rich the dead man’s life had been. He’d had a large family, sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He’d been borne of noble blood and had lived in a great house, with silk banners, marble floors, and dozens of servants.
General Akwan, however, had buried sons before they were fully men. He’d spent his life in a house of dust and sorrow, eating dry goat meat and wishing for some good palm wine. There were days when he’d wondered if the firewood would run out, or if the nearby mountain spring would dry up. There were nights when he’d been so cold he could see his own breath on the air.
So no…he felt nothing for the gray-haired corpse at his feet.
His soldiers were awaiting orders, but Akwan had none. The last noble house of Kuwari had fallen, and now they awaited news from the royal palace, where Queen Matawai was leading the siege herself. It was only a matter of time before a messenger brought news of victory. None would aid the King of Kuwari; these Amalians never seemed to care whenever one of their sister kingdoms went up in flames.
“Boy,” he finally called to a nearby servant, a blood-splattered child trembling in the light of the torches. “Bring us some wine.” Seemingly grateful, the horrified child took off running.
“How dare you,” the Guard Captain rasped. Akwan turned to face the young Kuwari man. He was tall and lean and fit, with clear brown skin and beautiful bronze armor. He was noble and indignant, which amused the old man.
“So,” Akwan murmured, “the statue can speak. You and your fellow guards have stood silent for some time now; I was wondering if these Kuwari masters had cut out your tongues.”
“Why?” the young man demanded. “Our lord was never an enemy of yours. Our people never trespassed into your mountains. Why have you come in the dark and attacked without warning?”
“Why do you not ask the question which truly disturbs you?” Akwan mused, as the servant boy returned, carrying a goblet of wine. It was a copper goblet, finer than any Akwan had ever seen, and it was so large the boy needed both hands just to carry it. Akwan took it and sipped without hesitance, savoring the sweet, oaky flavors of the North. Amalians favored dates and flavored their palm wine accordingly.
Smiling for the first time in an age, Akwan chuckled, “Why do you not ask why you and every other servant have been spared?”
“Your Queen intends to buy our loyalty by sparing us,” the Guard Captain defiantly replied. “It will not work.”
“Ah, but I think it shall,” Akwan assured him, grinning. “Servants serve, regardless of their masters. You have new masters now; your life has not changed.” Akwan suddenly looked out upon the trembling crowd of mortified servants and guards gawking at the blood-stained floors. He raised his voice, allowing it to carry in the night. “Any servant who is fool enough to think one master’s beating is better than another’s can leave now and go into exile,” he boomed. “You will not be killed. We will leave that small matter to the desert.”