The Bride and Her Army
by Lindsay King-Miller
All Princess Ursula wanted was to kill the dragon.
There was a painting on the wall of her nursery, a beautiful woman with clear, sad brown eyes. When Princess Ursula was very young, she called the woman “witch-lady.” No one ever told her the painting showed a witch; Ursula just knew, looking at her, that she could see further than most people, could do things most people thought couldn’t be done.
Princess Ursula used to talk to the witch-lady late at night, or after being sent to her room by her mother, Princess Amalyn, for playing too rough and breaking things again. The witch-lady listened. Ursula trusted her.
It was not her mother but her aunt, Princess Elize, who one day heard Ursula whispering to the witch-lady. “That’s your grandmother,” she said, “your mother’s mother and mine. And you’re right, she was a witch.” Aunt Elize’s eyes twinkled. “Just like me. Maybe you’ve got some of the power too – what do you say?”
“Where did she go?” Ursula had never met a grandmother. Her grandfather, the King, ruled the country and commanded its army alone.
Elize didn’t drop her eyes from Ursula’s. She had known for years this question was coming. “She was taken,” she said. “Your mother and I were just little girls. The dragon came and took her, right out of her room at the top of the Great Tower. It burned up the roof with its mouthful of flames, and we never saw our mother again.”
Throughout her childhood, Ursula asked Elize to tell her the story over and over. Princess Elize was young when her mother was taken, too young to remember anything except fear and people running and the smell of ashes. But the next time the dragon came, Elize had been older. Old enough to feel its shadow passing over her.
The Queen had been four years gone. Her husband – he had no other title, not yet – had not remarried. It was a pleasant spring day, and a blacksmith’s apprentice was marrying a shepherd.
The blacksmith’s apprentice was her parents’ only daughter, and she had warm brown skin and hair so black it was blue, and all her neighbors knew her by the sound of her laugh. The shepherd who was to be her husband was older and quieter, with a red beard and broad strong hands. No one could ever remember having heard either one of them scream.
It was that, more than even the crunch of the dragon’s maw tearing through the steepled roof, which the horrified wedding party would remember all their lives: the bride’s shriek of terror as those massive jaws closed around her; the groom’s wail of despair as it disappeared back into the sky.
Elize heard about all this secondhand, of course, but she was there, climbing trees in the courtyard of the castle, when the red-bearded shepherd strode through the gates and demanded to meet with the Queen’s husband. Half his village was behind him, and none of them looked friendly. They wanted to know what Elize’s father meant to do about the dragon problem.
The Queen’s husband was happy to accommodate them. He armed the big quiet shepherd, and three dozen more strong men and women, with swords and spears, and sent them into the mountains to hunt the dragon. They never returned.
They were not a nation of warriors. With the ocean on one side and the practically impassable mountains on the other, they had no neighboring countries, no enemies to speak of. When the dragon took the Queen, the country did not even have a standing army. Their last war had been so long ago, even the books about it were faded. But now the notices went out to every city, every village.
WANTED, said the flyers. Brave fighters to defend our people from the menace of the Dragon. Three years’ commitment required in the capital city.
And below this, they said, By order of the King.
Ursula did not remember peacetime, or the gentle rule of a Queen. She had grown up knowing there was a dragon in the mountains, warned about it like she was warned about the ocean. The thing fascinated and terrified her, even before she learned it had widowed her grandfather and left her mother motherless. Its existence was an affront.
Ursula’s mother, Princess Amalyn, wouldn’t speak of the creature, nor allow it to be spoken of in her presence, but Elize had studied it with the fervor of a nemesis and told Ursula everything she knew.
The creature ate brides, or women recently married. Its attacks were unpredictable: it did not appear at every wedding in what was now called the Kingdom. Sometimes years went by without the creature descending from the hills to feed, and some began to hope it was dead, but it always broke its silence eventually.
It came always from the mountains, but though expedition after expedition searched the caves and forests, its roost had never been found. Each time it appeared, it filled its belly and soared off again, disappearing behind peaks, and no one could track it farther. Perhaps it spent its life in flight, never touching the ground, for it seemed never to leave a single claw-print in the earth.
The King’s frightened people developed new superstitions about weddings, new rituals to ward off the beast. They dug underground chapels where they could marry in the darkest hour of the night. Witches and sorcerers promised, for a price, to choose a wedding date for a betrothed couple—a day on which they foretold no wings would darken the skies.
“They’re just guessing,” Elize explained to Ursula. “Something about the dragon wards off premonition. It can’t be seen in the future at all.” Unspoken in her words, Ursula heard the years she’d spent trying, the countless card readings and crystals and books of prophecy that refused to even hint at where the dragon went at night or how it could be killed.
In one village, directly in the mountains’ shadows, people began to leave offerings on the eve of weddings, hoping to appease the monster: a young goat, three snow-white geese. At first they tried spilling blood, but when the offerings rotted on the ground, the villagers surmised that the dragon must prefer its prey living. A calf spent three days tied to a tree, bleating in fear and hunger, before finally collapsing just before sunset. The next morning, the animal was gone, the rope that had held it frayed as though chewed through.
Then there were the rumors about hill people, scattered in their huts along the hems of the mountains’ skirts – people without villages, who hunted for meat and gnawed on bones. Some of them, it was whispered, saw the dragon as their new god, their savior, their revenge against the wealth of the capital. And some said the dragon-worshipers made it their business to keep their idol fed. But that, Elize insisted, it was all guessing and ghost stories; no census had ever gotten an accurate count of how many daughters those families had, and no bodies were ever found.
In the meantime, the King’s army dug trenches and built walls, stationed a constant watch in rotating shifts along the of the foothills. Their armory grew by the year: fire arrows, giant cages, a catapult. Women soldiers dressed in wedding gowns and walked up the sides of mountains, flanked by comrades with nets for trapping and blades for cutting, but the monster never so much as sniffed at the bait.
And still, the dragon came for brides. Two in one summer, then none at all for three years, then one man lost two fiancées in the span of six months. Sacrifices did not dull the beast’s hunger, secret ceremonies in the depths of the earth did not dissuade it from its prey. It collapsed a tunnel with its massive claws and swiped the screaming bride from the rubble, spitting out stones as it retreated. A woman stepped outside the morning of her wedding to piss behind a tree, hours away from the altar and still wearing her nightgown; she never even turned her head to see the silent jaws as they closed around her.
Princess Ursula was not beautiful or charming like her mother, Princess Amalyn. She had no skill for strategy and diplomacy like her grandfather, the King. But she had dark glittering eyes and broad shoulders, and even as a child dueling shadows with sticks, she showed a talent for swordsmanship.
“She must join the army,” her grandfather told Amalyn, when Ursula was thirteen years old. “She will be my general, and rule when I am gone.”
But Ursula had already begun learning magic from Elize, and her aunt insisted she continue her studies. So the King’s granddaughter was pulled in two directions: training with weapons and sitting in on her grandfather’s council meetings by daytime; and by night, in Elize’s moonlit library, she practiced lighting fires with her fingertips, repeated the tricky pronunciations of words that slowed time to a crawl.
As Ursula’s twentieth birthday and the age of marriageability approached, suitors began to seek her hand. Though she was neither lovely nor particularly gracious – her parents had neglected to teach her charm while her aunt and grandfather were teaching her to be deadly – she was still a princess.
“You need not marry,” said her aunt one night, when the moon was full. “Many of our sisterhood never do. The arts of darkness are enough companionship for a lifetime.”
Ursula looked at her in surprise. “Of course I must marry,” she said. “The dragon must come for me on my wedding day, so that I can kill it.”
“It doesn’t always come,” cautioned Elize.
“It will come for me,” said Ursula.
As the Princess showed no inclination to choose a suitor, the decision fell to the King. Of course he selected a soldier, a captain in his army, as lithe and quick as Ursula was sturdy and strong. “Together they make a worthy successor for me,” said the King to Princess Amalyn, who as the firstborn daughter of the last rightful Queen should have taken the throne a generation ago. But she did not argue.
Ursula wanted little part in planning the wedding – she didn’t care about the gown, the flowers, the dancing – but she was very clear on one detail: the ceremony would be held outdoors, in daylight.
Her wedding was to be a challenge. A dare.
It had been years since Ursula slept in the nursery, but in the days before her marriage she was there often, gazing at the kind, serious face in the last Queen’s portrait. One charm Ursula had never mastered was speaking to the dead; she reached into that dark mist over and over, searching for her grandmother’s spirit, but she found only the silent howling of the empty sky. Still, she spoke the words out loud, then wrote them in ancient runes and burned them to smoke: “I will avenge you.”
The day of the wedding was rainy.
“Shall we move the ceremony inside?” asked Princess Ursula’s father, a man who dreaded even the exchange of harsh words. He did not like his daughter’s plan.
“No,” said Ursula. “I don’t mind being rained on.”
Over her bridal gown her ladies-in-waiting draped a coat of mail, light but strong, and reinforced with magical sigils by Princess Elize. Her only ornaments were a sword and an amulet: a heavy black stone, roughly triangular, hanging from a chain around her neck. It was volcanic rock, which carried the memory in its core of fire beyond imagining. In the hand of a witch, it was no less dangerous than the sword.
The armored princess walked down the aisle on the arm of her beautiful father. Rows of nobles and soldiers stood stiffly, rain running into their eyes, trying not to shiver. There was no music.
Princess Elize, as the bride’s aunt and a powerful member of the dark sisterhood, performed the wedding. At the altar, she blessed and incanted, admonished and entreated, in a clear strong voice that carried through the rain. She spoke of devotion, and the bride rested her hand on her sword belt. The groom shifted from foot to foot, his discomfort obvious.
Guests whispered and searched the skies. Would it, after all, come to nothing – just a rainy wedding followed by a slightly damp feast? The princess Ursula murmured something to her intended, and he hissed back under his breath. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and for a moment the bride and groom faced each other, scowling, looking more like rivals than lovers.
The sound of thunder came closer, not fading out but layering over itself. Louder and louder it grew, closer and closer, until everyone, all at once, realized it wasn’t thunder at all but a great, harrowing gasp; a breath being taken in before a roar.
When the roar came, it broke the sky into pieces.
Attendants fell to their knees. Soldiers wept as they fumbled for their weapons. Almost to a person, everyone in the courtyard screamed back at the rupturing clouds, as though the only possible defense against such a violent onslaught of noise was more noise.
Only two people did not scream. The King sat silent and still. Princess Ursula made no sound, but she tilted her head back into the rain, and for the first time on the joyous day of her marriage, she smiled.
Ursula was not given to the contemplation of beauty, but she spared a moment, as the dragon ruptured the blanket of storm clouds and dropped to the ground before her, to marvel at its breathtaking elegance. Its massive wings were like a bat’s, but its body was sleek with feathers—pure white with silver at the tips. Ursula had seen artist’s renderings, had heard the thing described in stories, but to stand so close she could feel the heat from its muscles filled her with a reverence she had never imagined.
Its eyes were dark gray, and they looked straight into hers.
“Now,” shouted the King, and Ursula remembered that she was bait. It was time to close the trap.
Ursula spoke three words and a sphere of fire burst into existence around her. There was a smell of hair singeing, and the dragon flinched away from the flames. In the moment the creature spent regrouping, Ursula’s new husband—was he her husband yet? She couldn’t think—drew his sword.
The blade bounced off the beast’s wing without it so much as noticing. So much for that distraction. Ursula spoke the words that summoned fire again; this time a flame blossomed from the palm of her left hand. She opened her fingers and closed them around the bouquet of fire.
She was braced for the agony of the burn, and it was over quickly. The fire disappeared, not quenched, but absorbed into her body. Her muscles sang with the strength of the magical flame, and when Ursula swung her own sword, it sank into the dragon’s foreleg, drawing black, smoking blood.
The beast roared in something that sounded more like sorrow than pain. It lunged toward Ursula again, heedless of the fire still dancing around her. Its jaws opened above her head, and she saw its purple-black tongue reaching for her.
Then the King gave the command.
Twenty archers fired their arrows in perfect unison. Up they soared over the dragon’s massive body, then peaked and turned. They plunged down to earth and buried themselves in a line, each point sinking a good half foot into soil.
A web of silk unfurled behind the arrows in their flight and spread itself gracefully over the dragon. The strands were light, but unbreakable, strengthened with spells by Princess Elize. As the archers fell back, and before the monster even noticed the slight weight of the net over its back, another row of soldiers stepped forward and, with synchronized hammer strokes, staked the free side of the web into the ground.
The dragon closed its jaws around Princess Ursula, lifting her into the air.
For a moment, fear thrilled within her. What if, for all her planning and preparing, these were the last moments of her life?
But the net was strong, and anchored to the earth. And the soldiers were upon the trapped dragon, hacking away, not damaging it much, but worrying it with swords and axes so it couldn’t focus on freeing itself. And Princess Ursula was inside its mouth, where it was soft and defenseless, and in the very dark and very hot and very damp she reached for the pendant still hanging around her neck.
“I promised I would avenge you, Grandmother,” she whispered down the dragon’s throat, preparing to speak the words that would unleash the volcanic stone’s power and rip the dragon to shreds from the inside.
And then there was a short bright clapping noise, as air rushed into the space the dragon’s enormous body had recently occupied. The gossamer threads of the net ballooned up, as if in surprise, and then drifted back to the ground. Soldiers’ blades sliced through nothing but sky.
The dragon had blinked out of existence, and taken the Princess with it.
The King was furious.
Every soldier who had failed to slay the dragon was offered the choice between exile and a public beating followed by a month in the castle dungeons. Captain Tarron rounded up those who chose exile, and on horseback corralled them to the edge of the mountains. He waited with his sword brandished until they disappeared into the crags, in case they should get any ideas about sneaking back. When he returned, the King conferred upon him the rank of General.
Princess Elize disappeared into her tower, weeping for the niece she loved like a daughter, recriminating herself for all the spells that hadn’t been good enough.
The gentle Princess Amalyn and her beautiful husband planned an enormous, lavish funeral for their daughter, a march from one end of the country to the other, with a thousand mourners bearing a hundred empty coffins for the princess who would never be buried.
Behind heavy doors in the castle, the two bereaved husbands, the King and his grandson-by-law, plotted for the next time the dragon would appear. They would need more soldiers, more bodies they could throw at the thing. Let it kill as many as it could, but bury it in the onslaught. Neither of them was ever seen crying. Whatever they felt at Ursula’s death, they could express it best through battle.
And then, seven days after her wedding, Princess Ursula returned.
She emerged from the hills quietly, just after dawn. A child playing in her yard saw the figure – barefoot, her sword and armor gone, her hair loose. The little girl ran inside, crying for her parents.
Word spread quickly. As Ursula walked, people came out of their houses to see her, and some fell into step behind her, but no one asked where she had been or spoke to her at all. The amulet of black volcanic rock still hung around her neck, sparking and spitting with magic.
It took Ursula an hour to walk to the gates of the castle. She arrived with filthy feet and a crowd of thousands behind her. News of her resurrection had preceded her. Her grandfather was waiting outside the gates, flanked by her weeping parents, her aunt who trembled with joy, and her stoic near-husband.
The King stared into her eyes, and she stared back without blinking. Even he, with a castle at his back and an army at his fingertips, seemed afraid of what she would say, this girl who returned whence no one else ever had.
Into the long silence, Ursula spoke. Looking at her parents instead of her intended, she said quietly but clearly, “I have decided I do not wish to marry.”
Her gentle mother and her beautiful father looked at her in astonishment, their eyes still filled with tears. “But where have you—” the father began to say, but the King, drawing himself up to his full height, took a breath that sounded like the dragon preparing to roar, and hissed through his teeth, “Why?”
General Tarron’s face looked the same as the King’s: neither overjoyed nor heartbroken, but entirely off balance, confused, and as a result of this confusion, angry. “You have no right,” he said, his voice low. The crowd leaned in to hear. “Don’t think for one second you can humiliate me just because -”
“The dragon showed me the future,” she said.
The King’s every word was the sound of a footstep, approaching like doom. “Where were you?”
“It was the amulet,” Ursula explained. “The dragon knew how to channel its power. It opened a door in the universe and we were inside the mountain, in an enormous cave, with a perfectly round black lake.”
The King and the General both opened their mouths to cut her off, but it was Princess Amalyn who spoke. “What did it show you?”
“It opened its mouth so gently and let me step out onto the stones. I was dizzy with fear, but it simply nudged me toward the edge of the lake, and when I looked down into the water, something happened.”
“You’ve been there,” the King said, his anger softening into hope. “You can lead us to its home. We can destroy it.”
“No,” said Ursula. “This is what I’m trying to tell you.” She fixed her eyes on her aunt Elize’s. “It has powers so far beyond ours. In its lake it can see the future—all futures.”
“What did it show you, granddaughter?” asked the King.
Finally, Princess Ursula looked at the man she had almost married. “It showed me suffering,” she said. Her hands shook, but her voice was calm. “It showed me that marriage to this man would be a lifetime of imprisonment. It showed me bruises and blood and hair ripped from my scalp. That when he couldn’t defeat the dragon, he would turn his rage upon me.”
Tarron’s face was pale, his hands tightened into fists. “How dare you,” he whispered. “I never touched a hair on your head.”
“You may yet,” she said, not flinching. “You want to now. I saw what you did to me when I didn’t conceive, when a year went by without my bearing a royal heir. I saw you blame me, with your words and then with your fists. The dragon showed me. The dragon rescued me.”
The hum of the crowd grew louder and louder, yet the princess Ursula’s voice could be heard with perfect clarity. Was she amplifying it somehow? Was that why the amulet around her neck had begun to glow? Was she summoning the wind that seemed to spring up from nowhere?
“The dragon looks into her lake and sees the future,” explained Ursula, and though the wind groaned and the crowd murmured, everyone heard her perfectly. “On wedding days it’s clearest of all. That’s when a new future opens like a door. And if it’s a bad one…”
The crowd had been inching forward, swarming closer to the royal family in hope of seeing better, hearing better, but the light of Ursula’s amulet was becoming too bright. It needled into their open eyes. People stepped back, jostling each other, making a clearing around the princess and her flashing talisman.
Even the King stepped back. The wind spiraled around Ursula faster and faster, layering itself with the violent light. Ursula alone was undaunted. The circle around her grew wider, like a shock wave spreading from the point of impact. Was the light coming from the amulet or from the Princess herself?
Then the dragon descended from the sky in a gentle rustle of feathers, settling into the empty space beside the Princess.
This time there was no plan. No trap. It wasn’t even a wedding day. Soldiers stood frozen, waiting for orders that did not come. General Tarron took several skipping steps backward, feeling for his sword, and even the King was still as a stone, confounded in the face of his lifelong adversary. In the pandemonium, the dragon could have torn through half the crowd, devoured the royal family in two bites, and left the country for the vultures.
But it did not attack. Instead, it bowed its head low before the Princess, and women began to climb down from its back.
Some of them still wore their bridal gowns, skirts hacked unevenly around their calves, white silk turned gray-brown with age and grime. Some wore stranger garments, patchworks of leaves and wraps of dirty fur. They were young and old, hair in unkempt tangles or cut off close to the head. Every one, even the white-haired and stoop-backed, looked strong and wiry, with the muscles and worn skin of hard living. They didn’t speak, but moved with grace to stand in a circle around the dragon, the stronger helping the weaker until all their feet were on the ground.
Here were all the women the dragon had taken, every bride, back to the blacksmith’s apprentice from so many years ago. She had deep lines around her mouth now, and a crown of steel-gray curls, but her eyes still sparkled with warmth.
Among the brides were a handful of others, even a few children. These wore the robes of the foothill settlements, faded but still recognizable, and a whisper ran through the crowd. The sacrifices. The rumors had been true: on the outskirts of the nation, the young were left on the hillsides to placate the monster.
But instead, it seemed, the dragon had gathered them in. Protected them.
Finally, the King composed himself enough to speak. “What is the meaning of this, granddaughter?”
“They have lived in isolation, scavenging and scraping, long enough,” Princess Ursula replied. “The villagers leave livestock on occasion, but it’s not enough meat or milk for everyone. They were afraid to return, but at last I convinced them that they belong here, with their families. We belong here,” she added. “I am the heir to the throne of this kingdom, and I will not relinquish it out of fear.”
Behind her, some of the brides shuffled their bare, calloused feet, clearly not sharing all Ursula’s determination. But some of them planted their feet and squared their shoulders. Some of them didn’t mean to back down.
In the crowd, people recognized their sisters, their aunts, their almost-wives, women they’d believed long dead. Women they’d mourned, now reborn. Yet no one cried out in recognition. No one rushed to embrace a long-lost friend. The silence built and built, just as the wind had a moment ago.
“And now what?” said the King, his voice soft, the way a predator goes still before pouncing. “You wish us to lay down arms against this… this worm?”
“The dragon has harmed no one,” said Ursula. “The women it took are all returned. It never injured us. It rescued us from worse fates.”
“Not all returned,” said a new voice, one that had rarely, if ever, been raised in public before. Princess Elize stepped forward. “This thing took my mother, the last Queen, and I see her nowhere,” she called out. Her voice was bitter. “Did you rescue her? Was this your salvation, that she died of old age in the mountains without ever laying eyes on her children again?”
The dragon seemed to understand her. It inclined its massive head in her direction, then looked toward Ursula.
She removed the amulet from around her neck and held it out before her, and the dragon swallowed it.
The thing sighed, and a thin stream of smoke emerged from its beak. It sat up on its back legs and wrapped its wings around itself. They seemed to wrap farther than their length should have allowed, enfolding the dragon’s body once, twice, three times. Then, as the crowd stared, the wings collapsed into a soft mountain of feathers, with no more sound than a fire going out.
The feathers shifted. Beneath them, something moved.
General Tarron moved back another step. The King leaned forward. His hand was on his sword.
A woman rose to her feet among the feathers. Her hair, like the plumage that surrounded her, was white, tipped with silver. Her eyes were dark gray. She wore a gown of simple white, and her feet were bare, like the army of brides that now surrounded her. Around her neck was the amulet of volcanic rock.
It took a moment to recognize her, so much older than in her portraits that hung on the castle walls. Worn and tired but perhaps even more beautiful now.
“Wife,” said the King, his face growing pale. His hand did not leave the hilt of his sword.
She laughed. “No one has called me that in years. Nor any of the other things you used to call me, husband, when your anger was great.” The Queen looked over her shoulder at the blacksmith’s apprentice, who stepped forward to stand at her left hand. Princess Ursula fell into formation on her other side.
Princess Elize ran into her mother’s arms. “Oh, darling,” said the Queen, and their embrace lasted a long time.
Finally, the King spoke again. “These are lies,” he proclaimed loudly, his voice strong and clear now, his control regained. “The beast uses magic to befuddle us. These are not our stolen brides. They are illusions.” He drew his sword and pointed it at the Queen. “Strike them down and we may kill the monster.”
General Tarron drew his sword, too, and stepped up behind the King. More soldiers scrambled into a sketch of formation behind them. Some—mostly the men, but more than a few women—brandished their weapons. Some—mostly the women, but more than a few men—hesitated.
The last Queen laughed. Flanking her, Princess Ursula smiled, and so did the blacksmith’s apprentice. Princess Elize looked from her father to her mother in confusion, and back again.
“It’s not a lie,” she said earnestly. “It’s her. Magic can disguise, but you can feel for a glamour if you know how. There’s no veil here. It’s really my mother.”
“He knows, beloved,” said the Queen.
“You thought she was dead,” said the blacksmith’s apprentice. (The blacksmith himself was long dead, the people remembered; the title was not applicable, hadn’t been for forty years or more. What was her name?) “If you had known she was alive, you would have torn the world apart to recapture her.” She placed her hand on the Queen’s shoulder, and the Queen reached up and caught her fingers, squeezing them with the tenderness of long affection.
“But understand this,” said the Queen. “I would die before letting you strike me again. Or letting another man harm any of the women in my care.” She looked at the blacksmith’s apprentice and smiled. “Celandine helped me realize that I could do more than cower in a cave and lick my wounds. She showed me that I could still lead, that I could find my people and take them under my wings.” Celandine flashed her the indulgent smile of someone who had heard that pun a great many times.
“It wasn’t enough, though,” said Ursula. “She saved us from the worst of it, the beatings and scars. Some of us are alive today who would have been killed. And yet there are so many more of our people living in hunger and fear, suffering in small ways while this man reclines on a throne he never deserved.”
“Wretched, ungrateful girl,” snarled the King. “You’re one of them. You’re not my granddaughter. You’re a filthy trick.” He spun his sword in a circle. “Let’s see if there’s blood in that mirage.”
Then a blade grew out of his chest.
The King looked down in surprise at the red-tinged steel emerging from between his ribs. Blood was already spreading around the wound. With a slick sound, the sword was yanked back out from behind him; the king slumped forward, falling to his knees.
He craned his neck, trying to see his attacker’s face while simultaneously stanching the bleeding with his fist.
Sympathetic to the difficulty of this task, his daughter, the gentle Princess Amalyn, moved from behind to in front of him, still holding the bloody sword. From the look on General Tarron’s face, he was only now beginning to understand that she had snatched it out of his hands.
“Daughter,” the King said in a choking voice, a bubble of blood between his lips.
Amalyn knelt before him, their eyes at exactly the same height. Her voice was very gentle. “You took my mother away from me,” she said. “You’re not going to take my child too.”
The King coughed, nodded, leaned forward into Amalyn’s open arms, and died.
The silence in the crowd connected them all together, as intimate as holding hands. No one wanted to be the first to let go.
General Tarron raised his empty sword hand, then clenched it into a fist. “Witches,” he whispered, then said it again, louder. “Witches!” He waved his arm as though signaling a phalanx of troops, instead of merely a handful of confused soldiers, some only half in their armor. “Avenge the King!”
Amalyn rose to her feet, looking terrified but refusing to run. She faced the General, and behind her the Queen and Celandine and Ursula and all the brides planted their feet and squared their shoulders.
“Avenge the King!” shouted Tarron again.
But no one took up the cry.
“Stand down,” said the lost Queen, so kindly and tenderly that it brought tears to the eyes of several in the crowd. The General, without his king, without his sword, without his bride, trembled and looked behind him, and seemed to finally realize he was alone.
“Stand down,” said Princess Ursula to the man who was once to be her husband, “by order of the Queen.”
The army of brides cheered. Some in the crowd cheered too. Many didn’t. A few stared balefully at the women they had once mourned.
But the General lowered his hand, and was silent, and stepped aside.
Without another word, the Queen walked, barefoot, past the body of her husband, past the cluster of soldiers, past the General, up the steps of the castle and into the Throne Room. The brides fell into step behind her, single file, led by Celandine and Princess Ursula. Princesses Amalyn and Elize fell into step at the end of the line, Amalyn holding her sister’s hand in her own while her other hand still gripped the bloody sword.
And no one touched the body of the King, which lay in the sun for a full three days, until the Princess Elize summoned a fire that reduced the corpse to pure white ashes.
With the ashes, she anointed the foreheads of the Queen, the Princess Amalyn, and the Princess Ursula. The marks the ashes left, three-cornered and so white they were almost blue, did not wash away or fade. Sometimes, from certain angles, they seemed to glow
Some called the marks a curse, forever staining the three generations of women who had murdered the nation’s only King. Some called them magic. The Queen’s Consort Celandine said they were beautiful.
When Princess Ursula married for good, some years later, the sky was cloudy and still. And when she bore a daughter, the newborn princess had a pure white triangular mark in the center of her forehead.
About the Author
Lindsay King-Miller is the author of ASK A QUEER CHICK: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls who Dig Girls (Plume, 2016). Her fiction has appeared in the anthologies THE FIENDS IN THE FURROWS (Nosetouch, 2018), THE MONSTERS WE FORGOT (Soteira, 2019), TINY NIGHTMARES (Catapult, 2020), and others. She lives in Denver with her partner and two children.