The Cull Sow Queen
Phaia the silver sow watched her mistress reach for her. “Phaia, please… can’t you help? Can you please try, my baby?”
Pigs can sense about two thousand things more than humans can, and the female of the species, the sow, can smell still deeper, snuff things no hog can smell… bully into the hopeful seams of dreams stitched together and find all the sweet, bright things slipping loose. Shovel into the deep crags of nightmares with their noses and find the dirty, naked fears that drive people to hate what they do.
Phaia as a pig, did not think in the way that people do, but she knew—perhaps she even considered, in her porcine way, that if her mistress was the best person around then she must be the best pig, the best. And so, she could smell things coming that no man or woman or sow or hog alive could smell—she could cut through the acrid old orange rinds in the muck and find the sweet apple cores. Phaia could sift between white streams of sour rice and runny noodles among the wet refuse and discover the wormy chicken bones which were still crunchy and good. Just as well as she could do all that, Phaia could discern when mistress Vanuva would become afraid before she felt afraid, and could huddle low out of the way before she knew she would have to strike her. Phaia knew that Vanuva was supposed to be dead, years before Vanuva was ready to die. And here Vanuva was at last, strung out on the ground.
The one who didn’t want to give her the apple cores sometimes, or snatched the chicken bones up from the dirt, pitched them away she couldn’t have them. Phaia grunted happily and began to wag her coiled tail. She had eaten the flesh of humans before, all the warhogs in the army were brought up to do it. Even the riders could become meat if they weren’t careful, if they didn’t lead or corral a warhog right. And you never lay down near a warhog, especially not near her food. Phaia raised her flopping-over-ears to get a good look with her delighted, brown eyes. Today, tonight, finally, would be Vanuva’s very last.
And Phaia had decided, long ago, her mistress must taste like chicken.
Vanuva stirred. She winced and cried. Phaia startled back, sniffed the air and watched the woman. Vanuva watched her back. Her mouth slipped into a frown.
Vanuva worried over the surge in pain in her own body, the burning behind her eyes. Phaia sensed this. Maybe, not quite yet. But it did remind the sow of something she was craving. Phaia stepped her cloven trotter down on the throat of the dead pikeman who lay beside her mistress Vanuva. The great sow lowered her head to snuff all over his stiff, lifeless face. Then, as made several nasty, smacking noises as she rooted the murderer’s eyes out of their sockets and gobbled them up.
“Ugh, Phaia… don’t you never let nobody tell you pigs don’t have a sense of justice.”
The sow was mostly ignoring Vanuva now, enjoying herself.
“Phaia the silver sow, trained for war, spoiled rotten and worse… you’re something close to a monster, aren’t you? The Cull Sow Queen made you that way, disgusting. Unremitting, horrifying abuse, only something close to the power of hell itself, seemed to ever stop fire knights like that dead one you’re eating.”
Vanuva forced herself to look away from Phaia. She focused back on the dead man’s golden pike, ripping up through her stomach. She smoothed a shaking hand up the shaft to admire the artful runes again. Phaia turned to look also. Strange that the weapon comforted her mistress.
“It’s the familiar craftsmanship of the old order. The kind of weapon I used to wield many times as one of them.”
Vanuva gripped the holy spear. The horror of what Phaia was doing abated. The wreaking stench of the soldiers, days dead, cleansed. Infinitesimal rose flames ignited the metal when she squeezed. Flames that did not burn the christened ones. Tiny flames that flared up between Vanuva’s fingers as she closed her fist tight. Phaia watched Vanuva smile. Her stopped wagging everytime the fool woman cheered herself up, out of death.
“This sacred weapon still holds such great protective power. This was one of the pikes gifted to the Red Nexus by the goddess of fire herself. This one was from the roof of the high temple. Now, I see it… I get it.”
Yes, yes, you’re going to be dead soon. Phaia rolled her little brown eyes.
“How evil of them, to send one of these after me…” Vanuva laughed at herself, then lay her head down again, quiet. “Or, how thoughtful.”
Now Phaia grunted brightly along as Vanuva despaired. The sow began to move her defiant haunch into Vanuva’s last view of the world.
Vanuva said, “Phaia, don’t you mind at all that your mistress is dying? Who is going to feed you now? Well, when you aren’t eating… eating my enemies. I think that is why you stayed with me all this time. I finally see it. Because I… Because the Cull Sow Queen has so many… delicious enemies.”
Phaia stepped on her next. “Argh… You bitch!” Vanuva shrieked. The sudden, vexing effort sent new pain ripping through Vanuva’s body. She arched her back and convulsed. The big sow got away from her. Trotted back, ears bobbing, then raised her fat head to watch.
Vanuva shuddered, kicked out. The tip of the gold lance scraped the ground, but that slight nudge sent violent tremors through Vanuva’s young body. Her metal helmet, horned and with pig’s ears, slipped free. She came back down, directly upon it.
Phaia gained her confidence during this death throe and rushed back in, but Vanuva howled like a madwoman when she fell on her helmet and that sent hungry Phaia back, stunned stiff to watch reverently at last. No, her mistress was too strong, even now. She would have to let Vanuva die on her own.
Vanuva watched the sickly sky jolt, saw its black clouds smear and leave dark clots before her eyes. She saw all the people she had cut down with her axes, the temples she had burned, the hollow huts she had left behind smoking, and she heard her own laughing voice come back to her now, almost hoarse with laughter at how fun, how satisfying it had been to do this… to do this to Vael’Kellen’s people. Like slamming her fist into his face when she couldn’t… when she never could have.
“I was a cat… in a world of rats…” then, Vanuva shouted, “Why did I choose to be a pig?!” A chorus of startled swine joined her, from wherever they feasted all over the dead field. Phaia was afraid to join with them. What was she seeing in this strange woman now? Phaia was beginning to smell, beginning to sense something new coming on… Worse than soppy apple cores, sickening like swallowed ink… the air around her smelled felt like… thick fire smoke, and it was hard to breathe… searing hot… but there was no fire.
Phaia wandered around, craning her fat neck to look for rainclouds in the sky that should be there. Nothing. And wishing to find some mud to cool herself, then… but there was none.
Vanuva couldn’t breathe. She wanted to leave her failing body, but her soul was trapped. Once, long ago, the Nexites told her that it was. Now, she felt it. This was worse than death. She set her teeth, but the hard chattering speared up through her face. Vanuva cried. She cried for the first time in a long time. The lance was glowing. She thought it had been the sun rising, the day, coming back. That’s how brilliant it was, this spell latent inside of the metal. And, as it glowed and Vanuva knew she was seeing hell itself, the fire knight beside her sat straight up, like a doll. As if he had strings. He turned his head slowly, to look at her. The face Phaia had chewed up was ignited with brilliant white light. He was beautiful. Why did she ever think she could battle against holy power?
He moved his mouth. She did not hear him. Vanuva did not need to. She knew what he has asking, what the fire goddess was asking through him.
Phaia backed off, slowly. There was definitely another presence with them now. All that burning with no fire and searing with no burn… it was a she, Phaia knew. And it was asking her mistress a question.
Vanuva shook her head, that no, she would not.
The goddess asked a second time. The golden corpse crawled near. He, she was holding her down. Holding Vanuva by the wrists.
Vanuva thrashed, cussed.
And then, the third time. The very last time the fire goddess would ask.
Phaia the pig watched the moment go by, tail and ears raised. A corpse imbued with golden power. Her mistress saying No. To what? Phaia knew it was there, the poor sow was the only witness as other dying soldiers and hungry warhogs went on with things in the distance. But, Phaia, so closeby to what she was sure was a conversation… could hear nothing.
In the end, Vanuva lay there, chest heaving. She cried. This was her last chance, and it was the goddess herself, holding her down. What could she even say?
The question was endemic to existence itself. The great unspoken expectation. Too precious to ever be said. It was what the fire goddess always asked of her children, because she would never let them go. And, here Vanuva was, as vile as she had become, and the goddess had come to remind her, that she could never let her go. But what would Vanuva do with that final offer?
Vanuva shut her mouth, her eyes, lost her will to fight exhaustion any longer. She let go and lay still, even as her blood flowed back into the earth.
“Yes, Hicristy… I will love.”
Then, the golden ghost holding Vanuva incinerated. Hot white threads wisped away into the dark sky, high and high away, anywhere else.
Phaia followed the beautiful energy with her flexing nose. After, she sat down on her big haunches, waited.
Vanuva was still now, but peaceful. Dead, but not dead. The sow could smell this, though she did not understand it. At that, Phaia quietly decided, for now after seeing that strange light she felt herself able to… that she would never try eating her mistress again.