Glory, who appeared to be a man, though she was dressed as a woman, sat on the dais and arranged her green skirts carefully. She sat on her hip and leaned on one arm, tucked toes beneath her dress. Then, the priestess lifted her chin while so many dirty, grinning men waited for her to perform. Hours after the battle and Vanuva had not returned to camp yet. A pair of camp guards, sitting up on big black armored boars, crossed the food lines, annoying a few hungry soldiers. They stopped their animals and exchanged a few quiet words.
Glory watched the guards, too. She sensed that something was not right. Queen Vanuva should have been back by now and that was worrisome. Chinyere, Glory’s sister, helped to get the crowd’s attention by clapping. Chinyere was shorter with a more angular jaw, and lighter skinned. Most of the men’s looks stayed with her. Glory raised her eyes above all that.
Well then, if Vanuva was still absent, Glory decided she would ready the little piglets for whatever may come. “Tonight, I want you to understand compassion. You need to know how to embody it when no one else agrees. One act of love, just one, can make all the difference to people. And you never know what great good can come of that…”
The restless Hog Riders were already starting to speak over Glory, and some men surely wolf-whistled when Chinyere finished passing by. But Glory went on anyway. She shimmered her tambourine, bowed her head.
“Two years ago, back when the refugees had first become our friends— when we were all running, you know. So, yes, we all had to be friends… And yes, the other thing you should know, about that time… King Vael, the great orange chimera, he chased out every… flavor of mankind that he desired. Like it was a great feast and he could devour then spit out any morsel that he craved. The ones who disagreed with him in the courts—they were cast out. The foreigners crowding the shores, fleeing ‘their own silly wars’ that’s what he said, the people who don’t worship as we do, or speak our language. And King Vael’Kellen loathed the women who loved women and the men who loved men. He said we were abominations. And then there were… the men who—well, you see how I am, how I am made, but then how I choose to dress myself. So I was one of the ones rounded up.” Glory swallowed. The boisterous voices below the kneeling woman ebbed. She looked up to see many eyes watching her. “But then my sister came and got me and we fled together. She could have been free. Now, we would never be free again.”
“We joined with fallen women who’d been dragged out of whorehouses with sword tips pointed at their necks, and rebellious men who wouldn’t fit in the jails, even street children got swept up in the droves of people fleeing destruction of their homes and lives—can you imagine it? Like songbirds caught in a wind storm, the beggars and the street children were harassed up off their feet too, so they had to come with us. Oh, there were so many children. My friends, whole communities, even the ghettoes King Vael pushed them all into, those got… the royal army flushed us all out. Chinyere and I were among the ones treated worst of all, because we weren’t just… I wasn’t just a… who I am.
“But they knew we were ordained priestesses too and that threatened the establishment, that we’d got through all the ceremonies beneath their noses, but were no longer accountable to any of the order. And, we could write all about what we’d suffered. The two of us could even pray for riteous hail if we wanted to, bring burning ice down on their temple roofs and palaces. So the both of us, we had bounties on our heads.”
“Still do.” Chinyere crossed her arms, and paced to the far end of the stage. Someone jingled a handful of coins and Chinyere went to catch them in her apron. More people on that side began to hold out offerings too.
“So this is the story I want to tell. Listen, and hear what happens when you let people be made into pigs. Remember, I want this story to give you compassion. Then, whatever happens, you shall be granted the strength to squeal back and resist.”
. . .
First, they make people afraid. They will tell any lie to achieve this. Then, the ones who are persecuting you, they make you less than human. Direct all that fear and hate at you. Sisters, brothers, fathers, become “lost children,” “fools,” “pigs.” In the end, they liked calling us pigs so much, just like Queen Vanuva. They could associate us with garbage and needing to be swept out of places. Every place w went, they made pig noises at us. They called us out to feed, “Soowee! Soowee!” before they burned our homes, forced us to settle in ghettos where we were afraid and crowded together, dying… for a time, for a little time, that forged us together, as friends. We misfits only had one another. Whatever peace we made in our little world, that was ours.
But then, and it we feared it would happen eventually, they became impatient and said they had become totally disgusted with us pigs. One night when we were just south of the heartland, near Rimmi Cole, a whole mob of people with torches, yelling, “Soowee! Soowee!” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine hearing that, knowing you have to listen, that they’re screaming for you? That you have to run for your life? They threw rocks and garbage at us. They beat us. That mob, they killed anyone they could snatch. Then, the army came. They were there to make sure we went, not to protect our lives. The king’s men were there to keep ‘the true children’ safe while they indulged rioting against us. The ones who could ran even further south.
You know, and I remember this clearly… all the faces I ever saw in those cities we passed through cities like high, windy Rimmi Cole, or in our refugee camps and our ghettos, the “true children” and the “lost children” were all brown, all shades of brown. As brown as every man, woman and hild living on this realm, this sapphire in the night sky. No purple people. No spotted people or striped people, or people with ‘pig’ stamped into their heads… and nobody had two heads, either, nor four amrs or three eyes, hooves, horns or wings. We were all people, come from brown mother Earth, and blessed with goddess Hichristy’s spark of sentience. And alive with the water god’s breath of life. Evenso, to them, some people had become pigs. It must have made the game of blame, the narcotic of easy fixes to life’s problems, go down all the easier.
And I used to think you had to go out of your way to be that evil. But so many found hate easy, like slipping into silk for your lover.
Weeks and weeks of this, until we refugees came to towns on the border. There, on the swampland that nobody wanted, we thought we’d made our homes in the Badlands. However, that was not far enough for King Vael. All across his empire, you know, the royal army had been ordered not to let any more refugees in, not at the ports, nor on the far frontier borders… but that also meant they also wanted the… we, the rubbish of society, put out. No refugees in. All refugees out. That was always their next step.
The soldiers had a game one night. We heard their horses’ hooves right ontop of the huts before we knew what was going on. That was a terrible raid. Everyone in the whole settlement was running. They burned buildings and people. The king’s men all on white horses and in gold armor, their black and orange capes flying… it was so easy fot them to look and act riteous. They didn’t care. We hadn’t eaten in days. We barely had the strength to. Many people, even children, were run down by those horses. The royal horses and their rotten, silver bells. Sister Chinyere and I had taken most of our things off for the night. We didn’t have time to dress again, we knew that. So we went running out of the tent in what we had. And they could… by their torches, they could see which of us was a woman through our night clothes. A woman at the top and how I was different on the bottom… that I, the other sister, I was… You see, in their eyes, I was only half of a sister. So they knew it was us, the two priestesses who always spoke out and then went on the run. One-hundred-and-twenty-thousand gemmas for the man-woman and twenty-thousand gemmas for the girl. They really hated me. I’m sure they hoped my sister would abandon me, with our bounties so vast apart. How could they ever miss us?
It was dark in Muahama village. We tried to hold our hands while running so that we wouldn’t lose one another. But it was so muddy, and we were so panicked, we were going to fall. There is always so much mud in the Badlands. We knew we were going to fall. Chinyere and I were crying. We weren’t screaming like the others, no. We didn’t have any more breath for it, you see. We just panicked. I thought my heart would burst. My chest was sore with worrying, with mourning so much in the day and never having any rest for fear of the wretched night itself. For a long time, I imagined a great black, seething wound around the red heart in my chest. I thought the inside of myself had rotted. In a way, I believed I was already dead. We had seen so much of what people should never be able to do to other people. And then, as I knew we would, Chinyere tripped and tangled in her skirt. I went down too. She wasn’t going to die without me. We sat there, shivering like rabbits caught. The silver bells and the silver hooves hanging beneath the red aura of so many torches came on us like a thunderhead. Those soldiers were demons, flying in on us.
The first time we saw the Cull Sow Queen, as ready to die as we were… we thought she was a devil. She was at the edge of the field, by the road with a group of men, also riding on gigantic boars, half the size of horses. Queen Vanuva was on the biggest animal in their pack, a great silver sow, and her helmet had those horns, you know, and the jagged snarl of a pig, and that bloody looking ruby between her eyes. We had heard of the Hog Riders before, how horrible and ruthless they were with anyone in the Badlands who did not pay a tribute. That’s how it was, then.
A few of them were there, right at the edge of a road, set off by lanterns. The Hog Riders were going to sit there and watch the soldiers abuse us. Those Hog Riders, were as frightened of the royal army as we were. They weren’t going to help, of course. They were outlaws who raided and burned villages, so they were busy trying to get out of Muahama as well. They would be dead if they stayed and let the soldiers catch them. And Queen Vanuva, who was riding with them, she was the most prized catch of all. Chinyere was worth twenty thousand gemmas and I was worth one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand. King Vael would have given on of his palaces away, to have Queen Vanuva back alive. Chinyere and I cried out at last, we dared to cry out to them, but the Hog Riders stayed frozen.
The king’s men tore me away from my sister. I yelled like a man. Those soldiers loved that. They laughed at me and kicked me for letting that slip out. The man who got me first, he had this… this stick. He was going to play with me, he said. He was going to finish teaching me to be a woman, if that was what I wanted. He was going to make me take my punishment like one. They kicked me so many times. I could taste blood in my mouth. My own teeth pierced my lips, where they kicked my face. Two soldiers held me down. They took the stick and they… The pain ripped through me. They were trying to rip me apart. They wanted to kill me that way, you see, by taking a stick and ramming it into my anus again and again. My sister was screaming. I could barely see, in the dark, through my tears, but there was a man, pants down past his waist, doing the same to her too. With his… with his cock. But I wasn’t good enough for that. So they were using a stick on me. In front of everyone, beneath the eyes of the goddess, who sees every sin, day and night—but they didn’t care. Nobody cared about us, two women being raped while soldiers and Hog Riders just watched.
I think… I think we cried out to Queen Vanuva again because, even though she was frightening and there were horrid looking men on her side, and horrible soldiers on our side… through all the chaos, whatever she was wearing to obscure what she had once been, Vanuva was still the shape of a woman. The only other woman there. Somehow, in that, we needed her. We hoped she would care, that she wouldn’t be able to turn away. It was like… an instinct. Women needed women. And I screamed the loudest at her, because I was determined that I was a woman! And like that, with everything to lose and no one else wanting to help her, Vanuva the Cull Sow Queen herself kicked her sow into movement. They made a furious dash through the darkness.
There were ten soldiers, maybe? More? How many are there ever in the legends? Ten skilled men on one woman. Vanuva was better off on her mount. Staying up on the sow’s back when there were so many would keep her alive longer, but that wasn’t going to stop what these men were doing. When Vanuva rode in close, she swung down and let her big war sow run loose and scatter the other soldiers. As fast as that, Vanuva had saved my sister, because that big, nasty, screaming sow was distracting and infuriating enough to take the attention of half those men. And the sow was smart. She could tell who was in charge and went after him first. Those men, in that grand gold armor, those holy orange cloaks, had never seen anything like it before. They couldn’t deal with it.
And I couldn’t move. I just couldn’t. The lower half of me felt destroyed. But as I lay there, I was close enough to see how Vanuva fought them. In streaks of torch light, the queen had both her hands on large bull-cleaver. The ceremonial sword of a Fire Knight was in its scabbard across her back, but she wasn’t using it. That axe was heavy. She wasn’t going to be able to swing it fast enough, and they saw this right away, closed in on her. Three men struck at once. Vanuva took sword blows against her plate armor on one side. It cut her, streaks of dark blood flew, but Vanuva said nothing. While they were alarmed at this, she made her swing, right at the shoulder joint of the last man recovering from his strike. And she took his whole arm off.
I thought I was already dead, when I saw that. In hell, watching another tormented sinner. I looked around for the sow-looking devil coming to torture me next. But, no. It was always Vanuva. Vanuva hurting someone else, standing up for me. Over screams of that silver sow doing her bloody work a ways away, the men opened their mouths, incensed with disgust. They went after Vanuva again, blades pointed to stab her, but she suddenly had her elegant sword out, to parry, catch them while in close, then came down again with that cleaver one-handed. Another man lost his leg, clean cut at the knee. It was brutal and horrifyingly efficient. A man maimed like this did not get back up. He was done. Vanuva did not need to aim to kill or match their footsteps or even exchange measured blows with them, no. She aimed well enough and hacked them down like they were the pigs. It worked again, and another time. One man, come loose from attacking Vanuva’s sow, ran at Vanuva while the bloodied, maimed trunk of her last victim collapsed. Half of the woman was bloody and Vanuva’s whole body was bent dragging her heavy, gore-smeared weapon out of the corpse. At the last moment, when she halfway saw this next soldier closing in, Vanuva let go her sword, the bright holy blade fell, and in the same smooth motion, she freed a thick bull whip. At eight paces, she cracked the whipe in the air and put out that man’s eye. The left eye. She cracked it again and slashed him across his neck. Then, Vanuva took her time and picked up her sword again, walked to him. Her victim was spasming on the ground, clutching his throat. Vanuva kicked him over and readied a final blow. But she didn’t have to. The enemy lay still, already dead. His throat slit well enough.
My sister stayed in the middle of what had become the silver sow’s own little circus ring. Any time a man wanted at Chinyere again, the pig ran at them. This pig, who we later learned—and you all know—her name is Phaia, she must have claimed Chinyere her piglet and claimed that little ring of upchurned mud her territory, and Phaia was bucking those men over her spiked helmet and her armored back. Running them down, goring them, dragging them. When those men saw Vanuva coming over, they abandoned the sow and ran for her. Soldiers glad for a fighter that made sense, someone they could actually get. And she was covered in her blood, she looked an easy target.
Now, Vanuva was going to die. It was why her own men wouldn’t back her. I could hear my own blood pushing at my ear drums. I couldn’t have heard all of that last fight properly. Phaia’s squeals were louder than anything. Vanuva moved her mouth, I saw it, but nothing came out. The words of the Cull Sow Queen sounded like a pig’s raw epithets. Woman and sow, they were saying the same thing, “Leave her alone.”
The men ignored her. At last, Vanuva made her own warcry. It sounded worse than the pig. Or, the pig squealed and screeched worse than a mortal woman could. I was bleeding, I was crying. I didn’t know what was going on. A man ran at Vanuva and slammed her hand with his sword and she had to drop her axe. Vanuva went down, almost on her knee, but then she slashed back with the sword in her other hand and took off his head as he tried to get down there with her, finish her off. The axe, you see, only slowed Vanuva down. She used it to deal crude, efficient blows one swing at a time and handle uneven fights. Freed from the glorified butcher’s tool, the king’s men were painfully reminded that she had been a soldier, and the War Matriarch herself, before King Vael called her a cull sow. And that was all it was, name-calling. A game for little boys.
I saw the other men hesitate. Vanuva took her time, let them circle in. Now, she was dueling them and she clearly knew the difference.
Their efforts to jostle her or bolster themselves proved fatal. Vanuva lifted her head in a way, in that vile grinning pig helmet, that made me think she smiled back at them. Then she sprinted in like it really was her dinner calling.
A few noisy rapports of the swords clashing and she sliced one man through his side, turned, and stabbed another one with the ceremonial knife at her belt, suddenly in her other hand. The last of the pig-callers, dead. So quick.
Vanuva slipped the knife back into its scabbard at her belt, then ran with her sword to Phaia. The last two men who were still trying to get through the sow, and they’d drawn blood. Vanuva sprinted up behind her own charging sow, using Phaia for cover, then when the pig grabbed hold of one man’s arm, crunched into the bone, Vanuva slid beneath the sow’s belly. She unfolded from beneath the beast to surprise the other man, but Vanuva hadn’t time to aim or room to move her arms to stick him at a vulnerable place in the seams of his armor. The man saw her suddenly come up from the pig, then he jumped back and slashed.
Vanuva parried, barely, then rolled out of the way. The man came at her again, and she kept dodging, running. He wouldn’t let her get back to her feet properly. Forced now to think and not just fight, Vanuva began to summon the power of a Fire Knight that the king also said the goddess had forbidden his once wife to use. I watched Vanuva burn the edge of her sword. It smoked and glowed with a quick sliver of pink flame, I swear—and the first radiant she sliced through the night landed on that man in a useless place. I heard the scrape of metal where it didn’t catch anywhere and would slide off his chest plate. But then, it stuck. It seemed not to matter where she hit him now. Vanuva’s blade was eating into the metal armor. She melted it. Vanuva’s sword was so hot that his own armor seared seared him through the chainmail underneath the plate. Vanuva leaned in and put him on the ground. His brown skin blistered red while she pinned him and the silver pig helmet with its gold teeth grinned in the rose-colored light, pleased with the cruel work. The man screamed when he pulled his helmet off when even that burned him. His body shuddered and smoked. His cheeks broke open into bleeding sores while Vanvua held on, and on. Cooked him.
Phaia the silver sow was docile now, wagging her coiled tail and grunting happily. Her last man lay flat out on the ground, his head dashed in. Phaia followed the bloodied Vanuva around like a pet, not some half-wild thing trained for eating men in a war. Chinyere, I remember, would not let Vanuva touch her when the queen offered to help her up, Chinyere was still so afraid. But sister, you did hold onto that pig, let her tow you around. When Vanuva, you and her pig came back to me, and Vanuva stood over me in that sow’s mask that made it look like the apocalypse was on, I could see the smile in her eyes when she said, “We don’t abuse refugees in my house. But we do punish the fools who want to try it.”
“Yes ma’am.” I think I said that. My teeth chattered hard.
“I’ve decided—you both decided it for me. This is my house now. This whole place.” Vanuva looked around at the burning houses and chaos beyond the dark field. She shouted at the Hog Riders now riding casually over, not at all as if they’d expected her to be overwhelmed and die. “You three, put those men I chopped up out of their misery if they haven’t already bled out. Than you come stand guard. The rest—spread out! Go help the ones in those houses! And do as I’ve done. Kill any rapist, murderous soldiers that resist you!”
They shouted salutes and rode off into the discordant village. Vanuva reached for Chinyere again. This time, sister, you let the Cull Sow Queen help you. I remember that. When you saw that she was kind.
Vanuva held around Chinyere’s back and let their arms slip from one another, ever slowly, until she was comfortably lying down. Now, we were three black women free to shiver and stare at one another. Queen Vanuva’s mask wasn’t much less frightening now. But she wasn’t going to take it off. Vanuva checked at what was now obvious between my legs. Then, and I saw her do this, unlike so many in my life, she made a decision to try and understand.
“What are your names, ladies?” Vanuva kept her eyes on me while she said that, called me a lady, just like my sister. She then gestured for us to lay back against Phaia who sat happily in the mud. The big sow was warm, and we needed warmth, badly.
“Are you alright?” Chinyere asked, incredulous. Vanuva was bleeding worse than her victims.
Vanuva flexed a hand in her gloves. “I’m a dead woman. King Vael tells people that too, but they never believe him.” When Chinyere wanted to help, Vanuva put that hand, wet with red, up between them. “I’m already dead.”
We were afraid to ask any more about it.
The three Hog Riders came back and made a ring around us, facing the village. Vanuva relaxed her shoulders. “Hours ago, I called for the rest of the Hog Riders to meet us at the pass. But when they see that we couldn’t make it, they’ll ride right into town, to back us. You’ll like them. Big, kind, silly men. Much smarter than these idiots.” The men glanced up at Vanuva but she didn’t apologize. And when she noticed the looks on our faces, “Don’t worry, some of my best soldiers also happen to be man-lovers.” Vanuva lifted her helmet so that the ears fell back and the golden pig teeth set in the angular jaw were now like a crown above her head. We could finally see her face. It was so unusual. We three looked the same age, but there we were, lying prone, and she was so terrifying. Tiny deep blue stones on her gold earrings and in a nose ring made a strange tension with the darkness. “They’re gay. Among some of the first refugees the king pushed out into this region were man-lovers. So you see, they will have no interest in you, not in that way. And they’re decent men, who are my good friends. We will all keep you safe.”
I think I cried before the Queen. No, I am sure that I cried, with relief, overwhelmed by Chinyere and I being alive, talking to the queen. Finally, we meet her, but she was squatting in filth and she was not wearing a crown, nor a royal gown. And Queen Vanuva was the one serving us, trying to put us at ease.
Vanuva asked us again, “What would you like me to call you, from here on out? You were reborn in fire today, that’s what I think. You are free, you’ve got crackling phoenix wings. Now that you have nothing, whatsoever left to lose, you can also do whatever you want. So be something that gives you new life.” She squeezed my hand, “That’s what I would do.”
It came to me then. Vanuva wasn’t some frightened person, living on the brink, waiting for her last showdown with King Vael’Kellen when he or his men caught up with her. Her and her band of pig-riding monsters. That was only how he wanted his subjects to think of his once queen.
I was busy shivering. Less now. Chinyere petted Phaia with the back of her hand, rubbed little circles into the light fur with her knuckles, “We are the Priestesses of the Silver Sow.”
“Oh, how elegant.” Vanuva put her awful pig helmet back down, then curtsied for us. The metal sow’s twisted, bejeweled face laughed through the graceful gesture. Now it seemed a confident, protective smile. The Cull Sow Queen laughed at the threat of death and the cruelty of life. She could be bigger than all of that.
And so now you know how ya’ll became our little piglets.