Mistress of Skeleton
Warlord Arzu paced his pavilion, waiting. The walls were thick wool, dyed the bright red of new blood. His elite guard stood at attention, excessively armed and armored with spear, sword, and machete all in evidence. Flickering light from the brazier at the center of the pavilion sent shadows skittering across the red walls like unquiet ghosts.
“Where’s the delegation from the so-called Waning Moon?” he snapped. “What’s taking so long?” No one answered him. The warlord continued to pace.
Finally, a young warrior came in, looking confused.
“What is it?” asked Arzu.
“The -- sir, the delegation is here.”
“Well? Nearby? Where exactly?” snapped Arzu. Why had there been no warning from the sentries? There should have been a warning sounded when the treacherous wretches arrived. For centuries, when they were still called ‘Dawning Sun’, this devilish island clan had been a thorn to Arzu’s people. A threat. Their Cursed state was no less than they deserved. Arzu was surprised to find that there was enough sense in all of them collectively to pen the letter that had called him to this parlay.
“No, they’ve-- she’s arrived. Here.”
Without further explanation, the warrior pulled aside the curtain, revealing an old woman flanked by two of the warlord’s own elite guard.
She was tiny, bent with age. Wrinkles lined her face, and her gait was slow and aided by a knobbly wooden cane. Her clothing was simple and neat, but she bore no marker of status or power -- no jewels, no ornamentation -- no sign of her allegiance beyond the simple print of her robe.
Arzu laughed mightily. He slapped his armored leg, and guffawed. His guards took up his mirth a moment later.
“You?” Arzu said, when he caught his breath. “You are the representative of the Waning Moon? You must be all that’s left!”
“Mmm…” she said. “No, no, no… I wouldn’t say that. But I am the best of them!” She bore a bland smile on her face, unaware of his derision.
“No one else? No guards? No nobles? No diplomats?”
“No, no, no. Didn’t I say? I don’t want a lot of fuss,” she said. “I do apologize, I should have said so in my letter.”
Arzu looked to his warrior and the young man came close to hear his whispered orders: “Search the perimeter -- anyone you find, kill. She can’t possibly have made it all the way here from her island alone. It must be a diversion!”
The warrior bowed and left the tent before he started calling orders while Arzu smiled wickedly at the old woman.
She just continued to hold her own smile, eyes peering blearily around the tent.
“Don’t you have a chair for an old woman?” she asked, “Perhaps a blanket and some tea? I do love a bowl of tea. Soothes my old bones, you know. Keeps me spry.” She chuckled at her own joke.
Arzu snorted, staring at her in disbelief. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
With a sigh, the old woman looked around and found a camp stool. She began to limp towards it, leaning heavily on her cane. Involuntarily, one of the elite guards moved to bring it to the fire for her. He stopped at a glare from Arzu. For a frozen moment, the two men stared at each other over the head of the struggling old woman. Warlord Arzu relented, and gestured for the chair to be brought forward.
“Oh, thank you, dear,” said the old woman, gratefully. She sat down, and primly arranged her varicose hands on her stick.
Arzu gestured imperiously and two guards came clanking forward with his low throne, covered in blankets and pillows. The warlord sat broadly, taking up all the space he could, with his hands on his knees. He looked at the old woman and chuckled again.
“When I agreed to hear the delegation of the Waning Moon, I did not think it would mean listening to the nattering of an old woman. Have you anything to say, at all? I have more important business to attend to at my fortress -- like finding somewhere for you serve me for what’s left of your miserable life, old one.”
“Oh, the tales I could tell you” said the old woman, latching onto his first comment and apparently missing the rest. “I must say, I had my share of fun, in my youth. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at me. Perhaps some tea? It is not proper to sit and chat without tea.”
“You cannot be serious,” said Arzu.
“Why ever not?” said the old woman.
With a snort, Arzu summoned a servant. He hustled forward and set a black iron kettle on the edge of the fire and went to sprinkle herbs in the water.
“Oh, no,” said the old woman, condescendingly. “Not those…” She fished a packet of dried leaves from her belt and handed them to the servant.
“Is your plan to poison me?” asked Arzu, disdainful.
“Oh dear, why would I do that? We’re having such a pleasant time,” said the old woman, reproachfully, “Perhaps I can have one of those blankets now?”
“Bah!” said the Warlord. He was not finding this as enjoyable as he’d hoped. Years under the yoke of these people… the least they could do was send someone he could properly gloat over.
Cautiously, the servant proceeded to make the tea.
“Ah, very well,” said the old woman, finally sensing his impatience. “Now. What were we meant to speak about?”
Trying to get some satisfaction from the situation, Arzu said, “I’ve captured all the people of the Waning Moon who once stole my country. They surrendered to a man and woman, and they serve me now.”
“Ah,” said the old woman, smiling devilishly.
“Well… they’re Cursed, now, aren’t they? Of course, they surrendered. They can’t do anything else. Not exactly your proudest victory, surely? Against the helpless?”
Arzu leered at her. “I don’t care. I’ll take the victories the gods give me. They are good slaves, your people. They do as they’re told -- whatever they’re told. I did not believe in justice, until I saw the Kingdom of the Dawning Sun become the Waning Moon. It pleases me to see how far your people have fallen.”
“Oh goodness me,” said the old woman, still with her impassive smile.
“That tea does smell nice.”
“The tea--” Arzu could take no more. He stood up from his throne, towering over the old woman in his armor and his furs.
“Do you know where we stand, old woman?” he shouted.
“You stand,” she corrected. “I’m sitting. In your tent. Or is it mine?”
“We stand on the Field of Yasuman!” roared Warlord Arzu, “The grass here is watered by the blood of my ancestors, shed by your people. And you speak to me of tea!”
“Mmm… well,” she said, conspiratorially. “They aren’t really worth talking about, your ancestors, are they?”
Arzu’s fury cooled to malice. She was mocking him.
“I hope you love your Cursed people,” he said. “Because you’re going to suffer with them for as long as I can contrive to keep you alive, old woman.” He was on the point of gesturing to the guards, telling them to take her away.
“Love them…” mused the old woman, smiling. She toyed with her stick and squinted into the fire. “Perhaps I do. In my way. But that’s not really the point, is it?” As she finished, she looked up from the fire, into Arzu’s eyes. The orange flames became purple. An unholy light lit the old woman’s eyes. Arzu’s heart seemed to freeze.
“This has been most amusing,” the old woman said. “But I was always going to kill you all -- it simply wouldn’t do, you see, for outsiders to survive having enslaved the Waning Moon.”
“Kill her!” yelled Arzu, as the earth beneath the tent erupted. The elite guards staggered as bone arms thrust up from the dirt and pulled ribcages and skulls up out of the ground.
Panicked, Arzu cut his way out of the tent. Waiting for him, were the dead.
His warriors lay strewn around the camp in bloody heaps. The dead of the Battle of Yasuman had risen at the summons of the old woman. Bits of preserved flesh and the blackened tatters of clothing adorned the skeletons that had slaughtered the warlord’s entourage. They stood in a silent circle around the tent, skulls alight with purple flames and all focused on Arzu, surrounding him with ancient swords in bone hands.
Unharmed, the old woman emerged from the pavillion, now accompanied by an honor guard of the dead.
Arzu turned to her and fell to his knees, lips searching for the words to beg for his life. Before he could find them, the skeletons ran him through -- a dozen weapons coming down from all sides, directed by a single thought.
The old woman, Grandma Bones, looked at his corpse thoughtfully -- and then to the distant lights of Warlord Arzu’s fortress. As she did, all the malevolent violet eyes of the dead turned with her.
She patted the nearest skeleton’s hand.
“Efficiently done, my pets. Now run along to the rest of the night’s business. See that no one escapes.”
As one, the skeletons began to march away.
Grandma Bones watched them go, her eyes still alight with power. As they disappeared in the dark, she surveyed the chaos of the camp and then, clicking her tongue regretfully, she returned to the pavilion. The water in the kettle bubbled merrily. As she passed by the late Arzu’s throne, she pulled one of the blankets from it. Muttering to herself, she carefully arranged it over her own shoulders before settling back onto the low stool by the fire.
Contentedly, she poured herself a cup of tea.