El Cantar de la Reina Bruja
By Victoria Sandbrook
Mothers, hear me! I am alone but for your graces. My mistakes have bound me. My weaknesses have hobbled me. My pride has torn me from you.
Alejandra pricked her finger on her rough iron chains and whispered lilting iambs until all appearance of fatigue fell from her. When they came for her, she would look herself again.
Well. Not her true self. Not even the self she’d donned a decade ago to snare herself her king. What chaos there would be if her husband’s guards — nay, the entire kingdom! — discovered that the bruja chained in the metal palanquin had been their queen these ten years. “I must hide you from the priests,” Ciro had said, pallid with self-pity over his own deceit. “They would burn you for heresy.” Thus, Alejandra discovered what husband-kings did with unwilling, powerful wives. Now he risked much by dragging her on this yet unblooded campaign. But he had a rival to conquer: a widowed queen he thought to wed. With his wife’s help, of course.
The cabos — honored soldados, yes, but still babes with new chains of rank about their necks — held swords aloft when they opened her door. Unnecessary but flattering.
One motioned Alejandra forward, her voice as stern as a sargenta’s. “You’re to survey the battlefield, Doña Alejandra.”
Doña! Alejandra locked her jaw against the reply that boomed in her head. I was a goddess, wretch! I am your queen, dung-hurler. Avert your eyes and hold your tongue lest I find a better use for them.
She — Alejandra Isabella Celia de Las Vientas, Reina Coronada, Daughter of the Wind Women, Rightful but Secret Queen of the Valle — rose with the power of her ethereal forbears at the tip of her tongue, ready to fell the insignificant caba with the thunderclap of a curse.
But her own enchantment stopped her. The same spell she’d originally used to slough off her gossamer goddess soul. The same spell that had given her the form to seduce the delicious young King Ciro she’d spied from above. The form he’d bedded after exchanging whispered vows that made her his queen. The form that could be chained as her windborne self could never have been. The form that could not bear enough magic to break the spell that made it.
So she — Alejandra Isabella Celia de Las Vientas, Reina Coronada, Daughter of the Wind Women, Rightful but Humbled Queen of the Valle — demurred and did as she was bid.
I will suffer the great pain I have wrought. With a whim, I bought but tears and chains. With my words, I will buy freedom.
They skirted around the camp, parting dense, high grasses in silence. Birdsong, ever Alejandra’s companion in the palanquin and in her tower-room in the palace, lilted and swirled on the breeze. The morning air was damp, cool against her wrinkled red gown. The stiff stalks tried to seed her hair with burrs and dry bits, but the chaff fell from her like dutiful supplicants. The insolent caba behind Alejandra would have no such luck.
A quarter-mile from camp they stopped at the still-bleeding stump of a newly-felled tree before a field thick with mist. There stood her husband-king, not yet in his mail, draped in a sapphire brocade cloak. Ciro looked younger than his fifty-two years, skin the firm tawny-tan of cypress thanks to the week-long march, gray-streaked hair masked in the haze, the set of his bearded jaw, eyes limned with desire. Just not for Alejandra.
Ciro signaled to the cabos to wait back in the grass.
Alejandra stared into the fog as their footsteps retreated. How far away was the enemy, she wondered. Were they waiting just beyond her sight, ready to pounce? Were they still abed, assured of victory?
Ciro began. “Wife.”
“Your Majesty.” She curtseyed.
He handed her the willow stationery box.
Alejandra’s hands trembled as the wood breathed relief into her, its protection spells easing. “What do you ask of me today?”
He squinted, as if trying to conjure the future from the mist. “A dry field for our side. Muddy for the enemy. Fog to cover the vanguard. To drive them well toward the eastern mountains.”
By way of reply, Alejandra whispered an old couplet to the tree stump. It transformed, offering her a lacquered desk and fine chair at which she could sit. The willow box went on top and slightly to her left. From it she drew a sheet of paper milled by lovers quarreling at midnight; a dark tincture-ink of mustard seed and sheep’s birthing blood; her bone quill, carved from the crooked finger of the still-living but long-forgotten god that had forged her in her first-mother’s womb.
Her quill kept time with the birdsong while Ciro’s impatient coughing and throat-clearing cut in at ill-chosen intervals. Alejandra’s lips mimed the words between breaths, ever cautious not to speak without intent. Before her, the cantar de gesta — the song of great deeds — formed in layers, as if each syllable, each line peeled back another length of mist-covered field toward the enemy.
Alejandra reached the end and spit on the paper. She rolled it tight and licked where the seal should have gone. The paper singed and fused. Then she handed it to the king.
“Tie it to a burning arrow,” she said, “lit with a flint by a man on a gelding. Shoot it toward the enemy as you signal the charge.”
His finger brushed the charmed seal and she clucked her tongue.
“You know what happened the last time you read one of my poems, my king.”
Ciro ran the same finger along the line of her jaw. “Yes it took me long enough to break free of your thrall, didn’t it?” The hem of his cloak brushed her hand. He was looking for something in her face. Alejandra did not blink.
“You have a great reward coming if we win this war.” His voice was soft. He always was a fine seducer.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” She hid her hope where she’d long ago buried it inside her. Her answer was rote.
Ciro seemed not to notice. “You’ve waited a long time, with more patience than I thought you had in you.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Steady breathing. Steady. Easy.
He dipped his head until his lips were against her ear. “I have missed you in our bed. What a shame that you never bore me an heir. At least we know Queen Émilie, mother already to a royal brood, will be more equal to the task.”
Alejandra told herself to stay cold. Cold like a decade of nights in that tower room alone. Cold with fear, if that is what it took. Though it was fear of failure ahead, not of the past. Not of him. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
He stepped away and called the cabos from the high grass. He looked toward the battlefield instead of to her. “Then it is a good agreement we have reached, bruja. Surely we will neither of us find fault with a positive outcome.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Carry my words, if you cannot carry me. Grace them with speed if you cannot grace me with hope. I will burn from this earth-bound life a new sky for myself.
The battle was won under cover of an uncanny mist. Alejandra’s relieved tears surprised her. After so many years with only the most quiet power within her grasp, she had doubted herself. But maybe her mothers were with her, just hidden on the subtle breeze.
The enemy retreated east, but settled camp with a wide, fast river between themselves and the Vallean ranks. Alejandra stared at the firefly-lights of their cookfires from her stone desk in the river shallows, water raging at her feet, loose hair blowing about her shoulders. Was Queen Émilie looking back at her?
By the light of Ciro’s lantern, her bone quill etched lines in shell-blue ink, on thirsty linen paper that gulped the pigment. She kept her eyes on the opposite bank as she delivered the balada, folded and tied with a hair from her head.
“Ford the river at first light with this braided into your stallion’s mane. Let no horse ahead of yours. After the army has crossed, push the paper into your wineskin and pour out a measure on the first man you kill.”
Ciro smirked. “What if I kill a woman first?”
Alejandra kept her face a mask. “Then wait for a man. But drink no more. You must pour the rest into the river after the battle. When you return to camp, the skin will be full again.”
The king shook his head and looked at the unalarming paper. “All that from a poem?”
“I know no other way to cross a river once the bridges have been burned, nor another means of tormenting our enemy’s dreams after the battle.” Alejandra turned back to him, eyebrows raised. “Unless you preferred to change your orders, Your Majesty.”
Ciro chuckled. “The fresh air has given you some of your spunk back, hasn’t it, Ale? This time next month, you might be free again.”
“May our enemy fly swiftly before your sword, Your Majesty.”
Six battles, six spells. Written beneath canvas canopies, astride fallen logs. Scrawled in mud-ink and saffron paste on papyrus and vellum and pressed-pulp. Blessed with tears and dandelion down. Offered on the battlefield by man and woman, by fire’s heat and icy gale.
The camp bards wrote much of the blessed campaign of Ciro, King of the Valle. He hid his army in the thinnest morning mist. His horse crossed the raging Cillotar River in a single bound. A great cat prowled his fields of battle, granting swift deaths to all who fell. His foe fled in terror every time they met, ceding villages and towns and cities, bleeding soldados and civilians alike. In the fantastic revelry, only Alejandra understood where magic ceased and fear took hold.
The Vallean army did not press forward unscathed. Many in the ranks paid the cost of the king’s requests for magnificent victories. Alejandra heard them first, crying in the dark, beneath the full moon. After a few weeks, she could smell them, even from her place on the furthest outskirts of camp. By then she was starting to ache in ways she never had before and she was out of spells to aid in her own comfort. But she could aid others.
“Please,” she begged at palanquin’s window slits, hoping the cabo before it pitied the sick as she did. “Ask the king if I might help. I’ll wear shackles if I must. I can disguise myself as a crone. I can work only at night, to relieve the healers —”
“Silence!” His hiss shocked her. She could only see the back of his head, hair cropped short beneath his livery cap, chain of rank tarnished where it touched his skin. And then, after a tense moment, he turned his chin toward the palanquin. “Can you save them?”
“Not all of them,” Alejandra admitted. “But more of them than will live if I do nothing.”
He nodded and said no more.
An hour after he was relieved from duty, a coronel-doña and her alféreces escorted Alejandra and her willow box to the healers tents. The sick and dying and dead lay next to each other on cots and pallets and horse blankets. The flies seemed to know where to find their easiest marks.
Alejandra rolled up the sleeves of her gown, once a pious red cotton now patchy with ochre spots of mud and sweat. She looked at the first poor soul before her, writhing with fever and delirium. “Get this man some water, alférez.” Someone darted to the corner to comply, but the coronel grabbed Alejandra by the arm before she could kneel next to the patient.
“Come back to this one,” she said between gritted teeth. Alejandra took the woman’s measure: ten years her junior; a dark coronet braid unraveling beneath her bedraggled feather cap; her chain of rank boasted double links of gold and silver between the steel but was caked with mud and something darker. The coronel’s hazelwood eyes dared Alejandra to countermand the order. Intrigued, Alejandra assented.
On the other side of the tent, the coronel’s younger, sicker double lay atop a cot, bandages oozing above pale and graying skin. She still wore her battle-torn tunic though they had not seen action for days.
The colonel swallowed before pushing the willow box at Alejandra. “Her. First.”
“Of course, doña.” Alejandra lowered herself onto a stool next to the dying girl. “What is her name?”
“Rocío. My sister.”
“And your name, doña?”
The coronel snapped. “What does it matter? She is dying, not me!” She stopped herself just short of a sob.
Alejandra kept her voice steady. “You lay your sacrifices at the feet of idols and icons. The stone and paint that give them form are languages spoken without a tongue. What others do with their hands to name the gods and their power, I do with words.”
“You speak to the gods on our behalf? But you’re no priestess, you’re a bru —”
“All I need is your name, coronel. Your sister needs you now more than your piety.”
The coronel’s lips went white as they thinned. She brushed a thick curl of hair off her forehead. “Pilar.”
Alejandra bowed her head. “Then I will work as quickly as I can.”
“See that you do.”
Alone with her patient, Alejandra chose a tincture of willow heart, ash from a priestess’s funeral pyre, and petals of the rare, black-flowering cherries that blossomed in mournful clouds on the Vallean Mountains every thirtieth spring. She removed the largest bandage, shushing Rocío’s whimpers. Then she dipped her bone quill first in tincture, then in blood, and began her work.
The spell wrapped first around the sword wound in Rocío’s torso, its lines fracturing only with punctuation and rhyme, the iambs lining up just so as Alejandra worked in the round. The vial of tincture ran red then crimson as the nib mixed brew and blood. After three circles about the wound, Alejandra’s mester de brujería sprawled outward, tracing organs and infection. The confining meter of the cuaderna via was not her forte, but Alejandra fought through it. When the sword wound began to dry then close, Alejandra pressed the nib deeper to draw forth Rocío’s blood: there was still a fever to fight. The text ran beneath and over the girl’s bare breasts, across the fleshy skin over her pelvic bone, in eddies about her liver and kidneys.
Sweat had collected on Alejandra’s brow and when the first drop fell on Rocío’s healing body, the girl’s eyes opened with true waking.
Alejandra smiled, licked her quill clean, and hailed a passing cabo. “Call the coronel-doña. Her sister will live.”
The man’s eyes were wide with horror at Rocio’s naked and bloody form, but by the time Alejandra had turned back to the girl, the words that had saved her were already fading.
“Doña? Who are you?”
“Just a voice, child. Thank the Wind Women next time you pray.”
Mothers! Hear me! Through these mortal hands I wear, your work has saved so many. Those hours I was your vessel will never be far from my mind, tantalizing and heartwrenching at once. But another hour nears and I will have rent my chains. Will you be with me in the end?
Say you will be with me in the end.
Alejandra awoke before dawn the morning of what should be the last battle, in a real tent, her body comfortable beneath serviceable furs of dappled lynx and red fox. A cabo stood within, staring at the back wall and affording her no privacy, but what was privacy when it only came with metal walls and a chamber pot? She deserved better, but she had earned this much with her healing these last weeks. How many of Ciro’s officers had she pulled back from the brink? How many cabos and coronels and generals, dons and doñas had been spared death or grief through Alejandra’s words?
Enough that Ciro could not keep her a secret any longer. A decade ago, his decision to brave the priests’ scorn might have warmed Alejandra’s heart, reminded her of how much she’d loved him. But her years of forgiveness were behind her. Instead, she had thanked Ciro before his officers and nobles, and had enjoyed her tent while it lasted.
She dressed in a fresh gown sewn from recovered war banners, torn and battered. It threatened to be a maudlin choice, but she reminded herself that it was her only source of cloth and Ciro did love his heraldry. The trim silhouette flattered her, though she missed her fuller palace figure, soft with fine foods and little work. In the end, though, what she looked like would matter so very little.
Alejandra rode to the ridge from which Ciro surveyed the battlefield, still trailed by her cabos, but at a distance, as her newfound respect afforded her. Her willow box was strapped to her back, her hair braided and knotted by lilting couplet as was her custom in the palace. She’d conjured a diadem for herself, its gemstone blue and clear for her husband-king’s honor. He could not object to overt signs of her power. Not now that she’d won the hearts of his people.
“My queen,” Ciro said when her horse drew up beside his.
Her smile was genuine. “Your Majesty. What do you ask of me today?”
Ciro gestured to the vista before them. “Bring down the enemy.” As if he asked no more than her favor before a fight.
The tall heights of the eastern mountains, just reaching their summer glory. At their foot, a stoic stronghold carved from the mountain’s black heart. Impenetrable, it was said.
Alejandra dismounted and called a desk up from a grassy hillock. She ordered her things just so. From the box, she retrieved brilliant green ink pigmented with the vibrant yellow pollen of a wolf pine and the powder of a delicate mushroom that grew only beneath blood moons and turned blue when crushed. She pressed the nib of her quill into the soft flesh of her ring finger. Ten drops of Alejandra’s blood turned the ink black.
She turned to her husband-king. “Your knife?”
“As if your quill couldn’t do?” But he handed her the weapon.
Its heft was tempting. How much did the cabos love her now? Could she test them?
For the first time in three months, since that first morning before that first battle, her will tested the limits of the enchantment. It held. Alejandra could not carve her freedom from Ciro with a knife. She smiled at the weapon. Maybe she would not have anyway. Maybe.
She lifted her overskirts and tore her cambric shift with her dagger. The piece she removed was ragged about the edges but strong in the middle. It would do nicely.
Alejandra looked out at the fortress as she composed this last cantar de gesta, the bone quill never faltering in its task. She knew battles now, the careful choreography between great foes, the difference one brash soldado could make to a compañía, the difference an impassioned compañía could make to its tercio, the ways a tercio could grasp victory from the jaws of chance. In bodies she knew, in bodies she could name, the tide would rise and fall and rise as she saw fit.
But the final stanzas offered her the promise toward which she’d worked these long months. She wrote her own tack toward freedom in words she hadn’t dared compose — even in her solitude — for fear she would sap their power too soon. She shed a few tears, laughed at her haughty pride over her craft, and set the quill down.
“It’s done then?” Ciro asked, reaching for the fabric.
Alejandra stilled his hand with a soft touch to his wrist. Her eyes never left the field before them. “I must carry this one into battle, Your Majesty.”
All he said was, “You’ll need a different horse. Tell any coronel you see, and ask for whatever armor you would choose. We ride in an hour.”
She’d expected him to deny her. But he did not. Was it trust? Willingness to risk her for his ends? Did it matter?
Luck or chance drew Coronel-Doña Pilar to the stables just as Alejandra arrived.
The coronel did not take her king’s orders to heart. “You cannot risk yourself, dear doña! What would we do if you were killed? Captured?”
Alejandra smiled and looked the few free horses up and down. “There is work to be done on the field. No one can see through this task but me.” Then, to distract Pilar as much as herself: “How is your sister?”
“Well.” The coronel fell into step behind Alejandra. “She’s still confined, but finds it hard to complain of spending every waking hour with her son. I would not be so easily kept abed.”
They shared a smile, then Alejandra stopped before a chestnut mare with a scar beneath one eye. The horse stopped prancing and took Alejandra’s measure. “This one should do.”
“There is no better horse in this army, doña.” Pilar’s voice was strained. “She has never led me wrong.”
Too many coincidences. Alejandra’s eyes stung and her chest constricted. Her mothers were with her.
Mothers! Hear me!
“Then it is to be,” she said aloud. The coronel’s jaw gaped. “Go back to your sister and nephew. Do not set foot on the battlefield this day —”
“But my compañia —”
“I will explain; the king will not gainsay me now. No eagle can ignore a changing wind.”
“Go, Pilar. By nightfall, the tale will be told and you’ll be glad to be alive to hear it.”
Please do not forsake me.
Please do not forsake me.
Please do not forsake me.
Alejandra was unarmed and unarmored when Ciro called the charge. He insisted she keep away from the vanguard, that she had no place in the first lines. She instead led Pilar’s compañia, which trailed a great siege engine. Boulders had been flying toward the fortress all morning, but every one had shattered against the walls. The enemy’s army, bedecked in black as deep as their stronghold, flooded out of the gates to meet the charge, the debris bedamned.
When the first clash of swords rang back through the tercios, Alejandra stood in her stirrups. The king’s bannermen were in the thick of it, which meant Ciro was, too. Her hand went to the spell tucked beneath her belt. It was time.
“Hold here,” Alejandra shouted to the soldado behind her. A caba protested, but the queen ignored her and urged Pilar’s war-mare into a gallop.
The clean, unbroken tercios formed alleys through which she rode toward the fray. A wind ran down from the heights behind the Valleans, as if to speed Alejandra on her way. She wanted to face it, to throw her arms wide in welcome, but she did not falter. Even as the sounds of death met her. Even as flying boulders whistled overhead and their horrifying pounding made her tremble. Even as she caught sight of Ciro, unhorsed, locked in battle, his banners drooping in the hands of dying cabos.
The mare pressed through the fighting. The bards would later argue whether it was chance or grace or the power of a beautiful woman riding like the Wind Women that kept horse and rider from harm. But Alejandra knew she was blessed. Ciro looked up as she caught a banner in her hand. He shouted at her, unintelligible over his battle-rage and the screams of good people dying on good swords. Alejandra unfurled the cambric spell, tied it to the banner pole, and raised it high above her head. She shouted one powerful word, both mundane and magical in the same breath.
The field fell still in waves. Alejandra’s voice carried on the wind to every soldado, cabo, coronel, general on both sides. To every ear in the fortress. To the sick and healing in the Vallean camp. A lone boulder flew and crashed, ignored. In the deepening silence, Alejandra could hear the newly formed pebbles raining down around the bodies and rubble.
Then one horse moved, a white blur across the field. A dark figure sat astride, taking the form of a woman in mail. Her horse and sword and face were spattered with blood. Her mahogany-brown coronet of braids was already flying loose. By her bearing if by nothing else, all knew her as Queen Émilie.
Even Ciro did not move as the woman approached. Though Alejandra did watch him try.
“You!” Queen Émilie shouted as she closed the distance between them. “Who are you?”
Alejandra bowed as best she could atop the mare. “I am the voice on the wind, Your Majesty. I sent the skylark to your tent each dawn. The fresh breeze for your fevered and fading. The courage to return to the field seven times in the face of certain defeat. Our enemy bore you my letters with every charge but this one. Now, I deliver him to you. And I bring you an army. And myself.”
Émilie’s hands were tight on her reins. “The poems . . . the love poems . . . they were real?”
“Do I look real?” Alejandra dared a smile.
“Yes!” She sobbed a laugh. “Yes, you do. Then I did not conjure your face in my loneliness.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
The queen urged her horse closer. “And you are not harmed by this Vallean scum.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
Closer now, the queen looked tired, road-weary, and she had every right to be. She removed a glove of mail and leather and touched Alejandra’s cheek with trembling fingers. “And I have not lost everything.”
“No, Your Majesty.”
Daughter! Hear us, beloved one!
We are here. We are here. We are here . . .
The bards would have it that the Kingdom of Valle-Monts is ruled in deed by Queen Émilie and in word by Queen Alejandra. Many songs recall the romancero the Vallean queen wrote to woo her lover, a new cantar and ballado with every battle. They sing seldom of the royal dead, for what money is there in remembering Ciro the Captor? They sing memorials for the others, though, the hundreds or thousands who fell before the winds changed and bound the kingdoms in love.
There is, of course, some truth in their tales. The romancero would never be read or sung again if Alejandra would have it: she knew too much of battles to wish such a book of such spells to be left for Émilie’s children. But she writes her consort-queen poems — just poems — to assuage the loss of those first, heartfelt pleas.
Alejandra, if no one else, thinks of Ciro often. Of his trial and death. Of his funeral pyre at which she stood vigil. Of the ashes she collected beneath the cloud-crowned full moon that now swirl in a vial of vinegar in her willow box. His usefulness has not yet waned.
The other dead plague her. On stormy nights, she walks the wind-battered battlements and sings into the moaning gale, naming them to their gods in every tongue she knows.
But she chooses to stay, to keep her mothers from gathering her up and crossing the earth over with joy. And if the bards knew this much, they would make a fortune. For what tales they could tell of the La Reina Bruja, Daughter of the Wind Women, who bound herself, saved herself, and named herself savior.
About the Author
Victoria Sandbrook is a speculative fiction writer, freelance editor, and Viable Paradise graduate. Her other short fiction has appeared in Cast of Wonders, Shimmer, Luna Statio Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is an avid hiker, sometimes knitter, long-form talker, and initiate baker. She often loiters around libraries, checking out anything from picture books to monographs. She spends most of her days attempting to wrangle a ferocious, destructive, jubilant tiny human. Victoria lives in Brockton, Massachusetts. She reviews books and shares writerly nonsense at victoriasandbrook.com and on Twitter at @vsandbrook.
About the Narrator
Sofia Quintero is a writer and producer who tells stories that meet audiences where they are and take them someplace better. Raised in a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx and graduating from Columbia University, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” has published six novels and twice as many short stories across genres including YA, “chick lit,” and erotica. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote three novels described as “sister-centered hip-hop noir.”
Sofia’s stories are usually ahead of the curve, offering nuanced depictions of underrepresented communities years before the mainstream entertainment industries took up the challenge. Because her novels reflect an intentional hybrid between the commercial and the literary, exploiting popular tropes to raise socio-political issues for broad audiences, they are assigned at colleges across the nation and in multiple disciplines including English, Sociology, Women’s Studies, Criminal Justice, Latino studies, African American Studies, and Education.
In 2012, Sofia earned an MFA in Writing and Producing Television from the TV Writers Studio at Long Island University and was a 2017 Made in NY Writers Room Fellow. In addition to developing several projects for television, she’s working on her seventh novel called #Krissette. Inspired by the #SayHerName movement, #Krissette will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in 2020. Sofia will also be re-releasing her Black Artemis backlist as audiobooks.