Actions

Work Header

underneath the marula tree

Work Text:

Thandiwe was forty-six, and in the thirtieth year of her reign. She knew how to manage advisors (and make them all feel as if their opinion had been considered), how to lead armies (the trick was to not show fear, and have good generals), and how to balance a budget (very carefully). She could plan a banquet for three neighboring queens, and seat everyone so that no assassinations with cutlery were attempted. She had practice in sitting on her throne and rendering justice to commoners for nine straight hours, no matter how tired her back became (for her throne’s designers had taken her ancestors’ claim to divinity perhaps a trifle too literally: no human could sit comfortably in it for long). She spoke four languages, twice as many dialects, and knew that a polite ‘thank you’ in one was a colloquial ‘eat shit’ in another.

What she had not yet learned to handle, however, was her teenage heir.

“Why do you have to be so stupid?” Zinhle asked, rolling her eyes to the heavens and slouching down in her chair. (Lesson #762: Restraint. One expression of frustration would have communicated the emotion.)

Thandiwe set her cup down. “I have to be so stupid,” she said, noncommittally, “because there are many factors to be weighed.”

A shake of Zinhle’s braids demonstrated how her niece felt about that. “Anashe’s challenged you for the border mines. You have to announce a champion, or she’ll send her troops in, and we could find ourselves actually at war. Do you really want to go to war again?”

They’d been victorious in the last war, but it had come at a high cost. Not only on the battlefield, either – Zinhle’s mother, Simangele, had remarried to seal their alliance with a critical ally, and both Thandiwe and Zinhle had felt her absence strongly. Her sister had been Thandiwe’s closest confidante, and with her by her side, she’d always had a partner. In the three years since Simangele had left, the crown sat heavier on Thandiwe’s brow.

“Of course I don’t want to go to war again,” Thandiwe said, “although a queen has to be ready to defend her people at all times.” (Lesson #105.) “And you’re eighteen now. It’s nearly time for you to blood your sword.”

Zinhle picked up a cake and stared at it glumly. “Eighteen or not, I’d prefer to put off that day for a while longer. I know, it’s important. But if possible, I’d like to maintain peace with a champion, not a sword.”

“And where are we going to find a champion worth her salt?” Thandiwe asked. “They don’t grow on trees. When my mother lost her champion to illness, she said it was one of the heaviest blows of her reign. And having a bad champion is worse than having none at all.”

“Advertise to all the fighting-schools,” Zinhle suggested. “Hold a tournament. The winner of a no doubt incredibly grueling series of events becomes the new Champion of the Realm, with their first assignment being a date with Anashe’s champion to determine who gets the border mines.”

Thandiwe shook her head. “I don’t want a young hothead. I’ve been a young hothead in my time. Perhaps I should advertise to the teachers of the fighting-schools… but they’re likely to be too old.” She sighed. “I should have taken care of this years ago, but until Anashe seized her throne, our neighbors were either peaceful or didn’t use champions. It was easier to focus on diplomacy and building our armies.”

“I’ll write to my mother,” Zinhle said, after a moment, then leant over to pat Thandiwe on the hand. She wasn’t a bad sort, not really, just a little peremptory in private, and if Mother Time gave Thandiwe a few more years to season her, she’d make a good queen in her turn. “Perhaps Mother will have an idea of where to look. She’s on the main trade route – she might have heard of a travelling knight.”

Thandiwe privately thought that it was likely to come to war. If she had another niece, she might have tried to broker a marriage agreement with Anashe, but Zinhle was her only game piece, and war was the currency of the land. She was proud that she’d made allies of three of her neighbors during her reign; she hoped to add another one or two before turning the throne over to Zinhle.

“Write to her,” she said. “And ask her how many troops her wife can spare.”

~

Zinhle burst into the council room, the beads in her braids clattering together. “Mother’s messenger is here!”

Thandiwe looked up from her papers, already raising her eyebrows. “Unless war’s come upon us, running through the compound is an excellent way to break an ankle for no purpose.” (Lesson #7. Zinhle had been an early walker.)

Zinhle took the gentle rebuke with a toss of her hair. “She didn’t send letters. Well, she did, but she sent something better than letters.”

“Is she here?” Thandiwe stood up, quickly but without undue haste. “Surely she can’t have come away during the planting season!”

“No, she stayed,” Zinhle told her, then beckoned impatiently. “But come and see!”

Thandiwe followed, smoothing a hand over her head to consciously draw down her public face. Her scalp was shaven, according to custom, the glossy surface reminding her to be single-minded in her defense of her people. She settled a pleasantly neutral look on her face, and prepared to meet whatever new surprise Zinhle had in store.

The surprise, waiting for them in the throne room, was a woman.

She was a tall woman, solidly built. The lethal curves of her bare shoulders and arms spoke of a lifetime of training, and she was clothed with the practical simplicity of a warrior. Not for her the colorful beadwork of other women – and yet she drew the eye by her presence alone, standing silently and commandingly in the center of Thandiwe’s throne room.

Thandiwe inclined her head. “You come from my sister Simangele?”

“I am Khanyisa Nkomo,” the woman said, seeming simultaneously to stand at attention and be completely at ease. “The lady Simangele told me you were in need of a champion.”

~

Because Thandiwe had been queen for nearly thirty years, she did not immediately name Nkomo as champion, as Zinhle urged. Simangele wrote very highly of her, but Thandiwe was loath to buy the rice untasted. It would be too easy to declare yourself a warrior, be celebrated in the great hall, and then flee in the night with your hire-price and as much of the kingdom’s treasury as you could carry. Looking at Nkomo, it was impossible that she was not a warrior; and yet Thandiwe would see more of her before sending a runner to accept Anashe’s challenge.

She placated Zinhle by asking her heir to plan a tournament, sending to the border villages as well as crying the word around the capital and main towns. Zinhle had assisted with such events before, but she’d never been wholly responsible, and it was time. She bustled about importantly and made herself quite the tyrant in the kitchens and stables for a day, before learning to laugh at herself and be open to suggestions. It was a good lesson.

Thandiwe spent the time learning to know Nkomo.

The warrior was not young, but neither had she lost even a half-step to age, as Thandiwe sometimes felt that she had begun to. Her dark eyes were watchful, without being shuttered, and Thandiwe found herself trying to surprise the little half-smile that sometimes lit Nkomo’s face.

“They are nothing like they were when my sister lived here,” she said, walking with Nkomo in the gardens. “The flowers need a careful touch.”

“As do borders,” Nkomo said, entirely straight-faced.

Thandiwe checked, and yes, she thought that might be a twinkle lurking deep in Nkomo’s brown eyes. “Anashe is young. She’s flexing her wings, proving to her people that she will lead them well.”

“She might have tried an understanding or an alliance, instead of sending warriors to occupy the mines.”

You’d almost think you don’t want the job, Thandiwe almost teased, but they weren’t yet on such familiar terms. And besides, Nkomo was of an age to have seen what happened when war knocked. Perhaps she had lost a mother or a sister, or been held captive. Such losses often led to women swearing a warrior’s path.

“Perhaps,” she said instead. “But our kingdoms have been uneasy neighbors since my mother’s time. I would want to safeguard an alliance with a marriage, and Zinhle is not yet old enough.”

Zinhle might have also balked at the prospect of a state marriage, although she had long known it would be in her future. Knowing something would come, and actually facing it, were two very different things. At eighteen, taking a stranger into your bedroll was exciting – taking a stranger into your home, and making her into a wife, was not the same at all. Thandiwe preferred to give Zinhle more time for romps in bedrolls before setting her the harder task.

“The princess is not the only possible bride,” Nkomo said, tilting her head in an oddly gentle motion for one with so much caged power. Her braids – sternly functional, without Zinhle’s bright beads – swung free.

Thandiwe blinked such thoughts away as Nkomo’s meaning registered. “Me?” She let herself succumb to an unregal laugh. Something about the warrior made her feel younger, as if she were Zinhle’s age again. “Oh, those days are over for me.”

Nkomo’s eyebrow did not believe her.

Thandiwe sighed. “I’m far too busy to settle a wife. I travel throughout the kingdom, spending long days giving the queen’s justice. And when I’m home, I’m training Zinhle, and holding council meetings, and discussing military provisions, and writing diplomatic letters to …”

“A wife is not a newborn,” Nkomo said, doing what few apart from Zinhle had dared to do to Thandiwe in years – interrupt. “A wife is a partner.”

Thandiwe nodded, acknowledging the point. “Ideally. But a state bride would not be ready to be a partner for some time. Anashe’s aunt, or sister, or cousin – she would not know the land, or the people. She would be homesick and lonely, with only a withered old crone in her bed.”

“Nonsense,” Nkomo said, delivering yet another earthquake of a conversational gambit.

It wasn’t that nobody ever challenged Thandiwe. Zinhle certainly did, and her council knew that she wanted good ideas and advice, even if they contradicted her own opinions. But nobody except Zinhle ever opposed her quite so baldly, and somehow it was different coming from the warrior at her side than from a niece she’d bounced on her knee not long ago. Perhaps she should be offended – but Thandiwe found she was anything but.

“You are not a chick,” Nkomo said, “but you are not a grizzled old hen for the stewpot either.”

If Zinhle had been within earshot, Nkomo might have found herself arrested by the guard, for an offense against the royal dignity. (Or at least, she might have found herself being attempted to be arrested by the guard.) But she was not, and when Thandiwe found, with slight consternation, that her face was beginning to flush, she took a quick decision and threw her head back in a laugh. “Thank you,” she said, and grinned at the woman by her side.

Sometimes Thandiwe did think about it. She had married early in her reign, hardly older than Zinhle was now. The marriage had sealed her first alliance, a vital one; too many of her neighbors had looked at her small kingdom as a tasty morsel to be claimed from the hand of an inexperienced ruler. But she had held on grimly, and they had not pried it from her fingers.

Makhosi had been older than her, a sweet, pretty, plump woman who came into her life and made it a better place. Sometimes, when the wind was just right, Thandiwe thought she could hear the jangle of her earrings by the north window, where Makhosi used to stand and look out at the mountains of her girlhood. They had been good together. If it had been meant, Thandiwe could have happily grown old with Makhosi by her side, raising their daughters to lead the kingdom, tending Makhosi’s beloved flowers in the back garden.

But it had not been meant. None of the men they’d taken to their bed had been able to give them children, and while they’d been happy together, Thandiwe had been able to see the toll their barrenness was taking on her wife. Makhosi should have had babies to dandle on her knee, toddlers clinging to her skirts, a flock of chattering children to cheerfully admonish from the window. Thandiwe did not regret much in her life, but she did regret that they had not raised a babe before the summer sickness took Makhosi from her. A babe would have been something of Makhosi for Thandiwe to love, as Zinhle was part of Simangele, her beloved sister.

No, those days were over.

“Perhaps Anashe should wed you herself,” Nkomo said, leaning on a fence-post, her broad hand capable and strong.

“Anashe is a child,” Thandiwe said, suddenly weary.

Nkomo looked at her, something about her mouth gone tight. “A child who would start a war.”

~

Somewhat to Thandiwe’s surprise, but to her gratification, Zinhle did an excellent job organizing the tournament on short notice. By the time it began, a week after Nkomo’s arrival, nearly all of their allies had sent delegations – two or three warriors to compete, a princess or high-ranking lady to conduct any diplomatic negotiations that might fortuitously break out, ladies-in-waiting, squires, bodyguards, servants… Zinhle was kept quite busy sorting out all the practicalities.

Thandiwe was just as busy. This was the first tournament she’d hosted in some years, and the first since Zinhle had come of age. Even if Anashe hadn’t been jockeying for position on her border, she would still have wanted to use it to her advantage. She kept herself busy from dawn till dusk, talking and smiling and maneuvering, never letting her focus waver.

Nkomo spent much of her time on the practice courts, sparring with the new arrivals. Occasionally Thandiwe found herself looking out of the window, catching a quick glimpse of Nkomo’s staff twirling in the summer sunlight, or Nkomo deep in a practice wrestling bout, or Nkomo drawing her bow for an archery practice. Something about the woman drew her eye – and perhaps her focus did waver, occasionally. Only ever for a moment.

The night before the tournament, the palace went to bed early. Tomorrow’s events would start with the sun and last until the grand banquet that would cap the night, with the young people dancing until dawn. Zinhle would no doubt exhaust herself, and sleep for a week. Thandiwe could remember days she would have done the same.

Now, however, she couldn’t sleep. The sound of too many people breathing under her roof kept her wakeful, and she shook herself out of her bedroll and went walking through the gardens. There were stars overhead, and a full moon; the gardens seemed almost magical, faerie-touched.

“If Anashe had sent an assassin tonight, she could have had the mines without bloodshed,” a voice said, from underneath Thandiwe’s favorite marula tree.

“If Anashe had sent an assassin tonight, you would have taken her prisoner before I stepped outside,” Thandiwe retorted, after a moment of jolted surprise. “And she would never have passed the guards at the wall, unless she knew how to fly.”

“She could’ve disguised herself as one of the delegates,” Nkomo said.

The thought had occurred to Thandiwe. “I carry a knife,” she said, “and I am no child.” The snappishness in her voice startled her, and she gentled it. “And I have you to protect me.” It came out rather oddly, and she swallowed to clear her throat.

“I would protect you,” Nkomo agreed, and it was the softness of her voice, different than Thandiwe had heard from her before, that made Thandiwe drop down on the ground next to her. She wasn’t quite sure why she had, but it seemed a harmless impulse.

“Are you ready for tomorrow?” she asked.

It was the usual, polite question, but Nkomo gave it serious thought. Thandiwe could see her considering the matter, face turned up in the moonlight. “There are two warriors who could give me trouble.”

“Only two?”

It was meant as a joke, but again, Nkomo took it seriously. “I have trained all my life to be a queen’s champion. I was blooded at sixteen, fighting for my home, when raiders would have burned it to the ground, and my babe within. There are few who can now challenge me.”

Instinctively, Thandiwe had reached out, and she watched her hand cover Nkomo’s. The warrior’s fingers were twisted, a legacy of battle, but her own were no raw maiden’s; she was sure she could match Nkomo callus for callus. “And your babe?”

Nkomo’s teeth flashed in the moonlight in a sudden smile, which transformed her hardbitten face into something beautiful. Thandiwe caught her breath. “She married last year. My people marry earlier than yours; our land is not as stable, and our lives shorter.”

Thandiwe thought of a world where Zinhle was sleeping with a wife tonight, instead of carrying on what she thought was a covert fling with a pretty young squire from the next valley over. (Some warrior had better check her equipment tomorrow, lest a sleepy and bliss-drunk squire forget to tighten a strap.)

No, it was impossible to imagine. “She is happy?”

“Are we ever happy in this world?” Nkomo asked, not bitterly, but matter-of-factly.

“I think so,” Thandiwe said, remembering the bright colors of Makhosi’s skirts, the silver giggles of a toddler Zinhle, the steady friendship of her sister Simangele. “I think so, if we try.”

She found that her hand was still on Nkomo’s. Nkomo had not shaken her off.

“If you choose me as champion,” Nkomo said, “I will defeat Anashe for you.”

Her words were abrupt, but Thandiwe was coming to know that Nkomo was anything but hasty. “I don’t doubt that you would,” she said, softly.

Nkomo turned to her. The dark planes of her face gleamed in the moonlight, and there were stars sparkling in the rich brown of her eyes.

Thandiwe’s bedroll had not gone cold with the loss of Makhosi. She chose her occasional bedmates carefully – for safety, yes, so that she didn’t get a knife in the ribs while she slept, but also for her own pleasure. She knew other queens used their bodies as freely as they used other currency, thinking any tool useful if it carved the canoe; but she could not do it. Her bedmates came to her for no reason other than a shared night, not for queenly favor or peace treaties or advantageous judgements.

Oh, she was no naïve youngster. She knew that some of her bedmates might be drawn to her because of her power, because of who she was, not who she was. And if that made them wet, she was happy for them. If she ever took a wife again, however, it would be someone who she could respect as an equal, someone who acknowledged her queenship but did not feel threatened by it, someone who could be a true partner, not only a pretty face and laughing tongue. (Although pretty faces and laughing tongues were not bad things.)

It was this that she saw shining in Nkomo’s face.

Nkomo respected her, but Nkomo did not fear her. Nkomo challenged her, interrupted her, offered her solutions; Nkomo had the experience to match hers, both practical and physical. She had known the warrior only a week, but already Thandiwe could see the seedling of what could possibly become a towering tree. Never could such things be known for certain, but this seedling – this possible tree – was already stronger than any Thandiwe could remember, save only Makhosi’s.

It helped too that Nkomo’s strength called to her in a bone-deep way. She could imagine tumbling Nkomo to the ground underneath their bodies, running her hands over the leashed power of Nkomo’s muscles, kissing the breath out of her mouth. She thought she could crack Nkomo’s reserve – perhaps not at once, but sometimes the quietest women were the loudest once you broke their shell. She imagined Nkomo’s broad, capable hands on her own breasts – Nkomo’s beautiful wide lips exploring between her legs – and felt herself shudder, her fingers tightening around Nkomo’s.

“My liege,” Nkomo said, very quietly, her voice a rasp.

And it was this that snapped Thandiwe out of the trance she had fallen into. My liege. She was no green sapling, to be swayed by the first wind! She was a queen, and there was a tournament in the morning, and if she tumbled her champion, Nkomo would be as badly off as Zinhle’s sleepy-eyed squire.

She did not let herself think about the fact that she had seen more than a tumble in Nkomo’s eyes.

“Win tomorrow,” she said, matching Nkomo’s tone, “and I will send you to Anashe.”

~

The sun was sinking toward the horizon when Nkomo threw the last warrior down on the hard-packed earth. Sunrise had seen the pitched battle, two sides clashing together with spear and shield. Those who distinguished themselves in the battle – and Nkomo, in addition to leading one of the forces, had fought like a lioness – had been set against each other on the archery ranges. When only ten had remained, they fought the single-combat challenges of their ancestors; laced gloves for the striking, and straining muscles for the power.

Nkomo’s last opponent had been a strong youth, but with enough cleverness to pose a test. Thandiwe had found herself almost holding her breath, as the fighters circled about the ring, planning their moment to strike. A cut on Nkomo’s forehead had been bleeding freely, uncared for, and there had been bruises already beginning to rise on her arms from the battle. Her bared shoulders had gleamed in the setting sun, muscles bulging, and her face had held the intense battle-madness that came to the most gifted of warriors.

Even in the moment of uncertainty, as Nkomo and her young challenger flung themselves together, grappling with panted oaths, Thandiwe felt a traitorous part of herself imagining such power being unleashed in her bed, such single-mindedness being turned to pleasure rather than competition. She shoved the thought down again, because this was not the time for that – sprung upward, as Nkomo’s sudden move set up a throw – sucked in her breath as the young challenger flew through the air, to be leapt upon and pinned by her country’s new champion.

She stepped forward from the crowd’s edge, walking onto the battle-earth with more calm than she felt. Time to end this, to send the murmuring crowd to the supper-tables laid out nearby, where they would feast their champion and all who had competed here today, swapping tales late into the night of who had proved themselves worthy, and who had fallen short, and who could eat the most before their stomach screamed in pain.

When Nkomo looked up at her, the battle-focus already starting to fade from her eyes, Thandiwe smiled, and reached down to take her hand. Raising it high, she cried, “Our champion!”

~

“You could do worse,” Thandiwe said, nodding to the runner-up. The young woman had changed out of her fighting gear and bound up a few minor injuries. She now wore a beautiful skirt, her beads vibrant and proud, and was eating the liver traditionally presented to warriors who had shown themselves well, accepting the compliments paid to her by her neighbors with a wide smile.

Zinhle’s sigh was more performance than truth. “Auntie, do you have to matchmake tonight? I’ve been running off my feet all day, and I haven’t the energy to raise a finger.”

If she hadn’t the energy to raise a finger, then her ability to raise her cup to drink her beer was outstanding, but Thandiwe refrained from pointing it out. “Think how she feels,” she said, instead. “After a fight with Nkomo, perhaps a cuddle is all she wishes tonight.”

“The fight will have made her blood run fast,” Zinhle said, gloomily. “The only thing that runs fast for me is the chickens inside my head.”

Thandiwe poked her. “Go. Talk to her. Or stop making eyes at her.” She poked again, for good measure.

Zinhle’s oath was truly impressive, but she pulled herself upright and sauntered nonchalantly in that direction, so Thandiwe raised her own beer cup to her lips and tried not to smile too obviously. Her sister’s daughter was not perfect, but she would not have traded her for any other woman in her kingdom. A queen-in-waiting needed spirit, strength of convictions, and loyalty, and Zinhle had them all. She’d turned out quite well, for a baby that had shit all over Thandiwe’s knee the first time she’d held her.

“You should smile more often,” Nkomo said, from the place of honor at her left hand.

“Should I?” Thandiwe said.

Nkomo’s smile was in her eyes. The cut on her forehead had been stanched, but still she looked over-weary. It had been a long day, and unlike her conquered foe, she had not the first easy strength of youth. But somehow she looked the stronger for the weariness, a champion proven, and Thandiwe’s mouth ran dry.

“Yes,” Nkomo said. “You should.”

Tomorrow Thandiwe would send a runner to Anashe, accepting her challenge and naming a place for the meeting of their champions. She wondered what her fellow queen was like; she’d only recently come to the throne, and her early moves spoke of an assurance rare in a young queen. Regardless of the outcome of the challenge, Thandiwe would need to establish a relationship with her, working to add another alliance to the ones she would bequeath to Zinhle when the time came. Sometimes it was possible, sometimes not.

But tomorrow’s work was for tomorrow.

Tonight, Thandiwe smiled, and slowly, deliberately, laid her hand over Nkomo’s, lacing their fingers together. “So make me smile.”

~