The naked peasant girl swung from rusted hooks in the throne room’s center. Her hands and feet were bound with leather straps, which laced the hooks together like a bodice. Blood trickled from her scarred back. She was just alive enough for the pain to crush her thoughts.
Lords from the eleven kingdoms sat in the eleven iron thrones. They chewed turkey legs and spat gristle on the floor. Bones piled beneath the girl, stained with meat and blood and chunks of flesh. They were foreign sorcerers, these bare-chested lords with gold-ringed noses and iron-studded cheekbones. Sharpened stakes pierced their chests–one for each stolen century. Someone stirred the brazier, thickening the acrid smoke. The room was hot as a bonfire.
“Is she dead yet?” asked the lord of the wasted grassland.
“Not yet. She must submit to the magic,” replied the lord of the bloodied sea.
“But she chose this path, no?”
They fell silent. The girl sagged, skin glistening with sweat and turkey fat. She had chosen this, truly, but no one could ask her. She drifted silently through haze and pain. Each hook burned like wildfire. Smoke seeped into her wounds, blackening her blood with magic. Her drippings thickened to tar, oozed off her body, and clotted on the turkey bones.
“Soon her heart will harden,” said the lord of the rotted jungle. “They never last more than a song once they blacken.”
“I wish she’d get on with it,” said the lord of the caustic crater, smoothing his gray-streaked beard. “My back is killing me.”
He reached up and pushed her. Hooks tore her flesh. She moaned, spilling black blood to the ground. Wings of pain sprung from her back as dark magic filled her veins. She couldn’t take it. Couldn’t survive. But she’d sworn her vow, unknown to these demon-men. The fruit still tingled her lips, the sweet tangy citrus of the Goddess these men thought dead. The orange-tree guardian knew where she was.
The lord pushed her again like a loose chandelier. Lightning-pain shot from torso to fingertips, and she nearly passed out. Stay conscious. She had to stay conscious. Until the magic reached her center–the place where she pulsed with life.
“We should do this more often,” said the lord of the salted fields. “I don’t like the aches I get at this age. Don’t we have other peasants? They breed like swine.”
“They need to come willingly,” said the lord of the poisoned island. “If they don’t, it won’t work.”
“Tighten the laces,” ordered the lord of the glittering cesspool. “Make her scream.”
She knew that the magic didn’t need that. They just wanted to hurt her. She bit her tongue as they racked her. Flesh tore from her back. Black blood seeped toward her heart. The orange-tree Goddess had warned her of this–said she would die like the land these sorcerers now ruled. She remembered the Goddess’s breezy hands stroking her hair. Back in the orange-tree grove, the choice had seemed easier.
But now agony seared like juice in her wounds. It wasn’t pain happening to her, it was her happening to the pain, her tortured body wildly throwing her soul into the abyss. She sank below herself. She was screaming. Dying.
The lords gasped in delight. “It’s starting!” cried the lord of the stagnant river. “I feel it!”
The tar spread into her core, seeking her heart. But her heart was missing. In its place lay the Goddess’s orange, the flavor of life which would drive these demons from her land. The orange burst. Its peel scattered like ashes. Eleven orange segments flew from her body and drove wedges through the sorcerers’ hearts. Screams echoed through the throne room–the sounds no longer hers.
O my Goddess. Now I can die.
The girl fell from the hooks, her body broken. An orange tree sprung from where she landed, bursting from seed to sapling. The tree grew until its roots rocked the throne room, tore the walls down, stretched to the heavens and drove through the earth. Oranges blossomed from every branch. The girl’s soul entered the tree, shy as a child, to meet her Goddess. The orange-tree guardian kissed the girl’s soul, breathed her a new body, and sent her forth.
On a farm near what had been the eleventh kingdom, a woman birthed a baby girl who smelled of oranges.