The patrol found her nearly six miles from the village of Stoneford, or perhaps she found them. She was barefoot, dressed in a simple shift, with her long hair unbound and a knife clasped in one hand. Blood had half-dried in tacky streaks across her skin, and her clothes were all but dyed in it. She glided across the ground like a Queen, cloaked in an air of serene grace, and beneath the blood she was impossibly beautiful.
The patrol didn’t stop her. She stopped them.
“Nobody else in that village survived,” she said. “You must take me to the King at once.”
The knight who led the patrol sent four soldiers on to the village to see for themselves, then gave the woman his horse, to spare her feet the rocks and stones of the road. She took the high seat like a throne, though the animal, normally well-trained, sidled beneath her like it sensed a storm, a skirmish, a snake in its path. The knight assumed it was the scent of blood and apologized for his mount’s behavior.
She ran a finger down the horse’s neck and smiled gently as its skin twitched.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Even the most willful beast can be tamed.”
Then she sat, and waited, and hummed something that shivered in the air, and the horse calmed until it stood glassy-eyed and motionless beneath her.
The soldiers returned to report that it was as the woman said - every villager of Stoneford lay dead, and blood coated the ground. Some showed signs of a fight, but there were no armed or liveried bodies to suggest who their attackers had been, and the men had not been able to find any obvious tracks into or out of the village by any significant force.
“Then we return and make our report,” said their leader, holding the reigns of his horse. “You were most fortunate to have survived,” he told the woman.
“Yes,” she said, combing the horse’s mane, her fingers leaving elf-knots in their wake. She still held the dagger in her other hand. “Most fortunate indeed.”
It was, the court later agreed, terribly romantic - like something out of a story or a tale of old. The woman came to the castle and was given a wash and a change of clothes (though no one could quite decide how a simple bowl of water and a cloth became a full tub and scented oils, or how the intent to lend her a maid’s dress changed to the gift of a beautiful gown). She was brought to the King and the court to tell her tale.
Nobody could quite remember what her tale had been. She had been too stunning, too tall and ethereal, with a face and form that all found fair, no matter how different their tastes truly were. Her voice was as music, her smile a blessing, and when the King rose from his throne, took her hand, and proposed marriage, no one felt so much as a spark of shock or surprise.
Within the season, the kingdom had a Queen.
Within the year, it lacked a King.
No one in her presence questioned a thing. She was too…beyond them.
She sat on the great throne, more radiant herself than her gown of silver and her crown of gold, and she set about changing the world.
There was no more iron. Smiths hammered copper, brass, and bronze, and stone was chipped into useful shapes when these would not do. Sometimes something made of the blood metal was unearthed or stumbled upon, and the finders would bury it deeper and pray that nobody knew they had touched it.
There were stories, still, of the terrible things that had happened to people just a century ago who had touched, and shaped, and kept things of iron. Other nations could have it; here, in this kingdom, its very existence was a curse.
High on a hill, the tallest in the land, stood a gateway of grey stone, massive blocks that stretched toward the sky like a grasping hand. The last of them had only been levered into place within the last twenty years. The bloodstains had not yet fully washed away. The weather was strange on that hill, and animals avoided it. So did people; the air prickled across the skin unpleasantly, like the charging of lightning just before it strikes.
In the castle, miles away, the Queen stood before a window with streaks of blood drying in her hair from her last bath, a smile on her sharply pointed features. She felt the power coalescing in the distance, drawing together in a slow, inexorable tide.
It could take centuries.
But then, of course, she had time.
Humming something that shivered in the air and subtly changed her form into something a human would find ethereally beautiful, she went back to her throne to rule…and to wait.