Daughters of Artemis
Part 1 - Sword of Artemis
by L. M. Townsend
A woman dressed in the ragged tatters of travel stood in the centre of a crossroads. All three roads as far as the eye could see were lined with crosses. But these crosses were not empty - oh, no. Far from it. Bodies still adorned these gruesome reminders of the Amazons' destruction, for these were the mouldering remains of Amazons. Skeletons, mostly, still dressed in the rotting remains of Amazon armour. Each skull seemed to silently scream at the horror they had become - still hanging there ten years after the battle of Chadesia, where the Kaskan Army had cruelly decimated the Amazon Nation ... the Amazons, betrayed by their former allies, the Philocreians, lost that day...
The woman looked up as dark storm clouds roiled overhead, thunder rumbled, and a breeze swirled dead, dry leaves over the ground.The leaves which skittered across the converged roads sounded like so many whispers and the weary woman imagined those whispers to be recriminations for her seeming desertion of her people.
Slowly, she began to walk down one of the roads, stopping at the foot of one of the crosses as the memories she had fought to bury suddenly erupted in a blaze of unexpected emotion, triggered by the sight of a body hanging from one of the crosses, an Amazon amulet still dangling from the skeletal neck. Tears welled in Aradia's eyes as she reached up and pulled the amulet free. As she gazed at the object in her hand, Aradia noticed an offering placed lovingly at the foot of the cross. Bending, she picked up the flowers with her free hand; they crumbled into dust, blown away by the growing wind.
She was Aradia, the queen of this dead host and she had been gone for the decade which had passed, leaving her sisters to their fate, but it had not been by her own choice. Aradia had been captured and paraded through the streets of Rome to be mocked and spat upon before being sold to the Gladiator arena. In chains, the proud Amazon Queen walked through the streets of Rome the "star attraction" in a Victory Parade. Roman citizens lined the streets, throwing stones and rotten fruit, shouting their cruel invectives at her, but Aradia's eyes never left the back of her captor, Aurelian, General of the Roman Army. Those steel grey eyes which held no emotion, for Aradia had hardened her heart and it was now as if it were encased in ice. She had lost too much to ever allow herself to feel anything ever again - except for maybe a vague desire for vengeance, but even that ... she was too soul-weary to contemplate it.
Aradia was sold to the Gladiator Arena. Her patron had mistakenly thought the exotic appeal of an Amazon would make a lot of money for him - but Aradia didn't care to appeal to the masses of Rome - she killed because it was instinct to kill anyone who attacked her. Well-honed instinct, bred and trained into her from her birth. In truth, Aradia wouldn't have minded dying. It would have been an easy escape from this hated place, but she couldn't fight her body's natural reactions, and so she dispatched her opponents with a look of disgust to the booing masses of blood-thirsty Romans.
And then one night, Aradia escaped the Gladiator barracks with the aid of an unknown benefactor. A cloaked figure had awakened her, pointing to the open cell door. Aradia blinked once then shook her head.
"Why?" she asked.
"I need you elsewhere," was the whispered reply. The cloaked figure fought off the guards, dispatching them with ease. As Aradia shook off the sleep stupor, the nightmarish quality of the last decade also left her. The ring of clashing steel assaulted her ears and instinctively she sought a weapon to join the battle for her own freedom, but her mysterious saviour waved her away with a grin.
"Go, go!" she hissed and Aradia grabbed the ragged woolen blanket from the mean straw pallet which had served her for a bed these last years and fashioned a makeshift cloak against the night's chill and ran.
The cloaked figure pulled back the hood, revealing a beautiful woman. She spared a glance at Aradia's escape, then turned her attention back to the guards with a cold smile, dispatching them to whatever hell they had earned for themselves before fading from the sight of the other, clamouring captives in the Gladiator's cell.
Aradia had run until her breath burned in her chest that night. She had rested for only a short time, fearing the Roman hounds at her back before taking flight once again. As she returned to her people, she watched the moon wane, then wax several times, all the while her senses were re-sharpening themselves to the dangers of the road, the foremost being her imagined pursuers. It had been a nightmare journey of several new moons, but at last she made her way home, only to be greeted with death ... Death of her sisters, death of hope, death of the Tribe, all ...
"What are you doing here?" said Aradia. She looked up at the crosses. "This is no place for a child."
"You startled me. I thought you were - " said the girl, defiantly.
"Kaskan? If I were, you'd be dead," said Aradia, harshly.
"No - not Kaskan. One of them," said the girl, raising her eyes to the cross. "I come here to honour my mother as best I can ..."
At the sound of galloping horses, the girl pulled Aradia quickly back into the brush as a Kaskan patrol thundered by. A moment passed and both Aradia and the girl emerged from their hiding place.
"Bloody, gods-be-damned - those were <Amazon> horses!" said the girl through gritted teeth. "If only I had been old enough to fight! I would have stood by my mother - we would have killed <all> of those Kaskans! I would - "
"You would be hanging right next to her," said Aradia, quietly, looking up at Thalias remains again. "They should have been given the proper rites long before this."
"Didn't you just see the patrol? It's death to even be caught leaving an offering," said the girl.
Aradia looked sharply at the girl, as if just recognising her. "And yet you defy the Kaskans to honour the Amazon dead ..." she said, softly
"I am Arynë, daughter of the Amazon Thalia, and when the queen returns and the Amazon Nation rises again - " said the girl, defiantly.
"What did you say?" said Aradia, startled.
"The old shamaness, Mhari, has prophesied that the Queen would return and then the Amazons will rise again," said Arynë.
"Mhari lives?" said Aradia, grabbing the girl's shoulder. Arynë nodded. "Do any of the others?" Arynë looked at the woman, warily, refusing to answer. Frustrated, Aradia shook her a little, as if trying to shake the answer loose from the young girls set lips. "Answer me - did any of the other Amazons survive ... this?" Aradia gestured to the rows of crosses.
"If you want to know such things, you should talk to my uncle, Silas - who are you, anyway?" said Arynë, eyeing the woman, suspiciously.
"I am the Amazon Queen," she replied, smiling bitterly at the irony of this statement. She looked at the young girl, who was gazing up at her in awe. Then the child lifted her chin, proudly offering her queen an Amazon salute. Aradia feeling hopeful for the first time in long over a decade, saluted her back.
"Sorry - it's been a while since I've been around people," said the queen.
"The road is a harsh place," said Silas, sympathetically.
"There are worse - much worse," said Aradia, tossing the piece of bread in her hand back onto the plate.
"Like where?" asked Arynë, eagerly.
"Never mind, Arynë. You go on up to bed now," said Silas.
Arynë ignored Silas until Aradia, frowning, gestured to her to obey. Grinning, the girl offered another Amazon salute and scampered up the ladder to the loft.
"That girl is headed for trouble," said Aradia shaking her head.
"She's stubborn - got it into her head that she's an Amazon - like her mother - my sister," said Silas with a sigh.
"You're Thalia's brother," said Aradia.
"Yes," said Silas. "Arynë was with me when Thalia and the others went up against Yarg. I've had her ever since."
"What of the others?" asked Aradia, thoughtfully.
"What others?" said Silas, suspiciously.
"The other Amazon children - where are they?" asked Aradia.
"Dead," said Silas, quietly. "After Yarg crucified the captured Amazons, he went through the Village and killed most of the women and girl children to ensure he hadn't missed any Amazons. Arynë was spared only because we had been away at the time of the battle and I convinced them that she was my own daughter."
"No - the Amazon children would have been well-hidden and well-protected. They must be somewhere," said Aradia rising.
"They were all killed," insisted Silas, eyeing the broken sword tucked into Aradia's belt. "And the rest of us are little more than slaves, working our fields only to feed the Kaskan army."
Aradia began pacing, her eyes narrowed. "No - not all have been killed - the old shamaness, Mhari, still lives," she said. She looked at Silas, trying to catch his eyes. "Or so Arynë told me."
Silas hesitantly looked from the sword to Aradia's face and back again, avoiding her eyes. "Arynë was mistaken - old Mhari is the Village tale-teller - she makes up stories to amuse the children and - " he began.
Aradia, frustrated, pulled the sword from her belt and held it against his chest as if to run him through with the broken blade.
"Is this your problem?" she asked.
"Yarg has outlawed all weapons - only his warriors are permitted to carry blades - even a broken one could mean trouble ..." Silas said, stoically. Aradia released him.
"I don't obey Kaskan law," she said, replacing the sword.
"Then you'll end up ... out there," said Silas, with a quick nod towards the grisly row outside in the pouring rain.
"No, I don't think so. I need to see Mhari - and I need to find the children," said Aradia, resuming her pacing, her frustration growing by the moment.
"Even if the old woman speaks true, you wouldn't be able to get near them - they would be too well-hidden and that hiding place too well protected," said Silas.
Aradia whirled around, grabbing Silas by the throat. "You know Mhari speaks the truth and you know where the children are," she said. "Now, are you going to take me to her?"
Silas, eyes wide, reached up and pushed Aradia's tattered sleeve, revealing a tattoo on her arm. His eyes met Aradia's and slowly he nodded. Aradia released him.
"You are ..." he began, swallowing hard.
"Yes," said Aradia.
Silas nodded again, looking defeated. He looked up toward the loft, then sat wearily at the table, his head in his hands.
"There were survivors," he said. "They're holed up in the woods. The rest of the Amazon children are with them."
"All but Arynë?" asked Aradia pointedly.
Silas looked up at her, pain evident in his face. "I loved my sister. I love her daughter as if she were my own. She's all I have left of Thalia."
Aradia nodded in understanding and sympathy. "I loved Thalia, too - she was my second -in-command. Arynë was so young - she doesn't really remember her mother, does she?"
Silas shook his head. "No, she's only heard the stories. I'm afraid for her. Her hatred of the Kaskans is so great. I'm afraid that one day her thirst for revenge will ..."
"Get her killed," Aradia finished for him. "She should be taught - "
"No!" Silas cried, leaping to his feet. Then he looked at Aradia, pleadingly. "Please - she's all I have left. I can't lose her, too."
"As Thalia's daughter, she has a right to- " began the Amazon queen.
"I said no - she has the right to live long enough to grow up," said Silas, firmly.
"Grow up under the Kaskan yoke? Live under Yarg's tyranny - and Rome's? Is that really what you want for her?" asked Aradia, angrily.
"I'm only trying to protect her," said Silas, shaking his head. "As I have done for the last ten years."
"You're trying to protect her from death," said Aradia, quietly. "There are worse things than dying, Silas - like living as slaves to our enemies. I should know."
Silas was silent for a moment contemplating. He looked again at Aradia's face, the lines created by the last decade of hell making her look somehow more noble and wise. He sighed again, knowing that this time was coming for a long time - as Mhari had prophesied - did not make his decision any easier, but he knew that it was the right one for Arynë.
"You're right," he said, defeated. "I know where the Amazon survivors are hiding."
"Tell me of these survivors - are you sure they're Amazons and not Philocreian women?" said Aradia, her eyes narrowing.
"No, they're Amazons," replied Silas. "I patched up as many of the wounded as I could and gave them what food I had - and they left. Mhari stayed behind - to help look after Arynë, I suspect - and to keep watch - for you."
"I need to speak with Mhari," said Aradia, more gently now.
"In the morning - it's late. And after ... I'll take you to your people," Silas said.
At that moment, another man entered the tent and saluted, staying in his position of obeisance as Yarg sat back down at the table, roughly planting the beautiful sword in the dirt floor of the tent. Then he acknowledged the subordinate with a grunt, proceeding to eat the food on the table. The man arose, swallowing his disgust at his leader's table manners - or, rather, lack thereof. Yarg sat, slurping his wine, ignoring the bits of food which fell into his beard, and finally, wiping his greasy hands on his shirt before looking up at the other man with a loud "wet" belch.
"Well? What is it?" said the Kaskan chief.
Bowing and holding out a rolled parchment, the man spoke. "A dispatch from Rome My Lord."
"Well? What's it say? And skip all that official greeting crap from the Imperial bastard - just get to the meat of it, will you?" said Yarg.
The man unrolled the parchment and quickly scanned it before speaking, occasionally glancing up at Yarg, nervously.
"My Lord it seems the Amazon has escaped," he said, barely controlling the trembling in his voice.
Yarg looked at him, calmly, but the man knew all too well that calm was often a disguise for something darker and far more frightening than his leader's usual bellowing. Men tended to die more when Yarg was "calm".
"Seems? Well has she or hasn't she?" said the Kaskan chief, still quietly.
"She has, My Lord," said the man, resigning himself to whatever the Fates decided.
Yarg spoke again, his voice still dangerously quiet. "That so?"
"Yes My Lord. The Emperor asks that we keep an eye out for her in case she comes back here. He wants her back alive."
Yarg threw his head back and laughed. The man released his fear in tentative relief. Death would not have him today, it seemed.
"Yes I'm sure he does," said the Kaskan chief. "Can't have a magnificent trophy like the Queen of the Amazons get the better of the Emperor of Rome - might just make him look like the fool he is. He will of course have to make an example of her."
"Yes, My Lord. Shall I assign more men to patrol?" asked the minion.
Yarg eyed the sword glinting in the light from the tent lamps and rose, pulling it out of the dirt. He gazed at it as if mesmerized.
"No I don't think that will be necessary," he said. "We have something she wants, I think. She will come to us-and she will bring the rest of the surviving Amazons. Then we'll finish the job we started ten years ago." He looked out of the tent flap to the lines of crosses and grinned. "The Emperor can have what's left of her when I'm done."
"Yes My Lord," said the man, again bowing low to the ground in salute. He left Yarg still staring transfixed at the sword.
Suddenly, there was a flash of light and another stood before the Kaskan chief. He was stunningly beautiful to look upon, with wavy jet black hair to his shoulders. His skin was as smooth as marble and as golden as the sun. His eyes were piercing and black and when he moved, the play of well-defined muscles rippling under his white silk tunic was evident. His mouth was cruel, if a bit petulant, like the spoiled child he was, for this was Ares, god of war, the favoured child of Hera and Zeus.
Ares watched Yarg, frowning with some concern over the mortal's apparent fascination with the sword.
"Don't get too attached - I have plans for that blade," said the god, not quite breaking the spell the sword had over the Kaskan chief.
"Ares," said Yarg, acknowledging the god, but never taking his eyes from the sword - which now glowed in the god's presence.
"It does have a certain attraction to it doesn't it? Unfortunately, I can't let you keep it."
"Huh?" said Yarg, tearing his dull, muddy eyes away from the sword.
"Remember? I had you get that for someone else," said the war god. "Someone who will use it to put me in the top god position."
Yarg found his eyes irresistibly drawn back to the glowing sword. "Who?
"Never mind that," said Ares, sharply. "You just keep it safe for now. What ever you do, do not let the Amazons get it back. If you do my sister gets her full powers back and she's not real happy with me right now. Messing with her Amazons kinda puts her in a bad mood."
Yarg again with effort, tore his gaze away from the sword to look at the god of war. Then laughed. "You have no scruples whatsoever - I like that in a god," he said. "No I won't let it get into Amazon hands. In fact I'm going to use it to destroy those unnatural women once and for all."
Ares raised one eyebrow and sighed. "I hate trusting this to a mortal," he said, sadly. "Just remember -- guard it with your life or I will have your head."
Ares disappeared in a flash, leaving Yarg to continue admiring the sword.
She turned to the girl, frowning sternly. "You grow too bold, Girl -- coming here in broad daylight," she scolded, shaking her head.
"She's back," said Arynë, grinning.
"Where?" said the older woman, smiling in delight.
"She's at our house. Oh, Mhari, she's ... she's... so ... "
"Yes, yes, Child," said the older woman, patting the young girl on the shoulder. "Now the prophecy is set in motion."
"She sent me to bring you to her," said Arynë. "She wanted to come to you herself, but ..."
"It's a little too dangerous for the Amazon Queen to be seen here, I know," said the woman. She began going about the house, putting things into a basket then donned her cloak. "Well, let's go. Even old Mhari doesn't keep our Queen waiting."
Mhari and Arynë walked quickly toward Silas's house, but were still accosted by two Kaskans.
One grabbed Mhari's basket.
" Hey what's in here?" he said.
The second grabbed Arynë, who squirmed and struggled to get away from him.
"Hey, Cutie, what are you doing?"
Arynë answered by stomping on his foot and elbowing him in the gut. He let go of her with a grunt of pain, while his companion laughed at him.
"You gotta watch the women in this village - they've been corrupted by those Amazons. Probably don't even know how to act like real women," said the first, pawing through Mhari's basket. Arynë started toward him, but was gently restrained by Mhari, who merely smiled at the two.
"Now gentlemen," she said. "My granddaughter here is a very proper young lady - you can't expect her to understand your ... attentions ... as the compliment I'm sure you intended."
"Yeah - compliment," said the second Kaskan, still glaring at Arynë. "What are you two doing out here at this time? You should be in the fields now."
"My father is sick. I went to fetch Granny for him," said Arynë, tossing her head, defiantly.
"Yeah, just medicines in here," said the first, handing the basket back to Mhari. "You can go."
"Wait," said the second as the women started to leave. They stopped, looking at each other in dread. "You're Silas's girl aren'tcha?" Arynë nodded. "So that's why he didn't report for work this morning? He's sick?"
"Yes," said Arynë, impatiently.
"What's wrong with him?" asked the first Kaskan. "Not plague is it?"
"If I knew what was wrong, I wouldn't have had to get Granny would I?" said Arynë, smiling sweetly.
Both Kaskans stepped back quickly.
"Go on then," said the first. "Tell Silas when he's better to report to the field supervisor."
Arynë nodded as Mhari leaned up and whispered to the second Kaskan, the one who had grabbed Arynë. He blushed and waved them away. The two walked rapidly toward Silas's house, Mhari grinning.
"What did you say to him?" whispered Arynë.
"Why I just told him if he had trouble getting women to come and see old Mhari rather than grabbing a young girl off the street. I'll brew him a love potion guaranteed to give him a 'real' woman," said Mhari.
Arynë rolled her eyes, and giggled, as they arrived at the door of Silas's house.
The door opened and Mhari stepped, in followed closely by Arynë. Aradia was sitting on the floor by the hearth, working on the broken sword. She looked up and smiled, rising to her feet and making her way to the two in one graceful move. She embraced Mhari with a kiss on the cheek.
"<Tanti> - aunt, I - " Aradia began, then broke into sobs while Mhari held her, patting gently.
"Hush, Child - it's alright now," said the old shamaness.
Aradia gently disentangled herself from Mhari's embrace. She looked at her and saw tears in the older woman's bright blue eyes. They both laughed, hugging again as Arynë looked on, wide-eyed, watching the exchange. Silas entered the room, nodding a greeting to Mhari before addressing Aradia.
"We'll leave for the forest after dark," he said, nodding at the sword Aradia has left leaning against the hearthstones. "How's that coming along?"
Aradia turned and retrieved the sword. A "scar" was visible where the broken blade had been roughly mended.
"Well, I could do a better job with a proper forge, but it will do," she said. "It will never be the same, though."
"None of us will, Child," said Mhari. "But that blade will be stronger than ever for your care - just like the Amazons."
Arynë approached, a little shyly and reached out to touch the sword. "That's .. that's my mother's sword, isn't it?" she asked.
Aradia gingerly handed the sword to the girl, carefully placing her hands on the hilt, making adjustments in the girl's grip. Arynë held the sword aloft, gazing at it with a kind of awe. Aradia, took it back from her, gently placing it back against the hearthstones.
"I have something for you," said the girl, running up the ladder to the loft.
"Silas, you have done well with her. But now ... it's time for - " said Mhari, gently
Silas nodded, sadly. "I know. Aradia and I have talked. Arynë needs to be with her mother's people now," he said quietly.
"Silas, I promise you, Arynë shall be as my own daughter," said Aradia, solemnly. "Thalia was my Second in Command, and she would have taken over as queen if it had been I who ... "
"Thalia was an Amazon Princess?" asked Silas.
"As is her daughter," said Aradia, nodding. "Arynë shall be trained as my successor, a princess in her own right, providing - "
"Providing what?" said Arynë, a leather sheath in one hand, halfway down the ladder, holding on with the other hand, staring at them.
"Providing that, when you come of age, you are found worthy of the task and choose accept the responsibilities that go with it of your own free will," said Aradia.
Arynë looked to Mhari as she hopped the rest of the way off of the ladder and walked towards Aradia. "You knew?"
"Yes, Child," said the shamaness.
"What must I do to be found worthy?" asked the girl, looking to Aradia.
"After your training and initiation, we will know - it really isn't anything you do - but who you are and the choices you make which will tell us if you are the one to be queen after me," replied Aradia.
"I will do my best," said the girl, solemnly.
Yes, I know you will," said Aradia, looking toward the shuttered windows. "It's nearly time."
Arynë handed her the sheath. "I don't know if this was my mother's or not - I found it .. out there," said the girl.
Aradia retrieved the sword from the hearth and slid it into the sheath. "Yes, almost a perfect fit. Thank you," she said. Aradia fastened the sheath to her belt, again glancing at the shuttered window. Silas nodded, picking up his pack and shouldering it.
"It's time," he said, looking at Arynë, sadly.
Suddenly, several Amazons appeared as if magic from their hiding places amidst the trees and the group was surrounded by Amazon swords.
"Who are you?" asked the Amazon leader.
Aradia pushed back the hood of her cloak, then threw back her head, emitting a distinctive battle cry. Quickly, the Amazons sheathed their swords and dropped to their knees before her.
"My Queen - we thought you were - " began the leader.
"You were wrong, Thraso," said Aradia.
"Apparently so, my Queen," said Thraso.
The others - Arynë, Mhari, and Silas - also pushed back their hoods.
"Get up, all of you - is groveling in the dirt what the once-great Amazon Nation is reduced to now?" said Aradia.
One by one, the Amazons began to rise.
"Your Majesty, there is no more Amazon Nation," said Thraso, still kneeling.
Aradia angrily reached down and pulled Thraso roughly to her feet. "How dare you?" she seethed through gritted teeth. "If even one of us survives, the Nation lives - or are you renouncing your place in the Nation, Thraso?" Silence from their leader was the example the rest of the Amazons followed as Aradia, looked around. "Any of you - do you wish to renounce your Initiation vows? Are you still Amazons?"
A collective yell from the Amazons confirmed their loyalty to Queen and Nation as Aradia released Thraso.
"And what do you say, Thraso? Are you still an Amazon?" asked Aradia, so quietly, only Thraso could hear her.
"My Queen, I - " began Thraso. She lifted her head and looked around at the Amazons, then looked at Aradia and smiled slightly. "I am an Amazon, my Queen."
Aradia smiled brightly and pulled Thraso into a tight hug, holding her close for a moment, then releasing her.
"Welcome home, my Queen," said Thraso, returning the hug.
"Where - exactly - is 'home'?" asked Aradia.
"We'll take you there, my Queen, but ... um ... " Thraso looked uncomfortably at Silas.
"I'll head back now," said Silas, taking the thinly veiled hint.
Aradia clasped Silas's arm. "Be safe, my friend. Artemis watch over you till we meet again. You will always have the gratitude of the Amazons," said the Queen.
Arynë, suddenly realising what this meant, ran up to Silas and hugged him, hard.
"Uncle - can't you come with us?" she said.
Silas gently disengaged himself from her arms.
"Arynë, no man is permitted to dwell among the Amazons - you know that," said Silas.
"But I thought ... since you ... Oh, Uncle - I can't just go and leave you to the Kaskans. When they find both Mhari and me missing, you will be in trouble!" said Arynë, tears in her eyes.
"Shh ... Little One, it'll fine - you'll see," said Silas, looking to Aradia for help.
"Arynë, we have to go. Silas will be fine - the Kaskans won't be here much longer," said the Queen.
"So it's true? We will win back our land from them?" Thraso asked the shamaness.
"There is a more important prize to be won - and another enemy to defeat, even greater than Yarg ... " said Mhari, her eyes looking far off.
"Rome," said Aradia, grimly.
"Even more powerful than the Emperor," said the shamaness.
"Who, Tanti?" asked Aradia
"I can't ... quite ... see ... " said Mhari, shaking her head.
"Never mind - we have to go - " began Aradia.
"An ally will come to us from an unexpected place ... and perhaps an enemy from one we trust ... it's gone," said the shamaness, frowning.
"Old-Mother, you see the past," said Thraso, gently. "We have already been betrayed by our own, the Philocreian Tribe. And a man has done us the service of raising and protecting one of our daughters." She nodded to Silas.
"Well, we shall have to see," said Mhari, with a sigh..
Silas released Arynë. "Go on, now - I'll see you soon," he said.
Tearfully, Arynë stepped back and gave Silas the same salute she gave to Aradia. Aradia smiled slightly and nodded at the girl as Silas turned and disappeared into the trees. The Amazons began walking, Aradia and Thraso side by side, Arynë hanging back a bit with Mhari.
"Are we really going up against Yarg and his men?" asked Thraso.
"Yes," relied Aradia.
"How? They are so many - and backed by Rome - and we are now so few. How, my Queen?" said Thraso
"We are not so few, Thraso. Have we not sisters from Britannia to the Eastern Steppes?" said Aradia.
"Well, yes, but - " said Thraso
"Tonight we send out the call to all the remaining Tribes in the Nation," said Aradia.
"But my Queen - " protested Thraso.
"And enough of this 'my Queen' and 'your Majesty' - as my Second in Command, you will call me by my name - Aradia," said the queen.
Thraso stopped walking and stared at Aradia. "Why - your Second, my ... um, Aradia?"
"Unless, of course, you prefer to challenge me," said Aradia.
Thraso resumed walking, shaking her head. "Blessed Artemis, no! I mean ...yes, my ... um, Aradia. I'm honoured to be your Second, but I have no wish to challenge you," she said.
"Good," said Aradia, smiling at her new Second. "I have no wish to fight you, Thraso. We have enough fighting ahead of us."
"When do we start?" asked Thraso.
"Tonight. I want our sisters down off those crosses and their souls on their way to Artemis by dawn," said Aradia, firmly.
"My Queen - I mean, Aradia," said Thraso, frowning. "Those of us who have tried to recover them now hang with them. How - ?
"Yarg won't know what hit him," said Aradia, smiling wickedly.
"You might want to see this," said Ares, strongly resisting the temptation to simply blast this ignorant pig into Tartarus.
Ares walked over and lifted the tent flap to reveal flames, lighting up the predawn sky. All but about six crosses were missing - and on those six hung the Kaskan patrol. With a roar of rage, Yarg was up out of bed, the sword still clutched in his hand.
"What the -?" bellowed the chief.
"Looks like Aradia's back," said the god, gratified to see some reaction from Yarg.
Yarg stared out of the tent flap in disbelief. "Gods be damned ... <women>! How did they--?"
"You wouldn't be the first man to underestimate the Amazons, Yarg," said Ares in mock sympathy.
Yarg growled and pushed past Ares out to the crossroads, dragging the sword behind him.
"They won't get away with this!" said the Kaskan chief with a growl.
Ares sighed. "There you go again," said the god, annoyed. "I'm warning you Yarg. Do not disappoint me. Don't underestimate Aradia - I don't. She has a fire in her eyes that I haven't seen in a woman since ... " Ares smiled sadly. "Well, in a very long time."
"Fine-I'll see her eyes are delivered to you when I get a hold of her," said Yarg, scowling at the flames.
At last the god reached his tolerance limit. His dark eyes literally flaming, he reached out and backhanded the huge man, sending Yarg reeling back, to land on his ample backside. "I am really beginning to wonder if you're the right man for this after all," said Ares, shaking his head as Yarg struggled to his feet.
"What do you mean by that?" said the Kaskan chief, brushing off the blow as he dusted himself off.
"Well, first you involved Rome - and you have no idea how much trouble that has caused me," said the god of war, darkly. "Now this - and look at the way you treat my sister's sword!"
Yarg looked down and saw the sword dragging in the dirt. Quickly he picked it up and tucked it into a sheath at his side.
"You just keep your sister off my back. I'll take care of the Amazons," said Yarg.
"Just don't disappoint me again Yarg - Tartarus is nothing compared to what I can dish out," said Ares, disappearing in a brilliant flash, leaving Yarg to stand and watch his men trying to put out the Amazon pyres and pull the patrol down off the crosses. A guard approached him saluting.
"My lord-General Aurelian is here," he said as the Roman General approached.
"A bit of trouble tonight, Yarg?" said Aurelian.
Yarg grunted. "Nothing I can't handle."
"The Emperor has sent me along with a unit of soldiers to recapture the Amazon," said Aurelian, looking about the Kaskan camp. "He believes she will come here. From the looks of things, she has already arrived."
Yarg glared at the Roman. "Nah - just some troublemakers from the village," he said. "I was just getting ready to send some of my men to - "
"That won't be necessary," Aurelian interrupted. "I have already posted sentries within the village walls. I have also assigned some men to patrol the perimeter and the outlying area."
Yarg grunted and returned to his tent, slapping the flap closed behind him. Aurelian turned, and silently watched the Kaskans trying to put out the fire. His face illuminated by the flickering flame was unreadable to the Kaskans, but they knew the look on their chief's face as he had stormed away from the General. Roman or not, most of them figured Aurelian had better watch his back.
Earlier that evening, Aradia sat at the table in the treehouse swiftly built for her in this Amazon Village of treehouses with a basket. She gently lifted a string of beads with a large coloured stone as a pendant and held it up. Another like it - the one she had collected herself from Thalia's remains, was hanging about her neck now, along with her own Initiation Amulet.
"Ainippe," she said, laying the amulet in her hand down upon the table. She withdrew another beaded necklace. "Prothoe," she said, laying it next to the other. Wiping away tears, she withdrew several necklaces from the basket and named each one, until she was interrupted by a knock on the door. Composing herself quickly, she called, "Enter!"
Mhari, accompanied by Arynë and Thraso came in. Aradia smiled in delight, rising to embrace the wisewoman.
"<Tanti>," the queen said, hugging her fiercely, as the grief for her fallen sisters threatened her composure.
"Now, Child - don't give in - not just yet - time enough for mourning later - after the work's done," Mhari told her. "You retrieved their Initiation amulets, I see - good girl."
"Yes," Aradia said, releasing the older woman. "So many ... gone."
"And so many still here, Child," Mhari said, removing her cloak and hanging it on a peg in the wall. "It is those you must be thinking of now - the ones all these - " Mhari swept her hand towards the amulets on the table, "gave their lives for."
Aradia reflected briefly on the sacrifice of those whose final journey to the Goddess had been completed this night. A wry grin crossed her lovely face as she thought about the difficulty the Kaskans would have putting out the pyres. The Amazons had used the crosses themselves, but they had been fashioned from the resinous trees native to this region. The Amazons had also used the traditional fire blossoms whose oil was pleasantly fragrant, but also highly volatile. The bodies of the Amazons were dry bones and it would take little time for them to be consumed by the purifying and liberating flames. No, they would not be able to put out the fire until her sisters' remains were gone.
An Amazon stepped forward. "Home? You call <this>," she swept her arm about to indicate the tree village, "Home? Our <home> is occupied by those Kaskan pigs!"
"For now," Aradia acknowledged with a nod. "But you have done well here, Sisters."
"<Well>?", said the Amazon, angrily. "How can you say that? We are barely surviving. We live on what we can hunt and forage. We are a hunted people and must hide like animals. What we had before - our land, our homes, our horses, our crops - all gone. And you say we are doing <well>?"
"You are alive," said Aradia. "You are relatively free. And," she looked around. "We have something to build on here. I have hope - something I never thought I'd feel again."
Another Amazon stepped up and spoke. "What of our land, Your Majesty? What of vengeance for our fallen sisters? What of the treachery of the Philocreians?"
"One thing at a time Sister," said Aradia, gently. "Tonight, we began the journey to re-build our Nation - our fallen sisters' souls now soar free to the Goddess."
The Amazons cheered and the one who confronted Aradia nodded in acknowledgment, seemingly satisfied for the moment and stepped back.
"The next step is to drive the Kaskans from our homeland," said Aradia, bring a smile to that Amazon's face as again, the Amazons cheered. "But first ..." Aradia held out her hand and Arynë handed her a ram's horn. She smiled and gestured with one hand. The rhythmic beating of Amazon drums started up. "We call together all the Tribes of the Amazon Nation. Together, we as Amazons and as Sisters, Daughters of the Goddess, Artemis, together, we will fight our enemies and take back what is ours."
Aradia lifted the horn to her lips ... and blew.
As the morning mist drifted through the mountains and valleys, the sound of the rams' horn and the drums carried and was joined by others, in a massive relay across the land.
Amazons toiling in fields stopped their labours and listened. Not one of them ever thought to hear the call of the horn and the drums again and had resigned themselves to their fate. Almost. Throwing down their tools, they hastened to gather weapons and amulets long ago hidden away in woodsheds and haylofts and under great rocks, in secret places where no man would think to look for such things.
Alone and in groups the Amazons left their existence and made their way over the mountains and seas and into the forest where their lives began again. Their souls, answering the ancient Amazon call soared. Within weeks, thousands of reborn Amazon Warriors stood ready.
And Aradia, now wearing the regalia of an Amazon Queen, stood before them on a wooden platform which had been built in the centre of the clearing. Again Mhari and Arynë stood on either side of her and Thraso as second in command "had her back." Aradia looked around at the gathered Amazons, thousands strong, yet still only a remnant of the once great Amazon Nation. Some were warriors but not nearly enough for the difficult task before them. Most were untried girls, bearing weapons far too big for them. Sadly she shook her head. She looked at their eager young faces, their shining eyes all focused on her and then smiled proudly. She then realised that she had never felt prouder of being an Amazon. Aradia gave them all an Amazon salute and they roared a cheer to their queen, saluting her back. She raised her arms and there was silence.
"My sisters look around at yourselves," said Aradia, gravely. "You see the entire Amazon Nation - we are all that's left."
The Amazons murmured sadly, but Aradia smiled brightly at them and continued.
"We represent every tribe in the nation. The call went out and every one of you responded. You should be very proud of yourselves, for you represent the heart of the Amazon spirit - honour, integrity, and sisterhood. Today, my sisters, Artemis smiles upon her favourite daughters!"
The Amazons again offered a roaring cheer, intermixed with wolf howls, birdcalls, and other animal sounds according to the different tribal traditions represented. Thraso leaned forward, smiling.
"She smiles upon the Amazon Queen too - just look what you've accomplished," she said.
The village had expanded, the Amazons were better dressed, better armed, and better fed , but most important, they were very happy and very proud.
Aradia, smiling back at Thraso, replied, "You gave me a solid foundation to build on. This village is a testament to your leadership skills, my friend."
"Mine?" said Thraso, surprised.
Aradia nodded gravely. "You started with nothing - no food, no shelter - and the threat of the enemy behind every bush and tree," she said. "That you survived at all, let alone what you began to build here, makes me very proud of you."
"But - I was still so relieved when you came back and took over," said Thraso.
"I know - but that, too, is the sign of a leader," said Aradia, smiling at her friend. "I chose well when I made you my Second."
Suddenly there was a commotion and two Amazons roughly hauled a third up to the platform, shoving her to her knees before Aradia. She was a girl only a little older than Arynë.
"What's this?" asked Aradia.
"We caught this Philocreian trying to sneak into the village," said one of the Amazons.
"Who's at your post now?" asked Thraso, looking worriedly at Aradia.
"It's alright, Majesty - we detained her until our relief arrived," said the second Amazon.
Aradia nodded. "Very good," she said. She looked down at the girl at her feet. "Who are you?"
"I am Julisa, My Queen," said the Philocreian girl.
"How dare you call her that?" said the first Amazon, raising a hand to strike Julisa, but Aradia grabbed her wrist and stopped her.
"Julisa, what were you doing coming here?" asked Aradia.
"I heard the call - I answered" replied the girl, simply and quietly. "I was coming to join you."
"More likely to spy," said the first Amazon, bitterly.
"No, I swear it," said Julisa. "It's true, I am of the Philocreian tribe. But ... " Julisa bowed her head.
"But what child?" said Mhari, gently helping the girl to her feet.
"I am ashamed of what my people did," said Julisa. "They betrayed the rest of our Nation to the Kaskans. I was too young at the time to say anything, But ... I am an Amazon, not a Philocreian!"
Aradia turned to Thraso. "Thraso, send a detachment of warriors out to comb the area - make sure there are no others with her," she said, then turned to Julisa. "You - come with me. Thraso, dismiss them and then come to my house."
"You have posed quite a dilemma for me, young woman - how do I know I can trust you?" asked Aradia.
"You don't," said Julisa. "And I don't blame you for not trusting - what my people did is unforgivable."
"Yes it is - but now, I have to do something with you. I don't want to kill you outright -" Arynë gasped, but Aradia continued as if not hearing her heir. "But I cannot allow you to roam freely here, either. For your safety as well as that of the Amazons."
"Your Majesty, please don't send me back there - I would rather you killed me than that," pleaded Julisa.
"Why is that?" asked Aradia.
"Our leader, Athtar - she is mad," said Julisa. "She doesn't know what she's doing, allying us with the Kaskans - they hate us as much as they hate all Amazons."
"How is it that you, a young girl, see this when your leaders do not?" asked Mhari.
"I don't know - but it's obvious to me that when the Kaskans are done with us, it will be Philocreian corpses on crosses," said Julisa.
Aradia looked thoughtfully at the girl for a few moments, then nodded. "Yes, you are correct in that," she said. "Just as when Rome is finished with Yarg, the Emperor will destroy him."
"How do you know all that?" asked Arynë.
"I just do," said Aradia. "The emperor fears what he cannot control - and what he fears he seeks to destroy. And he fears the Amazons because he knows no man will ever control us. And as soon as Yarg and the Kaskans are no longer useful to him, he will seek to destroy them, too."
"Unless we do it for him," said Arynë, her eyes narrowed. "Tanti - Aunt, let me carry my mother's sword into battle against the Kaskans!"
"I wish I could, but you don't yet know how to use a sword," Aradia said with a rueful smile.
"Then teach me - please," said Arynë, eagerly.
"That's not something you can learn in a few hours," said Aradia. "Besides, Arynë, you are my successor - I can't let you fight - not yet, not until you have the training you'll need to come out alive."
"But - " began a disappointed Arynë.
"Arynë, I said no," said Aradia, firmly. "Besides, I have another task for you. From now on, you are to stay with Julisa - do not let her out of your sight - understood?"
"Yes. But - " the girl persisted.
"No buts - I am entrusting not only her safety to you, but until I can be sure she can be trusted, the entire Amazon Nation's safety is your hands," said Aradia, grimly.
Arynë smiled, proudly. "Oh - I understand, tanti," she said. "Come, Julisa - are you hungry?"
Both girls left Aradia's house together. Aradia rose and began to pace.
"Mhari, I'm getting soft - I should have just killed the girl and been done with it," she said, worriedly.
"Why didn't you?" asked Mhari.
"I don't know," said Aradia, shaking her head. "Something about her makes me believe her - and yet something else tells me she's not who she would have us believe. I just don't know what to think."
"Well, Child, you know I've always taught you to go with your instincts," said Mhari.
"Yes, I know - but what if I'm wrong?" said the queen with a sigh. "I just told Arynë that she's my successor and then left the two of them alone - if Julisa means us harm, she has her 'target' right there with her."
"Well, if it helps any, I believe the girl - I don't think she means us any harm - just the opposite, in fact," said the shamaness.
"It helps a lot, <Tanti>. Thank you," said Aradia, smiling at the older woman.
"Anytime, Dear," said Mhari, returning the smile. "And now <my> instincts tell me that something else is bothering you - and has been these past weeks. What is it?"
Aradia sighed deeply and sat back down at the table where the dead Amazons' amulets still lay. "Why am I alive and they," Aradia indicated the amulets, "are not? Do you how easy it would have been to just ... let one of them kill me in that arena? But I didn't. Why? I don't understand it."
"Evidently, the Goddess had other plans for you, Child," said Mhari, softly."Like this - these girls here - they needed you. You are the answer to their prayers. Do not feel remorse for surviving, Child. That's just pain foolishness - and silly, misplaced pride. That's not what I taught you."
"No, I can't look around at all those faces looking to me to lead them, protect them and care for them and really feel sorry for living. I know that I am needed here and that's why I live still," said Aradia. "I just don't understand what it was that drove me to do so when I thought the Amazon Nation was gone. It was like that whole time was spent asleep, a nightmare; then one night ... I just woke up. I still wish I knew who that woman was and why she chose to rescue me."
"I have a feeling that one day, you will know, my Child," said Mhari.
"Yes," said Aradia. "The day she comes and names her price for saving me. I only hope I have the means to pay it."
Mhari's reply was interrupted by a knock on the door and Aradia called "Enter!" Thraso came into the house.
"My...um, Aradia - there's trouble," she said.
"What kind of trouble?" asked Aradia.
"Romans," replied her Second. "A general by the name of Aurelian and hundreds of Roman soldiers ... are you alright?"
Aradia had grown pale. "Aurelian is here?"
"You know him, this Roman?" asked Thraso.
"Unfortunately," replied Aradia. "Where is he?"
"In the Kaskan camp," replied Thraso. "He's posted his men all over the Village and has patrols in the all of the outlying areas. What are we going to do, Aradia?"
"Do?" said the queen, a cold smile stretching her lips, but not quite reaching her eyes. "Why, we're going to take back what belongs to us - and send a message to Rome that the Amazons are no mere trophies - we are a Nation in our own right and one to be reckoned with."
The two armies met the onslaught, but the Amazon warriors poured over their defences like ants over a honeycomb, wading into their ranks, an irresistible and deadly tide to which the unprepared and outnumbered Romans and Kaskans fell with alarming swiftness.
Interspersed with the Amazon warriors were villagers, unable to bear the Kaskans' oppression any longer and heartened by the Amazon attack. They had picked up their tools as weapons and joined the throng of Amazons as the women had attacked.
Silas himself battled Yarg, but Yarg was fighting with the Sword of Artemis. Silas fell, the blade still in his body, screaming, as Yarg roared in derisive laughter.
"Arynë ... !" was Silas's last word as he succumbed to death.
Suddenly, Arynë was there out of nowhere, running toward her fallen uncle. Julisa was nowhere to be seen, and all around them, the Amazons and villagers were fighting Kaskans and Romans alike, oblivious to all but their own individual battles of life and death.
Arynë stopped and looked at the Kaskan Leader laughing at her uncle's demise. With a strength she didn't know she had, the girl reached down and grabbed the sword from her uncle's still form and held it to Yarg's chest. Yarg merely laughed harder.
"What do you think you're doing, little girl?" he taunted. "You think you know how to use that? Come on, then - run me through!"
"You like nailing women to crosses and killing little children?" asked Arynë, quietly, her eyes never leaving the giant before her.
"As a matter of fact, I do," sneered Yarg.
The only reaction from Arynë was a narrowing of her eyes over the flames of rage which sprang up in them. "Wrong answer, Pig," she said, coldly.
She swung the sword with a strength and an expertise no untrained girl would have and planted it deeply in the Kaskan's chest. He looked down at the blood pouring out of him and over Arynë's small hands in disbelief. Arynë, her face still expressionless, spoke quietly.
"When you get to Tartarus, tell the Kaskan pig who killed my mother hello. I'm just sorry it wasn't me who killed him, too."
Yarg fell, and the sword still clutched in both of Arynë's hands pulled free of him. The girl shook her head as if just waking up, then horrified, saw the blood on her hands. She looked over to her prone uncle. In his hand was an Amazon amulet - he had been making it for her Initiation, since her mother wasn't there to do it for her. Arynë reached down and took it, looking at it in awe and then looking to her uncle with love and grief pouring from her. Tears sprang to her eyes and she ran from the battlefield, still clutching the Sword of Artemis.
Aradia and Thraso, back to back, fought Romans. Aurelian was on horseback, watching his men fall to the greater force of the Amazons. Shaking his head, the General finally sounded a retreat. Both Kaskans and Romans ran from the battlefield as the Amazons and Villagers cheered triumphantly.
A shimmering light appeared and a woman so beautiful it almost hurt one's eyes to look upon her walked out of it. Aradia gasped and started to kneel, but Artemis, smiling, prevented her.
"No, my Dear - you said so yourself - my Amazons will never again kneel in the dirt - not to anyone," said the goddess.
"Lady, we won.," said Aradia.
"You won this battle, Aradia, only because my sword is once again in the hands of an Amazon - however young she may be," said Artemis.
"Your sword? But ... Yarg had it," said Aradia.
"Yes - and then he got it, right where it could do the most good," said the goddess, stepping back to reveal the bodies of Yarg and Silas lying near one another.
"Thank you, Lady. Arynë would be - " began Aradia.
"I'm afraid the damage has been done there," said the goddess, frowning.
"What do you mean?" asked Aradia.
"Arynë has my sword - it was she who killed Yarg," said Artemis.
"What!? I forbade her to - " began Aradia.
"Yes, you did - but she came here anyway," said the goddess. "Now she is grieving and angry - and she has my sword."
"We have to find her," said Thraso.
"Yes, you do - before my brother does. Otherwise ..." said the goddess, closing her eyes and shaking her head before fading from sight.
She realised that this child would bear close watch and decided it would be best if the Amazons got to her ... before someone else did ....
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