Daughters of Artemis
Chapter Two - Guardian of the Sword
by L. M. Townsend
Disclaimers: See Chapter One
"Because he's a very good general. He's not willing to lose men he doesn't have to - especially when he can come back with those same men and fight a battle he can actually win." Athtar looked up to see Ares standing before her, grinning. Cursing, she drew her sword.
"Who are you? How dare you come in here - this is Amazon territory!" she cried. Ares laughed and pushed the sword away.
"I'm your best friend right now, Athtar - and by the way, this is no longer Amazon' territory - the other Amazons have disowned the Gorgons," said Ares. He looked at the queen, taking in her cruel beauty. She was a veritable snow queen. Her hair was so blonde it was almost white and her eyes were a pale, icy blue, but her gaze was intense as she glared at him, her lips curled almost in a snarl.
"What do I care what they think?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous.
"You should care very much," said Ares. "They have the Sword of Artemis."
"I thought Yarg ..." she began, her eyes widening in alarm momentarily. Then she remembered herself. "Who are you?"
"I am Ares," said the god, bowing slightly. "Yarg ... yes, well, he had the Sword, but he's dead - killed by a little girl. A little Amazon girl and with the Sword of Artemis."
For a brief moment, he thought saw a flash of fear in Athtar's eyes, then it was gone.
"Well, this ... complicates things," she said, resuming her pacing. Once again Ares laughed.
"You could say that," he said, approaching the pacing queen. "The Amazons will be seeking their revenge against the Gorgons - you betrayed them to Yarg. What made you do that, Athtar? Your hatred of all men is well known - and let's face it, Yarg was the epitome of all that make men so ... detestable."
"He had the Sword," said Athtar with a shrug. "He would have destroyed us as well as the others - I had to look out for my own."
"Ah, but if you had allied with your sisters, you may have beaten him," said Ares.
"He had the Sword," Athtar repeated, looking squarely at Ares. "Which, by the way, he said you gave him - so be both backed a loser."
"Touché," said Ares, with a smile. "But Athtar, I know why I backed him. Why did you? There has to be more to it that mere self-preservation - come on, a child took him out with the very Sword he was supposed to be protecting."
"I told you - he had the Sword of Artemis," said Athtar.
"And?" said Ares, looking intently into her eyes.
"And I ... wanted it," said Athtar, unable to tear her eyes from the god's.
"Ah, now we have the truth - and truth is very important between friends," said Ares, softly. He stepped closer to the Gorgon Queen. "So I will tell you an ironic truth - that sword was always intended for you."
Athtar looked at him, her face betraying nothing, then she laughed, bitterly. "I betrayed the Amazons for nothing," she said.
"Well, that all depends," said Ares.
"On what?" said Athtar.
"On whether or not you can get that Sword from them," said Ares. "Because if you can, then you will be invincible - almost a goddess in your own right. All the Amazons would bow to you as their queen. Not one of them would dare raise a hand against you then."
"That's true," said Athtar, musing. "Wait a minute - you're a god. Why can't you get it from them?"
"It's a little complicated," said Ares, frowning. "As long as an Amazon possesses that sword, my sister has the power to stop me from doing anything against the Amazons. I can send troops to attack them but I am powerless to sway the battle my way. As long as that sword is in the wrong hands, I am unable to do anything to the Amazons." He reached out and took Athtar's hands in his own and kissed the tips of her fingers, one at a time, slowly, then turned them over and kissed the palms. He looked up into her eyes and his dark gaze was compelling. Athtar closed her eyes as he pulled her close, still holding her hands in his firm grip.
"In the right hands, though - these hands," he said, kissing them once again. "We could be an invincible team."
"Hmmm ... and what do you get out of all this, Ares?" asked Athtar, her eyes snapping open.
Ares backed slightly away and looked at her, one eyebrow raised. He smiled and leaned in to kiss her. "Satisfaction," he said.
Athtar shoved the god roughly away.
"You have got to be kidding me," she said, walking away from him. She whirled around to face him again. "No, Ares, there's more to this than that. What else is in this for you?"
Ares sighed and shook his head. "You see what I mean?" he said. "I can't even deceive a former Amazon now." He laughed at his own joke. Athtar remained silent, looking at him coldly. "Alright - Yarg was a bigger mistake than even I expected. He went to the Emperor for troops against the Amazons. Aurelian captured Aradia and sold her to the Gladiator Arena."
"So?" said Athtar.
"So, Aradia is some fighter," said Ares, shaking his head. "She wouldn't give the people a show - just killed every opponent they sent up against her, no fanfare, nothing - just slaughter."
"Good for her," said Athtar. "Although I am surprised she didn't just give in and let herself be killed - most Amazons don't last in captivity."
"Yeah, I know," said Ares. "Unfortunately, she escaped."
"That explains how the Amazons defeated Yarg," said Athtar, nodding. "That shamaness, Mhari - meddlesome old woman - she was spreading rumours that Aradia would return, giving the Amazons in hiding a lot of false hope."
"Evidently, it wasn't false," said Ares, frowning in displeasure. "Aradia is back - and she has called all the Tribes of Amazonia together - except, of course, the Gorgons."
Athtar snorted derisively. "Of course not," she said. "We heard the call, naturally - who couldn't? My women know which side of their bread is buttered."
"At any rate," Ares continued. "She had help - evidently, she caught the attention of a very old rival of mine. A minor goddess by the name of Medusa; very dangerous."
"I've never heard of Medusa," said Athtar.
"Most people haven't. She was around long before Rome," said Ares. "Aradia's lack of showmanship got her relegated to the Provinces. Some pissant little village whose name I can't remember built their arena over one of her old shrines. Evidently, Aradia's kills there acted like some sort of massive blood sacrifice and now Medusa is awake."
Athtar shrugged. "So - what does that have to do with me?" she asked.
Ares glared at her. "Medusa is very dangerous."
"To you maybe," said Athtar.
"To everyone," said Ares gravely. "My sister doesn't know what she's doing, allying herself with that ... being."
"What do you mean - Artemis is allying with this Medusa - against you?" said Athtar.
Ares frowned. "Medusa is a dangerous entity. If she gains enough power, death and destruction will reign throughout the world until every living creature is gone and the earth is a wasteland."
"There is more that you're not telling me. Truth between ... ah, friends', remember?" said Athtar. Ares sighed and looked directly into her pale blue eyes. "Ah, wait, I think I see." A slow smile spread over Athtar's face.
"Do you, Athtar? Do you, indeed?" said Ares, softly.
"Oh, yes, Ares," said Athtar. "You aren't the least bit worried about death and destruction spreading across the world - as long as you're the one spreading it. You just don't want this Medusa stepping on your toes."
"You see just a little too clearly," said Ares, his hand sliding up to Athtar's throat. She flinched slightly as he began to squeeze, then the hand relaxed. Ares shook his head and stepped back. He smiled sheepishly. "I really must learn to watch my temper."
"Yes, you must," said Athtar, coldly. "If you want my help."
Ares smiled. "I knew I could count on you," he said, fading from Athtar's presence as a warrior entered the hut.
"Your majesty," she said bowing to Athtar.
"What is it Myrina?" snapped Athtar.
"I'm sorry to bother you - I heard voices - I just wanted to make sure ..." began the warrior.
"What? That you were not going as mad as others say that your queen is?" said Athtar with a sigh.
"No, of course not, My Queen," said Myrina, frowning.
"Of course not," repeated Athtar, resuming her pacing. "You have heard that Aradia is back?"
"Yes," said Myrina, grimly. "And that Yarg is defeated."
"He's dead, not just defeated," said Athtar, her nostrils flaring.
"Your Majesty, if I may make a suggestion?" said Myrina.
"Yes?" said Athtar.
"The Roman General, Aurelian is still about the village," said Myrina, her eyes narrowing. "Perhaps an alliance with Rome at this time may be beneficial."
"An alliance with Rome is never beneficial to anyone but Rome," said Athtar, shortly.
"Yes, Your Majesty," said Myrina, bowing again.
"No, not Rome - but perhaps ..." said Athtar, thoughtfully. "Leave me now, Myrina - and ready my horse. I have an errand."
"Yes, Majesty - your guards will be - " began the warrior.
"No,"said Athtar, shortly. "I must do this myself."
"Majesty, are you ... certain? With Aradia back, the Amazons will be - " Myrina again began.
"Do not question me, Myrina," said Athtar, coldly. "I can easily find another to lead my army - or do it myself."
"As you say, Majesty," said Myrina, leaving to carry out her orders as Athtar turned and glared at the wall.
"Just what is so damned funny?" said Aradia, stopping and looking at the old shamaness.
"She will be back, Aradia," said Mhari. The queen sat down with a sigh.
"I won't ask how you know that, Aunt," she said.
"I can see out the window," said Mhari. Aradia jumped to her feet and went to the window, peering out. She saw Thraso leading both Arynë and Julisa up to the rope ladder to her house.
"Thank Artemis!" said Aradia, going to the door. Then she stopped. "Where's the Sword?" She waited until the three climbed up the ladder and entered the house.
"Arynë," she said, hugging the girl close to her for a moment. "Are you okay?" she asked, looking critically at the young girl.
Arynë nodded, then sat wearily at the table, putting her face in her hands and weeping. Aradia looked to her second in command.
"What happened?" she asked. Thraso shrugged.
"Julisa came and led me to her," said the Second in Command.
"Thank you, Julisa," said Aradia, nodding acknowledgement to the girl. "Arynë, where is the Sword?"
The girl looked up at her, her face wet with weeping and shrugged. "I don't know," she said, defiantly. Julisa looked at her, alarmed, but remained silent.
"How can you not know, Arynë? Did you drop it somewhere?" asked Mhari.
"Yes, I think I did," said Arynë, quietly.
"Where?" asked Aradia, grabbing her shoulders and roughly pulling the girl to her feet. "Arynë, do you have any idea what that Sword can do?"
The girl smiled, bitterly. "Oh, yes," she said, softly. "It kills men."
Aradia released the girl who slid back into the chair, still smiling up at her. "Arynë," she said softly. "Silas is alive."
For a moment, the girl's smile left her, then it returned. "Don't try to deceive me - I saw him," she said, bitterly. "That pig Yarg killed him, but I avenged Silas."
"Silas is alive, Arynë," said Mhari. "Would you like to see him?"
"I did see him, Granny - he was covered in blood and his eyes were - " began the girl.
"Arynë, enough," said Aradia sharply. "He is alive, by the grace of Artemis."
"He's a man - why should she bother about him?" asked Arynë with a shrug.
"What is going on with you, Girl?" asked Aradia.
"Nothing, Aunt," said Arynë. "Yarg killed Silas and I killed Yarg."
"You were only able to kill Yarg because you held the Sword of our Goddess," said Aradia. "Now I need to know where it is so we can keep it safe and out of the wrong hands."
"Whose to say whose hands are the wrong ones, Aunt?" asked Arynë.
"I am, Girl," said Aradia, angry now. "Are you going to tell me where the Sword of Artemis is?"
"How can I when I don't know?" asked Arynë.
"Very well," said Aradia. "Go to your room until I can figure out just how to make you remember."
Arynë stood and walked to her room in Aradia's tree-house. Julisa followed reluctantly. "She knows, alright," said Aradia with a sigh.
"Indeed she does," said Mhari, uneasily. "Yet, I still think you were a bit harsh with her, Aradia. She has suffered - "
"We all have," said Aradia, sharply. "Some of us more than others. Well, at least she's back. Now we can concentrate on finding that sword. Thraso, I want a platoon combing the area where Arynë was found. We have to get to the sword before anyone else does." Her eyes narrowed as Thraso sketched a salute and left the tree-house.
"Aradia, I think it is crucial that Arynë see Silas as soon as possible," said Mhari.
"So do I," agreed the queen. "Unfortunately, Aurelian has a bloody Legion camped all around the village. I just don't know how to get around them without getting her and anyone who escorts her there captured - or killed."
"Hm. That is a problem," said Mhari. "Of course, I could take her."
"No you cannot," said Aradia. "You don't think the Romans saw her kill Yarg? She's sure to be recognised."
"Aradia, you didn't see her kill Yarg - I think it likely that most of the men fighting were as absorbed in their own battles as you were,"said the shamaness.
"Not Aurelian," said Aradia, frowning in thought. "He saw everything."
"How can you be so sure?' asked Mhari.
"Because I know him," said Aradia with a sigh.
"How well do you know this man, Aradia?" asked Mhari, gently.
"Well enough to hate him," said Aradia, her voice low and dangerous. "I had time to learn him during the last ten years, Mhari. He's a cold bastard, though I have no doubt he will be emperor before much longer, and then woe to us all."
Aradia's violet eyes took on a glazed affect. Mhari had known the queen all her life, save the decade she had been away and the shamaness had never seen Aradia so prone to "spells" of despair and melancholy. She knew that the younger woman had been through hell and back. Still it saddened her to see the haunted look which was now in Aradia's eyes whenever she thought no one was watching her.
"Aradia," she said and the queen turned her head slowly to look at her.
"I'm sorry - I was somewhere else for a moment," said Aradia.
"I know - and it didn't look like a very nice place at all," said Mhari, rising and going to her. "Send word to Silas to come here - or a more neutral meeting place, since these poor women will kill any man on sight now."
"Poor women'? Oh, please, Mhari," said Aradia. "We have Roma practically crawling up our ... well, anyway, they're whining about staying in this beautiful village!"
"They want to go home, Aradia," said Mhari, gently, though secretly she agreed with the queen.
"Will they never realise that this is home?" said Aradia. "Yeah, I miss my house - I missed it for ten years; I miss Thalia - Blessed Artemis, but I miss her." The queen's eyes took on a different sort of faraway look, one of wistful memory, until tears broke the memory and Aradia looked again to Mhari. "I miss it all, but it's gone now - and we have to concentrate on re-building, not just getting back what once was - because there's no getting it back. Ever."
"They are young, Aradia, raised on tales of our former glory and riches," said Mhari. "They hear tales of the Gorgons' wealth and power - "
"The Gorgons have naught but Roman crumbs dropped by that pig Yarg - and not even that now," said Aradia, wearily.
"That's true," said Mhari. "And there is also the fact that their queen is mad."
Aradia laughed, mirthlessly. "Many here could say the same," she said, shaking her head. "What is it that is said, Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad'? Perhaps that is Artemis's way of punishing one who betrayed her daughters."
"I think our Great Mother is more merciful than that, certainly," said Mhari, appalled at the sentiment.
Aradia smiled at her old mentor. "I don't know, Mhari," she said. "I have had much in life to cause doubt in the mercy of any god."
"At any rate, Artemis would never lift a hand against any Amazon - even a Gorgon," said Mhari. "She is our patron - our Great Mother. She cannot harm her own."
"What is that, Mhari? Some kind of god rules'?" said Aradia with a chuckle.
"Look around you, Aradia," said Mhari, her voice solemn, but her blue eyes twinkled. "Everything has a pattern a cycle - an order, if you will. Perhaps the gods do have rules which they, too, must follow."
"That actually makes sense," admitted Aradia. "So, how do we find our Mother's' Sword, Old-Mother?"
"We look for it, Child," said Mhari.
"What do you seek here?" came the whispers she heard through the sizzling sounds in her mind.
"I seek the one known as Medusa," said Athtar, her own voice echoing through the cavern.
Suddenly, she felt the writhing bodies begin to undulate and vibrate at the same time, and a woman appeared before her. She almost too beautiful to look upon, her hair as black as a moonless night. Her skin was white like the moon, though, and iridescent. Her eyes were silver and cast a soft glow in the blackness of the cave, illuminating the serpents which now clothed Athtar from her head to her ankles.
"Yesss?" said Medusa. "Why do you seek me out?"
"To worship," said Athtar. Suddenly, she no longer felt sensual pleasure in the serpents' writhing. Athtar began to feel the oppressive force of the silence as they ceased their sounds and began to squeeze their bodies around her limbs. Her chest felt heavy and she struggled for breath, unable to move or even speak, her eyes locked onto the beautiful Medusa.
"Why?" asked Medusa.
"You are a goddess," gasped the Gorgon Queen. "I offer ... worship."
"Worship? You do not know me, Athtar," said Medusa, her voice sharp and clear in the silence of the cave.
"No ... but I wish to," said Athtar, struggling yet immobile against the crushing weight of the serpents covering her bare body, the very smoothness and coolness chilling her blood.
"Be careful what you ask me for, for I guarantee you shall receive it," said Medusa, her voice barely above a whisper. The goddess stepped closer. "What do you offer? I see no sacrifice in your hands - you come to me naked as a newborn. Am I to assume that you are yourself the sacrifice?"
Athtar again tried to struggle against her living bonds, sharp fear piercing her soul at the same time a serpent's fangs pierced her skin just above her breast. The serpents began to writhe, undulating their way off of Athtar's body and slithering into the dark recesses of the cavern as Medusa came ever closer. Medusa put out one slender white hand and caressed Athtar's shoulder.
"Ssssooo cold," whispered the goddess, both hands on Athtar's shoulders. Athtar felt frozen, indeed, unable to move or to speak. She felt the blood from her wound trickling slowly down her breast until a crimson drop depended precariously from her nipple. Medusa leaned forward, her tongue trailing down Athtar's breast, lapping the blood which trickled there. Then darting out swiftly, it caught the drop before it fell.
Athtar began to tremble, but still could not move of her own will as Medusa raised her head. The goddess's gaze held Athtar in thrall and the Gorgon queen could still neither move nor speak under the spell.
"Bitter," said Medusa. "The taste of your treachery is bitter in your blood. You would seek to deceive me, Athtar, but I can taste the desires of your cold heart. You want the Sword. And you shall have it. But remember my warning."
Medusa disappeared and Athtar found that she could move again. She tried to run, but dropped to floor of the cave, as if boneless. She pulled herself up by her arms and tried to crawl, but her legs were gone, her lower body transformed into that of a serpent. She cried out in horror, then began to weep, her eyes spilling tears which would never again cease to flow. Slowly, she pulled herself forward to opening of the cave, dragging her serpent's body behind her.
The darkness gave way to shadows as she approached the mouth of the cave, horrifying shadows of herself which Athtar could not bear to see. She kept her eyes forward, but then saw a sight almost as horrifying as her transformation. A great, three-headed serpent now guarded the opening of the cave, rearing back and hissing at her approach, three forked tongues flicking ominously, fangs glinting in the half-light of the ancient forest behind the fearsome creature.
"Go back," said one of the heads, its voice a mere whisper.
"You may not pass," said another.
"Go back, deep into the cave and there you will find your treasure," said the third. Suddenly, the serpent transformed into three old women and they began to walk slowly towards Athtar. Athtar backed away, her lower body slithering. She discovered the strength in her tail and rose up, hissing at the three old women. They cackled and kept coming nearer, Athtar backing away from them, her fear of the crones inexplicable to her. Suddenly, she turned and moved swiftly deeper into the cave.
She made her way past the coiled serpents who had first greeted her, deeper and deeper. Her eyes, still pouring copious tears down her cheeks, began to take in the deep gloom of the cave and soon she could see, despite the inky blackness. At last she came to a room deep within the earth which housed the cave. She saw the Sword of Artemis, casting its own light and her shadow against the walls of this room. She moved towards the sword and took it into her hands, her eyes gleaming in the dark. Then she began to make her way back to the three old women.
"They will not stop me now," she said as she moved even more swiftly, her new body becoming more and more comfortable until she forgot how it felt to have legs or to move any other way.
"Get out of my way," she said to the women. They merely laughed again and stood before the mouth of the cave.
"You are the guardian of the sword now, Athtar," said one.
"And we are your guardians," said another.
"None shall pass us," said the third, and the three transformed back into the serpent and turned to face the forest outside of the cave.
With a hiss, Athtar swung the sword, cleaving the three heads from the serpent, but in their place, three more sprang up, the severed heads withering and blowing away as dust. The Serpent turned to face Athtar.
"You must go back now," they said as one. "Go deep into the cave and guard the sword there, even as we guard it - and you - here."
Athtar looked at the creature, then at the sword. Then slithered back into the recesses of the cave, weeping bitter tears which stung her face and steamed when they hit the stone floor of the cave.
"Here!" cried one of the searchers. Thraso strode over to where she knelt in the leaves. She bent forward and parted the low-hanging willow fronds which brushed earth beneath them and peered into the shady coolness under the tree. There she saw the leaf cover had been scraped away and then hastily pushed back over the dirt.
"Think she buried it?" asked the searcher, brushing her sweat-dampened curls off of her forehead.
"Maybe," said Thraso, frowning. "This is where Julisa said she found her, crying. Let's dig a bit and see what we find."
The two women scraped the fallen leaves and dirt away and saw the fresh, damp soil had indeed been disturbed, but the area was too small to conceal the Sword of Artemis. Thraso looked to the other Amazon, then shrugged.
"What do you think?" she asked her.
"I think we should dig," said the woman, continuing the scrape at the soil. Thraso pulled out a dagger and began to dig. The women unearthed the amulet Silas had been clutching when Yarg killed him.
"What is that?" asked the Amazon. Thraso pulled it out and shook the dirt off. It was beautiful, a perfect quartz crystal with polished amethysts and small black feathers threaded on the leather cord on either side of the quartz.
"An Amazon amulet," replied Thraso, tucking the find into a pouch which hung from her belt.
"Whose, I wonder?' asked the other Amazon as both women rose to their feet. Suddenly, a large green snake rose up from the pile of leaves, disturbed by the Amazons' search. It reared back, poised to strike. Both women froze as the snake's head swayed back and forth, its forked tongue flicking rapidly at them.
"Don't move, Marpe," said Thraso, casting her eyes about for a way to escape the snake.
"Don't worry," said Marpe, still as a stone. Suddenly, something whirred past Thraso's head and smacked the snake in the head. Both women took the opportunity to bolt while the snake struck at the honeybee which had crashed into it. The bee flew off, leaving the snake to slither back into the pile of leaves which the women had disturbed.
"That was too close," said Marpe.
Thraso frowned. "I have never seen such a serpent here before - and we have lived here for over ten years - nor have I ever seen a bee act so strange," said the warrior. "They are not usually out this time of year."
"Thank Artemis that one has its own schedule," said Marpe with a shudder.
"Yeah - thank someone, anyway," said Thraso with a sigh. She looked around at the others, still searching. "I really don't want to go back empty-handed, but I just don't think the sword's here."
Suddenly, one of the sentries signalled that someone was approaching. The Amazons stopped their search and took to the trees, climbing swiftly. Thraso watched from a broad limb, barely breathing as Myrina and about ten of her warriors entered the clearing where the Amazons had been searching for the sword.
Gorgons, she thought. Oh please Lady - let the Amazons keep their heads and not attack! Thraso saw Myrina and stifled a gasp. Before the Battle of Chadesia, they had been friends. Now she saw that Myrina bore the Second in Command badge, even as she herself did. The Gorgons spread out and began searching through the trees. Thraso held her breath for a moment.
One of the Gorgons stepped up to Myrina. "No sign of her here, either, Myrina."
Myrina frowned and started towards the willow tree where Thraso and Marpe had found the amulet. Suddenly, Thraso dropped from her perch and stood before Myrina.
"You don't want to go in there," said Thraso.
The Gorgons drew their weapons, but Myrina stopped them. "Why not, Thraso?"
"Snake," said Thraso. "A big one. One of our young girls lost something and while we were looking for it, we disturbed its nest. One of my Amazons and I barely escaped."
"She's lying!" cried one of the Gorgons. "They probably hid the body in there!"
"Silence!" said Myrina, never taking her eyes from Thraso. "A snake - awake at this time of year, Thraso?"
"Like I said, we must have disturbed its nest," said Thraso. ""Believe me or don't - up to you."
Myrina continued to gaze at Thraso, then bent and picked up a stick. She nodded her head once in the direction of the willow and Thraso shrugged and followed, feeling the weight of eyes upon her back. The two women parted the willow fronds and Myrina saw the coiled serpent, evidently asleep, then backed out, pulling Thraso with her.
She looked at the Amazon anew, then smiled slightly.
"That snake is deadly," said Myrina. "In Hesperia, they kill many people. I wonder how it got here?"
"I don't know," said Thraso.
"You didn't have to warn me," said Myrina, softly.
"Yes, I did," said Thraso. Myrina chuckled, but it was without mirth.
"I suppose you did," she said with a sigh. "I should kill you - our people are at war with one another."
"Aradia hasn't declared war against the Gorgons," said Thraso. "And I could just as easily kill you, Myrina."
"Then my women would slaughter you," said Myrina.
"Not necessarily," said Thraso. She whistled and the Amazons dropped from the trees, surrounding and outnumbering the Gorgons. Thraso looked squarely at Myrina. "Do you want to fight? Because I don't."
"No, oddly enough, Thraso, I don't," said Myrina. "Though Athtar will be sorely displeased with me that I did not just kill you outright."
"I'm sorry, Myrina," said Thraso, placing one hand on the other woman's shoulder. "It shouldn't be like this. Our people should be united against the common threat of Rome."
"Thraso, you know that will never happen. Your people will never trust mine to not betray you again," said Myrina. "And your people have the Sword of Artemis - and Athtar wants it, so there will never be peace between us," said Myrina.
Thraso looked sadly at Myrina. "Never?" she said, her hand dropping from Myrina's shoulder. Myrina caught the hand and held it.
"If it were up to me ..." said Myrina.
"But it isn't," said Thraso, pulling her hand away. Myrina looked at her, sadly and shook her head.. "So, what do we do now?"
"We walk away," said Myrina, signalling the Gorgons, who sheathed their weapons and walked away, back into the forest in the direction from which they had come.
Marpe ran up to Thraso. "You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Thraso, quietly.
"Shouldn't we go after them?" asked another Amazon.
"No, we need to get back and report to Aradia," said Thraso.
The Amazons made their way back to the tree village and Thraso dismissed them to their homes. Wearily, she climbed the ladder to the queen's house and knocked on the door.
"Enter!" called Aradia. Thraso came in to find Aradia alone, sitting at the table with the basket of Amazon amulets before her.
"Is this a bad time?" asked Thraso, sitting across from her.
"No, it's never a bad time for you, Thraso," said Aradia, looking up and smiling at her. "You're back early. No luck, huh?"
"That depends, We ran into some Gorgons. And, we found this," Thraso said, pulling the amulet from her pouch and handing it to the queen. "It was buried under the tree where Julisa said she found Arynë."
"Gorgons?" said Aradia. "What happened?"
"It was Myrina - she's wearing Athtar's Second badge," said Thraso. "They seemed to be looking for something - or someone."
"You think it was the Sword?" asked Aradia.
"No," said Thraso. "There was a snake - a big one - where Marpe and I found the amulet. I warned Myrina away from there and one of the Gorgons said something about us burying the body' there."
"You spoke with Myrina?" asked Aradia, looking sharply at Thraso.
"Yes, I did," said Thraso.
"How did you keep the Amazons from attacking?" asked Aradia.
"I had told them from the beginning this was a peaceful mission and they were to engage no one we encountered, though I confess I expected Romans before Gorgons," said Thraso with a shrug. "Aradia, I couldn't let her get bit - I'm sorry. We were pretty close at one time. I guess I let my feelings get in the way of my judgement."
"No, Thraso, I'm glad you did what you did," said Aradia. "It shows you have honour. What did Myrina say?"
"Just that there could never be peace between the Amazons and the Gorgons as long as we have the Sword of Artemis," said Thraso. "Even if the Amazons could learn to trust the Gorgons again, Athtar wants the sword."
"Is that all she said?" asked Aradia.
"Pretty much," said Thraso.
"Thraso, pretty much' doesn't cut it; I need to know exactly what she said so I know what do," said Aradia.
"She said she didn't want to fight even though Athtar would be very displeased with her for that and that if she were in charge, things would be different," said Thraso. "Another thing, Aradia - that snake - she recognised it from the Gorgon homeland, Hesperia. She said they killed a lot of people there."
"Interesting," said Aradia, thoughtfully. "I wonder why risked her queen's wrath? Athtar's temper is well known, even in Rome."
"Like I said, we were friends once - and I did warn her about the snake," said Thraso. "Perhaps she figured ... a life for a life."
"Perhaps," said Aradia, picking up the amulet. "I saw Silas making this for Arynë. I wonder how it got under the tree."
"What about these?" asked Thraso, indicating the basket on the table.
"I wanted to take them to Artemis's Temple, along with the sword - when we find it," said Aradia.
"What if we don't find it?" asked Thraso.
"We have to," said Aradia, rising and pacing. "The alternative is unthinkable."
"If Athtar gets her hands on that sword, it will mean the end of the Amazons," said Thraso, grimly nodding in agreement.
"Hm," said Aradia, fingering the amulets in the basket. "I'm not altogether sure it isn't our end already, Thraso."
Thraso frowned, and looked into the basket. "It sure looks like a lot," she said. "I think I have a better idea for those than the Temple, though." Then she arose and left the treehouse. Curious, Aradia rose and stepped outside on the platform which encircled the house. She saw Thraso step up on the wooden dais in the centre of the village. Thraso took the horn and blew, summoning all of the Amazons to the meeting place. Within minutes, the village was full, the Amazons milling about with barely any room to stand.
Thraso looked up to Aradia and called out, "Aradia, bring the basket down."
Frowning, but still curious, Aradia, hefted the heavy basket, attaching it to a rope pulley and lowering it before climbing down the ladder herself. She unhooked the basket and carried it to Thraso on the dais. Mhari came out of her own house and watched from her platform. Arynë, too, came out of her room and stood on the platform just vacated by Aradia.
"What are you up to?" she said, quietly. Thraso merely smiled at her.
"Sisters," she called out to the Amazons, who immediately grew silent. "In this basket are the amulets of those who died who save our Nation. You, me, and our queen - we are the legacy they left behind. We are the recipients of their selfless sacrifice. Our queen wears the amulet of one of our fallen sisters to honour her. I believe that each of us should also wear one of these amulets in their honour, to show that even though they are gone, their spirits remain with us, always and their sacrifice shall never be forgotten."
The Amazons cheered and the roar was deafening. Aradia looked into the basket and realised that the Amazons standing before her far outnumbered the amulets in the basket. She looked at Thraso and smiled.
"Thanks," she said.
"For what?" said Thraso, beaming back at her.
"For reminding me why I'm here," said Aradia. "Not for these," she swept a hand over the basket of amulets, then nodded towards the crowd of gathered Amazons. "But for these. You've inspired me, Thraso. I have an idea of my own for these women."
Thraso looked at the queen, her curiosity piqued, but said nothing waiting for Aradia to speak first.
"Sisters," Aradia called out, her voice silencing the Amazons once again. "The loss of the sisters who once wore these amulets was great. Yet, our numbers are now even greater - so great, in fact, that before even half of you receive one of these amulets, the basket will be empty. And so, what I propose is this - a Tournament, with these amulets as prizes, so that our greatest warriors will bear the honour of carrying on the names of our lost sisters. These amulets will prove a reminder, as Thraso said, that though their souls have moved on, their spirits remain with us always."
There was a brief murmur, then the cheering of the Amazons became deafening. The Amazons seemed to love the idea - save for one. Arynë scowled, then stomped back into her room, slamming the door so hard that the little house shook. Aradia and Thraso were oblivious to the momentary tantrum, but Mhari had glanced at the girl on the platform of the Queen's house and saw, to her dismay, the anger in the child's eyes.
The Queen and her Second in Command brought the basket of amulets back up to Aradia's house. There they were met by the shamaness.
"Inspired idea, Ladies," said Mhari, smiling slightly.
"Yeah, it was," said Aradia, smiling at Thraso.
"Unfortunately, you may not find it so popular in your own house, Aradia," said the shamaness with a sigh.
"What do you mean?" asked Aradia with a frown.
"Your ward," said Mhari. She told the queen what she had seen.
"What am I going to do with her?" asked Aradia, sighing and shaking her head.
"She's just at a difficult age, Aradia," said Thraso, sympathetically.
"You've had experience with this, Thraso?" asked Aradia.
"We were left with the children," said Thraso, shrugging. "They all go through a difficult time sooner or later - just try to imagine twenty or so of them all at the same time." Aradia chuckled and shook her head.
"No thanks - one at a time is enough for me," said the queen. "I just don't think I'm going to have the patience for this, though. Maybe I should have another Amazon - one with daughters of her own - to -"
"No, Aradia," said Mhari, shaking her head. "You mustn't give up on Arynë so easily. She's a good girl. I see the potential in her. The worst thing you could do is to give her away."
"I have no intention of giving up - or giving her away," said Aradia. "She's Thalia's daughter."
"She's Arynë," said Mhari, firmly. "If you keep that in mind, more than half your problems with her will be solved."
"Mhari's right, Aradia," said Thraso. "You need to show Arynë that she is important to you for herself, and not just as Thalia's daughter. In order to do that, you need to spend some time with her, getting to know Arynë."
"What time?" chuckled Aradia. "Seriously, you have both opened my eyes. It's true, I took her in out of loyalty to Thalia at first. Now I need to let her know that she is more than just a responsibility to me. I still don't think I'm mother material', but thank you."
"You'd best get started," said Mhari, inclining her head towards the door of Aradia's house. Aradia smiled again and bade both women good-bye. She entered her house, lugging the basket of amulets and setting it on the table.
"Arynë?" she called. "Arynë?" She walked to the door of Arynë's room and tentatively knocked.
"Enter," came the reply. Aradia pushed open the door and saw the girl lying on her narrow bed, a large tabby cat sprawled over her and purring as Arynë absently stroked its long, soft fur.
"Where's Julisa? And where did that cat come from?" asked Aradia.
Arynë shrugged and sat up, gently moving the cat from her chest to her lap. "I don't know where Julisa went - she said she had to go to the privy, but she hasn't come back yet," said the girl, dully. "The cat just came in through the window."
"She's beautiful," said Aradia, approaching and rubbing the cat under its chin. The cat purred louder, its green eyes half-open and lifted its chin for the queen's attention. "Looks like you have a pet, Arynë."
The girl's eyes widened and her lips hinted at a smile.
"She can stay with us?" Arynë asked hopefully.
"Of course - for as long as she chooses to," said Aradia. "You'll have to name her - and feed her, of course."
"Of course," said Arynë.
"Listen, I need your help with something," said Aradia, sitting on the bed next to Arynë.
"The sword again?" said the girl , her eyes narrowing in suspicion.
"Naturally, Arynë, when - if - you remember where the Sword of Artemis is, I would expect you tell me," said Aradia, as patiently as she could manage. "But no, that's not what I'm talking about."
"It isn't?" said Arynë.
"No it isn't," said Aradia. "I need your help with a new project - something which I believe will be very important in the history of our people."
"What asked the girl, almost breathless with excitement.
"A tournament," said Aradia.
Arynë's eyes narrowed and her jaw set squarely. "I heard," she said quietly.
"You don't look too happy about it," said Aradia.
"Will you give my mother's amulet away, too?" asked Arynë, fingering the object resting against Aradia's tunic. Aradia clutched at the amulet.
"Thalia's? Oh, great goddess, no!" said Aradia. Arynë pulled her small hand back as if it were burned. She looked at Aradia with narrowed eyes, her nostrils flaring.
"You've taken my mother's amulet - and her sword - and you may try to take her daughter, but you are not my mother!" she cried, leaping to her feet, the cat jumping gracefully to the floor. The girl jumped out the window to the broad limb below and clambered to the ground, running as soon as her feet hit the earth. The cat followed her out the window and down the tree. Aradia went to the window, She whistled, capturing Thraso's attention and gestured for the Second in Command to follow the girl. Thraso nodded once and took after the Arynë, two more Amazons accompanying her.
Arynë ran as fast as she could to the clearing in which she had taken refuge after the battle. She went to the large rock and searched about until she found a thick fallen tree branch. Using the branch and another fair-sized rock, she levered the large stone up and peered underneath, gasping at what she saw.
"Oh, no!" she cried. There was nothing there. Suddenly, Arynë sensed movement behind her. She turned, horrified to see two Kaskans leering at her.
"Well, what's this? Little Amazon girl?" said the first Kaskan, grinning.
Terrified into speechlessness, Arynë let the rock drop with a thud, puffs of dust rising around her ankles. She swallowed hard and pulled her little trail knife from her belt, brandishing it towards the Kaskans.
"L - leave me alone," she said.
The Kaskans laughed. After the disastrous battle which killed their leader, the Kaskans had scattered and were now little more than highwayman, making a living by robbing travelers on the road and pillaging small villages. They preyed upon those weaker and a young girl, Amazon or not, qualified in their small minds as weaker.
"Ho, Ho! The little Amazon has a knife!" said the first one. "An Amazon without a sword? Maybe she's not an Amazon after all, what say you, Holic?"
"Heh, heh, I got a sword for er," said Holic, thrusting his pelvis forward.
Arynë felt disgust through her terror. "Kaskan pigs," she said through gritted teeth.
"That so?" said Holic, his piggy eyes narrowing. "Come on, Czaba - let's show er!" Both men approached as Arynë stood her ground, still holding the small knife.
"Yeah, show me - come any closer and I'll - " she began.
"Arynë!" The girl turned her head at the sound of a familiar voice and dropped her knife in shock.
"Silas?" she said, her voice barely a whisper. She was frozen now, the large rock between her and her uncle, the Kaskans approaching. Arynë didn't know which way to run.
"You men - leave my niece alone!" Silas yelled. He lifted a hunting bow and knocking an arrow, aimed it toward the menacing Kaskans.
"You can only hit one of us at a time," Holic yelled back, drawing a sword, Czaba following suit.
"Which one of you is volunteering to be first?" said Silas, calmly.
"Come on - I'll gut you both," said Arynë, taking courage from the "ghost's" protective presence.
"Pah, she ain't worth it, Czaba," said Holic, sheathing his sword. Czaba looked from his companion to the Amazon girl to her uncle and decided to agree. He sheathed his sword and both men walked off, back into the trees from which they had come. Silas lowered the bow and put the arrow back into his quiver.
"Are you ... are you a ghost?" asked Arynë.
"No, Arynë, I am very much alive - thanks to Artemis, so I'm told," said Silas, accepting the girl's eager embrace.
"I thought ... Aradia and Mhari told me, but ... I saw you, Uncle," she said, her tears flowing freely.
"I know, I know," said Silas, gently stroking the child's long dark hair.
Thraso emerged from the trees and found them like that. She stayed the other two Amazons who would have rushed Silas in a mistaken attempt to "rescue" Arynë and approached the two.
"Thank Artemis," said the Amazon Second.
"I do every day," chuckled Silas. "You need to be aware, you have Kaskans in your forest - they just attacked Arynë - or would have."
"But you saved her," said Thraso, smiling. "I will tell Aradia and post extra patrols to try to round them all up."
"Hey, Thraso, what's a man doing hunting on Amazon lands?" yelled one of the other Amazons. "We should kill him for a poacher!"
"No," said Thraso. "This man is a friend to the Amazons - he has Aradia's permission to hunt here."
"No man is friend to Amazons," muttered the other Amazon. Her companion nudged her.
"Isn't that Silas, Thalia's brother?" she asked.
"Yeah," said her friend peering more closely. "He's the one Artemis raised from the dead - I was there."
The two approached the group behind the rock.
"Silas," said the first Amazon. "I want to apologise - I didn't recognise you. Thalia was a friend. Her brother is no less."
"Thank you," said Silas, nodding in acknowledgement.
"Uncle, I want to go back to the village with you," said Arynë, entreatingly.
"Arynë, that's not possible," said Silas. "Conditions have ... improved somewhat, under Roman rule, but the village is no place for an Amazon."
"I am not an Amazon," said Arynë, quietly.
"Maybe not yet, but you will be after your Initiation," said Silas. "I'm sorry, Arynë. I had made an Initiation amulet for you ... since your mother ... well, anyway, it must have been lost in the battle."
"Oh!" said Arynë, looking up at him. "That's okay, Uncle."
"Perhaps Aradia will make you another ..." said Silas.
"Yeah - she knows all about amulets, doesn't she - she wears my mother's," said the girl, bitterly.
"Arynë, Aradia wears that amulet to honour your mother," said Thraso.
"It should be mine," said the girl.
"Based on what?" asked Thraso. "You knew your mother for two years. Aradia knew and loved her for ten times that many years. Silas here has more right' to that amulet than you have."
Surprised ino silence, Arynë merely clung more tightly to her uncle and refused to look at Thraso.
"Come on Arynë, you have to go back with them now," said Silas, gently disengaging her arms from his waist. "Thraso, would you please ask Aradia to arrange a time and place where we can meet? We have some very important matters to discuss."
"Of course," said Thraso. Arynë looked up at her, triumphant. Silas will tell Aradia and all the Amazons to treat me better - or he'll take me home, she thought.
"Meet me back here with her answer tomorrow at moonrise - and watch out for the Kaskans," said Silas, turning to go.
"Wait!" cried Arynë, once again clinging to him. "Won't you please take me back with you?"
"Arynë, I already told you no," said Silas, firmly. "You stay with the Amazons now. And be a good girl."
"Me be good?" said Arynë. "What about them? Can't you see that I'm a prisoner? Aradia sent her hounds out after me and - "
"Arynë, enough," said Silas wearily. "You are almost a grown woman now - I can't take care of you anymore. You need to be with your mother's people now."
"You are my mother's own brother - you are her people' as much as anyone," protested Arynë. "Silas, you are all I have left of her!"
Torn, Silas started to speak, then looked at Thraso, who saw the tears beginning to form in his eyes. She raised an eyebrow and his nod was all but imperceptible to the Amazon Second.
"Come on Prisoner'," she said with a sigh. Thraso took the girl by the arm and gently, but very firmly guided her away from Silas.
"Silas!" Arynë continued to scream after him as Thraso and the other two women dragged her back towards the Amazon village. One of the Amazons finally took pity on Silas and gagged her until they reached Aradia's house. The Amazons released her at the foot of the rope ladder and left Thraso to get her back up to the house.
"Climb," said Thraso. "And don't try to be cute - I am in no mood to go chasing off after you again."
"You should have just left me, then," said Arynë, sullenly.
"You wish," said Thraso, grinning and swatting her backside, playfully. "Now get up there and face the music."
Arynë looked at Thraso, then up the ladder and finally around the village.
"Don't you even think about it - get up there," said Thraso, giving her a little shove. Arynë glared at Thraso, then began to climb. Aradia came out of the house and silently watched her, grabbing her hand and pulling her the rest of the way up.
"Do I need to board up your window or can you be trusted not to go jumping out of it anymore?" she asked, looking directly into the girl's eyes. Thraso came up behind Arynë and waited.
"No, I'm not going to go jumping out of the window," said the girl, rolling her eyes. Aradia grabbed the girl's face in one hand and held it.
"Okay, maybe this is partly my fault," said Aradia, looking intently at the girl. "I didn't set any ground rules. I'm going to correct that right now. From now on, you do not leave this house except to eat and use the privy - and then only with an escort."
"For how long?" asked Arynë, quietly. Aradia looked at Thraso who held up five fingers behind the girl.
"Five days - and nights," said Aradia, releasing the girl. "On the sixth day, you will begin training with the other girls your age."
"Training?" said Arynë, puzzled.
"For the sword, staff, bow and arrows - whatever you feel most comfortable with will be your primary weapon," said Aradia.
"What if ... what if I don't want to be a warrior?" asked Arynë.
"Every Amazon must learn at least the basics of fighting," said Thraso. "Would have come in handy this afternoon when you ran into those Kaskans, wouldn't it have?"
Aradia looked at Thraso, one eyebrow raised, then looked back at Arynë. "Go on in now - you need to feed your cat," said Aradia.
"She came back?" said Arynë, smiling a bit.
"Just before you did," said Aradia as the girl went into the house. She looked at Thraso after the child was gone. "Kaskans?"
"Yes, we came up on them - Silas chased them off before they did any real harm," said Thraso. "He wants to meet with you - says he has some things to discuss with you."
Aradia nodded. "Yes, I was hoping to meet with him, too," she said. "Thraso, I want you to - "
"Assign more patrols to round up any Kaskan stragglers - I already did that on my way back here," said Thraso.
Aradia looked at her only mildly surprised. "Excellent," she said. "Now, we just need to find the Sword - and Julisa. She's been missing since this morning."
Thraso sighed. "Maybe she went back to the Gorgons," she said. "Or maybe, she's who Myrina and the Gorgons were looking for and they found her?"
"That's not impossible - there are a lot of Amazons here now - it's very possible that some may be Gorgons," said Aradia, thoughtfully.
"How would we know?" asked Thraso. Aradia looked at her, surprised, then lifted both of her sleeves. On each arm was a tattoo. "This one," she said pointing to her left, "denotes that I am queen. This one," she pointed to her right arm," tells my Tribe. Come on Thraso - you mean to tell me that you don't have a Tribal mark?"
Thraso looked down, unable to speak for a moment. "I wasn't old enough when ... when my mother was killed in the Battle of Chadesia. Afterward, those of us who were left decided that if we were captured it might be better if we didn't have them at all," she said quietly.
"That makes sense," said Aradia nodding thoughtfully. "That was very wise, actually. I was lucky - the Romans wanted me known as an Amazon. I saw Kaskan captives being carved up and burned - mutilated to remove their Tribal marks. Most of them died from infection."
"Capture was something we feared every day of our lives until your return, Aradia," said Thraso, shuddering. "Anyway, there was no one left who actually knew how."
"Mhari knows," said Aradia. "But I will leave that up to you and the others to decide. It's your skin, after all."
"No, I want one," said Thraso, fierce pride springing up as tears in her eyes. "I just never thought it would be possible to have one. It seemed that was something else lost to us."
"Very well," said Aradia, smiling gently. "I will arrange it with Mhari. Send out the announcement that all who have been Initiated may receive the mark - and Thraso, between you and me, make in sound mandatory to those you don't know well enough. That ought to weed out any Gorgons in disguise. I'll be needing it done before the Tournament so that we can see which Tribes are being represented."
Thraso smiled and left to do as her queen bade her.
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