Daughters of Artemis
Chapter Three: Spirit of the Sword
by L. M. Townsend
Disclaimers: See Chapter One
Aradia walked to Saraea's room and knocked. The girl called for her to enter and Aradia did so, sitting on the bed beside her. She doesn't look anything like Thalia - that should help me realise that she is not simply her mother's daughter, thought the queen.
Saraea had long, straight dark hair and intense dark brown eyes. She was tall and leggy and slender to the point of near frailty. Aradia supposed that was true of most of the village children; they worked hard in the fields most of their young lives and reaped little of the harvest.
She had changed from her Amazon leggings and belted tunic to her village skirt and blouse.
"Bet you're glad you weren't wearing this when you shimmied down this tree?" said Aradia, smiling at her. The cat wound her way around the queen's ankles and Aradia bent and lifted her to her lap.
Saraea shrugged, her head down, her long hair hiding her face. "I guess Thraso told you, huh?" she said.
"Told me what?" asked Aradia, petting the cat.
"That I asked Silas to take me back with him," said Saraea.
Aradia raised one eyebrow. "No, she didn't," said the queen. "Why did you do that?"
"Because I don't want to be an Amazon anymore," said the girl and Aradia could hear the misery in her voice.
"Well, that's a switch," said Aradia. "But I understand."
"You do?" asked Saraea, looking up at her surprised. Aradia stopped petting the cat and began to braid the girl's hair to get it out of her eyes.
"Of course I do," she said. "This isn't like you thought it would be, is it?"
"No," said Saraea. "I thought ... I thought ... I honestly don't know what I thought it would be like. When I killed Yarg, I felt awful. He was a terrible man - he was our enemy, but when I saw his blood on my hands, I ... I guess my mother would be very disappointed in me, wouldn't she?"
The girl looked up at Aradia, a terrible and painful desperation in her eyes.
"Oh, no - quite the opposite, she would be very, very proud of you," said Aradia, smiling gently.
"Really?" said Saraea, a tiny smile hinting at the great weight just lifted from her small shoulders.
"Oh, yes," said Aradia, her eyes taking on a bittersweet wistfulness as she thought about Thalia. "Your mother was a warrior, but she didn't like killing either; she hated it. She said war was a waste of life. And she's right. But Saraea, we only fight to survive. We do not wage war for conquest or glory. Those are men things, not Amazon things. Being an Amazon means so much more than being a warrior."
"Like what?" asked Saraea.
Aradia thought for a moment, then rose to her feet. "I'll show you," she said. "Come on - oh, you may want to change back into trousers; I understand there are some pretty wicked snakes about. Get dressed and meet me in the village centre."
Aradia climbed down the rope ladder and strode over to the drill field. Thraso was there with a large group of women, building and expanding the area in preparation for the Tournament. Aradia called her over and Thraso grinned and left the group, jogging over to her queen.
"It's coming along," she said, wiping her damp brow.
"It is indeed, said Aradia, obviously pleased with the progress. "Listen, you know which women are the most vocal about moving back to the old place, don't you?"
Thraso rolled her eyes and nodded. "There are only about a dozen or so, but they're vocal alright," she said.
"Get them together and gathered in village centre and I'll meet you there," said Aradia. "
"What do you have in mind?" asked Thraso.
"We're going on a field trip," said Aradia. "I'm planning a two-fold lesson on what it means to be an Amazon."
Thraso nodded and ran off to comply while Aradia made her way to Mhari's house. She knocked and entered at Mhari's call, greeted first by the heady scent of incense. Aradia smiled at the memories the scent invoked.
"Mhari, I'm taking a group to the old town," said Aradia. "I wanted to ask you to join us, if you're not too busy?"
"Ah, the old home place," said Mhari. "I don't know which would be worse, the climb to my old limbs or the sight to my old heart."
"Tanti, are you alright?" asked Aradia.
"Oh, yes, Child," said the shamaness, smiling at the queen. "Just old and very tired."
"Mhari, you'll never be old," said Aradia, smiling fondly at her.
"Oh, yes, Aradia, I already am," said the shamaness, with a sigh. "I will accompany you back to the old place. I haven't been there since the battle. I imagine with Yarg dead, the Kaskans will have abandoned it by now and hopefully gone back to their own land."
"Not necessarily," said Aradia, grimly. She told Mhari what Thraso had said of the stragglers who had accosted Saraea.
"My, my - and Silas just happened to be out hunting? That's interesting," said the shamaness, looking troubled.
"Well, I had sent Thraso and a couple of warriors out after her, so she was never in any real danger," said Aradia, with a shrug.
"No, she wasn't," said Mhari, absently. "And she now knows that Silas is alive."
"Mhari, she asked Silas to take her back to the village with him. She told me she doesn't want to be an Amazon anymore," said Aradia.
"Only natural after what's happened," said Mhari, nodding. "Will you give her a choice?"
"Of course she has a choice," said Aradia frowning.
"Does she, Aradia?" said Mhari. "You said yourself she couldn't go back to the village - she would be recognised. Can the Amazons afford to keep her if she doesn't go through Initiation?"
Aradia thought for a moment before answering.
"Mhari, I am committed to making a place for all women, Amazon or not, who need a refuge, a safe place to be just themselves," said Aradia. "Even if Saraea doesn't choose Initiation, there are other ways she can contribute to the Amazons."
"I am proud of you, Aradia," said Mhari, smiling.
"Yes, well, before we can help others, we have a lot of work to do right here. This trip is the first step," said Aradia. "I'm taking the more vocal protesters - and Saraea - back. I'm hoping they will prove me wrong when I tell them we can't move back, but I don't expect that will happen."
"You may be surprised," said Mhari. "And so may they. We won't know until we get there. So why don't we get started?"
The women met in a group in the village centre. There was entire platoon of warriors, laden with camping equipment, volunteering to accompany the group back to their old home, which had been taken by the Kaskans. Some chose to go out of nostalgia, some out of curiosity, but most wanted to protect their queen and their other sisters from any Kaskans still in the area. Thraso would remain behind since the queen was going to be gone for a few days.
The group made their through the forest. Aradia was amused to see Saraea's cat following them in the tree tops overhead. Saraea looked around as the trees grew taller and even closer together than in the Amazon Tree Village. As they moved further away from the village in which she had been raised, Saraea began to feel different, somehow. It wasn't anything she could explain with words, but the feeling was definitely there, mingled with excitement at seeing the Amazons' old home and trepidation at the thought of meeting any more Kaskans.
It took three days to get through the forest. Along the way, Saraea learned how to sleep in the trees without falling out. She learned how pitch a tent and how to build a fire. She learned a little about snaring small game and how to skin, clean and cook what she had caught. The other Amazons were eager to teach a "little sister" and Aradia watched her growing trail skills with interest.
As they neared the heart of the forest, the hunters reported to Aradia with some concern that game was becoming scarce. They found no evidence that a snow leopard or some other large predator was about and there was no explanation to tell them just why the smaller animals had been scared off.
"Never mind that for now," said Aradia. "We have enough journey rations to get us through the forest. We can solve this later. Just keep everyone close together - no wandering off or scouting in groups of less than four."
They passed by a cave in the very heart of the great old forest and Saraea shuddered, drawing closer to Aradia as they passed the great yawing darkness of its mouth. Aradia felt a warmth at that act like she had never felt before, placing a comforting arm around the girl's shoulders in a quick, impulsive hug, before releasing her and putting her hand near the hilt of her sheathed sword. The cave made them all feel uneasy and they passed it as swiftly as possible.
At last they came to edge of the forest. The Amazons climbed the tall trees and surveyed the flat open fields between the forest and the hills where the Amazons had formerly lived. The way looked clear and the women climbed down and met at the edge of the woods where the thinning trees gave Saraea pause; they were almost visible here and it made the girl nervous.
"Okay, we're going to be exposed going across, but so will anyone else who comes here," said Aradia. "Any questions before we cross?"
"Um, what happens if we meet any Kaskans?" asked Saraea.
"Then you and Mhari get out of our way while the warriors pound them into the earth," said one warrior, grinning fiercely.
Saraea nodded, somewhat relieved and stayed close to Aradia and the shamaness as they made their way across the empty fields where Amazons had once grown crops and grazed cattle and horses. Saraea saw some wild horses frolicking and grazing in the distance near the hills which were the Amazons' destination.
"Oh, aren't they beautiful?" she said, wistfully. "Amazon horses."
"Yes, they are," said Aradia, looking at the creatures with a sense of longing herself. "Let's keep going - those are wild horses and they can be dangerous."
The group moved on, wary of all movement in the grass, for they had been warned of snakes by Marpe and Thraso before they set out. They made their way across the fields to the hills. The sun was beginning to sink, so they pitched camp at the foot of the hills.
"Where is the old city of the Amazons, Aradia?" asked Saraea.
"At the top of these hills," replied the queen as the two sat before the fire. "Just beyond these hills is the valley which we once called home."
"It feels different here," said Saraea, looking up at the stars in the moonless sky.
"Different how?" asked Aradia.
"I don't know," said Saraea frowning in thought. "I feel ... more. It's like a snake that sheds its skin. I feel like that, I think. Sort of new all over."
"Interesting analogy," said Aradia, smiling gently at the girl. "But I understand what you mean. If you choose Initiation, the rite conveys the same sort of feeling. It is a re-birth of sorts."
Saraea looked down. "I said some things the other day - " she began.
"Saraea." Aradia interrupted her with a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Why don't we let this journey be our re-birth? Let's just let all the angry words and hurt feelings be shed like that snake's skin?"
"I'd really like that," said Saraea, her dark eyes filling. "But ..."
"But what?" asked Aradia.
"You'll be angry - I lost the Sword of Artemis," said Saraea. "I mean really lost it."
"I know," said Aradia. "But we'll find it."
Saraea shook her head. "No," she said, wiping away her tears. "I - I hid it under a rock and when I went back for it, it was gone."
Aradia sighed. "Saraea ... we'll find it, okay? Let's just put all this stuff behind us now and start fresh. When we get back to the village, you show Thraso where you hid it and we'll start there to search for it, okay?"
Saraea nodded, then hugged Aradia. "I'm sorry I've been such a pain," she said.
"Yeah, I know - but I've been assured that you'll grow out of it," said Aradia with a chuckle. "Come on, we have a big day tomorrow. Get some sleep now." She got the girl settled into her bedroll and then made her way over to where Mhari sat, staring into the flames of the campfire, her eyes glazed over and her lips moving soundlessly in some chant. Aradia sat quietly, waiting for the trance to end.
The queen gazed into the flames as she waited, wondering what Mhari saw in their dance and shadows. At last Mhari blinked and spoke.
"Yes, Child?" Aradia could tell by the way the shamaness continued to gaze into the flames that the trance was still with her, despite her acknowledgement.
"Mhari, can you see the Sword of Artemis?" she asked, softly.
The old woman shuddered. "Oh, yes," she said. "And its guardian."
"Mhari, who has the sword?" asked Aradia, her desperation coming through her whispered words like a hiss.
"A fell creature, born of and greed and betrayal," said the shamaness. "A creature who will never cease to mourn."
"Athtar? Mhari, does Athtar have the Sword of Artemis?" asked Aradia.
"Athtar is no more," said Mhari.
"She's dead?" asked Aradia.
"No, not dead; just no more," said Mhari. "I do not know how we will defeat the guardian - or her guardians, the Graii ..." Her voice trailed off as she came fully out of the trance.
"Aradia, how long have you been listening to me ramble on?" she said with a chuckle.
"Only a moment or two," said Aradia, with a sigh. Mhari did not remember what she saw in trance afterwards. Aradia knew that it would be pointless to question the older woman any further. She patted Mhari's shoulder then walked the perimeter of the camp, checking the sentries once more before lying down on her own bedroll to sleep.
Aradia slept well that night; for the first time in a very long time, her sleep was free of the dreams which usually tormented her. She arose early, resisting the temptation to kiss the very earth upon which she had slept.
Ah, the 'Motherland', thought the queen. I can certainly understand why these women are so attached to it, why they want to come back here. This is home ... and yet it is not; not anymore.
She woke the others and called in the sentries to help strike the camp, then they started the arduous climb to the Amazons' old home, stopping only once for a water break. Saraea hung back, helping Mhari up the rugged incline. Aradia watched with interest, her pleasure at the girl's kindness mixed with concern for Mhari's apparent frailty. Then Mhari looked up at her and winked. Aradia grinned at the older woman's ruse, then resolutely pushed on. Saraea will make a good Amazon, she thought. Mhari is wise, finding ways to show that to both of us.
For most of the way, Aradia led the women until they were near the top of the first rise. A sense of anticipation and apprehension filled the women. None of them had returned in the decade since the land had been taken from them by Yarg and the Kaskans and they were afraid to see what was left of their home. As they approached, a small group of warriors caught up to their queen.
"Your Majesty," said one of the warriors, halting the climb. "As much as we want you to have the honour of being the first to see it, this may be a trap. The Romans might be expecting you to return here - as indeed you have."
Aradia nodded. "Of course," she said. She waited with the others as ten warriors - those who had been the most vocal about returning here - topped the first rise. The stood in a line, each grasping the hand of the sisters next to her. They stood perfectly still like that for a moment before continuing on, one by one through the overgrown trail to the lower town. Aradia waited with the others until two of the women returned, tears in their eyes.
"It's ... there are no Kaskans or Romans about," said one, her voice breaking slightly. "The lower town is almost completely destroyed. We haven't ascended to the upper town yet."
"Very well," said Aradia. "Let's press on."
The group made the rest of the difficult climb to the hilltop fortress which lay in devastating ruin. The paved streets were torn up and overgrown. The stone fortress which had been built by the first Amazon Queen, Lysippe so many millennia ago was now little more that rubble. It had withstood thousands of years of war and the elements; now it lay crumbled to pebbles and dust.
"What's up there?" Saraea whispered, pointing to a steep staircase. The bottom of the staircase had been viciously hacked, but it was still climbable.
"The upper part of the town," said Aradia, quietly. "This lower part was our first line of defense. We believed that even if anyone managed to make the climb, no one could penetrate past this point. We were obviously so wrong."
"How ... how did the Kaskans get this far?" asked the girl, looking back over the climb the Amazons had just made.
"Ah, there was a hidden path - like those stairs to the upper town," said one of the warriors. "It was very well hidden and very well guarded - that is until those Gorgon bitches led Yarg and his men right to it. The Gorgons fought the guards, knowing that a true Amazon would never be able to bring herself to harm another Amazon. That was our downfall. The guards should have realised that no true Amazon would betray her sisters, either. The Gorgons were no longer Amazons, but it was so ingrained into us to never a strike a sister ..."
"And that is as it should be still," said Aradia. "That is one of the first laws of the Amazon Nation, Saraea - you never strike a sister Amazon in anger."
"I have seen the warriors drilling - they strike one another all the time in practise," said Saraea.
"That's different," said another warrior. "We're not angry with one another - well, most of the time." The women chuckled.
"Those practice blows are delivered with love - learning to ward them off could save a sister's life in a real battle," said another warrior. "But you'll learn all that after your Initiation."
Saraea looked thoughtful for a moment, but said nothing. Aradia took her arm and led her to the steps, which had been carved into the rock. "Come on," she nodded to the others to follow them up the stairs.
"But my Queen, the scouts haven't come down yet," protested one of the warriors. "We don't know that it's safe."
"Never mind that," said Aradia. "If you're that worried about it, you can go first. The light is failing and we need to get up there."
A group of warriors preceded their queen and the shamaness to the upper town. Saraea was quiet, gazing at the rock wall on either side of the stairs. "Sure would be close fighting here," she whispered.
"It was," said Aradia, grimly remembering the battle. "But we managed to keep the Kaskan bastards at bay until ..."
"Until what?" asked Saraea, her eyes wide.
"Gorgons," spat out one of the warriors. "They were in the upper town - had been for weeks. We didn't think anything of it - at that time, the Tribes were always mingling. We fostered their daughters, trained their warriors and their healers - we did so amongst all the Tribes in the Nation. They came pouring down from the top of the stairs and began to fight us. They and the Kaskans boxed the warriors in on the steps."
Aradia shuddered as the memory came upon her, despite her valiant efforts to hold it at bay.
She and Thalia fought side by side. Suddenly, she felt a blow to her head from behind. She whirled around and saw a Gorgon warrior, a fierce sneer upon her face, attacking her. She moved behind Thalia and the two fought back to back, as did the other Amazons. But it was no use. They were trapped. Briefly she turned her head and saw Thalia was battling one on one with Yarg himself. She saw that Thalia's Amazon sword did not have the reach of Yarg's long sword, putting her Second in Command at a severe disadvantage. She could only spare momentary glances at Thalia, but it was enough to see that her friend was being hard-pressed as were all the Amazons. Suddenly, she felt Thalia slump against her. She whirled around to see Yarg pulling his sword from her breast. With a howl of pure rage and agony, Aradia turned and began to fight Yarg. Her eyes saw only his blood all over her hands as the way to wash away the grief she felt at the loss of Thalia, but that was not to be. In her blind fury and battle lust, she saw only Yarg. The Gorgons behind her hit her again and again, though Aradia did not feel it, until at last she fell, wounded and unconscious. When she awoke, she was on a Roman slave ship, bound for the Gladiator Arena ...
"Your mother died here," she said softly to Saraea.
"I thought she was captured and crucified?" said the girl, startled at the revelation.
"Not all the Amazons on those crosses were captured, little sister," said one of the warriors, sympathetically. "The Kaskans hung some of our fallen sisters - to make it look more like a victory. It's far easier to kill an Amazon than to capture one and keep her alive long to hang her."
"Well, in most cases," said Aradia, a rueful smile gracing her lips.
"Your Majesty, that was a Gorgon who took you down," said another of the warriors. "It would take an Amazon to capture another Amazon like that. Most of the captives were taken by the Gorgons - which is what makes it even more heinous."
The women made it to the top and Saraea was silent the rest of the way, contemplating the revelation about her mother. They saw the scouts going from building to building. The upper town was remarkably untouched, except by time and the elements. Most of the stone and mud brick buildings still stood, including the Temple. There was no evidence of any living creature larger than Saraea's cat who had accompanied them up the stairs. The cat now ran off to Aradia's old home which still stood next to the Temple. The queen decided to investigate the larger building first and made her way to the Temple with Mhari and Saraea in tow. The three entered reverently and Aradia made her way to the front of the building where the altar still stood, though the large marble statue of the goddess lay in three pieces over it, the rope apparently used to topple it still tied around the waist. On the altar was a loaf of bread, long ago turned to stone and flowers which were now dust. A flagon held dust the colour of dried blood which had once been wine. Aradia approached cautiously, shoving Saraea quickly behind her at the sight of a skeleton behind the altar.
"Mhari, it's Leilë," she said, hiding the sight of the long-dead priestess from the young girl with her own body. Saraea resisted her attempts.
"Aradia, I've seen dead bodies before," said the girl, impatient with the protectiveness of her guardian.
"You want to repeat the experience?' asked Aradia, one eyebrow raised at the girl, who reluctantly backed away.
The heavy pediment of the large marble statue which had once stood behind the altar now lay over the crushed bones of the priestess who had died to protect the scared artefacts it had once held in its marble hands: The Sword of Artemis and a bipennis - a double-headed battle axe - which had once belonged to the ancient Amazon Queen, Hippolyte. A broken arrow showed how she had died before the statue had crushed her. The axe lay beneath the skeleton.
"Saraea, go and bring the rest of the Amazons in here," said Aradia and the girl rushed off to comply. Mhari approached the altar and shook her head slightly at the loaf, flowers, and wine.
"Poor Leilë - this must have been one last desperate cry to the gods for help," she said.
"Yeah - lot of help they were," Aradia muttered. "Still, let's get this place cleaned up."
The Amazons arrived and very shortly had the Temple put back in some semblance of order. Leilë's body was committed to the flames of a makeshift pyre and her ashes placed in the crypt below the Temple along with the ancient queens of Amazonia, including Lysippe herself. Aradia kept her amulet in a pouch on her belt to add to the ones in the basket at her house in the tree village. The statue once again stood proudly behind the altar, the bipennis in its accustomed place in her right hand, though the left remained empty, as if waiting for the return of the Sword of Artemis. The seams where it had been broken were all but invisible.
The late afternoon sun streamed through the open windows and the building once again felt serene and peaceful as it had before the battle so long ago. Aradia led Saraea behind the altar and pointed to the legend inscribed upon the pediment below the feet of the statue.
"Can you read that?" she asked the girl.
"Of course! Mhari taught me," said Saraea, proudly. "It says, 'An Amazon bows to no man, be he king or god.'"
"Never forget that, Child," said Aradia, quietly. "That's the first lesson every Amazon learns. It's a part of what it means to be an Amazon."
"Aradia, we had better set up camp," said one of the warriors, eyeing the sinking sun through the window.
"Why camp?" said another of the warriors. "Our houses still stand. We can sleep indoors tonight."
Saraea looked alarmed for a moment as Aradia nodded. "The houses are in good condition?" she asked.
"Yes, the ones we checked were, anyway," said one of the warriors.
"I wonder why this part of the town wasn't destroyed, too?" the queen mused.
Mhari spoke slowly, her eyes taking on a far away look. "The Kaskans feared this place," she said. "Yarg came and took the Sword from the Temple, but that was all. They camped in the lower town, then destroyed it when Yarg was killed. They have returned to their own land, all but a few." The shamaness blinked and smiled at them, once again aware of the present.
"Very well," said the queen. "We'll sleep indoors - I want at least four to a house, though." She led Mhari, Saraea, and two warriors to her old home. Saraea hung back a bit and Mhari looked at her with concern.
"What's wrong, Dear?" she asked.
"I know why the Kaskans were scared of this place," she said softly, her dark eyes wide. "It's haunted. There are ghosts here, Granny - lots of them. I can feel them all around me."
Mhari smiled and patted the girl's shoulder. "Of course there are, Child," she said. "This is an ancient and most sacred place to the Amazons. All of our ancestors' spirits reside here. Not to worry - they mean us no harm. They are here to guide and protect us."
"How ... how do you they don't mean to harm us?" asked Saraea.
"Talking to spirits is what I do," said Mhari, smiling. "Trust me, Saraea, I've been doing this all my long life. Even if they did mean mischief - which they don't - they are spirits and are physically incapable of hurting anyone."
"If you say so, Granny," said Saraea, moving closer to the older woman.
"I am curious, though," said Mhari, looking at the girl with interest. "How long have you seen spirits?"
"Always," said Saraea. "Especially at the crossroads where ... well, you know. They aren't there now, though."
"Interesting," said Mhari, bringing the girl through the door of Aradia's old home. Saraea's cat ran to greet them.
"Hekau!" the girl cried as she bent to pick up the tabby. "What have you been doing? Huh? Kitty things?"
"Very much so," said Aradia emerging from one of the bedrooms. "Making very short work of the mice who nested in the mattresses. The beds are a mess because of the mice, so we'll just build a fire in here and put the bedrolls out."
"Oh, Hekau," said Saraea, cuddling the cat close. "You are the very best cat in the world."
"Saraea, you and Prothoë go and bring in some wood for the fire," said Aradia, nodding to the warrior. The girl set the cat down and went with the warrior to do as Aradia asked. The cat followed. Aradia strode over the hearth and looked up the chimney.
"Amazing - it's clear," she said, smiling in delight. "So as soon as they get back with the wood, we'll have a fire - nights are cold here this time of year as I recall."
"I'll go for some water - the cisterns are full," said the other warrior, leaving.
"Now, if we just had a rabbit for the pot, it would feel like home again," said Aradia, wistfully. A rabbit and Thalia to share it with, that is, she thought.
"Would it, Aradia?" asked Mhari, softly. The queen turned to her and the shamaness saw tears in the violet eyes.
"I just don't know," said Aradia.
"We could re-build here, you know," said Mhari, looking around the house.
"Yes, we could," said Aradia. "I just don't know ... the tree village has begun to seem more like home than this place."
"Has it, Child? Or are you still on the run?" said the shamaness.
"From whom?" said Aradia, frowning at the older woman.
"From your memories," said Mhari. "The tree village is very defensible - so long as the trees stand."
"Yes, but now we can learn from our mistakes and make this place truly impenetrable," said Aradia. "Believe me, I have thought about it; I spent the last decade replaying every move in that battle. At the time, it seemed that I was doing all I could to protect my people. Now I see where I could have done so much more. That lesson came at a terrible price."
"All lessons have a price, Aradia," said Mhari. "You did what was in your power to do - you are mortal, after all."
Aradia said nothing, contemplating the older woman's words for a time. Her reverie was interrupted by Saraea and Prothoë's return with armloads of wood - and a rabbit, which Saraea had snared and presented with a shy pride. The other warrior, Aëlla, followed shortly with two buckets full of water from the cisterns.
"The water is clear and good," she said, happily. Soon the women were seated on the bedrolls before the fire, sipping tea from their packs and waiting for the rabbit to cook. The scent of roasting meat filled the house. Mhari entertained them with stories of the Amazons' glorious past, long before the battle which had nearly decimated the Nation.
At last, the rabbit was eaten and the dishes washed. The women lay down to sleep, Aradia taking the first watch. She didn't think she would be able to sleep in this place, so filled with bittersweet memories. Slowly, the women's breathing deepened and Aradia settled back in her old favourite chair which she had moved in front of the door. She sat, thinking about the stories Mhari had told this evening. Tales of magic and of gods, thought the queen. Thalia had loved those stories and her daughter no less so. Saraea had sat enthralled by the spell the shamaness wove with her words and voice.
Aradia believed them to be just tales, allegories at best, which made the mundane magical to make the tale entertaining. Despite her encounter with Artemis and witnessing Silas's resurrection, the queen could not bring herself to believe in magic. The gods were, at best, distant and uncaring about the mortals who served them, save perhaps, Artemis. At worst, they were meddlesome and capricious, playing with mortals like pieces on a game board. Ares was the worst, Aradia thought. He not only used mortals for his own ends, he had absolutely no compunction about destroying, then discarding the mortals along the way.
Suddenly Aradia was startled by a sudden movement in the shadows. She arose and checked the fire, which she intended to keep burning through the night. It did get cold here at night, she remembered, shivering. Hekau, Saraea's cat was the author of the movement which had startled Aradia and the queen chuckled to herself, willing her heart to slow its beat to a more comfortable pace. Hekau had been curled up beside Saraea, but now arose and sauntered slowly into the bedroom.
"Stupid mice never learn," said Aradia to herself. She heard the cat make a chirping sound in the other room, then it emerged, keeping to the shadows outside the boundary of firelight; Aradia could only make out a dim outline of feline proportions as the cat slowly made her way back to Saraea's bedroll.
"Oh, no you don't," said the queen. "Though I have no doubt your intentions are honourable, I doubt your young mistress will appreciate any gift you leave in her bed - " She stopped as she saw the cat emerging from the shadows. She saw that no dead rodent was in its mouth, but even more amazing was the cat's eyes. Normally emerald in colour, the firelight reflected back a familiar sky blue. Aradia blinked and the eyes were normal again.
"I'm just jumpy," she said to herself. "It's this place. It's home and yet ... the familiarity is gone somehow."
Suddenly, the crackling blaze in the hearth sank to mere glowing embers and the room became very cold. Aradia shivered.
"I'm going to have to reprimand myself for falling asleep on watch," she muttered, blinking rapidly in the sudden blackness of the room, trying desperately to deny the fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck rising and prickling.
"Ari', you're not asleep," said a familiar voice behind her. Aradia squeezed her eyes shut as her own shadow appeared against the wall before her, cast by a bluish glow behind her.
"No," said the queen through gritted teeth. "This isn't real. It isn't possible."
"It's both possible and real, Aradia," said the voice. Gasping for breath, the queen turned to see the glowing figure of Thalia, smiling gently at her. The apparition went to the sleeping Saraea and knelt beside the girl. The cat seemed unconcerned with the spirit's presence and lay back down beside the girl as Thalia gently brushed a lock of dark hair from her daughter's face before bending and kissing the child's forehead. Saraea smiled in her sleep and turned, cuddling the cat close to her. Thalia rose and walked over to Aradia.
"Thalia," Aradia whispered, reaching out to the apparition. Thalia extended her hand and Aradia felt her touch as a whisper of wind on her arm. "How is this possible? Are trapped ... here?"
"No, Ari', I am free now - thanks to you," said Thalia, smiling.
"Then why are you here?" asked Aradia. "Why now?"
"Because you are here now," said Thalia. "And this is where your memories of me are the strongest." She looked around the room which was now illuminated by the glow she cast.
"So this is a memory," said Aradia nodding. "And I have finally become as mad as Athtar, talking to myself."
"I am no mere memory, Aradia. And you are neither mad nor talking to yourself," said Thalia. "I am very real. When I felt you here and my daughter, I had to come. I had to let you see me."
"Why?" asked Aradia, tears welling in her eyes.
"Because you must stop feeling guilty," said Thalia. "You are not responsible for what happened."
"I am queen," said Aradia. "That makes me responsible."
Thalia sighed. "Still the same Aradia," said the apparition. "This place is a graveyard now. It is home to the dead, not to the living. Will you try to move back here?"
"I don't know," said Aradia. "Should we?"
"Perhaps," said Thalia. "It is not for me to say. It matters not where you dwell, Beloved Aradia. I am wherever you and Saraea are now. She sees me, though she knows me not. Nor did you tell her that Yarg killed me."
"She killed Yarg after she saw him kill Silas," said Aradia. "It ... was not good for her. I had no desire to bring that pain back to her."
"My daughter avenged me," said Thalia, smiling proudly. "Yet I have no wish for her to be a warrior."
"I doubt you need to fear on that count," said Aradia. "She doesn't seem to wish that either."
"No," said Thalia. "She will be your successor, though; it will be interesting to see a shamaness be queen as well."
"Shamaness? Thalia, what do you mean?" asked Aradia.
"She has the gift of sight; she can see and will soon hear the spirits of her ancestors. Mhari will teach her, but she will indeed be the spirit healer of the Amazons, even as Mhari is now," said Thalia. "But first she must overcome her fear."
"Thalia, no shamaness has ever been queen of the Amazons," protested Aradia. "If what you say is true, then I shall have to seek elsewhere for my successor."
"On the contrary, Aradia, there have been many shamaness-queens in our history," said Thalia. "Look to the Temple; under the altar, you will find the scrolls which chronicle our history, I would have you take them back to your new village of trees."
"As you say," said Aradia, doubtfully, part of her still believing this a dream or more likely, a hallucination.
"I must go now, Ari'," said Thalia, smiling. The glow around her began to dim as she faded.
"Wait!" cried the queen, reaching out for her.
"Aradia, I am always with you," said Thalia. "Stop mourning me as if I weren't. And please, take care of my daughter."
The apparition disappeared and the fire again rose up in the hearth. Aradia shook her head, then glanced out the window. The greyish half-light of dawn was creeping through the cracks in the shutters. The queen sighed and woke the others, making ready to start the new day.
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