Daughters of Artemis
Chapter Four: Champions of the Sword
by L. M. Townsend
Disclaimers: Not much, really - maybe some "subtext" <g>. Oh, in the last installment, I mistakenly wrote "Saraea" for Arynë - I have corrected that in this chapter.
Aradia left the others in the house and went alone to the watchtower on the summit and gazed out over the rich valley which had once belonged to her people. She could just make out the sea through the early morning mist which would later wet the grass as dew.
It was just as the sun turned from pink to a blazing golden glory that Aradia sensed Arynë's presence behind her. Without taking her eyes from the scene before her, Aradia reached back and drew the girl beside her.
"Oh," said Arynë, taking in the view. As the sun rose, it caught the mist, making tiny rainbows which bounced about before the lemony rays began to burn it off.
"This was our valley once," said Aradia. "It could be again."
"Are you thinking of moving from the tree village, Aradia?" asked Arynë, leaning into the queen. Aradia wrapped one arm around the girl's shoulders and felt her shivering in the damp chill of the early morning.
"I am thinking of it, yes," said the queen. "But it really isn't all up to me. When we get back, we will report to the Amazons what we've found here and then put it to a vote."
"Mhari said that this was an ancient and most sacred place to the Amazons," said Arynë.
"It is indeed," said Aradia. "But it is also a place full of ghosts from the past."
"Mhari also said that the ghosts were here to protect and guide us," said the girl. "I love the tree village, but I think that this place is home. The dead walk here, but we could fill it with life."
"You are very wise for one so young, Arynë," said Aradia. "We will see what happens. Our first priority, though, is to deal with the threat of Rome."
"Yes," said Arynë, her dark eyes narrowing as she spoke the hated name. "Rome."
The two went back down to the house where breakfast was ready. They ate and then Aradia took a few warriors to the Temple. They pushed the heavy altar aside and there they found a slight depression in the floor of the Temple, covered with a wooden lid. Aradia lifted the lid and there were the scrolls, just where Thalia had said. Aradia looked at them in wonder before lifting them one by one out of the well.
"What do you know?" she said, looking at them.
"What do we do with them, my Queen?" asked Prothoë.
"We're taking them back to the tree village," said Aradia, standing and dusting off her hands. "And I suspect, I will be drafting a few younglings who know how to read and write to make some copies." She looked at Arynë and grinned. Arynë grinned back; the girl couldn't wait to get back to the tree village and begin reading this treasure.
They left later that morning. The group was a great deal quieter on the way back, each woman lost in her own thoughts. It was an uneventful journey and they arrived at the tree village, welcomed by the Amazons with shouts and cheers. Immediately the queen stepped up onto the dais, and addressed the village.
"The old lower town has been demolished," she began. "But the upper town is nearly untouched. The Kaskans have abandoned it, and presumably returned to their own land. It's ours for the taking back. I see immense potential for re-building, but I will leave that decision to you. I will have all who accompanied me on this journey tell their own tales of what they found there and in three days, we will meet back here at noon to vote."
The Amazons murmured amongst themselves for a few moments. Aradia looked at them, puzzled. "Are there any questions?" she asked.
My queen," said one Amazon, stepping forward. "Why wait? We all know what we want - to go home."
"Wait," said another, younger Amazon stepping forward. "This village is the only home I have ever known. I don't want to leave it and start over with re-building some ghost town."
The murmurs grew angry in tone and Aradia raised her hands for silence.
"That is why we wait the three days before putting it to a vote," she said, smiling. "I want everyone to have a chance to think this through and to speak with those who made this journey. It will not be easy to re-build, but it can certainly be done."
"Your majesty, what about the Romans?" asked another Amazon.
"The Romans are a priority," said Aradia, nodding. "We must deal with the threat they pose before any thought of moving back to the town can be entertained."
"Then why don't we attack them?" asked another woman. "We outnumber them, surely."
"We outnumber the Legion camped around the village - slightly," said Aradia, drily. "We do not, however, outnumber the entire Roman army. If we dispatch this Legion, be assured that Rome will send more troops - many more troops."
"So how do we defeat them?" asked the Amazon.
"I don't know yet," said Aradia. "For now, at least, it must be enough to keep them from defeating us until we figure that out."
The women weren't happy with that, but it was the best she could do for now. Aradia stepped down from the dais and stopped at the bottom, hearing Arynë arguing with another younger Amazon girl.
"Shut up! You don't know what you're talking about!" Arynë cried. She didn't see the queen watching her.
"What would you know about being an Amazon?" asked the other girl. "You were raised by a man. I have spent my whole life in this tree village and I don't want to leave it."
"I know plenty about being an Amazon," said Arynë, her nostrils flaring in anger. "My mother was a warrior. She died in battle, trying to save the Amazons."
"Your mother was captured and strung up on a cross by the Kaskan pigs," said the other girl.
Arynë pulled back her fist then stopped. "Never strike a sister Amazon in anger," she said, softly. She dropped her fist. "You're wrong about my mother. Aradia was there. She told me my mother died in battle."
The other girl looked down, then took Arynë's hand and smiled. "I'm sorry - you're right - never strike a sister Amazon - I guess a person can strike even harder with words sometimes," she said. Arynë looked at her, her smile spreading wider. "Hey, you want to help with something really important?"
"This is how you recruit volunteers?" said Aradia, smiling at the girls as she made her presence known.
"Um, Aradia, this is ... my friend, Momi," said Aradia. "She can read and write, too. I was going to ask her to help copy the scrolls."
"Excellent," said Aradia. "Come, Girls. We might as well get started right away."
The two girls followed Aradia to her tree house where the warriors had delivered the scrolls. They lay in a chest Aradia had retrieved from her old house. The chest had held clothing, now rotting and eaten by insects. Aradia had emptied the chest of the clothing and the insects and it now held the precious parchments.
"You two, go ahead and sit down at the table," said Aradia. "I will bring you parchments and quills. I would suggest that you read the scrolls through first - they must be exact copies to preserve the integrity of the contents - no embellishments or, conversely, editing out anything - that includes misspellings and bad grammar."
"The ancient Amazons didn't know how to spell?" said Momi, her bright blue eyes wide.
Aradia chuckled. "It isn't that - they just spelled words differently than we do now," she said. "Arynë, I will be back in a few hours. Please stay here?"
"I promise," said the girl, grinning as she gazed at the scrolls.
"Be careful with those - I have no idea how old they are or how well preserved," said Aradia, nodding toward the scrolls as she left.
Thraso had set up the meeting with Silas and Aradia walked briskly to the meeting place, taking Thraso and a couple of other warriors with her. Silas emerged from the trees and Aradia greeted her friend with a hug, shocking the other warriors. Thraso merely smiled.
"Silas, it's good to see you," said Aradia.
"And you, Aradia," said Silas. Aradia looked at him with some concern.
"What's going on, Silas? You don't look well," she said.
He waved the question aside. "We don't have time to inquire about each other's health, Aradia, though I appreciate the concern," he said. "There are some things you must know, and then perhaps it's best if we don't see one another again."
"Alright," said Aradia, frowning.
"The Kaskan stragglers are not just left-behinds or deserters," Silas began, then was interrupted by a fit of coughing. Again, he waved away the queen's concern. "Some of them are, certainly, but most are bounty hunters. Aurelian has been given the authority by the Emperor to offer a bounty for you - five hundred denarii for proof of your death, or one thousand denarii if you are captured alive."
Thraso whistled. "Blessed Artemis, Aradia - five hundred - or one thousand - goddess, I'm almost tempted to turn you in myself," she said, laughing.
"Knowing Aurelian, the Emperor offered three times that much and he plans to keep the difference and call it a commission," said Aradia, smiling slightly at her Second's teasing.
"It's not funny," said Silas. "Too many in the village have been tempted. You know that the Romans have taken over the village. They are now felling trees in your own forest. Evidently, word got out that the Amazons were settled in the trees. Your village is in great danger. If the Romans cut down the forest ...."
"Then the forest and the Amazons will be lost," said Aradia, nodding. "We can't allow that. That forest is sacred to Artemis."
"Then let Artemis protect it and get out of there, Aradia," said Silas. "I am saying this to you as a friend - please, you have to get out of there. It's no longer safe for the Amazons."
Aradia looked at Thraso and nodded to her, grimly. "I think we have just had that decision made for us, Silas. What about you?"
"What about me?" said her friend, coughing again.
"You are obviously not well," said Aradia. "Evidently the Romans are treating you no better than the Kaskans did. You need to get out of the village."
"And go where?" asked Silas.
"I don't know, old friend," said Aradia. "Just ... get out of there. There's nothing left for you in that place. Arynë is fine - she is adjusting."
"Finally," said Thraso, with a grin.
"Maybe you're right," said Silas, quietly. "In any case, I must wish you farewell, Aradia. Give ... give my love to Arynë."
"I will," said Aradia, offering one final embrace. Silas turned and left and the Amazons made their way back to the village.
"What do you suppose is wrong with him?" asked Thraso as they walked back.
"Rome," said Aradia, bitterly.
"What do you mean?" asked one of the warriors.
"They are trying to get to us through him," said Aradia, her violet eyes narrowed in anger.
"How could they know he knows you?" asked the other warrior.
"His sister was an Amazon. He raised her daughter - who is now missing, along with the old village herbwife, Mhari," said Aradia.
"But the Romans couldn't know that Thalia was his sister - and they thought that Arynë was his own daughter," said Thraso.
"No, the Kaskans thought that Arynë was his daughter," said Aradia. "Rome has a way of getting people to tell old village secrets."
"Okay," said Thraso, frowning in thought. "Do you think Silas would ever betray us?"
"Why do you think he said this was farewell?" said Aradia.
"I'm sorry," said Thraso after a moment of heavy silence between the women. "Silas was a good friend."
"Yes," said Aradia. "And this way, he remains so. I only hope he heeds me and leaves that village."
"Too bad he isn't a woman," said Thraso. "He could come with us."
"But he isn't - and he wouldn't anyway," said Aradia, smirking to herself at the two warriors' shocked looks. "Unfortunately, I don't know that he can find anywhere else that hasn't been invaded by Rome or Roman influence."
"Is it really that bad, Aradia?" asked Thraso.
"I forget sometimes that the Amazons have been so isolated," said Aradia, shaking her head.
"Well this news should influence a lot of votes," said Thraso.
"One way or another," said Aradia. "Some will want to leave immediately to get away from the threat and others will insist on staying to protect the forest or to keep men from taking another home from us, whether they want to stay in it or not. It's the principle."
"It's silly pride," said Thraso, frowning. "But unfortunately, I think you're right."
"We do have to stop them from desecrating this forest," said Aradia.
"What do you have in mind?" asked Thraso.
"I don't know yet," said Aradia, thoughtfully. "I wish we had the Sword."
"I'll take Arynë and a platoon as soon as we get back - " began Thraso.
"No. It's too late today," said Aradia. "Tomorrow, first thing. But something just tells me that we won't find it there anyway."
"Where do you think it is?" asked Thraso.
"Mhari said something about a guardian' and her guardians, the Graii - whoever that may be," said Aradia.
"Someone has it, then," said Thraso. "But who?"
"Well, when we find that out, we'll be much closer to finding the sword," said Aradia with a sigh. "Come on. We have a lot to do and not much time."
The Guardian turned toward the sound. It was a familiar-sounding word, but the Guardian no longer recognised it. She hissed at the man who was standing there, an insipid smile plastered across his pretty face. For some reason the creature could not explain, a hot hatred arose in her cold breast at the sight of him. She clutched the Sword of Artemis tightly in her bloodless hands.
"Mine!" she whispered.
"Oh, yes," said the man, nodding. "Oh yes, I'm not here to take it from you. Quite the contrary, I just wanted to make sure you had it."
Sudden recognition flared in the Guardian's numbed mind.
"Ares," she said with another hiss.
"Very good," said Ares. "It's coming back to you, isn't it?"
"You ... you tricked me!" spat the Guardian who had once been Athtar, Queen of the Gorgons. "You knew what I would do."
"Once a traitor, always a traitor," said the god of war, his dark eyes narrowing. "Now you won't be able to deceive anyone into trusting you ever again."
"I will kill you!" screeched the creature, brandishing the sword.
Ares threw back his head and laughed. "You can't," he said. "Not even with that Sword. Athtar, look at it this way - we both got what we wanted out of this - you have the Sword and I ... well, I don't believe the Amazons will ever get their hands on it again. Not with you guarding it."
"Why?" asked the Guardian.
"Because, as long as no Amazon holds that Sword, my sister is all but powerless," said Ares. "The less she has, the more I have. I intend to be the god in charge."
"The Amazons will destroy you, Ares," said the Guardian. "I could help you."
"No, Athtar. See, Amazons mortal, Ares god - got it?" said the god, chuckling. "Mortals do not destroy gods - and I don't need your kind of help."
"You will pay for this Ares," said the Guardian.
"Oh, I doubt that very much," said Ares, laughing as he disappeared from the cavern. The Guardian gazed at the Sword for a bit, then slithered her way to the mouth of the cave. The serpent turned at the sound of her body scarping against the cave floor and transformed into the three old women. The Guardian approached the Graii.
"I must know if the Amazons come here," she told them.
"They've been and gone," said the first of the Graii.
"What?" said the Guardian. "When?"
"Three past, they were here," said the Second.
"Why didn't you tell me this?" asked the Guardian.
"They tarried not, but passed us swiftly by," said the Third.
"Which way?" asked the Guardian, desperately.
"Both ways," said all three in unison.
"Both ...? Ah never mind," said the Guardian. "They will return, I have no doubt. Ares is playing with all of us. I must know of it when they do."
The three nodded and turned away from her again, transforming back into the serpent. The Guardian slithered back into blissful forgetfulness of her former life until the Amazons' return.
Myrina was not quiet ready to give up on Athtar, even though some deep instinct told her that the Gorgon queen was never coming back. She had to weigh loyalty to Athtar against the safety and survival of the Gorgons, though. With Yarg and the Kaskans gone, there was no buffer between them and Rome and Myrina believed that if Aurelian did not manage to re-capture Aradia, any Amazon would do to take back to Rome in chains, even a Gorgon. She had no intention of allowing that to happen and she really doubted that Aradia would be caught by any Roman. There was no reason, save their missing queen, to remain here any longer.
"No reason at all," Myrina muttered aloud.
"Oh, I don't know about that," said a man appearing before her.
"Who are you?" cried a startled Myrina.
"Oh, where are my manners? I am Ares, god of war," he said.
"A god ...? What do you want here?" asked Myrina.
"I come bearing sad news," said the god, a mien of regret upon his face. "Athtar is no more. She will not be back."
"Did the Amazons ...?" began Myrina as the message sank in.
Briefly, Ares considered the possible benefits of allowing the Gorgons to believe that their queen was dead at the hands of their enemies. Then he decided that the deception would not fit in his plans, amusing at it might be to watch that scenario play out. No, he must forego the immediate gratification of watching the women battle each other and stick to the original plan, which had the more subtle appeal of perverse irony. In the long run, it would be worth it.
"Hm, no - snakebite," he said.
"Oh," said Myrina, remembering the Hesperian viper she had seen the other day. "Why does it take a god to deliver this news?"
"You are very good," said Ares, grinning, though he was beginning to feel chagrined. Myrina would pose a large greater challenge than Athtar had; she seemed to have none of her former queen's avarice or any other self-interested qualities he could exploit. Still, Ares believed that every mortal had some fatal flaw. If he could just find out what Myrina's was, he could still use it to get her to do what he wanted. "Normally I wouldn't have bothered, but I also have a message of more personal interest. The Amazons are holding a Tournament."
"The Amazons are holding a Tournament?" repeated Myrina. "What does that have to do with us?"
"Yes, the day of the next full moon," said Ares. "I would like for you to enter it as my champion."
"Why should I represent you?" asked Myrina. "What do you have to with the Gorgons? Or the Amazons, for that matter?"
Ares felt a cold rage overtake him the woman's impudence. Before he could stop himself, he threw a bolt of lightning at her which sent her into the wall on the other side of the room.
"How dare you question and defy me?" he roared. "I am a god!"
Myrina came shakily to her feet. "I bow to no man, be he king or god," she said, meeting the god's dark eyes with her own unwavering gaze.
With supreme effort, Ares checked his wrath and stopped himself from killing the woman outright.
"That would be the answer of an Amazon, Myrina. But the Gorgons are no longer Amazons. My sister has turned her back upon you," he said. "You did betray her, after all."
"I betrayed no one," said Myrina. "I was a child when that happened."
"Ah, yes, that was Athtar's doing," said Ares. "But you swore fealty to Athtar of your own free will. That makes you as guilty as she. My sister has abandoned the Gorgons. I am offering to take her place as the Gorgons' patron."
"What do you get out of all this?" asked Myrina.
Again, Ares tempered his anger at her impudence. "Let's just say that I am annoyed with my sister," he said, through gritted teeth. "Seeing my champion defeat hers would be immensely satisfying."
"Why don't you gods just fight your own battles instead of involving mortals in your petty quarrels?" asked Myrina, now angry herself.
"You are stretching my patience, Woman!" said Ares, his eyes blazing.
"Yeah, and if you didn't need me, I'd be dead already," said Myrina, calmly.
Ares looked startled for a moment, then he chuckled. Yes, Myrina would be a far greater challenge to manipulate than Athtar had been. This woman was clever and didn't have the queen's selfish streak. That might just be the flaw Ares was looking for.
"You're right, of course," he admitted.
"Alright," said Myrina. "So for now, never mind what you really want out of all this - what are you offering in return for my representing you in the Amazons' Tournament?"
"The world," said Ares, grinning as he felt her wavering towards capitulation.
"I want protection from Rome and safe passage for my people back to Hesperia," said Myrina.
"Oh, I will give you that and so much more," said Ares, delighted. He could use her own unselfishness and love for her people to his advantage nicely. And even after the Tournament, the Gorgons would prove very useful, indeed.
"Very well," said Myrina, reluctantly agreeing. "I will be your champion."
Mhari was kept busy with putting the Tribal marks on many of the younger Amazons. She had drafted Arynë's assistance and the girl sat looking at the parchment onto which were etched many symbols, one for each of the Tribes of the Amazon Nation, past and present.
"There sure are a lot," said the girl. "Oh, my! What's this one?" She showed Mhari a gruesomely fierce face with lolling tongue and fanged serpents spike and writhing from the head.
"I don't think we'll be doing many of those," said Mhari with a chuckle. "That's Gorgon"
"It's ugly," said Arynë, shuddering.
"It certainly is, but powerful all the same," said Mhari.
"I still don't think I would like to walk around with thing on my skin for the rest of my life," said Arynë. "Especially now."
"Hmm, you do have a point," said Mhari. "How about this one? This is the symbol of your mother's Tribe."
Arynë looked at the black bird in flight and smiled. "I do like that one," she said. "It's sad. I have a feeling that the Gorgon mark isn't the only one we won't do many of. So very many of the Tribes are gone.
"That's true," said Mhari. "The entire Nation is now the only size of two large tribes together now."
"Whoa - you mean that all of the Tribes were each half the size we are now? That's that's just amazing," said Arynë.
"Well some of the Tribes were no more than fifty strong even at the Nation's height of glory, but the numbers are still daunting," said Mhari.
"Yeah, they are," said Arynë. "And Aradia was queen of all them?"
"Well, each Tribe had its own queen, some had as many three, but they all answered to Aradia, yes," said Mhari.
"No wonder she gets so sad sometimes," said Arynë, leaning down the scratch the ears of the ever-present Hekau.
"Yes, well, come along, Dear - we half about a dozen eager young warriors waiting to be marked," said Mhari, arising and gathering her equipment.
The Amazons had set up a hut for Mhari to do this work not far from the Tournament arena. Arynë spent her mornings training with other girls her age to use to the sword, staff and bow. She spent afternoons with Mhari, helping with the marks as well as learning Tribal and Amazon lore and evenings she spent with her friend, Momi, painstakingly copying the old scrolls. Aradia made sure the girl stayed too busy to get into anymore trouble. The queen watched Arynë's progress with interest. Meanwhile, the day of the Tournament approached swiftly.
The masters at arms made sure the finished with the younger girls' training sessions by mid-morning so that the contest participants would have the arena to practice the rest of the day. Free time for practice or any other "leisure" pursuit was precious. The Amazons had very little and what they had, most used to hone their skills.
The deadline for entering the Tournament was three days before the Games were scheduled to begin. On that day, the Amazon sentries found two Gorgons wandering in the forest, bearing the badge of messengers. The Amazons brought the Gorgons to Thraso, who was overseeing that final preparations for the Tournament at the Arena. Thraso could see the Amazons seething; the Gorgons' messenger status protected from the sound thrashing that the sentries clearly wanted to administer to the traitors.
"We bear a message from Myrina, in the Name of our Queen," said one of the Gorgons, thrusting a rolled parchment to Thraso.
Thraso ignored the parchment. "Why from Myrina and not Athtar? Is this message to me or to Aradia?" she asked. The Gorgons looked at one another, not knowing what to tell the Amazon Second. They were under orders to not divulge Athtar's demise unless they had no choice."
"The message is for the Amazons," said the other messenger, clearly apprehensive with the situation.
"Very well," said Thraso. "You must deliver this to Aradia."
She led them to where Aradia was watching Mhari mark a young warrior who was the last living member of her Tribe. The queen looked up, curious at the sight of the two Gorgon messengers, flanked by her own sentries, as Thraso approached her alone, bearing the parchment they had brought from Myrina.
"Aradia, these women bear a message from Myrina - in the name of their queen," she said, handing the rolled parchment to her. Aradia beckoned the Gorgons to approach as she unrolled the parchment.
"So how is Athtar?" she asked, scanning the message, one eyebrow raised. She looked up at the messengers, waiting for the reply.
The Gorgons looked at one another. "I really wouldn't know," said one with a shrug.
"Really?" said Aradia with a chuckle. "My people know every time I so much as sneeze. Thraso, can these sentries be trusted to escort these messengers to the meal hall for refreshments while I draft a reply to Myrina?"
Thraso looked sternly at the sentries. "Yes, they can - can't you?" she said to them. They saluted first their queen and then their commander, Thraso before escorting the Gorgon messengers away.
"Remind me to give those sentries punishment detail - what do they mean bringing them here to the heart of the village?" said Thraso, shaking her head.
"They're messengers - they are not permitted to divulge our location or anything else they see here," said Mhari.
"They're Gorgons," said Aradia, rolling her eyes. "I agree with Thraso - we can't trust them because they're Gorgons, yet at the same time, we can't kill them because they're messengers."
"Perhaps if we honour the pact, the Gorgons will do the same," said Arynë.
"You have a lot to learn, youngling," said Aradia, shaking her head, but she smiled at the girl. "I really hope you're right, though."
Mhari finished the mark and sent the young warrior off. "So, will you allow her to enter the competition?" asked the shamaness.
"I don't know - Thraso, you know her. Why is she doing this?" asked Aradia.
"I knew her, but that was a very long time ago," said Thraso. "Your guess at her motives is as good as mine."
"Any reason why I shouldn't let her compete?" asked Aradia.
"Because it could be another Gorgon trick?" said Thraso.
"Thraso, when was the last you sent a message in my name?" asked Aradia.
"Never?" said Thraso.
"Exactly," said Aradia. "I'm wondering what's going on with Athtar. I knew her very well before ... well, I thought I did, anyway. That's partly why her betrayal was such a shock. The thing is, Athtar craves power. Power over everything and everyone, especially her own people. I can't believe that Myrina would go behind her back to enter the Tournament. Athtar's people know better."
"Maybe she's dead," offered Arynë.
"No, Mhari told me in trance," said Aradia.
"What did I say?" asked the shamaness with a small smile.
"That Athtar was no more' but that she wasn't dead," said Aradia.
"Interesting," said Mhari. "I said that?"
In trance," said Aradia. Mhari nodded, thoughtfully.
"So if she isn't dead, then what?" asked Thraso.
"Perhaps incapacitated ... or she's finally crossed the line into madness," said Aradia. "And Myrina is now the Queen in name as well as fact."
"How did the Gorgons even find out about the Tournament?" asked Arynë.
"Good question," said Thraso.
"When was the last time anyone saw Julisa?" asked Aradia.
"Do you think she was a spy?" asked Arynë, her eyes wide.
"No," said Mhari.
"She may have been re-captured by the Gorgons," said Thraso.
"Yes, she may have," said Aradia. "Did she know about the Tournament?"
"When ... when you made the announcement, I felt angry - I thought ... anyway, when I came back into the house, Julisa was there at the table. She asked me what was wrong and I told her about the Tournament. Then she said she had to go to the privy and I haven't seen her since," said Arynë.
"That sounds very suspicious," said Thraso.
Yes, it does," said Aradia, her eyes narrowed.
"Things are nor always as they appear to be," said Mhari, shaking her head.
"That's true," said Aradia. "But I have to play it safe with the lives of these women. We have to call an assembly of the Amazons immediately and tell them everything. They have to know, to prepare."
"You do realise that the decision whether to move or stay is now out of our hands," said Mhari.
"Yes, I do," said Aradia, grimly. "It's almost like .... we're being moved about like pieces on a game board. Which tells me the gods are very much involved in all of this."
"Speaking of gods, Silas said that Romans are felling trees in the sacred forest," said Thraso. "How do we protect it if we leave here?"
"By leaving," said Aradia. "Once we are no longer here, the Romans will lose interest. They fell the trees because the trees are our best defense. If there are Gorgons or any other traitors in our midst, they will leave to report back to Myrina or Aurelian - that's when we'll make our move."
Athtar spoke with her serpent children. She was not permitted to leave her prison, but they were. Willingly, they hunted until their bellies were full, then gave their own lives to feed her. They served her well in this and other ways. They could hide almost anywhere in the Gorgon camp, the Roman controlled village, or the Amazon Tree Village. They listened well and reported back to her what they heard. It was from them that Athtar learned of the Amazons' Tournament and planned move back to the old town. She also learned of Ares's visit and Myrina's intent to do his bidding.
She seethed at Myrina's weakness. She herself could have taken the Gorgons back to their homeland of Hesperia without Ares's protection - if she had decided to return their in the first place. As painful as it was to remember, Athtar held tightly to her identity. With the pain came a sliver of hope; if she could but leave this cave, she believed that she would return to her former self completely, taking the power of the Sword of Artemis with her. Then they would all pay.
Aradia had made the announcement immediately after speaking with Mhari, Thraso, and Arynë. The Amazons were mostly relieved; the difficult decision had been made for them. Some would grieve, primarily the younger Amazons to whom this village in the trees was home, the only home they had ever known. They all knew, however, that this move was necessary to ensure the survival of the Nation.
The queen sent Mhari and Arynë ahead with the others. She debated whether to send Thraso with them, then decided that her Second in Command had invested too much in the Tournament to be so cruelly left out at the last minute, despite the desperate circumstances. Instead, she sent several other experienced warriors and, in a flash of intuition that Aradia could not explain even to herself, she presented Arynë with Thalia's sword and charged the young girl with protecting Mhari - and the scrolls. Arynë accepted solemnly and then saluted before turning to follow the others out of the tree village.
Now, as darkness fell, Aradia found herself missing the girl. By now, the lamps would have already been lit and Arynë busily copying the old scrolls from the old town. Instead, Aradia sat in the dark at her table in her nearly empty tree house. All that was left was the table and chair and Aradia's bed. Most of the empty tree houses had been dismantled and the wood from which they were composed fed to the common fire in the centre of the village. Fewer houses would help to conceal from Myrina and her Gorgon entourage the true number of the surviving Amazons, now making the journey to the ancestral home of the Amazons.
Aradia puzzled over Myrina's motive for entering the competition. She didn't know how the Gorgons had even heard of the Tournament, which had been an impromptu affair at first, a friendly competition honouring the memories of the fallen Amazons with their amulets as prizes. Such sentimental treasures were of immense value to the Amazons, but Aradia couldn't see what Myrina would want with such a prize. In her heart, she worried that this was merely an opportunity for the Gorgon to challenge her as Queen of the Amazons. Aradia had no intention of entering another arena as a contestant or combatant for the rest of her days on this earth. Yet she could think of no honourable way to refuse if she were challenged by the Gorgon warrior.
Another thing she feared was the fact that the Amazons were no longer in possession of the Sword of Artemis. If Myrina found that out, the Gorgons would start looking for the artifact themselves. Aradia had no doubt that she would have heard something if the Sword had been found by anyone, especially the Gorgons. No, Mhari had said some "Guardian" had it. Aradia didn't know if that was a good thing or not; the Sword of their goddess had been entrusted to the Amazons and they had failed in their task to keep it safe. Fortunately, Artemis apparently didn't hold that against them. What could they have done against both the Kaskans and their own sisters, the Gorgons? Evidently just what they did. Nothing.
That wasn't true, either, Aradia admitted to herself. She had been captured, her Second in Command, Thalia, killed by the Kaskan leader, Yarg. Amazons were falling all around her, mostly in shock at the betrayal of the Gorgons. If she was completely honest with herself, there was nothing she could have done to stop it at that time. Now was different. She was older and a lot wiser and she would die before allowing any such thing to ever happen to the Amazons again. She thought especially of Arynë. Nearly all of the girls her age had been fighting in the battle which killed Thalia and so many others. Aradia thought they had been killed, hoped they had, actually. She couldn't imagine being that young and captured by Romans or even worse, Kaskans. It had been bad enough at her age to be enslaved, in chains, and sold like a loaf of bread or a pair of sandals. In her heart, Aradia vowed that would never happen to Arynë, even if she had to kill the girl with her own hands to prevent it.
"That's not going to happen," she said to herself, startled at the echoing sound of her own voice in the empty house. She chuckled. "Yep, going just as mad as Athtar - talking to myself and then answering as well." The queen shook her head and arose from her chair, making her way in the dark to her room and lying in her bed, hoping sleep would find her soon.
They made camp and the hunters went out to catch some small game for the pot hung over the dotted cook fires about the clearing before the cave. The small fires offered the only illumination in the clearing as the moon was hiding her face that night.
Arynë shared a fire with Mhari and her friend Momi. The cat, Hekau, stayed close to Arynë until the hunters returned empty-handed.
"No game," said one of the hunters. "In fact, there's no sign of any living creature here besides us."
"Just like last time," said Arynë, grimly. Hekau jumped from Arynë's arms and ran toward the cave. "Hekau, no!"
Arynë jumped up and started to run after the cat, but Mhari held her back with a surprisingly strong grip. "No, Child, stay far from there," said the shamaness. "That's a very bad place."
"But Hekau - " began the girl.
"Never mind her - she can take care of herself," said Mhari, firmly.
Reluctantly, Arynë sat back down and gazed into the darkness toward the cave.
Suddenly, the Amazons heard a loud squealing and screeching. Immediately, Arynë and the warriors were on their feet, swords drawn.
"Princess, stand back," said the one of the warriors as a small group moved towards the eerie sounds in the dark.
Briefly, Arynë was startled by the appellation, but only very briefly as another howling screech pierced the darkness and chilled her. The girl's heart pounded uncomfortably in her chest and her breath came in short gasps. She worried about Hekau even as she instinctively put her own body and her still-drawn sword between the terrifying sounds and the old shamaness entrusted to her care. One of the warriors looked at her then nodded her approval before running after the others. The remaining warriors formed a shielding circle about the rest of the group.
Suddenly, the Amazons heard shouts and screams of fear and pain and more of the screeching. Briefly, Arynë remembered her pledge to Aradia to protect Mhari, then rushed toward the sounds, grabbing up a thick burning stick from the cook fire and used it as a torch.
She came upon a horrific scene. Many of the Amazon warriors were dead. The rest were all trying to battle a creature from a nightmare. A three-headed serpent was rearing back, striking at any Amazon who came near them. Arynë saw Julisa, briefly. The other girl met her eyes for a moment before slipping into the cave while the monster was distracted.
"What ...?" said Arynë, then turned her attention to the monster. She looked about at the Amazons who were fighting the thing, then saw an opening and rushed in, just as she had been taught in the training sessions. Granted, this was a bit different than fighting a human adversary, but still Arynë had learned well. She managed to stab at one of the thing's eyes, blinding it on one side. It reared back and hissed again - that was first time it had been blooded since this battle began. Turning its attention to the young girl with scarred sword, the thing lunged. Arynë managed to take one of the heads off with a swipe of her sword before jumping back, narrowly missing its massive jaws snapping closed upon her arm.
"Princess, get back to camp!" cried one of the warriors. Three Amazons converged upon the creatures, but none could wound it.
Arynë frowned and shook her head, looking for another opening. She found one and lunged, slicing away the jaw of another one of the remaining heads. Another warrior got close enough to swipe at the other head, cleanly separating it, but almost instantly, another grew to take its place. Arynë got in one more hit, piercing the scaly hide just below the new head, and then the creature began to slither back into the cave. Arynë, realising that Julisa was still within, started to go after the creature again, but one of the warriors grabbed her and pulled her back.
"No - never go after an enemy who has surrendered - there is no honour in that," said the warrior. "Let it go."
"That is no mere enemy," said the girl. "And the others may have to contend with that ... thing when they come this way." Arynë struggled free of the Amazon's grip, then saw Julisa, moving through the trees towards camp. Reluctantly, she allowed the mortally wounded monster to crawl back into the inky blackness of the cave.
The girl bent to clean her sword in the grass, then rose and looked about at the remaining Amazon warriors. She glanced down at the fallen warriors then back up at the Amazons, ringed about her.
"Let's get them back to camp - and then we need to get everyone out of this place," she said, grimly.
They gathered their fallen sisters and made their way back to the camp. Arynë saw Mhari, Hekau in her arms, a dead viper at the shamaness's feet.
Mhari looked about at the group as they returned, carrying their fallen sisters.
"What in the Four Hells happened out there?" asked the shamaness.
"I'll tell you on the road," said Arynë, grimly. "Let's pack up and get out of here. Mhari ... what do we do with the dead? There's no way we can give them proper pyres here."
Mhari nodded. "No, we can't," she said. "But in the ancient time of our people, when we were constantly moving from one place to another, we had other ways of freeing the souls of our fallen sisters."
The shamaness gathered the elders of the Tribes who were travelling with the group and they prepared the bodies as the rest of the group packed up the camp. When they were finished, the bodies were wrapped in linen, their amulets and weapons placed safely in packs to take to the Amazons' new/old home. Then the younger, more agile Amazons put their fallen sisters high up in the limbs of the trees while Mhari and the elders chanted and danced about the fires. Arynë watched the Rites, becoming caught up in the chanting; though she didn't understand the words they chanted, she felt their meaning. She found herself joining the dance. Mhari saw her and smiled, and the elders welcomed the young girl into their midst. Soon, others joined them until the entire group was dancing and chanting the souls of their sisters to the Great Mother of them all.
All of a sudden, Arynë sank to her knees and her eyes took on a far away, glazed sort of look. The dancing and chanting ceased as Mhari rushed over to the girl, and knelt beside her.
"Where are you, Child?" asked the shamaness.
"I go with the sisters - they travel to the Womb of the Great Mother to await re-birth," said Arynë. "They are free and we must leave this place before ..."
"Before what, Child?" asked Mhari.
Arynë shook her head, then looked up at Mhari, fear in her eyes. She raised her hands before her eyes and saw blood there. Blood seeped from her breeches and Mhari smiled.
"What ...?" began the girl.
"It's alright" said the shamaness. "It's just the Moon-Blood - do you know what that means?"
The fear was replaced by a touch of pride. "Oh, yes - Silas told me - it means that I'm a woman now," said Arynë.
Mhari chuckled. "Not quite, but you are on your way to preparing for that," she said.
"But - " Arynë began to protest.
"Listen, Dearie, just because a girl's body can create life does not mean that she is prepared to care for and protect that life," said Mhari. "Trust old Mhari, you are not yet a woman by Amazon standards, but like I said, you are indeed on that road. Come now, let's get you cleaned up and on the road."
The shamaness helped her to clean up and the Amazons happily buried her soiled clothes in the earth. There was a festive air to the proceedings and Arynë saw Momi and some of the other girls her age looking enviously at her.
"This sure is different than in the village," Arynë commented after she was dressed and ready to go. "When a village girl begins to bleed it's all secret and scary."
"Why scary?" asked Momi.
"Cause that means it won't be long before she's tossed into some man's marriage bed," said Arynë, shaking her head. "When Yarg killed most of the women and girl children, that left a shortage of marriageable women so as soon as a girl was capable of conceiving, she was married off."
"Against their will? How awful!" cried Momi.
"Yes it is," said Arynë with a sigh. "Silas said that would never happen to me, though."
"Damn right," muttered one of the older Amazons. "Thalia's daughter would never be sold to some man. We'd have been there, weapons drawn before allowing that."
Arynë looked down. "Silas wouldn't have allowed it," said Arynë. "Even if it meant trouble with the Kaskans."
"No he would not have allowed it, Arynë," said Mhari placing a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. "Thalia's brother did well with her brother."
That silenced the Amazons on that subject. They began to move forward, skirting the cave widely.
"Mhari, where did that dead snake come from?" asked Arynë.
"Hekau pulled it out of your bedroll," said the shamaness, grimly. Arynë shuddered. "Now what happened out there?"
Arynë told the shamaness about the Amazons' battle with the three-headed serpent. "Mhari what was that thing?" she asked.
"Graii," said Mhari, grimly. "A guardian entity, very hard to kill or even to wound."
"Well it can't be that hard - I managed to wound it pretty badly," said Arynë.
"On the contrary, Child, I don't know how you managed it, but it usually takes magic - like a magical weapon - to wound a creature like that."
"Like the Sword of Artemis?" asked Arynë.
"Perhaps," said Mhari, nodding.
"It still isn't dead, though," said Arynë. "Aradia and the others may have to have to face when they come through here in a few days. I would have finished it off, but it crawled back into the cave and the others stopped me from going after it. Told me there was no honour in following and killing an enemy who has retreated. That was no ordinary enemy, though."
"No, indeed - and while those warriors were absolutely correct when it comes to human enemies, this may be an exception," said Mhari. "In this case, though, following anything like that into a dark cave does not seem wise to me; it could have been a trap."
"Like a spider drawing a fly into its web," mused Arynë, nodding. "I hadn't thought of it that way. Still, Aradia should be warned."
"Aradia can take care of herself," said Mhari.
"But you said that those things can only be killed by magic," Arynë protested. "Does Aradia have any? Magic, I mean."
"She has what she needs," said Mhari.
"I still think someone should go back and warn her," said Arynë.
"We can't spare anyone, Arynë," said Mhari. "Let it be."
Arynë sighed, but remained quiet. The rest of the journey was uneventful, though the women were exhausted by the time they reached the end of the forest. It was there they made camp to rest before crossing the great open fields to their home.
"I need you elsewhere .... " The words haunted her. The Amazon Queen felt that a reckoning was not afar off and she would soon pay for her freedom. She felt things once again spinning out of her control. The gods must certainly be playing with her and the Amazons and Aradia didn't like it one bit. The Gorgons were coming. The Amazons had been forced to abandon yet another home. Rome was felling the trees of Artemis' sacred forest. Why didn't the goddess herself step in and stop them? Aradia shook her head.
"One minute I'm annoyed about gods interfering, the next I'm asking for that interference," she said to herself. "Better make up my mind." She sighed, then gazed back out at the arena.
It had originally been a large natural clearing where the Amazons who had settled here in this place had drilled with one another and taught the Amazon children entrusted to their care the rudiments of fighting. Now, a wooden wall had been built all around and seats for spectators had been built. Not that there would be many spectators; Aradia had sent anyone not competing on to the old town. She herself would not be in the games. She'd had enough of all that to last for several lifetimes. She dreaded the games, in fact, but as queen, it was her responsibility to be here. She hoped that the Gorgon, Myrina, wasn't coming here with some challenge for her, but she knew that almost too much to hope for.
"What did she mean, she needed me?" mused Aradia aloud, then the queen shook her head. "Yep, definitely on the road to madness, talking to myself. Pretty soon, I'll be as bad off as Athtar, wherever she is."
"No," said a figure materialising before her.
"Blessed Artemis!" Aradia cried, almost falling to her knees before the goddess.
"Yes," said the goddess, smiling slightly.
"Lady, what ...?" began Aradia.
"I would ask a boon of you," said Artemis.
"My Lady, what do you require of me?" asked the queen.
"Myrina will challenge you in this Tournament you have planned. I want you to accept the challenge," said Artemis.
"With respect, my Lady, but no," said Aradia, bowing her head slightly.
"What do you mean, no'?" asked the goddess, a frown beginning to mar her perfect brow.
"I mean no, I have done with the arena," said Aradia.
"I can certainly understand your reluctance," said Artemis with a small sigh. "But hear me out before you refuse."
"As you wish," said Aradia, though she had no intention of complying no matter what the goddess might have to say. "But I will promise you nothing."
Artemis smiled. "I could ask no more of one of my daughters - Amazon Honour prevents you from making such blind promises and I would have it no other way," she said. "Ares has chosen Myrina to be his champion."
"Ah, I see - so this is really more of a competition between the two of you," said Aradia, eyes narrowing.
"Yes, it is," said Artemis with a small shrug. "Sorry, but that's just the way it is."
"Well, at least youre honest," said Aradia.
"I have no choice - gods cannot lie," said Artemis, a small smile playing about the corners of her mouth.
"What do you mean?" said Aradia. "Gods can't lie? There really are god-rules'?"
"Not so much rules - we are not physically capable of lying," said Artemis. "We can deceive and twist the words about and not tell the entire truth, but we cannot tell a lie."
"That's good to know," said Aradia. "So, what are the stakes? What do you get if I beat Myrina?"
"This isn't about what I get - it's about what Ares doesn't," said the goddess, impatiently. "He wants Rome."
"He can have it," said Aradia with a derisive chuckle.
"You don't understand," said Artemis, sternly. "With the armies of Rome, Ares could take over the entire world. Only the Amazons and some of the Tribes of Keltia in Britannia stand between him and his goal: to be the only god worshipped in all the world."
"And war would never cease," said Aradia, her voice barely above a whisper as she took it in.
"Yes. Peace would be forgotten," said Artemis. "Fighting and destruction would be the ultimate form of worship until mankind destroyed itself utterly."
"Blessed Mother of us all," said Aradia, sitting quickly on a large rock. "But what does the rest of the world have to do with us? I can only see this a boon to the Amazons. If the rest of the world destroys itself, there will be no more armies trying to destroy us."
"Do you think you can separate yourselves from the world so easily, my Daughter?" asked the goddess, sternly. "You know better than anyone how the world encroaches upon you - even now. You will not be immune to the destruction. The Amazons, too, will destroy themselves from within, just as before when the Gorgons betrayed you."
"You're right, of course," said Aradia with a sigh. "That cannot happen. But how does my competing against Myrina stop Ares from this world domination?"
"He has a powerful ally in Medusa and in return for her assistance, he has offered her the Gorgons," said Artemis. "If you beat Myrina, that lessens the appeal of the Gorgons as a prize'."
"And are the Gorgons such a prize?" asked Aradia, one eyebrow raised.
"If Medusa wants them, whatever her reasons may be, they are," said Artemis.
"But if she wants them regardless, it won't matter if I defeat Myrina or not," said Aradia, thoughtfully. "No there has to be more to it than that. I think Myrina - or even Ares wants your Sword. The trouble is, I don't have it."
"Ah yes, the Sword," said Artemis, smiling at her. "Do you know what powers the Sword conveys upon she who wields it?"
"I have heard stories," said Aradia, her voice taking a reverent hush. "I have heard that the sword has the power to kill creatures no other weapon can touch. I have heard that the sword bestows battle skills upon those who are not warriors. I have heard that it can cut through any armour like a knife through cheese and that so long as it is in the Amazons' hands, it protects your power."
"All of those things are true," said Artemis. "The Sword is a living entity in and of itself. But it is so much more. You, Aradia, do have my Sword."
"What do you mean?" asked the queen.
"Arynë holds the answer for you," said the goddess, smiling. "I want you to find it for yourselves and I have told you too much already. Only know this, my daughter - the magic which you doubt is real; it exists and it is within you and all of the Great Mother's children. Stand up for me against Myrina and Ares, and you will find it."
As the goddess faded from her vision, Aradia realised that Artemis had neither waited for her answer to her request, nor had she given Aradia a real answer about the Sword.
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