Daughters of Artemis
Chapter Eight: Sword of Artemis, Sword of Truth
by L. M. Townsend
Disclaimers: Here there be subtext. J Dont like it, click general stories. Aradia and the Amazons tracked the cat through the trees. Only a flash of her white fur was visible in the darkening forest. The moon was no longer visible as the trees grew closer and closer together, their trunks gaining width as they approached the oldest part at the centre of the forest. Still, they could see Hekau despite the darkness. They came to the clearing of the cave and stopped.
This is where that three-headed serpent was, said Anaea.
Arynë blooded it - that would make it even more dangerous, said Aradia, grimly.
Oh, the smell, said Thraso, grimacing. It didnt smell this bad here before.
No, but listen, said Aradia. Night birds, tree frogs, and crickets could be heard chirping their individual songs in the night.
What? said Thraso. I dont hear anything.
Ah, but you do - listen again, said Aradia, smiling.
Just ... crickets and stuff? said Thraso.
Exactly - this place was completely silent when we passed through here before, said Aradia. Come on.
The Amazons followed her to the mouth of the cave. Oh, Goddess! cried Anaea, holding her nose. The smell is a lot worse in there.
We need torches - Thraso, Prothoë, grab some dead fall and get a fire started, Aradia ordered. Im not going in there in the dark.
Arynë did, said Mhari, her eyes glassy in trance. Shes in there now - the Graii is no more, but the Guardian ...
The shamenki shuddered and her eyes cleared. I am not permitted to see any more, she said.
Thats alright, said Aradia, patting her shoulder gently. Well get her back. Are you alright?
Yes, of course, said Mhari. Just worried, naturally.
Naturally, said Aradia. Thraso and Prothoë got a fire burning and approached with blazing torches. Are we ready?
As were going to be, said Thraso. That stench though - agh!
Well, then you wait here, said Aradia, taking a torch from her.
No way, said Thraso, shaking her head. Anaea, Prothoë, and I are going with you - weve already decided it.
Oh, really? asked Aradia, one eyebrow raised.
Yes, really, said Anaea, bringing another torch to the group.
What is this, mutiny? asked Aradia, chuckling.
No, your Majesty, said Anaea. On our journey home, Arynë told us many tales she had read in the Amazon Scrolls - she also told us about a very old law, which we are invoking now.
What law is that? asked Aradia.
No mother whose child is in danger may lead the mission to rescue her, said Thraso. If the daughter or other family member of a queen is in danger, her lieutenants may temporarily relieve her of command in order to make the rescue.
You just made that up! said Aradia.
No, they didnt, said Mhari, shaking her head. That law was written very long ago. It was a tragedy - one of our ancient queens had a sister, Antiope, whom she raised as her own daughter after the death of their mother. When Antiope was kidnapped, Oreithyia led the entire army across the continent to save her sister and left the elders and children behind with no one to protect them. That was almost the end of the Amazon Nation.
What happened to her? asked Aradia.
Thats not important right now - someday I will tell you the story of Antiope - or Arynë will, said Mhari. For now it is enough to know that after that, it was felt that a mother was not capable of thinking clearly enough to act rationally.
Since I spent the better of my childbearing years dealing death rather than life, I hardly think I qualify as anyones mother, said Aradia, wryly.
Its not the bearing that makes a mother, Aradia, said Mhari, gently.
Aradia looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded once. She hefted the torch with one hand and drew her sword with the other. Very well - lead on, she said, inclining her head towards the cave. Anaea, Prothoë, and Thraso raised their torches and stepped gingerly into the entrance of the cave. Mhari began to follow, but Aradia stepped in front of the shamenki. Whoa, Old-Mother, she said. Where do you think youre going?
Arynë may be hurt, said Mhari, patting her healing herb pouch. Im going, too, Aradia.
Alright, alright, said Aradia, exasperated. She looked towards the platoon of warriors, standing by. Anyone else? Never mind. She held up one hand as the entire platoon started towards the cave.
Aradia followed Mhari into the mouth of the cave, holding her torch aloft. She found the others a few yards into the cavern all looking at a gooey-looking puddle on the cave floor. One tooth and one eyeball floated atop the mess.
Artemis! Is that where the stench is coming from? asked the queen, poking about the stuff with her sword.
Yes - the remains of the Graii, said Mhari.
Come on, said Thraso. This ... stuff doesnt pose any danger to us now, does it Mhari?
Only the danger of losing our suppers, said the shamenki, holding a bit of her cloak over her nose and mouth.
Look here, said Prothoë, holding her torch closer to the floor of the cave and pointing.
What is it? asked Aradia, leaning in to look.
Blood - not a lot, but still, I think maybe that thing may have gotten one good hit in before Arynë killed it, said Thraso, grimly.
Damn! said Aradia, panic rising in her chest. Come on. She tried to move ahead of the others, but Thraso held her back.
Hold it there, Mama, said her Second in Command.
Damn it, Thraso, thats not funny! said Aradia.
I didnt mean it to be, said Thraso. But we need to slow down. Theres not that much blood. If Arynës wounded, its a small one. For all we know, this isnt even her blood. Somethings not right here, though and I dont want to go rushing in before we know what that something is.
Alright - your point is taken, said Aradia, calmly. Can we get moving now?
The Amazons made their way slowly through the passageway from the caves entrance. The smell of the dead Graii faded as they got further away, but was replaced by another smell more sinister. None of the Amazons could really identify the odour, but it still made them edgy and nervous. Worse than the smell were the sounds which grew louder as the went further through the passageway. A sibilant, dry sound, almost like a host of whispering voices echoed through the cave.
Bringing up the rear, Aradia heard Thraso utter a quiet curse.
What? What is it? asked the queen, peering through the darkness.
Bloody snakes! said Thraso, disgusted. Must be hundreds ... thousands of them.
Alright, said Mhari, stepping up to where the others had stopped. She looked and her eyes widened. Blessed Artemis! This is where that smell is coming from.
Aradia shouldered her way through the group gathered around the opening to a cavern. She held the torch aloft and saw them. Like Thraso said, there hundreds of snakes all over. They carpeted the floor of the cave and hung from natural shelf-like formations along the walls and ceilings of the chamber. Aradia took a deep breath, then blew it out slowly. She did this three times, then looked around at the serpents.
Okay, she said, quietly. Its cold, so theyre nice and slow.
Yes, but not slow enough, said Mhari, taking a pouch from her belt. This should do it.
She set about making a paste of the herbs and some water from her waterskin. Moulding the stuff into a ball about the size of her fist, Mhari threaded a piece of twine all way through the ball and lifted it to one of the torches, setting the twine alight.
Now, she said. Toss one of those torches to the floor there.
Prothoë complied with the shamenkis demand. Instantly, the serpents moved away from the blazing wood.
Quickly now, said Mhari, moving toward the flame and setting the ball of herbs next to it before lifting the torch once again. The ball began smoking as the wick burned down to the paste. A thick, white, aromatic smoke filled the chamber and the sound of the snakes ceased.
Mhari, what is that stuff? asked Thraso.
Just a mild sedative, said the shamenki Mild for us, that is. For them, well, they will sleep as if dead for some time. Still, we should hurry now.
The elder looked worried and the Amazons forged ahead through the chamber into a narrower passageway.
Do you think there are anymore inhabitants of this cave? Anaea whispered to Aradia.
I dont know, said the queen, grimly. I cant even be certain that those were inhabitants of this cave. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open. Anaea nodded.
Thraso led them through the passageway, but stopped just short of the next chamber. She lifted a finger to her lips, then moved them all back a bit.
Theres a light in that one, she said, her brow furrowed with concern. I dont know who - or what - is in there.
Theres one way to find out, said Mhari, pulling a small, silver mirror out of another pouch.
Great Goddess, Mhari, what else do you have in your bag of tricks? asked Aradia, grinning at her.
Hopefully whatever we need, said the shamenki, turning around and holding the mirror over her shoulder towards the opening. Slowly she lowered the mirror and turned.
Mhari, what is it? Youre pale as the moon, said Aradia. Mhari shook her head and handed Aradia the mirror.
The queen took the same position as the shamenki had. Then with a curse, she dropped the mirror, drew her sword and sprang into the chamber before any of the others could stop her.
Aradia and the Amazons tracked the cat through the trees. Only a flash of her white fur was visible in the darkening forest. The moon was no longer visible as the trees grew closer and closer together, their trunks gaining width as they approached the oldest part at the centre of the forest. Still, they could see Hekau despite the darkness. They came to the clearing of the cave and stopped.
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