It is also a follow-up to the story The Adventures of Young Ephiny: Coming of Age. While it is not necessary to read the earlier tale, the reader should be aware that some characters and events from the first one are referred to here without much clarification. It should also be noted that the alliance known as the Delian League preceded the reign of King Burebistas, a first century B.C. monarch, by some four hundred years but hey, this is the Xenaverse after all, right? What's a few centuries between friends?
Ephiny, daughter of Meelah, eased her ambling horse to a halt on the banks of the river. Pausing there, she looked out upon the river where the pale moonlight shimmered upon the rippling water. The girl yawned and brushed the resultant tears away with the back of her hand.
It had been a long night, one of many such long, uneventful--dull--nights she had spent patrolling the borders of these lands the Amazons called home. As first a warrior in training and now as a newly masked warrior she was of course at the very bottom of the pecking order that determined which warriors got the best assignments. In her role as a very junior warrior Ephiny as a rule was required to go out on two or three night patrols for every one by the leaders and more senior warriors. This was due not only to the senior warriors exercising the privileges of their rank but also to the simple laws of nature. With the diminished visibility that night afforded it very naturally followed that in order to effectively sweep the same amount of ground more patrols had to be employed. It also followed that younger, sharper eyes were better suited for this lonely duty. Just to be safe, however, Melosa always made sure that at least one and usually two very experienced warrior went along with the younger Amazons.
With long time enemies barely more than the flight of an arrow away Ephiny well understood the importance of what she was doing. Such awareness, though, never seemed to make the night go faster. On initially taking up her post she had carefully checked the position of the stars and now their movements told her that dawn was not more than a couple of turns of the hourglass away. With it would come her relief. Because of this the girl's thoughts at the moment were more on her mother's sweet bread and honey and the cozy bed that would follow than on any possible clandestine river crossing.
Ephiny yawned again was about to turn to make yet another trip up the river when over the soft sound of the gurgling water she heard a low, two note whistle.
Good, Ephiny thought. She knew this was Solari, just now reaching the edge of her own patrol sector. Ephiny had rather hoped to meet her old friend on this leg.
Pleased as she was, Ephiny was not about to show it. "It's about time you showed up," she said as the familiar silhouette of Solari materialized in the moonlight. Solari, on foot and leading her horse, was still too far away to see the sly grin on Ephiny's face as she added, "Did you just now wake up?"
"Huh," Solari grunted in reply. "I wish."
"Well you'd better not go to sleep," Ephiny playfully warned, "because if you do Draganis will present your butt to Melosa on a platter."
With far more bravado than conviction Solari retorted, "I'm not afraid of Draganis."
Ephiny slipped off her horse as Solari walked up. "Yeah right," she dryly shot back. She thought of their leader this night, the tall imposing warrior with the flaming red hair and muscles chiseled from granite. "Draganis could eat both of us for breakfast in one swallow. We'd be like two rabbits attacking a lion."
It was true and Solari knew it. Though highly trained for their young ages, the fighting skills of the two young warriors were exponentially exiguous when compared to those of the mighty Draganis, possessor of no less than thirty-nine honor knots for her exploits on the battlefield and Melosa's greatest warrior.
Unwilling to retreat entirely, Solari said, "Maybe. But I think we could at least cause her to choke a little on the way down."
The two young friends stood there for a few moments, quietly listening to the water lap up against the river bank. Despite her earlier stab at playfulness Ephiny was not much of a talker and so it fell to Solari to again break the silence. "Windy tonight," she casually observed.
"It's going to rain I think," Ephiny tersely answered.
Again there was a long pause but this time Solari waited for Ephiny to speak. Finally she did. "Seen anything?"
"Nah," Solari said with sniff. "No wait, I take that back. I saw a fox out on the sand bar."
"Probably looking for crayfish," said Ephiny.
"I suppose. What about you?"
In the moonlight Solari saw Ephiny shake her head. "Nothing unusual. Just the same old thing." The blonde sighed and said, "Well, we'd better get moving. We will be on Draganis' menu sure enough if she catches us standing her yakking like this."
This last remark caused Solari to smile to herself. Only the taciturn Ephiny could have possibly viewed their sparse conversation as "yakking." Still, she was right about one thing. Draganis would have indeed taken a dim view of even this brief respite from their duties. "So what are you going to do today?" she asked. "Anything?"
Ephiny mounted her horse and said, "Oh yeah, I have a very exciting day planned. I get to help Mother patch the roof."
"Well at least you won't be getting soaked with dew," Solari allowed. "Need any help?"
"We can always use an extra hand," said Ephiny.
As Solari mounted her horse she asked "When should I be there?"
"Give it a fist or two after midday," said Ephiny.
"I'll be there," Solari assured her. "By the way, what are you having for supper?"
"Uhh huhh," drawled Ephiny. "I thought as much. Solari, sometimes I wonder if it's me you like or my mother's cooking."
Solari never missed a beat in enthusiastically replying, "Both!"
Shaking her head in friendly resignation, Ephiny pulled on the reins to turn her horse when suddenly, off in the distance, she heard what sounded like a voice crying out.
"Was that somebody?" asked a startled Solari.
Staring intently in the direction of the sound, Ephiny quietly answered, "Yeah, I think it was." She pointed straight up the trail which she had just come down and said, "That way. Pretty close too. Come on."
Nudging the flanks of their horses, the two young Amazons started up the old trail that ran along the banks of the river as quickly as they dared in the pale light. The had not far to ride for barely a hundred and fifty paces up the trail they saw a figure, apparently unaware of how visible he was in the moonlight, hurriedly step off the road and into some bushes. Twenty paces short of the spot Ephiny reined her horse to a stop and cocked an ear to listen. Hearing nothing but the breathing of their own horses, she immediately concluded that whoever was in there was at the moment not making any attempt at fleeing but instead simply hiding. She knew that stealthy movement of any kind would be next to impossible in the dense undergrowth bordering the road.
Easing down off her horse, Ephiny quietly drew the sword Melosa had presented her in lieu of the magnificent weapon the dying Phillipia had wanted her to have--a sword the young Ephiny could not bring herself to keep in the aftermath of the previous month's battle with what had turned out to be Mysian raiders.
In as commanding a tone as she could muster, Ephiny called out, "You, in the bushes, we know you're in there. Come out and show yourself--now! After a few moments of silence she decided to up the ante. "Don't make me come in there after you. You can't get away. So make it easy on all of us and come out of there."
At Ephiny's warning Solari too dismounted and as her Ephiny strained to hear a sign from the brush she eased her sword from its scabbard, ready to back up her blonde friend should the need arise.
After waiting ten breaths with no reply, Ephiny took a deep breath and stepped toward the brush.
It was then that the two Amazons heard a quivering voice say, "All right, all right. I'm coming out. I'm unarmed. P-please don't hurt me."
"No one is going to hurt you," Ephiny assured him. Just to be on the safe side, however, she quickly added, "Just don't try anything cute."
Ephiny and Solari listened as the sound of rustling leaves and cracking twigs come nearer and a moment later they saw the shadowy figure of their quarry step out into the road. In an instant the Amazons were at his side.
"What are you doing here?" Ephiny asked forcefully.
"My fool horse was startled by something in the darkness and he threw me," came the man's reply.
Impatient with this response, Ephiny shook her head. "Don't dodge the question. What are you doing here?" Turning to Solari, Ephiny said, "Search him."
As Solari went through his pockets the man said, "If only you would be so good as to tell me where 'here' is. You see, I seem to be lost."
"I'll say you are," Solari said with a snort. Finding a neatly wrapped bundle, she dutifully handed it to Ephiny.
"Hey, that's mine!" the man protested. Crying, "Why you're nothing more than a couple of common thieves!" he made a step toward Ephiny. However he froze in his tracks upon feeling the cold tip of Solari's sword pressed against his neck.
"Uhh uhh," she calmly warned.
Stuffing the packet under her cloak, Ephiny said, "We're not thieves, sir. We're just doing our job. Besides, it's out of our hands now. The queen will decide what's to be done with you."
"Queen?" The man stood there looking at first one of his captors and then the other. Finally it dawned on him. "You're...could I possibly be--?"
"I don't know where you think you are," said Ephiny. "But you're on Amazon land." Sternly she then added, "And you are trespassing."
The man's reaction to this surprised the Amazons. Joyfully clasping his hands together, he gushed, "Amazons? Oh thank the gods! At last! At last I finally made it!" Excitedly he placed a hand on Ephiny's arm. Oh if you only knew the troubles I have gone through in getting here. All those interminably muddy roads! And those nasty, stinking pig sties passing themselves off as inns--every one seemingly ran by the same boorish lout." Wildly he looked at Ephiny and said, "Tell me, young lady, is there some secret prerequisite that all innkeepers must have rotten teeth and be unbearably surly? I think there must be because..."
Now that poor Ephiny was the center of the man's ramblings Solari put a fist to her lips and passed a discreet little cough in order to keep from laughing out loud. This guy, she thought, is nuts!
Looking askance at the strange little man, Ephiny slowly asked "Are you all right?"
"I am now," the man replied happily.
"Ah huhh. Well that's good because you're going to have to be taken back to our village. Queen's orders."
Just to be sure the man asked, "Melosa? Daughter of the great Penthesilea?"
"Marvelous!" the man gushed. "My long journey is at an end. By all means. Lead on, child. Lead on."
For a moment Ephiny wondered whether or not she should try to impress on him the gravity of his situation. To be caught on Amazon land was a very serious matter indeed, and in light of the bloody events of a moon ago, Melosa might take a very dim view of this man's sudden appearance. If so his present enthusiasm to see her was sure to be dampened considerably. Melosa was a hard woman, one never hesitant in meting out punishment when she deemed it necessary. She was also fair, though, and Ephiny doubted that this strange fellow would be made to forfeit his life for his indiscretion. Still, one never knew with the dark Melosa and this was why she decided against telling the man any of this. Otherwise he might not be so cooperative.
For her part Solari was incredulous. "You mean to say you wanted to come here?"
Solemn and dignified, the man replied, "I have been sent on a mission to your queen."
"What kind of mission?" asked Ephiny.
The man resolutely stiffened and said, "I am not at liberty to say. All I can tell you is that I must be granted an audience with your queen as soon as possible."
"Oh you can be sure of that," Solari said wryly. This earned her a quick, reproachful little glance from Ephiny.
"All right then," said the blonde, "what is your name? You can tell us that, can't you?"
"Zacharius," the man answered.
"Well, Zacharius, it looks like you'll soon get to..." Ephiny started to say "execute" but caught herself. "...carry out your orders soon enough." Sheathing her sword, she turned to Solari and said, "So, which one of us takes him back?" Neither of the young Amazons relished the idea of sharing a horse all the way back to the village with this rather odd fellow.
"Hey, he's in your sector," Solari said with an impish grin.
"Thanks," said Ephiny ruefully. "I knew I could count on you." This merely earned her an unsympathetic chuckle from Solari.
Ephiny swung herself up into the saddle and, gathering in the reins, extended a hand down to Zacharius. "Come on."
"But--what about my horse?" he asked.
"Somebody will find it once it gets light," Solari assured him.
This remark presented Ephiny with a perfect chance to gain a measure of revenge on her friend. "Since you'll be covering both our sectors now you'll have plenty of opportunities to look for it, won't you?"
It was here that the three of them heard a new voice, forceful and clear, pierce the darkness. "That will not be necessary."
It was Draganis. Like a ghost she had moved to within little more than an arm's length away without any of them even realizing it. Of course Ephiny and Solari knew instantly who it was.
Ephiny was the one who first recovered sufficiently enough to speak. "We heard a cry and found this man out here wandering around in the dark." The powerful form of Draganis loomed out of the shadows and joined the others. When she got there Ephiny dug out the packet and handed it over to her. "He had this on him," she said.
Draganis barely glanced at the packet as she tucked it into the waist of her skirt. Turning to the frail looking man, she said, "Well, Zacharius, I'll say this for you, you certainly don't look much like a spy."
"How long have you been listening?" asked Ephiny.
"Long enough," Draganis tersely replied. In truth she had been close by from the first moment the two young Amazons had joined up. Draganis was one who liked to make sure everybody was doing what they were supposed to be doing. Luckily for Ephiny and Solari she had not minded their little break. Looking up at Ephiny, she said, "You two go on back to your posts. I'll take care of our friend here."
That suited Ephiny just fine. With a nod she turned her horse and started back upriver.
"See you later, Eph!" Solari called out after her.
Despite having received her orders Solari lingered on in the hope that she might yet glean some small clue as to the stranger's business there. Instead, all this did was get her the undivided attention of the great warrior. "Are you waiting for Melosa to come out here and pat you on the back or something?" Draganis asked.
"No. No. I...no."
Draganis' voice softened ever so slightly. "Well then, go on back to your post. You've got a job to do."
"Yes, ma'am." It was rare that Solari had such close and personal interaction with any of the Amazonian elite and whenever the occasion rose she, unlike Ephiny who never seemed perturbed by anything, always seemed to have a difficult time maintaining her composure. Memories of the brutal tongue lashing Velasca had administered to her the previous month haunted her even now. However if she was nervous before the next few moments would prove to be positively terrifying for her.
"One more thing, Solari."
Draganis sauntered over to Solari. A full head taller and her fully mature body far, far more muscular, Draganis stood there, towering over the young warrior. Idly scratching her nose, she said, "So, uhh, you're not afraid of me, huh?"
A cold chill ran up Solari's spine. Utterly aghast, her eyes grew wide and only the pale light prevented her from revealing just how ashen her face had become. "Oh, umm, you heard that too?"
Draganis moved in closer still. Solari well knew the forceful quality of the great warrior's persona but here, standing so close she could smell the soft aroma of the calamus in the oil she wore, the younger woman found her presence to be nothing short of overpowering.
In her panic Solari failed to notice that as Draganis came with this reply she appeared to be far more amused than angry. With a sheepish grin Solari exhaled loudly and stammered out, "Well, you know how...I was just...."
Draganis tightened the press. "Yes?"
Finally Solari managed to choke out some semblance of an explanation. "Well you know, fooling around with Ephiny."
Seeing Solari's obvious discomfort, Draganis relented and put an end to her charade. With surprising softness she said, "Yeah, I know." Draganis reached out her strong right hand and, playfully rubbing her knuckles over Solari's scalp, smiled and said, "Just like I was fooling around with you. Now go on, get back to your post before Melosa has all our asses for breakfast."
With a deep sigh of relief Solari weakly returned the smile and said, "Ahh, right. I-I'll be going now." Still a little watery-kneed she went off to fetch her horse.
Actually Draganis liked Solari. Liked her a lot. She was a good kid who had suffered a hard upbringing. Moreover, she was something of an outsider and, having been one herself in her wild youth, Draganis could identify with her. It was true she was still very green and certainly not as advanced as her friend, the cool-eyed Ephiny, but Draganis was convinced that in time Solari would make an outstanding warrior. She also liked the fact that Solari and Ephiny were so close. Ephiny was a true diamond in the rough and while she knew Solari could never hope to equal her friend at least intellectually, she could already see in her mind's eye what a great team they could one day make. Yes, as she saw it the tribe could do a lot worse than those two. For Draganis loyalty counted at least as much as courage and those two young Amazons had already exhibited plenty of both.
Now that Solari was finally returning to her post Draganis turned her attention to Zacharius. "Follow me," she said. Without a word Zacharius obediently complied and with the warrior leading the way they started for Draganis' horse. There Draganis mounted first and then hauled the man up behind her as easily as if he were a child. Moving off a slow gait, they melted into the darkness and soon nothing could be heard back at the place by the river but the wind whistling in the trees and the lonely chirping of an occasional cricket.
By the time Draganis and her charge made it back to the village the wind had died down and Eos' first, light pinkish touches were just beginning to appear on the palette that was the dawn. >From several huts wispy, blue-gray columns of smoke could already be seen lazily rising up into the now calm morning air as breakfast fires burned in preparation for the new day. Ever since she could remember Draganis had always loved this time of day when everything seemed fresh and new and the only sounds to be heard were the doleful cooing of the doves nesting in the nearby trees.
At the edge of the village they paused for a moment. "Here we are, Zacharius," said Draganis.
Zacharius swept his eyes over this place he had heard so much about. Long accustomed to city life with its great buildings and cramped spaces, he found it all...disappointing. "You mean this is it?" he asked.
Draganis pulled up one corner of her mouth in a wry little half-smile. "That's right. What were you expecting, Athens?"
"No," said Zacharius, "but I was expecting something...more."
"We are not the multitudes we once were," Draganis conceded. "But what we lack in numbers we more than make up for with courage and ferocity. Anyone stupid enough to encroach on us is asking for a serious ass chewing." For effect Draganis spat on the ground and added, "Just ask those ninety-six bastards we threw in that pit up on there on the plain during the last moon."
"I heard about that," said Zacharius.
Detecting a sudden flash of movement off to her left, Draganis looked out in back of a hut just in time to see a young girl of no more than six or seven stand up and drop her skirt. At that moment her eyes met those of Draganis. Knowing full well she was not supposed to relieve herself so close to the hut the child gasped, scurried around the corner and disappeared behind the cloak of hides screening the door.
Draganis smiled. It made her think of her own baby, six year old Marsa. Prone to fits of diarrhea, the child too sometimes did not quite make it to the proper place. As for her other child, ten year old Anon, Draganis figured she was probably already up, preparing breakfast for the three of them. A dutiful, thoughtful girl, Anon was mature beyond her tender years. Soon she would begin her training, learning the deadly skills that would one earn her a warrior's mask just as countless generations of their line had done before her. Already she practiced religiously with the sling Ephiny had given her. She was becoming quite proficient at it too. The girl was quick with both her wits and her feet and Draganis was so very proud of her.
Quietly weaving her horse between the various huts, Draganis soon came to yet another of the nondescript structures. There she stopped. Aside from being somewhat larger than the rest the only thing that set this one apart from the rest was the presence of two sentries, armed with spears, flanking the door.
"This is it," Draganis announced. "Get down."
Zacharius was incredulous. "Your queen resides here? In this?" Awkwardly he slid off the horse and was joined at once by Draganis.
Noting the look on his face, she said, "We're a simple people. Amazons want a queen who is regnant because of the strength of her character, not because she lives in a huge pile of dank stones." Walking up to a sandy haired warrior named Polymenia, Draganis asked "Is she up?"
With a knowing grin the sentry answered "What do you think?"
Only a very few knew of the queen's bouts with insomnia. Even fewer knew of her propensity for sallying forth unseen from her hut deep in the night for restless walks in and around the village.
Of all the Amazons there were but a handful who would have dared to bypass the sentries and knock directly on the door. Draganis was one of them and of course neither sentry had no intention of stopping this most famous of Amazonian warriors.
While Draganis waited for a response the other sentry, a buxom warrior known only as Jen, flashed a faint smirk and nodded toward Zacharius. "So what's up, Gany? Do you plan on offering him up to Melosa?"
Suppressing a grin, Draganis said in a low voice, "Now I hardly think our queen would be interested in such a poor specimen as that."
"Maybe Draganis wants him for herself," teased Polymenia.
"He's got big feet," Jen chimed in. She leered and added, "You know what they say about men with big feet."
"You two are crazy," Draganis good naturedly shot back. "Besides, he's more your guys' style from what I hear. Me, I'd have that little stick broken before we even got the bed warm. I like mine with a little more meat on their bones."
"And a lot more between the legs too, huh?" Polymenia cracked.
The door latch lifted. Draganis turned back to the door and as she and the two sentries straightened themselves, she muttered, "Damn straight, hon."
The door partly opened and there appeared an auburn haired young woman. It was Terreis, Melosa's younger sister. "Good morning, Princess," said Draganis. "May I speak to the queen?"
Terreis, still a little sleepy, blinked hard, answering, "Is this important? She's having breakfast."
Of course it's important! thought Draganis. Why else would I be pounding on the queen's door at this early hour? Naturally she kept such irksome thoughts to herself. All she said was, "I have a man who wants to see the queen."
Never one enamored by the trappings of power, Melosa preferred to prepare their breakfast herself. Because her days were usually very busy, expedience often required that one of the older women prepare her other meals for her or even that she join one tribe member or another at their table. Even now Melosa was not so very comfortable with such arrangements but she was above all things pragmatic and, as always, her duties came first. Breakfast, however, was her time, her one chance for peace before the crushing burden of being who she was settled upon her shoulders for another day. After that, until she finally drifted off to fitful sleep practically every thought would concern her tribe in one way or another.
"A man? Here?"
"The river patrol picked him up," Draganis patiently explained. "He says it's imperative that he see the queen."
Terreis leaned forward and stuck her head out the door in order to take a curious look at Zacharius. As she did Draganis was surprised to see that she was completely nude. She knew Melosa would never have allowed herself to be seen in such a compromising manner and Draganis thought it damn undignified for an Amazonian princess to be seen this way.
With a yawn Terreis said, "Hold on. I'll get her," and then retreated back inside.
Pulling the packet out of her skirt, Draganis handed it to Terreis. "He had this on him. Would you give it to Melosa?"
"Wait here," said Terreis, taking the packet. Draganis nodded and Terreis pulled the door shut.
Draganis and the two sentries had no chance to resume their verbal sparring because almost immediately the door swung wide open and out stepped Melosa, Queen of the Amazons. Compact and powerful, coldly beautiful, the dark-eyed Melosa commanded the utmost respect from her subjects--even those who would have preferred to see someone else as queen.
Espying Zacharius, the queen walked briskly past the now straight-as-arrow sentries and made straight for him. As she passed Draganis fell into step alongside her. "Who found him?" Melosa asked.
"A couple of the sprouts," Draganis answered. "Ephiny and Solari."
"By the river, about a half-league down from the north ford."
At the approach of this dark woman who was undoubtedly the one he had been sent to find, Zacharius extended his hand and broke into a big smile. "Ahh, Your Highness, I am so very--"
Melosa bluntly cut him off. "What is your name?"
Taken aback by the sharp interruption, a startled Zacharius paused before replying, "Zacharius, Your Highness."
"What are you doing on this side of the river? Don't you know that marks the border of our territory?"
"Well, yes," Zacharius hesitantly replied. This was turning out to be very different from what he had expected.
Melosa pressed him further. "Then why did you cross?"
"Why, to see you of course."
Melosa eyed him keenly. "For your sake I hope your trip was worth it."
"Oh but it is!" exclaimed Zacharius. Then, embarrassed by what he viewed as an undignified outburst, he slumped his shoulders and said, "If Your Highness would only let me explain."
Folding her arms, Melosa bored those intense dark eyes in on him harder still. "All right. You have till the count of ten to convince me not to hang you as a spy."
So much for the grandiose speech Zacharius had so studiously memorized. "An alliance, Highness," he anxiously blurted out.
Melosa glanced at Draganis who in turn merely shrugged. "An alliance?" echoed the queen. "With whom?"
Drawing himself up to his full height, Zacharius stuck out his chin and said, "I have been sent as a personal representative of King Burebistas."
"The Getae?" scoffed Draganis. "Their home ground is more than fifty leagues from here. What could you possibly hope to gain from an alliance with us?"
"What everyone hopes for in an alliance," Zacharius blandly answered. "Security."
"Draganis is right," said Melosa. "We are a very long way from Getae. Besides, your Burebistas has never shown any interest in us before. Why now?"
"I need not tell you these are dangerous times, Your Highness," said Zacharius. "Xena's armies are ravaging Greece, under Darinius Mymalar is rising into a formidable power, the Thracians are constantly looking to seize new territory and I need not tell you about the threat those hideous creatures right across the river from you pose.
This is a new day, Highness. Times have changed. To ensure domestic borders kingdoms and city-states are commonly reaching out over great distances to conclude such partnerships as they think are necessary. Look at how Athens has formed the Delian League and how the Peloponnesian city-states have rallied to Sparta in the wake of the Persian retreat from Greece."
Irked by the man's slightly condescending tone, Melosa coldly replied, "I am well aware of the political situation in the Aegean as it stands today."
Zacharius realized his mistake and quickly retreated. "Forgive me. In my haste to explain I forgot myself."
Deep in thought over this surprising proposal, Melosa paused momentarily. An alliance? With the Getae? Why? Why now? Security my ass! What are their real motives here? Abruptly then she turned to Draganis and began to crisply issue orders. "Get this man fed and bring him back to me in a turn of the glass. Has the morning patrol left yet?"
"No, ma'am," Draganis answered.
"Who is leading it?"
Now it was Draganis' turn to hesitate for she knew what was coming next. "Colsethme, ma'am."
"Again? It's not her turn."
Draganis lowered her eyes and said softly, "Well you know how it's been for her."
Ever since the death of her lifelong friend Mycinia in the battle of the previous month, Colsethme had doggedly been working harder and longer in a largely vain attempt to keep her mind off what for her had been a devastating loss. Any extra duty that presented itself she jumped at--even going so far as to conduct simple training sessions herself and bumping junior leaders off even the dullest of patrol assignments. While Melosa sympathized of course with her loss--Melosa too had liked her and indeed considered her irreplaceable--the cold hard fact remained that Colsethme was now her best, her most experienced combat commander. She was the last of the "Old Guard" and it simply would not do for her to be worn down in such a manner. Melosa could not, would not, allow it. After all, who knew when she might be needed for something much more important?
In a measured voice Melosa said, "Tell her I said no. Tell her she is to let Meelah take it."
"She won't like it," remarked Draganis.
Again Melosa paused. "While she is at it have Meelah double all patrols today." She shot Zacharius a hard look and added, "Just in case." Holding out his packet, the queen said, "Here, you can have this back."
"No no!" exclaimed Zacharius, throwing up his hands. "That is for you, Highness. It contains a general outline of the King's proposal along with a personal letter from him."
Melosa gently tapped the packet against the palm of her left hand. "Are you authorized to discuss terms?"
"I'm afraid I have no plenipotentiary powers," said Zacharius. "I am merely the king's emissary."
"Very well," said Melosa, tapping the packet again.
It was here that Draganis caught sight of Calliope standing outside her hut. With her was her young friend Abisinthe and together the two of them were eyeing the stranger. Beckoning for Calliope to approach, Draganis smiled to herself when she saw the young warrior only very reluctantly comply. Though proven in battle Calliope was still quite a shy young woman. As it was Draganis thought this no strange thing. The average male was no match for any decently trained Amazon and yet many of her sisters were shy around men. After all, Amazons--especially the younger ones--rarely saw males in non-threatening situations.
"Good morning, ma'am," said Calliope, bowing slightly to the queen. Melosa's only reply was a perfunctory nod.
"Zacharius," said Draganis, "this is Calliope, one of our bright young warriors."
"Greetings, child," said Zacharius.
To Calliope Draganis said, "Take our guest here and see that he gets fed."
"Right away," said Calliope. Turning immediately to the man she said, "If you will follow me, sir."
"The queen will see him in one turn of the glass," said Draganis. As Zacharius turned away Draganis discreetly pointed to him and silently mouthed the words, Watch him. Calliope nodded that she understood and led Zacharius off among the huts.
When they were some distance away Draganis murmured, "I don't like it. Not one bit."
Melosa glanced down at the packet in her hand. "He has come all this way. We might as well hear him out."
Draganis was near to being stunned by this. "You are not serious?" she asked.
"It won't hurt to listen," the queen replied.
"But, we Amazons have never allied ourselves with any of the Western peoples. We just don't do that."
"Draganis," Melosa patiently reminded her, "it is not your place to set policy for the tribe."
This elicited a chuckle from her great warrior. "No one knows that better than me," she said. "I'm just a dog face."
Melosa smiled thinly. "Well not any more you're not."
The recent battle with the Mysians had cost Melosa two of her four captains--Mycinia, mistakenly killed in the gathering twilight by her fellow captain Porticia who in turn later committed suicide. Out of respect and also to better evaluate the prospective candidates the queen had let one full moon pass before addressing the matter of succession. It was a sign of the tribe's overall soundness that she had several viable candidates from which to choose. Of course each had their own strengths and weaknesses that had to be carefully weighed and many of her sleepless nights had been devoted to making these assessments. Indeed it had been in the very early morning two days ago that she had finally made up her mind. Leadership of Mycinia's old unit had boiled down to two warriors, Jasara and Meelah. Both were equally skilled in combat; both were very resourceful. However in the past few moons Melosa had noticed a certain...hesitancy on Jasara's part. She was still a fine warrior--last month's battle had proven that. Still, something seemed to have seeped into her makeup, something that indicated to Melosa that she was no longer as aggressive as she had once been. For an prospective Amazonian captain this was the kiss of death. Meelah on the other hand, older and more experienced, had taken each challenge presented to her and came out of it more confident than ever. Courageous, clever, battle-wise with impeccable personal character, the proud mother of Ephiny seemed to grow stronger with each added responsibility. Moreover, she seemed averse to the pressure that caused so many of her peers sweaty palms and dry throats. This was good because as captain she would be subject to plenty more of it. And so it was that Melosa came to Meelah. She would take Mycinia's old group.
As for Porticia's old unit there had never really been much doubt in her mind there as to who would get the promotion. Melosa's faint smile faded. This was serious business. "I have decided on the new captains," she said. "Meelah will take Mycinia's unit."
"Good choice," Draganis observed. "Meelah's a first rate warrior."
Melosa fixed her dark eyes on Draganis and in that instant the great warrior knew. It was a prospect she did not relish. A moment later Melosa confirmed it for her. "You, Draganis, will assume command of Porticia's group."
Like a fish on a line, Draganis tried to wriggle off the hook. "But, ma'am, you know I have no experience leading. I have always worked alone."
"Don't give me that," Melosa scoffed. "I baby sat your ass, remember? You and I both know you are a born leader. And ever since those watermelons of yours were just blossoms on the vine you've been getting off easy. Well no more."
Draganis came near to blushing at this. Her..."ample" breasts were legendary among her sister Amazons. Before Colsethme gave up lusting for her she used to tease Draganis about her breasts, calling them Mount Ossa and Mount Olympus, and that she needed carry no weapon into battle because she already had two battering rams mounted on her chest.
"Melosa," she said quietly, "I ask that you reconsider." It was indicative of the concern she felt that the great warrior had sought to relate to the queen on a personal level.
For her part the queen was not offended by her subject's sudden informality. A promotion to captain was enough to make even the staunchest Amazon shiver. She still remembered catching Mycinia silently weeping in the forest after being informed by Penthesilea that she had been promoted to captain. Now it was Draganis' turn to feel the anxiety. "It's like you said," Draganis continued. "You know me. I'm a loner. I am not good at looking out for others."
"Not according to Hyacinth," the queen deftly replied. Hyacinth was the young warrior who, prior to the battle with the Mysians, had been assigned to accompany Draganis on a scouting mission. All during the subsequent fight Draganis had steadfastly stayed by the young warrior's side, twice rescuing her after she was knocked to the ground.
"Aww that's different," Draganis weakly replied. "Hyacinth is a good kid. I just didn't want anything to happen to her."
"They're all good kids," said Melosa. "And they need you." Melosa reached up and placed a hand on Draganis' broad shoulder. "We all need you."
The queen had adroitly just turned the personal moment to her own advantage and Draganis knew it. Added to this unhappy fact was the tacit understanding that, protest or not, Melosa was fully prepared to exercise her authority and order Draganis to assume command. Heaving a deep sigh of resignation, Draganis said, "All right, you win."
Melosa never missed a beat. With the faint hint of an amused twinkle in her eye she replied, "I'm queen. I am supposed to win."
With a congratulatory clasp of forearms Melosa sent the new captain off to inform Colsethme and Meelah of the change in the day's patrol assignments. She had warned Draganis not to tell Meelah of her impending promotion but suspected that the warrior would drop a very strong "hint" in any event. And that was all right too. Unlike the impulsive, "bash the gates" Draganis, Meelah was much more the thinking Amazon's warrior. It was better that she be given a little lead time to sort out her new role.
A short time later found Melosa back inside her hut. Borrowing her sister's dagger, the queen sat down by the open window which afforded her an excellent view of the village. There she carefully sliced through the packet's wax seal. Inside she found two sheets of high grade parchment, each in turn folded in half and sealed with more wax. Opening the first, she discerned it to be the personal note which Zacharius had alluded to. The second she saw was an outline of the king's proposal. Though intended to be an addendum of sorts to the personal note, the Amazon took the opposite approach and read it first. Immediately she saw the thing was much too vague for her tastes.
She then turned her attention to the king's letter. Opening it, she read,
As you are undoubtedly aware these are dangerous times in which we live. With each passing year both our lands are subjected to ever increasing pressures from the west and south. I hardly need remind your highness of the havoc that Macedonian murderess Xena is wrecking down in Greece at this very moment. Who knows when she will turn her blood lusted eyes toward us? Of even more imminent concern for you is the threat posed on your very doorstep by those godless creatures, the Centaurs. That these marauding beasts from the pit of hell covet the land of your brave people is well known and the thought of them befouling your home with their stinking presence is something I find utterly abhorrent.
Likewise, we Getae too have our own concerns. The Teutonic tribes probe farther down the Danube at every opportunity. Now from the west comes word of a new threat from a ruthless people who call Latium their home. In light of these troubling reports, we, as monarchs, should take any and all measures necessary in order to ensure our security.
To that end, I, King Burebistas, hereby officially propose to you, Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, that we join in friendship and respect; that we may solemnly vow to provide mutual support and immediate military assistance to one another should the need arise.
It is my sincerest hope that you will look favorably on this offer and that our two peoples can reach an understanding which our progeny might well one day look back on and point to with pride as the defining moment of their salvation. Enclosed you will find a document which has been drawn up by my ministers. You understand of course that is only a general outline of the proposal and the various points are to a great extent subject to negotiation.
Pending your approval, I propose that we open discussions at the earliest possible moment. In the meantime I ask that you, due to the sensitive nature of the present situation in our region, treat this matter with the utmost secrecy--at least for the time being.
I look forward to your reply,
Burebistas, King of the Getae
Melosa put the letter down on her thigh and looked out the window to the surrounding huts. It was fully light now and she could see several Amazons stirring forth from their homes, ready to begin another day. Soon the younger women would be gathering for their morning training sessions. Likewise the older women would be taking to the gardens. Up in the hills Euset was probably already had the goats on the move to better pasture. Before long she would be sought out for instruction on any number of the tribe's ongoing projects, for personal advice and, yes, to settle disputes ranging from petty to those of the most serious nature, and, if need be, dispense justice. While she would never admit it, there were those moments when she found the burden almost too wearisome to bear. In a very real sense her life was not her own but one irrevocably intertwined with those she ruled. However she had known long before beginning her reign that it would be this way. From the time she was five years old her mother had meticulously prepared her eldest daughter for the day when she would perform the sacred Ascension Dance. All of it, the good and the bad, the rewards and the frustration--all of it--was part of being who she was, of being the living symbol of strength and unity for her proud and noble people. And it was the welfare of those people--first, last and always--that mattered most to her. This was why, as she sat there watching Minutia draw water from the well, she made the decision to allow talks with the Getae to go forward.
In truth Melosa had little use for the Getae. As far as she was concerned they were a crude, quarrelsome, backward people and not particularly adept either politically or militarily. Melosa's mother had once told her that about all she considered a Getae to be fit for was making manure out of its carcass. Still, Melosa recognized that the king's letter contained some very valid points. Despite the strife in Greece the region as a whole was growing stronger by leaps and bounds. It was Melosa's belief that, sooner or later, one of those warring factions would win out and would invariably look toward the Euxine Pontus region as a logical place to expand their influence. When that day came the Amazons were going to need more in the way of assistance than prayers to Artemis for deliverance.
While the Getae were hardly the most desirable of candidates for an alliance at least in this both they and the Amazons had a common interest. She knew Penthesilea would never have approved of any kind of treaty with the "pigs" but as the man Zacharius had said times had indeed changed. The Amazonian position was not nearly as secure as it had once been.
Rising, Melosa stepped softly to the door of her sister's room. Only a blanket was there to cover the opening but for the older sister it might as well have been the very gates of Troy itself. Melosa might be the undisputed ruler, the Supreme Warlord, but here in the sanctity of the place where the two of them had lived all their lives, violating her sister's privacy was unthinkable.
"Terreis," she said in a low voice.
From the other side of the blanket came a muffled, "Yes?"
Melosa took a glance at the king's letter and said, "Assemble the captains. But first, tell Willa I have a job for her."
Upon the arrival of morning and with it the end of their watch, Ephiny and Solari met at their usual place and together rode back to the river patrol's rendezvous point. The morning patrol would be there, waiting to relieve them, with each warrior in turn giving their report in the presence of both the night and morning watch commanders. It was all very routine, very dull, and the two young friends had already done it many times before. At least on this morning, Ephiny thought as she rode along, we'll have something interesting to tell.
For some time the two of them rode along, saying little, and as usual it was Solari who started the conversation. "What did you make of that little guy?" she asked. Obviously her thinking was along much the same lines as her reticent friend.
Shrugging, Ephiny answered, "I don't know. Just some boob doing what he was told, I guess."
Amused, Ephiny cocked her head and nodded once. "Like us."
"Still, that was damned foolish of him to be blundering around in the dark like that."
"He doesn't seem like much of an experienced traveler, that's for sure," allowed Ephiny.
"Well it's a good thing we found him instead of someone like Celeste," said Solari. "You know how itchy her sword hand gets." The towering Celeste, one of Meelah's "Pine Trees," was notorious as an Amazon who slashed first and asked questions later.
Ephiny shook her head. "Celeste would have done just the same as we did. She might be a little sword happy but she knows the standing orders are to bring trespassers in alive. Even she's not crazy enough to cross Draganis."
"Yeah, I suppose," said Solari, losing interest. She had other things on her mind now. Turning to
Ephiny, she grinned and said, "So, are you going to invite me home for breakfast?"
When the two groups met up back at the rendezvous point Ephiny was surprised to find her mother leading the morning patrol. Meelah, as any mother would, worried whenever it came Ephiny's turn for the uncertainty that was night patrol and the pride she felt watching her only child ride in--strong and confident--was mixed with more than a little relief. However a warrior's duty always came before family and so Meelah sat in the saddle and patiently listened while the members of the night patrol one by one reported to her.
When a patrol turned out to be routine who reported first was dependent on where the individual warrior stood in the hierarchy. These rankings were rarely by age but instead according to each Amazon's personal reputation as a warrior. By any measure it was usual for Ephiny and then Solari to be the last two called upon. In the entire tribe only the affable Pomona ranked below Solari at the present but as with most things the young woman took it in stride. Solari's standing joke was that it was vital that she be down at the bottom because the queen depended on her to hold everyone else up.
Today, however, there was something of some significance to report and although Meelah had already learned of the stranger from Draganis she was not about to spoil her daughter's moment in the sun. The great news regarding her impending promotion which a whispering Draganis had also imparted--as Melosa knew she would--was something that could wait for a more private moment. Right now it was far more important for Meelah that Ephiny receive the proper recognition--however small that might be.
Knowing full well the answer, Meelah asked "Any activity last night?"
"Yes, ma'am," a clear voice answered. It was Ephiny. At home Meelah was "Mom," "Momma," or "Mother," the woman who fixed most of her meals, mended her clothes and brushed her unruly locks at night. Here she was a very respected warrior and the morning patrol leader. Daughter or no, Ephiny had to maintain the the proper discipline.
"Report," ordered Meelah.
"Just before dawn this morning Solari and I met up at our adjoining sectors," Ephiny began. "There we heard a voice cry out from somewhere upriver. Soon after we captured a man trying to hide just off the river road. He claimed to be an emissary in search of our queen. A short time later Draganis arrived and as ordered we turned the man over to her."
"Did you make certain the man was alone?" asked Meelah.
"Yes, ma'am. After leaving the area I doubled back and kept watch for a time just to make sure."
"Very well," said Meelah. "Anything else?"
"No, ma'am. The rest of my patrol was uneventful."
Meelah nodded and then very casually offered up, "Draganis says you and Solari did well. Good work, you two." At this point she could not resist just a hint of a smile. "Now go on home and eat your breakfast. It's getting cold."
Momentarily caught off guard by this, Ephiny stammered back, "Yes, Momm--Ma'am," much to the amusement of the older warriors.
In her own quiet way Ephiny was rapidly gaining a reputation as someone not afraid to question authority. Her already legendary confrontation with Velasca in defense of Solari had garnered her plenty of respect from the other Amazons. Her character unassailable, she was loyal, courageous and, most importantly of all, already proven in battle. All these things combined to make Ephiny what the older warriors liked to call a walnut--good on the inside but hard to crack. Ephiny, daughter of Meelah, was proving herself hard to crack.
But while she might be hard to crack she was also a loving, dutiful daughter. As such Ephiny would have never dreamed of disobeying Meelah. She might stand up to a cruel princess or even dare to risk evoking the queen's wrath but what Meelah said, went. To be sure Meelah had raised her only child with a firm hand, just as her own mother had raised her. Discipline, however, was only part of the process because in Ephiny's entire life Meelah had never let one day pass with expressing in some way just how much she loved the girl.
With the end of Solari's report Meelah relieved the night patrol. As Ephiny passed by Meelah leaned over and in a low voice said, "Forget the roof. We'll do it tomorrow."
Ephiny was not sorry to hear this but her face remained expressionless as she nodded and said, "Okay." With that she and Solari paired up as they always did and together the two young warriors began to make their way back to the village for a well earned rest.
The chair was fashioned from seasoned oak, old and hard. Solid as Mount Olympus, its arm rests were wide and worn and stained from many years of use. The old chair had belonged to Melosa's mother Penthesilea just as it had to her grandmother Antiope before her. For her part Melosa, in the prime of her life and very active, had little opportunity and even less inclination to sit in the thing. Personally she much rather preferred the simple chair with the seat made of woven birch strips that a long since dead warrior named Anhred had made for her years ago. It was softer if less stately. Still, the old oaken chair, passed down from one generation to the next, was the closest thing to a throne the tribe had and as she waited for the tribal leaders to arrive the queen suddenly felt the need to sit in it. She was just easing down into it when Colsethme rapped on her door.
"Enter," Melosa commanded.
Colsethme led the way into the hut, followed by Willa. At the present these two were the queen's lone captains. Next came Draganis, so recently designated for the same rank. As with most matters of importance to the Amazons tribal custom called for a ceremony at which time Draganis and Meelah would officially be proclaimed named new captains. Here the two of them would perform the solemn rite of cutting the palm of their own left hand and, as the blood dripped onto the sacred ground of their ancestors, swear undying devotion to their patron, the great Artemis, their queen and the Amazon race. Only then, it was felt, would they truly be confirmed in the eyes of their warrior goddess.
Limping in last was Euset, the old goatherd whom Melosa had sent Willa to personally fetch. At this point the queen was joined by her sister, the Princess Terreis. With the five of them gathering her Melosa opened the meeting. "I assume you all know about this overture by the Getae. Opinions?"
Colsethme was aghast. "You don't mean to say you are even remotely considering this, do you?"
For the moment Melosa was noncommittal. "I asked for your opinion, May," she said. "Nothing more."
Her venerable captain was not fooled. "Has Your Highness forgotten these are the same bastards that openly prayed for the death of your noble mother and my dear friend? Good gods! They referred to her as being more foul than a tavern whore's crotch!"
"I am well aware of the previous Getae king's hatred for my mother," Melosa said coolly. "That was a long time ago."
"Not long enough for me," Colsethme angrily declared.
"Times change, May," said Willa evenly.
"That's what everyone keeps saying," Draganis mumbled drearily.
"Well it's true," said Willa. The Amazon walked over to Melosa's window. In a sweeping motion of the arm she pointed outside. "Draganis, do you remember when you came back to us from Iberia? Think back to the number of huts that made up our village then." Willa turned her back to the group and gazed out the window. With a tinge of sadness she went on. "And now tell me how many you see out there."
Lowering her eyes, the brave Draganis was forced to conceded, "Barely half."
Willa turned away from the window and went to the side of the great warrior. "We must face facts," she said. "We are not the people we once were. As it stands now we could use an ally or two."
Colsethme was unmoved by this. "Bullshit, Willa!" she snapped. "Do you really think those people, those...swine who have lusted for our lands for generations have now suddenly become struck with some noble sense of benevolence?"
"Benevolence has nothing to do with it," Willa calmly answered. "In this matter at least their interests match our own."
"Yours maybe," Colsethme retorted. "Not mine." Exasperated by her friend's apparent unwillingness to see the truth, she added, "I don't care what the Getae say. They will never render us assistance. Can you not see that?"
"They certainly won't if are not at least willing to give them the chance," said Willa.
With a dismissive wave of the hand Colsethme said, "I am amazed by your newfound love for those bastards. As for myself I would rather be yoked to a Thracian ox cart as to ask the Getae for help."
"If we are someday overrun," said Willa matter-of-factly, "you just might be."
Once again Melosa was struck by just how incongruous Willa was. Soft spoken and rarely demonstrative, Willa at times came close to projecting an image of meekness. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. In battle this calm turned to deadly efficiency both in her leadership role and in her own individual combat skills. Even the fiery Colsethme, the very antithesis of her reserved colleague, regarded her as a first rate warrior. In war and in peace, Willa backed down from no one.
Neither did Colsethme. At Willa's reply her eyes grew wide and she shot the Amazon captain a very dirty look. It was a look Melosa knew well and prompted her to sternly advise, "All right, let us not get carried away here. May, calm down. Willa is only looking out for the best interest of the tribe." She paused and added, "Just as you have always done."
Colsethme's temper tended to be short but was not known for its staying power. So it was that as quickly as it had flared up her anger melted away. Grinning at her equable peer she said, "Speedy, you always were a pain in the ass."
This in turn elicited a smile from Willa. Almost three decades before Colsethme, then a brash, headstrong girl in her early teens, had on many occasions been called upon to tend to the younger children of the village while their mothers were away. Among those had been Willa, nine years Colsethme's junior and known to her friends as "Speedy" because of her maddeningly deliberate way of doing things.
"Old woman, I just want your retirement to be a leisurely one," Willa good naturedly countered.
"Hmph," Colsethme snorted derisively, "that will be the day."
"Draganis," said Melosa, "I already know where you stand. How about you, Euset?"
Melosa need not have bothered. The look of utter disgust on the older woman's face told the queen all she needed to know.
Euset limped forward and said, "You brought me down out of the hills to ask me this?"
With surprising deference Melosa evenly replied, "Euset, you know how much I value your opinion."
"All right then, Highness, you shall have it." In her raspy voice Euset continued, "May is right. The only reply that stinking Burebistas merits from you is your sword right up his fat ass."
"Any other notion you might be entertaining on this," she ominously added, "would be sheer lunacy."
"I appreciate your candor," said Melosa stiffly.
"You must forgive me, Highness," said Euset, bowing repentantly. "When one spends days on end talking to no one but the sheep and her dogs she tends to lose what little tactfulness she might have had to begin with."
Melosa politely nodded once to the warrior who had been her mother's favorite, both in bed and on the battlefield. The queen had known this from the time she was old enough to understand such things and it was out of the respect for the love her mother had once felt for this woman that she now chose to ignore her occasional excess.
"However," said Euset, continuing, "I still think this would be a grave mistake on our part. The history of the Getae is filled with treachery."
Name a history of any society that isn't, thought Willa.
Turning to her sister, Melosa asked, "And what about you?"
Terreis swept her eyes over the four women standing before her. All were at least a dozen years older, all had great renown as warriors. Her birthright made her a princess, Amazon law made her second only to the queen in command authority but young Terreis was not so foolish as to believe that at this stage of her life either the law or her birthright weighed as heavily in the queen's mind as the hard won experience these women had. Indeed part of her wondered if Melosa's sudden solicitation of her opinion was not in fact designed to make her appear more credible in the eyes of Colsethme, Willa, Draganis and Euset.. As one taking her first tentative steps toward exercising real power Terreis was well aware of just how large a shadow these powerful women cast. At any rate the queen had asked.
Here goes, thought Terreis. Mustering a firm voice she said, "I agree with Willa."
This caused Euset's face to grow even more grave, Draganis to sag her shoulders and made Colsethme emit a soft groan. Willa on the other hand was delighted to have such an important ally. Suppressing a grin, she said, "Thank you, Your Highness."
Melosa sensed her sister's discomfort at being put in such a position but was not about to let her wriggle off the hook so easily. "Why?" she asked. "These three have raised legitimate concerns. It is possible we can trust the Getae?" As it was Terreis' suspicions were very much on the mark. While Melosa really did want her sister's input she could have just as easily asked her before, in private. Yet she had waited to sound her out before this gathering of the tribal elite.
"They are not motivated by any desire for harmonious relations with us," said Terreis. "Simply put they are afraid. They are being pressured from two directions and consequently these previously quarrelsome people are now reaching out for an ally--any ally."
"That is hardly a revelation," Melosa allowed. "Common sense tells us that."
"My very point," her sister replied. "They need us. Therefore they can ill afford to alienate us."
"All right, so they need us," said Draganis. "We do not need them."
"Maybe not yet," said Melosa.
Immediately Willa seized upon this. "But we may someday," she said. "And whoever it is, the Macedonians, the Greeks, the Northern Tribes--if they threaten us would it not be better to fight them in Getae than here?"
"And while we are off fighting somebody else's war what's to keep the Centaurs from just dancing in here and taking over our lands?" Euset sharply asked.
"If the Getae are ever overrun and we lose with them it won't matter anyway," said Melosa. "If we are the victors we can then expect their support."
"In a pig's eye!" snorted Euset.
"That is enough," Melosa warned her. "I have made up my mind. I will allow these talks to proceed."
And that then, was that. Of the half dozen Amazons present three were for opening talks, three were opposed but in the end it was only one opinion that mattered and that of course was Melosa's, Queen, the All Highest, Supreme Commander of the Southern Tribe.
Rising, she told the group, "You will immediately make preparations for sending a delegation back with this man Zacharius." At this forceful command all five of the subordinate Amazons obediently bowed their heads. "Terreis, as my personal representative you will head the delegation. Willa, you will act as my chief negotiator."
"I am honored by the confidence Your Highness has placed in me," said Willa humbly..
"May I go too, ma'am?" asked Colsethme.
A faint smile played across Melosa's lips. "Not on your life," she replied. "I want these talks to succeed. Besides, I could not sleep at night knowing you were not here." Some might have thought this a mere sop to pacify the captain but Melosa truly meant what she said.
Greatly pleased by this last remark, Colsethme bowed again and said, "You are too kind, ma'am...I think."
To Willa Melosa said, "Pick out three of our best, most experienced warriors to accompany the princess."
"No carousers, nobody with loose lips," the queen warned. "somebody who knows how to keep their mouth shut."
"How about Moirira, Valerie and Jasara?" Willa asked.
Melosa shook her head. "Not Moirira, nor Jasara either. She's still recovering from the battle. You can take Valerie, though. She's young but very skilled. And take Minutia from Mycin--" The queen paused and there was an uncomfortable silence in the hut. Caught up in the moment, she had momentarily forgotten that the great warrior and captain Mycinia was now dead. Quietly correcting herself, Melosa lifted up her chin in a dignified manner and, continuing, said, "Meelah will be assuming Mycinia's old command. I will inform her of that and also that one of her warriors will be going with you."
"Yes, ma'am. How about Polymenia for the other one?"
"She will do," said Melosa. "Be prepared to leave tomorrow at first light." Suddenly a thought came to her. Melosa viewed this as a perfect learning experience for Terreis but it occurred to her that for all her training and preparation the princess was still very young and might perhaps find herself uncomfortable in the presence of all these older, no-nonsense Amazons. Willa was a great leader but she was hardly a ray of sunshine. Perhaps, she thought, it would be wise to allow someone of Terreis' own age to go along.
"Terreis..." Only her younger sibling was aware of the almost imperceptible softening of Melosa's eyes. "...you may take one of your young warrior friends along as a companion if you like."
"I thank the queen for her thoughtfulness," said Terreis.
"Just make certain you tend to business," Melosa firmly advised. "This is not a pleasure trip."
"I will not let the tribe down," Terreis assured her. "Or you."
"I know you won't," said Melosa. "All right then, I appreciate everyone's thoughts on this. Draganis, you will escort Euset back. Willa, bring me the emissary and then return this evening to receive my instructions for conducting the negotiations."
"I don't need this big-assed thing to take me back," Euset protested. "Any little skinny-legged warrior will do just fine." Draganis just grinned.
"Nevertheless," Melosa said simply, "Draganis will accompany you."
Euset grumbled an intelligible reply but nevertheless took the grinning Draganis' strong right arm.
"I assume you want to keep word of this secret," said Colsethme.
"For now," said Melosa. "Let's see how things go first before we let the tribe in on what's happening. Oh, and by the way, you are not to take any more patrols out of turn nor are you to encroach on anyone else's duties for that matter."
"I was only trying to help," lied Colsethme.
"Whatever your motives you are not to do it again," said Melosa sternly. "My most experienced captain is no good to me if she is worn out from doing the work of junior warriors."
Colsethme started to protest but the queen cut her off. "You have been working too hard. I am ordering you to take two days off to rest." The older warrior again opened her mouth to speak but Melosa held up her hand and said, "Don't make me confine you to your hut."
"Yes, ma'am," Colsethme glumly answered. "May I attend the morning training session?"
"Attend is the operative word there," said Melosa. "You can attend but you are not to participate. Let Selena and Adele do their jobs--for once."
"What about my goats?" Euset impishly asked. "I can assure you, Highness, they will tell no one."
Straight-faced, the queen answered, "Not even your goats." She leaned forward and whispered, "You never know, there might be a Centaur in goats' clothing among them." This brought grins all around and on that light note the meeting broke up. One by one the Amazons left to attend to their duties.
All except Colsethme. After everyone else was gone she lingered at the door. "May I have a word with you in private?" she asked.
A little irritated, Melosa answered, "If this is about my decision, no."
"Your Highness, I have serious reservations about this."
"Colsethme," the queen testily warned, "you are trying my patience."
Colsethme was undeterred. To her this was just too important. "Don't you find it at all odd that this so-called emissary came alone? Who ever heard of that?"
It had indeed struck the queen as rather peculiar that one lone man would be sent on such a supposedly important mission--especially a man so clearly ill suited for the task. In this she viewed the mistake as twofold, sending one so soft and sending him alone. It was something she never would have done. "It has crossed my mind," Melosa admitted. "Are you saying this might not be a legitimate offer?"
"Worse," said Colsethme. "I think this is perhaps some sort of trick."
"May, these talks are only preliminary," Melosa reminded her. "Besides, Willa's no fool. If there is a rat I am sure she will be able to smell it out."
Still not convinced, the venerable warrior reluctantly grumbled, "Well I hope so. For all our sakes."
After Colsethme had taken her leave Melosa turned to her sister still standing by the old chair. "So, who do you plan on taking with you?"
Terreis did not hesitate in her reply. In her mind there had been from the beginning only one choice. "Ephiny," she said.
The sun was not yet at its zenith when Ephiny was awakened by a rap on the door of her hut. "Eph," a voice called out. "You up yet?" It was Solari. With a yawn Ephiny arose and sleepily shuffled to the door. Opening it, she blinked hard as the harsh light blasted her eyes.
"Honestly Eph, were you going to sleep all day?"
"Not a chance of that with you around," Ephiny grumbled. "Damn it, don't you ever sleep?"
As was her habit Solari chose to ignore Ephiny's barb. She had long since grown accustomed to her friend's bluntness and indeed it was one of the things she liked about Ephiny. With her there was no guesswork. One always knew where they stood. So it was that in an effort to aggravate her friend a little more Solari cheerfully asked herself "Won't you come in, Solari?"
"Why thank you," she replied in kind and breezily whisked past Ephiny into the hut.
"Yeah yeah," Ephiny muttered, brushing back the blonde locks from her eyes.
On the puncheon table before them there was a wooden bowl filled with apples. There Solari nonchalantly planted herself and plucked one of the apples from the bowl. Watching her friend take a bite from the apple, Ephiny dryly said, "Help yourself."
Her mouth still full of apple, Solari answered, "My juss did."
It was no use and Ephiny knew it and so with a sigh of resignation she plodded back to her bed to get her boots. It was then that she saw a shadow fall over the doorway. "Ephiny?" someone said. "Are you in there?"
Ephiny and Solari looked at each other, both realizing it was Terreis at the door. Foregoing her boots, Ephiny briskly walked to the door with Solari right behind her. Once at the door Ephiny saw the princess craning her neck to look inside. "I'm here," said the blonde. "Come on in."
Unlike Melosa whose presence commanded the utmost respect at all times, Terreis preferred a much less formal tone in private, especially with those close to her own age. Ephiny had been her friend for a long time and because of that the unassuming Terreis was little interested in flaunting her elite status.
Terreis stepped inside and saw Solari peeking over the shoulder of a slightly disheveled Ephiny. It was obvious the girl had just awakened and so the princess said, "Oh I'm sorry, you had night patrol last night, didn't you?"
Ephiny looked first down at her bare feet and then back up at Terreis. "Yeah," she grinned, "we both did."
"I hope I didn't wake you," said Terreis.
"No," Ephiny assured her. She angled her head back toward Solari and added, "This big cow here beat you to it."
"Hey!" Solari yelped. Lifting her knee, she bumped Ephiny in the buttocks, pushing her forward. There were grins from both Solari and the princess as Ephiny was forced to take a quick step forward in order to regain her balance.
Ignoring the indignity of it, Ephiny asked Terreis "What brings you here?" she asked Terreis. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"There is as a matter of fact," replied the princess.
"Name it," said Ephiny.
"The queen has given me the task of leading a diplomatic mission," said Terreis. Pausing for a moment, she then added, "I would like for you to go as well." While clearly more in the form of a request than a definite order, the princess nevertheless hoped that Ephiny would accede to her wishes and say yes. The ride to the land of the Getae promised to be a long one and though Terreis had other friends who were much better conversationalists than the taciturn Ephiny, good conversation was not what she was looking for. None of those others were as reliable or as trustworthy as the staunch daughter of Meelah and going into a situation fraught with uncertainty it was this dependability that made her a perfect choice in the mind of the princess. Terreis did not expect trouble as such but as a princess and a combat leader she had been trained to anticipate and never be caught flat-footed. For her part Terreis did not intend to be.
Ephiny wrinkled her nose. Not that again, she thought. "A diplomatic mission?"
"Yes, although I am for the time being prohibited from saying just where."
"What's it about?" asked Solari.
"I cannot tell you that either," replied the princess. "All I can say is that our destination will be revealed when it's deemed appropriate."
"You don't have to tell us," said Ephiny. "Solari and I were the ones who found this Zacharius fellow, remember?"
"What makes you think this involves him?" asked Terreis.
"Oh come on," said Ephiny. "One would have to be as dumb as a post not to have made that connection." Which did little for her friend Solari's sense of self-esteem because she in fact had not seen the connection at all. After a slight pause Ephiny added, "Let's hope he does a better job of staying on his horse this time."
It was just what Terreis wanted to hear. "I take it then you will go?"
"If you want me to, of course," Ephiny matter-of-factly-replied. "Who am I to refuse the princess?"
Clearly pleased, Terreis smiled and said, "Good. Be ready to leave in the morning at first light."
Surprised by the suddenness of it, Ephiny asked "So soon?"
"I'm afraid so," said Terreis. "Mel--the queen seems very eager to get the ball rolling on this."
"Terreis," Solari asked hopefully, "might I go as well?"
"The queen is only letting me take one," said Terreis. "Sorry."
With a careless shrug Solari said, "Oh well, it was worth a try." She was disappointed to be sure but was also long accustomed to being passed over in favor of her friend. She recognized Ephiny's talents and was proud that she, of all the others, was the gifted girl's best friend. Perhaps the thing she liked most about her was that, unlike some of those others, Ephiny never tried to assume an air of superiority over her. Solari's own mother had died when she was just a very young girl and without that benefit of a warrior to anchor her place in society she had grown up being looked upon as something of a pariah. Yet it had been Ephiny, daughter of the highly esteemed Meelah, that had ignored convention and befriended the humble girl with the dark hair. Ephiny sometimes cast a very long shadow but not once had she ever intentionally tried to block out Solari's place in the sun.
A little embarrassed by her friend's rejection, Ephiny said, "I will need to tell my captain."
Also uncomfortable at having turned down Solari, Terreis was grateful for the opportunity to change the subject. "Oh, that reminds me. Draganis is your captain, right?"
"For the time being," said Ephiny, a little apprehensively. "Why?"
Terreis conspiratorially glanced first one way, then the other. "No one is supposed to know yet but Draganis' rank will be made permanent at the next new moon. Though hardly unexpected, Ephiny was pleased to hear this nonetheless. To be sure Draganis could at times be quite hard on "turds" like her but then this was nothing new. Life as an Amazon warrior was an intense, competitive one with every facet of a warrior's performance being constantly evaluated. Her many years of training had long inured her to this often harsh environment. Ephiny saw Draganis as extremely tough but fair, one who was always looking out for those under her command. At any rate Ephiny liked her and looked forward to many years of service under her.
Terreis, however, was not finished and her next bit of news was not so well received. "I also know that both you guys are being shifted to a new command."
"We are?" asked an uneasy Solari. "Why?" Like Ephiny she was happy right where she was.
Here the princess turned strangely evasive. "Oh you know how it is," she said nonchalantly. "The queen said something about balancing out the companies." Noting the girls' crestfallen faces, the princess added. "Oh cheer up! You will love your new captain."
Misreading her tone, Ephiny almost gasped, saying, "Not Colsethme!"
"No, not Colsethme," the princess said with a chuckle.
"Who then?" Solari implored. "Has Pycea been promoted? Jasara? Tell us!"
With a puckish grin the princess would only say, "You'll know soon enough." With that Terreis departed, leaving behind more questions than answers.
"Gods, Eph, what do you make of that?" a perplexed Solari asked.
"Damned if I know," Ephiny said with a resigned shrug. "Doesn't really matter anyway. I'm just a lowly turd who does what they tell me."
Solari seemed reluctant to let it go. "Well who could it be?" she asked apprehensively. Suddenly she cried out, "Oh no! You don't really suppose it's Jasara do you?"
Ephiny sat down and began pulling on her boots. "I doubt if it's Jasara," she said calmly.
"What makes you say that?"
"Well for one thing she's still hurt. For another she has not been given a real leadership opportunity in ages. I hardly think Melosa is going to entrust twenty plus lives to someone who has been so far removed from the command structure."
Solari was not entirely convinced. "I don't know...Jasara is a great warrior...."
"Was a great warrior," Ephiny coolly corrected her. "Everybody knows she's never been the same since she had her child."
"Well who then?"
Growing a little annoyed, Ephiny said, "Look what difference does it make. Any speculation on our part is pointless. Whoever the queen chooses you can bet that it won't be you and it won't be me. We're just a couple of piss ants hoping to avoid being stomped on. So why worry about it?"
"I suppose you're right," Solari said gloomily.
"Anyway, we're going to be together," said Ephiny. "And besides, you know what they say."
Solari grinned. "Shut up and obey orders." This was a time honored Amazonian mantra as old as the tribe itself and both of them had heard it all their young lives.
"Oh well," said Solari. "I guess you're right." Then, in what for her was a moment of startling intuition, she quickly added, "Hey, wouldn't it be something if it was your mother? Wouldn't that be great?"
And that was when it dawned on Ephiny that her friend just might be right. Why else had Terreis acted so coyly? Ephiny arose and stamped each boot into place. If it was true, if her mother was going to be promoted, she should think of no one more deserving. The granddaughter of the legendary Claudia had nobly borne arms for the tribe since her thirteenth summer. As both a warrior and a human being she was respected and admired by all. Yes, Meelah deserved it all right and no one could say otherwise.
It was a pleasing thought but true to her nature Ephiny's expression changed little. All she said in reply was, "Yes, it would."
When Meelah returned from the morning patrol she found Ephiny waiting for her outside their hut. "All quiet?" the girl asked.
"Like a tomb," said her mother. With practiced ease Meelah slid off the horse. "We did find the intruder's horse though."
Noticing the twinkle in her daughter's eye, Meelah eyed her askance and asked "What are doing out here anyway?"
"Why, waiting for you, Momma," Ephiny innocently replied.
"Well I can see that," Meelah said wryly.
"Well okay I've got something to tell you," confessed Ephiny.
"Now isn't that a coincidence?" Meelah said with a smile. "So do I. Something big."
This caused Ephiny to wonder if perhaps Solari's guess might not be right at that. However, she was not about to spoil it for her mother if it was true so she said, "Okay, age before beauty. You first."
Meelah laughed. Though in her late thirties now Meelah's weather worn face was still very comely. In her youth she had been renowned for her beauty, even catching the eye of Queen Penthesilea. "All right then, Little Miss Impudence. Although not official yet I have learned from a very reliable source that I--your decrepit old mother--will soon be named to replace Mycinia."
Ephiny moved to her mother and gave her a warm hug. "Ohh, Momma," she said, "I am so proud of you. No one deserves it more."
Meelah pressed her cheek to the side of her precious daughter's head. "I know you are, baby," she tenderly replied.
It was a rare moment now when Meelah got such an embrace from her ever more independent daughter and the older woman savored this wonderful opportunity to do so. So it was then with great reluctance that she drew back, asking "Now, beautiful, what were you going to tell me?"
The daughter broke into the big smile that no one but her mother ever saw. Excitedly she said, "Mother, you won't believe it! Terreis is going to head up a diplomatic mission to the Getae and guess what? She wants me to go! Isn't that great?"
As a mother Meelah naturally had mixed feelings about this. On one hand she was extremely proud that Terreis considered her child to be so utile. On the other she was concerned about Ephiny making such a potentially dangerous trip to a kingdom that historically had never felt much empathy for the Amazons.
There were other concerns as well. "Terreis? Are you sure?"
"Yes, she asked me herself. Why?"
"She's so very young," Meelah observed.
Her mother's reservation was not lost on Ephiny nor was its unspoken double application. "I am sure Melosa will be sending some experienced person along to guide her. Anyway, she has to stand on her own sooner or later." Looking her mother squarely in the eye, Ephiny quietly added, "We all do."
But does it have to be so soon? her mother thought. Forcing a half-hearted smile, she said, "Well, independence is highly overrated."
"I can't be your little girl forever, Momma."
That's where you're wrong, thought Meelah. You'll always be my little girl. "You're right, I suppose," she said. "The experience will be good for the both of you."
"Then you don't mind?"
"I didn't say that," said Meelah. "But if Terreis wants you to go, if you...want to go, I...won't object."
Relieved, Ephiny gratefully said, "Thanks, Momma. You're the best."
The great warrior lovingly placed her strong right hand on her daughter's shoulder. Softly she said, "Who am I to keep you from such a great adventure?"
At the door to the queen's hut Willa paused. The day was drawing to a close, the huts of the village casting long, fat shadows in the evening sun. As ordered the Amazon captain had returned to receive her instructions from the queen regarding the conducting of negotiations with the Getae. All day she had thought of nothing else. Although surprised at having been chosen by Melosa, she had instantly recognized what an opportunity this was for her. Willa thought that if she pulled this off it just might set her on the path to perhaps one day assuming the same role the late Phillipia had played so brilliantly. For her part Willa did not plan on ending up like Colsethme whom she perceived as having grown bitter now that her prime years as a warrior were so clearly drawing to a close. To be sure the woman was still formidable but sooner or later the sword hand would weaken and she would have to be replaced by some clear-eyed, hot-blooded younger woman. That is, if the fortunes of battle did not make it necessary beforehand. Of course, if she did survive Colsethme would still be a respected member of the tribe for having given such valiant service but still, the queen would never quite look upon her the same way again. Willa did not intend to be shunted aside into forced retirement when her time came.
As the captain raised her hand to knock the door swung open and out stepped Zacharius and right behind him was the young warrior, Calliope. In a friendly tone the man said, "Good evening."
Willa's reply was polite but nothing more. "Good evening. I trust your stay with us has been comfortable?"
"I must confess I am finding that being around so many striking examples of womanhood takes some getting used to, especially when considering the added realization that most of them could probably slay me quite easily."
With a professional's eye Willa coolly looked his frail body up and down. "You're right about that," she said. "After all that is what they're trained for. Even young Calliope here would have no trouble splitting your head open like a melon." With a faint smile of amusement playing on her lips she added, "Don't worry. All that power is here to protect you. You are quiet safe here. Besides, those wild tales about what Amazons do to males aren't true." She paused for effect and almost as an afterthought added under her breath, "For the most part." She shot Calliope a devilish little grin and said, "But that's only the ones who fail us in the only thing they're good for, eh, Calliope?
Calliope, still a virgin, could only blush as she played along, whispering, "Yes, ma'am."
Zacharius curiously eyed Willa, not quite certain if the Amazon was indeed serious.
For her part Calliope was surprised to hear the usually reserved Willa make such a provocative remark. She would have expected that more from someone like Draganis or the rowdy Jen. Like any Amazon she knew well the lurid tales of cruelty and debauchery those of her race were supposed to suffer upon captives, both male and female and she wondered why Willa would take the trouble to reinforce such myths. In truth Amazons, at least those of her tribe, rarely abused prisoners. However harshly they may or may not have eventually been dealt with they were as a rule treated fairly and humanely and provided a chance to speak on their own behalf. What Calliope did not understand was that senior Amazons rarely bothered to dispel these myths. In fact they viewed such tales as advantageous. They understood that because of their small numbers any enhancement of their fierce reputation was hardly a bad thing. It was merely one more weapon at their disposal.
Having had her moment of fun Willa changed tack and got down to business. "I trust you have eaten," she said.
"Yes, twice," Zacharius answered. He then smiled and said, "This fine young woman has taken very good care of me."
"With Calliope you are in very capable hands," said Willa. "Carry on, Calliope."
"Oh by the way," said Zacharius. "Do you know who found my horse?"
"Why?" asked the captain. "Is something wrong?"
"No no. I merely wanted to thank her."
"It was Meelah who found your horse," said Willa. "I shall give her your thanks." Castling a sidelong glance inside the hut, she said, "Now, you must excuse me. The queen is expecting me." Willa stepped through the door and very nearly bumped into her queen who was coming to the door to investigate the voices. Surprised, she softly cried. "Oh! Excuse me!"
Melosa ignored her captain's courtesy and got straight to the point. "Have you finished your preparations?"
"I have," said Willa. "All is set. I am ready to receive my instructions."
"Good." With a nod toward the door, Melosa said, "Let's take a walk." Willa respectfully stepped aside in order to make way for her queen and then followed her out into the evening light. "This way," said Melosa.
Together the two of them started off toward the northern end of the village and as Willa matched her queen's slow pace, the queen began to one by one lay out her directives. "First of all," she began, "you will make it clear in no uncertain terms that these talks are only preliminary. No matter how much they might press you you must not make any definite commitments whatsoever. You are to speak little, reveal even less and agree to absolutely nothing. However, to prove you have come in good faith you may toss them a bone by declaring--unofficially of course--that your queen will not be amenable to any agreement which calls for a unified command principle under the leadership of either party. Remember, your primary task is to ascertain just how credible this offer is."
As she listened, Willa intently kept her eyes focused on the ground in front of her in order to better concentrate on Melosa's words.
"Now, my guess is the Getae have probably already drawn up a proposal. Study it carefully. If you find any articles that seem vague to you or if there is something you don't understand ask for an immediate clarification. I don't want this drawn out into a series of time consuming long distance exchanges. The Getae can be expected to demur but if you make it clear they only get one chance to convince me they might be more willing to lay all their cards on the table up front."
"We are not interested in generalities. We want it spelled out exactly what they are prepared to do and also what they expect from us. I need not tell you that you will be walking a fine line here, Willa. Again, commit to nothing but at the same time you must demonstrate to them that the Amazons have some measure of interest in reaching an agreement IF the conditions are right."
"I understand," said Willa.
Melosa stopped and looked out over the plain toward the woods to the west. After a deep sigh she said, "You know, May is a contentious pain in the ass sometimes but she's nobody's fool. We would do well to heed her warning. So be cautious here. Keep your eyes and ears open."
Again the queen paused. In a way she felt a little self-conscious speaking to Willa in such a lecturing manner. Despite her quiet nature Willa was as shrewd and perceptive as they came and did not really need to be cautioned. Still, this was a delicate matter and Melosa wanted her chief negotiator entering into it with both eyes open. If only Phillipia were here, she thought sadly.
Now that she had given Willa her guidelines, Melosa turned to a more personal subject matter. "I am going to allow Terreis to take Ephiny along," she said. "While she is to ride with the princess a large part of the time I want you to give her other duties from time to time as well. That goes for Terreis as well. There is an opportunity here for the both of them to gain some valuable experience here. Make the most of it. Of course the safety of the princess is paramount at all times but I want you to see to it that both these young ones pull their own weight on this trip."
"Yes, ma'am." Willa lowered her eyes in thought and then looked back up at her queen. "You know, Highness, if we are successful in reaching an agreement it could go a long way towards securing our western border."
"Perhaps," said Melosa. "But let's not get overly excited about this. Amazonian history has not exactly been marked by cooperation and harmony with other societies you know. Who knows what you will find once you get there."
"Well let us hope what we find is a sincere desire for an alliance based on mutual trust," said Willa.
Melosa's only reply was a solemn nod. At that point the queen heard someone call for her from off in the distance. Turning, she saw old Adele waving. Earlier in the day the queen had told the old instructor to inform her when the evening training session was to begin as she wanted to observe for herself the progress of the young warriors. "I must go now," Melosa said to Willa. "You have your orders. I will see you in the morning."
Before attending to her duties Willa paused for a moment to watch the queen as she walked away. For Willa leading her company was difficult enough and she could only imagine the tremendous pressures the queen faced each day as she made decision after decision that affected the lives of everyone in the tribe.
Willa did not envy her.
Dawn had not yet broken the next morning when Ephiny was awakened by a hand on her shoulder. "Ephiny," her mother said softly. "Ephiny, it's time."
The young warrior stirred only slightly, murmuring a sleepy, "Mmm?"
"It's time," her mother repeated. "You need to get ready."
After allowing herself a few more precious moments in her warm bed, Ephiny finally cast aside her blanket and sat up. She had been
dreaming of wise old Phillipia, esteemed and honored by three generations of Amazons, who had taken such an interest in her. Even now, a
month after the woman's death, Ephiny did not know why the great hero had bothered with befriending a nobody such as her. But she had,
however, and Ephiny's life was much the richer for it. Phillipia had been the first Amazon of rank to treat her as something more than a
child, someone who when not being continually worked or trained was to be totally ignored. The old Amazon had somehow looked inside the
daughter of Meelah and seen qualities that even Ephiny herself did not know were there. In a time of real crisis Phillipia had believed in
the daughter of Meelah with the slim waist and the unruly blonde hair. For as long as she lived Ephiny would not forget that.
The young warrior had wisely made all her preparations for leaving the night before and so it was but a short time later that she, along her mother, joined the knot of people assembling in front of Melosa's hut. Valerie and Polymenia were there, already mounted and waiting with bedrolls and small sacks of food tied to their saddles. The towering Minutia was there as well, standing alone, silently holding the reins of three horses. Two of these horses belonged to Terreis and Willa who at the moment were engaged in a quiet conversation with Queen Melosa. Lastly there was Zacharius, mounted beside Polymenia and sitting on his horse with all the grace of a sack of potatoes. The arrival of Ephiny rounded out the little company.
Ephiny was on foot, leading her horse, and as she and her mother joined the two mounted Amazons Polymenia broke into a mischievous little grin. "There you are, kid," she said to Ephiny. "For a moment there I thought the queen was going to have to extend you a special invitation or something."
Ignoring the veteran warrior's barb, the stone-faced Ephiny calmly mounted her horse.
Polymenia, however, was not finished. "That's an awfully big horse for a little sprout like you," she casually observed. "Are you sure you can handle him on such a long trip?"
Both Ephiny and her mother knew there was nothing malicious in Polymenia's ribbing. It was just the way she was. Even so, Meelah was not about to resist rising to the defense of her child. "Don't worry about Ephiny," she shot back.
Polymenia was insistent. "I don't know," she said as she cocked her head to one side. Again she repeated her mantra. "That's an awfully big horse,"
Meelah looked at Polymenia with mock disdain and said, "Yeah? Well I've got five drachmas that says she'll ride your ass into the ground."
Self-conscious at this, Ephiny's whisper was one of quiet urgency. "Momaaaa!" She knew how fortunate she was to be going on this trip and the last thing she wanted was to call undue attention to herself before they even got started.
"I'd take that bet," Polymenia replied. Then, with a wink to Ephiny to show that it was all in fun she added, "IF I had five drachmas." And that was how Polymenia was. She loved to tease but never in a mean-spirited way.
With Terreis and Willa now set to take their leave of her, the queen had one final reminder for them. "Remember, this delegation, but most especially you two, are representing this entire tribe. I expect you at all times to conduct yourselves with the utmost dignity and self-restraint."
"I can assure you, Highness, that the princess and I will do everything in our power to avoid you and the tribe any embarrassment," said Willa.
"I know you will," said Melosa. She then added, "Willa, I am making Zacharius' safety your own personal responsibility."
"I understand," said Willa.
In the queen's hand was a small scroll and this she now handed to Terreis. "Here is a private note to King Burebistas. I want you yourself to place it in his hand and no one else's."
"It will done," Terreis assured her.
Melosa looked at the younger sister she had taken care of practically all her life. The once sickly child had now blossomed into a strong young warrior, her bravery already tempered by the bloody fires of battle. The queen was so proud of her! For the most fleeting of moments she felt the urge to send Terreis off on her journey with a warm hug. However the cool reserve which defined the queen would not allow her do such a thing, certainly not here in front of all the others. Besides, she knew Terreis well understood the affection her older sister had for her. And so, all Melosa did instead was glance up at the sky with its gray clouds already tinged with the rosy glow of dawn. "You're losing daylight," she observed. "You'd better get moving."
With a nod Willa wheeled around and went off to get her horse. Terreis shot her sister a faint, tight-lipped smile of understanding before following. Mounting, Willa moved her horse to the head of the column and then waited for the princess to join her.
As Terreis eased her horse past Ephiny Meelah laid a hand on her daughter's thigh. "Now, Ephiny," she said in a low voice, "be sure to do exactly what Willa says. And for the sake of the gods do not give her any trouble! You're an Amazon warrior now, going into foreign territory, not here at home bucking up on your poor old mother."
Sitting nearby, Valerie chuckled at this and even Ephiny was forced to flash a sheepish grin. "Yes, Mother."
"Move out!" Willa barked.
The twinkle in Meelah's eye faded and she pressed her hand hard into Ephiny's flesh. All business now, she very slowly drew out the words, "Do...your...duty!"
Surprised by the forceful hand, Ephiny looked down and saw an intensity in her mother's eyes that she had never seen before. What she saw there in her mother's handsome face was, for once, not the adoring look of a doting mother but rather something much more forceful and hard. It was a look Ephiny had often seen on Melosa's face. Cold and even a little intimidating, it was a look of command. Despite this, Ephiny's voice was firm and clear as she put a fist to her heart and said, "To a strong Amazon Nation."
"To a strong Amazon Nation," her proud mother echoed. Meelah stood back and watched the column neatly form up. They rode out two abreast with Willa and Terreis at the head. Paired off behind them were Zacharius and Polymenia followed by Ephiny and Valerie. The most experienced warrior, Minutia, brought up the rear alone.
As the party rode away Meelah was joined by Melosa and together the two of them stood there, silently watching the riders fade into the morning mists. Late the night before Melosa had at last personally told Meelah of her impending promotion but at the moment Meelah's mind was on something infinitely more important than any honors the queen might bestow on her. Being named captain was an honor to be sure--biggest of her life and the culmination of all her years of faithful service. Achieving the rank of captain was the lifetime goal for every common warrior right down to lowest "turd." And yet as she watched her only child ride off none of that mattered to Meelah. She was, of course, elated that the girl was already gaining such a large measure of respect as a warrior and as a person. It was a tribute to both her personal character and, yes, her upbringing as well. Still, this was just one more indication for Meelah that Ephiny was growing far too quickly for her mother's tastes. The girl had just experienced her first battle. Sweet Artemis! Was that not enough for now? More than most Amazon mothers, she was not quite ready to cut the "apron strings." This would be Ephiny's first time away from home and the very thought of it filled Meelah's heart with much sadness.
Already she missed her.
Standing beside Meelah, Melosa would not in ten centuries have admitted that down deep inside she was feeling very much the same thing. She was, however, also much more pragmatic than her faithful warrior. Such was the way of life after all. Generations pass. The young mature and grow and one day take the place of those who came before just as they themselves would surely one day be replaced by those following after them. It was the natural order of things--even with reluctant mothers. And Amazon royalty as well.
With the hoof beats fading away in the distance Melosa said, "She'll be fine. She's in good hands." Meelah knew Melosa was referring to Ephiny here but the almost distracted way she had said it made her think that perhaps the queen had her own sister in mind was well.
Meelah stared off into the distance and said, "I know."
Melosa had the perfect remedy for their doldrums--work. "Have you eaten?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," the taller woman replied. "Not yet."
"Neither have I."
Knowing the queen as well as she did, Meelah could feel where this was headed. Forcing a smile, she asked "Who needs food when we have our work to sustain us, right, ma'am?"
Characteristically Melosa did not return the smile but there was a hint of amusement in her dark eyes as she replied, "I knew I named you captain for some reason. Assemble the company commanders back here, Captain. I will lay out the day's assignments shortly."
"What about Willa's company?"
"Marleen will assume command of Willa's company in her absence."
With that mother and sister separated, each still with thoughts of their own flesh and blood in their heads, each hoping for them a
successful journey and, more importantly, a safe return.
At the opposite end of the village a solitary figure waited. With the approach of the slow trotting horses she stepped out from behind Jasara's hut in order to greet the riders. It was Solari and somehow Ephiny was not surprised.
Nearing, Ephiny called out, "Sweet Artemis! What are you doing up so early?"
"Aww, I couldn't sleep," said Solari. She then cracked, "Damned bed bugs were on maneuvers all night."
Polymenia laughed at this however Ephiny knew the real reason as to why the square-shouldered young warrior was there. Solari, her best friend, had come to see her off. With no envy, no sulking because she could not go, the unassuming Solari's only thought was how much she would miss her friend. But then, that was how Solari was. For Ephiny Solari's early morning presence was a thoughtful gesture and in her own quiet way the blonde appreciated it very much.
"Hey, Eph! Don't let that big-assed Valerie crowd you away from the fire!" This evoked a general round of laughter.
"Hmph!" Valerie snorted. "I'd talk about a big ass if I were you. Adele's turds could run around yours for exercise."
Solari was not impressed. "Oh yeah?" she jeered, "It's a wonder that poor horse of yours can even hold you up!" Actually neither of the warriors were the least bit fat--Amazon warriors never were. This byplay was simply the continuation of a running gag that had been going on between the two for years.
"Fires and sentry duty don't mix anyway," teased Minutia. "It hinders the night vision." Ephiny had figured as much. Bottom feeders such as her always got stuck with mind numbing tasks like sentry duty.
The powerful Minutia, bigger and stronger than even Draganis, held Ephiny's mother in the highest regard, both as a warrior and as a human being. Because of that she had already decided the welfare of that fine woman's daughter was going to be her own personal responsibility. All teasing aside, Minutia knew the young warrior would perform any and all tasks assigned to her with quiet efficiency and without complaint, regardless of how tedious or boring they might be. She would have expected nothing less from a child of the noble Meelah. "Besides," she playfully added, "If Ephiny gets too cold she can always hug a tree."
"See?" Ephiny said to Solari. "At least you will be getting to sleep on time." But I wish you were coming!
Now that the horses were upon her Solari broke into a trot herself in an effort to keep up. "Yeah," she replied, "between all those night patrols a girl has to get her beauty rest sometime." I still wish I was coming!
Solari's remark afforded her old antagonist Valerie one last opportunity for a barb. "Solari, you could sleep from now until the Euxine Pontus dried up and it still wouldn't do you any good."
With her friend's departure so imminent Solari no longer had any real interest in continuing the verbal sparring with Valerie. All she could muster was a half-hearted, "Oh shut up, fat ass."
By now Willa had heard enough. "Solari," she said sternly, "haven't you anything to do?"
"Uhh, yes, ma'am. I suppose."
"Then I suggest you go do it."
"Yes, ma'am." Valerie snickered at Solari's discomfort, prompting Ephiny's friend to stop and stick out her tongue but only after making sure Willa was not looking back at them. With the riders out of the confines of the village Willa began to pick up the pace. Before Ephiny could get out of earshot Solari called out, "Bring me back a souvenir, Eph!"
Ephiny made no attempt to turn around but held up her hand and waved in acknowledgment. They were still in sight when
Solari, turning, said under her breath, "Take care of yourself, Eph." With that she went off to see what she could turn up for breakfast.
During these short rides Zacharius spoke little as it seemed he had to muster all his concentration just to stay on his horse. As the Amazons saw it he was weak, plain and simple--hardly a trait that would endear him to these hardy warriors. There did not, however, appear to be anything wrong the man's appetite because at the end of the day he unfailingly ate as much as any two of the women. Ephiny was not the only Amazon given cause to wonder where he put it all.
As for the daughter of Meelah Minutia's good-natured warning that first morning had not been an idle one. While the senior Amazons slept warm in their blankets, Ephiny on all four nights was called upon to spend a few very lonesome hours sentry duty. It was by and large a thankless task that no one wanted. Occasionally there was a tense moment as one animal or another came nosing around but more often than not things were simply...dull. Boring though it might have been Ephiny recognized that it was prudent if not absolutely necessary on Willa's part to post a sentry. And as the occupant of the lowest rung on the hierarchical ladder the job quite naturally fell to the two most junior warriors, Ephiny and Valerie. Both accepted this as a matter of course and applied themselves to their task if not with zeal then at least with resigned competence.
Terreis, on the other hand, was more difficult for Willa to deal with. Nevertheless, she was determined to keep her word to the queen and not let this valuable training opportunity for the princess pass by. Still, it was by any measure a delicate situation. As princess, the second highest ranking member of the tribe, Terreis could hardly be ordered to do anything. Unlike the indomitable Mycinia who had never been intimidated by royal blood, Willa felt uneasy at the very idea of giving the princess instruction. Nevertheless she had her own orders direct from the All-Highest, the Supreme Commander and qualms or no qualms she was determined to carry them out. Hoping to avoid any embarrassment for the princess Willa at first she resorted to gentle hints and quiet asides. Fortunately this awkward method lasted only for the better part of the first morning until Terreis, well aware of Melosa's directive, finally eased Willa's discomfort by graciously urging her to simply come right out and tell her what needed to be done. A grateful and much relieved Willa promised that she would and for the rest of the journey Terreis, with the necessary precautions, took her proper turn hunting, scouting for water and forage and doubling back to check the "back door" to make certain no one was following too closely. Accompanied by the ever present Minutia, she also went on advance reconnaissance patrols, sometimes roaming ahead as much as a league or more.
At other times Willa presented the three younger Amazonx with hypothetical problems on such subjects as the tactical use of various types of terrain. From these Willa came away very impressed. As one having been groomed for command all her life, Terreis quite naturally proved to be far more advanced than the younger Ephiny. Despite this, Willa soon discovered that in Ephiny's case the apple had indeed not fallen far from the tree. Like her mother, Ephiny showed a keen overall intelligence along with a real talent for tactics and maneuvers. To Willa it was clear that Ephiny had a real chance for advancement. The girl would one day be going places IF she managed to survive. Willa's experience in war had long ago taught her that it was the younger warriors--less mature physically and far less battle-wise--who invariably suffered the most casualties.
On the fifth day the flaming orb of Helios was well on its way to its apex when the party at last the party crossed over the frontier and entered the kingdom of the Getae. At a crossroads barely a league inside the border they were met and challenged by a group of five men, well armed and on horseback. Sweating under the weight of their thick tunics and heavy chest plates, these sullen, dust covered men glared at the Amazons with suspicious eyes and snarled at them in such hostile tones that even the usually even tempered Willa became incensed.
Zacharius recognized the men as soldiers in the regular army but there was something about these men that disturbed him even more than their churlish behavior. He had no idea why but to him it seemed the soldiers were deliberately trying to provoke his Amazon companions.
While trying to stammer out an explanation as to why the Amazons were there Zacharius was harshly cut off by a burly man with a huge nose highlighting a pockmarked face. Assuming that he was the leader of this bunch, Ephiny eyed him closely and noticed that part of his left ear was missing.
"I don't give a shit if Zeus himself invited them here!" the man bellowed. "They're Amazons! Amazons don't belong here."
"You're a very brave fellow to defy your king," said Willa evenly. "Or a fool."
"Our king?" said another man gravely. "I take it you don't--"
"Shut up, Aeneus," the sergeant barked. Ephiny was not the only Amazon who felt the sergeant was hiding something.
During this exchange Minutia and Polymenia eased their horses up to flank Willa and Terreis. Seated next to the princess, Minutia calmly said, "Why don't you boys go somewhere and play with yourselves, huh? Let us pass."
With a high pitched voice another of the men derisively chortled "Did you hear that, Sergeant? It speaks!"
The sergeant took note of Minutia's powerful build and curled a lip over his black teeth. "And what the hell are you anyway?" he sneered. "With all them muscles. You can't be a woman."
"Maybe she's one of those perverts who thinks he's a woman," the soldier offered up.
"Is that what you are?" the sergeant scoffed. "A freak?"
Minutia coolly eyed the man and said, "I'll tell you who I am. I'm the one who's going to kick your insolent ass if you keep this up."
"She's more woman than all you with your puny little grub worms can handle," added Polymenia. The very notion caused an embarrassed Ephiny to suddenly take a great interest in the reins she was holding.
"Min, Polymenia, that will be enough," Terreis said quietly.
"Beg pardon, ma'am," Minutia obediently replied.
Zacharius cleared his throat and made a nervous attempt to continue. "A-as I was saying, these women are the representatives of Queen Melosa." He pointed to Terreis and said, "This young lady is none other than Terreis, Tribal Princess and second only to the queen herself. She has important matters of state to discuss with the king and I tell you now they are of the highest importance. You must believe me. I am the king's own brother-in-law."
So that's it! thought Willa.
"Let us pass or I am afraid I shall be forced to ask for your name and report you."
Oh yeah, thought Willa, that will do it.
Just for a fleeting moment the sergeant shot Zacharius a menacing glare and then that same look of cynical amusement flickered across his face. Opening his mouth to speak, he suddenly stopped and a strange little smile broke across his chapped lips. In a mocking tone he said, "That's different. You want to see the king? All right." The sergeant turned in his saddle and looked back down the road. "You know of the old redoubt up in the pass about ten leagues from here?"
"Yes, I know of it," said Zacharius.
"Well it's been reoccupied. Just tell the garrison commander there who you are and he will make sure all of you get to see Burebistas."
"Thank you," said Zacharius, bowing slightly.
"All right, let's go," said Willa. The soldiers grudgingly parted off the road and as the Amazons moved out Minutia and Polymenia fell back to their former positions, all the while keeping a wary eye on the quarrelsome men. In this they were not alone. Their three sisters were also keeping close watch on the men with Willa paying particular attention to the sergeant. One false move from him and she was fully prepared to cut him in half. As for Ephiny she wisely followed Polymenia's quiet admonition to "stick close." Fortunately the tense moment passed without incident. With a vigilant Minutia keeping a close watch at the "back door" the party moved off down the road and soon the soldiers, who had not moved, were but tiny specks in the road.
It was only then that Terreis felt enough at ease to ask "What do you make of that?"
"I don't like it," Willa answered. It was not the soldiers' belligerence that bothered her. In a way that was to be expected. After all their own Amazon patrols were often just as unfriendly to strangers. No, it was something else, something not so much the sergeant had said but rather the way he had said it.....
And so the captain came to a decision. Without turning around Willa called out, "Ephiny! Come up here."
For her part Ephiny was as surprised as everyone else to hear her name called. Given the present situation she thought she would have been the last one Willa would be turning to. Nudging the flanks of her horse, she trotted up beside her captain.
"I've got a job for you," said Willa.
Willa pointed to a stand of plane trees off to the left. "See those woods? As soon as we're out of sight I want you to double back through there and keep an eye out for our welcoming committee."
"Okay." For Ephiny this was nothing out of the ordinary as she had been doing precisely this same thing for days.
Terreis, however, detected a new sense of urgency in the captain's voice. "Willa, what is it?" she asked.
Willa decided this was no time for beating around the bush. "Highness," she replied, "I expect trouble."
"From whom?" Terreis asked. "Those men?"
Willa shook her head. "Perhaps. More likely from the garrison at the redoubt."
"Surely you're joking," Zacharius piped up from behind. "These men might be crude and insolent but they're still soldiers of the crown. No, they will cooperate."
Ignoring the man, Terreis asked Willa "What makes you think that?"
Instead of answering directly Willa called out for Minutia to join them. Once there she was asked "Did you get the impression those guys wanted to try us?"
"Oh yeah, real bad," Minutia replied. With a sneer she added, "But it was six on five and they didn't have the guts." Zacharius knew he was the one being disregarded but in truth he did not feel slighted in the least. Better than anyone he knew he was no warrior.
"That's what I thought too," said Willa.
"Are you saying there is a possibility that we might come under attack at this redoubt?" asked Terreis.
"I cannot say that for certain, ma'am," Willa replied evenly. "However you must have noticed that the sergeant seemed to be deliberately steering us that way."
"He had no choice," Zacharius curtly interjected.
"Why were they so hostile?" Minutia wondered aloud. Looking warily at Zacharius she asked, "Is there something you're not telling us?"
"Don't be ridiculous!" Zacharius huffed. "I admit they were a little disrespectful but still, they were only doing their job. Besides, they well know the king would surely have them all skinned alive if there was even a hint of impropriety." With a self-satisfied sniff he added, "I can assure you, Captain, we are not all barbarians."
"I'm sure you're not," Willa replied. "But be that as it may I am responsible for the safety of the princess and this party and I tell you I don't like the way this is shaping up one bit."
"I agree with Willa, Highness," said Minutia. "There could trouble."
Terreis was not convinced. "We have the king's own emissary with us. Surely he can vouch for us."
From the back came the tense tones of Valerie's voice. "The soldiers have moved off up the north road. I can't see them anymore."
Turning quickly to Terreis, Willa said, "I'm sorry, Highness, that is not a chance I am willing to take. I recommend we bypass the garrison and move on."
"I am afraid that is impossible," said Zacharius.
Eyeing him suspiciously, Willa asked "What's that supposed to mean?"
Zacharius pointed to the mountains rising to the west. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. You see this road leads through the only mountain pass in this entire region. Naturally the redoubt was built right in the middle of that pass."
"Naturally," Willa said under her breath.
"Effectively funneling anyone right into it," Minutia observed. "Damn."
"Surely there must be some place else where we can cross the mountains," said Terreis.
"Not for three, maybe four days ride," the emissary replied.
"Damn," Willa muttered, echoing Minutia. "Princess, if we must take the long way around let us do so. A few more days won't matter."
"Willa, I appreciate your concern," said Terreis. "And I agree that we should be cautious. However, I don't think our concern justifies losing three whole days." The princess paused for a moment and then said, "No, we will proceed directly to the capital."
To emphasize her concern Willa made a daring reply. "Terreis, I am responsible for you and as because of that I must tell you that I think this approach is wrong. Do not do this!" It was not often that even a high ranking Amazon addressed royalty by name.
Terreis' voice reply was as cold as winter snows that capped the distant mountains. "Your responsibility is to obey my orders. Now you have had your say, Willa, but this discussion is now over. We will proceed--with or with you."
Willa gave her princess a long look. Everyone in the little group could feel the tension mounting. None of the warriors believed for a moment that Willa would actually be so foolish as to defy an Amazon princess. That was not the issue. What was was the uncomfortable fact that it was not exactly encouraging for any of them to see their two leaders at such open odds.
As an experienced officer Willa knew that too. More importantly she understood the demoralizing effect this could pose on those under her. The last thing she wanted was to appear to be undermining Terreis' leadership. She had no intention of standing before Melosa on charges of insubordination. Melosa might be fond of her but Willa knew that would do little to temper the queen's wrath if it was found she had indeed been disobedient. She had observed on more than one occasion just how ruthless her queen could be when it came to meting out punishment.
Still, it was not fear that entirely motivated Willa. One did not rise up the grueling chain of command to become a captain by being faint-hearted. And so it was that after what seemed like a very long time Willa deferentially nodded once and said, "Highness, I am yours to command. You know that. I go where you go. However as the one in tactical command it is part of my job to provide assessments to my superiors. It is my job to point out any potential dangers." Only in her mind did she dare to add, And errors too!
To the relief of everyone Terreis seemed satisfied by this. "I know you are only doing your duty," she said. Pausing, she then added, "But so am I. Zacharius here assures us there will be no trouble and with despite what we just saw I think we can take him at his word."
"Thank you, Highness," said Zacharius.
At this Willa reined her horse to a halt. "All right then," she said. "You want to do this? Then let's do it right. Ephiny!"
The recent battle with the Mysians marked Terreis' very first turn at holding an important command. Even now most Amazons knew her only as a congenial young woman, well liked by her peers. Ephiny knew better. Unlike some of the other warriors young Terreis' sudden display of forcefulness had not surprised her at all. Though the personality of the princess was distinctly different from the smoldering intensity of her sister Melosa, Ephiny had knocked heads with Terreis in drills practically all her life and knew how tough and resolute she could be. Terreis had been raised to command and Melosa had taught her well.
"Ephiny," said Willa, "pay close attention to what I'm about to tell you." To this Ephiny replied with an earnest nod. "You are to still keep an eye out for those soldiers but when there is something even more important I want you to do."
"I'm ready," Ephiny solemnly declared. Outwardly as calm as ever, inside the daughter of Meelah's heart was racing. Like Terreis she could feel Willa's sense of urgency. In turn that same sense of urgency carried over into Ephiny's own thoughts and for one eon-like moment of apprehension and excitement the young warrior could only wonder, What can it be?
Willa was not long in providing the answer. "Until we safely clear the redoubt you are to remain detached from the party."
Ephiny was unprepared for this and indeed it seemed to her that she was being singled out for having some kind of deficiency. Why?
Continuing, Willa said, "I want you to range out on the left flank. There you will maintain a safe distance, using all available cover to mask your movements. Try to keep visual contact with us if you can but under no circumstances are you to expose yourself to either a patrol or the members of the garrison until you are sure, you are sure, all is well. I repeat, unless those guys back there try to flank us I do not want you to rejoin us until after we leave the redoubt. Do you understand?"
Again Ephiny nodded.
"Good. When the rest of us get to the fort find a suitable spot a keep watch. If all goes well like Zacharius here assures us and we pass without incident, fine. You can rejoin us on the other side and nobody's the worse for wear."
"And if not?" The question was posed not by Ephiny, but by Terreis.
"If things go wrong Ephiny will ride back and inform the queen," Willa answered.
"But what if there's a fight?" asked Ephiny. "What if--"
"If we have to fight a whole garrison...well...one more Amazon is not going to make a difference," said Willa.
"Willa's right," said Terreis. "It would be wise to keep someone back."
"Valerie!" Willa called out. "Any sign of those soldiers?"
"Go now, Ephiny," Willa ordered. "Head for the trees and remember to keep out of sight."
Ephiny dejectedly swept her eyes over her comrades. Deep inside the young warrior was hurting. Here was Willa expecting trouble--maybe even a fight--and yet she was not going to be allowed to be there with her sisters in their hour of need. It was as if she was of little consequence and for that Ephiny felt ashamed.
Hoping to encourage Ephiny, Minutia softly urged, "Go on, kid. "We're counting on you." Older and far more experienced, she could see that her young friend was unsure of what was happening.
Helplessly Ephiny looked first at Terreis and then back to Willa. All this got her was a sharp, "Go!" from Willa.
Pulling hard on the reins, Ephiny turned her horse and dug her heels sharply into its flanks, sending the horse galloping off toward the distant woods.
Watching the young warrior go, Willa decided to give it one last try. "Highness, there's still time for you to go with her."
"Willaaa," Terreis warned, "we've been over this ground already so drop it."
"Well, you cannot blame me for trying," said Willa.
"Much," Terreis retorted with a wry little grin. "Okay, let's move out!"
As the group reformed Terreis said, "That was a good idea but tell me, why did you choose Ephiny? She's a little green for that, isn't she?"
The answer Terreis got was not the one she expected. Cold and calculating was the look Willa gave her princess. "That's exactly why I sent her. I need my best warriors here to defend you, Highness. Somebody had to go. Ephiny is the youngest, the least experienced--the weakest. She was the only logical choice."
"Are you saying she is expendable?" asked Terreis. "If she's surprised out there alone--"
Willa looked hard at her, replying, "You know better than that. Ephiny is a fine young woman in the proud tradition of her line. She shows great promise. She is bright, loyal, brave and possesses a devotion to duty that goes well beyond her years. As a child her mother nursed her when she was hungry, wiped her bottom when it was dirty, held her close when the night was cold. I would not want to be the one to tell Meelah her only daughter is 'expendable.' She isn't. Every Amazon is--or should be--a treasure to our tribe. But being a leader means making hard choices. Sometimes you have to look into the face of a bright young kid and tell her to do something that may put all their mother ever worked for, hoped for, dreamed for, at risk. That's what it means to command. I'm sure Melosa taught you that."
Terreis' only reply was a solemn nod.
"No Amazon is ever expendable, Princess. If and when you one day assume command of the tribe I hope you remember how precious each of these young lives are."
"Don't worry," Terreis said, smiling weakly. "I will."
Willa could only hope that she would. "Valerie!" she called out yet again.
"Valerie, I want you to take the right flank. Your orders are the same as Ephiny's except that you are to rejoin us for the push up into the pass, you got that?"
"All right then, go!"
Zacharius watched Valerie ride away. "Young lady, I can assure you these precautions are not necessary," he said mildly.
"Until I know for sure what is going on I'm not taking anything for granted," replied Willa. "So just bear with us, huh?"
"Very well," sighed Zacharius. "Have it your way. But tonight we'll all be laughing about this."
To a woman the four remaining Amazons all hoped he was right.
"Whoa, girl," Ephiny murmured. Pausing beside a brook, the Amazon alit from her horse and pulled off the small water bag tied to her saddle. The brook was small, barely more than a trickle, but it was the first water Ephiny had come across and it least it was clean. Leaving her horse to quietly search for a place to drink Ephiny dropped to one knee and stuck her water bag up next to a place where the water was weakly gurgling up over an egg sized rock. Impatient, she did not come close to allowing the bag to fill before lifting it up to swallow down the meager contents. The water was warmer than she would have liked but Ephiny did not care. Water was water and she was thirsty.
Presently, with her thirst sated and her bag filled, Ephiny glanced up at the sun peeking through the canopy of the forest. By her estimation it had been a good three turns of the hour glass, perhaps more, since her departure from the others. In obedience to her orders Ephiny had taken great care to utilize all available cover but so far she had seen nothing noteworthy whatsoever. With her bag now safely secured the girl reached into her saddlebag and pulled out one of the fat apples she had plucked only that morning. As the lowest ranking Amazon it had naturally fallen to her to scale the tree to fetch the apples for herself and her companions.
Ephiny took that first sweet bite and with her mouth still full of apple took up the reins of her horse who was unfortunately still struggling to drink from the pitifully shallow water. "Sorry, fella," Ephiny mumbled. "I know you didn't get much but we have to go." Holding the apple in her mouth Ephiny quietly swung herself up into the saddle. The last few hours alone had given her ample time to think about what Willa was doing. Now that the initial emotion of the moment had died away she was forced to admit that both the captain's precaution and her means of addressing it made sense. Even so she still found herself wishing she was with her sister Amazons. Sound judgment or no, if her friends ran into trouble Ephiny wanted to be there to help. After all it was what she had been trained for most of her young life. However the first, most important thing she had been taught was to obey orders and she had her orders and like any good Amazon Ephiny was going to carry them out as best she could.
Mounted, Ephiny took apple in hand and leaned down to pat her horse on the neck. "I'll make it up to you, I promise." She then pulled the reluctant horse away from the brook and carefully edged the mare up the ridge to where she could get a good look at the open land spreading out below. Far off to the northwest she could just make out Terreis and the rest as they moved up the road. There the land was starting to rise and soon they would be up in the mountains.
The young warrior paused on the crest of the ridge and carefully scanned the countryside in all directions as she took another bite from the apple. Aside from her friends there was no one to be seen, not a single soldier, not another wayfarer, not even a peasant working any of the considerable tillage about. For this she was glad because it meant that she could expect little interference in following her friends once the mountains funneled her back onto the road. Finishing off the apple, she casually tossed down the core and nudged her horse down the far slope of the ridge. By her reckoning she figured Terreis and the rest would reach the redoubt about an hour before sunset. The closer it came to that moment the more Ephiny hoped Zacharius was right.
There was another reason for to hope all went well. All concern for her friends aside, she for one did not relish spending a night alone in such a foreboding place.
The orb of Helios was farther along in the sky by the width of two fists when Terreis, reining her horse to a stop, threw up a hand and barked, "Hold up!"
"What is it, Highness?" asked Willa.
Terreis pointed ahead to a spot off in the distance some few hundred paces off the road. "Look."
Shading her eyes against the sun, Willa there saw what looked to be a small cart, slowly rolling down toward the road. "Well what do you know?" she remarked. "And here I was beginning to think these fields were tending themselves."
"Zacharius, I take it there's another road up there?" said Terreis.
"And where does that lead?"
Zacharius shifted his sore bottom in the saddle and replied, "Northward it runs to the same place as that road back at the other crossroads, a fair sized town by the name of Arturus."
Terreis looked once more back toward the cart creeping southward. "Come on," she said, "I want to speak to our friend there."
At the first sight of the approaching horses Caleb, thinking it was more soldiers, felt a shiver run down his spine. Dear gods, he thought fearfully, is this nightmare ever going to end? However as the horses neared he noticed the riders were for the most part smaller and seemed to he better handlers of their mounts. When they got closer he noticed they were not clad in those menacing black tunics he had seen all too much of recently. When they got closer still he saw the weapons the long hair flowing in the wind behind some of them. Closer still he saw the bare, tanned, legs and arms of...women. Amazons! Yes, he thought excitedly, these must be Amazons.
Although Caleb had lived in this country all his forty years he had never seen the legendary warriors whom he knew dwelt only a few days ride away. He had, however, heard all the usual stories about their mercilessness and their apparent unquenchable thirst for spilling male blood. And yet, just looking at them here and now, Caleb strangely did not see them as threatening at all. After all, he noted, there was a man with them at that very moment and he was still alive.
As the women rode up to him noticed one other thing. Whatever the validity of the tales about them one thing was true for sure. Their storied beauty was certainly no myth. Pulling on the reins of his donkey, Caleb called out, "Whoa, Tillie," and watched as the riders surrounded his cart.
"Hello there," said Terreis pleasantly.
"Hello yerself," Caleb said with a grin. "Yer Amazons, ain't cha?"
Terreis was a little surprised by his insight. "Why, yes," she answered. "Yes we are."
"Thought so. Yer a long way from home." Caleb squinted one eye at the princess, asking "You haven't come here to do mischief, have you? The gods know we've had our share already lately."
Now it was Terreis' turn to smile. "No," she assured him. "In fact we're here to talk with your king about establishing closer ties between our two lands."
"What do you mean, you've had your share of trouble?" asked Zacharius.
Warily eyeing the man with the Amazons, Caleb asked "And who might you be?"
"Me? My good man, I am Zacharius, the king's brother-in-law."
"Ohh, so you're the one they're after."
"Stop babbling and talk sense, old man," snorted Zacharius. "What are you talking about?"
"I don't know where the hell you've been," Caleb retorted sharply. "But you'd better wake your ass up--all of you."
Willa's concern was rising with each passing moment. All along she had felt something was not right. "What is going on?" she asked. "What's happening here?"
Caleb's face grew very grave and his reply gave Zacharius an icy feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. "There's been a revolt," he said ominously. "General Madgras has overthrown the king. From what I hear Burebistas and all his ministers have been locked up in the palace. For all I know they've all been hung by now."
Growing pale, Zacharius gasped, "By the gods!"
"That's not all," said Caleb. "Them soldiers have been sweeping the countryside, arresting every local official they can lay their hands on. I just saw the magistrate swingin' from an oak tree in Arturus not an hour ago. It's bad. Very bad. Everything is crazy." Caleb looked hard at the ashen man sitting next to Willa. "They're looking for you too, you know. I heard 'em askin' about you in Arturus."
Turning quickly to Willa, Terreis said, "All right, that's it. We're turning around right now!"
"I'm with you," Willa said, exhaling sharply. "Polymenia! Sound the recall!"
With Polymenia's horn blasting in her ears Terreis asked "What about Ephiny? She may not respond."
"Minutia, go find her! Now!" Willa commanded.
Minutia turned her big horse to go when suddenly she heard Terreis groan, "Ohhh shit." Looking up the road toward Arturus the Amazon saw twenty riders, perhaps more, thundering toward them at full speed.
"That's them!" Caleb said, growling. "That's the bastards who were looking for your friend here."
In that heartbeat of a moment Willa weighed the options. There weren't many. In fact for her personally there were none at all. Melosa had charged her with the safety of Zacharius and she knew there was no way he could ride well enough to escape the onrushing soldiers. That left only one thing. Quickly she urged, "Highness, give the order to scatter, it's your only hope."
Terreis instantly picked up on the word "your." "What about you?" the princess asked.
"I-I'll stay here and try to hold them off."
"Against a force that size?" Terreis snapped. "That's crazy! Everybody goes!"
"I can't!" Willa exclaimed. "My queen has ordered me to protect Zacharius and by the gods, I will! I can't leave him."
"Are you going to stay here and let her spill her blood for you?" Terreis yelled at Zacharius.
Poor Zacharius was too petrified by what he saw to do much of anything, stammering, "I--I......"
Then and there Terreis, realizing his case was hopeless, grabbed the bridle of Willa's horse and gave it a sharp yank. "Come on!" she roared. "We've got to get out of here!"
"Forget us," Willa answered, firmly pulling her horse back. "Go, Princess. Go now!"
Terreis grimly set her jaw. Another thirty breaths and the riders would be upon them. It was probably already too late. "All right then, if you stay, I stay."
"No!" Willa cried. "Highness, you must make a run for it while there's still a chance!"
"I'm not leaving you."
"Terreis, I beg you, pleeaase go!"
"No! End of discussion." Terreis pulled her sword and turned back to face Minutia and Polymenia, "You two make a run for it. Try to link up with Valerie and Ephiny if you can. GO!"
But just as Terreis had ignored Willa's pleas so too was she now ignored. "Sorry, ma'am," Minutia said with a dry grin. "My hearing is just not what it used to be."
Polymenia was more blunt, "We most respectfully disobey, ma'am. We're staying with you two."
"So much for the vaunted Amazon discipline," Terreis muttered. However deep inside she was very moved by the loyalty shown her in what could turn out to be a desperate moment.
"Well, one good thing anyway," Willa cheerlessly remarked. "We don't have to worry about finding Valerie."
The Amazon's observation was hardly an optimistic one because there the young warrior was, right in the middle of the oncoming horsemen. Her hands were tied to the saddle and she was bouncing along on her mount which was being led by one of the soldiers. As the horsemen rode up the Amazons saw that one of the ones up front was the ill-tempered sergeant from back at the crossroad. He and his men had waited until the Amazons were out of sight and then surreptitiously ridden at full speed all the way to Arturus. However overall command of these men lay not with the sergeant but with one Daldus of Naxxus, a large, man with a barrel-chest and muscular arms whose sword had sent many a soul to the Netherworld. A one time member of the King's Guard, Daldus instantly recognized the forlorn brother-in-law.
"Well well well," said Daldus, fiendishly grinning at Zacharius. "Look what we have here."
"Looks like our pigeon has come home to roost," said another soldier.
"Yeah, and I see he's brought some pretty little quail with him," said Daldus. "Now isn't that just cozy?"
"I toldja it was him," the sergeant crowed. "Didn't I tell you it was him?"
"Yeah, Degas, you did. Now shut up."
"What do you want?" Willa asked sharply.
The smirk on the captain's face faded. "I'll bet this clod here has told you all you need to know."
"I--I told them nothing," Caleb bleated. "By Zeus himself I swear!"
"On your way, shit spreader," the captain ordered.
As the farmer fearfully drove away Willa looked to Valerie and asked "Are you all right?" Valerie, mortified at having been taken prisoner so easily, could only dejectedly hang her head and feebly nod that she was.
"That's one of my warriors you have there," said Terreis. "Turn her loose right now."
Ignoring the princess, Daldus asked "Who are you friends, Zachy boy?"
"We are representatives of the Most High Melosa, Queen of the Amazon Southern Tribe," said Terreis.
"See?" Degas eagerly interjected again. "They're Amazons, just like I said. That red-headed one there said she was a princess."
"Degas, I said shut the hell up!" an annoyed Daldus bellowed. "I don't give a damn if they're Dionysian maidens. They are in a here in foreign land conspiring with a known traitor therefore they must be spies."
Conspiring my ass, Willa thought. Let's cut the crap and have at it!
"It seems to me you're having trouble with your nouns," Terreis coolly replied. "We are legitimate emissaries, not spies, and I'd say that it is in fact you who are the traitors."
"General Madgras has taken it upon himself to save our country from certain ruin," one of the soldiers cried.
"Enough of this. This is not a debate here," Daldus angrily declared. "And you are not as you say 'legitimate emissaries' now."
"All right then, we will withdraw. Zacharius will go home with us and you people can have at it," said Terreis.
"Uhh, I don't think so," said Daldus. Pointing at Zacharius and the rest he said, "You are a traitor and the rest of you are spies. Now drop your weapons or by the gods we'll chop every last one of you into fish bait."
"Then do it!" Willa yelled. She drew her sword but just as she nudged her horse forward one of the soldiers lashed out with his own weapon and caught the unfortunate animal across the throat, slashing it wide open. The horse reeled backward and when its hind legs buckled Willa was sent tumbling backward onto the ground. In an instant four burly soldiers dismounted and fell upon her, kicking her and pummeling her with their fists.
"I want them alive!" shouted Daldus. "We'll let the general himself deal with them."
Now Terreis too found herself surrounded by assailants and she managed to slash open a soldier's belly before one of his comrades could maneuver in close enough to attack. From behind he used the butt end of his lance to deliver a vicious blow to the back of her head. Slumping forward, the dazed Terreis was quickly pulled from her horse and thrown to the ground. There she was subjected to the same brutal treatment as Willa.
Roaring with rage at the sight of this, Minutia vaulted from her horse and bashed in the head of a man foolhardy enough to challenge her. The she charged the three men beating the limp Terreis. She was almost near enough to fling herself upon them when she stopped dead in her tracks. Daldus had stepped up and put the heel of his boot on the neck of the fallen princess.
"Stop!" he exclaimed. "One more step, Titan, and I run your princess through like a pig on a spit. Now, throw down your sword."
Frustrated, quivering with rage, Minutia hesitated.
Daldus' response was to press the tip of his sword right in between Terreis' breasts. "I won't tell you again," he warned.
Looking over the heads of the men now swarmed around her, Minutia saw Willa being roughly pulled to her feet, a crushed, weeping Valerie still sitting in the saddle, a sword pressed to her neck by a nearby soldier, a prostrate Polymenia lying motionless on the ground and--worst of all--her degraded princess lying under the boot heel of smirking vermin. The most powerful warrior on either side, she could do nothing. She was helpless against what she now faced. Emitting a low guttural curse, Minutia did as ordered and reluctantly tossed aside her big sword.
"That's better," purred Daldus. "Now, tie her up! No tricks or..."
Two soldiers very carefully approached the big warrior but all she did was meekly hold out her arms and cross her wrists. At Daldus' command a still groggy Terreis was hoisted to her feet. "Put them on the horses," he ordered.
Standing by Polymenia, Degas nudged the warrior with the toe of his boot. "What about this one?" he asked.
"Is she alive?" replied Daldus.
Degas pressed his foot down hard upon Polymenia's left hand. This elicited a faint moan from the stricken warrior. "Yeah, she's alive," Degas answered. "For now anyway."
Daldus strolled over to where the Amazon lay. The sandy-haired warrior who loved to laugh had sustained a nasty gash on the head and he saw her top was heavily stained with blood--her blood. "Aah she's not going anywhere" he observed. "Probably be dead by the time we got her back anyway." Daldus paused and then said, "Leave the bitch here." Looking around at his own three men dead and another who was dying he remarked, "Damn if the wild dogs and buzzards won't feast this day."
By now Terreis and the rest of the prisoners were on their horses, each tied to the saddle just as Valerie had been. The triumphant Daldus took his place at the head of the column firm in the knowledge that General Madgras would surely be pleased. Why, there might even be a promotion in it for him! "All right, let's move out!"
The horsemen formed up into columns of threes with each prisoner safely tucked away in the middle row. They rode off at a leisurely pace, leaving behind three dead soldiers, another one who was dying, and an unconscious Polymenia. Soon they passed up into the hills and out of sight.
Barely two stadia away, lying flat on her stomach atop a low escarpment, Ephiny saw it all.
Polymenia's eyes fluttered open and she dully looked up at the blurry form bending over her.
"Polly, are you all right?"
The voice was a familiar one. "Ephiny?" she groaned. "Is that you?"
"Hang on." Bolting to her feet, Ephiny trotted to her horse and got her water bag. Back at Polymenia's side she fell to her knees and, using the crook of her elbow, cradled the warrior's head. "Here, drink this."
Polymenia took a clumsy gulp only to immediately cough it back up. This caused Ephiny to forego the water for the moment and look to the Amazon's injuries instead. As she saw it the main concern was all the blood on Polymenia's top. Unlike most Amazons Polymenia rarely wore anything even remotely revealing. Usually she opted for a to-the-waist tunic or shirt.
Polymenia coughed again and then groaned "Where are the others?"
"Uhhhhh. Roused, an fretful Polymenia tried to sit up but found Ephiny's firm hand pushing her back down.
"Easy, Polly, let me look you over first," she said soothingly.
Exhausted by the effort Polymenia lolled her head back and receded to the ground. "Ephiny!" she gasped. "We've...got to...go after them."
"I know," Ephiny replied as she carefully lifted up Polymenia's top. The warrior had sustained one cut about the width of Ephiny's hand and five or six smaller ones Upon closer inspection she was relieved to find that none of the wounds were terribly deep and indeed some of the smaller ones were already starting to clot up. Satisfied Polymenia was in no immediate peril Ephiny said, "Okay, you can try to sit up now if you feel like it."
Testily Polymenia replied, "I don't feel like it. But, here, help me up." With the help of the younger Amazon Polymenia eased up into a sitting position. As she did Polymenia cried out in pain and it was only then that Ephiny noticed the warrior's badly swollen right wrist. To Ephiny it looked only sprained and not broken and as there was nothing she could do for that she turned her attention back to the cuts. Taking out her knife, Ephiny began to cut around Polymenia's top.
"Wha--what are you doing?" Polymenia demanded to know. "Stop that!"
Ephiny ignored her and simply continued on with her work. "Like it or not you're going to have to show that belly button of yours," said the girl matter-of-factly. "I need something to put on that gash so be still and let me finish."
Once she did finish, Ephiny folded a piece of the top into a pad and with the aid of a series of long strips tied together was able to secure the bandage in place. "That may not hold so well once you start moving around," the young Amazon warned. "So be sure to keep an eye on it."
"Yes, Mother," Polymenia said wryly.
"All right, but don't come crying to me if you bleed to death," Ephiny retorted.
"Aww the hell with it, it's just a scratch," Polymenia said, wincing in pain. "Besides, you and I have more important things to worry about."
"Do you think you can ride?" asked Ephiny.
Polymenia took a deep breath. "I think so. Just give me a moment or two to gather myself."
It was all Ephiny wanted to hear. Rising to her feet once more, she strode back to her horse. There she pulled two items from her saddle bag. One was a smaller bag that could be slung over the shoulder, the other was one of her three remaining apples which she immediately dropped into the bag. From her saddle she removed the ten cubit coil of light rope she always carried and this along with the bag she looped over her left shoulder, keeping her sword side clear.
Seeing the rope, Polymenia asked "What's that for?"
"I might need it."
"You said someone had to go after the others, right?"
"Not us," Ephiny tersely countered. "Me."
"You're crazy!" Polymenia exploded. "You can't go after them alone."
"I have to," Ephiny calmly replied.
"I'm going with you," Polymenia said firmly. "Just...help me to my feet."
"No," Ephiny replied, just as firmly. "You are not going."
Angered by the young warrior's pertinaciousness, Polymenia growled a curse and, rolling over, struggled to her feet. "Damn it, Ephiny, as a warrior I am you senior. You must obey me."
"I'm not being disrespectful," Ephiny said. "It's just that you know as well as I do that you're not exactly fit to attempt any sort of rescue."
Now Polymenia was really mad and her reply was one of harsh incredulity. "Oh and you are?" she lashed back. "Why you're still just a snot-nosed kid. What can you do?"
"I can try," was Ephiny's quiet response.
"Look, Ephiny, I appreciate your intentions and no one can question your bravery but, face it, you're just not good enough to pull this off on your own."
The temper Ephiny had inherited from her mother began to grow warm even as her voice grew ever colder. "All right," she said. "Since we're being honest...there you are with a busted hand, a busted head and you've been sliced more than a Chalcidicean meat pie. With that apple on the side of your head you might pass out at any time, with that bad arm you won't be able to fight worth a damn, even if you do somehow manage to avoid becoming delirious from the infection you'll probably get. Look at you! You're no good to Terreis, to Willa or to me. We're wasting time here and you're just in the way. In fact, if we were being threatened at this moment I would leave you right here on your useless ass!"
The two Amazons stood there quietly staring at one another. It finally fell to Polymenia to break the tense silence. "No you wouldn't," she said. An uncertain pause and then, "Would you?" Ephiny only looked at her. Managing a half-hearted grin, Polymenia said, "Damn it, Ephiny, must you always be so bloody analytical? So...right? Gods, there must be something I can do."
"Polly, I've got a job to do," said Ephiny, more gently now. "And so do you."
"All right, you win. What do you want me to do?"
Ephiny nodded to her horse. "Take my horse, go back and tell Melosa what has happened."
"What about you? You can't follow them on foot."
"I'm hoping this redoubt we heard so much about is as far as I have to go."
"But what if it isn't? What if they're taken somewhere else?"
"Then I'll just have to steal a horse somewhere," Ephiny matter-of-factly replied. Ephiny put a kind hand on Polymenia's shoulder. "Polly, I've got to go. Try to make the best time you can but at any rate please hurry."
"For the love of Artemis, take care, Eph."
"I will." The two warriors came together in an embrace of comradeship and mutual respect. "You do the same," Ephiny whispered loudly.
Ephiny helped Polymenia up on the horse and said, "The water bag is nearly full. You'll find a couple of apples in the saddlebag. Other than that--"
With a labored smile Polymenia sought to assure the young warrior. "Don't worry about me, Eph."
Ephiny smiled back and slapped the horse on the flank, saying, "Go on, get out of here." The flinching horse bolted and Polymenia was gone. For her part the daughter of Meelah paused not one moment to watch them go but instead immediately turned and set off toward the redoubt at a steady, purposeful trot. She had good cause not to tarry. The redoubt was still almost five leagues away.
It was well after dark by the time Ephiny at last came upon the walled structure guarding the pass. Her run had been a taxing one, five leagues, the last three of which had for the most part been all uphill. However she was young and strong and in peak physical condition. Like many of the younger warriors Ephiny was required to run a grueling two league course twice a week. The meticulous Melosa wanted to make certain she had capable runners available should they be needed in the course of battle. Nevertheless, Ephiny was very tired by the time she reached her destination and so, needing a place to rest, she took advantage of the first available cover that was offered. Flinging herself down behind a scrubby juniper bush, Ephiny paused to catch her breath.
As she sat there, arms on head, she took stock of the fort. It was smaller than she expected. There were no battlements, no crenellations or merlons, just solid, continuous walls. Situated at each corner was a small watchtower. In the pale light Ephiny could only assume they were manned. She thought she ought to be close enough to the redoubt to hear anyone who might speak but as she sat there she heard no one. As far as she could tell no guards were walking the parapet. In fact she could detect no sign of activity at all.
How odd, she though. Maybe they're all drunk. Or dead. There was one other thing, the main gate was open. Maybe they're just careless, she thought. At any rate they certainly did not seem to be expecting any trouble and as Ephiny began to very carefully creep her way in toward the fort she thought that was just fine with her. Reaching the entrance to the fort, Ephiny pressed herself tightly against the outer wall and listened. She heard nothing. Slowly, very carefully, she peeked around the corner and into the fort. Except for the smoke of a smoldering fire in the middle of the compound nothing was moving. But they were in there all right for in the barracks on the opposite side she could see shadows moving through a dimly lit room.
Well she thought, it's now or never! Her heart pounding, Ephiny checked the parapets one last time. Nothing. With her back still to the wall she took a deep breath and eased her way around the edge of the gate...and into the dark maw of the redoubt.
It was past midnight and except for the approach of echoing steps the palace was shrouded in eerie silence. In the very same room the king had favored when attending to private matters of state General Madgras sat a writing table, reading and then signing a series of documents one by one by the light of a lone candle. The documents were death warrants for King Burebistas and the entire royal family as well as every last minister and member of the royal court. Madgras was nothing if not a thorough man.
Five long years he had waited for this day, ever since the disastrous battle at Shipka Pass where an interfering Burebistas had proven once and for all what an incompetent ass he was. One that horrible day royal meddling had cost Madgras twelve hundred of his best men. Now the king's moment of expiation had come.
Saving the best for last, Madgras with great relished signed the warrant condemning to death Burebistas himself. As he did he became aware of a shadowy presence at the open door. "Yes, what is it?"
The shadow stepped forward to reveal itself as Philos, one of the general's chief lieutenants. "Sorry to bother you so late, sir," he said. "I have a matter of some importance."
Madgras leaned back in his chair and rubbed over one eye. "Can't it wait?" he wearily asked. The day had been a long one, one busily spent consolidating his position and now Madgras was very tired. At fifty-two he was not the man he used to be and he wanted to go to bed.
"Zacharius has been caught, sir," said Philos.
"Near Milsa Pass, sir."
"I knew the little pipsqueak would be caught eventually," said Madgras. "He's a nothing, the king's ass wiper. What's so urgent about it?"
Philos proceeded to tell him. Pausing for a moment, he said, "Well, sir, he had five Amazons with him. They resisted and one of them was killed."
That indeed got the general's attention. "Amazons!" The very word made Madgras uneasy. Once, as a young officer, he had spent a terrifying morning witnessing the almost total destruction of an entire Getae battalion at the hands of Queen Penthesilea and her horde of bloodthirsty females. These were a people not to be taken lightly. "All the way over at Milsa Pass? What in the name of Hades were they doing there?"
"Escorting Zacharius home, sir. They--they said Burebistas had invited them here for talks," Philos answered.
"Talks," Madgras echoed. "And you believe that?"
In truth it mattered little to Philos just what the truth of the matter was. The Amazons could be lying or it might turn out that they were telling the truth. What he believed was inconsequential because he well knew that the only opinion that counted was that of the general. He would believe what Madgras told him to believe. "I cannot say, sir," he tactfully replied. "All we know for certain is that Zacharius did in fact pay a visit to the Amazon queen."
The queen..., thought Madgras. What was her name again? Mella? Morsa? Melosa! Yes, that was it. That murdering bitch Penthesilea's kid. "Where are they now?" he asked.
"In the main hall, sir. We thought you might like to have a look at them."
"No, not tonight," said Madgras.
"We'll have to take them over to Belasar," said Philos. He grinned and added, "The palace dungeon seems to be filled."
With a cold look in his eye Madgras answered, "Not for long. Very well, take the Amazons to Belasar but leave that jellyfish Zacharius here. Put him in one of the rooms and post a guard at the door. The little shit won't give us any trouble."
"One other thing, I want those Amazons separated. Unit cohesion is almost a religion for them so the most demoralizing thing we can do is to let each of them sweat it out in a black prison cell alone. I especially want their leader isolated. She is not to have contact with any of the others in any way. Put her on a different floor. Who is she by the way?" It was beyond hope that it could be the queen herself.
"One by the name of Terreis, sir. She claims to be a princess."
The name was unfamiliar to Madgras. "A princess, eh? Well when the time comes we will put her right up there on the gallows alongside the rest of the royals." Dryly he said, "After all, it would not be right to hang an Amazon princess with mere riff raff now would it?"
Eos, the Goddess of the Dawn, was just beginning to rouse from her slumber when Ephiny came upon the stream. Sliding off her horse, the parched warrior stumbled to the bank. There she threw herself down and crawled out into the stream where she propped herself up on her elbows, the water gently flowing over her arms. Never had she been so thirsty. Her lips kissed the precious water and as she lay there drinking her fill she wondered how even the nectar Hebe poured into the very cups of the gods themselves could be any sweeter than this clear, cool water.
For the weary girl it had been the longest night of her young life. After stealing her way into the fort she had managed to work her way to the stable undetected. Finding no Amazon horses inside she knew her friends had been taken on to someplace else. But where? There was but one thing to do. She was in the process of quietly slipping a bridle on a nice little chestnut mare when she was caught in the act. After spending the evening gambling with some of his comrades a soldier by the name of Cobyrus was on his way back to the barracks to sleep off the numerous cannikins of wine he had quaffed down. As he passed by the stables he felt the sudden urge to relieve himself. Stepping inside, he discovered Ephiny.
The light was dim but Cobyrus saw enough of the lovely young girl with the shapely body and golden hair Cobyrus to make him think that Dionysia had come early. Seeing her, his thoughts were not on what she was doing there in the first place. All he had on his mind at that moment was wedging himself between her strong young legs. Had he known his intended prey was an Amazon he may have been more guarded in his advances. At any rate Ephiny's lighting-like punch to his Adam's apple and her crushing knee to the groin managed to convince him to forego any amorous thought he might have had for the evening.
It turned out that most of the garrison was in the same condition as Cobyrus. It seemed some of the more enterprising soldiers had "requisitioned" several kegs of wine from a nearby vineyard and in celebrating their own General Madgras' seizure of power had managed to get themselves quite drunk in the process. Because of that only a couple of men noticed when a slim shadowy figure emerged from the stable leading a horse. Flushed with their recent success, their bellies full of wine, it never occurred to either of them that someone would have the audacity to actually walk right in to the redoubt and steal a horse.
But someone had. Scarcely daring to breathe, her eyes straight ahead, her ears attuned to the slightest hint of danger, Ephiny walked the horse out the gate and into the night.
After making good her escape from the fort Ephiny all night rode the little mare as hard as she dared, crossing the mountains along the dark, unfamiliar road, all the while hoping that she might yet be able to catch up with the others. Unfortunately it was to no avail. Without the soldiers stopping to make camp there was no way for the young Amazon to make up the time lost making her run. Now morning had arrived but in a sense she was still in the dark because she had no idea where the others were.
With her thirst finally quenched Ephiny raised up out of the water and sat upright on the bank watching the little mare quietly drink from the stream. She was not as big as Ephiny's own horse but she seemed to be hardy nonetheless. More than that, she was a nice little horse--very gentle--and by now Ephiny had made up her mind to keep her.
The lone apple Ephiny had kept for herself was long since gone. Since the previous morning those two apples were all that she had eaten. Needless to say she was hungry. She knew there were probably fish in the stream but in her mind she had already lost enough time. No, it was the horse who would eat.
Well, Ephiny thought, at least one of us gets to have breakfast. Though extremely anxious to continue onward Ephiny forced herself to sit there on the bank in order to allow the little horse to graze a little longer in the nearby tall grass. She knew the mare was her only chance of finding Terreis and the others and despite her desire to get moving again she was disciplined enough that she was not about to simply run the animal into the ground. In her training she had been taught that if at all possible it was the horse and not its rider which should be taken care of first. This was wise counsel and Ephiny was determined to adhere to it, even if it did mean more time lost. After all, without the horse she feared she might just possibly lose more than time. She had fully expected to find her friends at the redoubt. Had she known that she would not she might have been forced to rethink her decision to give Polymenia her horse. However it was too late to second guess now.
It was only when she deemed the time was right that Ephiny bellied up onto the horse and pushed back out the road again. Riding bareback was second nature for her as it was for every Amazon. In fact Amazons learned to ride bareback long before they were ever introduced to the saddle. And while the saddle certainly made things easier its absence was hardly a hardship.
As is often the case with many things a tradeoff came with the coming of daylight. During the night the same blackness that had slowed her down had also afforded some measure of protection. Now daylight gave her the opportunity for making better time but it also made her much more vulnerable. The possibility of encountering more soldiers was very real and Ephiny knew she was going to have to stay alert.
About a half-league down the road Ephiny came upon a solitary figure walking alongside the road. Pulling up her horse, she first swept her sharp eyes over the countryside, looking for signs of other activity. There were none. Ephiny trotted up on her horse and saw that the person was a young boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen. His face and hands were dirty as were his shabby clothes. His bare feet were caked with dried mud and in his left hand he was carrying a muddy burlap bag--and three fish strung through the gills with a forked stick. Immediately the young Amazon saw her opportunity here as twofold. She thought that if she played this just right she might end up with some information and perhaps one of those fine looking fish as well.
"Hello there," she said in a friendly voice.
"Hello yourself," the wide-eyed boy replied. His name was Julian and he could not believe what he was seeing. Before him was this lovely vision sitting astride a fine horse, her curly blonde hair blowing in the breeze. The lambskin skirt she was wearing was pulled high upon her spread legs revealing bronze thighs that he could not seem to be able to take his eyes off. When he did manage to tear his eyes away from the treasure only hinted at he noted how finely dressed she was, not only the well crafted skirt but the fine gauntlets, the gleaming armband, the ornate necklace, and the finely woven top. And then there was the way she carried herself--proud and erect as befitting her obvious lofty status. And then there was that sword strapped to her back--he noticed that too. He thought clearly she must be very wealthy--or a goddess. Yes, that was it! Maybe she was one of Athena's warrior maidens, come to earth in service of her mistress. Whatever the case, never had he seen anyone so lovely!
"You look to be a long way from home," Ephiny observed. "Especially for boy your age."
Julian's heart fell. It pained him to know that this magnificent warlike creature thought of him as a boy. "I'm fourteen," he earnestly offered up.
The adumbration was not lost on Ephiny. She was only two years older but her maturity, background, education, personal experiences and well honed skills all came together to make the difference in their respective ages seem like very much more indeed. At sixteen Ephiny was very much a woman. At sixteen this boy would in all likelihood still be a boy.
Ephiny pressed her lips together in a gesture of understanding and then said, "So you are. So, what are you doing out here?"
"Been to the creek," said the boy.
It was precisely the opening Ephiny was looking for. Considering the voracious manner in which the boy was eating her up with his eyes she did not expect much difficulty in charming him out of a fish or two. "I can see that," she said. Nodding to his catch she continued, "Those are some fine looking fish. What are they? Trout?"
Well, thought the boy, she might be a goddess but she sure doesn't know much about fish! "These?" He held up the stringer. "Naw, they're Yellow Perch."
"Oh. Right. I can see that now." Of course Ephiny had known all along the fish were perch having caught dozens of them herself. However she figured that her chances certainly would not hurt by boosting this eager beaver's ego a little. She had him set up and she knew it. Ephiny could sense the boy was ripe for the plucking and indeed Julian, swept away by his hormones, would have gladly given her anything he had.
And that was when Ephiny spoiled it all by asking "What's in the bag?"
"Mussels," the boy said.
"Mussels?" Ephiny lightheartedly echoed. "Anybody would have to be awfully hungry to go scrounging around for mussels."
Julian's eyes fell and that was when the terrible realization struck home for the young Amazon. "We are," Julian quietly replied. "Four days ago soldiers came to our farm and took away everything we had, our pigs, chickens, grain--everything. We..we've still got some barley in the field but until it's ready Poppa says we'll just have to make do as best we can."
Suddenly Ephiny did not feel so hungry anymore. Worse, she felt ashamed for what she had been scheming to do. "I'm sorry," she said.
Echoing his father, the boy shrugged and said, "Such are the troubled times we live in."
"These soldiers, have you seen any more since, say last night or this morning?"
"A bunch rode through last night," said Julian. "They stopped at our farm. Poppa had to draw water for them."
"Any idea where they were going?" asked Ephiny.
The boy shrugged again, answering, "To the capital I guess."
"What makes you say that?"
"Poppa said they had some prisoners with them," the boy explained. "Some Amazings, I think he called them."
"You mean Amazons?"
"Yeah, that's it." It was all too obvious that the boy had never even heard of an Amazon before. He went on to prove it by asking "What is an Amazon?"
"They're warriors," Ephiny replied. She decided it was best to leave it at that. There was no telling who else the boy might end up talking to. Changing the subject she asked "How far is it to the capital?"
"It takes Poppa all day to go there and back," said Julian. "That's in our old wagon, though."
Ephiny stared off up the winding brown ribbon of compressed dirt that was the road. "Will this take me there?"
"I think you have to turn somewhere," the boy replied.
"Do you know where?"
Julian merely shook his head. To be sure it was not much to go on. Still, Ephiny knew more now than she did before. Most importantly she knew the others were still alive--for now. "Okay," she said. "Well...thanks.
The Amazon nudged the flanks of her horse but pulled up again when Julian blurted out, "Hey!"
"Can I ask you something?"
"Are you...are you a goddess?"
Suppressing a chuckle, Ephiny replied, "Me? No, I'm just a nobody. A lost sheep you might say, looking for its flock."
Julian was not willing to accept that. With all the sincerity he could muster he said, "I don't think you're a nobody. You can't be. You're clothes are too nice. Besides you're the first pretty girl that ever bothered to talk to me."
You poor kid, thought Ephiny.
There was one more thing. Julian just had to know. "What's your name?" he asked.
"It's nice to have met you, Julian." There was an awkward pause and then she said, "Look, Julian, I really have to go."
"Oh. Okay," a crestfallen Julian replied.
Ephiny raised her chin slightly and said, "Take care of yourself." And with that she was off.
As the young warrior cantered away on her horse Julian waved but Ephiny never looked back. Soon, like the apparition Julian had mistaken her for, she had disappeared into the shimmering distance. Julian would never see her again. Sadly, he knew that but the poor farm boy reduced to living on mussels and shellfish felt enriched somehow. For despite what the girl had said he refused to believe she was an ordinary mortal. It was not possible that anything so stately looking, so...beautiful, could be mere flesh and blood. No, he had surely seen a goddess, a warrior goddess by the name of Ephiny, sent to earth perhaps by even Artemis or Athena herself to do battle for the glory of Olympus.
Walking along, he murmured, "I hope you win, Ephiny. Whatever it is, I hope you win."
"Zacharius, for conspiring with known enemies of this state you have been charged with treason. Members of the panel, how say ye?"
Madgras need not have bothered. The three officers sitting on the panel with him were all hand picked men, ready and eager to follow his "recommendations."
To Madgras' right sat his second in command, General Diodoros. "Guilty."
To his left sat two more trusted lieutenants, Imatius and Horace. "Guilty," they both dutifully answered.
"Guilty," Madgras said. "So be it. Zacharius, you have been found guilty of betraying the Getae people. For this heinous act I sentence you to be taken to Belasar Prison three days hence. There you will be hung like the pig you are. May you rot in Tartarus for what you have done. Now get him out of my sight!"
Crushed, still reeling from his terrible change of fortune, Zacharius made no attempt at either objecting or even pleading for his life. Instead he meekly hung his head and dazedly shuffled out of the room wedged between his two burly guards.
"It is obvious he had previous knowledge of our plans," said Madgras. "Someone under my command must have warned him."
"But who, sir?" asked a nervous Imatius. He well knew Madgras had a way of covering a pinhole with a blanket.
"Oh that is something I intend to find out, I assure you," said Madgras. "Before this worm Zacharius is executed I want him subjected to intense questioning. I want to know everything."
Every one of them knew what he meant by intense questioning--torture. "Yes, sir."
"Bring in the next prisoner!" This was Terreis. Owing to the fearsome reputation of her race she was escorted by no less than five guards. Her hands in heavy shackles, she was shoved through the door, there to stand in judgment before Madgras and his henchmen.
"Amazon, you are accused of espionage and conspiracy against the Getae people. How do you plead?"
Terreis looked Madgras right in the eye. "Does it matter?" she caustically asked.
"You're right," Madgras harshly retorted. "Foreign spies such as you do not deserve the courtesy of a trial."
"This is no trial," Terreis said in disgust. "This is a sham through and through. We are not spies, we are not guilty of anything."
"What were you offered in return for your mercenary meddling?" Madgras asked, ignoring her answer. "The Central Valley? The river plain? It is well known you Amazon sluts have long coveted the river plain."
"You're mad!" replied an astonished Terreis.
Enraged, Madgras slammed his fist down on the table. "Enough!" he bellowed. The general arose and walked out from behind the table to stand before Terreis. Again he formed a fist and this time sent it crashing into the jaw of the helpless princess. "You insolent bitch!" he roared. "Nobody talks to me that way!"
The thunderous blow sent Terreis reeling to her knees where she was caught by the hair and immediately jerked back to her feet. Shaking with rage, Terreis defiantly spit the blood out of her mouth and through clenched teeth said, "I am Terreis, daughter of the great Penthesilea, Most High Warrior, Hereditary Princess of the Southern Amazons. My ancestors were renowned warriors, learned and long blessed with the gifts of poetry, music and philosophy when yours were still digging out Titan shit to use as bricks and wallowing in the cesspool of their own wretched backwardness. I am not a bitch!"
Perhaps because everything Terreis had said was true Madgras chose not to respond to her short history lesson. Instead he seized her by the chin. "Well, Most High Bitch," he gloated. "You and the rest of your man-hating aberrants are all going to die!"
In a seething voice Terreis said, "You kill us and I promise you this land will run red with the blood of the Getae. Our people will bring terror and destruction down upon you such as you have never seen!"
"We do not fear you," said Madgras.
"Oh? Then why does it take five of these sweaty pigs to guard one chained Amazon?"
Madgras stepped back and pointed a finger at Terreis. Without bothering to consult the other members he calmly pronounced, "You...guilty. The rest of your Amazon whores...all guilty. Them I therefore sentence to hang with the other vermin three days from now in the public execution. You on the other hand will be accorded the honor of swinging from the special gallows we have prepared over at Belasar. It's for that dog Burebistas and his family of curs but, adding one more rope will be no trouble at all. As they say, 'The more the merrier.'"
Terreis wrenched her shoulders violently, momentarily breaking free of her startled guards. Lunging at Madgras, she cried, "Give me a sword and let me die a warrior's death!"
As the soldiers grabbed her and pulled her back under control Madgras held up an admonishing finger. "Uh uh uhhh. No rushing into the arms of Artemis for you. You'll die the sow's death you deserve, spy." He flicked a dismissive hand toward the door and said, "Get her out of here."
With the Amazon gone General Diodoros spoke. "General," he cautiously began, "perhaps it would be wise to delay the execution of these Amazons."
Madgras turned to him, a look of surprise on his face. "Delay? For what purpose?"
"Diodoros, are you questioning my judgment?" asked Madgras, eyeing him keenly.
"No," Diodoros emphatically replied. "Sir, you know me better than that, It's just that this past week has been momentous one. You have had many things to contend with. No doubt there is a lot on your mind and--"
"Yes yes, get to the point," Madgras ordered.
Diodoros hesitated. He did not look forward to saying what he had to say but as the general's second in command he felt it was his duty to point out potential dangers. He hoped Madgras would think so as well. "Perhaps you have not had time to..." Slowly he brought the conclusion home. "...think this through."
At the opposite end of the table Imatius and Horace sat motionless, watching with bated breath as Madgras' face turned to stone. He was not a man who took kindly to being called into question. Indeed had it been anyone but Diodoros Madgras' notorious temper might well have exploded forth, wrecking havoc on anyone in its terrible path. However Madgras had known his second in command since the days when both of them had first been pronounced officers, quaking in their boots whenever the commanding general even looked at them. Diodoros was not a friend--Madgras had no real friends. Still, the man had served with Madgras side by side for more than three decades. In that time Madgras had come to look upon him as a trusted advisor, a man whose counsel should be, if not always heeded, then at least listened to.
"All right," Madgras said with a resigned nod of the head. "Let's hear it."
"Sir, we have not yet consolidated power. New ministers have yet to be named, undesirable local officials in many provinces have yet to be replaced, the people are still very much in a state of shock and apprehension."
"That is to be expected," Madgras answered. "All that will be remedied in due course."
"That is my very point, sir," said Diodoros. "Right now the country is in chaos and confusion. Our hold on some of the outlying provinces is at the moment tenuous at best. Worse, I fear that some commands in those provinces could still be loyal to the king. We need time to weed out their leaders. And then there is the problem of General Ephron and his Northern Army."
Madgras scowled at the very mention of the name.
"By now he is sure to have received the news of what has happened," said Diodoros, continuing. "As you know Anticles, the crown prince, is with him. Now, our prime objective--as I see it--is to ensure we are ready to successfully engage Ephron and the prince upon their return for he will surely attempt to reinstall the monarchy. What I am trying to say, sir, is that right at this moment the last--the very last--thing we need is a war with the Amazons." Having said his piece, Diodoros took a deep breath...and waited.
"So you're saying that along with the expeditious marshalling of our forces for the expected fight with Ephron and Little Andy we should also release the Amazons so as not to provoke their queen as well."
"Yes, sir," said Diodoros, exhaling at last. At the table Imatius and Horace silently sat, their eyes riveted to their commander.
As he was wont to do when thinking Madgras put his hand to his chin and began to idly stroke his beard. After a few moments he said, "You are right. We do need to concentrate on the job at hand."
All three of the other officers felt a wave of relief wash over them. Since the seizure of the capital the primary concern of most of the officers in Madgras' River Army had been the Northern Army and how General Ephron would react. Would he join them? Fight them? Most suspected it would be the latter because he was known to be rather close to the royal family personally. Furthermore, he was no great admirer of General Madgras either. Imatius and Horace felt as Diodoros did, that General Madgras was being unduly distracted first by these otiose searches for disloyalty and now by this fixation on the supposedly spying Amazons. Not one of the three believed for one moment that Burebistas had actually enlisted the aid of the Amazons. As Madgras had already alluded to that would have meant prior knowledge of the planned overthrow. If the general did decide to seize upon that--well no one in the command structure wanted to think about that. Besides, every last minister had under torture denied being told by anyone of the impending move to depose the king. The exchange of letters between Burebistas and the queen of the Amazons was seen for what it really was--an odd coincidence and nothing more.
"As to our female friends I think they might prove to be useful after all."
General Diodoros was almost afraid to ask. What is it with him and these Amazons? he wondered. "How, sir?"
"Instead of merely executing them which as you say will surely put the Amazon queen in a snit we'll use them to make the queen our friend."
"I don't understand."
"It's simple. We dispatch someone to Melosa to inform her that we have her subjects in our possession and unless she agrees to ally with us in the fight against Ephron we'll send her precious princess home in burlap sacks, piece by piece."
Diodoros thought it a brilliant idea although one fraught with danger. Blackmail would not sit well with the Amazons and handling them would be like handling a two-headed snake. It might bite your enemy all right but it might just bite you too. Then again, he thought, having the ferocious Amazons on their side would almost certainly guarantee victory and as long as they held the princess...well, the rest could be sorted out later once Ephron and that little shit of a prince were no longer around to cause trouble. The Amazons could then be dealt with from a position of strength. "I agree it's worth trying," he said aloud.
In delight Madgras rubbed his hands together. "We can't lose with those harpies from hell on our side."
"So who do we send?" Diodoros asked.
Slowly Madgras turned to him. A broad grin spread across his face as he said, "Why, you of course!"
Wrapping her massive hands around the two bars, Minutia yet again shook the iron door of the cell with all her might. From a dark corner of the cell Willa's exasperated voice said, "Damn it, Mycinia, will you stop that?"
"If you have any better ideas about how to get of here I think now is the time to be whipping them out," Mycinia testily retorted.
"Well you're not going to accomplish anything by giving us all a headache," said Willa.
Just for spite Mycinia gave the door one more violent rattle, emitting a guttural cry of frustration. "Arrrgh!"
"Minutia, so help me--"
"Come on, guys," Valerie softly entreated. "Please don't fight. We have to stick together."
Mycinia rolled her eyes over to the young warrior sitting opposite the door. She knew the girl was still blaming herself somehow for their predicament. "You're right, kid," she said softly. "Sorry, Willa."
"Aww forget it," said Willa. "Hey, I want to get out of here too. This is not exactly my idea of spending a night in the big city."
Minutia grinned at her as Willa playfully tossed a pebble at her leg. Despite the orders of Madgras Philos had found it necessary to throw these three Amazons all in one cell. Already bursting at the seams with inmates, Belasar Prison simply did not have sufficient room to provide individual cells--except for Terreis. In the time since their separation not one word had been heard from her.
Vocalizing what was on everyone's mind, Valerie worriedly said, "I hope Terreis is all right. What do you think they've done with her?"
"Who knows?" Willa said with a sigh. Dead probably, she thought, although that was one opinion she would keep to herself. Valerie was demoralized enough as it was.
Once more Minutia gripped the bars but this time she did not shake the door. Instead she merely leaned on it and pushed as hard as she could.
They had not been fed once since their imprisonment and each Amazon had been allowed to gulp down only one small dipperful of dingy water. Finally stepping back from the door, Minutia looked around at the thick block walls, the solid stone floor and the sturdy iron bars. There were no two ways about it; there was no way for them to escape on their own. In the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds they needed--somewhere, somehow--to catch a break. Reflecting further, Minutia though, No, what we need is a miracle.
In any event, the mighty Amazon had already made up her mind that she was not going to die at the end of a Getae rope. She figured she could overpower one of those clods they called guards, take his sword, and make them kill her. To be sure it was not much of a choice but, like her princess, she preferred the honor of a warrior's death to being hung up like a gutted stag.
It was very late in the evening when Ephiny rode to the top of tall hill and pulled her little mare to a halt. From there she saw across the valley far to the northwest the drab grayish-brown city walls of Getae's capital. Behind those, even farther away and shimmering in the evening light, she could just make out the ramparts of what looked to be a fair sized palace. At long last the young Amazon had reached her goal.
"Well, girl, we made it," said Ephiny softly. She had found the turn without much trouble, correctly guessing at the fork that the left road, which clearly showed signs of heavier travel, was the correct one.
Slipping off the horse, she took a look around and with no one in sight squatted down to answer Nature's call. As far as Ephiny was concerned it was a good thing she was alone because right at that moment she was too tired to search for a secluded spot to do her business. Her bladder was full, she was going to relieve it. It was as simple as that.
Despite her fatigue Ephiny knew there would be no rest for her any time soon. In fact her work was only just beginning. Night was already falling; it would be dark by the time she reached the city. With the coming of darkness and the freedom of movement it afforded Ephiny would be able to carry out the mental checklist of things she had to do. First and of these was finding some food. Ephiny still had not eaten and by now she was starving. On the road she tried to ignore her hunger pangs as best she could but now that she had arrived it was imperative that she get something in her stomach. She had to keep her strength up. An Amazon weak from hunger would be of no use to anyone. Secondly, Ephiny had not missed the way the boy back on the road kept staring at her. She was insightful enough to recognize that while it was her breasts and thighs that had for the most part caught the boy's eye she also remembered how he had commented on her clothing. In this drab place, dressed as finely as she was, she would stand out like a raven in a snow bank. Yes, she would have to find something else to wear, the plainer the better.
With these two needs taken care of the third, and most important, thing to be done was of course to find Terreis and the others. For the life of her Ephiny could not understand what had provoked those soldiers. What was happening? Except for her brief encounter with the boy she had been in contact with no one. Fearing another raiding party, she had all day been very careful to avoid the numerous hamlets individual farm houses she had come across. Because of this she knew nothing of the political upheaval the country was experiencing.
From her place on the hill Ephiny looked down to the many huts dotting the valley floor. Rising from several of them she saw wispy trails of smoke from the supper fires slowly wafting skyward only to hang low in the heavy evening air. Gazing down on this peaceful scene Ephiny was confident she would find all that she needed down there without too much trouble. Even an inexperienced Amazon such as her was quite adept at utilizing the darkness to make herself practically invisible. But first she would have to wait.
As she wearily wiped her brow with the back of her arm the little mare nudged her. The warrior gently stroked the mare's neck, murmuring, "Yeah, I know. You're hungry too, aren't you?" Such a good little horse, she thought. Ephiny stared down at the hard scrabble dirt and said, "There's not much up here for you, girl. How about we go back down and check out that clover we saw, huh?"
The Amazon took the reins and led the horse down the hill, back to the nearby clover field they passed on the way. As the
sturdy little mare ate her fill Ephiny sat back under a sprawling plane tree, keeping a vigilant eye while she patiently waited for
The sun was long gone from the western sky before Ephiny felt it safe enough to carefully make her foray out into the valley. As luck would have it she was able to very quickly satisfy her first two needs although not quite through the expected means. Approaching a lonely farm house her senses were alerted by a distressed cry. This was immediately followed up by the unmistakable sounds of some kind of disturbance. Very carefully Ephiny edged her horse into where she could get a good view of the house. The front door was wide open. Outside in the dim light emanating from the hut she saw three silhouettes. One, considerably smaller, was being buffeted between the other two.
"Please!" she heard someone cry. "We have nothing!" Listening closely, Ephiny knew it to be a woman's voice.
In the dim light she saw one of the hulking shadows slap the smaller one to the ground. "Give it up, damn you!" a man's voice growled. "We know you've got it."
The small shadow cried out in anguish and desperately wrapped her arms around her assailant's leg. Watching this grim scene, Ephiny tried to convince herself that her mission would be better served by staying out of it, that this was none of her business.
"You will tell us, wench!" the assailant's partner said hoarsely. To emphasize his point he followed up with a vicious kick to the prostrate woman's ribs.
It's none of my business, Ephiny thought. It's none of my business. Then she saw the man draw a knife from his belt. Angrily pulling her sword from its scabbard, she thought, Like hell it's not!
She dug her heels hard into the little mare's flanks and together they sprang forward. By the time the two men realized what was happening it was too late. Like a vengeful eagle down swooped Ephiny upon the malevolent shadows. The first shadow, still hobbled by the woman clinging to his leg, was barely able to pivot with his free leg before Ephiny send him sprawling with a smashing blow to the head from the flat side of her sword. Pulling the horse to a hard stop, Ephiny leaped off and ran to the stricken woman. The second man saw this and made an attempt to beat the Amazon to her. However Ephiny was much too quick for him and consequently was able to easily cut him off.
Still brandishing the knife, the man then wildly slashed at the nimble Amazon but to his surprise and disappointment all he cut was air.
Were it not for the woman at her feet Ephiny would have laughed at his feeble effort. He might be able to get by with that with a poor farmer or some clod in a bar fight but a trained warrior like her saw him as nothing more than a clumsy oaf. Why, any number of the old women back at her village could carve this fellow's ass up like a festival goose! Still, she thought, I mustn't get careless here.
Her voice calm but firm, Ephiny warned, "Drop the knife and get out of here before you do something I will regret."
"You'll regret?" the man sneered. "Piss on you, girlie. I'm going to cut out your liver and feed it to my dog!"
"You crazy bastard!" Ephiny exclaimed. "All you have is that stupid knife. Can't you see I've got a sword? You don't stand a chance." In the flickering light she saw the man drop the weapon. "That's better," she said.
However the relief she felt was short lived. Reaching under his coat, the man pulled out a sword of his own. "Sword, huh?" he leered. "You mean, like this?"
Ephiny had not seen the sword and silently she cursed herself for having missed it. Now that the balance of power was much more even Ephiny was forced to readjust her thinking. If the man remained bent on attacking her she could no longer afford to be so charitable. If it came to a fight she might have to now kill him in order to insure her own survival.
Grasping the sword with both hands above his head, the man charged. Ephiny, balancing herself on the balls of her feet, stood ready for the attack. Down came the man's sword only to be met by that of the young warrior. Above their heads swords clashed but to Ephiny's horror it was not with the familiar sound of solid metal against solid metal. Rather, there was sharp ping! followed by the sickening sensation of her sword hand giving way.
The Amazon did not have to look to know that in that one terrible moment her sword had broken. Without thinking she glanced at it to see how much blade she had left. Not much as it turned out for it was broken just above the forte. Her bronze sword had been no match for the iron blade of her enemy. With a triumphant cry the man raised his sword high and struck at her again.
"When the attack is high, you go low!" old Selena had always taught. Ephiny intended to put that maxim to use. The young warrior had no idea where the man could have gotten such a fine sword but it was obvious he had little skill in wielding it. This man was no soldier, just a thug. Even broken her sword was a better weapon than her knife. She still had enough blade to cut his throat. If she kept her head...if she could get in close, she could still prevail.
There was, however, one variable Ephiny had not accounted for and that was the woman lying at her feet. It was at this precise moment that she chose to try to get up. In doing so she bumped hard Ephiny from behind, momentarily knocking the Amazon off balance. A quick step and a forward hop quickly rectified this but it also allowed the onrushing man to get much closer than Ephiny had anticipated. She was just barely able to dart out of the way of his charge but not before the man's blade found its mark. Ephiny, having thrown out her left arm to regain her balance, felt a burning sting there and knew she had been cut.
Ephiny pushed the woman back behind her and spun around to face the man again, She allowed herself one brief look at the bleeding gash halfway between her shoulder and her elbow before turning her attention back to the man.
Grinning triumphantly, the man said, "Got you, girlie. Now for your liver."
At that precise moment Ephiny felt another bump from behind. "Here!" she heard the woman cry. Not daring to look away from the man with the sword, Ephiny felt her new ally trying to thrust something long and hard into her hands. In that one split second the Amazon instinctively pitched down her shattered weapon and took it. She found it to be a common everyday chopping axe, retrieved from the nearby wood pile by the quick thinking woman.
Over the years the short handled, double-bladed battle axe had for some reason become ensconced in the Greek mind as the Amazon weapon of choice. While it was true every Amazon trained with this weapon, along with countless others, these warriors on the whole preferred more long range weapons such as the bow and the javelin. This was all part of the basic Amazonian philosophy of avoiding costly close quarter combat if at all possible. Naturally events sometimes conspired to make this impossible but given the choice Amazon commanders would much rather close combat encounters be fought on their own terms such as through the use of the ambush or the hit-and-run raid, two tactics at which they traditionally excelled. In truth Ephiny had never cared for the axe but now that it was only thing keeping her from a premature meeting with Charon she suddenly found herself a lot more appreciative of its destructive power. It was only a chopping axe, heavy, one-sided, old and rusty, but it would certainly make just about anyone wielding it a force to be reckoned with. Placed in the hands of one skilled in the use of arms as Ephiny was and she felt more than a match for this goon, iron sword or otherwise.
The chance to prove it was not long in coming for no sooner was the axe in Ephiny's hands when with a loud grunt the man rushed her. Once, twice, three times he wildly flailed away at the nimble Ephiny but missed badly each time. On the fourth attempt he thought he had her only to have his thrust neatly blocked by the axe handle. Taking care to keep herself between the woman and their attacker, Ephiny concentrated on maintaining her balance and bided her time. She could see he was getting impatient. Sooner or later he would make the mistake of overreaching, of lunging just a little too far. If she could only fend him off long enough to get that opening she was looking for.
And then it came. Growing more impatient, more angry with each succeeding miss, impatient for the kill, the man slashed at Ephiny with a great, sweeping stroke. Unfortunately for him his miss was compounded by some bad footwork as well. This caused him to stumble on the follow-through. Here at last was her chance and the opportunistic Ephiny did not miss it. Adroitly she shortened her grip on the axe handle to allow herself a quicker stroke and then swung with all her might. The axe blade struck with a sickening thump right between her adversary's shoulder blades. With a loud gasp the man fell heavily to the ground--dead.
Behind the Amazon someone shouted, "Carston!" Wheeling as one, Ephiny and the woman saw it was Ephiny's first victim who had only now regained consciousness, just in time to see his cohort, his brother, killed. Horrified by the sight, he broke and ran. In a rage the woman seized up a fat stick of firewood and started after him.
"No! Wait!" Ephiny cried. Quickly she snatched up the fallen man's sword and followed after her.
Fortunately the woman was too smart to get out of the light and as the man faded into the night she stopped and flung her crude weapon at him. The ensuing plunk of the stick as it found its target gratified her to no end.
Upon Ephiny reaching her side she demanded, "Go after him!"
"No," Ephiny firmly replied. "It's over. He's had enough. He won't be back"
The woman looked at Ephiny's bleeding arm and blood spattered hands. "You're hurt," she said.
"I'm all right," said the Amazon. Glancing at the puffy area under the woman's left eye, she added, "How about you? That's a nice mouse you have there."
"It only hurts when I blink," said the woman dryly. Her face then turned very somber. "Thank you for stepping in."
The woman's gratitude made Ephiny a little uncomfortable because she still remembered how close she had come to simply riding off. Because of this her reply of, "Don't mention it," truly had a double meaning.
"My name is Diandra," said the woman, extending her hand.
Taking the offered hand, the Amazon replied with a nod, "Ephiny."
"Well, Ephiny, what do you say we go in the house and patch up that arm of yours before you bleed to death."
"That's very kind of you," said Ephiny. "But I can't stay."
Diandra was incredulous. "What do you mean you can't stay?" she asked. "Right out of nowhere you come charging in here to save my life and now just like that you want to leave? What's with you?" Diandra paused and gave Ephiny a keen look. She then asked "Are you in some kind of trouble?"
The woman looked to be about thirty. She was taller than Ephiny and surprisingly, far more muscular, and had the definite look of someone long used to living a rigorous life. Work and worry had robbed her face of much of the beauty that had so obviously once graced it yet for all the lines she was still a pleasing woman to look at nonetheless with her tanned skin and dark, piercing eyes framed by the long brown hair falling down upon her shoulders. But more than that Diandra looked to be tough, insightful, forthright--direct. Right away Ephiny found herself liking her.
Still, revealing why she was there was out of the question. "No, no trouble," she said. In an effort to change the focus away from herself she glanced back at the dead Carston. "Have you ever seen him before?"
"Oh yeah," said Diandra sourly. "His name is Carston. My husband used to hire him to help around the place."
"Where is your husband?" Ephiny asked.
"Planted out there under that ash tree," the woman matter-of-factly replied. "He died back in the early summer. He was taking his supper one evening after working all day in the field and he just fell over, as dead as Mount Ossa. No one knows why. Perhaps he displeased some god."
Ephiny rather suspected the man's death was more attributable to the scorching heat prevalent during that period than the wrath of some god but of course, kept this to herself. "I'm sorry," she said simply.
"Yeah, me too. Now, come on in the house and let me fix up your arm. It's the least I can do for someone who just saved my life."
"What about him?" asked Ephiny, nodding in the direction of the dead man..
"Bandages won't help him," Diandra said crisply.
"You know what I mean."
"Ohh, the soldiers will probably throw him in the bog," said Diandra.
"Soldiers?" echoed Ephiny, hoping she sounded nonchalant.
"My husband used to serve under Madgras and a lot of the men know me. I'll just show them my broken door and tell them this guy tried to rob and kill me and my son. They'll believe me when I tell them it was self defense." She shot Ephiny a strange little smile and added, "And don't worry, I'll say that I did it."
For her part Ephiny did not quite now how to take that last statement. At any rate it made her a little leery of the woman. Evidently she somehow understood the Amazon's desire for anonymity. But how? Hoping to find out more, Ephiny took one more shot. "Why would soldiers be doing the work of the magistrate's men?"
"The roads here in the valley have been heavily patrolled ever since the...hey, you're still bleeding. We'd better get that arm patched up."
Noting that the bleeding indeed had not yet stopped, not daring to press her further about the soldiers, Ephiny this time assented. With Diandra leading the way the two of them walked back to the well built structure. Inside Diandra threw back a rug, revealing a trap door in the floor. Tugging it open, she gently called down below, "Jason? Jason, honey, you can come up now. It's all right."
In the hole there appeared a moment later a mop of dark hair. "There you are," Diandra cooed. Reaching down with both arms, she picked up a boy who looked to be about five years old. "See, Momma's back now," Diandra assured the boy. "Thanks to this nice young woman here."
"You have a fine son there," said Ephiny.
"Thank you. He's all I have left now that Zander is dead," said Diandra. The wistfulness in her voice was not lost on Ephiny. Playfully brushing her finger on the boy's nose, Diandra said to him, "So, are you hungry yet?"
Too bashful to speak in front of Ephiny, the boy nodded shyly. Diandra sat him down at the puncheon table and walked over to the fireplace where a large kettle hung above the smoldering fire. As she lifted the lid the enticing aroma engulfed Ephiny's nostrils which in turn awakened her long neglected stomach. Diandra picked up a large wooden spoon and began to stir the contents of the pot, a thick stew. "We were just about to have our supper," said Diandra. "That is, until those bastards practically came skulking around. Just let me fix the boy up here and we'll take a look at your arm."
As Diandra finished ladling out a bowl for her son she turned just in time to catch her young benefactress staring longingly at the heavenly smelling stew, warm and full of vegetables and chunks of tender rabbit. It was a look the perceptive Diandra understood well. In the stronger light she was struck by how young Ephiny really was and suddenly wondered when the girl had last eaten. Pretending not to notice Ephiny's gaze, she smoothly said, "You've been on the road all day I'll bet..You must be very hungry."
Ephiny was not fooled. She knew she had been caught staring. Embarrassed, she could only muster a sheepish little smile and admit, "A little."
Diandra shook her head in self-reproach, saying, "By the gods where are my manners? All the excitement I guess. Come. Sit here at the table. Please."
Despite the ragings of her stomach Ephiny was hesitant. What if she were taking food away from Diandra or, worse, the boy?
As if reading the Amazon's mind Diandra smiled reassuringly and said, "There is plenty for everyone, Ephiny. Now please, sit down." No sooner had Ephiny complied when a steaming bowl of the rich stew was set before her along with a thick slab of barley bread. "We did have some goat's milk earlier," Diandra said apologetically, "but we drank it all. Didn't we, honey?"
The little boy, lips rimmed with stew, nodded enthusiastically.
"I'm afraid you'll have to settle for plain old well water," said Diandra."
Ephiny was in no mood to be picky. "That's fine," she said.
As Ephiny ate with one hand Diandra methodically set to work cleaning and dressing the young warrior's wound. Feeling Diandra's hands upon her, Ephiny sensed them to be nimble, dexterous--strong. And as she sat there came for the first time a glimmer of comprehension. Diandra had not blinked twice over the death of the man outside. Indeed she had probably saved both their lives with her quick thinking. Clearly then the idea of shedding blood did not bother her. Moreover, she certainly knew her way around dressing a wound as well. But it was more than that too. It was the way Diandra carried herself, the way she projected an aura of inner strength and quite confidence. It was almost reassuring in a way to be around her, that she could somehow make things right no matter what. For a young woman raised among so many able leaders it was a familiar feeling.
And that was the thing. Slowly Ephiny began to wonder if perhaps--just perhaps--this was no simple peasant woman after all or at least, had not always been one.
Diandra neatly tied off the bandage, finishing with little pat on Ephiny's arm. Her voice cheerful, she said, "There now, keep that clean and a moon from now you won't even remember it."
"Thank you," Ephiny said quietly.
Diandra walked around to the opposite side of the table and sat down beside her son. "Finished yet?" she asked him. Jason answered by proudly holding up his empty bowl. "That's a good boy," his mother cooed. "He's so picky when about what he eats," she explained to Ephiny.
With his tummy full Jason now turned his attention from the bowl to something else--his mother's face. By now Diandra's eye was swollen half shut. "Momma!" Jason said in wonder. "Your eye!"
Reflexively Diandra put a fingertip to her eye. "Oooh," she said, wincing. "I'll have a shiner tomorrow for sure."
"It's all right, baby," she said to the boy. "Momma just had an accident, that's all."
"You mean he--"
There was sudden intensity to Diandra's voice as she cut Ephiny off. "No!" Then, calmer, "He doesn't."
"Sorry," That was a dumb thing to say, Ephiny, she thought. What mother would want to tell her child of men who would hurt them? Dumb!
For one brief moment Diandra's dark brown eyes looked deeply into Ephiny's and in that span of a single breath the Amazon came to understand as only one of her race could that this was in fact no ordinary woman. There was an intelligence there that hinted of worldly experiences, of strength--even nobility. In all her life Ephiny had seen only one other who could bore their way into the very soul like that.
"We'll talk later," said Diandra. And just like that the look was gone. "But first," she said, playfully tickling Jason's ribs, I have to pack the man of the house off to bed. Don't I, sweetie?"
"Momma?" the boy asked. "Is she staying?"
"I--I don't know, dear," said Diandra. "Why?"
Jason bashfully bit on his fist and buried his head in his mother's bosom. "She's preeetty," he said, causing Ephiny to lower her head in embarrassment.
"Yes, honey," said Diandra softly. "Yes, she is. Now it's off to bed with you, young man."
With an exaggerated groan Diandra heft the boy up into her arms and carried him off to bed. At the table Ephiny could hear the low murmurings of mother and child in the next room as Diandra tucked him in. Reappearing, Diandra lingered for a moment at the door. "Good night, sweetie. She waited for the boy's soft reply and then quietly closed the door behind her.
Back at the table Diandra sat watching Ephiny eat her meal. When she finished she gratefully accepting her host's offer of seconds.
After the second bowl Ephiny rose to her feet and said, "I know it's bad manners to eat and run and I so thank you for the food...but I have to go now."
"You're going after them, aren't you?"
Ephiny tried to feign ignorance. "Who?" Inside however she was once more taken aback by what she thought was uncanny perceptiveness on the part of this woman.
"You know who," said Diandra evenly. "Those Amazons that were brought through here last night."
"I don't know any Amazons," lied Ephiny.
"Oh come on," said Diandra dismissively. And then again she looked seemingly straight through Ephiny's eyes, right into her very soul. "I know an Amazon when I see one."
Like one of Zeus' lightning bolts streaking across the sky the realization flashed into Ephiny's consciousness. Of course! she thought. This time she was able to return the knowing gaze. "So do I," she said.
Diandra's lips hinted at a smile. The girl was not only an able warrior she was also intelligent. "For one so young you're very perceptive."
In reply Ephiny recited another of the oft repeated mantras from her training. "Clarity of thought can be a greater weapon than even the sharpest sword."
"So I've heard," said Diandra. Like a bride's veil on her wedding night her six years of domestic life fell away and for one moment at least she was no longer Diandra, mother and grieving widow, but who she had once been--Diandra--"Queen's Warrior"-- aside from royalty the highest ranking warrior in the entire Northern Amazon tribe. "These Amazons--Southern Amazons--came through here last night escorted by a company of soldiers. You're a full day behind, Ephiny."
From the critical tone of Diandra's last remark Ephiny inferred she was being more than just informative. "I was without a horse for most of yesterday," Ephiny explained.
"Well you've got your work cut out for you, you know that, don't you?" said Diandra. She cast an apprehensive glance to the door of Jason's bedroom. "Let's go outside."
The night was warm, even for late summer. Once they were outside Diandra pointed to the lights of the capital glowing dully in the western sky. "That, my young friend, is your proper objective," she said. "That's where they've been taken."
"Ohh no," Diandra said. "Maybe initially but more likely they've been transferred to Belasar Prison by now. The uhh, facilities are more suitable there, shall we say?"
Ephiny stared off into the distance for a moment and then with a determined nod of the head said, "Okay then, that's where I'll go."
"Not so fast," said Diandra. "Soldiers are as thick as fleas inside those walls right now. You can't just go dancing in there looking like that and not expect to be noticed."
"I hadn't intended to," said Ephiny. "But what's with all these soldiers running around? What's happening here?"
Diandra shot her an incredulous look. "You mean you don't know?"
"Well I haven't exactly been going door to door looking for answers you know."
"The army has deposed the king, Ephiny. General Madgras has seized control of the government. I hear he intends to stretch the neck of the king and his entire court. By the way, what brings you people here in the first place? The Southern Amazons and the Getae have never exactly been on the best of terms."
"We were invited for talks by...." It was here that the full realization of the danger her friends were facing came to her. "Sweet gods!" she said breathlessly.
"Madgras probably thinks they're spies," said Diandra solemnly.
"Diandra, I've got to go!"
She turned only to have Diandra catch her by the arm. "Wait!"
Wrenching free, Ephiny harshly asked "Wait? What do you mean, wait? My people were attacked without provocation and now our princess is being held prisoner by those, those...bastards! I don't have time to stand here and play Socrates with you!"
Diandra caught Ephiny by the shoulder and roughly spun her around. Eyes flashing, she hissed, "Now you listen to me, you little squab. You've been trained well enough to know better than that. What I'm trying to get through that thick skull of yours is if you go up there without a definite plan you're going to get your ass caught and then what good will you be to your princess?"
"I've got a plan," Ephiny replied defensively.
"Oh you do, huh? There are twelve gates into the city, three to each wall. You try to enter, especially at night, by yourself, and chances are you're going to get challenged. What are you going to tell them? Think, damn it! How are you going to explain the way you are dressed and most importantly, how are you going to explain that sword?"
"I'm not stupid. I know to get something else to wear and I'll hide my weapons."
"If you raise suspicion they'll search you."
"All right, I'll ditch the weapons outside somewhere," a testy Ephiny replied. "There, are you happy now?"
"No," said Diandra. "No I'm not. Because unless you get your act together your princess is as good as dead right now. You know, you might look like a warrior on the outside but on the inside you're still just a lowly little scatter-brained turd." Immediately she was sorry for having said it. "Damn it, Ephiny," she said softly, "I'm trying to help you."
"I know you are," said the girl. She wiped her forehead with a slightly shaking hand. Smiling sheepishly she said, "I'm sorry. I-I haven't slept in two days. I'm usually more level headed than this."
Diandra of course knew nothing of Ephiny's trial of the previous month. With just a handful of her young friends the daughter of Meelah had prevented the slaughter of the tribe's children and elderly. "I can imagine how rough it's been for you. After all, it's not every day so much responsibility is placed on one as young as you," she said.
"I really would appreciate any help you can give me," said Ephiny. Even with her respite the lack of sleep and knowledge of the task she had in front of her was making her suddenly feel very tired once more.
"Are you absolutely certain you want to do this?"
Resolute despite hear weariness, Ephiny replied, "I have to."
Diandra allowed that she did. She liked this kid. She knew her duty. The girl was green but obviously had talent. Well, she was going to need every bit of it. "Okay, the first order of business then is to get inside. Swing wide and go to the far gate on the south wall. The main road leads through that gate so it's always the busiest one. Now normally you might get stopped depending on who's manning the gate but I can get you around all that."
"I'll explain later," said Diandra.
"Okay, so you can get me inside. Can you give me a layout of the place?" asked Ephiny.
Diandra shot her newfound friend a kind look and said, "I can do better than that. Now come on, we've got to get you ready."
Back inside the house Diandra eased into the bedroom where her son had just drifted off to sleep. Almost as quickly she was back with a bundle which she pressed against Ephiny's stomach. "Here, put this on. When you're finished tie up your stuff and bring it outside. I need you to help me."
"To do what?" Ephiny asked.
An enigmatic little smile broke across Diandra's lips. "Why, to make your key of course." Leaving the puzzled young warrior to her very private affairs Diandra took up a candle and went back outside. There she took Ephiny's little mare by the bridle and let it the forty paces or so over to the barn. Built only the previous spring, the structure had been a long time dream of her deceased husband. He had been stricken down not long after and the barn had marked the final improvement to what had been an six year labor of love--his farm.
With a determined grunt Diandra pulled open the big door. Inside she led the horse over to a sturdy two-wheeled cart and immediately set to work harnessing the little mare up to it. Not accustomed to being in harness the mare naturally was not entirely agreeable to the proposed arrangement. She reared up once but with a strong hand and soothing voice Diandra was able to calm her down all right. Working with a well practiced hand by the dim light of the flickering candle she soon had the horse fitted into harness.
As she began leading the rig back outside Ephiny's silhouette appeared in the doorway. "What are you doing?" the young Amazon asked.
"Making up your key like I said," Diandra replied. Out in the open air she halted the cart and said, "Put your stuff in a corner of the cart."
This time Ephiny did as she was told without comment. As she did Diandra held the candle up close to get a good look at the girl. "How does it fit?" she asked.
"It's too big," Ephiny grumbled. "I feel like I'm wearing a tent."
The roughly woven dress was dull brown in color with very short sleeves and Diandra noted with not a little amusement that Ephiny's hips were nowhere to be seen, the garment was much too roomy in the chest and the hem was indeed closer to the girl's ankles than to her knees.
With a soft chuckle she said, "Your tribe always was a brassy bunch. I'll bet you can't even remember the last time your knees were covered, can you?"
"Can too," Ephiny said with a huff. But in truth it had been a very long time, since she was a child in fact.
"Well you can tie your waist up with something," said Diandra. "It won't be so bad. Sorry we can't do anything about the bosom though."
Ignoring this last remark Ephiny said, "It's itchy too."
Diandra never missed a beat in replying, "That's good. Itching is good. It will make the guards think you have lice or something." In panic Ephiny pulled at the sides of the dress with both hands. "It's just a joke, Ephiny," Diandra said gently. "Still, the plainer you look, the better. You want to be nondescript." Diandra looked at the girl's pretty face and unruly blonde hair and added, "Or at least, as nondescript as possible."
"So, I'm nondescript. Now what?"
Pointing to the wood pile next to the cart Diandra said, "Fill up the cart. People are continually bringing firewood into the city to sell. Hopefully the guards will see you and think you're just one more wench trying to get a jump on the other peddlers. It happens all the time."
Side by side they worked quickly and silently, the young Amazon whose whole life was ahead of her and the older, wiser woman who had forsaken all, rank, privilege, honor--her very people--all for that one damn weakling of a male in all world who could have made her love him only to have him betray her by having the temerity to up and die on her. Now, if only for one brief moment, she remembered what it was to be an Amazon, to work together with others who shared much the same heritage and believed much the same as she did. Or had. For once precious moment she felt that once again she too belonged to that fabled sisterhood
When the cart was filled Diandra dusted off her hands and said, "There now, you're all set. Okay now, pay attention. You're going to need a place, a base of operations if you will, from where you can try to formulate a plan. I have just the place. Again, take the southwest gate. Once you pass through the road narrows into a typical city street. At the very first cross street you come to turn right and count off three streets. There you turn left, go down five more streets and you'll come to a livery stable sitting on the left. Go in and tell the proprietor that Diandra sent you. His name is Sarak and tell him I said to put you and your horse up for a few days. Tell him he can take the wood as payment."
"Will he do that?" a skeptical Ephiny asked.
"He'll do it," Diandra confidently replied. "He still owes me for three wagonloads of hay. One more thing, Ephiny. If you mention that I told you that if you were willing to work in the stable for room and board he might give you a job. He's always needing help. I know carrying water and shoveling horse dung is beneath you but the payoff is the excellent view you'll have of Belasar Prison. You see, it's right across the street."
Ephiny could only numbly thank Artemis for her great fortune on this night.
Diandra smiled at the girl and said, "Ephiny, I've done all I can for you. Oh! I almost forgot. I was wondering, who's your queen now?"
"Ahh yes, the gloomy Melosa. Penthesilea's kid. So Antiope's line still reigns, eh?"
"You know her?"
"Ohh yeah. We met back when we were teens. Penthesilea and a contingent of Southern Amazons came to our village once to discuss better cooperation between our two tribes. Nothing ever came of it of course, Queen Thalia hated her. Our tribes were just too different. It's a shame really. Gods, Penthesilea was sooo...impressive!"
"Diandra, can I ask you something?"
"I know Amazonian elite when I see it. So tell me...why?"
"Why what? Why am I helping you or why am I here on this patch of dirt a hundred leagues from my homeland."
"Both I guess," said Ephiny.
The answer to the first one is easy," said Diandra. "Whatever our differences you're an Amazon. We are part of the same culture, the same spirit lives within us. We are the children of Artemis. As for the second part, weeell, that's a little more complicated. A long time ago, a lifetime really, I had a daughter. Her name was Lydia. She was a bright child, very precocious--always into everything--and I lived for her smile. One day, when she was three, I returned home from leading a hunting party and found that she had taken ill. She was burning with fever and she had these horrible red blotches all over her body. The healer spent all night with her but by the next morning it was obvious Lydia's condition was deteriorating. As my baby worsened I became distraught almost to the point of panic. My child was dying! Gods! I thought. There must be something I can do. In my anxiety I remembered having heard of this Getae healer who was supposed to be something of a miracle worker. It was said he actually brought a man back to life who had already died moments before. I was determined that my Lydia should see this Getae. However when I sought permission for this from our queen to my utter dismay she refused. She said the child was as good as dead already."
Diandra shook her head and her voiced was laced with bitterness as she said, "Here I was, the highest ranking warrior in the tribe, a general, the tactical leader who had won her more battles...." Overcome by the painful memory, Diandra paused. The years hence had not dimmed her fury. Balling her fists in rage, she curled her lip in disgust and said, "...and she would not allow me this, this one thing."
Quietly Ephiny said, "And so you left."
"Yes," said Diandra, wiping away a tear. "I took my child, and the five hundred drachmas I had amassed over the years and I left. Behind me I left my friends, my sister Joanna, my whole life as I had known it. I later learned that the queen was so irate that she decreed that I could never come back as long as she was alive."
"So what happened? Your child, Lydia I mean."
"Well the queen was right," said Diandra. "Lydia died before I got halfway to Getae. I took her to a hilltop overlooking the great river and there I sent her into the arms of Artemis. The next morning I was just breaking camp when I was attacked by three men. They weren't much of a challenge really, just oafish robbers looking for an easy mark. Anyway, a passing squad of soldiers heard the fight but by the time they arrived I had already run the clods off."
A smile came to Diandra's face and she said, "And that's when I saw him, tall and handsome, sitting erect on that big horse of his. Diandra paused again. "We're wasting time here. Let's just say that one thing led to another and in six months we were married. He left the army and I pitched in my five hundred drachmas to help buy this place. We worked our asses off building the farm up from nothing and just when we were starting to turn a drachma from it he had to be a bastard and die on me."
Ephiny found one thing Diandra said difficult to grasp. "But, the Getae, both our tribes have fought them. How can you love a man who was your enemy?"
"Love has a way of overcoming such petty labels, Ephiny. Yes, we fought them but I didn't hate the Getae any more than my husband hated Amazons." She put a hand on Ephiny's shoulder and said, "Who knows? Maybe some day you'll take some good looking fellow prisoner only to suddenly find yourself falling in love with him."
Ephiny said nothing but allowed the chances of that happening were about the same as that of a mortal killing a god.
A question had been nagging at Ephiny ever since she realized who Diandra was. "One more thing, how come you weren't trying to fight those two guys off?"
"Who says I wasn't?" Diandra replied. She ran a hand down into her dress and pulled out a rather wicked looking awl. "The times being what they are a girl never knows who she is going to run into," she said. "That's why I always carry this. I was just about to shove it into that guy's balls when you showed up."
The two Amazons shared a grin but then Ephiny turned very serious. "Diandra, I don't know how to thank you. If, if I make it back to my village I'm going to tell the queen what you did for me, for us."
"Forget it, kid," said Diandra. "You helped me, now I'm helping you. But when you do see Miss Sunshine again tell her I said I can still wax her ass in the tree drills."
"I'll tell her," Ephiny solemnly promised.
"You know, if it wasn't for the boy I'd be tempted to go with you," said Diandra. "Hell, I would go with you." She paused and a look of sadness came over her. "But I can't."
"I know," Ephiny softly replied.
Diandra held out her hand and as the two of them clasped arms it was the older woman who said, "To a strong Amazon Nation."
"To a strong Amazon Nation."
"Now go, my friend," said Diandra. Ephiny took the mare by the bridle and as she led the horse away Diandra called out, "Just take the road out front down until you hit the main road. You can't miss it, it's the next one. Make a right at the crossroads and you're on your way. And good luck!"
Ephiny turned halfway and gave an acknowledging wave. Before long she had passed out of the light, disappearing into the dark shadows of the night.
By then Diandra was already making for the axe. Despite what she had told her young friend the dead man who, if given the chance, would have murdered both her and her son was never again going to be seen by another pair of human eyes. Chopped up fine enough, she thought the bastard would make an exceptionally fine slop for her pigs.
It was deep into the night when, almost without warning, Ephiny at last stumbled upon the towering black walls looming up before her. Almost beyond weariness now, the normally meticulous Ephiny could not even guess how long she had been walking but on a night so quiet that every rustle of weeds and every hoot or chirp was magnified it seemed to have been a very long time indeed.
Her little mare, unused to the harness, had done quite well but for fear of placing too much strain on the animal Ephiny had chosen to walk the whole way. Now the great walls rose up before her and with the tower at the corner reminded Ephiny of some titanic black beast lying in wait for its prey. Swallowing hard, the young warrior pressed forward.
"Stop!" a voice rang out in the stillness.
Instantly two dark figures were flanking the cart. Unfortunately Diandra's hope had not come to pass. Except for Ephiny there was no other traffic. Totally alone there at the gate, she now came under the full scrutiny of the guards.
"Who are you?" a gruff voice demanded to know.
In the span of the single breath she took before answering many thoughts, none of them particularly encouraging, raced through her mind. Should she give her real name? If she gave a false one would they somehow trip her up? Then again, perhaps her friends had been tortured. Would it be possible she was being looked for at that very moment? Would these men recognize the name?
Facing such uncertainty, Ephiny could not take the chance. "Solari," she answered.
A third man came ambling up with a torch and this he casually passed over first Ephiny and then the cart.
Seeing her face, the first guard remarked, "Why you're just a kid. What are you doing out here this time of night?"
Another guard appeared. Her heart thumping, Ephiny wondered how the guards could keep from hearing it. Keep calm! she thought. Hoping to project a cynical image, she tilted her head toward the cart and said, "Well it ain't my idea. My old man sent me up here to sell that."
"Oh he did, huh?" said the man with the torch. Ephiny's heart leaped as he leaned over into the cart and idly picked up a stick of the firewood. Her weapons!
His voice hinting of suspicion, the first guard said, "I know most of the suppliers. I've never seen you before."
Aah my brother Tomas usually does it," Ephiny explained. "But he cut his foot real bad with an axe. He ain't feelin' too good."
"Tsk, tsk," said the first guard, voice reeking of apathy, "now isn't that just too bad?" What he said next almost made Ephiny's heart stop. "Well how do we know you're not one of those fanatical Amazons, here to try to spring your pals?"
Ephiny looked down at her crude, dirty dress, replying, "Look, general, do I look like an Amazon to you?" For added effect she muttered, "Whatever that is."
"You can't trust them Amazons," another of the guards piped up. "I was with General Ephron at the River Hebrus. Those damn harpies were like ghosts, rising up out of spider holes to slash our horses, swooping down out of trees to wreck their havoc only to disappear again without a trace. I tell you, they're supposed to be human but I don't believe it. They kicked our ass seven ways to Seriphus."
"That's 'cause you were under that candy ass Ephron," the first guard snorted. "You're in a real army now. I'm not afraid of some bitch just because she happens to carry a sword."
"You wouldn't be so damned cocky if you'd seen them, Martos," said his comrade.
Nettled by the remark, Martos peevishly answered, "I've seen my share of battles."
"Look if you guys want to stand here all night comparing battle scars that's fine with me," said Ephiny. "In the meantime can I go?"
By the dancing light of the torch Ephiny saw the hand of Martos lash out at her. With her reflexes finely honed by years of ever more intensive training she could have avoided the hand altogether had she so chosen. She could have just as easily blocked it or even caught it and pulled Martos and his groin within range of her sharp knee.
With all those options available Ephiny followed what she thought was the proper course called for given her circumstances. She did nothing. She was not sure whether these men were just harassing her out of boredom or if they in fact truly suspected her to be an Amazon. Her intuition told her it was most likely the former and she was not about to give these men any reason to think otherwise.
Ignoring her extensive training in order to allow that hand to close on her took every last bit of her considerable self-discipline. She did not flinch, she did even try to brace herself. Fully expecting a blow to the face, she felt reprieved when the hand shot past her ear and grabbed her by the hair of the head.
"You're a mouthy little wench, aren't you?" Martos growled.
Well she's no Amazon anyway," opined the man with the torch. "If she was you'd be missing a couple of fingers by now."
This was exactly what Ephiny had hoped to hear.
It was then that from a back toward the gate a new voice, authoritative and clear, called out, "Hey, what's going on out there?"
At once the attitude of the men was transformed from a kind of relaxed slouchiness to that of a formal stiffness.
"Uhh, nothing, sir," the man with the torch answered. "Just checking out any suspicious characters, like you said."
At the officer's approach his men dutifully stepped back to make way for him. As he came into the light Martos released Ephiny allowing her a chance to get a look at this new arrival.
"Okay, what have you got here?" the officer inquired.
Unlike most of the tall, rangy Getae men Ephiny had seen this one was short and stocky, seemingly with no neck at all. The shaven face, round and puffy, had two distinguishable features, a crooked nose which had obviously been broken several times--and a scar as thick as Ephiny's finger that started at the top of the man's ear and extended all the way down his cheek to the tip of his chin. Already having noting the man's beardless face--yet another rarity among Getae males--Ephiny rather wickedly allowed that the shave his enemy had given him on that day had probably been a liiitle closer than what even he was used to.
As it turned out both Diandra's pains to disguise Ephiny and the young Amazon's own firm resolve not to show her hand had indeed been prudent. All the gates were on alert for possible infiltration by subjects of the captured princess. No one, however, expected just one lone Amazon and certainly not one as young as Ephiny.
The officer coolly looked over the barefoot girl with the dirty face and ragged dress and decided she was anything but a threat. "Aww she's just a scrawny assed kid," he pronounced. "Let her pass."
It was at this very moment that Ephiny's bandage chose to slip down, revealing the nasty cut on her arm.
"Hey wait a minute," said Martos, catching her by the arm. "How did you get that?"
"That looks like a sword cut," said the man with the torch.
"Sword?" Ephiny snorted contemptuously "Try a butcher knife. My father gave me that as little reminder to bring back all the money."
"Sounds like your old man is a real sweetheart," said another soldier.
Growing impatient, the officer ordered, "All right, move along."
"'Bout time," Ephiny grumbled. Taking the mare by the bridle, she led her through the gate and into the city. The street was just as Diandra had said-narrow-and was lined on both sides by mostly wooden structures, few of which seemed to be well kept. Carefully studying the layout as she led the horse along the quiet street Ephiny was none too please with the way most of the buildings were to tightly packed together. This meant less room for maneuver and fewer hiding places should she be forced to flee thus increasing the likelihood of capture. Yes, she was in, but she knew that marked only the beginning. She still had a difficult road ahead and if she was to succeed it was going to take every last bit of determination, resourcefulness and, yes, luck, she could muster. Now that she was here Ephiny was fully prepared to do anything to free her princess and her friends.
Following Diandra's clear, concise directions, Ephiny had no trouble finding the stable. At the door she stood and looked back at the black behemoth across the street that was Belasar Prison. It dark, still, foreboding, like some unearthly black cloud come to earth to swallow her friends. Far away in the distance the silence was pierced by a dog's forlorn howl. Hearing it, the young warrior was suddenly overtaken by a feeling of abject loneliness. For the first time she felt the chill of despair creeping into her soul. The officer's words echoed in her ears. "She's just a scrawny assed kid!"
A moon ago it might have been true and for all her usual self-assurance even Ephiny might have believed him. Not now. Too many things had changed in that short span of time. She had successfully defended her people, she had by her own hand taken the lives of four men and won her first knot for bravery. A moon ago she had indeed been just one of Adele's "turds." Now she was a newly masked, full-fledged Amazon. She might be young, she might be inexperienced but she was a well trained warrior nonetheless and not a kid.
However with the rise in stature came a corresponding rise in expectations and with it she felt an increasing pressure to measure up. Nothing, not even her mother's gentle tutoring, had quite prepared her for that. Yes, the young warrior was still confident in her abilities but she now realized that no sort of training was able to prepare a warrior for what subsequently would be felt in the heart, in the soul. Now she understood why poor Porticia had taken her own life like that. Failure, or even the threat of it, was a terrible thing. Now that very threat loomed over her like the sword of Damocles.
A myriad of emotions swirled around her. So much depended on her! Adrift in such a sea of turmoil and uncertainty she naturally thought of her mother, the noble Meelah, and daughter longed to share in the mother's strength and quiet confidence.
What am I going to do? Ephiny wondered anxiously. She was learning that it was one thing to face danger with trusted comrades at your side, it was quiet another to face it alone. But alone or with a mighty host, it did not matter. The brave young warrior was prepared to do her duty, just as she had promised her mother.
Momma, she thought, if only you were here to show me the way. But Meelah was not there. None of the tribe's great warriors were. Only her. If Terreis and the others were to be freed it was going to be up to her to do it. Deep in the back of her mind the was the bleak thought that such an attempt might possibly--even probably--cost her her life. Chances were she was never going to see her homeland, or her precious mother, again.
Among the more ribald of the older Amazon veterans there was a wry saying that to face overwhelming odds was to "squeeze the cheeks" and they were not referring to the face. There in what was now the very heart of enemy territory such a moment had come for Ephiny too and for her there was nothing to do but see the job through to the bitter end. In grim determination Ephiny clenched her teeth as she stared up at the black walls and she knew there was no turning back now.
Well so be it! I am not going to slink out of here like some beaten dog. I am not going to leave my friends to these pigs. In the black stillness she swore to the great Artemis that she would see Terreis and the rest free again--or die trying. Invisible the darkness, Ephiny faced the prison and slowly raised her fist high into the air in a defiant Amazon salute to her unseen sisters.
"Let's squeeze those cheeks," she whispered. Turning away from the dark monster she already
despised, she began to pound on the big stable door.
It was quite some time before Ephiny was able to evoke a response from inside. To alleviate her abused hands she was even thinking of fetching a stick of wood from cart so she could beat louder when from the other side she heard a irritated voice say, "All right, all right. Don't beat the damn door down." Through the door she then heard, "What do you want?"
Sidling up to the door, Ephiny said, "I need to put up my horse."
"Sorry, we don't open till daylight," the voice gruffly replied. "Come back then."
"But this can't wait," said Ephiny urgently. "My horse badly needs fed. And--"
"Look, stupid, what part of 'no' did you not understand?" the voice coldly asked. "I didn't tell you to be out assing around all hours of the night. Your horse won't starve before morning. If you want to come back then, fine, we'll do business. If not beat it before I get mad."
Pressing her cheek against the door, Ephiny softly said, "Diandra sent me."
From inside the young warrior heard the rasp of the heavy wooden bolt as it was drawn through the slots. A sound that would have gone completely unnoticed in the bustle of day, it seemed under the present circumstances like a long protracted roll of heavy thunder. The great door creaked heavily on its hinges and slowly cracked open ever so slightly.
"Diandra you say?"
"Yes, she would like for you to put me up as a favor to her," said Ephiny.
The crack in the door grew wider and was filled by a man who stood a hand or so taller than the Amazon. This was Sarak and although he did not give the impression of being elderly his short-cropped hair was completely white. "She wants me to put you up?" he asked.
"Yes, she sent this load of firewood as payment."
"Got plenty of wood," Sarak said curtly. "Besides, how do I know you're not lying?"
"She also said you still owe her for three wagonloads of hay."
"I do at that," Sarak solemnly admitted.
"Now will you let me in?" asked Ephiny.
"I guess you do know her after all," said Sarak. Pressing both hands upon the big door, he leaned forward and began to push it open with Ephiny joining in at once to assist him.
A short time later the little mare, now free of her burden, stood in a stall happily munching on a tub of oats. In a little corner room that served as a kind of business office Sarak lit a candle and sat down by his desk on a stool so rickety that Ephiny was certain it was going collapse at any moment.
"Sit down, girlie," he said.
Other than the floor the only object that could have possibly been used as a seat was an old wooden bucket lying carelessly on its side in a corner of the room. Not that it mattered. Ephiny was not interest in sitting anyway. Shifting her weight to one foot, she said, "No thanks, I'll stand."
"Suit yourself," Sarak said with a shrug. The stool creaked and swayed, and in order to balance himself he was forced to reach down between his legs and grab the stool. Ephiny pretended not to notice. "So, where do you know Diandra from?"
"We're family," Ephiny coolly replied. For her part she did not see it as a lie as such. After all, even Northern Amazons were technically considered to be sisters of the Children of Hippolyta.
"Well if you're family why aren't you staying there on the farm with her then?"
"What is this? Twenty Questions?" Ephiny brusquely retorted. "I came here because I wanted to get a job in the city. Her farm is too far away to make travel back and forth practicable."
Sarak keenly eyed her up and down and said, "There ain't much in the way of job opportunities for one such as you unless you don't mind bein' a drudge or a serving girl." He paused and looked her straight in the eye and then added, "Or a whore."
Ephiny fixed him with a steely gaze and, drawing on what she had heard from the older Amazons, said, "I did not walk the twenty-five here just to end up underneath a bunch of sweaty pigs who are just as liable to come on their own leg as they are in some twat."
"Hey, no offense," said Sarak. "I was just listing the options, that's all." Reaching down under the desk, he pulled up an old earthen jug, its paint cracked and faded.
"I can see you're a plain speaker," he said as he plunked the jug down on the desk. "I like plain speakers. Have a drink!"
"Don't you think it's a little early for that?" said Ephiny, wondering aloud.
"Naw, any time is a good time for a nip of the grape," Sarak lustily replied. He turned up the jug, took two deep swallows and with a satisfied "ahhh" wiped his mouth off with the sleeve of his dirty shirt. Leaning forward, he pushed the jar toward Ephiny. "Here ya go, girlie. Be my guest."
Right at that moment all the young Amazon was interested in was flinging herself down into the soft hay of an open stall and going to sleep. However for that to happen any time soon she figured she was going to have to humor the man. "Oh what the hell," she said. "Why not?"
"Atta girl," said Sarak approvingly.
Ephiny's eyes never wavered from Sarak as she picked up the jug. Wiping off the vessel's mouth, she took one fairly moderate swallow. The wine was decidedly more bitter than the tasty sweet stuff her mother sparingly allotted out to her on special occasions. While her own fatigue helped to take some of the bite out of it she found it to actually not be all that bad. If Sarak's intention had been to elicit some sort of adverse reaction he was going to be disappointed.
"That's got quite a jolt to it," Ephiny allowed, setting the jug down. "What's it been aged? Three, four days?"
"Aww I knew you'd like it," said Sarak. "Have another."
Ephiny shook her curly locks and said, "One's my limit."
Seizing the jug, Sarak said, "Well fortunately I am not bound by such silly restrictions." And with that took another healthy gulp.
"You know," he said, "that Diandra is a damn fine woman. Damn fine woman. She's got as much backbone as any man in this shit hole of a kingdom. I always said she was too good for that soldier boy of hers."
Hearing this, Ephiny thought she detected just a hint of bitterness in Sarak's voice. No wonder Diandra had been so confident, she thought. This guy's sweet on her!
What Ephiny did not know and what Diandra had not bothered to explain was that she sold hay to most of the stables in the city and had pretty much every one of the owners eating out of her hand. It was not anything intentional it was just that the former Amazon was so much more striking than the dreary Getae specimens of Womanhood. Intentional or not, Diandra was aware of it and was not above using it to her benefit. After all, was an Amazon not taught to make use of all her weapons? She had selected Sarak for Ephiny merely because of his stable's close proximity to the prison.
As if on cue Sarak took another quick swig and said, "You seem a little young to be on your own but if Diandra thinks it's all right then it's all right with me. You can sleep in the loft. I need the help, that's for sure."
"Damn boys," he muttered grumpily. "Everybody wants to run off and be a soldier these days. It's all I can do to keep this place going by myself."
"I appreciate this," said Ephiny. "Thank you."
He shot her a wry grin and said, "Don't thank me yet. We start work at daylight. Now, girlie, this ain't like gathering eggs back on your daddy's farm. The work can get plenty rough, not to uhh, mention the smell. Are you sure you're up to it?"
Without a word Ephiny pulled back her sleeve and flexed her arm, highlighting nicely developed biceps.
"Well now," said Sarak, nodding approvingly, "I reckon you just might do at that."
With their bargain struck Sarak stood up and said, "See you in the morning, girlie." Idly he then scratched his buttocks and shuffled off back to his pallet in the adjoining room, leaving Ephiny all alone once more. After some groping around in the darkness she managed to find the ladder leading up to the loft and it was with not a little relish that she sank down upon the soft hay. For one fleeting moment the thought flashed through her exhausted mind that maybe she should keep and eye on her new employer, just to make sure he had no amorous notions.
I should stay alert...just for a little while....must be...careful. Not....sleep...just...yet.....
However Ephiny's fatigue proved to be too much for her and within a few breaths she succumbed to the soothing charms of Somnus. For the first time in nearly two whole days the young warrior slept.
The daughter of Meelah awoke to a rapid fire series of loud clangs resonating from down below. "Wake up, girlie!" a gravelly voice barked out. As Ephiny tried to clear the fog in her head and place that voice there were more irritating clangs.
"All right!" Ephiny yelped reactively.
"Come on, girlie, we're wasting daylight."
Ephiny blearily peered up at the roof and remembered that it was a stable she was in and that much too enthusiastic disciple of Eos down below was a man by the name of Sarak. And then she remembered why she was there.
With a groan Ephiny reluctantly rolled over and sat up. Blinking hard, she thought, Damn if he doesn't sound just like Melosa. Only moments before she had been dreaming of standing down by the little pond near her village, skipping rocks across its calm surface with her best friend Solari. Solari. It had been days since Ephiny had thought of her and now she found herself missing her good-natured friend.
Easing her way down the creaky ladder, she found Sarak waiting for her, shovel in hand. "Here ya go, girlie," he said, handing her the shovel. Apparently the man was totally uninterested in learning her name and that was just fine with Ephiny.
"The far stall on the left," he said, continuing. "Clean it and throw in some fresh straw when you're finished. After that you can fill up that water trough there. You know anything about mendin' tack?"
Having often watched the skilled leatherworkers of her own village Ephiny had some knowledge of the subject but she was not about to tell Sarak that. "No," she said.
"Too bad. Anyway, after you fill the trough you can carry that firewood out back and stack it up against the back wall."
"Well what are you going to be doing all this time?" asked Ephiny.
"Me?" Sarak sniffed and said, "Manual labor makes me light-headed and as the brains of this here operation I've got to keep clear head."
For her part Ephiny marveled at how he had managed to say that with a straight face. "Uh huhh," she wryly answered. To her Sarak went against just about everything an Amazon stood for. He was lazy, slovenly--drunkenness she could not really count against him because she knew more than one Amazon who liked to tip a jar as well. And for all that Ephiny was beginning to like the man. As a warrior she had already decided that he was harmless, "all gas and no stink" as Draganis liked to say. His rough exterior was belied to a great extent by a kind of impish twinkle in his eye, like some jester about to deliver a punch line.
As she set to work on the stall Sarak called out, "I'm going out for a bit. If a customer comes tell 'em I'll be right back."
Cynically Ephiny thought, Probably needs to refill that jar. However when he did in fact return a short time later he brought with him two boiled eggs, a thick slab of pork shoulder, a chuck of barley bread and last but not least a small jar of goat's milk. All this he promptly presented to Ephiny.
Laying the food out in his desk, he said in typically rough fashion, "Here ya go, girlie. Better eat it before the flies get wind of it,"
Ephiny had not expected this. Famished, she was stunned by the riches laid out before her. Noting the wide-eyed look on her face Sarak said, "I expect them big muscles of yours need lots of nourishment. It looks like you're doin' a good job back there. Can't have you gettin' all watery-kneed on me."
Truly touched by the man's generosity, Ephiny could manage only a weak, "Thank you."
For one fleeting moment Sarak dropped the crotchety act and in tones very sincere said, "Any friend of Diandra's is a friend of mine." Then, as if to quickly erase any good thoughts the kid might have had because of his act of kindness he reached under the desk and took another big slug from the wine jar. Rising, he belched and said, "Just don't dawdle around in here too long, girlie. You've still got work to do. After all this is a stable not some damn Athenian bath house."
It was, however, too late for Ephiny would never take his gruffness seriously again. Now she knew him for what he was-- a decent man in the way that most mortals were decent, one just trying to eke out a living in a world that could be harsh and unforgiving. Ephiny snapped to attention, grinning, "Yes, sir!" as he brushed by.
"Yeah yeah," he grumbled.
With Sarak out of the way Ephiny fell upon the food and few enemies were ever
attacked with the same gusto as she did her breakfast on what was turning out to
be a damp, overcast morning.
Despite Sarak's dire warning about the workload Ephiny found her labors to be not all that difficult. At the present there were only two horses in the stable and Ephiny, young and strong and inured to the rigors of Amazon life, had no trouble keeping up. Toward mid-afternoon she stood in the doorway of the stable, looking at the heavy rain spattering the muddy street.
Her mind, however, was not on the rain. All day she had used every available moment to carefully study the great gray building directly across the way. She noted the movements of men and the various carts and wagons that went through the big latticed gate, hoping to gain some idea as to how she might be able to gain entry into the place.
As she stood there she was joined presently by Sarak. "What do you know about that place?" she asked.
Sarak pensively looked out across the deserted street. "Belasar Prison, 'Where hope goes to die.' That's what they say about it anyway. Girlie, I've owned this stable for well on to twenty years," he said. "I've seen a lot of them poor bastards taken in there but I'll be damned if I've seen very many come back out again except laid out in a meat wagon. Kings, generals, it doesn't make any difference." He spat out into the rain. "They all shit on the little guy."
Toward evening two rather nervous looking men put their horses up in the stable which promised to double Ephiny's workload for the next day. Not that she cared. Her mind was on much more serious matters. For just before closing time that night Sarak had come wandering in with a numb expression on his face. The news he bore was not good--in three days the entire royal family was to be publicly hung along with some high ranking Amazon who had been caught spying.
Perching himself on his shaky stool, Sarak had stared blankly at the floor, mumbling over and over, "It's bad business, bad business."
Ephiny felt the load of her burden pressing ever heavily down upon her. What to do?
For starters she was going to have to get a closer look at that prison. That evening, after sharing some tasty mutton with her boss, Ephiny said, "I'm going out for a while."
"Not far," Ephiny tersely replied.
"If you're thinkin' about gettin' yourself one of them soldier boys down at the tavern, I wouldn't. Young thing like you, those sons of Sin would chew you up and spit you out. They ain't like those little farmer boys back home, girlie."
Ephiny was surprised to find that in his own rough way Sarak was concerned for her well being. At least, she hoped that was it and not part of some desire to have her for himself. At this point she would regret having to kill him.
"Soldiers huh? she asked. "From the prison?"
"Yeah. A lot of them like to have a round or two after guard duty. It's always been a watering hole for them."
"Well, I'm not going to any tavern," Ephiny assured him. Not yet anyway, she thought. "I'm just going for a walk, that's all." Leaving, she turned right and began to nonchalantly stroll down the street. A couple of hundred paces later she crossed over to the next street and began to slowly work her way back up toward Belasar. Closing in, she noticed that on this side, the prison's back side, there were several smaller buildings cluttered near the base of the prison itself. These she correctly guessed to be support buildings for the prison. Closer examination revealed one of these to be a small stable. On a hunch she creept in, hoping to find her friends' horses--but they were not there. The stable was empty. So much for that bright idea, she thought ruefully.
Looking around, she saw a small window on the far wall. Ephiny crossed over to it, cracked open the shutters and looked up at the prison wall towering above the stable. She estimated the mass of stone to be at least sixty cubits high. It was going to take a lot more rope than the measly ten cubits in her possession to do the job. No matter, she would find it.
Ephiny quietly closed the shutter and, exiting the stable, eased around to a back corner of the building. Just as on the front the back wall had a watch tower at each corner. Right away the Amazon thought she had found what might be a weakness. Because these watchtowers were in essence really just enclosed extensions of the wall itself their height was not significantly above that of the top of the wall. There might be a blind spot if not in the middle then perhaps under the tower itself. She had to find out and took comfort in the knowledge that she would not be exposed the entire way. The close proximity of the stable to the nearby tower afforded some measure of protection and the angle of the wall would provide cover from the other tower for the last few cubits.
Taking a deep breath, Ephiny dashed the ten paces to the prison wall. Reaching it, she pressed herself tightly against the great blocks of stone and listened. To her relief she heard no challenge from above. She was standing directly under one of the towers, so close she could now hear the creaking of the planking above as someone stirred about. She had taken no small risk in doing this but had found out what she wanted to know. From here she could not see the far watchtower. That meant anyone occupying it could not see her either. It meant that this then would be the spot. It also meant that whoever was up there would have to be taken care of.
Ephiny stuck her head around the corner and peered along the adjoining wall that ran back toward the front of the prison. This was the south wall and here she saw little cover for a direct return to the stable. She would have to take the roundabout way back. So would they all when the time came.
Okay, one last time, she thought. Bolting back to the stable, she again intently listened for a challenge. None came. Entering the stable once more, she rummaged around and found two ropes, one was only about five cubits in length but the other was a good twenty. She was going to need at least another length but this was a very good start. Quickly she coiled up the ropes and, throwing them over her shoulder, carefully stole her way back to Sarak's stable. She had found a possible escape route. Getting into the prison, however was going to be another matter altogether.
Upon returning she found that Sarak had gone to bed but had been considerate enough to leave to door unlocked for her. Slipping inside the door, Ephiny thought it might be best to pay a visit to that tavern after all. First, however, it was imperative that she make herself look more...presentable.
All the way back from the prison she had been mulling over how she could gain entry to the prison? There just had to be a way...
However the more Ephiny thought about it the more she realized just how limited her options were. She concluded that any attempt to sneak in via a cart or wagon was not going to be very practicable given the little amount time she had to prepare. She had already checked out the outer walls and found them hewn too smoothly to climb. As she saw it that left her with one other choice. Although it entailed the greatest personal risk, it was also the only one the she felt at the moment had any chance for success at all given the short time frame to work with.
The young Amazon was going to the tavern. There she would try to seduce one of the guards and hopefully during the course of the night sweet talk him into taking her to the prison so she could see for herself what one of those famous Amazons looked like. Ephiny was sixteen years old, she was not only still a virgin but she had in fact never been kissed by anyone expect her own mother. Nevertheless the warrior was fully prepared to go to any length, to do whatever it might take, in order to help her princess and her friends.
Easing up into the loft, Ephiny crouched down and raked away the straw covering her bundle. To achieve her ends she was going to have to look her best. The old ragged dress was not going to cut it. Pulling out her own clothes, Ephiny stood up, took a deep breath, and stripped off the old dress. There was no more worry about drawing attention to herself now, no worry about the looks the finely crafted leather skirt hanging from her hips or the skimpy top which just barely covered her firm young breasts. No, it was time to throw all caution to the wind. Now Ephiny wanted attention. There was no time for careful planning, she only had two days left to work with. She had to try tonight and, failing that, she would try again tomorrow--if she were still free herself. She had to try, she just had to.
After dressing Ephiny pulled on her boots and then began digging around in her bundle. Where is it? she wondered and for a moment feared she had lost it. Aha! There it is! Carefully avoiding the razor sharp blade, Ephiny pulled out her knife. Be it trying to slip it to one of the Amazons or perhaps sticking it into the belly of some rutting fellow she had no idea what she would be doing with it. Maybe it was just that she felt better carrying a weapon. All Amazons did.
Standing up, she debated whether or not she ought to risk taking her sword. After all, who knew if circumstances would allow her to come back for it? In the end she decided against it. The increased capability it afforded was just not worth the risk. Dupery was what was called for her, not brute force. Not yet anyway. She also would have liked to have taken some sort of note along but Sarak kept track of all his business on an old slate and consequently had no writing materials on the place. Perhaps she would get the chance later.
Back down on ground level Ephiny quietly piled her ropes on top of her sword in the corner nearest the door. The pragmatic young warrior had no illusions of freeing her friends by force. Her main hope was that somehow she might be able to steal a key and pass it along with the knife to one of her friends, leaving it to them to work out the details of their escape. All she could do was get back out to the spot already chosen and wait for them with the rope. It was a long shot, a very long shot. Ephiny knew that. However Amazons were long accustomed to fighting against long odds. All she could do was give it her best effort and that she fully intended to do.
Carefully pulling shut the big door, Ephiny turned and began to make her way down to the tavern. As she neared she could hear the tumult of laughter, bawdy singing and the occasional shriek along with music from a badly tuned lyre emanating from inside the brightly lit building. Thirty paces from the front door she paused and nervously cast a glance down to see how she looked. Even more than taking command from the dying Phillipia she dreaded this. Maneuver, tactics and weapons skills, the essentials to successfully waging war--those were the things she knew. Those were what she was trained for.
But not this. Nothing in the field exercises had quite prepared her for this. If only Mother could see me now! she thought morosely. She'd love watching her only daughter clumsily play the whore. At that moment a buxom woman, her dress torn, one breast plainly visible, bolted out of the tavern with a wild shriek. Right on her heels was a paunchy soldier. Raising an arm, he made a lumbering, pawing swipe at the woman, missed, and fell flat on his face. The woman howled with laughter but to Ephiny's surprise she did not leave the man lying there in the muddy street but instead helped him struggle to his feet. The soldier drunkenly buried his face in against the woman's neck and together then the two of them staggered off around the corner of the tavern and faded into the darkness.
"Great Artemis," Ephiny whispered, "in all my life I've never asked you for anything but, if you could just this one time..." Aaah it's no use, she thought. She was on her own and that was all there was to it. Gods don't answer the prayers of snot-nosed young Amazons. Besides, I don't need guidance, what I need a bloody miracle!
At that moment Ephiny had no way of knowing that one was already on the way.
In firming her resolve Ephiny stepped forward and her heel was not even on the ground before she heard a harsh hissing sound from overhead. Looking up, she was astonished to see a fireball the size of a wagon wheel plummeting to earth at a sharp angle. In an instant she gauged its flight path and to her consternation realized the thing was going to impact close by. Very close by.
Instinctively the young warrior dove for cover under a nearby mill wagon which, because of being parked below the mill's overhand, was almost completely dry underneath. Just as Ephiny covered her head with her arms the blazing projectile struck the side of the tavern with an obstreperous WHUMP! From under the wagon she saw the wall buckle and the collapsing roof burst into flames.
Ephiny could hear the horrified screams from the tavern filling the air as she scrambled out from under the wagon. People began spilling forth from the tavern, many of them with their clothes on fire. Some stopped and help tried to help but most of these unfortunates were simply shouldered aside in panic by those trying to escape, many of them streaming right and left past the young Amazon.
At that moment Ephiny heard another ominous hiss, one more faint than the first. A block away another fireball struck with similar results and for a fleeting moment Ephiny could not help but wonder if this was not her prayer being answered after all. Was this the work of Artemis or maybe even Zeus himself? Seventy-five paces away still another fireball went crashing into a cobbler's shop.
Don't be stupid! Ephiny chided herself. Now that she was recovering from the initial shock she began to see this for what it was. This was not the wrath of some god but rather something of a distinctly more earthly origin. Catapults! Yes, that was it, it had to be. But be it the hand of gods or mortals one thing was indisputable.
The city was under attack!
Madgras was seated at the dinner table with his chiefs when, much to his annoyance, Philos burst into the room. With great urgency the young officer said, "Sir! We are under attack!"
Madgras shot to his feet as if he too had been launched from a catapult. "What the hell do you mean, boy?!" he demanded.
"Catapults, sir. Firebombing the southern sector of the city. We have reports of others being moved into position along the west and north walls."
The name that had been Madgras' main concern from the very conception of his plan now flashed into his consciousness. "Ephron!" he hissed.
"How did he get his heavy armaments here so quickly?" Diodoros wondered aloud.
"Those aren't his, you fool!" Madgras raged. "They're ours!"
"Impossible!" huffed a senior officer by the name of Actius. "General Polypodus' forces are deployed all around the city, just as you ordered, to warn of Ephron's approach. He could not have gotten within ten leagues of the city without us knowing it."
"Well now obviously he has, hasn't he?" said Diodoros, eyeing Actius severely. He then ominously reminded his colleague, "You were the one who recommended this incompetent."
"Look!" shouted another officer.
Turning as one, the officers looked out across the palace courtyard and for the first time saw one of the fireballs streaking down into the city. In that one moment the terrible realization came to Madgras. "Polypodus has joined Ephron," he muttered in disgust. "Somehow Ephron has sweet talked that son of a bitch into betraying us."
Another fireball, closer this time, came hurtling earthward.
"If that's true then we are at a numerical disadvantage," Diodoros noted. "Sir, we must secure the city and prepare for a siege."
"No!" Madgras countered. "That's what he wants us to do. Ephron is an able man but he cannot transport an entire army over that great a distance in less than a week. No, what we're looking at here is his cavalry and maybe an advance guard."
"And now Polypodus' traitors," Diodoros added acridly.
"He's trying to bottle us up until his main force can arrive," said Madgras as another fireball landed off in the distance. "Well we are not going to accommodate him. Diodoros, assemble the battalions at once! I want every last man who can carry a spear to be ready for an immediate advance."
Now that it was clear the city was under attack there was bedlam inside Belasar Prison, just as there was everywhere else. Guards, having left their posts, were rushing about peering out windows and desperately trying to find out what was happening, all the while ignoring the screeching cries of the prisoners begging to be released. Even the watch officers on the prison's two floors forgot their duty, with one of them even rushing out into the street. As he ran past terrified prisoners groped at the fleeing man through their bars, pleading not be left behind.
In their own cell near the end of the corridor the Amazons heard the fireballs hitting all around the prison and no less than the others they too understood their peril.
"We're sitting ducks in here," said Willa, gazing up at dangers she see only in her mind.
Minutia seized the door and shook it will all her might. "Arrrgghhh!" she roared. "I can't budge it!"
"By the gods!" gasped Valerie. "We're trapped!"
"We've got to get out of here," said Willa.
At the far end of the long corridor an officer stepped into the doorway and shouted, "Everybody but Titancus and Perses is ordered to report to the middle gate on the south wall at once! Move it!
"What's happening?" asked Valerie.
"Looks like somebody's got Madgras' ass in a sling," replied Willa. "I'd say he's mobilizing every man he's got to move out to face an attack."
"If only two are staying behind that means only one guard for each floor," said Minutia. "If only--"
"Two guards or two hundred, it doesn't mean shit if we can't get out of here," said Willa.
The possibilities afforded by all the confusion were not lost on Ephiny's nimble mind and for the second time that evening she changed her plan. This was no great strain, Amazons were trained to be flexible. Wheeling around, she bolted up the street toward the prison. As she neared she saw a soldier dashing down the street toward her. This caused the Amazon to decide upon a course of action. Ducking into a nearby alley, Ephiny pulled her knife--and waited.
Ephiny's soldier was the officer from the prison and as he sprinted by he was tripped up by the Amazon. The solider went tumbling to the side of a building before slumping to the ground and in an instant the young warrior sprang upon him. Fortunately for the soldier there was no longer any need on Ephiny's part to kill him. The impact with the building had rendered the man unconscious, enabling Ephiny to get what she was after without further violence. Taking the man by the arms, she pulled him further back into the shadows. There she stripped him of not only his tunic but his trousers as well and for the second time in her young life Ephiny saw the thing the older Amazons were always joking to each other about. As she saw it it was not much to look at--it was just that it was so...odd. Quickly Ephiny removed her skirt and donned first the trousers and then the tunic. They were much too big but she hoped that in all the confusion no one would notice. Lastly she put on the man's helmet, stuffing her hair up into it in order to make it fit better. It was now or never and she was ready.
Ephiny drew the man's sword and exited the alley. Out into the street she went and, looking neither left nor right, strode straight for the prison. Every few seconds brought the impact of yet another fireball and by now many of the surrounding buildings were on fire. Undoubtedly people were being killed all around her but there was no sympathy in Ephiny's heart for them. So what if most of them were as Sarak was, basically decent and just trying to get by? The unjust seizure of her princess and her friends more than tipped the scales the other way, it caused Ephiny to now regard the very word Getae with contempt. Let these perfidious leaders slaughter each other, she thought. To her the only thing that mattered was returning home safely with Terreis and the others.
Nearing Belasar, her spirits were lifted immeasurably by the sight of several soldiers spilling out through the main gate. Better still, it appeared the latticed gate was not going to be lowered back down again. It's now or never, Turd, she thought, and she broke into a trot. At the gate she paused and peeked in. She saw no one. A mere twenty paces beyond was a great wooden door that opened up into what looked like some sort of tunnel extending out from the prison building itself. Before crossing over she took a glance up at the nearest watchtower now illuminated by the glow of a city aflame. It was empty.
After one more quick look around Ephiny dashed to the door and with a heave pulled it open. Except for dim light at the far end the corridor was dark. Sword at the ready, the young warrior made her way down the hall as quickly as prudence dared. The last thing she wanted was to be ambushed out of some unseen side entrance. At the far end the corridor opened up into a room containing four more doors. With no way of knowing which door led where Ephiny did the only thing she could, she began jerking open doors. One led to what looked like some sort of records room. The Amazon did not know it but this was the watch commander's office. The second door opened up back outside. Well, that was not it.
On the third try she struck pay dirt. Yanking open the door she saw another long corridor lined on both sides...by cells. Bursting in, Ephiny yelled, "Terreis! Willa! Are you here? Willa!"
At once her ears were besieged by dozens of entreating voices.
"Let us out!"
"You can't leave us here to roast like pigs on a spit!"
"In the name of Apollo have mercy!"
Jogging down the corridor, Ephiny ignored them all as she continued to call out the names of her friends. "Terreis! Willa!"
Owing to the uproar it was only when Ephiny was a scant forty cubits away that the imprisoned Amazons heard the voice they knew so well. "Terreis! Terreis, where are you?"
"My gods that can't be!" exclaimed Willa, springing to the cell door. Running her arm between the bars, she waved, yelling, "Ephiny! Ephiny down here!"
"Willa!" Joyously Ephiny raced to the cell.
"By the gods, Ephiny!" gasped Valerie. "It is you!"
"Am I glad to see you guys!" Ephiny replied happily. Only then did the uneasy feeling wash over her. "Where's Terreis?" she asked.
"We don't know," replied Minutia.
Practical as always, Willa asked, "Did you bring the key?"
"Key? Umm no. I didn't see.... Where can I get one?"
"The watch commander has one," said Minutia.
"I didn't see anybody," said Ephiny with mounting apprehension. "Is there any place--"
"Ephiny, look out!" shrieked Valerie.
Unnoticed in all the excitement, unheard in all the tumult, the guard Titancus had managed to maneuver his way down the corridor to within attacking distance of the young Amazon. Out of the corner of her eye Ephiny just barely caught the sight of light glinting on polished bronze. Instinctively she ducked and rolled with the sword crashing into the cell bars a mere hand's width above her.
Enraged, her blood lust up, Minutia roared, "Kill him, Ephiny! Kill him!"
She need not have worried. Ephiny had every intention of doing just that. At the moment however her goal was merely getting back to her feet. With Titancus poised to strike again Ephiny jerked off her helmet and threw it at him. The Amazon's aim was true. Titancus tried to avoid it but the helmet struck him right in the ribs as he turned away. The blow was not a damaging one but it did allow the nimble Ephiny enough time to spring to her feet.
For a moment the two adversaries stood there, facing each other in silence. Around them, however, it was not so quiet.
"Look at him, Ephiny," Willa jeered. "He's holding that sword like it's his little meat roll."
"You can take this guy standing on your head," Valerie added.
By now every prisoner in the cell block was gleefully screaming for his death.
"Gut the pig, girlie," one exhorted.
"Kill the bastard!" yelled another .
In fury Titancus screeched, "Shut up! Shut up all of you!"
From the very last cell someone said, "Ten to one says the kid carves this doofus up like a roast duck."
For Titancus this was too much. Holding his sword straight out before him, he clumsily charged at the Amazon. Coolly setting herself, Ephiny readied her sword...and waited. As it turned out Valerie's pronouncement proved to be correct. At precisely the right moment she deftly spun away, leaving the bewildered guard to pass right on by. In desperation he tried to turn but it was already too late. Worse for him, he knew it. With all her might Ephiny swung the watch commander's sword in a great sweeping arc and unlike her foe she did not miss. As the blade buried deep into his rib cage Titancus could manage only one last curse at his celebratory tormentors before collapsing to the floor dead.
"Good work," said Willa.
"Ephiny you've got to find a key," said Minutia.
"But where!" asked Ephiny gloomily.
From across the corridor a gravelly voice said, "Hey, kid!"
Turning to face him, Ephiny impatiently asked "Wha-at?"
"You promise to let me out, and I'll tell you where you can get a key."
Without a moment's hesitation Ephiny answered, "You got a deal."
A strange grin played across the man's lips, revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth. "You've got the watch commander's tunic on. I'd know that patched place under the arm anywhere."
"Check your pockets!" Willa excitedly interjected.
"Inside, on the left," said the man.
In her haste to put on the clothes Ephiny had quite naturally not bothered to check the pockets. With great anticipation she ran her hand in under the big tunic and there her fingers found a slit in the fabric. A pocket, just like the man said! Eagerly digging in, she found something hard, metallic...a key!
Holding it up, she yelped, "I've got it!"
"Atta girl," the man said, nodding his head in approval.
"Hurry up," said Willa urgently. "We've got to find Terreis."
Valerie crossed her fingers as Ephiny stuck the key in the slot and her prescience was rewarded with a satisfying...click!
Ephiny swung the big door open and immediately she was showered with pats on the back from Valerie and Minutia.
"Eph, I'd kiss ya if we had the time," said a grinning Minutia.
"We'll laud Ephiny later," said Willa, level-headed as ever. "Right now our concern is Terreis." However just before turning away she gave the brave young Amazon a wink to show how she really felt.
Minutia snatched up the dead Titancus' sword and said, "Let's get out here."
"Hey wait, what about me?" the man in the cell bawled out.
Without a word Ephiny walked over and opened his cell.
With an exaggerated bow the man said, "I think thee, miss. Now what about me mates here?"
"Nuh uh, nothing doing," said Willa, interceding forcefully. "Ephiny's bargain was with you, no one else."
The man gave Willa a sharp glance but then again broke into his ugly smile. Looking over into the next cell he said, "Sorry, mates. I did me best." He touched two fingers to his right eyebrow in a salute to Willa and bolted off down the corridor.
"Let's go," said Willa.
With Minutia leading the way the four Amazons dashed off down the long corridor. They were halfway down it when another guard appeared. This was Perses, the guard left to watch the second floor. Having heard the sounds of the disturbance, he had descended to investigate. Now with one very big Amazon streaking for him, sword at the ready, not to mention three others, the surprised Getae suddenly was no longer interested in what might be occurring on the first floor. Eyes bulging, he turned and fled.
"Don't kill him, Min," Willa yelled. "I want to talk to him."
The big Amazon caught the unfortunate Perses just as he laid his hand on the latch to the back door. Turning, he feebly attempted to raise his sword but a crushing kick to his wrist by Minutia sent the weapon flying from his hand. Minutia seized him by the scruff of the neck and roughly jerked him down to his knees. "Be nice, little man," she purred.
"Where's Terreis?" demanded Willa upon arriving.
Minutia shook him violently. "The Amazon princess, you blockhead! Talk or I'll feed your own balls to you!"
"Oh oh. She's...she's upstairs, on the second floor."
Picking up the man's sword, Willa commanded, "Min, Ephiny, go get her."
"Right," said the big Amazon. "Come on, Eph!"
Minutia and Ephiny rushed up the steps and disappeared through a darkened door. Back down below Willa pressed the point of the sword under the kneeling Perses' chin. "For your own sake she had better be there," the captain warned.
Luckily for Perses he was indeed telling the truth and it was but a few moments later that Minutia and Ephiny reappeared at the top of the stairs. To Willa's great relief she saw that Terreis was with them. The side of her face was badly bruised but other than that she looked none the worse for wear.
"Princess, are you all right?" asked the captain anxiously.
"Yes," Terreis replied as she rapidly descended the stairs.
With a deft flick of the wrist Willa inflicted a small cut on the throat of Perses. "Get out of here," she commanded.
Perses did not have to be told twice. Streaking for the door, he thought he was out of danger but it was here that his luck ran out. For it was at that very moment that a fireball slammed into the roof of the tunnel which collapsed, killing Perses instantly.
For a moment the way seemed blocked but Ephiny quickly remembered the back door. Jerking it open, she cried, "This way!" Out ran the four Amazons into the courtyard. By now it appeared most of the entire block was on fire. All around they could hear anguished cries and screams of agony.
"By the gods!" the sensitive Valerie again exclaimed.
"What do we do now?" asked Minutia.
"That's easy," said Terreis. "We make tracks out of here."
"What about the little guy?"
"You mean Zacharius?" Terreis disconsolately shook her head. "He's being held somewhere else, Min. There's nothing we can do." A fireball struck the watchtower above dead center and exploded, showering the courtyard with flaming debris. "Ephiny, do you know the way?" asked Terreis.
"Yes, ma'am. I know where there are some horses."
"Then lead on."
"Min, you get up there with her," ordered Willa. "I'll take the back."
Flanked by Minutia, Ephiny lead the party across the courtyard and out into the street. By now most of the people were gone, having fled to the walls in order to try to escape what had become a death trap. As they entered the street Ephiny looked across to the stable. The building next door had been hit and now the flames were just starting to lick against the side of the stable. Once they got into that dry straw...
"Come on!" she yelled to Minutia. Together the two Amazons streaked across the street with Terreis, Valerie and Willa not far behind. Taking hold of the big door, Ephiny said, "Help me with this. There are three horses in here."
Minutia took hold and literally flung open what Ephiny and Sarak together had struggled to open.
Racing inside, Ephiny called out, "Sarak!" At first there was no answer. "Sarak!"
"Get the horses," she said to Minutia. Kicking open the office door, Ephiny found the man cringing under his desk. Grabbing him by the hand, she cried, "Sarak, this place is going to go up like a tinderbox. You've got to get out of here!"
"Wha-what's happening, child?" asked a dazed Sarak.
"The city is under attack," Ephiny replied. "Now come on!" With all her might she pulled the man to his feet.
"But my, my stable," protested Sarak.
"You can rebuild," said Ephiny. "But not if you're dead."
"Who's that?" said Willa, eyeing Sarak keenly.
"This is my friend Sarak," replied Ephiny. Boldly she returned Willa's challenging gaze and forcefully added, "He's coming with us."
Willa stared ever so briefly at Ephiny all the while thinking, Gods but I like this kid!
"Okay then," said Terreis. "He goes with us."
Hearing this, Sarak numbly tried to turn away, mumbling, "No, no."
"Min, if you please," said Willa calmly.
"Right." Catching the reluctant man by the waist, Minutia hauled him up onto one the horse Valerie was holding, a sturdy roan. "There now," she said amicably, patting him on the arm. "That's a nice fella."
"Bridle the horses," said Willa. Ephiny and Valerie set to work and while the captain watched Valerie's nimble hands at work she began to compare the various weights of the six of them. Her goal, of course, was to distribute the load on the horses as equitably as she could.
Ephiny was not as good at this sort of thing as Valerie was and so was just finishing the one while Valerie was well into bridling her second one.
Upon completion Valerie announced, "All done!"
Willa pointed at the first horse, a big Arabian. "Okay, Min? You and Ephiny here will take this one. Highness, you and Valerie take the little mare. Sarak and I will ride this roan."
Turning to Terreis, Ephiny handed the sword to her. "Here, ma'am," she said. "You might need this." She then darted over into the corner and got her own.
A few moments later all were mounted and ready. "Which way do we go?" asked Valerie.
"The only way I know is through to the south wall," said Ephiny.
"I don't think we want to go that way," said Willa. "That seems to be where most of the fireballs are coming from."
"And where the soldiers will probably be," Terreis added.
"Then it's settled," said Willa. "We go out the same way the four of us came in, through the east wall."
As another fireball crashed nearby Valerie said in a hushed voice, "May the great patron Artemis ride with us and show us the way."
"Amen to that," said Willa. "Now let's go!"
With Willa leading the way the six of them rode out of the stable and into the jaws of a conflagration which by morning would consume most of the city.
Deep in the night Diandra awoke to the sound of a sharp rapping upon her door. Her first groggy thought was that perhaps it was the Carston's comrade, back for another try after all. Taking up the axe and the candle that was always lit at night, she stumbled to the door, thinking, All right, you son of a bitch, we finish this right now! Flinging open the door, she was shocked to find a familiar face looking back at her.
"Ephiny!" she cried. From out of the darkness Diandra saw several other figures appear. "By the gods!" she exclaimed, setting down the axe and the candle. "Did you do it?"
Ephiny cut right to the chase. "Diandra, it's civil war. Right now the capital is a raging inferno."
Diandra stepped to the door and in the direction of the capital saw a bright orange glow reaching very high into the sky. "So it's started then."
Beside her on the porch she was joined by the Amazon princess. "My name is Terreis," she said. "Ephiny told me what you did us. I want to thank you for that."
Still staring off in the distance, Diandra pointedly replied, "I didn't do it for you. I did it for Ephiny. She's a good kid and I like her."
"Well anyway, thanks."
Embarrassed by what she had just heard, Ephiny quietly said, "Diandra, we want you to come with us."
Diandra's reply was surprisingly gentle. "Aww, Ephiny, you know I can't do that."
"You're an Amazon," said Ephiny. "You were a great warrior once and so you can be again."
"I'm fully prepared to speak to the queen on your behalf," said Terreis. "After what you've done I see no--"
"You're forgetting one thing," said Diandra, cutting her off sharply. "I have a son."
Terreis' measured reply reflected the delicacy of the situation. The presence of male children was simply not allowed in the village. It was the cornerstone of Amazon law. "I know that," she said. "But we are on good terms with many of the surrounding villages. Perhaps something could be...worked out."
"And let some stranger raise my child?" Diandra said curtly. "No thank you."
"Well come with us anyway," Ephiny pleaded. "There is going to be a war and its sure to spill over into the valley. It could be dangerous to remain here."
"I imagine my son and I will see it through all right," Diandra confidently allowed. "You see I know a little bit about survival."
"Highness," Willa murmured, "it will be daylight soon. We should be going."
However Ephiny was not quite ready to give up. "Diandra, the kingdom is going to be in utter chaos. Who knows what could happen?"
Diandra turned and took Ephiny by the hand. "My dear little friend, I know you mean well. However you must understand that ultimately it makes no difference who wins out. Hay will still need to be raised, people will still want goat's meat and cheese, life will go on. You must understand that this is my home, Ephiny. My son was born here, my husband is buried here. This is where I belong."
It was here that she recognized another familiar form leaning on Minutia's arm. "Sarak. Are you all right, old friend?"
"He's still a little dazed," said Minutia. "He must have gotten a whack on the head somehow."
Diandra cupped his chin in her hand and saw the glassy-eyed look on his face. "Well you can leave him here. I'll see to it he gets back all right."
If there is anything left to get back to, thought a crestfallen Ephiny.
"For Ephiny's sake I thank you," said Terreis.
Diandra looked hard at the princess. "That girl has qualities most can only dream of," she said. "If the time ever comes you could do a hell of a lot worse than giving your Rite of Caste to her."
For the briefest of moments Terreis seemed taken aback by this but she recovered quickly. "Well we all like Ephiny," she replied tactfully.
"Highness..." It was Willa again.
"Look uhh, we really must be going," said the princess.
With an air of authority unused for these many years Diandra looked to Minutia and said, "Take this man inside and sit him at the table, I'll be there shortly."
Minutia, long used to that tone, obeyed immediately.
"Good-bye, Princess," said Diandra. She and Terreis then exchanged a rather perfunctory clasp of hands and without another word Terreis turned and walked away. For some reason she felt strangely uncomfortable in the woman's powerful presence.
The princess was followed by three of the Amazons but Ephiny lingered on the porch. "You'd better go," said Diandra, forcing a smile. "I wouldn't want you to get into trouble."
Ephiny ignored the feeble tease and said, "Can I come back to see you?"
Yes! Yes! Please! thought Diandra. However she was above all things a realist. For the foreseeable future Getae was not going to be a very nice place. The people, naturally suspicious of strangers, could make it dangerous for her newfound friend. Though it saddened her deeply she was forced to say, "Not for a while I'm afraid. With all this upheaval it's going to take time before things settle down again. I don't want you risking your stubborn neck over me."
"Stubborn," Ephiny echoed. "Just like you."
"Come on, Ephiny," said Willa.
"Go on, kid, they're waiting," said Diandra gently.
The young Amazon's eyes brimmed with tears and as she and Diandra hugged a final good-bye both of them knew they would probably never see each other again. Ephiny at last reluctantly pulled away and for one sad moment she was not the confident, extremely capable warrior she had worked so hard to become. For one fleeting moment she was simply a young woman saying good-bye to a dear friend--a friend she would likely never see again. "I will remember you," she said. "Always."
"And I you, my friend. Now go, while you can."
Still Ephiny lingered. "Would--would you tell Sarak we're sorry about the horses? We're not horse thieves."
"Don't worry about the damn horses," Diandra said with a smile.
With a strong arm Diandra spun the young warrior around. "Come on, I'll walk you to your horse. Hey, did I tell you? You look good in pants."
With a gentle hand to the butt Diandra helped push Ephiny up behind Minutia on the big Arabian. Now that there were only five riders, Terreis, as princess, naturally got the mare to herself. "Good luck to you guys," she said.
"You will always be welcome in our village," said Terreis.
Diandra nodded and repeated what she had said to Ephiny the night before. "Tell Melosa I can still wax her ass in the tree drills."
Minutia laughed heartily and then followed behind Terreis and Willa as they moved out. As they rode away Ephiny turned to wave one last time but Diandra was already walking back to the house. With a sigh Ephiny leaned forward and brushed her tears away on Minutia's broad back.
Night passed and with it Willa's worry about the redoubt. After crossing the mountains they arrived there and careful reconnaissance revealed the place had been
evacuated. After a brief rest in a nearby wood, the Amazons rode all day and late that evening without incident crossed over the frontier
and out of the land of the Getae.
A day's ride from their village Terreis and the rest ran into a party being led by Melosa herself. The resilient Polymenia had indeed managed to make it back alive to tell the queen what had happened. Although immeasurably relieved at the safe return of her Amazons, Melosa was furious over what she perceived to be a lack of good faith on the part of the Getae king. Rightly or wrongly, she came to believe that the threat of Madgras was what Burebistas had had in mind all along. During the next few days she pushed her warriors to the limits of their endurance preparation for an attack that, pending the outcome of the conflict in Getae, she felt might come at any moment. Every last warrior was encamped at a central location near the frontier with massive patrols scouring every cubit of the border. However the relentless ferocity with which the queen drove her warriors was nothing compared to the way she drove herself. Yes, Melosa was angry at having been deceived but far worse as far as she was concerned was the fact that in her heart she felt she had been guilty of exercising bad judgment. For one who prided herself on her acumen this was tantamount to a sin and it was a long time before she was able to put it behind her.
Gradually the threat of invasion passed. Reports came out of Getae indicating the army had pretty much been chewed to pieces and so little by little Melosa relieved warriors and allowed them to return home. Among of the first were Ephiny and Meelah. Though proud of her daughter's conduct in rescuing her friends Meelah was not about let yet another awarding of a knot for bravery to her daughter get in the way of what was really important. And so the first day back home the young warrior spent the entire day patching the roof of their home. In bringing back a souvenir for her friend Solari Ephiny too was as good as her word. The very first day back Ephiny had without comment presented her with a tarnished old key. No amount of badgering on Solari's part could make Ephiny tell her what it meant and it would finally fall to Terreis herself to tell Solari the story behind the key and Ephiny's incredible role in obtaining it.
As for Diandra Ephiny indeed never saw her again. However she would think of her friend often in the coming years and the more she matured and grew as a young woman, the more her own life changed, she would come to understand Diandra's decision to give up life as an Amazon. She often wondered that if she ever found love would Diandra's prophetic words would come rushing back over the years to guide her? Perhaps love could conquer all. Perhaps it was true that when it came to the human heart nothing was carved in stone. Always be open to change. It is the very essence of life itself. This then was the great lesson Ephiny learned from Diandra and it was one she would carry with her all the days of her life.
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