The Adventures of Young Ephiny
Episode Three: The Challenge
The characters Ephiny, Solari, Terreis, Velasca, Eponin and Melosa are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended in any way. All other characters are mine. This story contains descriptions of violence along with a few instances of graphic language.
Note: This story is the third entry in the Adventures of Young Ephiny series and contains several references to characters and events from the other two stories, most notably Coming of Age. It is not necessary to read the first two in order to follow along with this latest story; however the reader will find that many of these references are presented "as is" without any further amplification.
They had been there since dawn, two young warriors perched atop a lonely summit strategically situated among the hills that lay to the west of their village. Well armed with bow and sword, clear-eyed and rippling with finely toned muscles, these two easily fit practically everyone's image from the noblest lord down to the lowliest of peasants of what a fine young warrior should be. Except for one thing. These two were females.
They were of course, Amazons, members of the branch known as the Southern Tribe. This branch of the Amazon Nation, at best a scattered and only loosely bound race, was on the whole more advanced, more prosperous and more socially stable than their sister tribe which dwelt chiefly on the vast plains to the north and east. For countless generations the Southern Tribe had made this land to the west and south of the great Euxine Pontus their home. Naturally with the land being as desirable as it was the tribe's fierce warriors had been over the course of those generations called upon many times to defend their homeland from those who would have taken it from them.
This then was the reason for Ephiny and Solari's presence on the hill on this beautiful late summer morning. Barely three moons before, Mysian raiders had swooped in on them from the north and west. Although the ensuing battle had ended in a complete Amazonian victory the price paid in the blood of their warriors had been dear enough and the surprise of the enemy's western approach complete enough that Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, was determined to never again take for granted the notion that the western hills presented any sort of natural barrier from attack. Every day since then this, the tallest of those hills, had been constantly occupied by lookouts.
They were not, however, completely alone. At that very moment, somewhere among those same hills, goats tended by the reclusive Euset were wandering the narrow draws and green hill sides, idly grazing on the lush summer grass. Once or twice Ephiny, the more sharp-eared of the two young warriors, was just barely able to pick up a faint stuttering cry from one of the far off animals.
Bored from the mind numbing, seemingly endless routine of visually sweeping again and again the plain stretching out below, first one way and then the next, Solari decided it was time to take a well deserved break. Easing herself down to the ground, she rubbed her tired eyes and groaned, "Ohhhh, how much longer?"
Her companion took her eyes off the plain only long enough to take a quick glance up at the sun now arcing high in the morning sky. "Not long," she replied. "But if our captain finds outs that you were up here goofing off it could turn out to be a very long one indeed--for both of us."
Unmoved by her friend's caution, Solari fell straight back onto the soft grass. Rolling over on her side, she then propped her head up on an elbow. "Oh, Eph, don't be such a soggy biscuit. After all, our captain is your mother for goodness sake." It had been barely two moons now since Melosa had promoted Ephiny's mother to command one of the tribe's four fighting units.
Ephiny, daughter of the noble Meelah, kept her eyes locked on the distant horizon as she replied, "Damn it, that's all the more reason to toe the line and you know it. Mother has worked hard to get to where she is and it's going to be a cold day in hell before I put her in a position to have to discipline me. I mean, how would it look if she had to chew out her own daughter for doing something stupid?" Her eyes still on the plain, Ephiny stoically added, "She's fed your hungry belly on many a cold night so now that she's a warrior of rank that goes for you too. Neither you nor I are going to take advantage of her position. Now get up off your ass and get back to your post."
In the strict hierarchy that dominated the Amazonian way of life Ephiny, already a twice decorated warrior, outranked Solari and thus Solari was bound to obey her, even though the daughter of Meelah was younger. However the two of them had been best friends almost their entire lives and having shared side by side first the small adventures of childhood, and now the terrors of battle they were now as close as sisters--perhaps even closer. And although Ephiny had time and again proven to be the more gifted of the two she had never once acted in a superior manner toward her friend. Ephiny was not one to pull rank unnecessarily and even now her tone to Solari had been what was for her a good natured one. Still, Solari knew she meant it. That was the thing about "Eph." She always meant what she said and when it came to military matters there was no gray area. To her duty was duty and as she saw it, like it or not, they were there to do a job. For the daughter of Meelah duty to the tribe always came first.
With an exasperated moan Solari rolled over on her back. "Ugh, you're impossible," she said. "I simply don't know what I'm going to do with you once you're queen." As Solari waited for her friend's inevitable protest she idly plucked a blade of grass and stuck it in her mouth.
Ephiny shot her friend the expected little side glance of incredulity and snorted, "Ha ha. Oh yeah, aren't we the jester today."
In truth Solari was only half joking. Better than anyone she knew the taciturn Ephiny's potential for greatness, better even than Ephiny herself it seemed. Had her friend not already shown it twice in less than three moons time? Despite her tender years there was no doubt about it, Ephiny had a real talent for leadership.
"You know you will be," Solari nonchalantly countered. "Someday."
Ephiny considered this kind of talk foolish. Melosa's line had reigned for several generations now. The queen herself was still young and with her younger sister Terreis waiting to succeed her there was no reason to believe their house was going to fall any time soon. More than that, it made her feel extremely uncomfortable to even think such a thing. Her? Queen? Ridiculous! Her tone hushed, Ephiny immediately admonished Solari. "You shouldn't say things like that. So just drop it, okay?"
Although the look on Ephiny's face had changed little Solari knew her so well that she could tell she was getting to her friend--if only a little. There was not too much that could ruffle Ephiny's feathers but this topic was one that could do it ever time. "All right, Eph, have it your way." However Solari just simply could not resist one final little tease. "Just don't forget me when they're all up there kissing your ass after you've taken the Queen's Mask."
For perhaps the thousandth time Ephiny's sharp eyes swept the horizon. Except now she was not looking for intruders but rather now for something, anything that would put an end to this silly conversation. And there it was. Casually she nudged her friend with the toe of her boot. Still intently peering at the two tiny specks approaching in the distance, she said, "Get up, our relief is coming."
"About time," Solari happily declared. "I'm starved!"
Ephiny might have told her that she did not know her friend to be any other way but not on this occasion. She was hungry too and therefore said nothing.
Within very short order the two young warriors had been relieved and were on their way back to the village for a breakfast of cold pheasant and stale bread. As theirs was a small, tightly knit society they quite naturally knew their replacements, Therpida and Therris, very well. These were low ranking warriors like themselves and yet the watch change itself had taken place with remarkably little of the usual familiar small talk one might expect from young women of about the same age. Young or not, these were warriors of the noble Southern Tribe and they were there to carry out their queen's orders. No other reason would have placed them out there on that lonely, wind swept hill. Tired and hungry, Ephiny and Solari wanted to go home. Unenthused by the prospect of spending a long afternoon at such a dull task, Therpida and Therris gloomily just wanted to get it over with. And despite Ephiny's insistence on a strict adherence to procedure, down deep she knew that her friend Solari had been right all along. Gods! It was a boring detail!
Their usual way home took Ephiny and Solari through the village, past Melosa's spacious hut. As the two of them neared they noticed several Amazons of all ages milling about outside the queen's lodgings. This was highly unusual because at this time of day nearly every adult Amazon had their own duties to attend to--Melosa saw to that. Clearly something was up.
Nearing, Ephiny caught the eye of a willowy girl by the name of Phoebe.
"What's going on?" Ephiny asked, nodding toward the hut.
"Marleen and a couple of the others caught an intruder over by the river," said Phoebe.
"The river?" echoed Solari. Immediately her thoughts turned to the Centaurs, occupants of the lands on the far side of the river and for the moment at least participants in an uneasy truce with the Amazons. No one expected it to last long. The deep hostility between the two races stretched far back beyond the memory of anyone alive. Theirs was a collective history filled with violence and bloodshed.
As it turned out, though, Solari's fears on this occasion were unfounded. For her part Ephiny was only mildly interested. After all, such an event was not all that uncommon. Almost always these incursions were nothing more than some poor traveler who had gotten lost in the vast forest beyond before finally stumbling over onto Amazon land.
Ephiny had patrolled the banks of that river more times than she could count and she certainly did not think it plausible that any lone Centaur would be foolhardy enough to cross in broad daylight. Indeed outside of the occasional provocative probe Centaurs were rarely seen around their side of the river at all. As a matter of fact it had been Ephiny and Solari themselves who had caught the last interloper encroaching upon their land and he could hardly have been called warlike.
Recalling all the trouble that had resulted from that seemingly minor encounter, Ephiny muttered, "Not another one of those crazy Getae, I hope."
Phoebe shook her head. "Naw, this one's a woman. Pretty tough one too I gather. You should see the mouse she laid on Pomona."
"Yep. Marleen said if Min had not been there she might have taken them all."
Ephiny and Solari glanced at each other with the blonde pulling down the corners of her mouth to indicate that she was impressed. And why not? Marleen was a seasoned warrior, second in command in Willa's unit and Pomona was a tough little fighter with already two kills in battle. This stranger, whoever she was, obviously was no mere peasant woman.
It was here that Ephiny's horse took a step forward, causing Phoebe to reach out and idly begin to gently stroke the side of the animal's head. "What do you suppose the queen will do with her?" she asked.
In reply Ephiny shrugged and said, "Beats me. If Melosa determines she's not a serious threat I guess it will all depend on what she says." Mindful of her growling stomach, she added, "At any rate it's all over our heads. Come on, Solari, Mother has some pheasant waiting for us at home. Melosa can take care of the intruder, we'll pronounce judgment on our breakfast."
"See you guys later," Phoebe said cheerfully, as Ephiny gently pulled the horse away. At least two years away from becoming a warrior herself, the girl longed for the day when she could ride out on patrol with both grizzled veterans like Marleen and Polymenia and fine young blood like Ephiny and Pomona. As she stood there Phoebe's mind drifted into a sweet reverie of all the great things she was going to accomplish once the cherished warrior's mask was finally hers. Yes sir, any foe stupid enough to threaten the tribe would certainly feel the vengeance of her wrathful sword. Why there weren't going to be enough knots to...
And that was when it dawned on her. Sword? OH NO!!! Caught up in the excitement of the stranger's capture, The Savior of the entire Amazon Nation had completely forgotten that she was at that very moment supposed to be at sword practice.
In consternation she again softly gasped, "Oh no!" and off she scurried toward the training grounds. Gods! she thought. Selena will kill me for sure. As a "turd" it was utterly unthinkable for her to be late for a training class.
Oh no! She's gonna kill me. Oh gods I just know it.
As it turned out Selena's measures proved to be not quite so Draconian. Having spent more than fifteen years churning out young warriors for the tribe she knew how easily it was for a young girl to get distracted. Even so, instilling discipline in these sprouts was an integral part of her job and so for her purposes Phoebe's detainment after practice to run twenty long laps around the pond, both hands clutching a heavy staff above her head would do nicely toward improving the promising young trainee's memory.
As for Ephiny she too was about to be affected by the presence of the stranger. For at that very moment the stranger was uttering the name of the daughter of Meelah.
"Ephiny?" Surprised and incredulous, Melosa, the All Highest, Queen of the Amazons, repeated the name of her lowly young warrior. "Ephiny? What do you know of Ephiny?"
"Only what I was told by a friend," the stranger replied. "That though young and inexperienced she is tenacious, brave and wise beyond her tender years. That in a tough spot, she would be someone to count on."
Catching the eye of her queen Willa, one of Melosa's company commanders, cocked her head to one side and said, "That's Ephiny all right." Though the girl was extremely young, Willa had already seen firsthand her bravery and resourcefulness.
However this did little to allay Melosa's skepticism. It would take more than the mention of a wet-behind-the-ears lower echelon warrior to impress her. "Interesting," she said. "And just who is this, uhh, 'friend' of yours who knows our Ephiny so well? More importantly, what has that got to do with you trespassing on our land?"
Although Melosa had gone ahead with these questions she had by now formed a strong opinion as to just who this "friend" was. In the heavily regimented life of young Ephiny she had been afforded only limited opportunities to meet others from beyond the village. Consequently it was not that difficult for Melosa to ascertain just on whom she had made such a positive impression.
Flanked by Celeste and Minutia, two of the tribe's most physically imposing Amazons, the stranger remained undaunted as she looked the queen squarely in the eye. "I get the impression you already seem to know."
"Diandra sent you here, didn't she?"
"You mean the Getae woman who helped Ephiny free us?" a surprised Minutia blurted out.
"She said she knew you once, and that you were just and fair," the newcomer added hopefully.
Melosa thought back to her meeting with Diandra long ago. "That was a long time ago," she said quietly.
It was strange how old paths could converge. Barely two moons before Melosa had sent a diplomatic mission to the Getae at the invitation of their king, Burebistas. Upon the arrival back in the village a few days later of a half dead Polymenia the queen had learned that the rest of those in the party, including her own sister, had suddenly found themselves caught up in the middle of a government overthrow by parts of the Getae military. Because she was away on a scouting mission at the time, Ephiny had been the only member of the party to escape capture. Ultimately then, with bravery, skill and determination--and no small amount of help from this same Diandra--she had been able to successfully free her princess and her other friends and return safely home again. Already the daughter of Meelah's exploits in Getae were becoming the stuff of legend among her fellow junior warriors. Of course Melosa was well acquainted with every detail of this affair, having heard first hand accounts from Terreis, Willa and Ephiny herself.
As for Minutia she could be excused her mistake. Her job was to crush bones, not to pay close attention to detail. Whether she had on that eventful night missed the significance of Ephiny's plea to Diandra to "come home" or whether she had simply forgotten, the fact remained that she had erred in an important point concerning Diandra.
Melosa saw no need to correct her on it but the stranger certainly did. "Diandra is not Getae! she said sharply. "She is---"
"Amazon," said Melosa suddenly. She paused for just a beat before adding, "Like you."
Unlike her hulking subject, Melosa's sharp mind had by now put all the pieces
together. Coolly eyeing the stranger, she said, "Let's see how close I get to the
truth in all this. I think we can safely say you're not from one of those renegade bands that
give us all such a bad name. No, you're from the Northern tribe, a true Amazon warrior, not
some marauding child stealer."
Many generations before the unexpected death of a young queen barely six moons into her reign had produced in the tribe a bitter succession dispute. This resulted in great political and social upheaval in what had up until then been a united Amazon Nation. With no clear successor at hand the majority of the Amazons favored the most senior captain, a twenty-eight year old, highly decorated warrior by the name of Druis. It was this woman who was destined to become the great-grandmother of the noble Antiope. The rest of the warriors fell behind Scelles, trusted advisor to the late queen.
As with all disputes of this magnitude it was decided in true Amazon tradition, in the only way it could be decided--single combat. Thus the challenged was issued and duly accepted and it was on the day after the first full moon of the summer solstice that Druis and Scelles fought it out under a blazing afternoon sun.
Before the fight Scelles received a great deal of advice about her choice of weapons. Podicia, one of the more battle wise among the allies of Scelles, had stunned her by urging that as challenger she should take the unusual step of naming the sarissa as her weapon of choice. Scelles' reaction had been to immediately dismiss the proposal as insane. Indeed, she wondered whether her friend had simply been affected by the heat or if she was not scheming against her.
And who could blame her? At a full fourteen cubits in length and weighing almost fifteen mina the sarissa was in fact a huge pike, the shaft was of which was made in two pieces joined together by a metal tube. In short the thing was a log. It was of course a highly specialized weapon, one used exclusively by densely massed formations of men known as a phalanx. Later the Macedonians under Alexander would use both the formation and the weapon to great effect but, being a light and highly mobile force, the Amazons looked down on the sarissa with great disdain. However in the past such weapons had been captured by the Amazons and Podicia knew there were still a couple of them lying around rusting in one of the storehouses.
Podicia's reasoning, for all its peculiarity, was based on frank assessment of the two combatants. Scelles was big and strong but she was also neither very quick nor very clever. Druis, on the other hand, was both and Podicia recognized that these qualities would indeed pose a real problem for the lumbering Scelles. In her mind the bigger, heavier, very unwieldy weapon would be better suited to Scelles' superior strength. Her view, however, was strictly a minority of one and consequently no one gave it a second thought when Scelles chose for her weapon the one she knew best, the sword.
When the sun came to cast the appropriate shadow the grim contest began. To most of the Amazons gathered round, even those who backed Druis, there was very little thought of the fight ending in anything but a triumph for the mighty Scelles. Standing almost a head taller than her foe, she was seen as simply being too big and too strong and probably too experienced. However as it turned out Scelles would have been well served to listen to her observant friend Podicia. Druis, first in a royal line that would one day extend to illustrious six generations, was like most of her descendants short and compact. Possessed of a fierce intelligence hidden by cold, dark eyes, she was utterly fearless. And as Podicia had noted she was lightning quick with her hands and feet and her guile as a warrior, which she was soon to prove, was unmatched by any other Amazon.
At first the two warriors cautiously circled each other inside the human ring of Amazons exhorting them on to battle. As expected it was Scelles who went on the offensive. With great sweeps of her blade which seemed to suck away the air in its wake she struck at the nimble Druis. Her dark eyes burning as she watched Scelles' every twitch, Druis deftly evaded or fended off every last one of Scelles' ever more futile thrusts and slashes. In this way the wily Druis, just as Podicia had feared, began to first frustrate and finally then to wear down her thickly-muscled opponent. All the while patiently waiting for just the precise moment to strike, Druis with each successive miss by Scelles taunted her for her clumsiness and poor swordsmanship, equating her skill to that of a farmer's wife or, even more galling, that of a Vestal Virgin!
At last, as she knew it would, her moment came. After one particularly forceful thrust Scelles let her center of gravity get just a little too far forward, causing her to stumble ever so slightly. Her opponent's momentary hesitation in regaining her defensive posture was all the opportunistic Druis needed. In an instant the younger Amazon lashed out in all her savagery. The razor sharp edge of her sword caught the exposed Scelles right across the bridge of the nose and like one of Phoenicia's great cedars she went crashing to the ground. Soon the hapless warrior began to drown in her own blood. The Amazons encircling the victorious Druis looked on in stunned silence. Not since Zeus routed the Titans had there been such an upset.
As it was Druis' victory should have put an end to matters then and there but a shocked Priscilla, Scelles' lover, immediately brought the simmering pot right back to a boil by charging that Druis must have cheated somehow. The angry backers of Druis swiftly denounced Priscilla as a traitorous rabble rouser intent on undermining the authority of the tribe's new queen. Supporting a rival was one thing but now that matters had been settled in the eyes of Artemis it was expected, no demanded, that all should cast their allegiance to the tribe's lawful new queen.
The enraged Priscilla would have none of it. Snidely she replied that, law or no, no common tribal grunt was going to command her! Having just won supreme authority, the fierce Druis was not about to yield even a finger's width of it. Solidly planting her foot on the back of the dying Scelles, Druis demanded that Priscilla swear her loyalty on the spot or else she could join her friend in the arms of Artemis.
All around the circle of warriors other angry voices erupted. Above the din Druis shouted for every Amazon who believed her ascension to be the will of Artemis to rally to her. The circle collapsed around the two antagonists and when it broke apart the great majority of warriors were standing in support of Druis. But not all. For on the other side a full score Amazons stood with Priscilla.
A tense silence fell over the opposing factions. As far as Druis was concerned the battle lines were drawn. With the smell of battle still in her nostrils and nearly a hundred warriors at her back she was fully prepared to annihilate every last one of those whom she considered to be rebels. At the last moment, however, a quiet voice broke the grim, suffocating silence.
"Highness?" This was the very first time for Druis to be addressed by this august title and she would remember it for the rest of her life. The speaker was Pusia, who as a fellow company commander had served alongside the new queen and was a good friend.
"Yes, what is it?" Druis asked, still glaring at Priscilla.
Cautiously Pusia continued. "Ma'am, if you...order us against them we will of course obey but..."
Her blood still hot, Druis impatiently spurred her friend on. "Come on, Pusia spit it out. But what?"
"Well, perhaps, ma'am, enough blood has been shed here this day. I know in my heart tis only right that we settle such grave matters as this by just and honorable combat. It has long been our custom to do so and tribal leadership is after all our most important question." Here Pusia paused again. Druis was notorious for her volcanic temper. How would she react?
"Out with it, Pusia. What are you getting at?"
"Ma'am, I am but a simple warrior. All my life I have obeyed orders, I have sworn to give my life, my very soul if need be in the defense of my people. Under your command I will kill the enemy wherever I find him but, ma'am, are you sure that these who stand before us are truly our enemy?"
"They have chosen to defy not only me but nothing less than the will of Artemis herself," Druis sharply answered. "Does that not make them my enemy? And if it does then I need not remind you, Pusia, that it makes them your enemy as well."
Pusia's reply was one of quiet acquiescence. "If you say it then it's so. If you order it I will fight as I always have. But I also know this--that for the rest of my life my heart will never be able to reconcile the fact that I once raised my hand against my sister. Highness, they are our own kind! Flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood."
"And just what would you have me do?" asked Druis bitterly. "Kiss their traitorous asses?"
Swallowing hard, Pusia softly answered, "Let them go."
"Let them go in peace. Banish them. Someone once said that once doubt creeps in upon us there can be no return to perfect faith and so is it with loyalty as well. Tis true then that, living or dead, they must be cast out from our tribe but is it not better that we show our sisters mercy? Surely in one stroke we cannot forget all our happy days, all the laughter and tears and all the blood so many of have shed together! They have made their choice so pluck them out from us by all means but in my heart, my queen, I believe we should let them live."
And to the utter surprise all, Druis did just that. No one ever knew why. Perhaps she realized that in the infancy of her own reign it was in fact better that any dissidents depart or perhaps it was because she felt that the impending fight would weaken the tribe even more without any real guarantee of loyalty by the surviving followers of Priscilla. At any rate Priscilla and her warriors were allowed to take their families and their possessions and depart in peace. Never again would they set their eyes on the vast Euxine Pontus.
Wandering to the north and east into Scythia, they in time settled on the great wind swept plains that stretched out before the mountain range that marked what was many thought was the end of the world. It seemed fitting somehow. Old worlds had indeed come to an end. Never again would life as it had been known be the same for either tribe.
In all the generations since contact between the two factions had been sporadic at best
and nonexistent at worst. In fact there had been only one real attempt at reconciliation and that
by Melosa's mother, Penthesilea. Unfortunately on her visit north she found Thalia, her opposite
number, to be jealous not only of her fame but of her striking beauty as well. Her pettiness had
allowed all the old animosities to flare up once more and so the effort had gone for naught. In the
long years hence communication had been even more sparse than before, so much so that
Ephiny's chance encounter with Diandra marked the first face to face meeting between
members of the two tribes in almost ten years.
"Now," said Melosa, continuing, "I'm thinking that for whatever reason you became dissatisfied with your place in the tribe. Perhaps you felt aggrieved in some way. Perhaps you felt someone in the command structure was treating you unfairly. It happens. I'm sure every warrior at one time or another feels they're being shit on."
In unison every last one of her subjects present thought, "You got that right!
"At any rate you left. But after a while it begins to dawn on you that life outside the tribe is not the bed of roses you thought it was, that being independent is a double-edged sword. Still, you won't go back. Perhaps you can't go back. So, what do you do? Where do you go? You're several years younger than Diandra so I'd say that in your childhood she tended to you many times. When I was a young warrior my mother visited your village and I came to know Diandra. She was very impressive so it's likely that you came to look up to her. It was only natural then that after following in her very footsteps you would seek her out for advice."
Her dark eyes searching out those of the stranger, Melosa asked "How am I doing so far?"
The stranger was forced to admit, "Very well it seems."
Pleased, Melosa slightly tilted her head back, uttering a soft, "Ahh. Very well, to make a long story short--you go to your old mentor, you ask her for advice and with the memory of Ephiny's invitation still fresh in her mind she suggests you try coming here." In a not unfriendly tone the queen went on to add, "And here you are."
"It's true, ma'am," said the stranger, evoking for the first time this familiar title of respect. "I am an Amazon. I miss being with Amazons. I...I'd like to join you...here."
"Just like that," Willa caustically interjected. "You desert your tribe and when you find out how much of a bitch life can be on the outside you come prancing in here asking for acceptance. Well let me tell you something, 'sister,'"--Willa practically spat out the word--"here we work. Here everybody who can get up out of the bed in the morning contributes. We don't have room for some sorry-ass derelict who bolts at the first sign of trouble."
Although Melosa was somewhat surprised by the usually mild-mannered Willa's outburst the points her captain had made were legitimate ones nonetheless. In their tribe with its declining numbers it was more than important it was vital that able-bodied Amazons do their part no matter what their age.
"I have never shirked my duty," the stranger insisted.
"You deserted your tribe, didn't you?" Willa shot back. "What the hell do you call that? For that matter how do we even know you really are a true Amazon?"
The stranger glanced over at Marleen who with the others on the patrol had experienced such a difficult time in subduing her. "Ask her if she thinks I'm an Amazon."
It was true. By all accounts the stranger had indeed demonstrated prowess worthy of the Amazon race. Even so, Willa was left far from satisfied. "Give me a verse from the War Song," she said. "Any of the early verses will do."
"We no longer sing the old song," said the stranger. "Ours is different from yours now."
"All right, recite Hippolyta's prayer then. And don't tell me that is different because if you say it is I know you're no Amazon."
This ancient prayer, said to have been spoken by the legendary Hippolyta on the eve of her hallowed victory over the Hittites, was so sacred to the Amazon Nation that it was strictly forbidden to utter any part of it in the presence of an outsider. To this day be it the Northern Tribe, Southern Tribe or any of the handful of small clusters that had splintered off over the years, the glory of that fabled name Hippolyta was so great that even now all young warriors-to-be were required to learn this prayer verbatim. Without a recent sharing of history their songs might have become different but no one with true Amazon blood coursing through her veins would have ever dared to alter one single syllable of the peerless Hippolyta's words.
And so, taking a deep breath, Eponin began:
Glory to Artemis! For she alone will smite our enemies. When you art with us how
can we be afraid? Nay, let them come! For the mightier the foe the greater the
glory for you. Glory to Artemis!"
Giving Willa a hard look the stranger then finished:
"All right, enough of this," said Melosa calmly. "While I believe you are an true Amazon my captain here is right. They tell me that my grandmother used to say that given a choice between an unreliable Amazon and a dead one a queen would be better served if she chose the dead one."
The adage itself predated her grandmother, the illustrious Antiope, and was in fact a product of the ancient split in the Amazon Nation. It was just one indication of the bitter feelings that had resulted from that shattering event.
"Ma'am, I am not unreliable. It's just that things..."
"We're listening," said Willa.
But the stranger could not go on. Changing course, she said, "Look, I'm a highly skilled warrior. I'm also a good hunter--not the best--but good enough. I can be a valuable asset to your tribe if you'll only give me the chance. That's all I'm asking for--a chance to prove myself."
The silence in the hut was absolute because everyone knew that the next voice to be heard was to be the queen's. Point and counterpoint had been made. It was up to her now. In truth Melosa's mind was already made up. For most of her adult life she had been making decisions and as decisions went this was a comparatively minor one. They were always understrength. The tribe needed skilled warriors. "All right," said the queen finally, "you'll get your chance."
"Thank you, ma'am!"
"But," the queen quickly warned, "let's be clear here. By joining us you are willing to faithfully serve the House of Druis and Antiope? To recognize me, Melosa, daughter of Penthesilea, as your only legitimate sovereign and to in all things obey your superiors without question? Are you willing to fight for the security of the tribe? To DIE for it if necessary? Do this you swear by the great Artemis, our divine patron?"
In an effort to demonstrate her subservience the stranger dropped to one knee, crossing an arm across her chest as she bent down low. "I swear it, great queen."
Unused to this ancient, now largely forgotten gesture, Melosa felt strangely uncomfortable with it. Her rule was absolute, yes, she demanded the proper respect, yes, but respect came in many forms and for the daughter of Penthesilea it was enough that her subjects believed in her ability to lead the tribe. Any fool could be bowed to--Burebistas had proven that--but not everyone could command.
The queen placed a hand on the stranger's shoulder and quietly said, "You only have to swear your allegiance, no one expects you to grovel."
And right there the stranger realized that this Southern Tribe was something very different indeed.
"Now, we have much to do here today. So let's get at it," said Melosa. It was her way of indicating that the meeting was over. Melosa watched Celeste leave and then turned to the stranger. "Uhh, you, what's your name again?"
"Eponin, ma'am," came the reply.
"All right, Eponin, I'm assigning you to Meelah's command. I believe her unit is the most under strength. Minutia!"
"See that she reports to Meelah and then find her a place to sleep." Glancing at Eponin, the queen asked "Do you have a good horse?"
"I do," Eponin confidently assured her.
"Good." To Melosa's way of thinking that made it even better. Finishing her instructions to Minutia, she said, "And see that she gets fed."
"Right," Minutia said with a nod.
"Take the remainder of the day to get squared away and rested up. Tomorrow we'll see if we can't find something for you to do. All right then, people, we're wasting daylight so let's move. Willa, you come with me. It's your unit's turn to work on the new well."
Melosa stepped briskly toward the door and Willa obediently fell in behind her. Passing Eponin, she pointed to an eye and murmured, "I'll be watching you."
Eponin and Minutia were the last to leave the hut. Once outside Eponin watched the two elite Amazons make their way through the village toward the site of the new well. "I don't think she likes me very much," Eponin observed quietly.
"Who, Willa?" Minutia grinned, revealing perfect white teeth. "Aah she's all right. It's just that she's one of those thinkers is all. You gotta watch those thinkers." The big warrior clapped Eponin's shoulder and said, "Come on, let's go find Meelah. She's a thinker too but damn if she isn't a warrior's warrior. You'll love her."
With her hunger pangs stilled by cold pheasant and several helpings of Meelah's wonderful sweetbread Solari leaned back in her chair, stretching out her sturdy legs before her. Full of contentment, she moaned, "Mmm, now this is more like it. Sure beats spending all morning on some windy hilltop, doesn't it?"
"Well don't get too comfy," Ephiny stoically reminded her. "We've got a field exercise this evening."
In contrast to her ravenous friend it was hard to tell if Ephiny had eaten anything at all. In truth she had not eaten much. Never a big eater anyway, Ephiny when not in the field preferred to make the evening supper her main meal. Of course waiting that long into the day sometimes found her becoming quite hungry as anyone would but usually Ephiny just chose to ignore it. To her it was simply another way of maintaining the rigid self-discipline, so important to Amazon life, that all warriors were expected to practice. Plus it certainly did not do her waistline any harm.
Solari, however, was rarely as zealous in this as her friend was. Emitting a soft, satisfied burp she said, "I'll tell ya, Eph, I don't know where your mother--"
Solari was interrupted in mid-sentence by a sharp knock at the door. Ephiny arose from her seat and in bare feet crossed the room to answer it. There she saw Minutia and a young woman she had never seen before.
"Is your mother home?" asked Minutia.
"Ah no," Ephiny replied, somewhat distractedly. "No she's not." Now who is this? she wondered.
"Do you know where she is?"
"No," Ephiny answered again. "I haven't seen her since I got back." Remembering the exercise, Ephiny added, "I expect she'll be back soon though."
Standing there in the door she felt Solari move in behind her.
Damn, thought Minutia. She could be anywhere. For a moment she considered taking Eponin in tow and traipsing off to find Meelah but with Ephiny's last words still fresh in her ears she decided against it. No, better that Eponin wait here for her. "Uhh, let's seee, I'll tell you what," she said to Eponin. "You wait here for Meelah. Ephiny? This is Eponin. She's a warrior from the Northern Tribe and she's come to join up with us. Tell your mother that Melosa has assigned her to you guys, okay? If Meelah has any questions she can see the queen."
As Ephiny nodded that she understood she noticed the stranger eyeing her with curiosity.
Minutia turned stretched out a muscular arm toward a distant hut. "See that hut? The one with the two spears leaning against the front? That's mine. When Meelah is through with you go on over there. We'll have some supper and you can spend the night with me. On the south end of the village there is an abandoned hut that's still in pretty good shape. Tomorrow if you like you and I can begin fixing that up for your own use."
Eponin could not believe it. Rarely had anyone been so generous to her. Stammering out a numb reply, she said, "I-I'd like that."
Minutia flashed that brilliant smile again and said, "Good. I'll see you later then."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Why are you doing this? Why are you going out of your way to help a total stranger? I mean, what do you care?"
Perplexed, Minutia gave Eponin an odd look. In her mind this new one might as well have asked why was the moon round, why fire burned or why stones sank in water. These were not things that needed explaining, they just were. "You're an Amazon, aren't you?"
"Well, yes but--"
"Here Amazons try to help each other," Minutia replied earnestly. "Most of us anyway. It's what we do." This time the big warrior flashed not the wide grin rather a faint, tight-lipped smile as she added the reason that transcended all others. "It's how we survive." With that she turned and strode off toward her hut.
"Well," said Ephiny, extending her hand, "welcome to our village. Like Min said my name is Ephiny and this big ugly tumor growing on my back is Solari."
"Hey-ey!" Solari yelped in protest. "I was just trying to get a good look."
As discreetly as she could Eponin studied the two Amazons standing there in the doorway. They were young--perhaps four or five years younger than she. As was to be expected their muscles had not yet reached their peak in development but they were well toned nevertheless. Like all the others she had seen so far these two seemed to be well fed with clean, clear skin, full faces and bright, alert eyes.
"Are you two sisters?" she asked.
"Not by blood," said Ephiny. "But we might as well be. We practically grew up together."
Sensing her chance for retribution, Solari sniffed, "Hmph! I wouldn't claim you if you were my sister."
With a roll of her eyes Ephiny said, "Don't pay her any mind." Stepping back from the door she said, "Won't you come in?"
Eponin did just that, turning her shoulders sideways to step through the partially open door. Once inside she took a quick look around. Her new captain certainly had made a comfortable home for her family. "Nice place," she pronounced.
"Have a seat anywhere," said Ephiny. "Are you hungry? We have some leftover bread."
Actually Eponin was quite hungry but she thought it might not be the best thing to be caught eating at her new captain's table. "Ahh no," she said. "Thanks anyway." Besides, right at that moment she had other things on her mind. After listening to Diandra gush about the brave Amazon warrior she had recently met Eponin had expected to find this Ephiny to be someone older. What she now saw instead was a serious looking, surprisingly youthful Amazon.
As it was Eponin was not alone in her scrutiny. Just as she was taking note of the young pair so too was she being carefully studied--especially by Solari. She guessed the stranger to be at least three or four years older than her. While not physically imposing like the thickly muscled Min or Draganis her lean body was muscular nevertheless and seemed to convey power that was only hinted at. Her face, while very pleasing to look at exhibited, especially around the dark eyes, a certain hardness to it. Whether this was simply something natural in her expression or the unhappy result of vicissitudes long endured Solari as of yet had know way of knowing. What was clear, however, was that the woman oozed a quiet strength--even a ferocity perhaps. She moved like a panther, sleek and powerful. It was obvious the woman was not someone to be trifled with. Fair of face, proud, with long brown hair falling loosely down onto strong shoulders she was in short an Amazon's Amazon.
And there was one more thing. Despite not knowing a thing about Eponin other than what her senses were telling her Solari was surprised to find herself resenting the newcomer.
Still watching Eponin intently, Solari saw her eyes soften ever so slightly as they settled on Ephiny. "I bring you tidings from a friend."
Startled, Ephiny's brow furrowed. Momentarily puzzled, she quizzically echoed, "A friend?" Her confusion lasted but a moment. No less intelligent than Melosa, the young warrior made the association right away, just as her queen had done earlier. "You mean Diandra?"
"You're as nimble minded as your queen," Eponin said approvingly. "Yes Diandra."
"How is she?" Ephiny asked. "Is she well?"
"Yes, and she sends you all her best."
"She is an extraordinary woman. I admire her inner strength. I begged her to join us here, but she would not."
"She is remarkable that's true but she can also be very stubborn," said Eponin. "Her departure was a heavy blow to our..." Pausing, Eponin quickly corrected herself. "..the Northern Tribe."
"And so now it seems you too have left," Solari observed.
There was a certain iciness in the young Amazon's tone that Eponin could not help but notice. This in turn evoked a hard look from Eponin but as she answered her voice was slow and measured. "The Fates are not always kind."
Listening to this, Ephiny wondered what the circumstances were behind this cryptic reply. However she said nothing. Obviously Solari had touched on a sore spot.
There followed then a polite exchange of small talk but soon even this petered out into a stiff silence. By this time Solari was long gone, having excused herself at the first opportunity. When at last Meelah returned Ephiny lost no time in taking her own leave as well.
Although her role as host was at an end and she was safely away Ephiny found her mind wandering back to the intriguing newcomer. As of yet it was too early for Ephiny to decide whether or not she liked her. She seemed cordial enough and yet there was an undeniable intensity about her. Not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with that. A lot of Amazons were intense--her for one. It seemed to be part of their nature. Still, Eponin appeared to be wound a little tighter than most.
Back in the hut Ephiny had sensed Solari's antipathy toward Eponin. This surprised her because, more than most Amazons, Solari had an amiability about her and rarely was it ever disturbed. Solari got along with everybody. Clearly though there was something about Eponin that bothered her and Ephiny made a mental note to at some point ask her friend about that.
Melosa stood at the edge of the well and leaned over to get a better look down inside. Rigged over the well was a rope attached to a pulley and as she peered down into the shadows the queen put a hand on one of its supports in order to maintain her balance. There at the bottom she saw the older Valerie and Therme, two of Willa's smaller Amazons, busily toiling away with their spades. Neither of them were happy about being picked for the job. After all, they were warriors and as such it was only natural that they consider work of this kind beneath them and even a little demeaning.
Melosa was well aware of the disdain with which her warriors looked upon such tasks as this but as always her main--her only concern was the welfare of her people as a whole and if that meant a few warriors getting a little dirt in their hair well then so be it. She felt that as long as she was fair with the distribution of the work load no one really had much of a complaint anyway. Not that it mattered. If she said "Do it!" then by the gods they would do it. Besides, Amazon warriors were no different from children and the elderly of the village in that they had to have water too. So a few days of leaning on a spade were good for everyone all around.
"How deep are we?" the queen asked.
"About ten cubits," Willa answered.
Down at the bottom an exasperated Therme heard this and dared not look up as she whispered, "We? What in Tartarus is this 'we' stuff?"
Though Therme had not meant it so the remark struck Valerie as being downright funny. Therme was always such a gloomy sort anyway and somehow the thought of this, just one more indignity she had to suffer found its way right into Valerie's funny bone. It was not that Valerie liked being down there any more than Therme did. The work was hard and slow and yet in her sharing it with the ever depressed Therme--hearing her complain--she could not help but find humor in their predicament. It was just Valerie's way. So it had been ever since she could remember. Theirs was a classic case of opposites attracting because Valerie, effervescent and playful, and the melancholy Therme had been best friends all their young lives.
"Shut up!" a hissing Valerie admonished, all the while trying to suppress a giggle. "You want to get us into trouble?"
Unmoved, by her friend's plea, Therme ran her tongue across her upper lip, wiping away the dirt and perspiration which she then spat out. Setting her foot on her spade, she gave it a fierce push. "Well this isn't exactly a holiday in Athens, ya know."
Valerie just smiled and shook her head as she dumped yet another spadeful of dirt into the big wooden tub. Theme was right, this was not a holiday in Athens. But given the choice of spending a day in a dank hole or facing the wrath of the fierce Melosa...she would take the hole every time.
Judging from past experience Melosa estimated that to hit water they would need to dig down another five cubits or so. "Another day, day and a half then," she said.
"About that," Willa said in agreement. She then added the cautious qualifier, "If we don't hit slate."
"What about your shoring?"
"I have four people out in the forest right now taking care of that," said Willa.
From down below Valerie's sharp voice rang out, "Okay!"
Stationed on top were two more Amazons, Pycea and the muscular Jen, and at this signal the two of them began to pull earnestly on the rope hoist. For a few moments Melosa silently watched the tubful of dirt make its slow ascent. Satisfied the work was going well, she turned to leave. As she did she caught the eye of Jen. This broad-shouldered Amazon was often assigned to sentry duty at the queen's hut and though Melosa characteristically would never allow herself to show it she was quite fond of her. Like Therme Jen was a complete stranger to depression. In fact it was surprising that, given the intense pressures of their struggle for everyday existence, the outlook on life for most Amazons was one of staunch optimism.
Her face blank, Melosa stoically said, "It's about time you did some honest work."
The good-natured Jen broke into a wide grin and she replied, "You know me, ma'am. I'll try anything once."
Melosa, saying nothing, did not break stride in walking right on past Jen and going on her way.
Back down in the well Valerie and Therme pressed their backs up against the side of the well and watched the now empty tub being lowered back down to them. When it came to rest at the bottom the two friends just stood there for a moment, staring at it. This inactivity did not last long because in very short order there appeared outlined against the bright sky above the unmistakable form of Willa leaning out over the hole.
"I don't hear any digging," the captain casually reminded them.
Wedging her bronze spade into the hard ground, Therme muttered, "There's another one on my list."
Ever since Valerie's return from imprisonment at the hands of the Getae she had noted a change in her friend. The young woman had always been a rather unhappy sort but there was something else now--a certain assertiveness that had never been there before. It was as if the pressures of being a newly masked warrior had awakened some dormant trait in her friend. Valerie herself could understand that. Mortified at having been captured so easily and, yes, a little ashamed at having been rescued by the daring young Ephiny, Valerie was determined to never again accept things so meekly. In this she finally had something in common with her acerbic friend.
As Theme returned to work she broke into a little impromptu ditty that Willa could not help but hear:
Valerie grinned and shook her head at this but in the back of her mind there was concern for her friend. She could only hope that Therme would not push her superiors too far. Assertiveness was one thing, insubordination was something else again. To an Amazon there was nothing more unsettling than a breakdown in discipline, hence the old line spoken so long ago by Queen Myrina:
Now that she had checked on the well Melosa thought she might ride out into the hills and find Euset. It had been nearly a month now since her last visit with the goatherd but that did not mean the queen did not know how she was getting along. Through the regular reports she got from the younger Amazons who were almost daily tramping around up in the hills Melosa was able to keep abreast both of the older woman's general condition and her whereabouts. Euset was a woman who liked her solitude but Melosa made it a point to pay her a personal visit every so often just to see for herself how she was getting on. It was important to Melosa that she know not only because of Euset's past service to the tribe but because of the friendship the woman had once shared with her mother, Penthesilea. In her prime Euset had been a very fine warrior but the effects of old war wounds had left her with a pronounced limp. Still, her overall health was good and in her visits Melosa usually found her just as direct and opinionated as ever.
On this day, however, Melosa's excursion into the hills would be sidetracked by a far more pressing matter. In making her way to her stable she was intercepted by Calliope, yet another among their batch of junior warriors who seemed to hold so much promise.
Jogging toward her queen, the young woman called out, "Highness! Racillione has sent me to fetch you. She says it's urgent that she see you at once."
"She didn't say. She just said she needed to talk to you."
"Very well," said Melosa. Taking into account her senior healer's duties she asked, "Is she at her hut?"
"Uh, no, ma'am. She and Missini are over at Antibrote's hut. She asked that you come there."
The distance to Antibrote's home was roughly one hundred twenty paces and in crossing it Melosa thought back to the last time she had seen the solid warrior who served under Colsethme's command. Thinking on it, she realized it had been more than a day or two. Melosa was not one to leave matters in the hands of subordinates and let it go at that. She was very much a "hands on" monarch and as such she made it a point to take an interest in each and every Amazon, not just the tribal elite. When there was a death, she was there. When there was an illness, she was there. When anyone had a problem, they could always come to her. These people were not simply subjects to lord over. They were a part of her.
The last mental image the queen had of Antibrote was one of a healthy warrior in the prime of her life. She could
only assume then that if Racillione felt it necessary to send for her to come posthaste then it must be because Antibrote
had been in some sort of accident and a serious one at that. As a rule Amazons were always getting banged up for
one reason or another. For such an active people as hers bumps and bruises were as natural as their own breasts.
Many of them looked upon these scrapes as badges of honor. To them it was part of the keeping up the warrior persona, so
much so that few of them ever bothered with seeing a healer. Even when they did Racillione rarely saw fit to tell her
queen, the Supreme Commander, about it. It was just too trivial. No, this had to be something bad, very bad.
Upon her arrival Melosa found Racillione standing just outside the door of Antibrote's hut, looking very grave. Still assuming an accident, Melosa's inquiry was twofold. "What happened? How badly is she hurt?"
"Not hurt," said Racillione. Her tone grew ominous in adding, "Sick."
Melosa started to step through the door when to her great surprise the healer shot out an arm to bar her way. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency. "Highness, don't go in there!".
Now healers were no different from any other member of the tribe in that they were not in the habit of going around intentionally blocking the path of their queen. Racillione had taken a drastic step, one that startled Melosa if only for the span of a single heartbeat. Melosa looked into the eyes of her senior healer and saw more than anxiety.
She saw fear.
Because of this the queen was far from offended by Racillione's actions. In that moment she understood that her subject thought she was protecting her. But from what? Melosa tried not to let apprehension creep into her voice as she asked, "What is it, Lee?" What's wrong?"
Racillione's low reply was a grim one. "We...we think Antibrote has the Red Sickness."
The words hit Melosa like a blow to the stomach. This affliction was more ruthless, more merciless than any foe this side of the gods. In her youth she once overheard her mother and the now dead Phillipia speaking in hushed tones about how this dreaded scourge had wiped out the entire town of Partum, a heretofore thriving community of five thousand people situated on the banks of the Propontis. Where it came from, how it spread was a total mystery. Was it evil spirits as some said? Did it have something to do with breathing foul air, eating bad food or was it the curse of some offended god? Who knew? What was known was that it was a killer--plain and simple. And if her healer was right it had now come to her village.
"Are you sure?" the queen asked anxiously.
"We're sure," came the unhappy reply. "Already she has the lesions."
"How do you....? Then it came to Melosa. Staring coldly into Racillione's eyes she forcefully asked, "Where's Missini?"
"In there," said Racillione, bleakly angling her head back toward the hut.
Hearing this Melosa exploded into rage. "You coward!" she seethed. "You sent your helper to do YOUR job, knowing what awaited her?! What the hell is wrong with you?!"
"No, ma'am!" cried Racillione. "It's not like that. We--we didn't know about...the lesions. Antibrote would have had body aching and very high fever for at least a couple of days but she said nothing. When was the last time an Amazon had the Red Sickness? It's something we never dreamed of. Missini came here expecting to find something minor. She didn't know, ma'am. We didn't know!"
In her anxiety Racillione ran a trembling hand through her graying hair. "Gods, what do you think I am? I would never have let her go in there had I known."
Melosa continued to intently look at Racillione, saying nothing. Racillione's eyes began to brim with tears. Softly she said, "Ma'am...I feel awful about this. It--it should be me in there instead of Missy. No one knows that better than I."
And in that moment Melosa realized her healer was right. Racillione was not a coward, she never had been. Yes, perhaps some blame could be ascribed to both Missini and to her for their lackadaisical approach but, as Racillione had reminded her, when was the last time anyone had seen an Amazon with the Red Sickness? And then there was Antibrote herself. Why had she not told someone she was sick? What was going on here?
Well, it was too late to worry about that now. Racillione's arm was still stretched across the door and this a determined Melosa now pushed against hard. "Let me in there. I want to see...Missini!"
In desperation Racillione wrapped both arms around her queen and hung on for all she was worth. "No, Melosa! Don't! Antibrote already has the pustules!" Her use of the queen's first name was an indication of just how acute her sense of urgency was. As for Melosa she was an exquisite warrior and quite capable of easily throwing aside her balking healer. Here, however, she instinctively allowed Racillione to pull her away from the door. "No, ma'am," Racillione said, much more tenderly this time. Her voice filled with compassion for her unfortunate friend she whispered, "It's too late...for both of them."
The finality of the healer's words might have taken aback a person of lesser character but not the resolute Melosa. A veteran of two great wars along with countless smaller engagements, she had looked Death in the face many times and never once blinked. Neither would she this time. To her this new menace was just one more enemy that must be beaten and it would not be accomplished by wailing and hand wringing. Back in complete control after her momentary lapse, the Supreme Warlord was once again her old decisive self.
And as for decisions there were now a lot to be made. Gently she pushed away Racillione's arm. "It's okay, Lee," she assured the healer. "I'm not going in."
Uncomfortable at having been so physical with her queen, Racillione could only make tiny little nods of the head in reply.
"All right," said Melosa. "We're going to have to act quickly on this." Off in the distance the queen espied Cordelia, Colsethme's second in command, idly talking to Selena, one of the master instructors. Just the one. Melosa stepped away from the healer and set things in motion by sticking two fingers into her mouth and emitting an ear piercing whistle that shattered the afternoon stillness. Cordelia looked toward the sound and saw Melosa looking right at the two of them. The queen snapped her other hand back toward herself in a beckoning gesture which the younger Amazon knew was meant for her. Not even queens treated master instructors so curtly.
"Gotta go!" she said to Selena and off she bolted at a dead run. While Cordelia was hurrying on her way Melosa pulled aside Celeste who at that moment happened to be passing by.
Cordelia quick stepped to a halt and a little nervously said, "Yes, ma'am."
With her dark eyes flashing intently upon her two bewildered warriors Melosa took command. "Now listen up, you two, I don't want any shitting around on this. Cordelia? Go find everybody in the High Command and tell them to assemble at my hut immediately. Terreis, Colsethme, Meelah--all of them. Everybody except Willa. I'm going to see her now."
Cordelia gave an emphatic nod of the head. "Right!" she eagerly responded.
She wheeled to go but Melosa caught her by the shoulder. "Wait! I want Selena in on this so tell her--and tell her to bring Adele too."
The queen paused and a hesitant Cordelia waited, unsure if her queen was finished. The waiting did not last long. A sharp "Go!" from Melosa sent her streaking back towards Selena. Naturally she was curious as to what this was all about and as Colsethme's second in command she expected her captain would tell her soon enough. She knew it was all part of the normal workings of the Amazon command structure. Melosa, as the supreme authority, was hardly in the habit of discussing strategy with newly appointed lieutenants like herself.
With Cordelia set in motion Melosa turned back to the warrior towering over her. "As for you I've got a very important job for you," said the queen.
Hearing this, Celeste stiffened. "I'm ready, Highness," she replied confidently.
Melosa turned her back on Celeste and in rapid succession pointed out the four huts closest to Antibrote's. "I want this hut, this hut, this one and this one evacuated right now." It was at this moment that Marleen appeared between two of the very huts Melosa had just designated. Realizing it would be better to have a person of authority along she said, "Take Marleen there with you. Perhaps another couple of warriors as well. Now look I want this done as discreetly as possible but in any event you will remove the occupants of those huts, understand?"
"You mean by force, ma'am?"
"If necessary," Melosa answered tersely. "They are to take nothing with them. No food, no water, weapons--nothing."
"But...what will I tell them?"
Melosa gave her a sharp look and said, "You tell them the queen commands it."
Celeste did not like the sound of this. Still, orders were orders. "Yes, ma'am," she obediently replied.
"Good." Sensing Celeste's discomfort, Melosa added, "Don't worry, nobody's in any trouble. It's just a precautionary measure."
Through all this Racillione had stood quietly by, still a little numb from their dreadful discovery. Damn that Antibrote! she thought angrily. Why did she hide this?
The healer's bitter thoughts were cut short by the sound of her queen's voice. "Lee, you go with Celeste. Make sure no one...well you know."
For a moment Celeste considered coming right out and asking what was up but like the higher ranking Cordelia she thought better of it in the end. The astute Melosa, however, again read in the warrior's face what she was thinking and it was with uncharacteristic softness that she said, "You'll know soon enough. Now go."
Celeste gave a slight bow and, taking Racillione in tow, was gone. Alone now, Melosa eased back to the door of Antibrote's hut. "Missini," she quietly called out. "Missy, can you hear me?"
From the shadows on the other side of the door Melosa heard the faint sound of someone stirring. "Yes, ma'am. I can hear you." The voice was not close. Obviously Missini was staying far away from the hut's entrance.
"How is Antibrote? asked the queen.
"It's not good. Her fever is very high and the lesions are all over her. She's also having a lot of trouble keeping anything down."
Behind the door Missini could not see Melosa's silent nod of acknowledgment. After a pause Melosa said, "You know that I have to get you and Antibrote away from the village right away."
"Ma'am, as one of your healers may I make a suggestion?"
What the healer said next shocked even the iron-willed Melosa. "Burn it," said Missini earnestly. "Burn down the hut with Antibrote and me in it. It's the surest way to cleanse this."
Melosa was deeply moved by Missini's courage. Such devotion to duty, such willingness to sacrifice was the perfect ideal of what an Amazon should be. And, yes, deep in the innermost recesses of her mind Melosa had already considered this terrible option. If events proved necessary, if this thing showed signs of having already spread among the villagers, then she was still fully prepared to resort to such Draconian measures.
As this flashed through her mind Melosa thought, May Artemis forgive me but if it comes to that gods on Olympus I will do it.
But not yet.
And so, very quietly she replied, "Missy, I won't do that. Besides, there's always the chance you will both survive this."
Missini did not buy a word of it. "With all due respect, ma'am, you don't believe that any more than I do. We've all heard the frightening tales of how deadly the Red Sickness can be, of how quickly it can spread."
Lowering her eyes Melosa looked away from the door. Missini was right and she knew it. Both Antibrote and Missini were as good as dead already. What was left to say then? Any further words of encouragement would only be just as meaningless.
Looking off to her left Melosa saw Celeste and Marleen emerge from one of the huts. Right behind them were Racillione and the occupant of the hut, Sylvia. Too old now to serve actively now, Sylvia maintained her usefulness to the tribe by working as a tanner.
Upon catching Marleen's eye Melosa stuck her left arm straight out to the side and made a fist. She then rapidly ran through a series of intricate hand signals, indicating that Sylvia was to be taken to the hut of Racillione which also doubled as an aid station. Since it was only temporary anyway Melosa had decided that was the best place for the evacuees to gather.
As for the hand signals Amazons were famous for their ability to communicate silently. Developed out of military necessity and refined over countless generations, this system was by now practically a language unto itself. By its very nature limited to very close range at night, in daylight it was wonderfully efficient. Properly stationed in relays of up to two hundred paces or more sharp-eyed Amazons could communicate quickly over great distances, using an exact system of arm movements. At closer ranges where the hands could be distinctly seen, such as in preparation for an ambush, the system was even more precise and young warriors-to-be spent many hours in practicing these signals. With Sylvia safely spirited away Marleen reached up and touched her left temple signifying that she understood Melosa's instructions.
Melosa again leaned close to the door and said, "Missy, I'm going to have somebody fix up a litter for Antibrote's horse."
"Where are we to go?" asked the healer.
"I want you two to go up into the hills, to the cave where Phillipia hid the children during the Mysian raid. Do you remember where it is?"
"I remember." Plaintively Missini thought, It's as good a place as any to die.
"I'll let you know when everything is ready," said Melosa. With that she departed the hut. On her way back to the well she grabbed the first two warriors she came across and ordered them to post themselves near Antibrote's hut and keep the area around it clear.
For her part Willa was surprised to see her queen return so soon. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Damn right," Melosa muttered. Melosa walked straight over to the well where Valerie and Therme were still digging away. Impatiently snapping her fingers several times, she said to them, "You two! Out of the hole, right now."
A surprised Therme and Valerie did not have to be told twice. Up the rope they happily scrambled while Willa joined her queen at the side of the well. "What is it?" she asked. "What's happened?"
"I'll tell you later," said Melosa. "The rest of you, go home and stay there! Is that clear?"
"Yes. ma'am," Jen assured her.
Melosa took Willa by the elbow and it was on the way back to the queen's hut that she broke the ominous news
to an aghast Willa.
On the way to Melosa's hut she and Willa were joined by Terreis, Hereditary Princess of the Southern Tribe and younger sister of the queen. As sisters went they were about as different as two could be, even though they were a rarity among Amazon siblings in that they had the same father. Terreis was fair-skinned and genial, Melosa was dark and brooding. Both were extremely intelligent but it was manifest in the two of them in decidedly different ways. In the words of Minutia Terreis was one of those "thinkers" with a passion for philosophy and the arts. Melosa, on the other hand, preferred to apply her considerable mental faculties in areas less...abstract. Melosa was first and foremost a realist. As a young royal being groomed for the throne she had, like Terreis, studied the great Hellenic poets, historians and philosophers of the time but had never really taken any of it to heart the way her younger sister had and indeed the way her mother had. Melosa's overriding interest was military matters it was here that she chose to apply her fierce intellect.
While unfailingly proud of her younger sister, Melosa sometimes wondered if she was not taking this zest for culture a bit too far. She was well aware that some of the tribal elite considered Terreis to be a dreamer--not exactly the most complimentary label for the next in line for the throne. Nevertheless Melosa was confident that if and when the time came for her to lead Terreis would be ready. Had she not already proven herself in battle? For the proud older sister that was all that really mattered in her mind.
"I just spoke to Cordelia" said Terreis, falling in step with her sister. Willa, meanwhile, followed the customary step behind. "What's going on?"
Looking straight ahead Melosa grimly replied, "It looks like one of our people has the Red Sickness."
Hearing this, Terreis was as stunned as her sister had been, so much so that she stopped dead in her tracks.
Like all Amazons her age Terreis had very little idea of the deadly implications of what her sister had just said. She remembered old Phillipia having in hushed tones mentioned it once or twice in those old history lessons by the campfire but only in passing. It was as if she had not wanted to talk about it. Melosa too had never witnessed an occurrence of the disease in person but she could remember the real fear in her brave mother's eyes as she spoke of the dreaded "Red Death."
"Antibrote that we definitely know of," said Melosa. "There could be more."
"She...no wonder she hasn't been seen the last couple of days," said Terreis.
"You mean she was missed and no one bothered to check on her?" the queen asked sharply. "Why the hell not?"
In an effort to head off her queen's mounting wrath Willa tentatively offered up, "Well you know how Antibrote is, ma'am." What Willa meant was that Antibrote was probably the least liked of all the active warriors. Abrasive, brusque and tight-lipped in manner, Antibrote was a loner and liked it that way.
Not everybody can be a Meelah, though Melosa. And for that she was ignored? Aloud she curtly replied, "Yes I know how she is. As good as dead."
Reaching her hut, Melosa banged the door open with a sharp forearm and plowed right on into the middle of the room. In sweeping the place her eyes began to quickly adjust to the weaker light. Already they were all there, all the tribal elite. This was just fine with Melosa because she certainly was in no mood for waiting.
With the arrival of their queen the group fell into the shallow semi-circle formation which they knew she preferred at these councils. No one even thought of sitting down without being asked. They were not. The four captains, Melosa's company commanders, stood together on her right. There was battle-scarred Colsethme with her "face like a clenched fist." Ruthlessness and cunning were her trademarks along with something else--an almost insatiable lust for hard-bodied young warriors. Along with Adele, Selena and the irascible Euset she was all that remained of the "Old Guard," who in their youth had stood with Melosa's grandmother Antiope in the horrific Second Centaur War.
Beside her stood Meelah, tall and strikingly handsome, she looked much younger than her six and thirty summers. Second to none in personal integrity and battlefield courage, she was considered the Amazon's Amazon. At her side was Draganis, the tribe's greatest warrior--almost two hundred mina of pure muscle. Whereas Meelah had fallen easily into her new command Draganis, long accustomed to being allowed free rein on the battlefield, was still having difficulty adjusting to her new role. As she had confided to her young friend Hyacinth there were just too many "damned details" involved, too many others to worry about..
On the queen's left stood Adele and Selena. Born on the same day almost fifty summers ago, these two were so closely identified that it was hard to think of one without the other. These were the two into whose capable hands was entrusted the sacred duty of developing the warriors that defined the Amazonian way of life. Year after year, through each, ever more rigorous stage, Adele and Selena took the scrawny young girls freshly plucked from their mommas' skirts and in the span of four summers time turned them into confident, finely honed warriors, each capable of wrecking great havoc when unleashed on the tribe's foes. They had to. Always outnumbered, each Amazon warrior was expected to exchange her life for no less than five of the enemy.
As a rule Selena oversaw weapons training while Adele handled conditioning and tactical training. Their skin dark and leathery from countless long days in the sun, their hair graying noticeably, both were well past their prime as warriors proper. Nevertheless Adele and Selena were still capable of breaking the nose of practically any of their former pupils foolish enough to face-off with them in a combat circle.
As usual Melosa did not mince words. "We think Antibrote has the Red Sickness."
Unlike most of their sisters, Adele and Selena had seen the human devastation wrought by the Red Sickness. They knew firsthand what it could do. "Your Highness," said Adele, "if we don't act immediately we could lose the whole village."
"I intend to," Melosa grimly assured her.
"It was that damned fisherman!" Colsethme growled. "I knew there wasn't something right about him."
About ten days before a small boat after snapping its oars had drifted down the Thermodon into Amazon territory. Its lone occupant, a fisherman, had finally worked up enough nerve to brave the swift currents and make a swim for it. It had been a patrolling Antibrote who had found him shivering on the bank. Hauled before Colsethme, she had decided he was harmless. After pitching him down the bag of dried figs she always carried Colsethme had warned him to be off Amazon land by nightfall or else. Needless to say he was.
Glancing at Melosa, Colsethme saw the queen giving her a hard look. "I know what you're thinking," the captain said. "Don't worry, nobody else got within twenty paces of the guy."
But Colsethme could not be sure. Not completely. "As far as I know," she said.
"Well we can't take any chances," said Melosa.
"What are your orders, ma'am?" asked Meelah.
Casting a cold eye over her subordinates Melosa calmly answered, "Make preparations for immediate evacuation of the village. Everybody split up and take to the hills. Perhaps in that way we can keep this from spreading. If it already has spread..." Here Melosa paused. "...then we can keep the loss to a minimum."
"Evacuate? For how long?" asked Draganis.
"One full cycle of the moon at least," said Melosa. "Family or no family, I want no more than two Amazons together. The only exception will for those who are nursing or with very small children. They'll need help with the hunting so we'll have to assign them someone."
"Hunting parties would be better," Colsethme suggested.
"Yes, but that would defeat the whole purpose of this. No, no large groups, that's an order. Each pair will be on their own. Willa, Meelah, you two break it down and make the assignments. I want them within a turn of the hourglass. May? Have somebody rig up a litter for Antibrote's horse. After she and Missini have gone I want Antibrote's hut burned to the ground."
"What about some of the elders like Ansara and Sylvia who are too old to hunt?" asked Selena.
With a flicker of a cold smile Melosa answered, "They can divide up the food we have stored in the smoke houses," said Melosa. "That should hold for a good while. Notify the guards they can have it. After that, we'll just have to play it by ear."
As this was her day to day responsibility Terreis asked, "What about the patrols? Shall I pull them in?"
Her sister's question gave Melosa momentary reason to pause. It was Colsethme, however, who gave voice to her misgivings.
"If those filthy beasts across the Thermodon discover we're not patrolling regularly they'll know something is up." With a snarl of disgust she added, "It would be just like the bastards to start something."
"I agree," said Melosa. "The river patrol must be maintained at least." To her sister she said, "Who have you got out there now?"
Without blinking an eye Terreis rattled off the names. "Calliope, Jasara, Moirira with Pythera in command."
"Well until this is over they're stuck with it," declared Melosa.
"Just them?" asked Terreis.
"Just them," said the queen. "May is right, it's imperative that we maintain at least the appearance of order. If the four die..."
"They die," said Colsethme, grimly finishing the sentence for her queen.
"What about the patrol on the northern approaches?"
"Break them up and place them in separate observation posts, one by the forest, one on the main road, the other two out west on the plain."
"Sort of like a picket line." said Terreis.
"Exactly. Like the river patrol it won't be one hundred per cent effective because they'll have to look to themselves for food. Still, it will at least give them something to occupy their time."
"And show the flag." added Colsethme.
"And the horses?" Willa asked.
"What we don't use turn the rest out to pasture and let them fend for themselves." Like the patrols, she thought. "We'll worry about them later," said Melosa. "All right, every moment counts here. If there are no more questions..."
"How is the village to be informed?" asked Colsethme. "I assume you will not want to sound the assembly horn for something like this."
"No, the village will be canvassed house to house to avoid undue panic as well as unnecessary contact," said Melosa.
The look on her queen's face made Colsethme uneasy. As senior captain she knew the woman all too well. "By whom?" she warily asked.
Sure enough, Melosa realized her captain's worst fears. "By a volunteer and myself."
No!" Colsethme exclaimed. "Absolutely not!"
"I cannot order anyone else to assume this risk," said Melosa. "To do so would be cowardly."
Colsethme's retort was blunt. "Cowardly my ass! I hardly think anyone here considers the Supreme Warlord to be a coward."
Melosa shot her an icy glare and her senior captain, realizing her impropriety, immediately changed tack. "Ma'am," she beseeched, "we cannot afford to lose you."
"Highness, May is right," said Willa evenly.
Without waiting for the queen to answer Colsethme turned to Adele and Selena. "Which two of the trainees are having the most trouble?" Like all the captains Colsethme received periodic training reports and she knew very well that thirteen year old Methany and fourteen year old Theodora were showing the least promise. What she was looking for was verbal confirmation of this fact.
Selena did not disappoint. "That would be Methany and Theodora." she duly answered.
"Could you have those two report to me as quickly as possible?" asked Colsethme. Aside from Terreis, only Adele and Selena and, of course, the indomitable Euset, were not directly subject to a captain's authority. Therefore Colsethme could not actually order them to do so. All she could do was ask.
What she had in mind was based on cold hard logic. She would have rather employed a couple of the elderly but she knew Melosa would never have approved of that. Since speed was a factor anyway a couple of the young trainees would be perfect for this task. Simply put, as the two weakest "turds" Methany and Theodora were the most expendable. It was a hard choice to be sure but Amazon life was all about making hard choices. It was how they had survived down through the centuries. Melosa knew that better than anyone and to Colsethme's great relief the queen did not override her request.
Just before the meeting broke up Melosa repeated the instructions she had given Cordelia earlier. "Remember, I want this done quietly with an absolute minimum of fuss. In any even you will maintain order and discipline, by force if necessary. Oh! And, Terreis? Have someone ride out and tell Euset what the hell is going on. Questions?"
There were none.
"Very well then, we all have a lot to do so let's move."
With typical efficiency Willa and Meelah hammered out the assignments well before their allotted time and so by late evening the great mass migration into the hills west of the village was nearly complete. The first to leave had been Missini and Antibrote. Through the eerily quiet village the healer had led Antibrote's horse, the litter bearing the stricken warrior lashed to it. No sooner were the pair away when two somber young warriors, Hyacinth and Pomona moved in bearing torches. These they tossed into Antibrote's fine hut and soon the structure was engulfed in flames.
Per Melosa's orders the most suitable places of refuge, the sixteen habitable caves, were split up among the tribes elderly and nursing mothers. For the rest tents and impromptu lean-tos would have to suffice in protecting them from the elements. For a people long used to enduring hardship this would be only a minor inconvenience at best.
Upon learning the shocking news and Melosa's consequent plan for dealing with it Solari had rather hoped
that she and Ephiny would be paired off together. This, of course, did not happen. In this critical hour Meelah
was not about to allow her only child out of her sight. Ephiny had a mother, Solari did not. Ephiny got the protective
bosom of her influential mother, Solari got--to her utter dismay--the newcomer, Eponin.
That night Solari grumpily threw her blanket down on the gently sloping hillside and tried to go to sleep. After an interminable amount of tossing and turning she sat up and looked off down the hill toward the narrow valley below. Dotting the dark landscape up and down in every direction were dozens of camp fires--glimmering little yellowish orange points of light silently twinkling in the blackness like so many stars in the heavens. In gazing out upon them Solari wistfully wondered which one was Ephiny's. Already she missed her no-nonsense friend.
Beside her lay Eponin, peacefully sleeping away. Long accustomed to sleeping under the stars, Eponin was as comfortable rolled up in her ragged blanket as if she was in the finest inn in Athens.
The air was still with not a sound to be heard but the sound of Solari's own breathing. In the darkness she glanced dismally toward the murky form lying a few paces away. Why did she resent this newcomer so? In reality the question was merely a reluctance on her part to face up to the truth for deep within the innermost recesses of her mind Solari knew why. There, gnawing away at her subconscious, lurked the disturbing perception that this new one somehow represented a threat, not to her directly but more precisely to her status as Ephiny's best friend.
It seemed to Solari that Ephiny and Eponin were a lot alike in that they were both taciturn, direct, no-nonsense types. Taken by itself this was hardly a guarantee of the two of them developing a solid rapport but even at their first meeting Solari felt it would have taken a complete dolt not to have noticed how well the two of them had hit it off. In her own way Solari was torn by this. A more reasonable part of her psyche told her that this kind of thinking was not only silly but downright disrespectful to her longtime friend's character as a person. Had Ephiny not disregarded normal convention time and time again to prove what a loyal friend she was?
It did not have to be thus. As a child of the Amazonian upper class Ephiny could have chosen to grow up blithely ignoring the much poorer born Solari, shunting her off without a second thought to what others of her class thought was the proper place for such a lowly born girl--the periphery of Amazon society, perhaps fit enough one day to be a "grunt" but not much else. Indeed many of the well born girls had for years treated Solari in just this manner.
But not Ephiny. Even as a child she had refused to refused to allow Amazon hierarchy to decide her friends for her and as such had sought out the diffident Solari as her friend, often inviting her into her home for what would be her only decent meal in days and a warm place to sleep. Here Solari was provided with a glimpse of the loving home she could never hope to have. On these occasions the young Meelah had never once refused Solari entry into her home, Instead of being aghast at Ephiny bringing home the unkempt, shoddily dressed Solari Meelah instead was proud of her daughter, proud of her compassion, proud that she refused to let others think for her. Tall and impressive, a warrior even then on the rise within the harsh Amazon system, Meelah cared not one iota about class or birthright but only about a person's character and how diligent they were in their service to the tribe. In rearing her only child she had done her best to instill these same beliefs but in truth there was little need to do so. The old adage about the acorn never falling very far from the tree was never more true than it was in Ephiny's case for the blood of her mother truly ran though Ephiny's veins
Sitting there, Solari felt guilty for even thinking that Ephiny could be so shallow as to cast aside a lifelong friendship
for this impressive newcomer. Still....
On another hillside fifteen hundred paces away two more figures lay opposite one of the flickering points of light at which Solari had so forlornly been staring. Both blondes, one figure was long and lean and muscular, the other less well developed but for her age no less finely honed. Like Solari, Ephiny could not sleep albeit for a different reason. Rising from her bedroll, Ephiny propped herself up on one elbow. Softly she called across the fire. "Momma? Momma, are you awake?"
It was something her daughter rarely called her anymore--never in public--and the woman's heart filled still with warmth every time she heard it. Meelah was proud of her gifted daughter, proud that she had turned out to be so conscientious, so brave and yet....
And yet given the choice Meelah would just as soon her only child had never grown into adulthood. Ephiny was fast approaching the day when she would make her own place in the tribe, when she would establish her own household...when she would take a male for the first time. As a dutiful, loving mother Meelah had meticulously prepared her daughter for that moment that would surely come, sooner or later. It was inevitable and Meelah was resigned to it, if only grudgingly. But that would come later. Right now, right at this moment, Meelah, for all her careful preparation, was by no means ready to let go of the precious child who still hung on her every word. For as long as Meelah lived Ephiny would in her heart always be that little wisp of a girl, all blonde and leggy, who had so often sat so perfectly still on those humid summer nights, listening to her mother's soft singing while she combed her hair. Even at sixteen Ephiny's face still held much of that sweet, child-like quality. And now her daughter was calling out to her in the night, as she had so often done on other still, dark nights. Out here, away from the others, there was no need to maintain any veneer of the discipline that was required even among family members. Here they were not officer and subordinate but simply a mother and her daughter.
Awash with her sentimentality, Meelah reached back to those other nights long past in softly answering, "Yes, baby, what is it?" Immediately she felt foolish but she need not have. While it was true that Ephiny yearned to be recognized as a full-fledged warrior, as an adult and not simply the "daughter of Meelah," she nevertheless found her mother's old term of endearment still very comforting.
"Do you think anyone else will get the red sickness?"
"I don't know. I wish I had an answer for you but only time will tell for certain."
In the flickering light of the campfire Ephiny furrowed her brow, deep in thought. "How is it do you suppose that the sickness leaps from one person to another like they say?"
"I don't know, child. All I do know is once the red sickness appears it can wash over an entire population like some great, black swelling tide of destruction."
As she spoke Meelah lay on her back, gazing up into the heavens where the Great Scorpion crept ever so slowly across the night sky. In an effort to reassure Ephiny she rolled over on her side and sought out her daughter's trusting eyes. "It was wise of the queen to order us to disperse," she said. "With any luck at all we just might get through this. Who knows? We might not even lose anybody."
"What about Missy and Antibrote?"
Like her queen Meelah pretty much assumed that Missini's fate was just as inevitable as Antibrote's. After such close and prolonged contact it was almost certain that the sickness would make that mysterious leap and the fact that Missini was a healer would make no difference at all. Ordinarily Meelah might have reminded Ephiny that like any Amazon Missini was doing what she had been trained to do. And, yes, there were many times when the performance of one's duty entailed certain risks. Be it warrior, healer or any of the many others whose mundane labor sustained the tribe, all were expected to do that duty to the utmost. In this Missini was no different from anyone else and despite what Racillione had told the queen Meelah rather suspected that Missini had either already known beforehand what she was facing or at least guessed it. Still, in true Amazon fashion she had gone in anyway. In the sick room as on the battlefield the attributes of courage and coolness under pressure were just as necessary for the healer as they were for the warrior.
Even so Meelah understood that this was not the time to be giving what Colsethme liked to call the "Guts and Glory" speech. Ephiny might have been only sixteen summers old but no one needed to lecture her on an Amazon's sense of duty. Ephiny already understood that better that most of the more far experienced combat veterans. What Ephiny was really looking for was a mother's assurance and because of this all she said was, "Missini did what she had to do. You know that. And who knows? People do survive this. She might come out of this all right after all."
Ephiny thought of Missini and how she had so often seen her, little basket in hand, wending her way along the old familiar paths of the forest in search of various roots and herbs and who knew what other ingredients that went into Racillione's foul smelling poultices. Some healers had traditionally been looked upon as being a bit different and so no one in the tribe thought it particularly odd that on all her countless forays Missini always went barefoot. She had in fact in all her life never were even a pair of sandals. It was just her way and the tribe respected that. At twenty-seven summers Missini was by a healer's standards just a mere baby and it would be-- or would have been Ephiny sadly thought--many more years before she would have garnered the necessary expertise required to be a senior healer. Now, despite Meelah's forced optimism, it appeared that the good natured woman would never achieve that goal she had worked so hard for. Why does life have to be so damned hard!!
Terreis awoke to a firm hand nudging her shoulder. Blinking the sleep from her bleary eyes she squinted and saw the familiar form of Melosa leaning over her. "Get up," said the form.
Terreis groaned and sat up and let out a wide gaping yawn as she stretched. "Mmmm! Good morning to you too."
By now Melosa's attention had already shifted to the leather pouch in her hands but at her sister's greeting she glanced back with a look of feigned severity. Terreis was not fooled. The furrowed brow, the eyes ever so softly hinting of cool amusement said it all for her. It was Melosa's way of showing her affection for the young woman she had practically raised. Terreis had been not quite seven summers old when "that Greek bastard" Achilles had slain their mother Penthesilea on the plains of Troy. Since then Melosa had been the one who oversaw first Terreis' education, then later, her formal training as a warrior. Looking down now at the resultant exemplary specimen of Amazonian womanhood sleepily arising Melosa could hardly be blamed for thinking she had done a rather fine job of it at that.
All the previous evening the queen had struggled with whether to keep Terreis at her side or pair her off with someone else. Melosa was well aware of the chaos that would arise should both royals die. Amazon history was full of stories of bloody ascension disputes. In the end, however, she decided against it. In facing this unseen enemy she sensed that one place was probably as good as another.
Melosa ran her hand into the bag and after digging around a moment produced first a hard square of yesterday morning's flat bread and then a piece of dried fish. "Here's breakfast," she said, tossing them to Terreis.
Her sister deftly caught an item in each hand. "Ahh field rations," she crooned. "Don't you just love them?"
"Before this is over you'll be thinking it's a Bacchanalian feast," said Melosa dryly.
Terreis gave the food a good hard look, made a face and laid it aside, turning her attention instead to her boots.
While her sister got her boots on Melosa made her way to her horse. A chronic insomniac, she had arisen well before dawn and settled the animal for no better reason than to have something to do. Now she tied her bag to one of the bronze rings she had ordered to be specially fitted on her saddle for just this purpose.
"So how much sleep did you get last night?" asked Terreis casually.
In typical fashion Melosa tersely answered, "I got enough."
Terreis knew enough to let the subject drop. However, given all that was on her older sister's mind she rather doubted if she had slept much at all.
Melosa swung herself up unto her horse, prompting Terreis to ask, "Where are you going?"
"Racillione and I are going to do some checking around. The next few days are going to be critical and I want to keep on top of this,"
This elicited a nod from Terreis. "What do you want me to do?"
Scanning the skies, Melosa sighed and said, "Well, you know how quickly the rains can blow in this time of year. Better stay here and get started on putting up a shelter."
"I'll probably be gone all morning but I'll try to get back in time to give you a hand."
"Don't worry about it," her sister assured her. "I can handle it." Melosa knew she could at that. No less than with her warrior skills, Terreis had a real knack for this sort of thing.
Now that Terreis was finally on her feet Melosa looked down at her sister who was standing in calf high grass that was still covered in heavy morning dew. "Remember now," the queen cautioned, "be sure to keep your distance from the others."
Terreis cracked an impish grin and said, "Why, you don't mean to say that Melosa, the All--Highest, the Supreme Commander, is worried about her poor little baby sister, is she?"
Melosa never batted an eye at her sister's gentle teasing. Feigning annoyance, she retorted, "Designating a successor from outside the family would be such a pain in the ass. After all, neither of us has borne a child yet."
"Yeah well I love you too," Terreis said with a chuckle. For a moment the two sisters shared a look that spoke of kinship and trust, of mutual respect and private moments shared far away from the regal burdens of fairly exercising such immense power. It was a look that spoke of love and sisterly devotion that neither of them felt was necessary to put into words.
And then it was gone.
Melosa nudged the flanks of her horse and rode out in a trot to find Racillione. Terreis, suddenly hungry,
returned to her meager breakfast. She was still munching on the food as she pulled the old beat up Horde
battle axe from her saddle bag and went off to cut some saplings.
At the start of what was to become many such circuits in the coming days Melosa was angered by the very first thing she saw. There was the healer Racillione, standing in front of her worn tent, talking to the new one! Her blood boiling at such direct disobedience of her orders, Melosa kicked her horse into a gallop, pulling up hard just short of the pair. "What the hell is going on here?" she demanded. "I thought I made myself clear. Unnecessary contact is expressly forbidden!"
At that moment Melosa would have none of it. "Damn it, Racillione, you of all people should have known better." She then bored her dark, flashing eyes in on Eponin. "As for you! Eponin, I know you are new here but that's no excuse. You're supposed to be an Amazon so damn it act like one. You therefore leave me no choice but to mark you for punishment. You must be made to understand that disobedience will not be tolerated."
"Highness, I can--"
"Silence, healer!" Melosa barked. "I'll get to you in good time."
The look now on Melosa's face had withered many a strong warrior but Eponin calmly weathered the storm by replying, "The healer has no fault here. As you can plainly see it is I who sought her out."
"To what end?" Melosa snapped. "What purpose could you possibly have for being here? If something is wrong with you that's just too damned bad. You will just have to see it through on your own. Now get---"
Here Racillione placed an imploring hand upon the queen's thigh. "Highness, pleeease!"
"Oh sweet Artemis, Race, what is it?" If this was any indication, thought Melosa, it's going to be a looong month! Well so be it. After all, no one could be more of a hard ass than her! She would simply have to tighten her grip on things, that's all.
Racillione tilted her head toward the queen and to Eponin said, "Go on. Tell her what you told me."
Losing patience by the heartbeat, Melosa warned, "Make it quick."
And so Eponin did. "There is a cure for the red sickness, ma'am."
Melosa's reaction was understandably a skeptical one. "Who told you this?"
"No one. I have seen it with my own eyes."
"As I was said before, after leaving my tribe I roamed around a lot. During the coarse of my travels I eventually crossed over into Phrygia. When I got to the port town of Priapus I was corpses, hundreds of them, stacked along the city walls like cordwood. It was terrible. Condemned men from the prison were being forced to haul the bodies out to the coast in carts and dump them into the Propontis. It was the red sickness. Of course, when I learned this I turned straight around and got out of there as fast as I could. Unfortunately it was too late."
"You came down with the red sickness."
"I did. Within a week I was too ill to even mount my horse. By then I was covered with the tell-tale sores and my back felt like some monster was inside, gnawing away at my spine. That next morning I blacked out while trying to get to my feet. The last thing I remember was lying underneath my horse, on the cool ground, gasping for air. I remember thinking this was a horrible way for a warrior to die."
Melosa, truly interested now, did not cut the Amazon short. Instead she said, "So what happened?"
I awoke three days later in the tent of a very old man. He said his name was Param, a Sumerian I believe. He told me he had found me staggering down the road, clinging to the bridle of my horse. Strange, I don't remember that."
"Never mind that," said Melosa. "Just tell us how he cured you." If he cured you, she thought.
Boil the root of the dragon bush, let it dry, and then soak this for a day or two in satyr's blood."
"Satyr's blood?" Melosa interjected. "Surely you don't mean a real satyr?"
"Ahh no, ma'am," Racillione delicately explained. "Some people call the red juice of the aramynth plant "satyr's blood."
Melosa's only indication of acknowledgment was a slight raising of the chin. She felt no embarrassment in not knowing her plants. After all, she was a warrior, not a botanist. "Go on," she said to Eponin.
"Soak it until it's nice and soft and then drain off the liquid and eat the root."
Melosa stared at her as if she had suddenly sprouted an extra head. "That's it? You're joking!"
Even Racillione was forced to admit, "That's the damndest thing I ever heard of."
"It works, I swear," said Eponin earnestly. "I'm literally living proof of it."
Turning to her healer, Melosa asked, "Well, what do you think?"
Racillione could only shrug. "We've got nothing to lose, ma'am. I'd say it's worth a try."
To her great surprise Melosa said, "I agree. There's just one thing, this dragon bush you spoke of. I am unfamiliar with that."
"I am told it only grows in the region around the Hellespont," said Eponin.
"The Hellespont?" Melosa did the arithmetic and did not like the sum. "The Hellespont is a good four or five days' ride from here. That makes it at the absolute minimum a ten day round trip."
"Provided the bush is found quickly," Racillione cautiously added. "It is my understanding they are very rare."
"That's just great," Melosa muttered. But what could she do? She had to try. "Very well," she said. "I am assuming one of you knows what this thing looks like, right?"
"I do, ma'am," Eponin assured her.
"Good," the queen pronounced. "You go. Race, you stay."
While Racillione wanted to go along she knew her duty was here with her tribe and besides, if Melosa
said, "Stay!" she stayed. And so, with an acquiescent bow, she merely said, "As you wish, Highness."
Due to the distances involved and the sheer difficulty in finding her various unit commands it took Melosa the better part of the morning to get the undertaking organized. This was hardly the typical cold efficiency to which she was accustomed and it rankled her to no end. To avoid these types of delays in the future she made a mental note to have the weavers make up some bright cloth of varying colors which could then be hung in trees or from long poles implanted in the ground thus making these all-important officers easier to find and also easier to identify as well.
At last, however, the necessary arrangements were made. Melosa decided that a half-dozen Amazons would suffice for the party. But who to send? The only given was of course Eponin. Melosa was never very comfortable with her old war horse Colsethme far from her side so that left her out of the mix. Of the others Willa had taken the last mission, the near disaster in Getae, and Melosa was still not entirely satisfied with Draganis' leadership.
That left Meelah. Yes, she would do nicely. After deciding Melosa was fortunate enough to catch Meelah who was on her way to so some hunting. It was from twenty-five paces away that the queen informed her captain of her assigned mission, leaving it up to her to choose the remaining four.
For a while Melosa had pondered on sending Terreis along as well. However, as much as she would have preferred sending her sister away to relative safety it was for that very reason that she in the end decided against it. Melosa was well aware that there were those in the camp who were less than enthusiastic about her younger sister and the last thing she wanted was to give them further fuel for their flames of discontent. Terreis was as brave as any Amazon--no objective person could say otherwise--but Melosa knew that just as sure as she sent Terreis way there would be dark whisperings nevertheless about the queen's perceived protection of her sister.
This simply would not do. The biggest moment in her young sister's life was near at hand and when that critical moment came she could not--must not-- be shackled by murmured accusations of cowardice. No, Terreis, whatever the outlook, would stay.
Like Terreis the task of constructing a shelter had fallen to Ephiny. She had made a good start of it and was just in the process of bracing up the frame when from some distance away she heard someone call her name.
"Eph! Eph!" It was Solari, her strong legs churning straight up the slope toward her.
"What are you doing?" Ephiny yelled, more with bewilderment than alarm.
"Eph, wait till you hear!"
"You won't believe it!"
With Solari still rushing headlong toward her Ephiny took a tentative look around. Gods, she thought, what if Melosa sees us? For her part Solari seemed totally oblivious to such concerns and kept on coming.
"Solari, what is the matter with you?" Ephiny scolded as her friend came near.
"Eph!" Solari panted. "You won't believe it! Although in peak physical condition Solari could not overcome the limitations Zeus had given her. Consequently she was only a very ordinary runner and for some reason never seemed to have as much wind as her peers.
"Yeah, you said that," said Ephiny dryly. "Melosa won't believe it either if she sees us."
There at last, Solari paused to take a couple of deep breaths. Finally she gasped, "I, I just saw your mother."
"I though she was going hunting," said Ephiny casually.
"Oh, Eph, will you stop worrying about your belly? This is big!"
"For the sake of Artemis will you calm down and tell me what's going on?"
Solari took one more deep breath, gathering herself for the big announcement. Grabbing Ephiny by both arms, she said, "The queen is sending a party to the Hellespont. Your mother is going to command it. That's not all. The best part is that you and I are going!"
This certainly got Ephiny's attention. "She told you that?"
"Yes!" her friend squealed. "I just talked to her. Isn't it exciting?"
"What's the mission?"
"Who knows? Who cares? All I know is you and I get to go! You, me, Celeste and Minutia, and..."
In reply Solari gloomily mumbled, "That new one, Eponin."
Ephiny shot her friend a quizzical look and said, "Solari, what have you got against her? She seems decent enough."
"I don't know, Eph," said Solari. "It's just that I...I don't know." Here she paused for a beat and then was her old gushing self again. "But anyway, isn't it exciting? We're going to soak our feet in the Hellespont! What do you say to that?"
Ephiny decided not to press her friend but clearly the new Amazon was a sore spot for Solari. But why? With a single shake of the head at this surprising turn of events Ephiny allowed, "Well I'd say I'd better pack up our stuff."
Within the hour Meelah had formed up her party, received her final instructions from Melosa and departed, heading south southwest toward Phrygia and the southern bank of the that narrow strait of water that separates two great continents.
For the more experienced Amazons the journey itself proved to be uneventful. For Solari, however, it was the opening of a whole new world. This was the first time she had ever been more than five leagues away from the village and with the land of the Thermodon now behind her she reveled in each new sight. With the cool, confident Meelah to guide them, supported by the old hands Minutia and Celeste, Solari was more or less merely along for the ride. Not that she cared. She was just glad to be with them. The newest Amazon, Eponin, kept pretty much to herself, saying little. As on the trip to the land of the Getae Minutia had once more taken it upon herself to watch out for Ephiny as much as she could. After the daughter of Meelah engineered her daring rescue from the Getae prison Minutia had upon their return taken quite a bit of teasing from some of her more crusty comrades. This time she hoped to do a better job, for her sake as well as Ephiny's.
Late on the fourth day the party crossed over the Macestus River onto the northern plains of Phrygia. To the southwest, slung low in the horizon were the distant mountains of Ida, from where Zeus was said to have gazed down upon the slaughter of the Trojan War. Beyond the mountains lay Troy itself, or, what was left of it, along with the graves of many a brave Amazon who had fallen there. First among these was Penthesilea, mother of Melosa and one of the greatest of Amazon queens. In her instruction Ephiny had dutifully learned all the names and their deeds and thought that one day it would be nice to make a pilgrimage to Troy, just to see for herself.
At the head of this column was Meelah. Cool and confident, in total command, she had been the late Mycinia's most trusted warrior. Pythera, Mycinia's second-in-command, had been none too happy to be passed over for command of the company but in truth the rank had been in name only. When in a tough spot the other warriors in the unit had long looked to the steadfast Meelah to pull them through. Never wanting to let either those serving under her or the impeccable Mycinia down she always had managed to do so. Now her old captain's unit was hers. She hoped she could live up to the towering legacy Mycinia had left behind.
As for Ephiny, Meelah treated her just like any other "grunt." It therefore fell to Ephiny and Solari to fetch water, gather firewood, hobble the horses, pull late night guard duty and any of the various other mundane tasks, which, dull though they might be, were necessary nevertheless. Ephiny quietly and efficiently performed each task, never complaining and Solari, long accustomed to being on the bottom, paid no mind to it at all. Ephiny was her daughter, Solari was Ephiny's friend and that made her Meelah's friend as well. Still, out in the field Meelah would not think of showing favoritism. No one understood that better than her own daughter. For both it was special. This was their first mission together, something Meelah had dreamed of ever since she felt her baby's first stirrings of life within her. Even beforehand she knew it would be a girl.
Just before the party's departure Melosa had held up an open palm to Meelah, indicating that upon her arrival in Phrygia she had five days in which to conduct her search. Melosa reasoned that anything longer would probably be too late, even if the bush was found. Unfortunately for Meelah and her warriors sunset on the fourth day found them empty-handed still.
The four days' search had brought them nothing. All the places where Eponin thought the plant might be found turned out to be one disappointment after another. Likewise queries made to the local populace had proved to be just as fruitless. Amazons had fought on the side of neighboring Troy in the great war and these people, long suffering from that city's abusive dominance, were now uneasy about this sudden reappearance in their midst of the warlike race whose very name had once struck terror in the hearts of men from the outermost reaches of Scythia to the very gates of Athens itself. Certain that the Amazons presence could be for no purpose other than evil, the people remained tight-lipped and uncooperative. Even the offer of ten pieces of gold did nothing to persuade them, much to Meelah's frustration and Eponin's ever increasing dismay. She felt she was looking more like a fool everyday for sending her new sisters on what was turning out to be a wild goose chase. The fact of the matter was the dragon bush was far more rare than the old man had led Eponin to believe. Even most of the local inhabitants had never seen one.
Late on the fourth day the party managed to get at least one break. At a nice little inn they had managed to persuade the leery proprietor to sell them some decent food. It was this that they laid out for their fare as the evening light of their eighth day away from home faded away. When they had eaten Meelah sent Ephiny and Solari to gather a supply of firewood for the night. Minutia got the plum of doing the first perimeter check. This meant that she would be in her bedroll early while the lower ranking Ephiny, Solari and Eponin were out pulling chilly night duty.
While the two youngest Amazons were away Eponin wandered off to relieve herself, leaving only Meelah and Celeste in the camp. It was here than Celeste took the opportunity to sidle in beside her. At the moment her captain was engaged in what Celeste thought was some rather odd behavior. Meelah was sitting on her blanket with one hand up under her top and seemed to be fondling her own ample breasts. Puzzled, Celeste asked, "Is something wrong?"
"Aah, it's nothing," said Meelah. "There's just some kind of...I don't know...hard place--a lump-- here in my left breast."
"Maybe you banged it or something," Celeste offered up. "Does it hurt?"
"No. It's just...hard. Strange, I never noticed it before." Meelah pulled out her hand, allowing the top to fall loosely down over her rock hard stomach. "Oh well," she shrugged, "it will probably go away in a few days."
Celeste thought back to her youth and remembered another woman, her own mother, mentioning something about a "lump" in her breast. While Celeste never knew for certain if any connection was to be made the fact remained that her mother had died within a year. Celeste hoped the Fates were not weaving the same dark thread for Meelah. She liked her too well.
After an awkward pause Celeste thought it best to change the subject. "Do you think we're going to find this dragon bush thing?"
"Who knows?" Meelah wearily replied. "We have criss-crossed this whole plain to no avail. It looks bad for us."
"We only have a day left," Celeste reminded her.
"I know, I know. I'm beginning to think we're butting our heads against a stone wall here." By now it was almost dark. Meelah pitched a stick into the fire and added, "I'm beginning to think the damn thing doesn't even exist."
From somewhere out in the gloomy periphery a voice, cold and clear, pierced the darkness. "Oh but it does!"
Instinctively Meelah shot to her feet, her hand at the ready on the hilt of her sword. Anyone clever enough to outmaneuver Minutia had the potential to be a serious threat. As she rose it occurred to Meelah that the voice seemed vaguely familiar somehow. Under her breath she said to Celeste, "Keep your eyes open. There may be others."
"You!" she barked. "Show yourself. Now!"
"Show yourself," echoed Celeste.
Just off to the right there was a stirring between two plane trees and the two Amazons saw a dark, slender form begin to approach. Although the ground was covered with dry leaves and twigs there was no sound to be heard. It was as if the person was walking on air. It was as if..."
Out of the side of her mouth Celeste anxiously whispered, "Maybe it's a god," Like most mortals she had, for all their notoriety, never personally seen one herself.
"Or an Amazon," Meelah whispered back. Who else could move that silently?
"That's it," said the captain. "Come on out into the light so we can see you."
After a few tense moments the stranger was close enough for the light of the campfire to take effect. It was then that Meelah saw it was a woman all right. The flickering light danced on her face, making her sharp features seem even more ominous and menacing.
It was a wide-eyed Celeste who recognized that face first. "By the gods!" She gasped. "It's Velasca!"
As far as Meelah could tell Velasca looked none the worse for wear because of her exile. Her skin was darker and she looked perhaps just a little thinner but she was as powerfully sleek as ever.
Meelah saw a hint of a sneer play across Velasca's lips. "Well well well," said Velasca. "One never knows just who they'll meet out here in this wretched country. My, aren't we a long way from Melosa's tit."
"What are you doing here?" Meelah guardedly asked.
"Well a girl has to be somewhere," Velasca casually answered. "I suppose I could ask you the same question." A sly look came over her. "But then...I already know why you're here."
Meelah's voice was cold. "What do you want?"
Velasca held up her arms, displaying her bronzed skin. "This place agrees with me, don't you think?" She sniffed and airily added, "I shall miss it when I'm gone."
"How did you get past Min?"
"Tsk tsk, all these questions," said Velasca. "If I didn't know better I'd be wondering whether you're glad to see me after all. Anyway, it's no great feat to outwit that big clod."
It was at this precise moment that Ephiny and Solari happened to return, each bearing an arm load of wood.
Her voice dripping with sarcasm, Velasca purred, "Oh look, it's the heroes, saviors of the entire Amazon Nation."
For Solari's part she was absolutely appalled to see her old tormentor again. For five years Velasca had never missed an opportunity to humiliate the lowly born Solari. She had hoped with Velasca's banishment that she would never see her again. Now she was back.
It was all Meelah could do to control her anger. Against great odds Ephiny and Solari had risked their lives to protect the tribe's children and now here was Velasca--deriding them for doing their duty when in fact she herself had deserted her post, getting brave little Tylda killed because of it. Eyes flashing, Meelah set her jaw and with a voice measured and firm said, "Velasca, one more word like that and I'll throw you out of this camp right on your ass."
"Old woman," Velasca smirked, "do you really think you can?"
Meelah angled her head ever so slightly to one side and said, "Why yes, little girl, I believe I can."
Velasca maintained her aggressive posture but down deep she believed Meelah could too.
The tension caused Ephiny to think, Well, this certainly has spiced things up.
Finally a flicker of an insincere smile came to Velasca's lips. "You must forgive me. I didn't come here to fight."
"What do you want?" Meelah asked.
"To come and warm myself by your fire."
With a nod Meelah said, "All right. Provided you promise to behave yourself."
Oh yeah, thought Solari, like that's going to mean something!
"Like I said, I'm not looking for trouble," said Velasca. Yet!
Meelah swept an open hand toward the fire. "Be our guest then."
Velasca had just helped herself to Celeste's blanket and was folding her long legs up under her when Eponin emerged from the darkness. "Who's this?" she asked.
"Her name is Eponin," said Meelah. "She's come down to us from the Northern Tribe."
"Ahh one of our less fortunate sisters from up north, come to join us." Blandly Velasca added, "How nice."
"I'm glad to meet you too," Eponin said tartly. Already she disliked this one.
"I hear they're practically starving up there," said Velasca. "I can't blame you for deserting them."
"Velascaaa," Meelah warned. "You're hardly one to talk about desertion." In the action against the Mysians Velasca had gone against orders and left her post in the hills to join the fight in the forest. That had exposed the elders and children to great danger and only the bravery of Ephiny and her young friends had saved them from disaster. This then was the cause of Melosa's anger and Velasca's subsequent demotion and banishment.
For an instant Velasca's nostrils flared in anger but then she threw up both hands in a gesture of mock innocence. "My mistake. I rather assumed it was more important to kill the enemy than to run around up in the hills. Besides, I slew more of those bastards that day that you did, Meelah."
Damn it! thought Ephiny. You just can't help being a bitch, can you?
"Velasca here is a princess," Celeste said to Eponin.
With relish Meelah pointed reminded her, "Former princess."
Velasca had had enough. "Who is in command here," she demanded. "Willa I suppose. Where is she?"
Solari could not hold back a gleeful snicker. Arrogant Velasca was in for a shock.
Meelah immediately complied. "I am. I am in command."
"She's captain now," said Celeste. "She got Mycinia's old command."
Solari was right. Velasca was genuinely surprised by this. "Oh," she said stiffly. Quickly recovering her composure, she went on to say, "My, the surprises just keep on coming, don't they? How did Pythera take being passed over for command?"
By now even the patient Meelah was beginning to tire of Velasca's relentless smugness. Before, when Velasca was a princess she had been forced to take it. But that was then. Not now. "Velasca," she said wearily, "you're a human headache, you know that?"
Ephiny, on the other hand, thought she was a pain much farther down.
"You must forgive me," said Velasca. "I'm afraid my social skills have deteriorated rather badly out here. I've not had much in the way of company these past three moons." Perking up, she said, "But now the three months are up and I am ready to come home."
"You're not serious?" said Ephiny.
In replying Velasca did not even bother to directly address the cool headed young warrior who never seemed to tire of vexing her. "Of course I am," she said curtly. "My destiny awaits me there."
That "destiny" was no secret to those who knew her. Velasca ached to be queen. Her return meant she was prepared to make her first grab at satisfying that longing. Even before leaving she had flung a challenge to Terreis in Melosa's face and by Amazon law Melosa had been compelled to accede. Practically every day since then she had been preparing for it. From sunrise to sunset, even by the fire at night, she had trained, piteously pushing herself ever harder. Now it was time to return and Velasca was looking forward to it. Once Terreis was beaten to her knees in disgrace and her own rightful place restored Melosa would in due time inexorably be next. Then would she be able to administer the iron discipline the tribe deserved. The higher ranking ones such as Willa and Meelah would be made to kneel before the power of her omnipotence and the insolent young ones such as Ephiny--especially Ephiny--would soon thereafter feel the sweet crack of her whip on their stripped backs. But first things first. Terreis stood in the way of her dreams of glory and she would have to be defeated, perhaps even slain. In fact Velasca rather hoped Terreis would make the choice to fight to the death. As much as Velasca would enjoy seeing Terreis grovel at her feet she would rather have Melosa's dreamer of a sister dead.
It was Meelah who awakened Velasca from her grandiose dream. "Let's talk about destinies nearer at hand. You implied that you know something about the dragon bush. Do you?"
"Why on earth are you so interested in those scruffy things?"
"It can cure the red sickness," said Eponin.
"Fool!" Velasca snapped. "Who told you that? Nothing can cure the red sickness."
Indignant, Eponin testily retorted, "I know damn well that it can."
"It's a myth," said Velasca.
"Not it's not!"
"You're deluded," Velasca shot back.
"Who are you to to--"
"E-nough!" Meelah barked. "Stop it!" Gritting her teeth Meelah said, "Velasca, I've just about had it with you. Now Antibrote has the sickness and we're down here in order to see if we can help her."
"A noble cause I'm sure but I tell you if she has the red sickness she's probably already dead," said Velasca matter-of-factly.
"Do you know where we can find this bush or don't you? If you do, help us. If you don't, shut the hell up!"
"Very well," said Velasca serenely. "I will help you."
"You mean you know where it can be found?" asked Solari.
"Gods! I thought I just said that."
"Where then?" Celeste asked.
"Do any of you intrepid explorers even know what a dragon bush looks like?" asked Velasca.
"I do," said Eponin.
"Do you now?" Velasca's smirk immediately put Eponin on the defensive. This woman had a way of making her feel small and she did not like that feeling one bit. "It seems there is one not more than fifty paces from where we stand."
"I don't believe it," Eponin scoffed. "Show me."
"Some scout you are," sniffed Velasca. "Anyway, I've had a long day, I'm tired, and I don't feel very inclined to baby-sit somebody stumbling around after me in the dark. Tomorrow." Raising her chin slightly, she sniffed the air and said, "Is that goat's meat I smell? Got any left?"
"A little," said Meelah. "You're welcome to it."
For Solari the sudden appearance of her old nemesis had taken away much of the thrill of her first great adventure away from home, imbuing it instead with a decidedly sour aftertaste. She had finally attained her dream of achieving the warrior's mask. Not only that, she had already proven herself in battle. Already she had gained an approving nod from the hard to impress Melosa. During the past three moons life had been grand for Solari. Now she was back, the one who had always made her feel like dirt.
Solari drew herself up and stuck out a defiant chin. Well, she thought. No more! She's not royalty anymore. She's just a grunt like me. She's a warrior, so am I! If Velasca wanted to get into the fight circle with her now, well that was okay too. It was not that she viewed Velasca any less dangerous--Solari knew better than that. Solari well knew how formidable Velasca was. However in that moment she had reached a point of no return. She would be damned if it would fall to Ephiny to take up for her as she had so often in the past. Velasca was not going to push her around anymore.
Standing at her side, it was as if Ephiny could sense all the emotions rushing through her old friend. "Are you okay?" she murmured.
Solari turned to the one person who had stood by her her whole troubled life. With an appreciative little smile she said, "Yeah, Eph. Okay."
Ephiny knew well the many hardships Solari had suffered at the hands of Velasca over the years. More than that, she was also concerned about the effect Velasca's return would have on the tribe as a whole and on Terreis in particular. As splenetic as she was, Velasca was not without her allies. If she was to defeat Terreis and become next in line it could very well fracture the tribe--just as in Druis' day. If Terreis was to win Velasca would probably limp off and lay low at least for a while, taking with her any chance for an overthrow by those who chafed under the dominance established by the Druis line so long ago.
There then was the rub. Could Terreis win? Having faced them both countless times in training Ephiny was well acquainted with their strengths and weaknesses. Terreis was stronger but Velasca was extremely agile and her hand speed was incredible. In straight hand to hand combat or with light weight weapons Ephiny did not think Terreis stood a very good chance of winning. As Ephiny saw it for Terreis the bigger the weapon, the better.
There was one other thing. Terreis was better educated, smarter and had a better grasp of conventional tactics but Velasca had a ruthless cunning about her that made her very dangerous indeed.
Velasca wolfed down the meager meal and when she was finished she wiped her greasy fingers on Celeste's blanket. "I'll be back at dawn," she said.
"You can camp here with us if you like," Meelah offered.
Velasca cast a cool eye over the other Amazons and said, "Tomorrow night maybe." And with that she melted back into the shadows from whence she came.
Fingering her blanket, Celeste muttered, "Bitch."
So it's coming to that after all, thought Ephiny. Velasca and Terreis. Who would win? Who would win? Although her loyalty naturally lay with her friend Terreis Ephiny was not overly confident she could to it. A triumph by Velasca might even result in Terreis' death. This potential double tragedy was not something Ephiny wanted to think about. That night, however, on sentry duty and later in the warmth of her bedroll, she could think of little else.
In the light of early dawn Meelah, accompanied by Celeste, Meelah and Eponin, met up with Velasca and followed her to a spot over a low rise just east of the Amazon camp. There Velasca pointed a long finger at a rather scraggly little growth with gnarly limbs and slick green leaves. "There."
"Is that it?" Meelah asked Eponin. The chagrined newcomer was forced to admit that it was.
"How did you miss that?" asked Celeste. "We came right by here." Actually her irritation lay more in the fact that it had been Velasca who found the dragon bush rather than one of them.
"It was late," said Meelah. "A thing like that would be awfully hard to see in bad light."
"Yes, I'm sure that was it," said Velasca sweetly.
Her condescension made Eponin feel even worse. She did not, however, have long to dwell on it.
"All right, dig it up," Meelah ordered.
Celeste tossed Eponin the small spade and said, "It's your baby, so, you first."
As Eponin sank the spade into the loose dirt Meelah turned to the huge warrior standing next to her. "Min? Go help Ephiny and Solari break camp." She looked up at the thick gray clouds gathering overhead and, wrinkling her nose, said, "It looks like there's a storm coming in. Keep that little tent unpacked in case we have to throw it up fast."
"Right away, captain." And Minutia was off. With Celeste gone to fetch a hatchet this left Meelah and Velasca alone to watch Eponin at her labors.
"I want to thank you for your help," Meelah said sincerely. "I'm sure the queen will be expressing her appreciation as well."
Velasca made no attempt to hide her bitterness. "Melosa can keep her platitudes. This is a fool's errand that serves no good purpose other than to under man the tribe by six warriors."
So you do think of the two young ones as warriors, thought Meelah. "Well," she said with a deep sigh, "you might be right. I don't know. I hope this has all been worthwhile but at any rate I have my orders."
"How's it coming?" she asked Eponin.
"I could use some help."
"Hang on, Celeste will be back soon." Turning her attention back to Velasca she said, "Your three moons are up. If you are determined to return you may of course accompany us, provided that you give me your word you won't cause any trouble. This red sickness thing has everyone on edge as it is and I don't want to spend the whole trip back constantly reining you in."
Velasca eyed the older woman with a sort of keen amusement. "Very well," she said after a moment. "You are an officer and I am now but a lowly warrior. I am yours to command."
Meelah was not fooled by her duplicity. No one had a bigger ego than Velasca. Raising a palm, she said, "Just behave. When you get back you can sort the other stuff out, okay?"
Velasca understood her perfectly. Once back at the village she could then become Melosa's headache.
For her part Velasca did not intend to disappoint.
With the return of Celeste the job of extracting the bush went rapidly. Once Eponin widened the hole Celeste was able to clamp her powerful hands around the base of the bush and with a nod from Meelah, rip it out of the ground.
Holding it up for inspection, Celeste sniffed and said, "Doesn't look like much."
Meelah had to agree. Still, their opinions did not matter. Their job was simply to bring it back and so in very short order the roots were severed off, chopped up and safely stored away. With mission accomplished Meelah gave the order to mount up and the party went on its way. They had not gone more than a league or so when the wind began to pick up substantially. Far off on the horizon Meelah saw faint wisps of grayish white floating before a wall of solid black.
"Ooh, looks like a bad one," noted Minutia. Her observation was dramatically confirmed in the form of a jagged streak of lightning fingering out inside the black wall. Following close behind was a prolonged roll of thunder.
Meelah had seen enough. "All right, let's find a place to secure the tent."
Velasca had no intention of being packed inside a small tent with six other people. "There is deep rock overhang not far from here that should put us alee of the storm. Perhaps we should make for that."
Meelah too was not looking forward to riding out a storm in a flimsy tent, prompting her to reply, "Lead the way."
With a sharp "Hyah!" Velasca dug her heels into the flanks of her horse and bolted off toward a distant promontory with the rest of the party in hot pursuit. As they neared Velasca veered off down a ravine that ran like an ugly scar across Gaea's earthen flesh. By the time the others arrived Velasca was already alit and was pulling her horse back up under the rocks.
The first raindrops were beginning to fall and as Meelah pulled her horse to a hard stop she saw that Velasca had indeed chosen wisely. Here was a cliff perhaps twenty paces high. At the base of it was a place which was not quite a cave and yet more than a mere depression in the face of the rock. It was rectangular in shape and up along the back wall was a series of peculiar looking ridges running perpendicular to the ground. For all the world it looked to Meelah as if perhaps Zeus himself had driven his mighty fist deep into the face of the rock. At any rate it would more than adequate protection against the rain.
>From her place under the protective overhang Solari leaned and stuck her hand out into the driving rain. The big drops stung as they pounded her hand. "Gods!" she said in exasperation. "Is it ever going to stop?"
As if in defiant reply a deafening clap of thunder exploded directed over their heads. Solari's startled horse reared up, pulling her out into the rain. By the time she calmed her mare down she was soaking wet, much to the amusement of the others. Even the dour Velasca was forced to crack a grin at Solari's misfortune. In true Amazon fashion there were several comments made as a sullen Solari backed her way back into the pocket, none of which were particularly supportive .
"Traitor," she grumbled to her horse.
For her part Ephiny too was getting rather restless. They had by now been standing there for a least one full turn of the hour glass. "I wish we'd put up the tent," she said. "At least then we could sit down."
"You're more than welcome to go out there and set it up," said her mother, grinning at her.
Ephiny took one look at the drenched Solari and wryly said, "Uhh, no thanks."
"Kids," Minutia muttered. "They got no patience."
Not more than sixty paces away, on the hill opposite the pocket, a man paused to wipe his face before creeping up to peep over the crest. With satisfaction he eased back down. "We've got 'em!" he hissed grimly.
With him were a dozen other men and for the last two days they had been shadowing the Amazons, waiting for the right opportunity to make their move. So far Amazon vigilance had thwarted them but in this storm there were no longer watchful Amazon eyes to detect their every move. Their leader, a swarthy man named Emil, knew this was as good a chance as they were going to get.
"Pulsipher, you and Enoch here work your way down to that side of the ravine and cut off their escape. Take Titus and Manion with you. I'll give you a hundred breaths to get into position and then we attack. The rest of you men get ready."
As head of the local militia Emil had learned very quickly of the Amazons' hunt for a dragon bush. Like most everyone he did not for a moment believe that to be the true reason for their presence. No, he thought they might very well be some kind of advance party, gathering intelligence as a prelude to a possible invasion. Many of the local inhabitants, frightened by this sudden appearance of Amazons in their midst, had demanded that he do something immediately. Emil, freshly appointed and eager to show his mettle, was more than willing to oblige.
Stretched out in a jagged line on either side of him were the remainder of his men. Mostly they were farmers and shopkeepers. They would never be confused with professional soldiers. And as he lay there in the rain his heart began to pound and Emil then came to know for the first time in his life what it was like to put his own life at risk. These Amazons were highly skilled, extremely dangerous people. Moreover, unlike the straw dummies his men used for archery practice they could, and would, shoot back. No matter. He had a job to do--even swore an oath--and Amazons or no Amazons he was bound and determined to see it through.
With the rain pounding down ever harder he silently signaled his men to get ready. Almost in unison the remaining twelve men fitted arrows onto their bowstrings. Well, at least they show good order, thought Emil.
Like shooting fish in a barrel! thought another. Many of his comrades, well aware of the Amazons' much deserved reputation for ferociousness, drew back their strings with varying degrees of nervousness. They knew that if their first volley was ineffective the likelihood of getting off a second could be slim indeed.
Emil raised his hand. All they had to do now was rise up and shoot. Emil patiently counted off the last of
the allotted one hundred breaths and shot to his feet, totally unaware of the capricious hand the elements
were about to play.
Down below Minutia pressed her broad back even tighter against the rock facing. "Meelah," she said, "perhaps we should--"
Her words were cut short by a deafening sound that seemed no less than the sky itself cracking open. Across the ravine she saw the hilltop explode in a flash of blinding light. In later years Amazon lore would say that it was a thunderbolt, hurled down from the heavens by Zeus himself at Artemis' imploring. Whether it was or whether it was simply the forces of nature at work on an awesome scale the end result was that Emil and his whole command were killed instantly.
All except one. Dazed, the man named Eustus staggered to his feet. Somehow he had managed to keep his
bow drawn. With his reeling mind feebly grasping at the last thing it remembered he almost as an afterthought
shot his arrow down into the ravine.
Like all the other Amazons Celeste had instinctively ducked and covered when the lightning hit. Now as she straightened up she caught just out of the corner of her eye a glimpse of something moving up on the top of the hill. Peering up, recognized it as a man--positioned in a stance that was both familiar and in this case ominous. Worst of all he was facing directly her way. "Look out!" she cried. "There's an archer up there!" Now she had only one thought....Meelah!
Ephiny looked up just in time to see a man release an arrow before stumbling to the ground. Grabbing Solari by her top, she pulled her down hard onto the ground.
Standing next to Celeste, Meelah never saw the deadly projectile coming. All she heard was Celeste's cry of alarm and the next thing she knew the big warrior had her by the shoulders and was pressing her hard against the rock, smothering her with her own body. An instant later she heard the sickening thump of an arrow striking home. As a warrior it was a sound Meelah had heard many times before, once when she herself had been wounded in the left shoulder. Someone had been hit but it was not her. Who then? For one horrible moment Meelah's blood ran cold. Gods! she thought. Not Ephiny!
A heartbeat later Meelah knew. Celeste's gasping breath blew warm and wet on the captain's cheek and she felt the grip of the warrior's hand loosen on her shoulder. Celeste's head lolled back, revealing to Meelah a look of shock and horror. It was a look she had seen so many times before on the faces of friend and foe alike on countless fields of battle.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the stricken warrior began to sink to the ground, her hand trailing down Meelah's arm as she gave way. Looking up at her captain, Celeste tried to speak but no words issued forth, only the last vestiges of pure air from her punctured lung.
"Min! Velasca!" Meelah squalled. "Get up there and flank the bastard! Cut him off!"
As if in emphasis of her command it was followed by an enormous clap of thunder booming out directly overhead. Crouching down next to Celeste, Meelah barked out, "Ephiny! Come and help me!"
In an instant her daughter was kneeling by her side. "What do you want me to do?" she asked anxiously.
"Sit on her. Pin her with your knees so she can't twist around."
Ephiny straddled Celeste and, dropping to the ground, pressed her knees hard against Celeste's ribs. A hard gust of wind blew the cold rain in on the three of them. No one cared. Beside them stood Eponin, bow at the ready, intently scanning the crest of the hill, making Meelah's "Keep an eye out!" superfluous.
"It would have been better if it had gone on through," said Meelah.
"Is it bad?" asked Ephiny, knowing full well that it was.
"It's bad," her mother grimly replied. "Solari! Find something to make a bandage." As she spoke Meelah grasped the arrow with both hands and carefully snapped it in two. When she did Celeste cried out. Reaching down, Meelah pulled out her big knife. With a hard snap of the head she tossed back her soaking wet hair and said, "We've got to get that head out."
Solari fell to her knees across from Meelah, her shaking hands clutching her blanket to her chest.
"Cut it up!" Meelah ordered.
Lying on her side, Celeste began to cough and the blood she spat up seemed to Ephiny to be more black than red. The stricken warrior was clenching her jaw so tightly that all present clearly heard the grinding of her teeth. Grimacing, she asked, "Can you push it on through?"
"No," said Meelah. "It would tear your lung to pieces."
Staring at Celeste's heaving chest, Ephiny thought, It already has.
Celeste made a kind of snorting sound and this sent the blood oozing forth from her nostrils.
"She's drowning in her own blood," said Ephiny.
Raising her knife, Meelah barked, "Hold her!"
"No!" Celeste gasped. Looking up at Meelah, she said, "Ephiny's right. I'm as good as...." Again Celeste coughed,
spitting up still more blood which drooled down her chin onto her neck. Crying out in anguish, she stuck out her left hand.
Meelah took it in her own and gripped hard.
One hundred and fifty paces down the ravine it was Manion who was the first to face the wrath of a vengeful Velasca. Hearing the horse thundering his way, unaware of the disaster that had befallen his comrades upon the hilltop, he merely assumed that surprise had been achieved and that this was one of the panic stricken survivors seeking to escape. Tightening the grip on his javelin, he leaned forward and excitedly said, "Here comes one!"
Pulsipher caught him by the arm. "Hang on," he cautioned. "Let the bitch get a little closer."
But Manion, young and eager to prove himself, was not about to wait. Before Pulsipher could stop him Manion lunged away.
"Manion!" the older man hissed.
Manion rose up and stepped boldly out to the edge of the ravine. Raising his weapon, he confidently gauged his target's speed and angle of approach.
Crazy kid! thought Pulsipher.
All his young life Manion had yearned for the chance to show that he had what it took to be a warrior. Small for his size, he had made the javelin his weapon of choice and for years he had practiced endlessly behind the barn on his father's farm. As a child he had listened with rapt attention to his uncle's tales of service in the Persian army and ever since he had wanted no part of his father's way of life. No, he wanted to be a soldier. And after defeating this, his first foe, he would be.
"Die, Amazon!" he yelled as his hurled his javelin. Even as he released he knew his aim was true. A warm glow of satisfaction washed began to wash over him. In his mind the Amazon was as good as dead.
I've done it! he thought happily.
By now Pulsipher was by Manion's side. What they saw next stunned them both. As easily as if she was rolling out of bed Velasca grabbed the mane of her horse and simply swung down onto the side of her horse, her long leg draped over the back of the horse to anchor her. The spear harmlessly whizzed directly over her saddle, clearing by a mere two cubits. In an instant the Amazon was back upright in the saddle. With a piercing, blood curdling cry she drew her sword.
Pulsipher had seen enough. It was true, these Amazons weren't human. Grabbing Manion by the shoulders, he cried, "Run!"
It was here that the other two men, Enoch and Titus, both lost their nerve and began scurrying back up the slope of the hill. Out of the corner of his eye Pulsipher saw them make their break. With each thundering stride of the Amazon's approaching horse he became more and more inclined to join them. "Come on, kid. Let's go!"
Manion shrugged away and, planting his feet firmly, drew his sword. "I'm not afraid," he announced defiantly. His weapon was a pitiful thing. The bronze blade was badly nicked and even bent slightly. It was also much too short to match Velasca's big, gleaming razor sharp sword of iron.
Ashamed to run, afraid to stand his ground, Pulsipher was paralyzed by indecision. It was not long before Velasca, in a horrifying manner, made up his mind for him. With a fierce guttural cry Manion jumped down into the ravine and raced forward to meet Velasca. Deftly switching her sword to her left hand, Velasca rode up and coldly cut the boy down like a stalk of corn. Her powerful stroke nearly decapitated him on the spot and a exultant Velasca knew the boy would be dead before he hit the ground so she pressed on without pause after the now fleeing Pulsipher. Skillfully taking her horse right up the side of the steep ravine, she quickly ran him down.
Her sword, swathed in Manion's blood, caught Pulsipher right below the shoulder blades, slashing a deep,
hideous gash across his back. Pulsipher screamed and went tumbling to the ground. Again Velasca did not bother
to pause even though she suspected the man was still alive. No matter. With a wound like that he would not be
going very far. Already she was turning her attention to the last two, Enoch and Titus. Once they were taken care
of she could come back and finish this one off at her leisure. In fact Velasca rather hoped he would still be alive
when she returned. Enraged as she was, her blood lust was boiling and the simple execution of these last two
worm nests was not going to appease it. No, only someone's long and protracted suffering would serve to satisfy
"Meelah?" Celeste gurgled.
"I'm here, hon," Meelah softly answered. "What is it?"
Celeste feebly crooked her finger and Meelah bent close to listen. "Please don't...tell my sister I died this way. Tell her...tell her I died in battle like a true warrior."
Choked with emotion, Meelah said, "But you have, my friend. No one can say you did not. You sacrificed your own life for another Amazon. There is no more honorable death."
Celeste tried to smile but the fire burning in her back make her gasp with pain instead. Still clasping Meelah's hand with her left, Celeste placed her right hand atop their joined hands and gripped with the last of her remaining strength. "I always knew you would make captain one day," she said. "Mycinia always said you were the tribe's best Amazon, that no other in the tribe could compare to you."
Meelah did not know what to say. She always knew Mycinia had the utmost confidence in her but to have the finest, most admired Amazon of them all to speak thusly of her was almost too much. Especially now. Forcing a little smile, she said, "Mycinia put us all to shame. You will tell her hello for me?"
This time Celeste did manage to smile back. "I will," she assured her. Suddenly Celeste's eyes grew wide and she arched her back as high as it would go.
"Celeste!" Meelah cried with alarm.
As Celeste slowly sank back she began to pray, her breathless words rasped out in rapid fire fashion. "Sweet Artemis, Great Patron of the Amazon Nation, receive this thy humble servant for into your omnipotent hands I commend my spirit. Safely guide me across the waters of the Styx and into Elysium, that I might once again ride with the sisters of my race. Here me, oh..." Celeste gave one final, shuddering sigh. Her right hand slipped away...and she was gone. To Ephiny it seemed that Celeste's now vacant eyes were staring off at some distant place that could only be seen by the eyes of the dead.
Meelah held the lifeless hand in silence for a few moments and then very carefully folded both of the dead warrior's arms across her chest. Leaning back, she gave each of the other Amazons a brief, hard look. "Take a good look at her." Meelah might have been speaking to them all but the perceptive daughter, well aware that even now her mother, could not, would not play favorites, sensed that the words were really for her.
"This is what it's all about," her mother continued. "It's not about glory, or knots, words of praise from
the queen or even getting your name in the War Song. It's about doing your duty no matter what the cost.
That Celeste and countless warriors before her saw this clearly is the only reason the Amazon Nation has
survived." Meelah looked down at the warrior who had served under her for the better part of ten years. "Remember
this day well, young warriors. Remember what you saw here and pray that when the time comes you'll see where
your own duty lies just as clearly as did this brave and noble warrior."
In their last moments among the living Enoch and Titus chose to meet their death in starkly different manners. For Enoch, a balding, morose man of perhaps forty summers, the leisurely training sessions were a perfect excuse to get out from under the thumb of his shrewish wife. As he saw it, a few turns of the hourglass playing soldier, followed of course by several rounds of mead at the local hostelry, made for the best day of the week. An added bonus was that it also got him out of his father-in-law's rock filled fields. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever think that he might actually have to take up his under strength bow for real.
But he had. And now that he could hear the snorting of Velasca's horse as it thundered ever closer he suddenly found himself longing to be back with his choleric wife. Her nagging was torturous to be sure but at least there he would be safe from this very different kind of woman. In his flight Enoch never once changed direction or looked back. Instead he simply continued on running up the hill, hoping against hope that if he did not look back perhaps the terrible woman would somehow miraculously cease to be a part of this awful reality.
Thrilled by the hunt, intoxicated by the blood of the two kills on her sword, Velasca had no intention of providing her prey the slightest bit of respite. No, the sweet taste of slaughter was on her lips and like a selfish child she greedily wanted more.
Even in the end Enoch offered no resistance. Instead he merely kept right on running straight ahead as if it was the only existence he had ever known. Halfway up the hill his foot slipped on the wet ground and he fell face down in a heap onto the ground. With a groan he rolled over. Towering above him, the silhouette of a big horse and its sleek rider seemed to blot out the entire sky.
Panting, he lay motionless as the rain relentlessly pelted his face, stinging it. Overhead the thunder
roared again, heralding what he knew to be his own doom. The next thing he knew the warrior was down
off the horse and standing over him. Now for the first time he noticed her face. It was hard, pitiless--and
coldly beautiful. And as Velasca ruthlessly plunged her sword into his belly, sending him to his appointment
with Charon, it was this final remembrance of how beautiful his slayer was that Enoch took with him into the
Still numbly sitting astride Celeste, Ephiny looked over to the woman who had not yet let go of the dead warrior's hand. "What are your orders, ma'am?" she gently asked her mother.
"You and I are going up to see if Min and Velasca need any help."
"Solari, get Celeste's blankets and wrap her up in them. You know how it's done, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," the girl replied solemnly. "I know how it's done."
"Make certain you bind her up good and tight."
Meelah looked up at Solari, her dear Ephiny's best friend, who was still clutching her own tattered blanket. The woman's smile, though faint, was very kind and she said, "If you want you can use that blanket and keep one of Celeste's for yourself. I know she'd want you to have it."
Solari dared not show any outward reaction of happiness for fear that it would be regarded as improper or even disrespectful. Her eyes, however, gave her gratitude away as she quietly replied, "Thank you, ma'am."
When Celeste was hit every Amazon but Velasca had let go of their horse but even in the middle of this terrible weather the well trained animals were not inclined to stray far from their mistresses. Ephiny had only needed a few moments to round up both her and her mother's horse and now she was back, silently standing between the two horses as the driving rain beat down upon her.
"Shall I go with you, ma'am?" asked Eponin.
Taking the reins from her daughter, Meelah gave a little shake of the head. "No, you stay here and help Solari. Keep an eye out, though--both of you. Just in case."
Eponin nodded solemnly and then watched as mother and daughter rode down the raving in the same direction Velasca had gone. At her feet Solari prepared to carry out Meelah's orders. "What can we use for bindings?" she asked.
Her eyes still on the ever more impressive Meelah, Eponin absently replied, "I've got twenty cubits of climbing rope in my bag. We can use that."
"Ever since I was a child," Solari said, "the four people I admired most--even more than the queen--were Meelah, Draganis, Mycinia...and her. Each was in her own way not only a great warrior but a great Amazon."
In Eponin's mind these were one and the same but Solari, long accustomed to being at the bottom of the social structure, thought differently. "To me they always seemed like these great pillars, you know? Strong and tall and indestructible. Back then I thought they would all live forever. And now...now inside three moons two of them are gone."
Eponin sensed the despair in Solari's voice and was made uncomfortable by it. Stoic and reserved by nature, she had never been one much for words and even more so in personal moments such as this. Unable to offer condolences in her own words, Eponin fell back on the familiar Amazon mantra she had heard her whole life. "Facing death is part of us, of who we are as a people, just as it is with all mortals. The certain knowledge that Death will one day visit is just as much a part of a warrior as her bow and her sword. Death is not to be feared. It is only the natural order of things. We as warriors must understand that and accept it."
Solari had heard it all too and at the moment she was not buying any of it. "I can understand it," she said bitterly. "But I'll never accept friends dying. Not ever." Solari looked down at her childhood hero. She sniffed and a single tear fell on Celeste's cheek.
Struggling to maintain her composure, the young warrior went on to say, "They can say what they want but nobody this good should have to die so young."
In her failure to comfort Solari Eponin only felt even more self-conscious. So, without another word, she
left to get the rope. Reflecting on somberness of the moment, Eponin hardly noticed the rain pelting her.
Further up the hill Titus too slipped and fell. Desperately scrambling to his feet, he turned just in time to see Velasca skewer Enoch. This was incentive enough to ignore his burning lungs. Still gasping for breath, he winced and continued on. Like Velasca's other victims he was totally unaware of the fate of Emil and the rest of the men on the hill top. If I can only make it back to up there, he thought hopefully, I'll be safe. As it was Titus did in fact manage to make it to the crest. By then his weary legs were starting to turn to jelly. Stumbling over the crest, he squalled, "Help!"
None, however, was forthcoming. To Titus' horror he saw not Emil and his men coming to the rescue but yet another of the warrior women, this one markedly bigger than the one chasing him. Minutia had easily overpowered the addled archer and at that moment was pinning the man to the ground, her knee grinding sharply into the small of his back as she roughly tied his hands behind his back.
Teeth clenched, she growled, "I ought to break your skinny neck right here, you bastard. But we'll see what Meelah has in mind for you."
Velasca would not be so forbearing. With his pursuer bearing down on him Titus at last whirled to face her. Like Manion his primary weapon was a light spear. However, instead of hurling it at Velasca he chose to stand his ground and use it try to fend her off. In facing the exquisitely trained Velasca this desperate defensive proved to be woefully inadequate. Boldly riding up to Titus, Velasca with lightning quick reflexes simply reached out and grabbed the spear just below the tip, stopping it in mid-thrust. With a strength that surprised Titus she yanked the spear cleanly from his hands. Locking the shaft of the spear under her armpit, Velasca used his own weapon to deal him a vicious blow to the side of the head. Titus reeled backward and in a heartbeat Velasca was upon him.
She could have killed him instantly but Velasca did not want that. A sweeping blow to his jaw with the back of her fist sent Titus spinning to the ground. From there Velasca began to savagely kick him over and over, in the ribs, the head and finally--after leisurely using her foot to spread his legs--the groin, twice. With the toe of her boot Velasca rolled her wheezing, coughing, gagging victim onto his stomach. Suddenly she thought of Terreis and how deliciously gratifying it was going to be to beat her into the ground much like this, to force her to grovel for her very life. More than that, she longed to see the look of utter horror on Melosa's face.
Looking down at him, she sneered and in a mocking voice said, "Stupid farmer, you should have gone for the horse." With that the Amazon drove the spear deep into his spine at a point right between the shoulder blades.
Joining her, Minutia sniffed and nodded toward the approaching Meelah. "You shouldn't have done that," she said. "Meelah might have wanted to question him."
Velasca scowled and spat on the still spasmodic Titus. "To hell with him!" she snarled. "The only proper way to deal with sons of bitches like this is to butcher them like the pigs they are."
Riding up, Meelah eyed the neat line of bodies sprawled out just below the crest of the hill. Even taking into account the unquestioned prowess of Minutia and Velasca she knew that there was no way the two Amazons could have killed them all so quickly. "What happened here?" she asked.
"I dunno," Minutia said with a shrug. "They were already dead when I got up here." She pulled hard on the leather strip binding her prisoner's hands. "All except this one."
"It was obviously lightning," the nimble-minded Velasca explained coolly.
Meelah dismounted and walked up to the man. "Who are you?" she asked.
Still very disoriented, the man did not answer.
"Why did you attack us?"
Velasca backhanded him hard across the mouth, cutting his lip. "Answer her, dog!" she said sharply.
To Ephiny's surprise Meelah did not reprimand Velasca for this.
"His brain must be scrambled," Minutia offered up.
Like yours, thought Velasca acidly.
"What do you want to do with him?" asked Minutia.
Meelah's face was strangely impassive in replying, "Kill him."
"Oooh, let me do it," said Velasca eagerly.
Meelah was acquainted enough with Velasca's penchant for cruelty to know what the younger warrior had in mind. For once she did not care. Her expression was blank as she replied, "All right. Just don't take too long. I want us back down on the plain by dark."
"You can count on me, ma'am," said Velasca, leering lasciviously.
Ephiny could not believe her ears. Had her mother really just turned over a helpless prisoner to the "tender mercies" of the sadistic Velasca? Alarmed, she asked, "Shouldn't we take him back and let Melosa decide?"
"As a captain in the field I have full authority to dispense justice as I see fit," her mother forcefully replied. "I have no intention of letting this man slow us down."
"Your mother is right," said Velasca. "Now why don't you run along and let a real warrior carry out her orders."
"Cut the snottiness and just do it," Meelah testily snapped.
Velasca bowed slightly and with a hint of condescension in her voice said, "As you wish, my captain."
Ephiny had never seen this side of her mother before and it unnerved her a little. Yes, she understood that the very essence of being a commanding officer was making hard decisions but somehow she had never thought her good natured mother would be capable of such ruthlessness. But of course, she was. Meelah was after all an Amazon first and foremost. For over twenty years she had been a first class warrior, one well schooled in the tribe's unshakable principle that an enemy faced was an enemy to be crushed. On the battlefield Amazons expected no quarter and seldom gave any.
Watching Meelah remount, it dawned on Ephiny that her mother had not been such a respected warrior for all these years--had not risen to a command position in the dog-eat-dog world that was the Amazonian hierarchy--by being soft. Of course she was tough. For as long as Ephiny could remember Meelah had tirelessly preached one aphorism to her over and over again. "Conduct yourself honorably and do your duty." Ephiny wholeheartedly believed in that. Still, in her young mind killing an unarmed prisoner did not seem either honorable or dutiful.
There was an uncomfortable air between mother and daughter as the two of them made their way back down the hill. For a time neither spoke and it was only when they reached the ravine again that Meelah said, "You think what I did was wrong, don't you?"
"It's not my place to say," Ephiny stiffly replied.
"Come on, this is not Melosa or Colsethme you're talking to. This is your mother."
Ephiny's reply was painfully laconic. "You are also my captain--as you made so abundantly clear back up there on the hill."
Ephiny's cutting remark irked Meelah. "Do you think I want to let Velasca butcher him?" she snapped. "You think I like killing prisoners? Get your head out of your butt, Ephiny. In case you haven't noticed were are in hostile territory now. We...I can't and won't allow anybody or anything to endanger this party or this mission. Now, we have accomplished that mission so let's get the hell out of here before we lose someone else. An intelligent girl like you should see that."
"I do," Ephiny said. "I know you have to do what you think is best for us..." Here Ephiny paused.
Ephiny sagged her shoulders. "I don't know. It just doesn't seem...honorable."
"You're right," Meelah admitted. "It's not. Understand, Ephiny, this is not something I'm proud of. But you said yourself I have my command to think of." Meelah left unsaid her central thought. Especially you! "You see that, don't you? There may be others out there who want to do us harm. If we let this man go he might lead them straight to us."
"Yes, ma'am." The young warrior shot her mother an anxious glance. "Momma, I trust your judgment, you know I do. That man attacked us. He deserves to die all right. I guess it...I mean..." Finally she managed to blurt it out, "It bothers me that it's you who has to order that sort of thing."
"It comes with the job, Ephiny. Being in command is never easy. I knew that when the queen named me to take Mycinia's place. It's sometimes not very palatable but I can live with it. The gods only know how Melosa does it." Meelah shot her daughter a concerned glance. "Ephiny, are you all right?"
Ephiny gave her mother a nervous look and said, "I try as hard as I can, I really do. It's just that...every now and then I have trouble reconciling Meelah my mother with Meelah my captain."
"And that bothers you?"
"Yes. Does it mean that I'm, you know...weak?"
Meelah pulled her horse to a stop. Reaching over, she laid a comforting hand on her daughter's arm. "Honey, it means you're human. Don't ever lose that."
"But what if it causes me to foul up? It will reflect badly on you. I'd die if I did something to sully your reputation or your honor."
"Oh to hell with my reputation. You think you're the first daughter who ever served under her mother? Hardly. Mycinia did too. I can still remember how much she used to agonize about it." Meelah flashed a little grin and added, "And I think you'll agree she turned out all right. Now, Ephiny, I want you to hush this foolish talk right now. You are a fine young warrior. I believe you're going to do great things one day. You could never, ever dishonor me, you hear? Ephiny, you are my only child and you're everything a mother could ever want in a daughter. You know I would do anything I can to help you right down to shedding my last drop of blood but there are some things a girl...a...young warrior, has to work out for herself. Me, Melosa, hell, even mean-ass old May had to."
Ephiny flashed a sheepish little grin. "Yes, momma. I see what you're trying to tell me. And I promise I'll do my best to make you proud of me."
"Too late," Meelah said tenderly. "I already am."
By the time Meelah and Ephiny made it back to the concavity the rain was beginning to let up. Solari and Eponin had finished with their task and had retreated farther back inside the pocket, reins in hand, waiting. Though on foot, Minutia's route down the hill was a direct one and so in very short order she joined them as well. It fell to her to ask the question that was on everyone's mind. "What do we do with Celeste?"
"We're taking her back," Meelah matter-of-factly answered.
"Well, she shouldn't get too bad in four days," Minutia off-handedly remarked.
"Doesn't matter," said Meelah. "We are not going to scatter her ashes in this hell-hole of a country. Load her up."
"Let me fetch her horse," said Minutia. And off she went to retrieve it.
To the two young warriors Solari and Eponin Meelah said, "Get mounted, you two. We're pulling out as soon as Min gets Celeste squared away."
"What about Velasca?" Solari asked.
Meelah cast a quick glance toward the hill top. She could only imagine what the cold blooded young woman was at that very moment doing up there. "She can catch up later."
With Minutia's securing of Celeste's body to the horse they were all set. Meelah took a long look at the blankets enwrapping what had only a very short time ago been not only a trusted subordinate but a longtime friend as well. Long to high command, veterans like Colsethme and Minutia had seen dozens of the warriors under them die. As a captain this was Meelah's first and she thought how different it was seeing people die now. Yes, she been leading small clusters of warriors for a long time now and, yes, some of them had inevitably been killed in battle. Still, the ultimate responsibility for them had always belonged to their captain, the gifted Mycinia. Now it was hers. Would she ever get used to it? Meelah did not know. And in a way, for the sake of her own humanity, she rather hoped that she wound not. "All right," she said finally, "let's move out."
And so, with black clouds hanging both literally and figuratively over them, Meelah's shaken command slowly started off down the muddy ravine. It was going to be a long trip home.
Velasca touched the tip of her finger to the man's lower lip, delicately pulling it down. "Little man," she purred, "I think you and I are going to have some fun, hmmm? Or at least, I will."
Her prisoner's name was Armis and by his mind had sufficiently cleared to allow him to understand what was going on. Fearing the worst, he stammered, "What--what are you going to do with me?"
"Silly boy. Not with you," said Velasca. "To you." With her sword Velasca cut the strip binding his hands. "There now," she said brightly. "Now you can't say you didn't have a chance."
The wide-eyed Armis just stood there, looking at her, prompting a mocking Velasca to say, "Not enough for you, eh?" To Armis' great surprise the Amazon tossed him her sword. Fumbling, he almost dropped it. "How's that?" she asked. "Better?"
Armis cast an anxious glance over his shoulder. "Don't even think about it," she warned as she pulled her knife. "'Cause if you try to run I'll cut you down before you get two steps. Now, even a simple minded little weasel like you can see that your only possible hope is to stand and as they say 'fight like a man.'" Rolling her eyes, Velasca said, "Gods, what idiot thought that up? But I digress. Pray to your gods for victory, little man, or at least a swift death because otherwise your lot is to suffer a long and very painful demise."
Suddenly, it was Velasca's turn to be surprised. With a quick backhanded slash Armis struck at Velasca. Despite her goading she had not expected the man to show such aggression and it was only her cat-like reflexes that prevented her from being seriously harmed. As it was she could not avoid it completely and the tip of the sword just managed to nick her left arm. Infuriated by the man's utter gall in defending himself Velasca screeched, "Piggy, I'm going to feed your own guts to you!"
A sweeping kick by the warrior sent the sword flying from Armis' hand. Nimbly pivoting, Velasca lashed out again, this with a kick that landed squarely in the chest and drove him staggering backward. Velasca would now allow him time to recover. "Damned shit spreader," she snarled at him. "Damned farmer! All men are pathetic but you, worm, are the worst of the worst."
Using the butt end of her knife handle, Velasca smashed Armis in the nose, breaking it instantly. "Pig! Your weakness disgusts me." Armis fell to knees and feebly tried to clutch at Velasca's legs. Velasca seized him by the back of his shirt and hauled him back to his feet. "Oh no, little man," she smirked. "I'm not through with you yet."
After administering a sharp knee to the groin, Velasca finally let him go. Armis, his face covered in blood, reflexively curled up into a fetal position, moaning in agony. The Amazon casually sauntered and stood triumphantly over him. Men are so pathetic, she thought. Velasca stood there coolly eyeing Armis in his suffering and for a brief moment even considered castrating him. However she decided that would be far too messy and besides, she wanted no part of touching his filthy, shriveled little worm. In truth, without the thrill of a challenge she was already simply becoming...bored.
Falling heavily on him with her knees, Velasca roughly seized Armis by the hair of his head and expertly slashed open his jugular vein. In that moment the Amazon's thoughts once more strangely turned to Terreis and her face grew dark and brooding. "If I did not have a more pressing engagement I would stay and watch you die." With a sigh she added, "Oh well, you weren't much fun after all."
On her way back down the hill Velasca paused for a moment to stoically observe the death throes of the unfortunate Pulsipher. She had originally intended to add to his final torment. Now she just sat there and watched him suffer with no more feeling than if he were an insect. Velasca's cruelty was as natural to her as breathing. She reveled in administering pain especially when it culminated in taking another life. She loved the feeling of power it gave her to inflict punishment, both physical and emotional, on others. She had a gift for it. Soon she would use that gift to bend others to her will. With all that then this day should have been a most pleasurable one for her. And yet it was not turning out that way, not at all. It was not, however, Celeste's untimely death that cast such a pall over her fun. To her Celeste was nothing more than battle fodder, a big dumb ox whose sole purpose for existence was to blindly serve those far better bred--such as herself. No, it was not Celeste that clouded Velasca's thinking but again Terreis.
It seemed her little reverie about the princess had not made her savagery more enjoyable but rather had worked to take all the fun completely out of it. From the very first Velasca had despised the fair-haired child of the Southern Tribe. Daughter of a mighty queen, sister of another, Terreis wallowed in advantages the resentful Velasca regarded as totally undeserving of her. Terreis was a thinker, a...dreamer and in Velasca's unyielding mind this made Terreis weak. For her this was the unpardonable sin. The stupid, the vacillating--even the treacherous, brute force had a way of making them malleable enough to be molded into useful assets. Not so the weak. They were only impediments to greatness--her greatness--and as such those like Terreis were to be crushed without pity. Whether this meant Terreis had to die remained to be seen. Velasca was perfectly willing to spare her if she agreed to accept a servile role. Velasca did not expect this to happen, even if Terreis herself did agree. No, the proud Melosa would probably first kill her younger sister before she would allow such humiliation to occur.
For all Velasca's self-confidence there nevertheless remained tucked away in the deepest recesses of her mind her own nagging question as to whether victory over Terreis would be as certain as she thought it would be. Having lived with Terreis, having for years closely scrutinized the princess' every strength, every weakness, waiting, waiting for the day when she could at last start on the path to her own ascendancy, Velasca felt she knew Terreis even better than did Melosa.
Velasca was no fool and while Terreis had almost always gotten the best of her in face-offs she nevertheless did not see Terreis' fighting skills as equal to her own. Still, Terreis was not like this man lying before her on the rain soaked ground; she was not some pathetic farmer to be cut down at her leisure. There was always the chance that the princess might get in a lucky blow. Velasca could not allow that to happen because even in victory a crippling injury would destroy her chances of succeeding Melosa.
Pulsipher's head lolled slightly to one side and his gaping mouth struggled for one final breath. Her face as blank as a slab of marble, Velasca stood there in the rain and watched him die. She felt no pity for the man. Whatever he might have been to others, to the Amazon he was an easy exercise in slaughter and nothing more. In Velasca's dreams clods like this and tens of thousands more just like him would break their backs laboring for the glory of her empire. Just like the dullard tradeswomen and even the warrior class of her own tribe, these human oxen would be exploited to the utmost in service to the Amazon elite. And when their usefulness was worn out, to avoid unnecessary strain on this newly created Amazon wealth, their fate would be the same as this man's. Velasca saw them not so much as human as stones, stones to be ruthlessly crushed to pave her road to greatness, her...immortality. And soon, very soon, nothing short of direct intervention by the gods themselves would stop her from taking that first, all important step on that road--the destruction of Terreis.
It was with this happy thought that Velasca mounted her horse and leisurely rode off to join the others.
Meelah was as good as her word. All the rest of that day she pushed her warriors hard, allowing them few stops and little time for rest. Even what little they ate was done so in the saddle. Despite this, none of the party saw the ride as anything but a minor inconvenience. They were, after all, Amazons, and the ability to move hard and fast was a trait that many of their astonished enemies often swore was bred into them.
Though the rain mercifully ended soon after, thick black clouds continued to blanket the sky for the rest of the day. This dark shroud fitted perfectly with the somber mood of the party. As the newcomer and lowest ranking member of the party, Eponin rightly expected that she would be the one detailed to lead the horse bearing Celeste's body. Minutia, however, would have none of it and insisted on doing it herself. This went directly against Amazon doctrine. As Meelah's best and most experienced warrior her normal place should have been at the back, anchoring the rear of the column. Minutia did not care. Celeste was her closest friend and so for this first day at least she was going to be the one to guide her home. Meelah chose not to force the issue. She knew how close "Min" and Celeste had been. For over fifteen years those two had served first with her and later under her, fighting side by side and forming the linchpins of the company that the legendary Mycinia had led to victory after victory. Now Mycinia was gone and so was Celeste. So were most of those old warriors who had good-naturedly given her such a hard time back in her youth. It gave Meelah cause to wonder about her own mortality, about how much time she had left before the odds finally caught up with her.
All that day then they pressed north by east, steadily driving for the coast. By nightfall they were little more than a league away. Velasca, scouting ahead, had seen the calm waters of the Propontis. However none of the rest of them would get the chance to take in the view. Her combat instincts on full alert, unsure of what they were up against, Meelah was not about to allow her puny force to be pinned against the coastline. Tomorrow she would turn them due east.
Pulling her horse out of the column, Meelah watched the others, including a pensive Ephiny, silently pass by. Except for Min they were all so young! For all the talk about warriors and fulfillment and maturation they were in her mind still not much more than babies. That fact that she herself had been masked at the astonishing age of thirteen had not altered her thinking one iota. Times were different then. The horrific Second War with the Centaurs had forced many a young girl to be prematurely plucked from her mother's skirt. For Meelah that seemed like a lifetime ago. Now, at thirty-six summers she suddenly felt so very old.
"Are you sure?" Sitting astride her horse, Queen Melosa was having trouble believing what she had just been told.
Standing alongside was Racillione, looking up at her queen with a kind of relieved embarrassment. "Yes, ma'am," she replied with some tentativeness. "Both Missini and I are certain of it now. Antibrote does not have the Red Sickness."
"What is it then?"
"I cannot positively say," Racillione was forced to admit. "Perhaps a mild pox of some kind, in itself serious enough all right but evidently not life threatening. Or it seems, likely to spread."
"Then this...whatever it is, poses no danger to the tribe?"
"I do not think so."
This was not good enough for Melosa. "Look, Rae, there is no room here for vacillation. Does it or doesn't it? First you say it was the Red Sickness and now you say it's not. So which is it?" Part of Melosa's irritation stemmed from the fact that this was one of those rare instances when she was largely dependent upon the judgment of others and she did not like being placed in that position.
Flustered, Racillione could only stammer out, "Ma'am...I..."
"Damn it," said Melosa sharply, "I have almost two hundred Amazons to look to and here my chief healer doesn't seem to know what the hell is going on. We have our children and elderly out here eating bad food and shivering in makeshift shelters. I want to take them home but I won't do that unless I know it's completely safe."
Racillione knew this was coming. Melosa was not one to suffer mistakes or lightly. In measured reply she said, "I gave you what was at the time by best assessment of the situation. Obviously conditions have changed. Antibrote has shown some improvement over the last day and a half and Missini is still without any symptoms at all." Only in her mind did she add, Sweet Artemis, Melosa! You should be happy at what I'm telling you, not chewing my ass out yet again over it.
Melosa was still not entirely convinced. In her warrior's mind she had come to view the situation as one more battle, a different kind of battle to be sure but a battle nonetheless. And as in any battle errors in judgment could have catastrophic consequences. Depending on the ground and numbers it was sometimes preferable to meet the enemy head on; other times it was better to play the waiting game. Clearly this was a time to wait.
Still deep in thought, Melosa asked, "And Missini agrees with you?"
Racillione felt a little offended that the queen would ask her this. After all, she was the chief healer, not Missini. "She does."
"I'm going up to have a look for myself," said Melosa. "In the meantime I want you to find Pycea. Tell her I want her to ride back to the village and retrieve the assembly horn down off the tower. Tell her to bring it here, to you."
"Are we returning to the village?"
Melosa coolly eyed her chief healer and said, "If I deem it proper, yes."
Racillione had no trouble picking up the chill in her queen's voice. She needed no Oracle of Delphi to tell her that right at this moment her mistress was none too pleased with her. For a while at least she was going to have to tread lightly because there still might be repercussions. She pretty much knew that in Melosa's eyes she had failed in her duty and for an Amazon this was the ultimate sin. In this she would accept no excuses. And it was not just her warriors, Melosa demanded the best effort from everyone and when she felt she had not gotten that effort...well, the queen was not one known for her leniency. As she had told the queen she had used her best judgment but that would be cold comfort if Melosa were to decide that she could no longer completely trust that judgment. Even more than usual Melosa was for some reason bearing down hard on her and Racillione found that very unnerving. It was moments like this that made the senior healer curse the day some three decades before when the cackling old Sestra had convinced Queen Antiope to allow her to train a certain shy teen as her eventual successor.
Melosa nudged her horse to a start and as the queen rode away Racillione gave a little resigned shake of the head.
Warriors had it so much simpler, thought the healer. They did not have to worry about keeping people alive; all they had
to do was kill. With a sigh she picked up her staff and set off to find Pycea.
Missini saw Melosa's approach and was standing at the mouth of the cave when she rode up. She watched as the queen swung herself down from the horse and strode right up to her. As the queen neared Missini's heart quickened. Melosa always did that to her and it was not entirely because she was her queen. In Missini's eyes Melosa was the epitome of an what an Amazon should be. So commanding, so...so magnificent! And so coldly beautiful.
And so remote, so achingly remote. Ever since Womanhood first stirred in her Missini had fantasized about being the queen's consort. It did not matter that she knew not what Melosa's sexual preferences actually were. Perhaps the queen enjoyed the pleasures of bedding one or more of her loyal captains, or perhaps she preferred sampling the delectable fruits of some special young warrior. Perhaps she preferred males exclusively. Then again, perhaps not. Very discreet inquiries by the healer had turned up no indication of the queen ever sharing a bed with anyone at all--male or female. It was hard to believe she could be so single-minded in her duty as to eschew the warm caresses of some worthy lover. It was hardly necessary to depend on a male for this. Indeed this was laughable because males were rarely looked upon this way. Amazons of all classes often turned to others of their warlike race not only for basic sexual gratification but also the understanding that only someone who shared their unique way of life could provide. The time permitted to lie with males was very short, rarely meaningful, and the carnal urgings of strong, aggressive young women in the prime of life certainly did not stop with the end of so called "breeding season." But as queen was Melosa not expected to bear a successor? And yet so far she had not. It was very strange.
Missini was no different than practically any other young person in the prime of life. She had desires too. Even so, her sexual experience was very limited but one thing she was sure of was that she was not interested in taking a male. This fit perfectly with the tradition of her craft because under Amazon law one could not bear a child until she had made her first kill. And since healers, while nominally regarded as warriors, were rarely afforded an opportunity to gain this honor, they therefore were historically faced with the choice of either complete abstinence or looking toward one of their own tribe for comfort. Taking a male was simply too risky. A healer's lower middle rank among Amazon society made it highly improbable that a lover would come from the tribal elite. As a rule Amazons kept pretty much to their own class. That, however, did not prevent an adoring Missini from dreaming that one day Melosa might cast a lustful eye her way. Of course, she kept this to herself lest she open herself up for ridicule or, worse, disgrace. That was why in all her life had never breathed her secret desire to another soul.
"I've just come from Racillione," said Melosa. "She tells me you have had no ill effects from your prolonged contact with Antibrote."
"It's true, ma'am." Missini held up an arm and pulled back the sleeve on her loose fitting garment. "See? No lesions, pustules or sores of any kind. No redness...nothing on me anywhere."
"I'm pleased to hear that," said the queen. Her reply was more than perfunctory, she meant it. The sweet-natured Missini was diligent and hard working and had already earned the trust and respect of her warrior sisters--especially the younger ones. Moreover, she exhibited a personal courage that Racillione did not seem to have--despite the senior healer's desperate pleas to the contrary--and in the mind of the fierce Melosa this was what separated Missini from the more experienced healer.
In truth Melosa had never much cared for her grandmother's appointment as chief healer. The queen felt Racillione had a tendency to be inattentive in her duties that bordered on downright laziness. Only the healer's relatively unassailable position had kept Melosa from removing her years ago. To compound her displeasure Melosa's long running suspicion was that Racillione's chronic insistence on waiting for just the right Amazon to train had been nothing more than a devious way for her to keep a firm grip on her own singular position. Well, all that would soon change. Racillione was old, almost as old as Euset--too damn old to administer aid on the battlefield. Her pathetic wheezing up and down these very hills during the recent Mysian raid had proved that. In a year or two young Missini would be ready to take over. Racillione in turn would be assigned to other, more menial duties around the village such as field work, gathering, etc. Missini would then be immediately instructed to begin training her own assistant. Already the queen had someone in mind.
"She is making slow but steady progress," said Missini happily.
"I want to see her."
In blocking her queen's path Missini was not quite as forceful as Racillione had been but she managed to get her point across nonetheless. "Uh, ma'am, I would ask that you not do that."
"Why? You said yourself that she is out of danger."
"I know. But we must still be cautious," said Missini. Tactfully she added, "Especially when it involves you, ma'am."
Melosa, the All-Highest, Warlord and Supreme Commander of the Southern Tribe, was not about to be put off a second time. Gently brushing past the young healer she said, "I appreciate your concern. But I will see my warrior now."
There were only a select few such as Colsethme or Euset who would have dared to try to discuss the matter further and poor Missini was not one of them. Awed by Melosa's authoritarian presence, she could only humbly submit to the will of her queen. "Yes, ma'am," she said, and meekly fell in behind.
At the mouth of the cave Melosa paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Even here she was adherent to the ancient Amazon tenet of never rushing into a dark place if circumstances permitted. Her eyesight, while not quite as keen as some of her other warriors, was still quiet good and within the span of just a few heartbeats she could make out the limp form of Antibrote lying on her pallet. "Is she awake?" the queen asked.
"She was when I came out to meet you," said Missini.
"Ann?" Melosa called out in a low voice. "Ann, are you awake?"
Antibrote might have been ill but it had not affected her hearing. Her queen's voice was instantly recognizable to her. As for her own voice it was weak but unbroken as she replied, "It's good to again hear my queen speak."
Antibrote's ensuing struggle to arise brought swift admonishment from her queen. "Don't you dare," said Melosa. It was just as well. Antibrote was still in no condition to sit up. "Missy tells me you're improving."
Still exhausted by her abortive attempt, Antibrote swallowed hard and said, "Ready to kick some centaur ass, ma'am."
"She's still very weak," said Missini. "However she is keeping her food down now so if all goes well she should be up and around in good time."
"Good," Melosa nodded. "Good." Crossing over, she dropped to a crouch beside Antibrote. "Ann, I want you up off your sorry ass as soon as possible so do exactly what Missini says, understand? That's an order. Oh, and don't think a little thing like this is going to get you out of your making that trip to the salt spring."
This elicited a labored grin from Antibrote. "Yes, ma'am." This was historically her own special task and the grin was still on her face as she drifted back off to sleep.
Back outside the cave Melosa turned to Missini and said, "I am ordering an immediate return to the village."
"Yes, I see no reason to delay further."
"Just to be sure, however, I want you to keep Antibrote here for a few days. I'll leave the duration to your discretion."
While inwardly thrilled by the queen's trust in her judgment, Missini, true to her nature, could not forget her mentor. "What about Racillione?" she asked. "Should not she make that decision?"
"Let me handle Racillione," Melosa coldly replied. "Antibrote is your charge, not hers."
"Yes, my queen."
"I will assign a warrior to provide security for you." Knowing that Missini and young Pomona got along famously she casually added, "Probably Pomona."
"Do you have enough food?"
"Yes." Missini cupped her thin forearm and smiled. "I'm not much of an eater, ma'am."
"Well you be sure to tell Pomona if you need anything. Anything at all."
"I will," the healer assured her.
"Very well, since you seem to have things well in hand I'll leave you to it then." Melosa turned to go and then paused. "You've carried yourself well through this," she said. The faintest hint of a smile played across the queen's lips as she added, "In fact you and I might have been the only ones who kept our heads. More than that, you were willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of all. I won't forget that. Healer, don't let anyone ever tell you that you don't have a warrior's heart...because you do."
Missini was stunned by this. Melosa was not in the habit of doling out praise. To her an Amazon had her duty and was expected to do it. Yet here the queen had taken special care to tell her how pleased she was. Standing before this amazing woman she admired above all others, Missini could only clasp her hands and bow with the utter humility she truly felt.
Missini's hands were still clasped as Melosa got on her horse and rode off to supervise the return to the village. The young healer watched her disappear amongst the trees, still numbed by the words of the All-Highest Melosa. Her queen thought her a warrior! Sweet gods! It was almost too much.
She stood there for a long time, staring into the woods. Her wish would never come true, in her heart she knew that. Melosa was the closet thing there was to a goddess and she was nothing but a simple healer's assistant. She was dung to Melosa's ambrosia. Nevertheless Missini was thrilled by the knowledge that her queen in some small way appreciated her feeble efforts. She would never have Melosa's affections, that was true enough, but at least she could take comfort in knowing that what she did have was the queen's respect. Was it enough? Would it ever be enough? Probably not.
But at least it was something.
That night, with her watch over at last, Ephiny relished the comforting warmth of her thick blankets. After spending a good part of the day shivering in the saddle she was grateful to have a dry place to sleep. It was deep in the night that she awoke to the touch of two fingers lightly pressing against her lips. Startled, she tried to rise but was stopped by a strong hand.
"Easy," a low voice said, "It's only me."
Wide awake now, Ephiny suspiciously eyed the sleek form bending over her. "What do you want?" she warily whispered.
"We need to talk," said Velasca.
"Now. This can't wait any longer."
Ephiny's reply was measured. "All right, talk."
The camp fire was dying down but it was still bright enough for Ephiny to see Velasca's darting eyes as they scoured the camp. "Not here," she said. Letting Ephiny up, she said, "Let's take a walk."
"I don't know. If Eponin sees us--"
"She won't," Velasca quietly assured her. "Right now, she's swung to the far side of her loop. She'll never know."
For a moment Ephiny looked hard at Velasca. What does she want? she thought. Finally she said, "All right." Given the contentious history between them most Amazons would have thought it foolhardy at best and crazy at worst for the younger Amazon to go sneaking off into the woods with the spiteful Velasca. Ephiny, however, did not fear Velasca. She never had.
With well practiced stealth the Amazons eased their way out of the camp. Ephiny was close behind as Velasca edged her way into a small grove of oak trees standing perhaps fifty paces from the camp. The night was calm, almost eerily so. In the cloudless sky above the moon had already set, leaving the great starry dome to shine forth in all its brilliance. Directly overhead, stretching from the northeast to the southwest as far as the eye could see, was the fuzzy white band known to some as the "Milky Way" and to others as "The Road to Heaven." Just then the stillness was broken by the muffled rustlings of some small forest creature poking about in its nocturnal foray for food.
"This is far enough," Ephiny murmured. "Now what's this all about?"
"Before my...departure, I issued a challenge," said Velasca.
"I know. Terreis. So what has that to do with me?"
"Minutia tells me you're becoming quite the formidable little thing," said Velasca. "Two knots for bravery already. Not bad."
There was just a hint of mockery in Velasca's voice but Ephiny ignored it. She was really not in the mood for a midnight scrap with Velasca. She was tired, tomorrow was going to be hard day, she wanted to sleep. Still, it was with genuine modesty that she replied, "I only did what was expected of me."
For some reason Velasca did not seem to want to let it go. "Still, your mother must be very proud."
That did it. Ephiny was still riled about Velasca's earlier disrespectful exchange with Meelah and this mention of her mother brought those simmering feelings right back to a boil. "Look, I know you didn't bring me out here to praise my battle record. You're up to something, Velasca. I can smell it. So tell me, whose tits are you trying to wring now?"
The normally volatile Velasca remained surprisingly calm. "Such hostility in one so young," she tsked. "It's not healthy. Here I am, ready to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime and all you want to do is insult me."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about a simple proposition; what the Phoenicians call a 'deal.'"
This made Ephiny even more wary. An adversarial Velasca was more or less a known value. A Velasca that wanted her cooperation was something else again. "Just what is it that you think that I can do for you?"
"You can put me over the top," said Velasca. "Or rather, your mother can."
Now for the delicate part, thought Velasca. "Ephiny," she began, "I'm going to defeat Terreis. When I do I will be rightfully recognized by Amazon law and in the eyes of Artemis herself as the one true successor to the queen."
With quiet intensity Ephiny said, "I didn't know you spoke for goddesses now."
"Ephiny, will you stop being so combative for one breath and listen to what I have to say? Now, I am going to defeat Terreis, any objective Amazon will tell you the same thing. It's a given." Velasca paused for effect and then said, "And that is only the beginning."
In the darkness Ephiny's look of shock was barely visible. "Are you saying you mean to challenge Melosa?"
"In time," replied Velasca coolly. "In due time."
And in that moment Ephiny saw it. "I know what you're after. When the time comes you want my mother's support, don't you?"
"You're a perceptive girl," said Velasca.
"And you're crazy," Ephiny retorted. "You can't defeat Melosa. She'd cut you up like a sunfish. Besides, even if you did win the company commanders and the elders would never support you."
"I don't need them all," said Velasca. "To legitimize my position I just need one or two."
"And you want my mother to support you in this, this, plot of yours?" Ephiny let out a derisive chuckle and said, "I can tell you right now that is not going to happen!"
"It might if I offer her the post of ambassador," said Velasca. "Yes, we need another diplomatic envoy. And who better than your mother? With feigned hesitancy she carefully added, "And then...perhaps you, Ephiny, could take her place as company commander. It's been done before."
And there it was. Velasca's chips were on the table. It was true she did not care for Meelah but of all the captains Velasca felt she was the one she could really use on her side. To her Colsethme was a lecherous old hag, already past her prime, Willa was like Terreis, a dreamer and hence worthless. Draganis was a mindless goon who would probably serve a wooden post if it was proclaimed queen. No, Meelah was the one to have.
"You're serious, aren't you?" an amazed Ephiny asked. "Velasca, I doubt that you have a friend in the whole village. How do you expect to garner support?"
"I don't need friends," Velasca pointedly reminded her. "What I need are allies. I have more than you think but I can always use more. Join me, Ephiny, and together we'll take down Melosa."
"Velasca, it's one thing to make a legitimate, open challenge but it's quite another to conspire against the queen. You're a hair's breadth away from talking treason!"
Ignoring Ephiny's warning, Velasca plunged ahead. "An epochal shift is coming. Soon six generations of oppression by Melosa's line will come to an end. In my dreams I have seen this. You and your mother can either choose to be part of that shift or get crushed into dust and left behind. My destiny will be fulfilled regardless."
"Velasca, the only support you'll ever get from me is bearing your body to the funeral pyre after Melosa has hung your rebellious ass."
"Those who are not with me are against me and shall be duly punished when the time comes," Velasca warned. "When the hour of our liberation comes make sure you're on the right side, Ephiny."
Liberation, my ass! thought Ephiny angrily. Throwing up an angry hand, she hissed, "I'm not listening to any more of this!"
She whirled and as she stormed off Velasca quietly called out, "Don't be a fool, Ephiny. Think about what I said. Talk it over with your mother. Just remember, my time is coming, sooner than you think. I'm offering you and your mother a chance for greatness. Don't let it slip away."
Back at the edge of the camp Ephiny paused before entering. Everyone was still asleep. Somewhere out there in the darkness Eponin was on watch. Soon she would be returning to roust a reluctant Solari out for what would be the dawn watch. Still echoing in her ears were Velasca's ominous, troubling words. It was not unheard of in Amazon history for a queen to be overthrown, Ephiny knew that. Still, in her young life all she had ever known was the stability of Melosa's unchallenged authority and of Penthesilea, whom Ephiny barely remembered, before her. Such a thing had seemed about as likely as looking upon the face of Zeus himself.
What would her mother say? Ephiny wondered. Should she even tell her? Ephiny was not so sure she should. No, better to just let it lie. No use stirring up a hornet's nest for nothing. Velasca was too smart for that. She would just deny it all. And besides, Terreis could still kick Velasca's ass, making all her big talk so much hot air. If Velasca were to win, however, that would be a different thing altogether. Well, she thought, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Silently Ephiny crept back under her blanket, relieved to find that her mother was still asleep. Ephiny well knew Meelah shared her antipathy for Velasca and she would not have liked the idea of her own daughter stealing off into the night with the former princess. But as Ephiny snuggled back into her pallet and slowly drifted off to sleep she was unaware of the pair of eyes intently watching her the whole time from across the camp.
They were Meelah's.
For Meelah's party the day broke crisply. In the east only a few wispy, reddish tinted clouds were present to mark what was otherwise a perfectly clear morning sky. The rain was gone; yesterday's debacle behind them. It looked to be a great opportunity to cover some ground and Meelah was not about to miss out on it.
Their meager breakfast over, Meelah gathered her troops around her and issued the day's orders. "All right, we're really going to push hard today. Velasca, you've on point again. Don't range out as far as you did yesterday, though. I want you back here fast in case of trouble."
"We can only hope," Velasca said curtly. "I'm in the mood for a good fight."
Meelah could only tiredly shake her head at this and mutter, "Get out of here."
Here next order required a little more care. Minutia had gotten her day with Celeste and now the captain wanted her back in her accustomed place guarding the rear. "Min," she began, "I really need you at the back of the column. Let Solari pull the horse today." Without a word Minutia nodded her acknowledgment. She knew as well as Meelah that it was time to move on--in more ways than one.
"Let's move out, people," said Meelah. Her tone was a little stern as she added, "Ephiny, ride with me."
The better part of the morning was gone before Meelah, with the situation seemingly calm, finally got around to what was on her mind. "So, uh, you took a little walk in the woods last night, huh? Couldn't sleep I guess."
I should have known, thought Ephiny. There was no fooling her mother. Ever. "Oh, uhh, so you know about that."
"A mother knows these things," came the cryptic reply. It was true, at least in Ephiny's case. Many was the time when she had gotten into mischief only to discover that her mother was aware of it practically as soon as it happened. One day Ephiny was going to ask her about that.
Ephiny figured she might as well tell her mother about her "conversation" with Velasca. It was obvious she was more than mildly curious. And she did want to know, otherwise she would not have brought the subject up.
Ephiny did not take the long route home. "I think Velasca has it in her mind to force Melosa out."
At this Meelah gave a little snort of contempt. "Velasca? That little turd? She doesn't have the guts or the skills."
"Oh she has the guts," replied Ephiny matter-of-factly. "I think if Velasca is successful in her challenge to Terreis she is at some point almost certain to try to seize the throne."
Here now her daughter's choice of words gave Meelah cause for concern. No one would consider the throne "seized" from Melosa if Velasca were somehow lucky enough to win a legitimate challenge. Ephiny was nobody's fool, clearly she believed Velasca had something more diabolical in mind. "Ephiny, let's be clear here. Are you saying she actually intends to overthrow the queen?"
"I do. Ohh, she said she means to challenge Melosa all right. But I don't believe a word of it. She's hatching some plot to usurp power."
"Why tell you this?" her mother wondered aloud.
Ephiny looked hard at her mother. "She wants your support."
For Meelah the whole thing just kept getting more fantastic. "You've got to be joking."
"No no. And she's not either. Support Velasca and she will name you ambassador, or so she says."
"How dare she be so presumptuous!" Meelah snapped. "Why I wouldn't serve that arrogant little snot if she gave me India!"
Nowadays Meelah was a gracious, congenial, pleasant woman but in her youth she had been notorious for her volcanic temper. Meelah had worked mightily to overcome this and for the most part she had. In fact she was so successful in this that most younger Amazons only knew her as the cordial warrior whom all her peers admired. There were times, though, when Meelah's old inner fire would once more flare up, if only momentarily. This was one of those times. And, as with the most recent eruption, this one too was sparked by Velasca. Still, it was only but the span of a breath or two before she regained control. Meelah did not like herself that way, especially in front of her daughter. Indeed she was most thankful that Ephiny had not inherited the same troubling trait. "Well, anyway, it's not going to happen," she continued.
"I can only imagine how humiliating it was for her to ask like that," said Ephiny. "You know how much she hates us."
"Desperate people do desperate things," Meelah said with a sigh.
"Will you tell Melosa?"
Meelah came to the same conclusion as her daughter had. "No, not yet." She smiled weakly at Ephiny and said, "If
I do Melosa will undoubtedly hang you on the spit over what you know and I don't want any pressure placed on you if it can
be avoided. Once Terreis defeats Velasca--as I believe she will--this will all blow over on its own. Without the legitimacy
of being a princess Velasca's black little plan has no shot of succeeding." Meelah shook her head and added an incredulous, "That
damned Velasca, she's even crazier than I thought."
Early that afternoon Ephiny caught sight of Velasca riding back to the party. She and her mother were still paired together and Ephiny was about to point the distant rider out to her when Meelah spotted her as well.
Squinting into the distance, Meelah said, "Ephiny, fall back and pair up with Solari."
"Yes, ma'am," Ephiny quietly replied and she obediently turned her horse away.
Watching Velasca approach, Meelah was forced to admire how fine her horsemanship was. Velasca was a supercilious harpy to be sure but there was no denying her potential for greatness, at least as far as being a warrior was concerned. For being a decent human being was something else again. Meelah had been expecting her return for she had instructed the young warrior that morning to report back when she reached the Macestus River.
"You found the river?" Meelah asked, as Velasca trotted up.
"Yes. However it's much too wide to try to swim."
After a thoughtful nod of the head Meelah said, "Very well." She and her command had crossed the river into Phrygia much farther south without any trouble. Up here, closer to the sea, the river was naturally wider and deeper. Meelah did not relish the thought of turning south and going back upriver. To do so would cost them a precious day and, more importantly, place them deeper in what had become dangerous territory. Well, she thought, an Amazon is expected to be resourceful so, I'll be resourceful.
As it was her solution was simple enough. Still, it would eat up some time. "We could move to the coast and try to hire a boat," Meelah mused. "But I don't want to do that." With a resigned little turn of the head she declared, "Looks like we will have to build a raft."
Velasca shook her head. "There might not be a need. I scouted a short distance down river and although I was careful not to get too close I saw what I think looked like a ferry station."
This surprised Meelah. From what she had seen the area did not seem densely populated enough for anyone to make a ferry profitable. What she did not yet know, because Velasca had not seen, was that just north of them lay an east-west road, a trading route, that served as the region's main artery.
By this time everyone except Minutia had joined scout and captain. All this talk about a ferry suited Solari just fine because in truth she was a little bit afraid of deep water, something she had never told anyone--not even Ephiny. She knew that apprehensions such as this were looked upon as weakness and in the harsh reality of Solari's world that was something to be avoided at all costs.
"All right then," said Meelah, "the ferry it is. Velasca, lead the way."
The party moved out and as ordered Ephiny dutifully took her place with Solari. After the subjection to her mother's intense scrutiny earlier she was glad for the chance to just ride along with her friend for awhile. Turning back to look at the bound up body of Celeste she asked, "So, how's it going?"
With a little shrug Solari answered, "Not bad. At least she hasn't started smelling yet."
Ephiny's whispered admonition was immediate. "Solari! You shouldn't say that!"
"Aww you know what I mean." Solari looked out over the sparse landscape and said, "I don't like this place. Not enough trees."
Ephiny too had found her surroundings uncomfortable but until her friend's comment she had not quite been able to grasp the cause. That was it, raised in the thick forests of her homeland the sky here was just too wide open. "I know what you mean," said Ephiny.
Off in the distance she saw Velasca, who had again forged back out ahead, drop out of site over a hill. Now that her mother knew about Velasca's scheming Ephiny wondered if she ought not go ahead and tell Solari as well. Not here, she decided. Maybe later when they got back home.
"Once we get across the river the land will soon get back to what we're used to."
Reflecting on the recent course of events Solari slowly shook her head. She then muttered a downcast, "What a mess. What an absolute mess. We get Velasca and, worse, lose Celeste. A piss poor trade-off if you ask me."
"It is at that. Celeste was a fine warrior and a good friend. I will miss her."
It was then that Solari got around to what had been on her mind ever since Velasca's return. "Eph?"
"Eph, you're my best friend, right?"
"Well of course I am." Sensing her friend's hesitation, she asked, "Solari, what is it? Is something wrong?"
Before replying Solari took a good look all around, just to make certain no one was close. "Eph, I've been thinking." Again she paused.
Once more Solari glanced around. What is wrong with her? Ephiny wondered.
Solari took a deep breath and then bared her soul to the only person who had ever really cared for her--her dear friend Ephiny. "If...if Velasca beats Terreis you know what's going to happen."
"She's not going to beat Terreis," Ephiny replied confidently. "Terreis is going to kick her ass."
"I know but I'm just saying if she does...." Summoning forth all her resolve, Solari finally managed to blurt it out. "Ephiny, if she becomes princess again she's going to make my life a living hell. You know how much she hates me."
So that was it. Poor Solari. No one had suffered more from Velasca's venomous spite. "You're a warrior now," Ephiny gently reminded her. "You've made your first kill. You're not some mouse scuttling to get out of the way and Melosa won't allow her to shit on you for no reason. Not now. You're too valuable to the tribe."
Solari closed her eyes and nodded with tired deference but Ephiny knew her words had done nothing to assuage Solari's fears. Solari's dark eyes found hers. They were misty, sad eyes. "Ephiny, if she does win, I'm....I'm leaving."
The words shocked Ephiny, hitting her like a hard slap in the face. Reflexively she countered, "No you're not!"
"Ephiny, I will not tolerate her abuse. Not anymore. I love the tribe and would gladly lay down my life for it but I can not and will not remain a part of it if she takes Terreis' place. I'll leave, Eph. By the gods I swear it."
"And do what? Join up with the Northern Tribe? Come on."
"Amazons aren't the only ones who use a sword," said Solari stiffly. "Or I--I could do something else. It's a big world out there."
"One you know absolutely nothing about!" Ephiny hissed. Immediately sorry, she slumped her shoulders and said, "Solari, don't talk like this. I know you're concerned, hell I'm concerned too. I mean, who in their right mind would want Velasca back in a position of power? And besides, she has no great love for me either, you know. But have some faith in Terreis. She's going to win!"
"And if she doesn't?"
"You, me--all of us--can cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime try not to worry about it, okay?"
Easier said than done, Solari ruefully thought. Ephiny was right about one thing, though. Velasca had her on her shit list as well. How
then, could she remain so calm in the face of what was a very real threat? That was Ephiny for you. Nothing ever seemed to faze
A short time later found the party all gathered on a small escarpment overlooking the Macestus River. Velasca, who had rejoined them, pointed north where a rough little hut, barely visible in a sea of brown, stood alongside the river. "That's it," she said.
"Doesn't look like much," observed Eponin.
"As long as it gets us across," said Meelah. "Everyone form up. You too, Velasca. Stay close and keep your eyes open."
As it turned out Eponin's initial assessment was just as applicable to the ferryboat itself. In fact it could hardly be called a ferry at all. For unlike some of the sturdy, well built ferries she had seen this one was in fact not much more than a good-sized raft, lashed together with rope. With Meelah in the lead the party cantered their horses up to the hut and were met there by a short, barrel-chested man with bronzed skin and massive forearms.
It was not his muscles that piqued Ephiny's interest. The fellow was the hairiest man she had ever seen! He reminded her of one of those terrible "bear men" in the scary stories Calliope used to tell her when she was a child.
Quickly assessing the situation, Meelah concluded that Ephiny's "bear man" was probably not alone. She did not think it very practicable for one man to pull a fully loaded ferry all the way across that river alone, even with arms like his. No, he had to have cohort or two lurking around somewhere, maybe even watching them right now. Meelah lowered her head and with the back of her hand pretended to wipe the sweat away from her eye. Beside her sat Minutia and it was to her that she murmured, "Watch out, there could be others."
To the ferryman she said, "Ho there. How much to cross?"
Folding his arms the ferryman eyed the handsome Meelah up and down and said, "Three pieces of silver."
"Three? That's a bit steep don't you think?"
"That's apiece by the way. And it's my price, take it or leave it," he gruffly answered. It was then that a thought seemed to come into his head and he grinned, revealing black, rotten teeth. "Of course, if you don't have the money, sweetie, maybe you and I could uhh, you know, work something out." He glanced over the others with a newfound interest and casually added, "Maybe even a package deal, huh?"
A faint smile played across Meelah's lips as she eyed him in cold amusement.
It was, however, a sneering Velasca and not the captain who answered him. "Now I see how you got those big arms. Since no sane woman would possibly get within a league of you I'll bet you and that malignant little sprout of yours are on very familiar terms. I'm guessing with an old geezer like you the cream doesn't flow as quickly as it used too, huh?"
This brought laughter all around, even Meelah had a good chuckle over it. Somehow though the ferryman failed to see the humor in it. "The gods damn you!" he roared. "All of you! Your asses can walk across the damn water!"
He turned to stalk away only to have Eponin and her horse deftly cut off his path of retreat. "You can leave when my captain says you can and not before," the Amazon firmly informed him.
The ferryman was not so easily deterred. With a loud growl he gave Eponin's horse a hard shove in an attempt to get clear. Instead all it got him was the sharp tip of Velasca's sword pressing hard on his left shoulder.
He froze as he saw the gleaming blade, so recently bloodied, and he heard Velasca mockingly purr, "Please stay."
Alit now, Meelah walked over and slowly lifted Velasca's blade off the ferryman's shoulder. "Look," she said, "we mean you no harm. All we want is to cross the river and be on our way."
"You're them Amazons that's got everybody so worked up, aren't you?"
"Yes, we're Amazons," Meelah replied. "And we want to go home. Now I suggest you get to your post, sir, because you are taking us across--for one piece of silver."
To reinforce Meelah's words Velasca laid her blade back down on his shoulder.
Casting the blade a wary glance, the ferryman said, "I can't. Not until my helpers get back."
"Where are they?"
"How should I know?" he said with a shrug. "Damn no-goods are always sneaking off."
"He's lying," said Velasca. "He's trying to stall us."
Meelah thought she just might be right. "There are six of us," she said. "We'll help pull."
"Can't but half of you go at a time," said the ferryman. "That's all the old girl will hold."
Eponin smelled a rat and said so. "That thing looks big enough to me."
"Well it's not," the ferryman shot back.
"Are you sure?" asked Meelah. If possible she would rather not split up her little party, even temporarily.
"I'm sure," the ferryman snapped. "I reckon I know me own boat. Half o' ye can go over with yer horses. When we get to the other side you can leave 'em and help me bring the ferry back over. We'll make two trips, easy as pie."
"He seems awfully anxious to split us up, ma'am," said Eponin.
"I'm anxious to avoid a dunking, girlie. I don't swim so good."
Like Eponin Meelah did not like this at all because this would place them in a very vulnerable position. But what could she do? They had to get across. Meelah gave the man a momentary hard look and said, "All right, we'll do it your way. Min, take Celeste and board the ferry. You too, Velasca. The rest of you will wait. Ephiny, you're in charge."
"Just sit tight and stay alert. I'll send Min back to help with the ferry. Let's move out, people."
Mounted on each side of the ferry were two large oars and it was by this means that the ferry was propelled. On one side of the ferry were several iron rings through which was threaded a long thick rope. The rope stretched across the river and was used as both a guide line and to prevent excess drift by the ferry. Once the ferry was loaded the ferryman and the Amazons took up an oar and made ready to pull. Like everyone else Meelah too grabbed an oar only to feel a gentle tap on the shoulder.
It was Minutia. "No need, ma'am," said the big Amazon. "I can pull for the both of us." Minutia did not think it proper for her commander to perform manual labor.
"Very well," said a slightly flushed Meelah, and with that she took up position up in front of the barge.
"All right, ladies, everybody pull," said the ferryman. "She's a little hard to get started but once we get 'er goin' she'll glide like a swan."
Minutia emitted a deep growl as she and the others strained on the oars and they were off. Back on the bank the three remaining Amazons watched them go and as she watched Minutia flex those big muscles of hers Ephiny for one was glad she would be coming back over to help with the ferry.
The trip across took longer than Meelah expected due to the swift current they encountered out in the middle of the channel. Even in this water the ferry proved more stable than Meelah had feared and served them in good stead as they plowed their way across. Soon enough the Amazons were disembarking on the other side. Once all the horses were off Minutia shooed Velasca off the ferry as well, saying she and the "little fella" could manage it alone. She was right. With only themselves on board Minutia and the ferryman pulled the ferry back across quite easily, even through the swift water out in the middle. As for the ferryman he had seen a "bruiser" or two in his day but even he had to marvel at Minutia's strength.
Soon enough the ferry was bumping against the bank. "Come on, girls," Minutia said with a cheerful wave.
"Who's she calling a girl?" Solari grumbled, causing Ephiny to break into a grin.
The three young Amazons carefully led their horses onto the ferry and then took up the oars as they had seen the others do. Unlike her mother, Ephiny got no such reprieve from the task at hand. She might have been the daughter of a captain now but she was still a low ranking Amazon and as such she was expected to do her share. Of course no one knew that better than the unpretentious Ephiny.
And true to her nature, Ephiny was pulling at her oar as hard as she could, when, a quarter of the way across, her sharp ears were the first to pick up the faint rumble of approaching horses. A couple of heartbeats later Eponin heard it too. In unison the two of them turned back to see perhaps thirty mounted men coming hard down the road. Unlike Emil and his motley militiamen these men were Phrygian cavalry--regular army. Their intent, however, was just as deadly for they too were in pursuit of the Amazon "invaders."
By now everyone else was staring at the approaching men too. "Who are they?" asked Solari. "Bandits?"
In answering the ferryman tried to keep his sense of frustration to himself. If only those bastards had come sooner! "Them's soldiers," he said.
Right at the river's edge the men dismounted and one of them, the commander, pointed out at the ferry and shouted something. Immediately the men began to deploy up and down the bank. It was then that those on board saw to their dismay that the men were armed with bows.
"Look!" exclaimed Solari.
"Oh shit," Minutia muttered ominously. With her experienced eye she had recognized them as trained cavalry and at first glance thought them safe enough. Having fought such units many times she knew cavalrymen usually armed themselves with light swords and or lances, weapons suitable for fighting from horseback.
"We're still within range of them," said Eponin. Even here her voice was surprisingly devoid of emotion.
At the officer's command the men raised their bows and took aim. Suddenly the ferryman was not quite so glad to see them. "Pull, damn you, pull!" he cried. "We have to get out of here!"
"It will take too long to get out of range," said Minutia.
"Then what do we do?" asked Solari. "We're sitting ducks here."
On the bank the officer dropped his hand and the men as one let their arrows fly. On the opposite shore Meelah and Velasca could only watch helplessly.
"Here they come!"
"Get down!" Minutia yelled. Almost simultaneously five bodies hit the deck of the ferry hard.
Ephiny lay there for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for the deadly missiles to reach the top of their arc and come hurtling earthward. When they did finally land they were short. With her cheek pressed against the rough deck of the ferry Ephiny did not see them hit but she heard them pepper the water not so very far away. "We can't just lay here like slugs," she said to Minutia. "We've got to do something."
Only one thing to do, Minutia thought grimly.
Lying next to Ephiny, Solari looked up just long enough to see another salvo being launched. "Here comes another one!" she said.
"Merciful Zeus protect me!" wailed the ferryman.
This time a single arrow hit the ferry, landing just an arm's length away from Eponin. "They're finding the range," she said.
"If they have any skill at all they'll be dead on in another round or two," said Ephiny.
Minutia rolled over on her back and looked up at the guide rope. With nothing to prevent the rope from giving she knew she had little chance of chopping it into with her sword. So drew her big knife. "Everybody move forward!" she yelled. "Now!" Once they had she said, "When I cut the rope grab it and hang on!"
To the ferryman's horror he saw Minutia begin sawing on the big rope. Rushing to her side he feebly tried to pull her arm away. "What are you doing?" he squalled.
"I'm cutting this rope," said Minutia, easily brushing him off. "We'll use it to let the current pull us close enough to the other side to where we can swim for it."
"But we'll never make the bend down there," the ferryman pleaded.
"That's all right, we won't be here anyway," said Minutia.
"Here they come again!" Eponin yelled.
As Ephiny had predicted this shower was the most accurate yet. Six arrows hit the ferry and two more struck Solari's horse in the flank. Terrified, the wild-eyed animal squealed and reared up high, its front legs frantically striking at the unseen enemy. In an instant Solari shot to her feet and tried to grab the horse's reins. The horse, however, could think only of escape. Back down on all fours it turned right into Solari's path and slammed straight into her. The horse leapt into the river as Solari went crashing into the makeshift railing through which the rope was threaded.
"Solari!" Ephiny cried. Rushing to her friend, Ephiny turned Solari over to find with her eyes rolled back in her head and making an odd snoring sound.
Kneeling next to them Eponin pronounced, "She's out cold."
With a determined growl Minutia made one last powerful cut and at last the rope severed. Roughly she shouldered the ferryman aside. "Out of my way!"
Back on the bank Meelah and Velasca saw the big rope go limp. "What are they doing?" Velasca wondered aloud.
With a gleam of approval in her eye Meelah answered, "Just what I would do."
Minutia dashed past the fallen Solari up to the front of the ferry, now slowly drifting down river. There she pulled the rope out through the iron rings that secured it to the ferry.
On the bank opposite Meelah the cavalry commander once more raised his hand. "Ready!..."
"Come on!" roared Minutia. "In the water!"
"You go," Eponin said to Ephiny. She nodded at Solari and said, "I'll stay with her."
"Like hell you will," said Ephiny. Taking one of her friend's arms, she said, "Help me get her into the water."
"Let me have her," said Minutia. She lifted Solari up into her arms as if she were a child. "Now tie the end of the rope around me. Hurry!"
"Shoot!" yelled the commander, and twenty-six arrows soared into their trajectory.
The arrows reached their apex and began to hurtle earthward. From her spot on the bank Meelah saw them; little black slivers of death headed straight for her child. "Get off!" she practically screamed.
No sooner had Ephiny's nimble fingers finished when Minutia, firmly gripping Solari, jumped into the river. A heartbeat later Ephiny and Eponin were right behind her. Minutia tightened a big arm around Solari and pulled her close. "Don't worry, kid," she said. "I've gotcha." To the two young Amazons she said, "Grab the rope and hang on." Ephiny and Eponin quickly obeyed and then watched as the ferry began to slide past them.
To their amazement they saw that the ferryman was still on board. The ferry was his livelihood and he just could not bring himself to leave it to the river's mercy. He was already frantically straining on an oar when the arrows hit.
A full half-dozen of the arrows overshot their mark and landed all around the Amazons. Fortunately no one was hit. The Fates were not so kind to the ferryman. A single arrow penetrated his right side, puncturing his lung in the process. Two more arrows hit Eponin's horse and three hit Ephiny's. Like Solari's before them the terrified animals bolted right out into the river.
With the current pulling them away the Amazons saw the ferryman struggle to his feet. Blood oozing from his mouth, he staggered over to the railing. Feebly he shook his fist at them. "Damn you!" he gurgled. "Damn you to Tar--" The ferryman headed over the railing and into the rushing water.
"Poor bastard," Meelah muttered under her breath.
Over on the riverbank Velasca's voice conveyed nothing at all as she replied simply, "Merely one less male fouling our world."
Meelah looked at her for a moment but only said, "Let's get them out of the water."
With the aid of her horse Meelah and Velasca soon managed to pull their comrades out of the swift current and into the relatively calm water near the shore. Halfway in a moaning Solari regained consciousness. Up ahead Ephiny and Eponin could hear the big Amazon gently assuring a groggy Solari that she was going to be all right. When they were near enough the two young Amazons, after receiving assurance from Minutia that she had matters well in hand, let go of the ferry cable and swam for the bank.
Naturally Meelah was overjoyed to see her daughter safe. Even so, the fair-minded captain would not allow herself any display of favoritism. Placing a hand on a shoulder of each she said, "I'm glad to see you both." The look exchanged between mother and daughter, however, made any need for spoken words unnecessary.
Once Minutia and Solari were safely reeled in everyone looked to Meelah for what to do next. They were not long in waiting. As soon as Meelah was satisfied that everyone was indeed all right she stood up and said, "Okay, counting Celeste's we're down to four horses."
"Well no one's doubling up with me," Velasca sniffed.
"So I guess you like point then," said Meelah curtly.
In truth Velasca hated it but she was not about to admit that to Meelah. Not now. "I've handled it so far, haven't I?" she said stiffly.
"Well good, because you've got it again. All the way back."
Sitting next to Solari, Minutia playfully said, "Little knot head here can ride with me." Solari indeed did have quite a bump right in the middle of her forehead.
Solari reached up and tenderly felt the bump and groaned, "Thanks for reminding me. Ohhhh."
"Fine. Ephiny, you and Eponin will take Celeste's horse."
As delicately as she could Ephiny asked, "What about Celeste?"
"Leave her of course," said Velasca.
Meelah glared at Velasca and said, "Not a chance. We've brought her this far, we're taking her all the way home." She turned to the two young Amazons standing with her and said, "You two, fix up a litter for Celeste. And be quick about it."
In unison the pair replied, "Yes, ma'am!" and off they went. Solari sat on the ground, leaning against Minutia for support and wistfully she watched the newcomer and her best friend dart off into the underbrush. She wanted so badly to go too, to...be useful. Unfortunately the dizziness and the pounding in her head made that impossible. It was just one more disappointment in a life filled with disappointment. Orphaned as a young child, taken in by an uncaring drunkard, mostly what Solari remembered from her childhood was the abuse and never ending work that had defined her early life. She had been one of the dregs of Amazon society, ignored by others who seemed oblivious to her suffering. In those cruel years she felt nothing but total worthlessness and in her shame attempted at all costs to avoid the others of her tribe, most especially the other children. Often, however, her chores made that impossible and it was then she that suffered ruthless torment at the hands of the children of the higher classes.
And then one day when she was seven she met a young girl, a girl with unruly blonde locks and brown, sturdy little legs. It was on the very first day that six year old Ephiny was allowed to venture out on her own unattended. Solari had seen her before in the company of her mother, a great and esteemed warrior and at the little girl's approach she tried to run away. Even back then she was not very fast and the little girl easily caught her. And for reasons that to this very day Solari did not understand the little girl had taken an instant liking to her. Timid and ashamed, Solari had tried to beg herself away but the little girl was very stubborn. Expecting yet more abuse, Solari was stunned when the little girl smiled and gave her a piece of the honey candy her mother had made. She was even more amazed when the child grabbed her by the hand and pulled her straight home. On that first of what was to become countless visits a terrified Solari could not even bring herself to look Ephiny's striking warrior mother in the face but had found her extremely kind and understanding nonetheless.
That was the day that Solari's life changed. Yes, she still suffered abuse both in and out of the home but few dared try it when Ephiny was around. Even the older children soon learned to respect the blonde's spirit and determination in defending her new friend. That she was the daughter of one of the queen's favorite warriors did not hurt either. It was Ephiny that made life bearable for her. Solari now knew that in what was often a cold, cruel world she had a friend that she could count in. So it was then...so it was now. Solari was a proven warrior now, treated with the courtesy and respect such an important position demanded. Now many of the same ones who earlier in life had laughed at her were, if not her friend, then at least on good terms with her. And for that she had Ephiny, and to a lesser extent, Meelah to thank. Her dear friends--her only true friends, Solari would have gladly died for either of them.
Perhaps then, that was why she felt the resentment toward Eponin that she did. She ought not feel that way, she knew that. She could just not help it. But damn it, if Ephiny liked her then she would learn to like her to. All the thinking was making her aching head even worse and so with a sigh of resignation Solari bowed her head and cursed the rotten luck which--once again--had befallen her.
An hour later they were ready to move out. Earlier Ephiny's quest for the proper tree limbs had taken her back near the river bank and it was from there that she saw the ferry run up on the shore down at the bend, just as the ferryman had predicted. She also saw Eponin's horse stagger up out of the water on the other side. Hers, however, was nowhere to be seen and Ephiny reckoned she had not made it. Thus Ephiny lost the sturdy little horse that had helped save them all back in Getae. She would miss her.
With the River Macestus safely behind them now Meelah and her party once again resumed their long trek home. Their return was somewhat hampered due to the fact that they were never able to secure any additional horses. Still, they managed to make fairly good time and late in the evening five days later they made contact with an Amazon patrol. From her fellow captain Draganis Meelah learned of the apparent false alarm regarding Antibrote and of the tribe's subsequent return to the village.
So that was it then. Celeste was dead; the rest of them had suffered hardship and danger at every turn...and for what? Nothing.
Worn out, hungry--dejected, the party listlessly plodded into the village just after sunset. Before dismissing her warriors
Meelah personally thanked each and every one of them for their courage and devotion to duty--even the incredulous Velasca.
And then, like any dutiful captain, Meelah made straight off to report to her queen.
It was the weather-beaten face of Colsethme that Meelah first saw when her knock on the queen's door was answered. "La La!" the old warrior bellowed. "You're back!" "La La" had been a teenage Colsethme's name for Meelah way back in the days when she tended to her. Meelah had not heard that name in a very long time. Enthusiastically clapping Meelah on the shoulder, Colsethme said, "Come on in."
In the center of the room was a table; behind it stood Melosa, perfectly erect, her cool dark eyes impassively fixed up her two subordinates. Of the three Amazons present she was the least imposing physical specimen. Both Meelah and Colsethme were decidedly taller than their queen. Colsethme was beginning to acquire a bit of a paunch but she was still as strong as ever. Meelah, on the other hand, was the ideal model for the perfect Amazon warrior--even at age thirty-six. Tall and lean, she shared Velasca's sleekness even though she was far more muscular. Ephiny admired her mother's physique and hoped to one day look just like her although she knew she probably never would.
At the moment, however, Meelah felt neither sleek nor powerful. What she felt was fatigue. Walking up to her queen, she stiffened to attention. "Good evening, Highness," she said. "I wish to report."
"Proceed," Melosa said with a regal nod.
"The mission was a success. We were able to secure a dragon bush and bring it back."
Meelah paused here but Melosa could see that clearly something else was on her mind. "Yes?" she expectantly asked.
"We...lost one, ma'am."
Colsethme's shoulders slumped noticeably. Yet another one of the old ones gone, she thought bitterly. Damn the gods!
"How did it happen?"
"We were ambushed. We got caught in a very strong thunderstorm. The lightning was very intense so we took what shelter we could in a little recess in a rock cliff. While we were holed up in there some of the locals crept up to the top of a nearby hill and from that position one of them shot a single arrow at us." Meelah paused and lowered her head. "Somehow Celeste saw it coming. She...she smothered me and..."
"I see," Melosa said quietly.
"She took the arrow for me, ma'am."
"She took an arrow for her captain," Melosa pointedly reminded her.
"She saved my life."
This time Melosa's voice was a little more forceful as she replied, "She did her duty. And for that she died like a true Amazon."
"Yes, ma'am. I brought her body home. It's--it's in pretty bad shape but I just couldn't leave her back there."
"I understand," said the queen. Turning to her senior captain she said, "May, make the necessary arrangements immediately for a proper Amazon funeral."
"I will see to it personally," Colsethme assured her.
"I assume you know by now that our concern has turned out to be a false one."
"Yes, on the way in we met Draganis' patrol. She told me."
"And one of our best warriors died for nothing," said Colsethme.
"It wasn't for nothing," said Melosa quickly. "I will instruct the healers to preserve the bush and keep it against the day when we might really need it." The queen shot Meelah a look of approval and said, "You did well, Meelah. I would imagine you are tired. Go get some rest."
Meelah, however, had one more item to report, one she did not relish. "Ma'am there is...one other thing."
"It's Velasca. She's back."
At the precise moment that her mother was delivering her shock Ephiny was pushing open the door to their hut. Sticking her torch through, she saw everything was just as they had left it, as she knew it would be. "Be it ever so humble," she muttered.
"Yeah yeah, go on it," said an impatient Solari. "I'm starving!"
On their way there the tired pair had stopped in to ask for some food from old Ansara who they knew would have plenty. Long ago Ansara had lost her twin daughters in the same battle. So great had been her shock that even now some twenty years later the old woman could not bring herself to prepare meals only for one. As an Amazon she was not wasteful and so she always ended up giving away the extra food. In particular a young Solari had often been one to benefit from Ansara's peculiar habit and indeed she had often dreamed of being adopted by her. Consequently she and the old woman were much closer than was usually the case for a budding young warrior and an Amazon long past her prime. On this night the two young Amazons had done exceptionally well for themselves. Fish, flatbread, lentils--even some honey were stashed in Ansara's battered old basket.
Before long Ephiny had a nice little fire going in the hearth and it was by its flickering light that the two friends sat at Meelah's finely crafted table and ate what was for the both of them the best meal since leaving a fortnight ago.
"Mmmm, that's good," said Solari, finishing off a piece of the fish.
Ephiny nodded her agreement and then casually said, "You know, with all this food we should have asked Eponin to join us."
Like butter in a skillet Solari's conviviality melted away. Her mouth full of food, she mumbled, "Eponin?! What for? Let her get her own food."
There was a pause and Ephiny said, "You don't like her much do you?"
Solari put down her second piece of fish. "I never said that," she said coolly.
"Oh come on," Ephiny said gently. "This is me you're talking to. I know you."
"All right, so maybe I don't like her." Solari gave her friend a challenging look and said, "Why does that bother you so much?"
With feigned innocence Ephiny said, "Oh I don't know. I mean it doesn't really. You can like who you want."
"Thank you!" said Solari wryly.
"It's just that--"
"It's just that I think she's a stand up warrior and she's not such a bad person..." Quickly then Ephiny galloped home to the finish line, "...and I would just hate for you to shut her out before you've even gotten to know her, that's all."
"Well you seem to have cozied up to her enough for the both of us," said Solari tartly.
And in that moment Ephiny knew; Solari's old insecurities were rising up again. With an understanding smile she reached across the table to cap Solari's rough hand with her own. "Solari," she said softly, "you're my best friend. You always have been and you always will be. I swear to you nothing or no one will ever change that."
Eyebrows arched, Solari hesitantly asked, "Do you mean it?"
"Have I ever lied to you?"
Solari knew in her heart that Ephiny never had. Not really. After a moment's pause she looked askance and with a little grin replied, "Well, there was the time you took me snipe hunting."
And with that the both of them burst into giggling like children of the remembrance of Ephiny's long ago prank. When the titters died down Ephiny looked her friend in the eye and said, "I'll tell you something else."
Still smiling, Solari said, "What?"
"Back there, on the ferry, Eponin thought we were going to leave you."
For her part Solari really did not want to talk about Eponin anymore, especially after having just shared such a wonderful moment. Ephiny, however, seemed determined and as usual Solari was bound to give way to her. In her best effort not to appear acerbic anymore she said, "I guess that's how they do things in the Northern Tribe."
"Then they do things right because she was going to stay behind with you."
Solari was stunned by this. In disbelief she asked, "She was?"
"By the gods!" Solari gasped. "Why?"
"I don't know," Ephiny said with a shrug. "Maybe it was because she's a stand up warrior like I said. Then again maybe she just thought you were saving."
For a few moments Solari sat in wide-eyed silence. Finally she began to slowly shake her head. "Are my ears getting longer because I feel like such an ass."
It was the reaction Ephiny had hoped for. Solari was such a good person, too good to be so petty. Pleased with her friend's magnanimity, she just sat there in the light of the hearth, grinning.
It was not until early the next morning that Velasca and Melosa saw each other again after three long moons. Leaving the home of the warrior Shilo, where she had spent the night, Velasca stepped out into the brisk morning air and began to purposefully make her way through the very heart of village toward the quarters of the queen. As she walked she looked neither left nor right but kept her eyes fixed on the hut where the two of "them" lived, where she herself had lived for so long. Along the way she was conscious of being watched, of curious Amazons of all ages staring with surprised eyes, pointing and whispering to one another.
She loved it. Velasca had missed that--being the focus of attention. One day soon her reign would dominate every waking thought of these sheep. She wore her best clothes, new boots bought in Phrygia just for this occasion, a new deerskin skirt that she had made herself. For a top she wore not a cumbersome shirt or blouse but simply the heavy bra preferred by many Amazons of the warrior class. Silver studded arm and wrist bands rounded out the impressive attire.
Ordinarily Melosa would have already been out and about seeing to the day's affairs but on this day she had delayed departing the hut. She was expecting the impending visit and allowed she would not be long in waiting. She was right.
Outside the door of her hut she heard Jen say, "Yes, she's here." This was followed by the inevitable rap on the door.
The sentry pushed open the door and without a moment's hesitation Velasca strode straight in. Waiting for her was Melosa, standing in the precise spot where Meelah had found her the night before. In stony silence each of them for a moment carefully looked the other one up and down. The first thing Melosa noticed was Velasca's deep tan. It surprised her a little. She also saw that Velasca was perhaps a bit thinner. However she seemed extremely fit and her eyes were as fiery as ever. Obviously she had endured her exile very well.
As for Velasca she too was surprised albeit in a different way. This authoritarian woman who had always been so coldly menacing suddenly seemed...smaller somehow. Smaller and older. Just for the briefest of moments she sensed a vulnerability in the queen that she had never known before. And in that moment Velasca knew--not thought, not hoped--but KNEW...the time would come when the queen would not be able to prevent her from taking that which she was convinced she had been born to have. That day would not be today; it would probably not even be six moons from now...but it would come. Oh yes, sweet gods, it would come. Sooner or later the Fates would have their way.
So it was that with a look of almost lupine quality Velasca mentally salivated at the exquisite notion of destroying Melosa once and for all. Savagely she thought, Old woman, you are mine!
Buoyed by this, Velasca's confidence level rose even higher than before. "The three moons are up," she laconically announced. "Per your own decree my term of banishment is therefore over."
"I am surprised you came back," Melosa said frankly. "I had rather hoped you would choose to move on." For the queen this was a rare moment of personal insight.
"I could not let this grievous wrong I have suffered pass," said Velasca. "I told you I would return and I have. I will have justice."
"You suffered no wrong. You failed in your duty and suffered the proper punishment. You're not here for justice. No, you're here for revenge."
With a faint smirk Velasca said, "Call it what you will. In any event I will take from Terreis what should have been mine all along. I am the one most worthy to be your successor, Melosa. In your own heart you know that."
"What makes you think you're capable of exercising leadership?" hissed Melosa. "You have no sense of responsibility to the tribe, no moral character, certainly no devotion to duty. Don't fool yourself. All you have is your own ambition. It eats at you like some malignant growth."
"You are the one fooling herself," sneered Velasca. "Terreis is weak, a dreamer--incapable of applying the firm hand so necessary for a successful reign."
"A firm hand is one thing, a tyrannical one is another. Your brave mother was my dearest friend. She knew the difference. However it is a distinction I'm afraid you will never understand."
For Velasca the mention of her long dead mother was like the ripping open of a mending wound. Even now, after more than a decade, Velasca could not hide her hatred for the Amazon queen who she believed had purposefully sent her mother to her death. That was why she began every day by cursing to all eternity Penthesilea and all her progeny. "Enough of this!" she seethed. "I am not here to debate semantics. Terreis' succession is not an absolute, as much as you would like it to be. It is open to challenge and as a noble born Amazon I make that challenge as is my right! So unless you choose to ignore the Amazon law you love so well you will tell your dear little sister to meet me in open combat three days hence."
Eyes flashing, Melosa's voice was filled with barely controlled anger as she said, "If you claim to know Amazon law then you should also know that the challenge must be issued in person. Also, it is up to me, not you, to set the appointed time for the challenge."
"I don't care," Velasca snapped. "Today, tomorrow, a week from now, I don't care. Just name it. And just where is the little precious? She's not hiding is she?"
As it happened Terreis was out giving Pomona a break from watching over Missini but Melosa was too enraged to say so. And with good reason. She had taken the motherless Velasca in as a child, raised her as her own, given her a stature in the tribe she could have never achieved on her own. And this then was how she was to be repaid, with cold, calculating treason. For the first time in her life Melosa was glad Velasca's mother was not alive because to see her daughter as she was now would surely have broken her heart. "All right," Melosa said coldly, "you have made your challenge. Don't worry, I'll tell Terreis. And you can rest assured she will be there. Midday, three days hence on the training ground. Now get out of my sight."
Pleased to have made the usually imperturbable Melosa so upset, Velasca mockingly said, "As you wish, ma'am. I am your most humble servant." Executing a perfect bow, Velasca backed out of the hut.
Outside an amazed Jen had heard it all. "By the gods, Velasca," she gasped, "are you really going to challenge Terreis?"
"No, you big dumb cluck, I came to ask if I could be the tribe's flower girl."
"Well you don't have to be so snippy about it," Jen indignantly shot back. "It's not my fault you got the queen pissed at you."
Walking away, Velasca called over her shoulder, "And it's not my fault you're so stupid."
Hurt by this, Jen could only sputter, "Oh yeah? Well...I, I hope Terreis kicks your ass, you big cow!"
Without breaking stride Velasca continued right on walking away. You better hope she does, she thought. Because you just made my shit list too.
Late that morning found Ephiny, per her mother's instructions, busily helping the armorer Reisa fashion a new cache of arrowheads. As always, Reisa was pleased whenever it came Ephiny's turn to assist her because she knew on that day she would get considerably more work done than was usually the norm. Unlike some--indeed most--of the other young warriors who, sullen at having to be there, dawdled in their careless work, requiring constant supervision, Ephiny always diligently and with quiet efficiency applied herself to whatever task Reisa might assign to the girl. Rarely did she ever need correction once she was shown how to do a particular job. Reisa was not surprised at this; the girl's mother had been the same way.
Today Ephiny's job was a fairly simple one. Not skilled enough to shape the bronze, Ephiny had been put to cooling and sharpening the arrowheads. Since these particular tips would only be used for hunting and were not intended to be carried into combat the blade was wider and the consistency of the edge was not as critical as tips used in waging war, they along with the practice arrows could therefore be assigned to someone less skilled. The combat arrows, however, were first, last and always Reisa's exclusive domain.
Ephiny finished up yet another tip and then flexed her hands for a moment in an attempt to work out the stiffness. Glancing up, she looked out of the three-sided enclosure and saw Solari hurriedly wending her way through the myriad of Amazons going about their business in the village.
Stepping inside the shade of the building, Solari said, "Hey, Eph, aren't you finished yet?"
Again Ephiny wiggled the fingers on her sore hands and it was only with a hint of irritation that she replied, "Uhh, nooo."
Not that Solari noticed; she was already moving on to the real topic at hand. "Gods, have you heard? Velasca has challenged Terreis!"
Ephiny picked up another arrowhead and set it against the grinding wheel. "She said she would, didn't she?"
"Well yeah, but, I mean, who would have ever thought she would actually do it?"
Pressing her foot on the foot pedal, Ephiny began to turn the wheel. "Velasca's a real pain in the ass but she usually means what she says."
"Oh my, I'll bet Melosa is really pissed about it. I don't think I'd like to cross her path today."
"Too late," said Reisa, an amused look on her face. "Here she comes now."
The two younger Amazons turned to see a grim-faced Melosa, sword in hand, practically stomping her way through the village and coming right for them. As she approached Amazons in her path quickly moved aside in order to give their obviously furious queen a wide berth.
"Oh shit," muttered Solari. All her life she had felt extreme uneasiness whenever the icy Melosa happened to be near.
Once inside Reisa's shop Melosa pitched down her big sword upon Reisa's sturdy work bench and the weapon hit the table with a heavy thump. "I want the sharpest possible edge put on that," she brusquely ordered.
To this a hesitant Reisa replied, "Ma'am, too fine an edge might cause the blade to chip. Perhaps--"
"I don't care," said Melosa, cutting her off. "Just do it."
"As you wish, ma'am."
Suddenly Melosa turned to the two young warriors. "What are you two doing here?" she asked sharply. "Don't you have anything to do?"
Ephiny, having of course rose to her feet in the queen's presence, answered, "I'm helping with the arrowheads, ma'am."
The royal eyes, dark and intimidating, then fixed on the apprehensive Solari. "And you?"
Immediately flustered, Solari to her dismay now found her thought processes grinding to a complete and utter halt.
It was Reisa who came to Solari's rescue. Nudging the pile of wood lying beside her forge. she said, "Solari's been carrying firewood for me, ma'am."
Melosa knew better. Reisa always gathered her own wood. Still, she let it pass without comment. After all, it was not really the hapless Solari that she was angry with. No, it was the insolent Velasca that was the focus of her fury. "Very well," she said. "Reisa, I want your undivided attention on this. By tomorrow I want that sword sharp enough to carve up a traitorous sow."
"Uhh...ma'am?" The tentative voice was Ephiny's.
"Yes, what is it?" the queen impatiently asked. With the grave issue of succession weighing so heavily on her mind, she had no time for young, bottom rung warriors.
"I don't think Velasca intends to make the sword her weapon of choice," said Ephiny.
Solari was aghast at this, the queen incredulous and Reisa? She could not help but admire the young warrior's guts.
"Oh? And just how did you arrive at such an insightful revelation, Ephiny?"
The queen's biting tone made Solari discreetly take in a deep breath and hold it. Ephiny was taking a real chance here. An unsatisfactory explanation on her part could send the wrath of an already agitated Melosa thundering down upon her with far more ferocity than any Phrygian storm possibly could.
She need not have worried. Once again Ephiny displayed a resolve and personal courage that went far beyond her tender years. In meeting her queen's steely gaze Ephiny's clear voice never once wavered. "Think about it, ma'am," she said. "You saw the sword exercises often enough back then. How many times did you see Velasca best Terreis in a face-off?"
Deep in thought, Melosa shifted her eyes and stared blankly at Reisa's well worn anvil. After a moment she answered, "Never."
"Exactly. And I hardly think she could have honed her skills any further wandering the plains of Phrygia. I don't know about you, ma'am, but if I'm going to make a challenge I am not going to be so foolish as to choose a weapon with which I have very little chance of winning."
At this slightly presumptuous remark Solari's lungs sucked in even deeper. Sweet Artemis, Eph, she thought with alarm, what are you doing?
Melosa, however, never even noticed. She was too busy pondering on what this girl with the blonde, perpetually unruly locks had just said. Melosa gave Ephiny a brief, hard look and slowly said, "Neither would I."
What the queen did next shocked Solari and gave surprise even to the veteran Reisa. "What do you think she has in mind?" As a rule queens were reluctant to seek counsel from even their most senior commanders much less some newly masked warrior still wet behind the ears. Yet Melosa's question to Ephiny was just that.
Ephiny, while always showing the proper respect to her superiors, had never been one to get caught up personally in the rigid protocol of rank and privilege. She was more inclined to take people for what they were and because of this she was not as taken aback by the queen's inquiry as Solari and Reisa were. Nor was ego given any sort of superficial boost by this. As she saw it her queen was simply asking for her opinion and for her part she was fully prepared to give it. "I will be very surprised if Velasca does not choose for a weapon something fairly light, something that will allow her to maximize her superior hand speed."
Melosa raised an incredulous eyebrow. "And you think Velasca has superior hand speed?"
Ephiny could have tip-toed around the pointed question but true to her nature she chose rather to speak the truth as she saw it, "Yes, ma'am," she said simply, "I do."
The queen vigorously shook her head. "No, Velasca is too tall and lanky. I know her, remember? I saw her many times in the drills and I do not think her edge over Terreis is significant enough to make her want to opt for a light arm. If she does not take she sword she will go for a heavier weapon, not a lighter one."
Clearly Melosa was growing irritated. Ephiny's response then was quiet and measured, "Highness, I am but a newly masked warrior, barely removed from the training 'turd' that I was. I cannot possibly hope to match your experienced eye. Now, Velasca may or may not be that much quicker than Terreis--most would tell you that she is but the important thing is that she thinks she is." Ephiny drew herself up to her full height and added, "Ma'am, it is my humble opinion that Velasca will not want to pit her strength against Terreis' because she knows she will lose."
Again Melosa intently studied the girl's face for a moment, saying nothing. While still not completely convinced, she was forced to admit that Ephiny might--just might--be raising a possibility that Terreis would do well to prepare for. One never knew with Velasca.
"Very well then," she said, "I will voice your concern to Terreis. Perhaps in the end in might prove useful after all."
Ephiny bowed politely and said, "Yes, ma'am."
Melosa shot Reisa a stern glance and said, "Nevertheless, I still want that sword readied at once."
"It will be done," Reisa calmly assured her.
With a curt nod Melosa spun on her heels and promptly walked out. Solari, breathing at last, eased in beside her friend. "Hmph," she snorted, "she didn't even say thanks."
Grinning mischievously, Ephiny said, "Queens don't say thanks to nobodies like us. But then, you could go jump her about it."
Solari raised a hand and said, "Or maybe not."
Reisa walked out from her work bench to stand behind the two of them. "Ephiny," she said approvingly, "if you were a male I'd swear you'd have balls the size of Hera's apples."
Ephiny could only blush as Solari giggled at her friend's obvious embarrassment. In an effort to change the subject Ephiny diplomatically cleared her throat and said, "I wonder how Celeste's funeral preparations are coming along."
"Let's go see," said Solari. "Oh! Guess what? They say your mother is going to give the tribute."
Ephiny was genuinely surprised by the news. "Really?"
"Yup, Therme and Valerie both said they heard Melosa say so."
"Therme," Ephiny grunted. "A nut cake if there ever was one." In her mind she was as bad as Morda had been.
"So, do you want to go or not?" asked Solari.
Nodding toward her unfinished work, Ephiny said, "Can't, I've got to finish up here."
Reisa placed a strong hand on the shoulder of each of the young warriors. "Aw go on," she said. "I'll finish up for you."
In surprise Ephiny looked back over her shoulder. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I'll get 'em tonight after I finish with the sword. Now get on out of here, you two. Have fun."
"Thanks, Race!" Solari chirped. Grabbing her friend by the hand, she enthusiastically began leading her up the street toward where the great funeral pyre was being erected. With a smile Reisa watched them go. Ahh youth, she thought warmly. I hope they appreciate what they have because one never...
Reisa shook her head as if to clear out such depressing thoughts. Nothing in her life had worked out as she had hoped but what was to be done about it now?
Damn it, moping over things past won't get the work done, she resolutely reminded herself. Reisa picked up Melosa's sword at carefully inspected its fine blade. There would be no grinding stone for this. Nothing less than meticulous hand sharpening would do for the sword of the Supreme Commander.
Like every young Amazon Reisa had longed to be a warrior; she had dreamed of it, prayed for it. Sadly, it never came to pass. When Reisa was twelve years old, just before she was to begin her formal training, a fall from a horse had left her with a broken arm. The break eventually mended but a poor job of setting the bone resulted in the hand ending up being slightly offset from the arm. Although fully functional in every respect, Penthesilea had taken one look at the girl's arm and coldly informed her that there was no room in her forces for a cripple. By the time Penthesilea's death came it was too late. Reisa's lot in life had already been irreversibly cast. Since then, year after year, Reisa had watched from her forge as the bright, freshed-faced young warriors entered into the queen's service and could only wonder at what might have been. Well, she thought, it had not been such a bad life. Not really.
And so with one last, soft little sigh of wistfulness for the proud warrior that never was Reisa quietly turned to the job at hand.
On the way over to the pyre Ephiny and Solari came upon the younger Valerie leading a horse hitched to a cart that was bearing a load of wood. Accompanying her was Eponin who had gone with the girl on her trip into the forest.
"Hey, Val," Solari said cheerfully.
Valerie smiled and said, Hi, guys. Where were you when I needed you?"
"I've been busy too," said Ephiny. Slyly she added, "It's Solari who's been the lazy ass."
"Hey-ey!" Solari indignantly howled. "I had stuff to do."
All through this Eponin had said nothing, instead merely contenting herself to look upon these younger ones with a kind of mild indifference. Though only a couple of years older than Solari, the eldest of the three, it seemed to Eponin that the difference was much more than that.
Solari, losing interest in Valerie, nudged Ephiny and murmured, "Let's go."
Ephiny, however, had other ideas. "Not yet," she said. "You're got something to do first."
"Don't play dumb, you know what I'm talking about."
Solari did indeed. She had hoped to just let the matter fade away but apparently Ephiny was not going to allow that to happen. Damn her! she thought. Why can't she just leave me alone? Why does she have to be such a pain? Down deep, though, she knew Ephiny was not being a pain. Far from it. It was simply that Ephiny's sense of right and wrong would not allow what she saw as a slight on Solari's part to go unaddressed. Ephiny knew her friend was better than that. "Eph, she didn't really do anything," Solari whispered.
Reprovingly Ephiny whispered back, "What are you talking about? She was willing to risk her life for you. What the hell more do you need? Solari, you don't have to kiss her, just show a little gratitude."
"All right, all right. I'll do it. Gods but you're stubborn!"
"No more than you are."
Solari dropped back to let the cart pass and then quickly moved to the other side to catch up with Eponin. Moving in beside Eponin, she asked, "Umm, you got a moment?"
"What's on your mind?"
"Eph told me what you did. How you volunteered to stay with me back on the raft."
"Somebody had to stay with you," said Eponin.
"But why you? You barely know me."
Eponin shot her a sharp look. "Is that supposed to matter? You're an Amazon, aren't you? Well Amazons are supposed to watch out for each other or at least, that's how I was trained. Look, Solari, I know you don't really care for me and that's all right. Personally I could care less. If you have a real problem with me we can take it somewhere and settle it Amazon to Amazon, any time you want. But pals or not once we're in a combat situation I'm going to look out for your ass as if it were my own. I would hope that if circumstances arise you will do the same for me."
It was with the utmost sincerity Solari answered, "I will."
"All right then. Now, I'm not used to speaking this much and, besides, I have work to do so if you will excuse me..."
"Umm, sure. Right. Hey, Eponin?"
The older warrior turned back to face her. "Yeah?"
Solari pressed her lips together, forming an apologetic little smile. "Thanks."
Eponin's face remained as stoic as ever--all except for the barest hint of a twinkle in her eye. "Any time, kid." Turning to Valerie, she said, "Here's where we part company. Valerie, it was nice to meet you."
Valerie waved a hand in acknowledgment but Eponin was already walking away. "You know," she said to Solari, "I don't know what's going on between you two but I think she's very nice--a little brusque but nice."
Joining them, Ephiny added, "Stand up?"
"Yeah," said Valerie. "Stand up."
Solari watched Eponin stride off across the village and with a grin turned back to her friends. "Okay then, so maybe I was wrong.
Maybe she's not so bad after all."
When they had all gathered, the Amazons stood there, speaking in low murmurs with those in the back ranks craning their necks to see. Presently the circle parted to allow Melosa, followed by Terreis and the four senior commanders, to make her way through and stand before the pyre. The murmurings died away into total silence. Children, restlessly tugging at their mothers sides, got stern looks and sharp yanks on the arm in reply. For a moment it seemed sound itself had been banished from their village.
Suddenly the stillness was shattered by an explosion of the first thunderous blows upon ten heavy ceremonial war drums, repeating in unison the same five simple notes over and over. At the proper moment Amazon vocalists which had been meticulously placed nearby, broke into the first haunting, ancient strains of the sacred "Death Song." This was immediately followed by the entrance of the dancers; lithe, nubile young warriors, hoping to please Artemis with the rhythmic movements of their writhing bodies,
From her place in front Ephiny could see across the clearing to the somber faces of the four captains. The queen stood among them, her own countenance as stoic as ever. One face the daughter of Meelah did not see was that of Velasca. Aside from old Euset she alone had chosen not to attend. At that precise moment she was sitting in Shilo's hut, listening to the drums booming in the distance as she stared blankly out into the empty village. Why should she bother with such hypocrisy? Celeste meant nothing to her, nor for that matter did any of the others.
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the pounding of the drums ceased, their last resounding beat echoing away into the trees. The voices too were stilled once more and the dancers, their tanned bodies now glistening with perspiration, melted away into the crowd. In the renewed silence the Amazons waited as Meelah stepped away from her queen's side and walked over to the pyre. There she mounted a makeshift platform that had been erected for just this purpose. As she did the circle broke and those on the opposite side of the pyre quickly shifted around to Meelah's side of the pyre. Up on the platform Meelah took a moment to look over the crowd. As a senior Amazon commander this would be her first real speech. She, however, was not the least bit nervous. Why should she be? These were her people, her friends, her comrades-in-arms. She had laughed and cried, shared food, fought and suffered and--yes--bled with many of them. She could no more be nervous about speaking before them than if she were home and simply chatting with her own daughter.
Taking a deep breath, she began:
Amazons!...Friends. As you well know, those on the outside, in the male dominated world, very often either do not understand us
or simply choose to lie about our traditions, our very way of life. If you were to walk among them, friends, you would not have to
go very far before you found those so called sages who, when asked, would shake their hoary heads and tell you with the utmost
authority that Amazons are fanatics, maniacal zealots to whom death means nothing. They might even say Amazons not only find
death unfearful but actually desirable. They see us as female Spartans, ruthless both to our enemies..." Here Meelah paused and
sharply swept her eyes over the crowd..."and to our own kind."
Out in the crowd heads nodded solemnly. Meelah's face then brightened and, continuing, said, "Well, you and I know differently. How utterly foolish they are to think thusly! How stupidly they confuse courage and selfless devotion to duty as mindless...fanaticism. As warriors we are trained not to senselessly die on command but to fight to live!
Now, I would not think myself mistaken when I say that most of us indeed to not fear death. That then, is true enough. But with all our valor not one of us wants to die--certainly not me..." In finishing Meelah respectfully lowered her voice. "...and certainly not Celeste. On the contrary she embraced life. Few I think got more out of each day than she did. All of us should strive to do the same. As for myself I know how precious life is! I have only to look into the eyes of my beautiful child to see the wonder, the miracle of life. Who would want to forsake that? Nigh onto three decades did I know Celeste, from the time when we were both runny nosed urchins gleefully playing in the dirt. Over the years we often explored our world together. Fondly do I remember our many days spent up in the western hills: our great adventures where we and our friends saved the entire Amazon Nation countless times." Out in the crowd a fleeting, knowing smile of fond remembrance played across the lips of many of the older warriors. "More than once she and I got sick together from eating too many green apples."
From her place in the crowd Ephiny listened in wonder as her mother spoke. Never had she seen this side of her before.
"Later, when the time at long last came, I remember how we trained, how we sweated and drilled together. I remember how dedicated she was..." Meelah now flashed her own little smile and added, "and how spirited our face-offs were." The smile faded and for a brief moment Meelah's eyes grew hard. "And how as warriors we defended the tribe and slew our enemies. Celeste was a true Amazon. No one here can say she was not.
You young ones among us, those new to the mask, those still in training--even those who as of yet can only dream of the day when they too can proudly bear the title of 'Warrior,' look well upon a true hero. Remember not her lifeless remains but rather her energetic spirit, her ready smile and most of all, the shining example of courage and selfless sacrifice she set for you and indeed for all of us. Amazon, warrior, friend. I will truly miss her. Her loss has left a void in the tribe that will not easily be filled. However, as Celeste herself would have readily said, 'life goes on' and it is therefore left up to us, the living, to not mourn her death, but celebrate her life. It is up to us to bestow this one final honor and start our fallen warrior on her joyous, her triumphant, journey to Elysium, there to be welcomed by all our illustrious ancestors who have gone before and by the protective arms of Artemis herself. And so, with the kind permission of our noble queen, I ask that Minutia now step forward and light the funeral pyre, that its purifying flames may forever cleanse brave Celeste's soul of the woes all mortals must bear."
All eyes turned to a grave Minutia. The flaming arrow already drawn in her bow, the big warrior sent it streaking into the pyre. As she released the arrow the great drums began to thunder out once more. The wood, dry and soaked with pitch, caught fire immediately. One by one the four captains trooped to Minutia's side to follow suit. Colsethme, who in her youth had tended to Celeste; Willa, who had always regarded Celeste as less than intelligent but who respected her as a warrior nonetheless; Draganis, who as a young warrior was greatly influenced by Celeste; Meelah, her lifelong friend and last captain and finally Polymenia, Celeste's only surviving sister.
Soon the flames were shooting up higher and higher, edging ever closer to the deceased's freshly wrapped body. Melosa, her regal obligations complete, did not stay to the finish. Neither did many of the others. As Meelah had said, they had their own lives to look to. Meelah, however, did stay as did Ephiny, Solari, Minutia and many of the most experienced warriors. Celeste had been and still was one of their own.
Watching the flames as they at last reached the corpse, Colsethme said, "Lee, I have to tell you, that was one damn fine speech."
"I was just trying to do her justice," Meelah modestly replied.
Caught up in the emotion of the moment, filled with pride in her mother, Ephiny lost herself for a moment. "It's true, Momma," she said. "You would have made a wonderful ambassador."
"What was that?" a perplexed Colsethme asked.
Meelah wrapped an arm around her daughter's shoulders and gave her an affectionate little hug. With a hint of a smile all she said was, "Oh, nothing."
The next morning, long before the first signs of Eos' return to light the eastern sky, Terreis was up and dressed. Having gone to bed early, she slumbered restfully as one confident in her own abilities and secure in the belief that her ancestors would be watching over her. In the night she had dreamed of her long dead mother, the beautiful Penthesilea, and her aunt Hippolyte, whom Penthesilea later tragically killed by mistake. Many said it was her grief that sent her off to the killing fields at Troy where death was almost certain. But in her dream they both on this night again stood side by side, their regal accoutrements sparkling in the bright sun, their gleaming swords unsheathed and ready for battle. Their noble lineage was hers and it was by this birthright, handed down through them, that she, and not Velasca, was destined to rule. To Terreis it was as unmistakable as the sun. They would stand with her this day. How then, could she possible lose?
On the more practical side Terreis, like nearly everyone else, had carefully assessed the strengths and weaknesses, both real and perceived, of the two combatants. She knew herself to be the stronger of the two--she had proven it time and time again. She was also well aware of the general consensus that Velasca was quicker and perhaps even a bit more skilled in hand to hand combat. Of these Terreis discounted the former and doubted the latter. She was willing to concede Velasca might be faster but like her sister she did not think the edges to be great enough to matter. As for their comparative swordsmanship Terreis had no doubt whatsoever that she was at least as good, if not better. No, Velasca would come flashing out, full of fury as she always did and Terreis would systematically fend off her flurries and then slowly but steadily wear Velasca down--just as she had always done.
Poor Velasca, she thought. Poor, misguided, ambitious Velasca. I pray you don't force me to take your life.
As for Velasca, her night had not been spent quite so peacefully. All night she lay on her hard pallet, fitfully tossing and turning. and occasionally dozing off for a few moments only to with a start quickly reawaken. For all her self-assurance, for all her careful scheming over the past three moons, Velasca at this last hour could not seem to shake the gnawing feeling that Terreis might indeed prove to be the superior warrior after all. All night this unsettling possibility hung over her, sinking down then to enshroud her in doubt, suffocating her confidence in what should have been a time of great anticipation. Perplexed but even more so irritated by this sudden sense of foreboding, Velasca found it inexplicable. Worse, she desperately tried to suppress even the slightest notion that she might be having second thoughts. Well, it was too late for that at any rate. The challenge had been flung in the face of Terreis and there was no going back.
But what if I lose? she thought. No!! You will not lose! You MUST NOT...lose. You...will..not...lose. The Fates and Artemis will not favor the weak-willed Terreis, but you, the best hope of the Amazon race.
All night long this little internal drama was played out over and over again in Velasca's disquieted mind. Finally she could take no more and so, like her adversary, Velasca too arose well before dawn. There the similarities ended. For breakfast Terreis enjoyed three eggs, a slab of the previous night's boar, warm bread topped with honey and washed down by two hefty mugs of fresh goat's milk. In contrast Velasca had to content herself with a hunk of stale cheese and a greasy piece of cold fish. Terreis patiently waited out the morning alone in her royal abode. To pass the time she read, practiced her recital of the "War Song," occasionally checked and rechecked her weapons and even nodded off for a catnap every now and then. Melosa had done her work well. On this, the biggest day of her life, her sister was the very epitome of composure.
Restlessly pacing in Shilo's dark hut, the same could not be said for Velasca. All morning she too waited out the appointed time by staying indoors, oblivious to the morning hustle and bustle of Amazons going back and forth outside. Her irritability increased with each passing moment, so much so that it was not long before Shilo could no longer put up with Velasca's glares and curt, snapping answers. Throwing up her hands in exasperation, Shilo retreated the hut, leaving Velasca alone to stew in her own juices.
Velasca could not understand it. Why after all this time was she now having doubt? And she was having doubt, despite all her best efforts to smother it. As if to convince herself she repeated the same mantra over and over in her mind as she continued to fretfully pace back and forth: I can defeat Terreis, I am the better warrior. I will prevail. Destiny awaits me.
At last the pacing stopped. Velasca stood there, alone, just as she had always been. Fool! she chided herself. Why do you worry so? Did not the sorceress Perille, sworn enemy of Antiope, from her deathbed curse the queen with a prophecy that the house of Druis would fall with the double daughters of a Cilician? Are not Melosa and Terreis both the seed of the same Cilician captive?
Velasca sat down at the roughly hewn table and poured herself a generous serving of Shilo's wine. After a couple of quick swallows she began to feel better. Yes, it was true. It must be true. Their time was almost over. The downfall of the usurper Druis' line would begin on this very day and soon, very soon, it would be her star that would ascend over the first the Southern Amazons and finally the entire Amazon Nation. Velasca finished off the wine and poured herself a little more. Mustn't get careless, she thought. Besides, the wine was much too sweet for her taste. Soon she would have better.
Aided by the warmth of Shilo's wine Velasca's confidence began to return. With a little smirk she leaned back in her chair and leisurely put her feet up on Shilo's table. Suddenly her mind turned to one of the very few that had ever dared to oppose her. That Ephiny, she thought disgustedly. Everyone thinks she's such a pluba. In the language of the ancient Amazons pluba had meant "golden warrior." That snot-faced little shit! she seethed. I'll crush her and her supercilious mother. They won't help me, to hell with them. To hell with all of them!
Buoyed by her sweet thoughts of revenge, Velasca idly lolled her head back and looked up at the roof for a moment before bolting to
her feet once more. She sauntered over to the door and, cracking it open, looked out. Yesterday's clouds had cleared away during the
night, freeing the sun from having to fight them for supremacy of the morning sky. The morning shadows were growing shorter. The time
was almost at hand. Three moons of endless planning were now down to this. Velasca closed the door and pressed her back up against it.
If all went well the stratagem she had devised would by nightfall leave her sole heir to Melosa's legacy. Most of her waking hours
since her banishment had been spent developing it. Now the only thing left was to keep her head and carry it out. If she did that it
would work she felt. It had to work.
That morning the tribe waited out the time with varying degrees of interest. Naturally the senior commanders and their officers along with the more veteran warriors all wanted Terreis to win. Some just wanted the arrogant Velasca to get her ass kicked. They did not care who did it. Most of the tribe, even those who did not care who won, was comfortable with the present leadership, Melosa had led them well and so they saw no need for a change. There were others who did not have the greatest confidence in Terreis' ability to lead but who regarded her as the lesser of two evils when compared to Velasca. All in all the great majority wanted the status quo maintained.
As it was Velasca was not without her supporters--hot blooded young warriors who thought the House of Druis much too pacific, too conciliatory, too timid, in its approach to their surrounding neighbors. The history of the Amazon Nation was one of conquest and yet here they were, sitting on their asses, raising peasant crops and growing fat while their numbers dwindled all the while. What they needed was someone like that Greek Xena who by all accounts was at that very moment spreading terror from Thrace to the Gulf of Laconia. Hopefully Velasca would be their Xena and lead them in the rebuilding of Myrene's ancient and fabled empire. However except for Shilo these would be Thutmoses were to an Amazon all choosing to keep a very low profile--at least until Velasca's victory.
Like most of the others Ephiny was waiting out the morning with great anticipation. After all it was not every day that a royal Amazon fought a challenge. Well, thought Ephiny, she just damn better win, that's all. If she doesn't...
For most Amazons the day was something akin to a holiday and all throughout the village very little work being done anywhere. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Ephiny. On this morning Meelah had given her a most unwarriorlike assignment--scraping a deer hide which could then be taken to the tanner. Mid-morning found the young warrior still busily engaged in her task. Stopping to wipe the grease from her hands, she heard a cheery, "Hello."
Ephiny peeked below the rack holding the stretched hide and saw a pair of thin legs, one of which had a big freckle right on top of the kneecap. Right away she knew who it was. "Hello, Abby," she replied.
Fifteen year old Abisinthe walked around to the other side of the rack. "Eww," she said, wrinkling her nose, "how did you get stuck with that?"
"Somebody has to do it," Ephiny said with a resigned shrug. "Don't you?"
"Naw, not anymore. Mother makes Ici do most of that stuff now."
It must be nice to have a younger sister, thought Ephiny. She nodded toward the small cloth bag Abisinthe was carrying. "What have you got in the sack?"
Her reply caused Ephiny to make a face. "Yuk!"
"I know," said Abisinthe, "I hate them too. Mother likes them though."
"She can have them."
"So who do you think is going to win today?"
"I know who'd better win or there's going to be hell to pay for the rest of us," said Ephiny matter-of-factly.
With a derisive sniff Abisinthe said, "Well Velasca must getting a case of cold feet."
"What makes you say that?"
"I came upon her in the woods yesterday evening. There she was, down on both knees and bent over in prayer. What do you think of that?"
Incredulous, Ephiny looked askance at her and said, "C' mooon. Velasca?"
Throwing up both hands, Abisinthe said, "Eph, I swear it."
If it was true Ephiny thought it an oddity to be sure. Velasca had never been known to be much for prayer. Perhaps she had found some kind of enlightenment during her sojourn on the plains of Phrygia or maybe she was merely trying to cover all the angles. Then again, perhaps Abisinthe was right and she was just plain scared. Whatever the case it certainly was curious. Whoever she was praying to I hope they were not listening, Ephiny thought. With arched eyebrows Ephiny wryly said, "Will wonders never cease?"
This got a chuckle from Abisinthe as she switched her load from one hand to the other. "I should be going. See you at the fight?"
"I'll be there," said Ephiny. "See you then."
Abisinthe began to walk away and Ephiny returned to her work. However she could not get her friend's strange little tale out of her mind. For some reason it kept nagging at her. What was Velasca doing out there? she wondered. Ephiny was certain that whatever Velasca's reason for being out there in those woods it was not because she was after a place of solitude for prayer, meditation or anything of the like. No, something else had her out there. What then? Like a nettlesome gnat it keep buzzing around her. Knowing Velasca as she did Ephiny was satisfied that she had been up to no good and coming as it did on the eve of such a potentially watershed day she found that even more troubling.
Absently Ephiny wiped the fat from her scraper. Had Velasca been looking for something? she wondered. No, not looking for something. Not out there. More likely she was hiding something. What? And why? More to the point, why now? Could it have something to do with the challenge? Ephiny could not shake the ominous feeling that it did. Damn you, Velasca! What are you up to? Maybe I ought to go take a look, she thought. She knew that if she was going to check it out then it was going to have to be right now. Time was growing very short. Maybe it was nothing but then again, maybe it was. Who could say for certain? Maybe even the outcome of the challenge itself might depend on it.
Tossing down the scraper she trotted off toward Abisinthe whose leisurely pace had only taken her just a short distance away. "Abby! Abby!"
Abisinthe heard the cries and turned to find Ephiny bearing down hard upon her. "What?" the girl asked.
Stutter stepping to a stop, Ephiny grabbed the younger girl by both shoulders. "Did she see you?"
"Velasca. Did she see you?"
"Just answer me. Did she see you?"
A perplexed Abisinthe furrowed her brow and said, "I dunno. I doubt it. It was getting pretty dark and I was quite a way off."
Good! thought Ephiny. "Take me there."
"Take me there!"
"Just humor me, okay?"
Abisinthe looked at her curiously but said, "Well...all right, but first I've got to get these--"
Ephiny snatched the sack of mussels from Abisinthe and said, "Later."
"Ee-eph!" Abisinthe bleated, "those are my mother's. She'll have a fit if I don't get those home right away."
"They'll keep until we get back."
"You're going to get me into trouble."
"I'll tell you mother it was my fault, now come on." Ephiny seized Abisinthe's hand and began to pull her back toward her hut. At the stretch rack Ephiny hung the sack of mussels up on it and again said, "Come on."
Stutter stepping, half running to keep up, Abisinthe pleaded with her friend, "Ephineee! What's this all about?"
"I'll tell you when we get there." Ephiny untied her mother's horse without bothering to saddle it and then easily bellied up on the animal. By now poor Abisinthe had pretty much succumbed to Ephiny's will and so it was without further resistance that she took her friend's outstretched arm. With the girl nestled in behind her Ephiny looked over her shoulder and said, "All right, where are we going?"
"The northern perimeter," Abisinthe answered. "Near the Tittie Tree."
"Hang on," said Ephiny, and with a firm kick she prodded the big horse to life.
"Now, Terreis, I want you to be on your best behavior while I'm away."
"You're a big girl now so try to help your sister. And you had better mind Phillipia's every word, do you hear me? Remember, you're a princess and what is a princess supposed to do?"
"Set a good example."
"That's right. Now, be sure you pay attention to your lessons because they're very important."
"That's my little warrior. Give mommy a big hug."
Even now, over ten years later, Terreis could feel the warmth of that final hug, the last time she was ever held in her mother's arms.
"Momma, why do you have to go?"
"I told you, child. We have to help our friends the Trojans. These people called the Greeks--they are very bad--they are waging war against our friends and we have to make them stop."
"But why do you have to go?"
"Because I am the queen, sweetheart. I could not very well send our sisters into battle without going myself now could I? What would you think of your old mother then? The queen is the leader, Terreis, the supreme authority on whom everyone else depends. Her people look to her not only for guidance but support. I am both their beacon and their bulwark. They need me and so, I must go. I cannot do otherwise. One day you yourself may become queen. Then you will understand."
From behind there was a voice, low and respectful. "We need to be going, Highness, if we want to get though the hills by nightfall." Terreis remembered looking at Penthesilea's muscular brown thighs as she stood up. Her mother had murmured something to a teen-aged Melosa, whom Terreis remembered as having looked especially somber that day. Turing her attention back to her youngest, Penthesilea had kissed the child on the cheek.
There had not even been a good-bye. Swinging up on her horse, the queen had simply spurred her horse and thundered off, her band of hand-picked warriors all shrieking loud, piercing war cries as they trailed along behind. It was only in later years, long after the terrible news of the death of her mother had been received, that the full, heartbreaking realization came to Terreis. The Amazons had been under no obligation to go to Troy. The Trojans were not even their friends. What she now understood was that Troy had simply been where the fight was and Penthesilea had gone for no other reason than she wanted to be there. As a consequence she and every last Amazon who had gone with her had died. And for what?
Since then she and Melosa had spoken very little about it. This was hardly a surprise. Even as a youngster Melosa had been
known as a locked box. However with the death of her mother and her own subsequent rise to power the subjugation of Melosa's own emotions
was to become so complete and the wall around her soul to be built up so high that except for the rare flash of anger it was impossible to
read what was happening behind those dark, smoldering eyes. Only Terreis--and even her only very rarely--was allowed behind that wall. And
if there was one thing Terreis did know it was that Melosa had never forgiven their mother for flitting off to some senseless war, leaving
behind a little girl barely able to pee by herself and a self-conscious, skinny teenager not yet fully prepared for the crushing responsibility
that was so soon to be thrust upon her.
Terreis opened her eyes sat up straight in Melosa's heavy chair. She had not been asleep but daydreaming instead--letting her mind drift back to those sweet thoughts of a carefree youth and her mother, the proud, beautiful Penthesilea. It was something she often did, especially in quiet times such as this and it was always a thing of comfort for her, today so more than ever. The princess rose from her seat and went to the door to look out. The shadows were growing very short. It was time to get ready. Where is Melosa? she wondered.
Walking over to the table, she picked up Melosa's sword. Quietly she pulled the weapon from its scabbard and held it up before her. Reisa had done her job well. The metal was polished such that even in the relatively dim light of the hut the sword seemed to take on an almost luminous quality. The blade's double edges appeared to be whetted to such a sharpness that Terreis felt she could almost get cut simply by looking at it.
A soft creaking of the door heralded Melosa's return. "Where have you been?" asked Terreis. Her question contained no hint of alarm, merely the idle tone of someone only mildly interested in getting an answer.
"Out to see Missini," said Melosa. "Antibrote is showing marked improvement so I'm going to have somebody go out and bring them home. Antibrote can stay with Ansara until her hut is rebuilt."
"Good," said Terreis absently. "That's good."
Melosa crossed the room to stand beside Terreis. Like her sister she had spent much of her time on this fateful day thinking of their mother and the last time she ever saw her. To Terreis it seemed like a lifetime ago, to Melosa only yesterday. When the news of Penthesilea's death had finally filtered back to the tribe Melosa had stolen unseen out into the comforting surroundings of the forest and wept for the first and only time in her adult life. Her tears fell not only for the mother she would never see again but also for herself and the enormous burden she would now have to bear in her stead. No one, not even Terreis, ever knew of the afternoon spent alone, helplessly sobbing in the forest and no one ever would.
Out of the corner of her eye Melosa cast Terreis a subtle glance. The somewhat whiny child was now a sturdy young woman of impeccable character, proud and brave and blessed with the strong lines of a warrior's physique. Already she had led warriors in battle and had done very well. All these years Melosa had raised her as best she could. She had overseen her education, counseled her...protected her.
And now? Well Terreis was not a little girl anymore. Terreis was a princess, subject to the laws of the tribe just like everyone else. Now she was own her own. The first challenge was always a nerve wracking affair. Melosa remembered hers very well. Within six moons of her ascension one of Penthesilea's old captains had tested her. The warrior, battle tested over many years, proved to be a formidable opponent, especially for a relatively inexperienced girl still in her teens. Only to her own conscience would Melosa admit still not knowing how she had ever managed to prevail. She had however, leaving the rest of the tribe duly impressed. It had also been her first kill. Since then she had fought one more, a relatively minor skirmish some four years ago that had been over almost before it began. This time the combination of her physical and mental maturation along with her finely honed combat skills had made for an overwhelming display and awed even the most grizzled of the tribe's veteran warriors. Ever since then her grip on supreme authority over the tribe had been total and absolute. She planned on keeping it that way.
The hut took on an uncomfortable silence. Melosa, imperious, stubborn, wedded to her duty, stood there wanting to tell her sister how proud she was of her, how much she loved her. But she could not. Such heart to heart expressiveness was simply not in her nature.
It was not that she needed to anyway. Terreis knew how she felt. Over the years the highly sensitive Terreis had become so attuned to Melosa's subtleties that by now she had developed something akin to a sixth sense when it came to reading her sister's innermost feelings. This was both good and bad because it also meant that Terreis was all too aware of Melosa's nagging concerns about her sister's inner toughness. Terreis hoped that today would go a long way toward burying those concerns once and for all.
Finally Melosa broke the silence. "It is almost time."
"Are you ready?"
Terreis looked into Melosa's handsome face. With a determined little nod she said, "I'm ready."
Melosa took the sword from Terreis' hand and slid it back into the scabbard, finishing with an emphatic push. She handed the scabbard to Terreis who without a word tied it around her waist. The princess liked to wear her sword at the side, not strapped across her back as many Amazons preferred.
"Now, Terreis," Melosa began, "I need not remind you of what this day means both for you personally and for our ruling line. For six generations we have successfully withstood any and all challenges to our authority. I expect you will one day take up the legacy established by the great Druis and carried on so magnificently by all those who followed. An important step toward doing that will be taken today.
It is vital you understand that it is not enough to merely win. You must leave no doubt in anyone's mind about your inherent superiority. It is imperative that you demonstrate fully to every last Amazon the utter futility of trying to challenge you. To that end you must not only win decisively, you must not only humble Velasca you must crush her, utterly and completely, compelling her to choose between death or humiliation." Coldly she added, "Let us hope she chooses the former."
"Velasca is a threat that needs to be dealt with now," Terreis answered soberly. "I know what needs to be done," .
At first Melosa said nothing in reply but looking into her eyes Terreis for the first time in a very long time detected just the most minute hint of emotion, of the great gate to her sister's soul perhaps being opened if only for the barest crack. "Terreis," said Melosa softly, "you will be queen one day, you know that."
And in that fleeting moment Terreis knew that this person was not fierce Melosa, the icy, all powerful, Supreme War Lord whose iron will dominated every facet of their lives. No, here before her now if only for a moment was merely her big sister, made unfortunate by virtue of the fact that six times now she had lain with a male and six times she had come up childless, empty...barren. "Ohh, sister," she said tenderly, "there is still time."
"No," Melosa said flatly as she shook her head. "I have suffered my last humiliation. I will not try again." As queen she was expected to produce an heiress. Her continued inability to do so had drawn whispers and raised eyebrows among many in the tribe, especially given the knowledge that Amazons were well known to be an especially fertile race but even more so because there was little indication that she had ever even lain with a male. Indeed, Melosa, ever the private person, had been so secretive in her attempts that only Euset and Racillione knew the real truth. For a healthy young queen in her prime child bearing years to fail to produce a child was not just a rarity, it was practically unheard of. Even those queens who had found males abhorrent, who had preferred the soft caresses of other Amazons, had done their duty to the tribe nevertheless and produced that all important offspring to carry on the line.
All in memory had done it. All that is, except Melosa. And as long as she was childless Terreis would remain the next in line. Now that this state of affairs was acquiring more than a semblance of permanency Melosa's focus on the young princess was becoming more and more acute. A loss here, in her first challenge, would be nothing short of calamitous, throwing the entire tribe into upheaval and perhaps even splitting them. That could not--must not--be allowed to happen. Terreis understood this as well as Melosa and like her sister her young mind was fixated on maintaining the status quo. Second only to the tribe's security was its stability and this she was determined to keep intact. Melosa's announcement was nothing less than a revelation but at the moment Terreis' focus lay on other matters--such as her own life.
"Terreis, it is up to you now to take up the legacy of our ancestors, I do not exaggerate when I say that you have an opportunity to become one of the greatest queens our people have ever had. Do not let it slip away."
"I am..." Melosa lingered over the words she seemed to find so hard to say.
Terreis craned her neck in a gesture of encouragement. "Yes?"
At last Melosa lips could restrain the words no longer. "...so very proud of you. I always have been and I always will be."
Caught up in the emotion of this extraordinary moment, Terreis fought hard to keep her composure. "I won't disappoint you, I swear it. By the blood of our noble mother I swear it."
With a uncharacteristically gentle touch of her sister's arm Melosa said, "I know you won't."
The sisters became aware of a presence in the doorway. It was Colsethme, Melosa's old warhorse. In her rough voice she announced, "Highness, the challenger is on the field."
And in that vicissitudinous moment Melosa was instantly transformed, No longer was she the worried sister but once again the vaunted, all powerful Queen. "Very well," she said curtly. "The princess will be there directly."
Melosa then turned back to Terreis to deliver a last minute admonition: "Now listen, don't go in expecting this to be a conventional fight. Be prepared for anything Velasca might spring on you." Using her own years of combat experience to build on young Ephiny's solid advice, Melosa took it one step further by adding, "She may try to surprise or even confuse you, I suppose what I'm saying is do not, repeat, do not assume anything and be prepared for whatever you might face. Above all, keep your head. No matter what she tries to pull don't let her rattle you. Velasca can be cunning but you're smarter than she is. Use your intelligence to your advantage. Make her adapt to you, not the other way around. It is up to you alone, Terreis. I can help you no more. Remember your brave ancestors this day and make them proud."
Terreis stiffly drew herself up to her full height and recited the line from the ancient war song that every Amazon knew by heart, "Let us therefore rush to the battlefield, with sword and bow and whispering lance, that we may destroy our enemies as we have always done, that cowards fleeing will for years to come wail in terror at our very name!"
Characteristically Melosa did not smile but Terreis could sense she was pleased. She was. "Sister," said Melosa, "I could not have said it better myself."
"To arms then," said Terreis.
"To arms." With Melosa leading the way the two of them stepped from the hut, out of the pale, comforting light of the hut and into the harsh light of both the midday sun and expectations yet to be filled.
Ephiny pulled her horse to a stop right at the base of the sprawling oak known to one and all as the "Tittie Tree." There was no mystery as to how the tree got its curious name. Located on the south side of the great tree were two large, perfectly shaped bulges that did indeed remind one of a pair of breasts. The tree was at least two centuries old and legend had it that there was once a well endowed Amazon by the name of Pelome who had foolishly boasted that her breasts were so perfect as to rival even those of Aphrodite herself. Naturally the proud goddess would brook no such blatant disrespect and as punishment she had turned the unfortunate Pelome into the great oak tree, complete with the Amazon's breasts as a mocking reminder of her blasphemy.
Ephiny of course had heard this tale many times but in her mind it was just a tree with two lumps on the side of it. She had to admit, however, that it did make for a good story. But besides its unique origin there was one other event, one infinitely more tangible, associated with the tree. Some thirty-five years before an Amazon noble by the name of Zoe, crushed at having been frozen out of Queen Antiope's bed, had on a warm spring night hung herself from that very tree.
Abisinthe slid down off the horse with Ephiny right behind her. "Where?" the older girl asked.
Abisinthe stretched out a slender arm and said, "There."
Abisinthe waited while Ephiny tied up the horse and then off she went, her slim hips barely making a ripple in the waist high undergrowth. Some fifty paces away the girl stopped and pointed. "There. Right there."
A little annoyed by this, Abisinthe's already high voice rose yet another octave in answering, "Of course I'm sure. What do you think?"
Ephiny squatted down and began to brush away the loose debris covering the ground near the tree. Working methodically, she swept an ever larger area but found nothing. Finally she stood up and dusted her hands off. "There's nothing here," she declared.
"I never said there was," said Abisinthe. "I just said that Velasca was out here."
"That's just it, Abby. She was out here for a reason."
"Well, maybe she was praying after all."
"Not a chance in hell," Ephiny scoffed.
"Well all right, there's nothing here then." By now Abisinthe was becoming miffed. She had not wanted to come rushing out here in the first place and now here Eph was doubting her word? Who needed it? "Who cares? You can take me home now."
Deep in thought, Ephiny absently answered, "Not yet."
Abisinthe stamped her foot and whined, "C'mon, Eph, I gotta go ho-ome!"
"You're certain this is where you saw her?"
"Yes, yes, for the tenth time--yes. She was here. Right here." Abisinthe was growing more irritated by the second. Dropping suddenly to her knees, she looked back up at Ephiny and said, "She was on the ground, bent over, just like this." Abisinthe leaned forward to demonstrate but agitated as she was she did it with a little too much zeal and lost her balance. Lurching forward, she instinctively shot out her hands in an effort to catch herself. This she managed to do but not before running her left hand straight inside the tree, to the utter astonishment of both Ephiny and herself.
"Ow!" Abisinthe yelped. "Something bit me!"
"Let me see," said Ephiny, as the girl jerked her hand out.
On the edge of her friend's left hand, just below the little finger, was a neat slice extending from the last knuckle to the wrist. Apparently it was fairly deep because already the oozing blood was dripping off her hand, staining the dead leaves on the ground below a dark red.
Ephiny took the hand and after a cursory look said, "That's no bite, that's a cut."
"Bite, cut--who cares? I'm bleeding like a stuck pig."
"I guess we ought to patch you up," said Ephiny. Wryly she added, "I wouldn't want you to die on me."
"Well you can say what you want but it still hurts," Abisinthe huffed.
With Abisinthe still busy with her finger Ephiny took the opportunity to suddenly grab hold of her top and rip off a good sized piece.
"Hey-ey!" the girl whined. "This is my best top. I was going to wear it to the fight today."
"It's also your cut," Ephiny said as she tore the cloth into neat strips.
"Look at it, you're ruined it."
"Stop belly-aching and hold still."
"Ohhh," Abisinthe moaned, "I wish I had never said a word about dumb ol' Velasca."
Ephiny ignored her lament and applied the bandage, causing Abisinthe to flinch. In recoil she bent her knees. "Ow! Easy, Eph!"
Ephiny grinned at her friend and said, "Oh, some warrior you're going to make. Can't even take a little cut."
"Well maybe I'll just be a hunter or priestess or something." They both knew better. Already at fifteen one of the most talented archers in the entire tribe, Abisinthe was on the fast track to getting her mask and despite her teasing Ephiny had no doubt she would be a very fine warrior. Indeed she had already proved her mettle during the recent Mysian raid.
"There you are," said Ephiny, finishing up. "An excellent example straight from the Primer of First Aid on the Battlefield."
The two Amazons laughed because there really was such a scroll bearing that ponderous title. It was in fact required reading for all trainees. Abisinthe took a moment to scrutinize Ephiny's handiwork and had to admit the job was expertly done. But then again, that always seemed to be the case with whatever Ephiny did.
With Abisinthe's hand taken care of Ephiny could turn her attention once more to the hole her young friend's hand had inadvertently punched out. Upon closer examination the hole itself looked to be an abandoned animal den of some kind. Its opening had been stuffed with dead leaves and then carefully covered with dirt in an effort to hide it. Ephiny had expected to find a hole near the tree not under it and thus had missed it the first time around. Dropping down to all fours, she stuck her hand in the hole and began to very carefully probe for the sharp-edged instrument that she was now certain was in there. She found it, a large hunting knife, and handed it up to Abisinthe. "Here's your wild animal," she cracked. Returning to the hole, Ephiny found something else, something far more sinister.
Holding her discovery up, Ephiny said, "Well well well, what have we here?" In her hand were a half dozen arrows, bound together by a strip of cloth. Far back in the depths of her mind Ephiny thought she could begin to make out the barest of outlines through the mists of uncertainty. Is it possible? she wondered. With Velasca it certainly was.
She leered up at Abisinthe who at the moment was busy inspecting the knife that had just cut her. "Abby," she said, "you're a genius!"
With a shrug Abisinthe said, "Okay, if you say so." Suddenly she shot her friend a look of bewilderment. "Umm, why am I a genius?"
"I'm not sure."
"Abby," Ephiny said, rising, "I don't know how or why yet but I have a strong suspicion that you may have just thwarted some kind of dirty little scheme by our darling Velasca. And you might--just might--have saved Terreis' life in the process."
"But how? They won't be fighting anywhere near here."
"What do you mean?"
"Ever hear of a forest challenge?"
"Never mind, no time to explain now. I don't know all that much about it anyway. " Ephiny looked up at the sun which was now directly overhead. "Besides, I think you'll be finding out soon enough."
A look of alarm flashed across Abisinthe's young face. "We should tell Melosa about this."
Ephiny shook her head. "Velasca would only deny it. Besides, if she does have something up her sleeve maybe this will throw her off--rattle her a bit."
"I don't know..." said Abisinthe, her apprehensive voice trailing off.
"Look, let's say we tell Melosa. Let's even say she believes us. What then? What's she going to do? Kill Velasca for leaving something in the forest? How's that going to look to the rest of the tribe?"
"But you said--"
"Perceptions, Abby, it's all about perceptions. Melosa could give reasons until she was blue in the face--they could even be valid ones--but I guarantee you most of the tribe would simply see it as cold, calculated murder on her part in order to protect baby sister. Now, why complicate matters even more than they already are?"
"All right if you say so," Abisinthe said reluctantly. "Gods, Eph, I hope you're right."
"I am, Abby, trust me."
How could Abisinthe not? As young as she was Ephiny seemed to be one of those people who always knew what to do. "Oh would I love to stick a big ol' bug up between Velasca's demented ass."
"This could very well be your chance," said Ephiny, who felt exactly the same way. "Still sorry you came?"
"Hey you know me, always ready for an adventure."
Ephiny took the knife Abisinthe and light-heartedly flipped it up one time end over end, deftly plucking it out of the air again by the handle. "Come on," she said with a wink. "Let's get back."
Practically giggling, Abisinthe said, "Boy, if it's like you say I'd give a talent in gold just to see the look on Velasca's face when she finds this stuff missing--if I had a talent in gold that is."
"So would I, Abby, so would I."
Side by side stood Colsethme and Willa on the training field, waiting. They stood by themselves, their elite status separating them both literally and figuratively from the mass of Amazons who were gathered nearby. Apart from them, also alone, also waiting, stood Velasca. Fully recovered now from her nocturnal attack of nerves, she stood in the light of a new day, confident and ready. Meelah and Draganis, still new to their commands and their newfound senior status, had both chosen to stand in the crowd like everyone else albeit with excellent viewing positions up front.
It was here that Solari found Meelah. Squeezing in beside her, Solari asked, "Have you seen Ephiny?"
"No but she's in big trouble for not finishing that hide like I asked," said Meelah.
Meelah did not really appear to be all that upset but it was enough nonetheless to make Solari feel uncomfortable. Power and authority had always made her feel that way. Under her breath she nervously excused herself, saying, "I'll...keep looking." And off she scurried to find her friend.
Unlike Celeste's funeral the assemblage gathered this day on the training field included no small children. Only those nearing training age were allowed to attend. This was a carefully followed praxis, one which would have surprised many of those outsiders who regarded the Amazons as relentlessly warlike. While it was true theirs was a warrior race, Amazons were like most others in that they were loathe to expose their fragile young minds to blood and violence so soon. Far better was to expose them to those philosophical ideals that defined their people, to teach them all about their history and the great warriors who had gone before. It was felt that once the "whys" were carefully explained young Amazons would be in a better position to accept the later horrors inevitably brought by the cruel reality that was a warrior's life.
Another difference in the crowd was their overall mood in general. Where the atmosphere at the rites for Celeste had been one of somber respect today the air was decidedly more anticipatory, more...fervid. Somebody was very likely going to be spilling blood there today--maybe even die. And while the children might be shielded the rest of them, warriors, old warriors, warrior hopefuls, were all looking forward to a good fight. They were, after all, Amazons. That so much was riding on the outcome made it all the more exciting.
Though ostensibly forbidden, Amazons here and there throughout the crowd were quietly accepting wagers, taking care to avoid the eyes of the senior commanders. None of them had any idea that both Meelah and Colsethme had discreetly employed surrogates to place one hundred dinars on Terreis. On the other hand the far less sentimental Willa, after careful analysis, had put fifty dinars on Velasca's head. She was not alone. A full third of the bettors were picking Velasca, even though the great majority of them could not stand her personally.
With the approach of Terreis their eager wait came to an end. Up through the village she came in perfect step with her sister, her mild face a stark contrast to Melosa's dark, grim countenance.
Watching them come, Colsethme squinted up at the midday sun and boomed out, "It is time!"
Velasca too saw the sisters approach but moved not a muscle. Rigidly standing in place, she wanted them to come to her.
Melosa was not about to oblige her. Instead she halted a good ten paces away and Terreis reflexively did the same. For just a moment the queen silently fixed Velasca with a withering glare and then said, "Velasca, daughter of Bellarion, you have issued a challenge to the Princess Terreis, daughter of Penthesilea, and today she is here to answer that challenge."
Velasca's only response was a polite little nod to Terreis.
"Are you prepared?"
Velasca's answer was a purring, "Ohhh yes."
"Very well," said Melosa. "Then before the eyes of our tribe and the great Artemis I call upon you to name your weapon."
It was at this precise moment that a slightly winded Ephiny ever so quietly eased in alongside her mother. "Where have you been?" Meelah softly hissed at her.
"Something came up," Ephiny obliquely. "Abby and I had to check it out."
"Well you and I are going to have a little talk about responsibility after this is over, Missy."
While firm in the belief that what she did was right Ephiny nevertheless was not about to bump heads with the all powerful figure that was her mother. Meelah had raised her daughter with a hand that was equally very firm and very loving and always, always, she had sought to be as fair as possible. Even as a child Ephiny had usually been given a chance to explain herself whenever she did something wrong. Since children inevitably will be children, no matter whose they are, swift punishment usually followed anyway but never more than what fit the nature of the transgression and never in an abusive manner. Aside from the occasional whack on the rump Meelah had never raised a hand against her child. Besides, the look of disappointment on her mother's face was always more hurtful to Ephiny than any punishment Meelah might devise. Consequently a determination was instilled early into her to always try to do the right thing as she saw it--to make her mother proud of her.
And so, confident that she would be able to satisfactorily explain her perceived desertion, Ephiny simply answered with a meek, "Yes,
"For my weapon I choose..." Pausing, Velasca tapped an index finger against her temple. "...this." She then whirled and swept an arm eastward toward the long field that stretched out in front of them. "And that will be the battleground!"
Standing nearby, tough little Pomona thought, Well, this is it, she's finally flipped.
I knew it! thought Ephiny, and triumphantly she gripped even tighter the little bundle she was carrying. Abby was right, Velasca was going to be in for one hell of a surprise. The thought pleased Ephiny to no end.
"Ephiny!" a voice whispered. "Where have you been?" It was Solari, squeezing in behind Ephiny and Meelah.
"Shhh!" chided Ephiny
Ephiny threw up an impatient hand. "Later."
As for the rest of the crowd all but the eldest were confounded by Velasca's "choice." And then, slowly filtering through the mass of Amazons came the unfamiliar words, "Forest Challenge."
For Terreis' part she too was bewildered...but not Melosa. Like the elders she instantly recognized that the field itself was not the object of Velasca's gesture. It was the forest that lay beyond. Incredulous, she asked, "You seek a forest challenge? Is that right?"
"You're not serious. That hasn't been done since the Great Separation."
Velasca met the queen's scathing look and said, "Then perhaps it's time we got back to the old ways." Turning to the crowd, she yelled, "Maybe it is time we got back the glory that was once ours!"
"What is this forest challenge she's talking about?" asked a confused Terreis.
"I will explain," said Melosa. Sensing her sister's apprehension, she lowered her head and murmured, "Keep your head. You can do this."
At that same moment an equally confused Solari was asking the same thing. "What is this? What's going on?"
This earned her another sharp, "Shhh," this time from old Ansara who was standing beside her.
"Very well," Melosa coldly said to Velasca, "you have made the choice, as is your right, and so it shall be done. Willa! Colsethme! Briskly Melosa's two senior commanders stepped to her side. "Search both of them thoroughly. Strip them of any and everything that might be used as a weapon."
With Willa taking Velasca and Colsethme the princess the two captains began to carry out the queen's orders. Bracelets, necklaces, hair braids--anything that could conceivably be used as a weapon was duly confiscated and tossed on the ground. The two adversaries even had to submit to probing hands both up under the full tops they both were wearing and down inside their skirts.
In going over Terreis Colsethme knelt down to check her boots and for a wavering moment struggled with a powerful urge to slip in the small dagger she always kept hidden in her ample bosom. This she could have done it quite easily but in the end honesty prevailed and she simply finished her charge and stood back up.
"May, what is this?" asked Terreis.
"Don't worry, child, it's going to be all right," said Colsethme. "Just remember your training and you'll be fine. I promise." Smiling, she gave Terreis a reassuring little wink. "I know you're going to kick her rebellious ass. Good luck."
Backing away, Colsethme declared, "She's clean!" Hard on the heels of this was a like pronouncement by Willa.
Most of the crowd still did not understand what was happening. Because of this scattered grumblings of, "Why aren't they fighting?" began to be heard among them.
Spotting the swift young warrior Pycea standing nearby, Melosa summoned her with a waggle of the finger and in a low voice spoke to her for just a moment. In listening intently Pycea shut her eyes tightly as was her habit and then with an emphatic nod took off back toward the village at a quick trot.
Pycea's absence would be but a brief one and so Melosa took this moment to explain what was happening to the assembled Amazons. "From the day we are born," she began, "we begin to learn that for an Amazon the forest is everything. Indeed, many believe this deep love of the forest is innate in us, that it is as much a part of us as our warrior spirit. It is said that old sailors, dim of eye and weak of hand, will sit and stare out the windows of their land bound homes and dream of their beautiful, tempestuous mistress, the sea, whereupon they will weep because they can woo her no more. As Amazons we too have our sea, a vast green one, dark and deep. One of oak and plane and cedar. Many find it forbidding. But not us. For us the forest has always been the Great Mother. In its beginnings when the Amazon Nation was young and weak the forest suckled us and nurtured us. It protected us then and so still does today. The Mysians now suffering in Tartarus will readily attest to that. The forest constantly provides for us by way of food and means of shelter, its great canopy enfolds us to shield us from our enemies. Many men claim to know the forest but only an Amazon can be truly one with it. No Amazon fears its dark paths, its hollows and steep hills, how could we? It is who we are, it defines us as nothing else. Wherever our travels might take us in our heart, in our very soul, we will always be of the forest."
Continuing, she said, "And for all its benevolence the forest asks, no...demands, but one thing of us--that we must not be weak of heart or infirm of purpose. When we are the forest can bitterly turn on us. The forest demands strength, courage and indomitable will." Melosa paused for a moment and then added, "Our ancestors knew this too and so for countless generations they called upon the forest to settle their questions of succession, to weed out the weak. With the departure of our sisters of the Northern Tribe this practice has fallen out of favor but Amazon law allows for its use just as readily now as it did in the time of our noble ancestors. Today then, in the bosom of the Great Mother, will this great decision be made. Today, returns the forest challenge to the Southern Tribe."
In very short order Pycea returned bearing a handful of long leather strips, two bows, some arrows and two brightly colored pieces of cloth. At Melosa's direction she immediately handed these items over to the two captains and then dutifully faded back into the crowd. Without needing to be told Colsethme and Willa began distributing the items among the two adversaries--all except the cloths. These were handed to Melosa.
With a piece of cloth in each hand, Melosa raised them high over her head and cried, "This is the way of the forest challenge! The two combatants, Terreis and Velasca, will enter into the sacred forest and there they will stay until one of them emerges victorious. The objectives for each will be twofold. One, each of them must leave a leather strip at a point to be designated. The second objective is to gain possession of the other's cloth. I'm sure you all know what this means. If the first one to leave the forest does not have that cloth..." Melosa paused and swept her eyes over the crowd. She then said, "...they will be put to death. There can be no withdrawal. Only by the mercy of the victor can both leave the forest alive. Only after a combatant has won the other's cloth may they dispense with their assigned objectives.
The combatants have until sundown to effect a decision. After that the forest will tolerate their collective cowardice no longer and it will be our solemn duty to put them both to death. Again, until such time as a decision is reached neither of them must under any circumstances leave the forest. Warriors will be posted all along the perimeter to make certain that they do not."
"By the gods!" gasped Solari. "Can you imagine how nerve-wracking that's going to be?"
"That's the whole idea," said Meelah. "As Velasca insinuated victory will be owed as much to a cool head as the skilled hand."
Hearing for the first time the complete details of such a challenge Ephiny had to admit she rather liked the idea. She was loathe to admit it but as she saw it Velasca was right. That was the way for Amazons to fight! "Why isn't this done anymore?" she asked her mother.
"People nowadays have little patience for such a protracted contest," Meelah said with a shrug. "It takes too long and, besides, nobody gets to see the bloodletting." With a little sigh she added, "Everything has to quick and dirty these days."
From behind the bawdy Jen cracked, "Sort of like sex with one of those quivering little males."
Despite the gravity of the moment this evoked quite a few muted snickers from those nearby. With Ephiny so close at hand Meelah struggled to suppress her own smile. Turning to Jen in mock annoyance, she whispered, "Je-en!"
"Well it's true, Meelah, you know it is. Most of them hump like rabbits on a hot rock."
This time faces turned red, chests quivered and lips were bit hard to suppress guffaws that the queen in this critical moment would definitely have taken a very dim view of.
The young virgins Ephiny and Solari looked at each other, Solari wide-eyed, and a little scared, Ephiny, both amused and just a little embarrassed. Jen had meant no harm. It was just the way she was. She was one Amazon for whom sex was never very far from her mind.
By now Melosa had already turned back to the two adversaries. Here they were separated with Velasca being escorted some distance away by Willa. With Willa serving as a witness Melosa spoke first to Velasca. The queen gave her the green piece of cloth and, hiding her lips behind her hand, imparted to her the five locations where she was to leave her strips. With Colsethme bearing witness this time Melosa then did the same with Terreis, giving her the blue cloth and something else that she had not given Velasca. For her parting words Melosa looked deep into her sister's eyes and said, "May Artemis be with you, dear sister."
A little surprised by yet another rare moment of sisterly intimacy, Terreis was understandably deeply touched by it as well. "May she forever be with both of us," she whispered back.
Melosa stepped back and in a commanding voice said, "So it is time. Combatants, you may enter the forest anywhere you like but, remember, you cannot be the first to exit the forest without the other's cloth. LET THE CHALLENGE BEGIN!!"
Caught up in the moment, there was a great roar from the gathered Amazons as the two young warriors sprinted off. Over the long field they ran, streaking for the forest and its cover as fast as they could go. As Ephiny fully expected she would, Velasca made straight for the northern edge of the forest while Terreis veered off to the right, toward the southern "arm" that jutted out from the forest proper.
Besides their respective cloths each combatant carried along with their five leather strips a bow and a meager three arrows. As
with the cloth the other items too had a definite purpose. This was to be as much a test of their forest skills as their fighting
prowess and to that end the purpose of the bow was a simple one--to provide a small measure of long range capability thus precluding
the two of them from simply entering the forest and slugging it out right away. In years past such an occurrence would have been considered
"uncivilized" and indeed very much frowned upon. The placing of the strips and the movement it entailed assured that there would
be mobility on the part of both of them. In that way neither one could just sit tight in an attempt to force the other's hand. Movement and
stealth were to be the order of the day. In addition, the sites given to them by Melosa further enhanced the chances for one or more
encounters by Terreis and Velasca as the moved along their respective routes. What neither Terreis nor Velasca knew was that a pair
of their designated points were one and the same. This practically guaranteed a fairly early encounter.
With the whole village watching intently Velasca proved to be the swifter of the two and with her long legs eating up the almost three
stadia distance, she hit her section of tree line well ahead of Terreis, driving straight on in. Once inside she made directly for the "Tittie Tree."
When she had gotten inside the forest's arm and under cover, Terreis crouched down and took a few moments to catch her breath and also to gain her bearings. All during her dash to the forest she had kept repeating over and over in her mind the five places were she was to leave her strip. Now she once again reviewed them.
She was still breathing hard as she said to herself, "Let's see, the sink hole, the Demon's Teeth, the log bridge, which one's closer?" The bridge. No! The hole. "Damn it, Terreis, think!" Turning due north, the princess picked up a stick and began to map out in the dirt where she was supposed to go. Yes, the hole was closer. All right, she thought, that's better. It's just like Melosa said, keep my head and I'll be fine.
Being as fit as she was Terreis in very short order had her wind back. Before setting off for her first point she took a moment to stuff the blue cloth deep down into her bosom. Grimly she thought, The only way Velasca is going to get this is to kill me! In gathering herself for her first push Terreis took one last deep breath and with cheeks puffed blew it out. With the initial shock of the thing now over she felt her confidence returning. "I'm going to do it," she said softly. And so with her spirits lifted the princess shouldered her bow, snatched up the three precious arrows and melted off into the forest. A hundred breaths later she was back. In psyching herself up Terreis had forgotten all about her marking strips, running off and leaving them on the forest floor beside her dirt map.
For the chagrined young princess the enterprise was getting off to a very rocky start indeed.
Velasca stood under the great oak, a supercilious little smile playing on her lips as she looked up into its sturdy branches. This was almost too easy, she thought. Her thinking was understandable. By coincidence one of her assigned points just happened to be none other than this very tree. Unlike Terreis Velasca had been very careful to keep her strips safe. To ensure this she had individually tied the ends of each one together and looped them around her neck. There the all-important items would be safe from loss.
Freeing one, she tied into it the requisite two knots that identified it as hers. Quickly then she looped the strip around an exposed root
and tied it off. Kneeling down next to her hiding place, she thought, Now for my little goodies.
In moving toward her first objective Terreis wisely made no attempt at stealth whatsoever. With Velasca far up on the northern end there was no danger of her movements being tracked this early on. Soon she was looking up at the old familiar ridge line she had traversed so very many times before. The ridge was high and very steep and on the other side of it was the sink hole that was her first objective. In an effort to save time Terreis did not bother with the series of diagonals that made the ascension easier but longer. Instead she tore straight up the slope. To facilitate the climb she soon resorted to moving up on all fours. Even so her forced pace made the climb a difficult one. Rather than risk breaking her an arrow through a clumsy move Terreis carried them between her teeth all the way up the side of the ridge. By the time she finally reached the crest the princess was literally gasping for air. The arrows had not helped matters. Right there she resolved to fix that. Even while she was still fighting to catch her breath Terreis took one of the leather straps and tied them and the bow together in a neat little bundle. The plain ordinary bow knot ensured that her weapon could be quickly readied when the time came. With her bow again shouldered her hands were now free.
With this necessary little chore finished Terreis immediately rose to her feet. She could not wait any longer. She knew the descent
was going to be only marginally less arduous because with the severity of the incline there was a real danger of losing her balance
and tumbling down like the fabled rock of Sisyphus. In wiping the perspiration from her brow Terreis noticed a near by fallen tree branch.
Using her foot to hold it in place she snapped off a length of it. Aided by this crooked, makeshift staff she reached the bottom without
incident and soon was marking her first objective. In doing so Terreis was well aware that this would probably be her last "free" one. From
now on she would have to be very careful.
In her consternation Velasca frantically raked out a hole large enough in which to bury a good sized dog. Finally she gave up, rocking back on her heels and staring at the hole in utter disbelief. Where...? Who...? What happened to them!? Now it was Velasca's turn to struggle with her composure.
Her initial shock quickly turned into rage and frustration. In a fit of fury she savagely slung the handful of dirt she was holding against the venerable old tree. "I'll gut the bitch that did this!" she growled through gnashing teeth.
Velasca thought back, trying to remember whether anyone had even remotely been in the vicinity, however briefly. She could remember
no one. Still, one name kept coming back to her over and over again although there was absolutely no logical basis for it ...Ephiny!
The log bridge that was Terreis' next objective was in truth nothing more than an old plane tree which had fallen over a little creek bed. Most of the year the creek was dry but if the rains came hard enough water would once again flow along the parched bed if only for a few days. Rain had been at a premium lately however and so now the creek held only small puddles of water.
Crouched low between two bushes, Terreis intently scanned to the north in a wide semi-circle. A mere twenty paces away lay the fallen tree but the time for haste was now over. What was needed now were Adele's two P's, the "twin sisters" as she liked to call them--Patience and Prudence. This was forest warfare, not some helmeted bunch of half drunk idiots stumbling up some worthless hill. This was an Amazon's stock and trade, the skill above all else they were expected to master.
Her keen ears were so attuned to every sound that even her own breathing seemed magnified. Up in the canopy she could see birds flitting
indifferently about. As best she could tell everything seemed in order. She had waited almost five hundred breaths now. She could wait no longer.
It was time to move. Entering the bed, she made straight for the tree. At one of the small puddles she halted and began to smear the dark mud
all over her face and arms. The last thing she wanted was an unexpected flash of sunlight reflecting off her fair skin and giving away her
Very quietly Velasca eased her way up the gently sloping ridge. Just before reaching the top she dropped to her stomach and proceeded to crawl the rest of the way up and over the flat, narrow ridge top. Once across she slowly poked her head over and peeked down the other side, into the deep hollow that held her third objective. The first two had been achieved easily enough but this had done very little to placate Velasca's foul mood. She was still seething over her loss. There was no doubt about it. Someone had obviously seen her. But who? I'd give Melosa's sword to find out, she thought bitterly.
Carefully she worked her way down beside a large cypress tree that stood just a few paces below the top of the ridge. It was here that she sat scouting the hollow, her sharp eyes intently scanning every cubit, seeking out any sign of movement, any unnatural line. Five hundred breaths later there was still nothing and so, satisfied all was clear, Velasca rose to her feet and began to methodically make her way down the back side of the ridge. "Move, stop, listen...move, stop, listen." She could almost hear old Adele chanting this litany in her high pitched voice. "Take your time. Be like shadows moving across the forest floor. Be in no hurry to die."
For Velasca this was not an easy thing to do. She was by her very nature an impatient sort and she was none too happy with the way this was turning into a high stakes game of "hide and seek." This was not what she had planned on at all. Her scheme had been simple enough. She had expected to draw Terreis out into the open by fooling her into thinking she had used up her arrows. Then it would have been a simple matter of picking off the unsuspecting Terreis off at her leisure. But that was before. Now she was resigning herself to the stark reality of having to actually earn her triumph--a very different matter indeed.
Halfway down the slope Velasca stopped and again did a careful scan of the forest. Below her Velasca could see the "Demon's teeth," ten rectangular stones as tall as an Amazon embedded side by side lengthwise in the side of the hill. This then was her third objective. Clearly it was not a natural phenomenon but no one knew who had placed them there for they predated all of Amazon history. At the bottom Velasca took one final look around. She's not here, she thought. I wonder where she is? "Well," she muttered, "let's get this over with." At the bottom of the hollow Velasca took a moment to fashion the two identifying knots in her strip. That done, she began to look around for something to tie it to.
It was then that she saw it. A fresh footprint in the black earth. This was followed hard by the sight of something even more chilling. There, pushed into the bank above the Demon's Teeth was a stick with a strip of leather wound around it. Terreis!
Reflexively Velasca flung herself to the ground and it was not a moment too soon. An arrow shot over her and shattered harmlessly against another large stone lying opposite the Demon's Teeth. How it missed her she would never know but she guessed it could not have been by more than the width of her little finger. In fact she almost thought she felt the brush of the missile's feathering as it whizzed over her.
Up on the far slope, fifty paces away, Terreis spat out a curse of frustration and instantly fitted another arrow onto her bow. But Velasca was gone. Scrambling madly down the hollow, Velasca had managed to clear Terreis' sight line and reach the relative safety of a large thicket. Terreis sat motionless, her only movement that of her eyes sweeping back and forth across the hollow. She saw nothing. Damn it, where did she go?
In working her way up the far slope it had only been by mere chance that Terreis had turned back just in time to see Velasca top the far ridge and settle in beside the cypress tree. For all her fastidiousness Velasca had simply missed her. All the way down the hill Terreis had watched her, resolutely waiting for the precise moment. And when she had finally gotten it...
You idiot! she silently raged. You had her! Why did you wait so long?! Well, no use moaning about it now. All you can do is sit here behind this stupid bush like some stupid hen on a stupid nest. Shit!
In her hiding place farther down the hollow Velasca's thumping heart was finally beginning to slow down a little. You idiot! she fumed. How could you let her do that? You pranced right into it like it was the Vernal Festival or something. Me! Ambushed like some damned farmer! For Velasca this was the ultimate rebuke for her loathing for farmers was as total as it was peculiar.
In assessing her predicament Velasca did not exactly need to have the guile of a Ulysses to know that she was in a bad way. Wherever Terreis was there was no way in hell for her to execute a flanking maneuver without being seen. The arrow had come from a position somewhere up over the Demon's Teeth. That much she knew. So Terreis had the high ground then and here she was, pinned down at the bottom of this hot-ass hollow. She began to look for an escape route. Not knowing precisely where Terreis was, however, made any sort of movement very chancy. So what to do then? Sit tight and wait her out? That was out of the question. Such passitivity was a complete anathema to Velasca's psyche. She would rather pull back, however distasteful that might be. And so she did.
Still down on her haunches, Velasca did a waddling quarter turn and looked back down the hollow. There was not much cover but the ravine had ample width and was fairly level which made for good running. But to where? From her tenuous position it was hard to ascertain just what was back there but she was confident she could find something. She knew that if she could just lose Terreis things would then be all even again. Besides, she was an Amazon and Amazons were trained to adapt, to improvise, to persevere and, most of all, to overcome. Sometimes in order to overcome it was necessary to fall back and regroup. Amazon doctrine forbade cowardice--not judiciousness. "Think on your feet," as Selena liked to say, "but never with them."
Velasca took a deep breath and got ready. All right, she thought, let's see if the fair-haired child can hit a moving target. One...two...three...go! Like a deer Velasca bolted from the thicket and tore straight down the ravine as fast as she could go. Here and there a tree limb or a bush seemed to reach and grab for her. Every now and then one of them succeeded in slapping her arms or her face. Velasca ignored the stinging of their swats and ran on. A full stadium she ran, not stopping until she came to where the ravine merged into another, larger one. Her pause was a short one for after a quick look around she again took off, this time to the left, up the ravine toward the top of the ridge. In a few moments she was gone.
Terreis never had a chance. Velasca's initial dash into cover had given Terreis a very bad angle even if she had known where she was. This made her position far less commanding than Velasca realized. Thus when Velasca made her break Terreis only got a fleeting glimpse of her before losing her behind the curvature of the hill. Terreis stood up and after a heavy bleakly muttered, "Damn."
"All right, Terreis," she said under her breath, "let's think this thing through." It was obvious that the Demon's Teeth had been
an objective for Velasca as well as her. So what to do then? Wait here for another chance? Sooner or later she had to come back.
No, she would not wait. She was not going to sit all day hiding from Velasca. No way in hell. So what then? What would she do? At
this point there was not much to do except move on to the fourth objective. But that too was now thrown into an uncertain light.
They had one objective in common. Could there be more? Knowing Melosa as she did there probably were. That meant she was going
to have to exercise even more caution than before. Terreis hated that. For her part she would have much rather just battled it out toe to toe
with Velasca back on the training ground. So it was with a little sigh of resignation that Terreis once again began moving up the hill, completely
unaware yet that she had already done more damage than either she or Velasca realized.
At the top of the ridge Velasca paused to catch her breath. So far she had seen no sign of pursuit nor did she really expect any. To go blundering after someone without a clear indication of where they were would be sheer folly and whatever Terreis might be she was certainly no fool. Velasca thought it more likely that she would do the same as her--get to the high ground. There was a good chance Terreis might choose to continue on up the hill and then carefully follow along down the ridge in the hope that she might get a glimpse of her. Velasca's guess was a good one because four hundred paces away Terreis had indeed decided to do just that and was in fact at that very moment reaching the top of the very same ridge. What Velasca intended to do was to quickly double back; close the distance on Terreis, find a good tree and from that vantage point pick Terreis off as she came by.
At least, that was the plan. What Velasca had not yet taken into account was what the noble Phillipia used to call the "little chafings" of battle. These were unexpected, often innocuous, little things that taken by themselves were harmless enough but when placed in the context of the battlefield's chaotic life or death struggle very often turned into very big problems. Such had been the case fourteen summers before. After routing a lightly defended Amazon position, an erroneous marking on a map by his lead elements had caused the warlord Kipfer to send the main body of his force down the wrong road and straight into Amazon reinforcements moving up to attack. The resultant slaughter--due totally to a simple charcoal mark on a map--had been one of Queen Penthesilea's greatest triumphs.
Velasca's "little chafing" was her left wrist. In making her dive to safety back at the Demon's Teeth she had landed awkwardly on it and in all the excitement since then she had been only vaguely aware of some persistent pain there. It was only now that she realized just how serious it was. The wrist was beginning to swell badly. At this point Velasca found she could still flex her left hand but making a hard fist was already out of the question. Hurriedly unshouldering her bow, Velasca tried to draw back the string. Try as she might she just could not do it. The pain in her wrist was simply too great.
In a fit of anger she slammed the bow to the ground. This was turning into a very bad day all around. The gods are against me! she thought crossly. They must be! Well to hell with them, to hell with Terreis and to that cold fish Melosa too. I'll show them all. I'll beat them all!
Velasca dropped her arrows to the ground alongside her bow. She might not be able to use the bow but she could still use the arrows and this she fully intended to do. One by one she placed each of them under her foot and broke it in half. Now all she needed was a chance to get in close. Just one good chance...
Picking up her weapons, Velasca started off up the ridge. This time, she vowed, the next encounter with Terreis would be on
her terms. It was not long in coming. When Terreis came down the crest of the ridge a short while later Velasca was waiting.
It was not that Terreis was unprepared for any further engagements. After losing sight of her foe she knew well enough that Velasca could now be anywhere. What she had not counted on was for Velasca to close so aggressively and force the encounter so soon. That, however, was exactly what happened. With the end of the ridge in sight Terreis walked under an ash tree completely unaware of the sleek form lurking just overhead. It had been Velasca who had first caught sight of the foe. With the aid of her good hand and the crook of her left elbow, she had ignored the pain and just managed to drag herself up in the tree in the nick of time. It was only by Terreis' concentration on the hollow below that she had missed being seen.
With Terreis coming near Velasca held her breath and eased out one of her broken arrows. She was only going to get one chance, she had to make it good. Wait, wait, wait--don't look up princess--wait, wait...wait.....NOW!
Velasca rolled out of the tree, right on top of the unsuspecting Terreis. She had hoped her plunge would take the princess down but her timing was just a little off and instead of knocking Terreis down, she only sent her staggering backward. Velasca was not about to let her recover. Quickly scrambling to a crouching position, like a great leopard Velasca sprang toward the reeling Terreis. With a shrieking war cry she brought her arrow plunging downward as hard as she could.
Velasca had aimed straight for the heart but with the reflexes of a well trained Amazon Terreis was at the last possible moment just able to twist and turn barely enough to avoid the potential deadliness of the blow. She did not, however, get away completely. For while Velasca's blow missed Terreis' upper body it succeeded enough in that it caught the princess flush in the upper thigh. Before she could regain her balance, Terreis went sprawling backwards.
Terreis' loud cry of pain was the sweetest of music to Velasca's vengeful ears. Intent on finishing the job, Velasca pulled out another arrow and rushed forward. At Terreis' side she dropped to her knees, ready to drive her weapon into the chest of her enemy. On the ground Terreis frantically groped for a weapon, any weapon. Falling to her knees, Velasca raised her hand only to have Terreis' desperate fingers claw for her bow and use it to slam her assailant across the left ear. Screeching with rage, Velasca rolled away and stood up. She kicked the bow from Terreis' hand and fell on top of her. Still flat on her back, Terreis succeeded in catching Velasca's arm. Locked in combat, the two young warriors tested their strength as they never had before.
Being on top, Velasca had the advantage but try as she might she could not free her hand from Terreis' powerful grip. She could, however, feel Terreis weakening. All she needed was a little more pressure. Toward that end she crossed her left forearm over her hand and. leaning forward, began to press even harder.
Terreis could also sense herself weakening. She had to do something. When Velasca brought up her left hand it was then that the princess noticed the pronounced swelling of the wrist. This was her opportunity and Terreis did not hesitate. If she could only hold long enough... In a desperate gamble Terreis turned loose with her right hand and seized Velasca by her left hand. With all her might she then wrenched it backward, causing Velasca to squall out in agony.
Terreis wasted no time in following up her success. Doubling up her fist, she punched Velasca in the face as hard as she could. Blood gushed forth from Velasca's nose, trickling down her face and dripping onto the princess. Terreis sensed her moment had come. Writhing and lurching as forcefully as she could, she managed to throw Velasca off.
But not for long. She had barely gotten to her feet when an infuriated Velasca again threw herself at her, this time slamming into her with such force that it sent the both of them flying off the top of the ridge. Down the side of the hill they went, tumbling, tumbling, unable to stop their rolling down the extremely steep hill. About a third of the way down the hill Velasca caught an oak tree flush. With a gasping groan she bounced back from the tree, unconscious. Terreis, on the other hand, had a clear path all the way to the bottom. She ended up on her side when she finally did stop rolling, her young body covered with cuts and scratches, her auburn hair full of twigs and leaves. Battered and bruised, the dazed princess's head lolled limply back. Her eyes, uncomprehending, looked up into the sunlight filtering through the forest canopy overhead and then, blackness.
In silence a mounted Melosa and Colsethme sat on their horses and watched as the sun slowly sat beyond the far hills. To the left and right of them, strung out all along the perimeter of the forest, other mounted Amazons sat facing the opposite direction but doing exactly the same thing, watching and waiting. So far no one had seen or heard anything. Now time was almost up.
For some time now Colsethme had watched her queen's handsome face grow ever more grim with each passing moment. Melosa was not the only one who was worried, she was too. Terreis might not have been her ideal of the perfect warrior but she was a sincere, diligent girl and Colsethme liked her. She was just now coming of age and Colsethme thought it would be a damn shame if she were to be somehow cut down so early in life, especially by that no good Velasca.
Melosa sat there with some of her best warriors barely a stone's throw away but at that moment she might as well have been on the top of a mountain somewhere. She was alone, alone with nothing but her thoughts, her fears to keep her company. And there in the failing light she forced herself to think the unthinkable. By the gods! What if Velasca wins? Poor Terreis! If she does then the day will come when she'll challenge me too, as surely as the sun rises she'll challenge me. What would happen if she somehow prevailed? Then what? I'm not afraid to die. I never have been. But my poor people! What would happen to them? At all costs I must not all that to happen...
All this time it seemed as if neither of them wanted to speak, as if that by refusing to address it they would somehow stop time, stop the inevitable. Finally Melosa drew a deep breath and said, "Well, that's it. Go get them, May." In a strange way she was relieved. Better to put them both to death than to have Velasca win. Such was the harsh reality of being an Amazon queen.
"Perhaps, Highness, if we wait just--"
"Do it!" Melosa barked.
Colsethme was about to give the order when she heard a shout off in the distance. In unison she and Melosa turned and saw a mounted rider streaking toward them.
"Who is it?" asked the queen. At this distance, in this light, with her eyes, the middle-aged Colsethme had no clue.
Fortunately sharp-eyed Pythera was with them and it was she who made the identification. "That's Jasara's horse, ma'am," she said.
Quickly looking at her queen, Colsethme said, "Someone's come out."
Melosa did not wait. Digging her heels into the flanks of her horse, she galloped out to meet the onrushing warrior.
Pythera knew her horses for this indeed was Jasara. Breathless, she reined in her horse when she realized it was her queen coming up to meet her.
"What is it?" Melosa asked, trying not to show her anxiety. "Has someone come out?"
It was here that Colsethme and Pythera caught up with their queen. In doing so Pythera's horse inadvertently bumped Jasara's mount, which spooked the animal. The startled horse reared turned sharply and it was a moment or two before Jasara again had it under control.
This was far too long for the solicitous Melosa. "Damn it!" she demanded. "Who?"
Jasara seemed an eternity in answering. "Terreis."
"All right," Colsethme said under her breath.
"Way back near the river," replied Jasara. "She's hurt bad, ma'am. Her leg..."
Now that the uncertainty was over, Melosa was her old formidable self again. "Pythera, get Racillione right now!" the queen ordered. "Take her straight over there."
"I'm right with you."
They found Terreis lying amid a smattering of Amazons. She lay on blankets that had been provided by two of her young friends, Calliope and the older Valerie. Beside her knelt the captain Draganis and Marleen, Willa's second-in-command. Bolting off her horse, Melosa joined them in an instant.
"How bad is it?" she asked.
"Bad," Draganis answered solemnly.
What she saw shocked even the normally unflappable Melosa. Terreis lay there, unconscious, with every exposed portion of her skin smeared in sweat streaked dirt. With her clothes torn, her hair matted and full of dirt and leaves, she looked like anything but the princess she was. That, however, was not the worst of it. For mixed in with the dirt on Terreis' right leg was something else--blood, lots of it. Some of it had dried already, some of it was still very fresh. Her leg was covered in it. Underneath, a crimson bandage could be seen through the ugly hole in Terreis' skirt.
Melosa knelt down over her sister and ran a hand down inside the young woman's bosom. This rather surprised most of those present but not the veteran Colsethme. She knew very well what the queen was after. "Is it there?" she asked.
Melosa said not a word in reply. Instead she pulled out a wadded up piece of blue cloth. Colsethme's heart sank for without Velasca's cloth Terreis would still have to die. She sadly looked away for a moment and because of that did not see the queen unfold the wad. When she turned back Melosa, her dark eyes shining...was holding up the green cloth which Terreis had meticulously tucked inside her own.
"By the gods," the old warrior said approvingly, "she did it."
"That must have been some battle," observed Calliope.
"She's lost a lot of blood," said Marleen.
"I can see that," said Melosa. She wanted so very badly to have a look at the wound but thought better of it and left the blood soaked bandage in place.
"We should get her back, ma'am," said Draganis.
Melosa shook her head. "She shouldn't be moved. Racillione is coming, let her have a look first."
"The condition she's in I don't know if we can even put her on a litter," said Colsethme.
Draganis shot Colsethme a hard look. "I can carry her," she offered up.
"No," said Melosa.
Draganis rose to her feet and looked about. With pressed lips she evenly said, "I don't think we ought to wait."
Melosa looked up at what was her finest warrior. Draganis would never be confused for a scholar but if there was one thing she did know it was wounds. After all she had inflicted enough of them in her lifetime. The queen stood up and for a moment stared down at the only flesh and blood she had in the entire world. Suddenly she felt so very tired. "Perhaps you're right," she said. "Perhaps we should go to meet Rae after all." With a weary nod she said to Draganis, "All right get her and let's go."
"Right." It was a relieved Draganis that knelt down to very delicately pick the fallen princess up in her massive arms. Colsethme and Marleen fell in with her as did the queen herself and all the other warriors present. No one felt like riding, it just did not seem right.
Suddenly a thought came to Colsethme. "What about Velasca?" she asked.
"Is she alive? Anybody know?" asked Melosa.
"We don't know," said Marleen.
Calliope, who had been the first to spot Terreis, added, "She collapsed as soon as she came out of the forest."
"Find her," Melosa sternly commanded. "I want her dead or alive. Send in a party and search all night if you have to but find her."
"She'll be hard to find once it gets dark," said Colsethme.
"I don't care," Melosa sharply retorted. "As hurt as Terreis is she must have left a trail a child could follow. I would wager that if you follow it it will lead you straight to the little bitch. Take Hyacinth with you." Despite being only in her early twenties, Hyacinth had already gained quite a reputation as an expert tracker.
As word of Terreis' victory spread among those posted to watch for forest the ranks of those walking with Melosa and Draganis began to swell. By the time Pythera returned with Racillione they were all there.
Draganis, as promised, carried the princess all the way back to the village. Night had already fallen but the village itself was brilliantly illuminated by countless torches set up by those who had not been on the picket line. The procession of warriors made their way through the village along a triumphal path formed by dual lines made up of every last one of the village's other inhabitants. Owing to the seriousness of Terreis' condition, however, there was very little in the way of the type of celebration that usually went with these marches.
After Terreis was taken into the queen's hut, most of the crowd lingered for a while but as crowds are wont to do most of them soon became bored and either went home or drifted off with friends in little knots of two or three. One of those who stayed was Ephiny, as did Solari, as did--surprisingly--Eponin. Finally Meelah came to fetch her daughter and by the early hours before dawn all that remained outside was Melosa's horse. All through the long night Racillione and Missini worked under the queen's watchful to save the life of the princess. Once the wound was cleaned and the bleeding stopped at last, Racillione's chief concern became the after effects of a trauma such as this, particularly the invariable swelling and buildup of pus around the wound. If the leg began to turn black....
Racillione did not want to think about that.
Back in the forest Melosa's intuition had once again proven to be correct. With Hyacinth in the lead Colsethme and the rest of her search party were able to follow Terreis' bloody trail fairly easily. Sometime around midnight they found Velasca lying at the foot of a steep slope. They found her bound hand and foot, dazed, bloodied, but very much alive. Without delay then she was hauled up and taken straight to the queen. For her part Melosa wanted oh so very badly to order her immediate execution but it was obvious her sister had taken great pains to keep Velasca alive. Why she had done so was a mystery to Melosa but as the princess was at the moment unable to reveal her intentions Melosa ordered that Velasca be thrown into their small prison at once. There she would be kept under armed guard until such time as a recovering Terreis could make known what was to be done with her. That is--if Terreis recovered.
For several days her condition was touch and go. In and out of consciousness she drifted. Very often she was delirious, speaking wildly of having her duty to do; sometimes she recited passages from the "War Song," very often she just lay there, mumbling inaudibly. More than once during this time rumors of her death swirled through the village, each time evoking a fair amount of speculation about who would succeed the princess. Each time the rumors proved to be false.
Finally, ten days later, on a cool morning just before dawn, an exhausted Melosa was awakened by gentle hand on her shoulder. "Ma'am?" It was the young healer Missini.
In that preceding ten days Terreis had given very little indication that she was, in fact, improving. Indeed on this morning as the queen struggled to focus her weary eyes it flashed through her mind that perhaps the thing she had feared all along had finally come to pass. A bleary-eyed Melosa sat up and looked up at the young healer and it was not without some apprehension that she asked, "Yes?"
It was only then, as her eyes at last began to come into focus, that Melosa saw the young healer was smiling. In an instant the queen shot to her feet. Putting a hopeful hand on Missini's slim shoulder, she asked, "Is she?" The little nodding reply was all she needed to know. Melosa rushed through the hut into Terreis' room and there in the candlelight she saw her sister quietly sitting up in her bed, nibbling on a piece of the fish Missini had brought for her own lunch.
For a moment struggled with her emotions as she made her way to the bed to sit down beside the princess. Terreis was her full sister, her flesh and blood, the object of everything she had worked for and sought to preserve. And yet even now, even now, she could not let down that impenetrable wall that had saved her reign in the early years and speak from the heart as that small piece of her soul so very badly wanted to do-as it had always wanted to do. And so, there were no joyous hugs, no kisses on the cheeks...no tears. There was only the unspoken love they had for each other and the thing that bound them together above all else, their indomitable sense of duty to the Amazon people.
At first neither spoke as they sat there, looking at each other. There was no need for words; there was no need for Melosa to express the inexpressible, for Terreis to say what both of them already knew. Their eyes said it all.
After a moment Terreis smiled faintly and said, "Good fish."
"You hate fish," a thankful queen reminded her.
"I do?" Terreis cocked her head and with nose wrinkled said, "I thought it was squirrel."
"That too. You always were a fussy eater." Terreis tried to take another bite of the fish but her hand was unsteady and so she dropped the fish in her lap, prompting Melosa to wryly added, "And clumsy too."
Without another word Melosa picked the fish up. From the bones she tore a small piece of the soft white meat and delicately fed it to her sister, just as she had done countless times in Terreis' sickly youth. Through this Missini had been looking on from the doorway but now she suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling that she was an interloper, that this moment belonged to queen and princess and to no one else. And so, respectfully bowing to the royal pair who at that moment had no inkling of her presence, Missini softly backed out of the room and very carefully pulled the curtain shut. The young woman stepped outside and deeply inhaled the crisp morning air. Off to the east proud Eos was just starting to make her timeless reappearance--up over the eternal forest that had for countless centuries been mother to the Southern Tribe. Across the village breakfast fires were already being built, their smoke hanging low in the heavy morning air. Here and there an Amazon could be seen, out on some chore or simply trudging off to empty "the pot." Soon the warriors would be assembling to receive their daily assignments from either from their unit captain or her second-in-command. Habitually this was preceded by a meeting with the queen but for the past few days neither she nor her senior officers had bothered. She had other things on her mind and they knew what needed to be done.
Missini heard a cough and in the distance she saw Polymenia, coming to take her turn as sentry at Melosa's hut. Missini looked past her to the dark hills off to the west. Many times she had wondered what life was like "out there," past those hills, out there in that huge, strange, unknown world dominated by males. How foreign that seemed to her! Draganis had said it was a place full of wonders, old Phillipia a place full of deceit and evil. Missini guessed it was somewhere in between. Sometimes, she had even dreamed of going there, of seeing for herself. of reaching out and touching it for herself. Always though, she shrank back. This was her place, this was where she belonged. Let the males have the rest of the world, as long as she could live out her days here in peace, living the life she loved, with the people she loved. All the gold in Midas' vaults could not buy for her what she had here. Here she had an undeniable sense of place, of purpose, of...belonging!
And for the young healer that was more than enough.
Polymenia greeted Missini with a friendly nod and proceeded to relieve the taciturn Moirira who, true to her nature, had stood there watching Missini the whole time without saying a word. In leaving she was no different, silently setting off at a casual pace toward home for a well earned rest.
"How's the princess," Polymenia earnestly whispered.
The gentle Missini smiled and said, "She's going to make it."
"So, aside from poor Celeste I guess this mess turned out all right, huh?"
"And thank the gods for that," said Missini. "Hopefully now this succession foolishness has been decided once and for all and the tribe can get back to normal around here."
Polymenia knew better. "As long as she is alive it will never be over." Missini knew very well who she meant. "If it was up to me I'd go over there right now and cut her insolent throat."
Missini lightly put a hand to Polymenia's arm and said, "Well, such momentous decisions lie in the domain of kings and gods and are infinitely beyond our simple station in life."
"Maybe you're right." But inside Polymenia was thinking, Little healer, if I thought I could get away with it I'd do it myself and save Terreis the trouble!
Suddenly the warrior stiffened and it was then that Missini saw the stark silhouette of Melosa in the doorway. "Missy, I need you," said the queen.
"At once, ma'am," the healer dutifully replied, and she hurried off to join her mistress.
Alone now, Polymenia relaxed her taut muscles and just as Missini before her began to let her eyes wander over the village that was her home. In that serene moment her mind turned to what Missini had said and in doing so wondered if perhaps the little healer was not right after all. All right, so she was not a queen or a goddess. She conceded that being a god might not be such a bad thing but she could not understand why anyone in their right mind would want to assume the crushing burden of responsibility that Melosa shouldered every day of her life. It was the choices she made that determined whether Amazons lived or died and, ultimately, whether the tribe itself survived or perished. Nor did she envy Terreis, the personable princess who was faced every day with the nearly impossible tasks of measuring up to a legendary mother and grandmother. Polymenia wanted no part of such pressures. Let others, envious, petty...ambitious, huff and jostle their way as near to the center of power as the could, hoping against hope that somehow, some way, the sacred Rite of Caste might one day be bestowed on them.
Not Polymenia. She was content to serve the tribe, to raise her two young daughters and to live out the rest of her days in
the life she had chosen so long ago. She was content with who she was. Like countless others before her she was a front line
warrior, the backbone of five hundred years of Amazon greatness. And like Missini that was quite enough for her too.
It was another couple of days before Melosa finally got around to asking about Terreis' fight with Velasca. For her part Terreis was at that point still fuzzy on some of the details but Melosa would in time learn the whole story:
With both of the combatants lying unconscious everything depended on who awakened first. It was Terreis. She awoke just as she had passed out, with her eyes staring up at the sky. Only now the light was different and it took a moment for her groggy brain to realize that quite some time must have passed. That she was still alive seemed like a miracle in itself. Either the fall should have killed her or, failing that, Velasca. But where was Velasca? she wondered. Obviously she was in a bad way too. Or dead. As far as Terreis was concerned that was all right too. Still, she would have to find her and retrieve that scarf.
She was contemplating the difficult trek back up the hill when suddenly she thought she heard a faint cry from somewhere up high. Struggling to her feet, Terreis blinked hard a couple of times and peered back up the hill. Sure enough, she saw a dark form shakily arise out from the dense vegetation and stagger up against a tree. So she was not dead after all. Worse, she seemed to have still have full mobility. Terreis knew it was only a matter of time before Velasca's head cleared and she came looking for her. Terreis had to do something-and fast. But what? She could barely stand, much less fight. She felt all that would be necessary for Velasca to knock her on her ass would be to come down there and spit on her.
Desperately she looked around for a weapon. There was nothing. Everything she had was back up there on the top of the ridge. Again she cast her eyes about and this time she saw a rock about the size of her fist lying close by. Such a find was hardly comforting but at least it was something. It was then that her eye caught sight of a small tree limb close to the bottom of a nearby tree. Ordinarily she would not have given the thing a second thought but for a sturdy little sapling standing unusually close by. It was a long shot to be sure but what choice did she have? If only I can get the right angle...
Terreis' mind began to form a plan. First she cast a wary glance up the hill towards Velasca. She must not see me! she thought. Not yet. Like Velasca Terreis had chosen to wear a full, over the shoulder top instead of the traditional warrior's bra. Unlike her opponent, however, her ample breasts were not free but tightly bound up by a length of cloth doubled around and tied in the back. In an instant Terreis reached back under her shirt and began to frantically tug at the knot holding the bindings together. Three times she failed but after stopping a moment for a calming deep breath, she at last succeeded in pulling it loose on the fourth attempt.
Up on the hill the cobwebs were starting to clear from Velasca's head. Her entire body felt like one huge toothache. "Damn you, Terreis," she muttered darkly, "you'll pay for this."
At the base of the hill Terreis held her breath and prayed that Velasca would not see her. Slowly then she began to edge the five paces to the tree. When she got there she took another peek to see what Velasca was doing. As of yet nothing although she seemed to be looking for her. So far so good, she thought. Taking her bindings, she tied one end of it to the end of the tree limb and then every so carefully began to bend the limb back. In her weakened hands the tension on the limb was almost too much for her to handle but she doggedly hung on. By pressing her chest against the limb she was able to brace it while she tied the other end of the bindings to the sapling. The tree was wide and the light was not so good down where she was and if Terreis stood in the right spot she hoped an overconfident Velasca just might not see what she had in store for her.
Having lived with her and fought against her in training for so long Terreis knew Velasca better than anyone. What she was counting on now was to use Velasca's aggressiveness against her. Very often when Velasca thought she had the upper hand she would seek to not just defeat an opponent, but utterly crush them. In her fervor to do so that sometimes made her careless, which also made her susceptible to traps. Terreis herself had done this to her time after time. Now she planned to do it yet again. Only now the stakes were much higher than an approving eye from Selena.
She was now ready. All that was left was to get Velasca's attention. Strangely, that proved to be more difficult than she expected. Laboring to get to one knee, she let out a loud cry and then pretended to just be getting up for the first time. Up on the hill Velasca never moved. What's wrong with her? Terreis wondered. Is she deaf? So she tried again, this time simply standing there, hands cupped to her mouth, and yelling as loud as she could.
Up on the hill a still badly shaken Velasca finally heard her. So you are still alive! she thought. Well, not for long. Pulling out another arrow, Velasca began to side-step her way down the hill.
Back down at the bottom Terreis saw her coming and very carefully eased herself into position. Silently she prayed that Velasca would not notice that dark colored binding. She knew all too well that this was going to be a long shot but what other choice did she have? All her eggs were in this one all-important basket and, by the gods, she was going to make it work.
It took some time for Velasca to work her way down the hill which was fine with Terreis because every moment she wasted the light was getting worse. Finally a triumphant Velasca stood at the bottom, brandishing her weapon and leering at the apparently helpless princess. "My my, dear," she sneered, "you certainly are a mess, aren't you?"
"I'm still here, aren't I?" Terreis snarled back.
Velasca casually eyed the arrow and said, "Oh but not for long. You know, I thought about allowing you to live but I see now that that silly pride so rampant in your line will never allow you to serve me."
Through gritted teeth Terreis answered, "I am Terreis, daughter of Penthesilea, grand-daughter of the noble Antiope. I kneel to no one and especially not to a interloping cur like you!" In playing on Velasca's sense of insecurity about her own lineage, Terreis was looking to hit a nerve.
She found it. "You always were a spoiled, snot nosed little brat," Velasca said with disgust.
It was time to turn up the screws. "That may be," Terreis retorted. "But after all, I am a princess..." Slyly she went on to finish. "...and you're not."
Still Velasca would not take the bait. She wanted to relish every last moment of her impending victory. "Tell me...princess, do you fear me? You should, because I'm about to take away everything you have--your title, your honor, even your life."
Terreis snorted derisively. "Fear you? Gods of Olympus, why should I? You're a loser, Velasca. You always have been. Not once have you ever beaten me in battle. You never have, and you never will. Face it, loser, I am your better--born to rule. Serve you? Hah! Serve me, slave! Kneel to me, Velasca. Kneel to your princess."
Velasca's cry grew first from a low, guttural growl into a ear piercing shriek of blinded, primordial fury. Drawing back her weapon, she raced at the smirking princess she despised so much. In front of her stood an unflinching Terreis, waiting.
Her timing was perfect. At precisely the proper moment Terreis pulled the knot loose, freeing the limb. With a loud whap! the limb slammed into Velasca's chest, knocking her backward and causing her to drop the arrow. Snatching up her rock, Terreis lurched forward and fell on Velasca. Twice she cracked her in the head with the rock and like a sack of potatoes Velasca dropped heavily to the ground, unconscious again. Terreis sat astride Velasca's chest, her trusty rock raised, ready to finish it. But she could not. She knew Melosa would want her to kill Velasca then and there but...she just could not. She had won, that was all that mattered. She was a princess, not a murderer. Ripping free two of Velasca's leather strips, Terreis tightly bound her vanquished foe hand and foot. It was only then that she untied the green cloth from around Velasca's arm and carefully tucked it inside her own.
With Velasca safely secured Terreis leaned back--and promptly vomited. Fighting off the dizziness, she thought, Gods, Toad, don't pass out now! But the hard part was still to come. With the pulling of the arrow from her thigh her scream of agony echoed hauntingly through the forest. As a last measure Terreis untied the binding that had served her so faithfully and wrapped it around her throbbing thigh. Taking a deep breath, she started off on her long, arduous trek out of the forest. Soon she found a sturdy stick to serve as a crutch.
She was still gripping it when Calliope found her.
A few days after Terreis was up and about again Abisinthe was taking her turn at the well that was finally nearing completion. She was straining to help Telle set the large tub on the cart when a jerky shadow fell across the ground in front of her. It was Terreis, leaning heavily on a crutch.
"Oh, hello," said the younger Amazon cheerfully. Turning, she unconsciously wiped her hands clean on the back of her skirt. "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you," said Terreis. She grimaced slightly and said, "Still hurts though."
Telle dumped the tub of dirt in the cart and said, "Aw you'll be back scampering up trees in no time."
In Terreis' free hand was a neatly bound bundle and this she now presented to the young archer. "Ephiny says I owe you this. She wouldn't say why but if Ephiny says I do that's good enough for me."
Eyes wide, Abisinthe took the bundle and very daintily began to undo the bindings. Behind her stood Marleen and Telle looking over her shoulders. When she saw what was inside the girl gasped, "Oh my! It's beautiful!"
It was a full top, made of the finest black leather, long sleeved and cut provocatively low. It was the most beautiful thing Abisinthe had ever seen. "Oh my," she said again. Behind her Marleen teasingly whistled a wolf call, causing Abisinthe to turn a nice shade of crimson. As if to make sure she was not dreaming Abisinthe asked, "This is for me?"
"For you," said Terreis. "I had Ansara make it specially for you." She shot the girl a sly look and said, "So, uh, you want to tell me what this is for?"
Having already been admonished to keep quiet by Ephiny on several occasions, Abisinthe was not about to tell if she did not have to. Fortunately Terreis did not press her. After all, to her it was just a top, she had a dozen that were finer, but to an insecure young woman on the brink of warriorhood it was a something she would treasure always.
Abisinthe was still fumbling for a suitable reply when from down below they heard, "Hey, Abby, what the hell are you doing up there? Taking a dump?" It was the irascible Therme, relegated back to the hole once again. "C'mooon! I'd like to get out of here before I hit the change of life you know."
This was followed immediately by Valerie's inevitable giggle. It also got a laugh from Marleen and even Terreis had to grin.
Abisinthe, now doubly embarrassed, arched her eyebrows and said sheepishly, "I guess I ought to get back to work."
Terreis nodded and limped over to the hole. "You guys are doing great!" she dryly called out, and promptly limped off, leaving a
surprised Valerie to gulp, "Oops!"
Five hundred paces away Ephiny, Eponin and Solari, led by Minutia, were receiving final instructions from Melosa regarding a trading trip they were to make to a village some twenty leagues away. When the queen was finished Minutia playfully turned to Eponin and said, "So how do you like life in the Southern Tribe so far?"
Eponin cocked her head and for the first time Ephiny saw the makings of a smile form at her lips. "I'll say one thing, it's certainly never dull around here."
"Wait till the river floods," said Ephiny knowingly. "Then you'll have some real fun."
"Are you kidding? My feet still have wrinkles from the last time." Inside her boots Solari wiggled her toes and then forlornly added, "I think they're webbed too."
At this Minutia boomed out a laugh and even Melosa found it hard to suppress a smile. But only for a moment. Clapping her hands together, she said, "All right, people, let's go. I want you back by midday tomorrow."
Smiles faded and Ephiny and Solari scurried off to get their horses. Melosa watched Eponin climb onto the wagon and drive away. Minutia, already mounted, fell in alongside in an escort position. Soon they were joined by the two very promising young warriors and before long the four of them were through the village and out of sight.
By that time Melosa was already gone--off to face the next challenge.
The day after Terreis regained conscious, a grudging Melosa followed her wishes and ordered Velasca to be released. When told she was free a shattered Velasca did not move but simply continued to numbly sit there in her cell. All day she sat there in silence with the cell door open, blankly staring at the far wall. Sometime during the night she quietly stole away into the hills and by daylight was once more out of Amazon territory. The next morning a puzzled Colsethme found only a red sash lying on the floor of the cell. Picking it up, she wondered how in the world could an ambassador's symbol of office have gotten into Velasca's cell.
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