Coming of Age
The characters Ephiny, Solari, Terreis, Velasca and Melosa are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters are mine. This story contains descriptions of violence and an attempted rape along with a few instances of graphic language.
The quoted lines praising Penthesilea are from Book I of "The Fall of Troy." The Amazon "War Song" and Claudia's poem excerpt are mine.
This is the first of what I hope will be a series of stories chronicling the early life of the truest Amazon of them all.
"Ephiny?" Meelah stepped forth from the door of her hut and shaded her eyes from the afternoon sun. Sweeping her eyes over the rest of the thatched huts that made up the village, she called out again, "Ephiny!"
Where is that girl?
Off in the distance she heard a faint voice reply, "Here, Mother!" Meelah saw a young girl with finely toned muscles and familiar unruly blonde locks pop out from between two huts and began to briskly walk toward her. To the woman it did not seem quite possible that the girl was now entering her sixteenth summer. Indeed it was though it were only yesterday that her sturdy child had been but a pink, squirming little thing eagerly suckling on her breast. As the girl neared Meelah gave her head a little shake. Had it really been that long ago? Apparently it had for this fine young figure, this soon-to-be Amazon warrior, was definitely no longer a baby. Yes, it was all too true. Her Ephiny was growing up!
As the girl joined her Meelah feigned a stern voice and asked "Ephiny, where have you been?"
"Jasara was teaching me a new knot," Ephiny explained.
"Oh she was, eh? Well you can do that any time." Meelah thrust the small basket she was holding into her daughter's hands and said, "Right now I want you to go down to the pond and pick those dewberries I was telling you about."
As forcefully as she dared Ephiny stamped her foot in protest. "But, Mommaaaa," she softly cried, "that's a cook's job! I'm a warrior!"
Meelah gave Ephiny a kindly smile. It had been so long since the girl had called her "Momma" and she had to admit it was something she missed. "Well you're not a real warrior yet," she gently reminded the girl. "At least, not until you prove yourself."
For Ephiny it was all too painfully true. Although almost finished with her warrior training, Ephiny knew that until she was able to in some way prove herself worthy of the title in the eyes of their queen and the elite of their tribe she would remain what she was--a valued member of the tribe to be sure, as all were--but without that unique respect one could earn only by bearing arms in defense of the tribe.
Meelah lovingly stroked a curl of Ephiny's hair and said, "Besides, I'm a warrior and I cook. Even warriors have to eat, you know. Now go get those berries before the birds get them all."
It was no use and Ephiny knew it. She might buck up but the concept of discipline had been relentlessly instilled in her all her life and as far as a fledgling like her was concerned there were not very many under her in the Amazon hierarchy. The queen, the tribal elite, all elders and warriors and, of course, her own mother were all supposed to be obeyed without question. Besides, she liked dewberries too. Respectfully lowering her head, Ephiny softly said, "Yes, Momma."
"That's my girl," said Meelah. "Now run along and I'll have your supper ready for you when you get back."
With a sigh of resignation Ephiny again said, "Yes, Momma." However instead of turning about and going back the way she had come--the direction of the pond--Ephiny resolutely set her jaw and went straight ahead in the opposite direction. Meelah smiled and said nothing because she knew very well what was her daughter's intent. Ephiny was not about to tote that silly basket right through the main part of the village and risk being seen by any of those close to her own age, particularly the two most recently proclaimed warriors--her friend Terreis and most especially the splenetic Velasca. At the moment she was in no mood to be subjected to Velasca's sneering. Ever since the queen had adopted her as her own Velasca had rarely failed to take advantage of a chance to lord over the more lowly born Ephiny and if she saw her now there was no telling what she might to do in an effort to humiliate her. No, Ephiny would take the long way around, even if it did mean walking an extra half league.
With an amused shake of the head Meelah watched Ephiny for a few moments before returning to the hut.
As for Ephiny she thought at first that her little scheme was going to work. In fact she was almost out of the village and into the tree line when she heard a familiar voice huskily cry out, "Hey, Eph! Where ya headed?" It could only be one person. Moon faced, stockily built and possessing a dry sense of humor, the dark-haired Solari was her best friend. And although older, she too had not yet achieved the lofty status they both yearned for so much.
Hearing her friend's voice, Ephiny slumped her shoulders in defeat. Oh great! she sullenly thought. Despite this Ephiny was not really unhappy to see her. The two of them had been best friends ever since Ephiny could remember and she knew that, unlike some of the others, the sturdy Solari would not ridicule her over the basket. Still, this was one time she would rather have gone it alone. No matter what her mother might say, in her own mind picking berries was still for the old women and small children. She was a warrior now and as such ought to be above such demeaning chores as this!
Solari playfully bumped Ephiny as she joined her and the blonde grumbled a brusque, "What are you doing up here?"
Solari ignored the choppy waters churned up by her friend's grumpiness and dived right in. "Old Ansara wanted me to...say, what's with the basket?"
She's going to find out anyway, thought Ephiny. Might as well confess. "Mother wants me to pick some of those dewberries down by the pond."
"Oh yeah, I saw they were ripe," said Solari. "I haven't had a chance to try any of them, though." Solari then shot Ephiny a perplexed look and said, "Uhh, I hate to tell you this but you're going the wrong way."
"I know that!" Ephiny snapped.
It then dawned on Solari what her friend was up to. "Ohhhhh."
"Just be thankful you're not the one stuck with this basket," said Ephiny. Again she lamented her sad refrain, "A warrior should not have to do this."
To her surprise Solari did not seem to sympathize. "Well," she reminded her friend, "even warriors have to eat."
"That's what Mother said," replied Ephiny gloomily.
"Aww come on," Solari coaxed. "Don't be such a crab." Solari, who loved to have fun, had always been struck by how serious minded her friend was. Even as a child, Ephiny, daughter of Meelah, had rarely smiled and her maturation into a young warrior had certainly done nothing to change her demeanor.
It was strange, they were polar opposites but for some reason Solari just liked the stoic Ephiny. She always had. For her part Solari was not much of a thinker, she usually left that to her extremely intelligent friend. On those rare occasions when she had pondered on the subject of their friendship Solari had pretty much decided that it was primarily because Ephiny's integrity was above reproach. She was such a rock solid person, very brave, and yes, had a bit of a stubborn streak in her. If Ephiny gave you her word you could take it to Mount Olympus. Of those their own age Terreis might be the better warrior, Velasca might be more ruthless and cunning but for her money Solari could think of no one better to have on her side in a pinch than this quiet girl with the unruly blonde hair.
Solari knew from first hand experience just how determined her friend could be. She still remembered the time as a ten year old when her legs had gone numb after a bad fall. Though decided lighter, nine year old Ephiny had lashed together a litter and doggedly dragged the husky Solari the whole league and a half back to the village rather than leave her friend there alone with night fast approaching. Yes, Ephiny was a true Amazon all right.
"I'm not being a crab, Ephiny shot back.
"Oh no? Gods, compared to you Medusa was a cherub," teased Solari.
"That's it," muttered her blonde friend. "Keep rubbing that salt in the wound." But try as she might Ephiny could not stay depressed. Not with Solari around. That damn cheerfulness of hers had a way of infecting even the taciturn Ephiny.
Solari stuck out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout, forcing Ephiny to at last smile. "All right," she said, pushing the basket into Solari's big hands, "just for that you get to help me pick!"
With a little shrug Solari took the basket and said, "M'kay." For her part she could not see what all the fuss was about. Who cared if someone saw them? But then, she thought, that's Ephiny for you. For one so intelligent she did have a certain pride about her. Ephiny could be so stubborn sometimes!
Fortunately for Ephiny's pride the two of them made it to the pond unobserved and for the next hour or so went about the task of filling the basket. Upon reaching the pond Ephiny's concern eased somewhat because she knew it was very rare that anyone came to the place anymore. The pond itself was covered with a thick scum now and had long since been choked with lily pads. Nowadays all the bathing and washing of clothes was done at the river. As this winding tributary of the great River Peneus formed the uneasy boundary between Amazon and Centaur land it made even the performance of these mundane tasks considerably riskier but there at least, the water was clean. And too in the shaky truce that was the aftermath of the horrific Second War between the two neighbors Queen Melosa had prudently ordered that the river remain under constant surveillance for several leagues in both directions. As warriors in training both Ephiny and Solari had performed this duty many times.
As the two young Amazons went about their work it became apparent to Ephiny that her friend was not going to be of much help after all. It seemed Solari was eating as many as she picked. Watching the young woman pop yet another handful of berries in her mouth, Ephiny finally could take it no longer. "Damn it" she asked, "how many of those things can you eat?"
As usual Ephiny's intensity washed right over the back of her easy going friend. Her mouth still full of berries, Solari good naturedly mumbled, "Hey, mezargud. Tryzum."
With a sigh of resignation Ephiny was about to cave in and do just that when off to her left, in another part of the dense thicket, she heard the sharp snap of something breaking. Instinctively both she and Solari instantly crouched low to the ground.
"What was that?" her friend cautiously asked. "An animal?"
Keeping her sharp eyes focused on the thicket Ephiny quietly replied, "Maybe." Then again, she thought, maybe not. One thing was certain, however. Whoever or whatever was in there it certainly was not one of their rivals from across the river. No centaur could possibly get in such a tight place.
Their guardedness was not unwarranted. Although this fertile area had long been established as Amazon land, the Southern Tribe which called this home their home had no shortage of enemies who would like nothing more than to not only seize this rich land from them, but to enslave them or even exterminate them as well. For this reason it was relentlessly pounded into every member of the tribe to always be vigilant and to never, ever, take even the slightest thing for granted. Yes, more than likely that thing in the dense thicket was only a stray goat or maybe a hind but who could say for sure? It might also be a spy. Either way, goat or lurking enemy, Ephiny was going to find out for certain. She also knew that if it indeed turned out to be something hostile that her primary task was not necessarily to attack but rather to assess the threat and quickly warn the others.
Putting a finger across her lips, Ephiny then used the hand signals she had learned long ago to indicate to Solari that they were to execute a double flanking maneuver around the thicket and carefully close in from opposite sides. Solari pulled the dagger from her belt and solemnly nodded that she was ready. Unarmed herself, Ephiny reached down and very quietly picked up four egg-sized stones. Carefully then the two friends eased their way in toward the thicket. As they got close the dense underbrush obscured their view of one another, making each all the more cautious. Peering into the dense growth off to her right, Ephiny thought she detected some slight movement. This was immediately confirmed by another of her senses when she again heard a sound from inside the thicket. Except this time the sound was something quite different from what she expected.
"Will you hurry up?" she heard a small voice ask.
To Ephiny this certainly did not sound like any sort of spy. Bending over, she cocked her head to one side and said, "Who's in there?" Solari, surprised that Ephiny had given away her position so quickly, readied herself in case who or whatever was in there decided to flee in her direction.
She need not have worried. On the other side of the thicket Ephiny watched first one small form, then another, even smaller one carefully work their way out from the thicket and into plain view. Puffing out her cheeks in a small sigh of relief, she saw that it was ten year old Anon and her younger sister Marsa. These were the daughters of the great Amazon warrior Draganis and were something of a rarity in the tribe in that both of them had been fathered by the same man. It showed too because the resemblance was striking.
"Hi, Effie!" the youngest girl cried out upon seeing the blonde.
Pitching away her makeshift weapons, Ephiny dusted off her hands and broke into a faint smile as she approached the girls. Seven years old now, Marsa was such a sweet little thing who had over the years grown very attached to the quiet daughter of Meelah. Like all the older Amazon children Ephiny had spent considerable time tending to the younger children while their mothers were away.
"Shhhh," Anon admonished her younger sister. "You shouldn't call her that. She's a warrior now." Already the older girl was starting to acquire the mind set that would one day make her a warrior as well.
Ephiny hoisted up the younger child and said, "Not quite yet, but soon I hope. And that's all right..." She tickled Marsa's tummy. said, "...you can call me Effie anytime."
On the other side of the thicket Solari heard the relaxed voices and the sound of the little girl's giggling and recognized there was no danger here.
"What were you two doing in there?" asked Ephiny.
"Ohh, Marsa had to go--again," replied a somewhat peeved Anon. Ever since Ephiny could remember Marsa had been plagued by sporadic bouts of violent diarrhea. Though worrisome, it was something she assumed the girl would eventually grow out of. Unfortunately it had not happened yet.
"Well that's all right," Ephiny reassuringly cooed to the little girl. "We've got plenty of bushes around here, don't we?"
Marsa giggled again as only a child can and as Ephiny set her back down they were joined by Solari. "Hello, guys," said Solari. "Does your mother know you're down here?"
"She sent us down here to pick some berries," said Anon bleakly. To Ephiny it was obvious the girl's distaste for the chore easily matched her own.
Marsa's take on the matter was much different. "I like berries," she said dreamily.
"Me too," said Solari. Like Ephiny she had spent many a turn of the hour glass tending to the younger children.
"Well, what do you say we get our baskets and finish up here before half the village shows up," said Ephiny.
However they were not long to their task because a short time later the four of them heard the distant sound of galloping horses. As yet they were not visible on the high grassy plain but even now Ephiny could tell they were definitely headed her way. As they approached even little Marsa abandoned the sweet berries in order to listen.
Solari eased in beside the intently listening Ephiny. "Three?" she asked.
Ephiny cocked an ear to the sound and gave a little shake of the head. "Four."
"Four," Solari echoed. "Strangers?"
"No," said Ephiny. "Amazon ponies." It was here that little Marsa chose to wrap an apprehensive arm around Ephiny's leg. Ephiny placed a reassuring hand on the child's head and added, "A returning patrol I'd say."
For Solari, whose own sense of hearing was very ordinary, it always amazing how her friend was able to distinguish jumbles of individual sounds that way. "Well they're in one very big hurry," she remarked.
At that moment the horses topped the rise and, sure enough, Solari saw there were indeed four of them and that it looked to be a returning patrol, just as Ephiny had said. However instead of the usual purposeful trot or even a meandering gait as was usually the case for those returning from an uneventful patrol, the four riders were thundering toward them at full speed.
"Something's wrong," said Ephiny.
Squinting into the afternoon sun, Solari asked "Who's that leading them?"
Ephiny's sharp eyes honed in on this muscular young woman bent low in the saddle. Her long hair was streaming behind her and she was urging her horse on with an occasion sharp "Hyah!" It could only be one person.
"Terreis," she tersely replied.
Terreis. If ever one of their tribe could be looked upon as being the one most favored by the blessed Artemis, it was this younger sister of Queen Melosa. Though not as beautiful as her older sister she was nonetheless courageous, not only extremely intelligent but also possessing a certain wisdom about life that went well beyond her years, Terreis was at eighteen the most beloved member of this, the Southern Tribe of the Amazon Nation. She and her older sister were the only two surviving daughters of the legendary Queen Penthesilea who had been slain by Achilles at Troy. Ever since every young Amazon had learned the story of her fall.
"So that death-ravening
spear of Peleus' son,
Clear through the goodly steed rushed on,
And pierced Penthesilea. Straightway fell she down
Into the dust of earth, the arms of death,
In grace and comeliness fell, for naught of shame
Dishonored her fair form."
It was said that she was the very daughter of Ares himself and while hot in battle even she sometimes claimed so. There were those, though, who knew her real father had been but a simple blacksmith, captured by Penthesilea's mother and used for her own carnal pleasures. Over time, as these people died out, the legend would grow ever larger.
As the old saying went, the fruit had not fallen very far from the tree. Each of the women bore all the qualities that had for longer than anyone could remember made their line such fierce warriors and such wise rulers. They were true Amazon royalty.
There were, however, marked differences in the two sisters. Whereas the older Melosa was dark, cold, calculating and utterly ruthless, Terreis was fair skinned, unfailingly pleasant and had one more than one occasion been accused by her exasperated older sister of being a dreamer. Ephiny herself thought Penthesilea's youngest daughter had some strange ideas, not the least of them being that the Amazons should try to reach an understanding with the hated Centaurs. This was a little hard to Ephiny to take because, although too young to fight in the last war between the Amazons and the Centaurs, she, like practically every other member of the tribe, had lost more than a few friends and family to the Centaur bow and the Centaur sword. For her part Ephiny could not see the two neighbors ever reconciling their differences. At least, not as things now stood between them.
Still, this did not keep the young Amazon from admiring Terreis. How could she not? Despite her lofty station life Terreis, unlike the cold Melosa, was outgoing and friendly to even the lowest Amazon. She was, in a word, nice. She was also a little different in that, unlike most young Amazons pupils, she had much more readily taken to the concepts of so called "culture." Terreis was prone to taking a much more philosophical approach to things.
Of course, Ephiny understood that the heavy burden of command borne by Melosa bore was probably a contributing factor to her aloofness but there was no getting around the fact that it was always in any Amazon's best interest not to displease their queen! Ephiny had seen more than one proud warrior shrivel in the face of Melosa's icy glare. At any rate the queen always exercised her power wisely and justly. She might seem harsh sometimes but at least she was fair. Unfortunately the same could not be said for her adopted daughter, the haughty Velasca.
Paramount in Amazon society was the idea of a common bond, of a communal sisterhood that in its purest form was supposed to preclude any personal feelings of animosity one Amazon might have for another. The basis for this was not so much out of the desire for mere Amazonian harmony as it was for simple survival. For centuries they had stood fast, usually alone and outnumbered, against a myriad of enemies and in that time had come to learn that their greatest strength lay, not in their weapons or training, formidable as those were, but in their basic belief in each other. They were taught that in the end this was all they really had--each other.
However in the stark reality of every day life it was not always possible for most all too human Amazons to follow this noble tenet. Ephiny was no exception. Try as she might she could not keep from hating Velasca. Never in her life had Ephiny seen such an arrogant, lordly, supercilious person. She was also a sadist. Velasca was the type of person who loved to torture prisoners just for the sake of inflicting pain despite Melosa's express orders against such a practice. For the life of her Ephiny could not understand why Melosa, who worshipped at the altar of discipline, seemed content to continually look the other way from Velasca's ever increasing turpitude.
Velasca was ambitious all right and worse, Ephiny was well aware that there were those who agreed with her desire to unite all the different tribes into one great Amazon Nation and conquer the whole Mediterranean. Even at her age she knew this was foolish. The glorious days of Amazon conquest were long past. Now it was more a matter of their own survival. Velasca wanted power any way she could get it and as Ephiny saw it she was like a malignant growth on them that needed to be cut out and the sooner the better. If not Ephiny saw the day coming when she just might tear the tribe apart.
But then, what did she know? She was, after all, the common daughter of a
common warrior--a fact that Velasca delighted in reminding her.
Terreis and her three companions ignored the waves of the four young berry pickers, not even giving them a side long glance as they thundered past at a distance of only a few paces. This was not like Terreis at all.
"You're right, Eph," Solari remarked. Something is wrong."
Quickly turning to Anon, Ephiny said, "Solari and I are going to see what's up. Finish filling my basket and take it to my mother and I'll give you my new sling?"
Surprised by the older girl's generosity, Anon readily consented, leaving Ephiny and Solari free to hasten back to the village. On the way, the two friends speculated some about what the rush could be about and both agreed that the grim look they had seen on Terreis' face could mean only one thing--intruders! While still a couple of arrow flights away from the village Ephiny and Solari heard the distinctive blare of the great ram's horn. This particular signal had only one purpose, to alert the queen that her presence was needed immediately. After learning that Melosa had gone out with the goatherd Euset in order to try to kill the predator that had been ravaging their goats, Terreis had scaled the tower herself in order to sound the great horn.
By the time Ephiny and Solari arrived back at the village the great tower was vacant. Amassed at its base was an ever increasing number of tribe members, some standing alone, others milling around the tower asking those nearby if they knew what was happening. The remainder of the Amazons were gathered in little knots of three or four individuals, most of whom seemed to be engaged in animated conversation. It was here that Ephiny espied off to her right two girls about her own age who happened to be standing together in the very shadow of the tower. On their faces were looks of concern and they were speaking to each other in hushed tones.
Approaching, Ephiny exchanged nods of recognition with them as naturally they all knew each other very well. Solari did the same as her blonde friend tilted her head in the direction of the tower.
"What's going on?" Ephiny asked.
Morda, basically a shorter version of the stocky Solari, gave her shoulders a bewildered shrug and replied with a question of her own. "Who knows?"
"But, what about the horn?" asked Solari.
"That was Terreis," Morda explained. "She came charging in here like Hades himself was chasing her."
"Yeah we saw heading her and the others heading toward the village," said Ephiny. "Didn't she say anything?"
"Not to us," Morda replied. "After she descended the tower she spoke briefly to a couple of the a couple of the tribal leaders but other than that she said nothing."
"That was all?"
"Uh huh. She rushed off to find the queen."
"Aww you know how it is," her friend Pomona, a willowy girl of almost sixteen ruefully chimed in. "Next to the children we slugs are always the last to be told anything."
"Slugs" was the disparaging term by which the Amazon training instructors most often addressed the fledgling warriors entrusted to them. There had been a time when they would have been called much worse. And that was not all. More times than she could count Ephiny had heard the old women of the village grumble about the softness of today's youth followed by yet another harrowing account of how tough the training had been back in their day! Although discounted by those of Ephiny's generation as the usual complaint the aged have against the young, these old women were in fact telling the truth. Amazon training had indeed once been far more brutal and uncompromising than it was now. In those days it had been not at all uncommon for an overzealous or even a simply frustrated instructor to actually kill a trainee during the course of some martial exercise. Upon ascending to the throne Queen Penthesilea changed all that. Recognizing better than any of her predecessors the dangers facing the Amazon nation, she had understood that every warrior was precious and much too valuable to lose needlessly. To that end she had overhauled the training regimen. Yes, this training was still long, arduous and extremely rigorous but it was no longer accompanied by malicious physical abuse from the instructors. For the most part the only harm inflicted on the trainees now was by each other.
"You mean Terreis said nothing?" Ephiny asked again.
"Not a word," said Pomona.
"To no one?"
"No, Ephiny," said Morda, becoming a little annoyed at Ephiny's persistence. "Like I said not a word. She just blew the horn and then headed straight off to the queen's quarters without so much as a fare-thee-well to the rest of us."
"I can tell you this, though," Pomona added, "Terreis--the whole bunch of them--were pretty shaken up." Here the two young witnesses exchanged solemn nods of agreement.
Ephiny was surprised by this last remark because despite her young age Terreis was well known for being cool and collected under pressure. Always conscience of the confident image Amazon royalty was supposed to project, Terreis rarely allowed others to see behind her usual facade of quiet imperturbability. Obviously something big was developing. War?
Solari knew this as well as Ephiny. "Sweet Artemis!" she said under her breath. "This must be something really important."
In a tone of voice implying a shrug, Ephiny said, "Well, whatever it is, I expect we'll know soon enough."
"Do you think we will be called upon to fight?" Morda excitedly wondered aloud.
Ephiny was doubtful and said so. "Who? Us?" The daughter of Meelah shook her blonde head. "Nahhh. If anything we'd probably just be in the way. The only way I see us getting inserted into battle is if the Horde, the Centaurs and Xena's whole army all three fell on us at the same time."
Stirred however by the prospect of her first battle, Morda was not so easily deterred. Indeed, once having taken up the bit in her mouth she was fully prepared to run with it. "Well you never know. After all, something scared Terreis," she declared. Almost hopefully she added, "Who knows? Maybe it is Xena's army. Maybe it's Xena and the Centaurs!"
For a moment Ephiny looked at the girl as though she had two heads. Silly girl! When she spoke, however, the deliberate tone of her voice was much the same as that of a patient teacher attempting to explain a simple problem to a backward child. "If that were to happen it would take a whole lot more than throwing in a few scrubs like us for Melosa to stop them."
"Yeah," Solari said in agreement. "Something more along the lines of praying for divine intervention."
This shocked Pomona. In her view this was an extremely disrespectful statement by Solari. The very thought of the great warrior Melosa on her knees in prayer for deliverance was not only unsettling but in her mind even smacked of down right disloyalty.
"Besides," Ephiny continued, "you know as well as I do that Xena is as bitter an enemy of the Centaurs as we are. They hate her guts for what she did to them at Corinth. Why they say old Tyldus prays every night to live long enough to hear her death rattle."
Every young Amazon knew by heart the account of their own terrible war with the Centaurs a few years before but only very few had ever bothered to sit down before one-armed Phillipia--old before her time--and listen to her gruesome tales of the horrific battle of Corinth. As an Amazon emissary to Corinth at the time she had borne personal witness to the awesome spectacle that was to become known as the legendary Battle of Corinth. There on the plain before that ancient city Xena's massive army and the formidable forces of Tyldus had collided and become locked in such a death grip, tearing at each other's throats with such a fury that the plain literally ran red with their blood. One member of the King of Corinth's court later told Phillipia that he had walked from one end of the battlefield to the other--perhaps half a league--on the corpses of the dead without ever having touched the ground.
"I guess you're right," said Morda reluctantly. "But a girl can always dream, can't she?"
"So what do you want to do?" Solari asked her friend. She was well aware there were those in the tribe who thought it more than a little odd that she had attached herself so firmly to this younger girl. She also knew that because of this those same people even viewed her as perhaps being...flawed in some way. For a young Amazon still trying to earn her place this could be a dangerous thing. Solari, however, did not care. Although not exactly a dullard she recognized Ephiny's talent and had early on become accustomed to the fact that her friend was simply smarter, more gifted than she was and had easily accepted this for what it was. Indeed her blonde friend always seemed to know what to do and Solari found more than a little comfort in that.
This was not to say the girl totally lacked confidence. She had once overheard an Amazon captain say that all any good warrior really needed was a strong right arm and through her training she had come to know that she certainly had that. Admittedly "behind" most of the others her own age Solari nevertheless had no doubt whatsoever that when the time came she would be able to show that she had the stuff to be a true Amazon warrior. It was just that Ephiny somehow always seemed to see things more clearly. So if some wanted to whisper behind her back? Let them. After all, she thought the world of Ephiny. And why not? Unlike some of the more cruel members of the tribe the gifted daughter of Meelah never talked down to her or made her feel stupid but instead always made her feel like an equal in all things.
There was another reason for her loyalty. Solari had long ago decided that with the bravery and the leadership potential she had already demonstrated Ephiny was one destined to go far and she for one was determined to see to it that Ephiny would at all times see her as not only a friend but a useful ally as well. To an Amazon of rank the latter was often times much more vital. Yes, Solari could think of worse things than hitching her wagon to Ephiny's star.
"I suppose there is nothing much we can do," said Ephiny. "Except wait."
Morda, however, was not finished after all. With her eyes lighting up as bright as Sirius she excitedly blurted out, "Hey, what if it's, say, an army of ferocious minotaurs!"
Hearing this, her friend Pomona rolled her eyes and let out a groan. Morda was a good friend but she never seemed to tire of going off on these wild tangents.
Pressing further but somewhat more defensively now, Morda said, "Well what if it was. Hey, it could happen. Then they would have to let us fight."
For Solari this was too much. Somehow Morda always seemed to find a way to irritate her. "Hmph," she snorted. "For somebody who barely knows which end of a sword to pick up you're in one terrible hurry to carry one into battle."
Morda was undaunted by this reproach. "Yeah? Well you're a fine one to talk, Solari," she said tartly. "You're almost two summers older than me and yet here you still have not earned the warrior's mask."
No one knew better than Ephiny just how much of a sore spot this was for her friend. Solari might grin at Ephiny's gentle barbs about how she was "saving herself" but she would be damned before she would brook such an obvious insult--even if she had fired the opening salvo in this little exchange.
Solari took a menacing step toward the defiant Morda but Ephiny managed to deftly step in and cut her off. Now planted firmly between the two bristling young women, Ephiny turned to Morda and declared, "You've been listening to too many campfire stories."
Still angry, Solari pointed a big finger at Morda. "You know, one of these days you're going to get that first taste of combat you want so badly and I just might be the one to give it to you." Even at this late point in their history it was a common misconception among outsiders that the Amazons were a tightly knit sisterhood of warriors who, because of the uniqueness of their society, were selflessly devoted to each other and to their race. Although that was the ideal nothing could have been further from the truth. The pages of Amazon history were soaked with the blood of betrayal and ruthless ambition. Amazons were mortal human beings after all and as such were just as capable of perniciousness and treachery as anyone else.
"Oh yeah?" Well--"
"All right, that's enough!" said Ephiny forcefully, as she alternated her piercing glare between the two antagonists. "Great Gods! With a little luck you guys will have the next forty years in which to try to kill each other. So what do you say we pick up the gauntlet for now and try to find out what in the name of Artemis is going on, hmm?"
For her part Pomona was more than amenable. Despite having a much more serene disposition herself, she still regarded the fractious Morda as the closest thing she had to a best friend. However she also liked Ephiny and the last thing she wanted was to be forced into a situation where she might have to choose sides between the two. "Yeah c'mon, guys," she coaxed. "Ephiny's right. We have more important fish to fry."
Facing the two older girls with no apparent ally of her own, Morda at last saw fit to accede. Though stymied in this round she had at least learned one valuable lesson--the spineless Pomona was not one to be counted on in a pinch. It was too bad, she thought, that that dim-witted Solari had somehow managed to ingratiate herself so firmly with the tight-lipped Ephiny. Ephiny! There was someone who could be trusted to watch one's back. Of course it would come as no surprise that the Amazon she most wanted to emulate was the cold-hearted Velasca. The young warrior's air of haughty superiority put off many of the other Amazons but it only caused Morda to admire her all the more. She admired the woman's arrogance. If only she could be like that! Unfortunately for Morda these same characteristics also served to make the adopted daughter of Melosa unapproachable. For a nothing like her to speak to such a regal person was unthinkable. Had she even attempted it the ruthless Velasca would have squashed her like a bug and she knew it. But maybe one day, after she had proven herself...
Even so it was not the hateful Velasca who dominated her thoughts. That was left for another.
Smoothly and in a strangely gentle voice she said to Ephiny, "You're right of course." She then shot Solari a wry little grin and said, "Hmm, forty years, huh? Somehow I do not think it will take quite that long to resolve matters." With that she slowly turned--a clear gesture that this was not over--and then walked away.
"Sorry about that," said Pomona. "I'm afraid Morda is a little high strung at times."
"High strung my ass," snorted Solari. "She's crazy, that's what she is."
As usual it was Ephiny who had the correct assessment. Watching the girl stride purposefully up the street she thought, She's worse than crazy. She's just like Velasca!
Melosa had just loosed her arrow at its target when she heard, off in the distance, the sounding of the great horn. Unfortunately her intended victim, a sleek black panther, heard it as well and instantly bolted into the dense underbrush nearby just a heartbeat ahead of the queen's deadly missile. As the arrow harmlessly struck into a great bole some few paces on past Melosa scowled and muttered a curse under her breath. A whole morning's tracking--wasted!
From behind she heard the old goatherd Euset say quietly, "That was a fine shot, my queen. You surely would have killed the beast if not for the horn."
Melosa nodded and reluctantly lowered her bow. The old Amazon was right, of course, the miss was not the result of faulty aim on her part but rather of just plain bad luck. Still, the handsome queen failed so seldom that a miss--for any reason--was hard to accept. Turning to the old woman, Melosa forced a thin smile. Euset was surely in her mid-fifties by now but Melosa still remembered as a mere child being taught how to ride by this same woman. In those days she had not been a damaged, semi-hermetic goatherd but a great warrior, strong and tall and in the prime of her life, the favorite of Melosa's mother Penthesilea long before she became queen. A heavy blow to the knee by a skulking Spartan, leaving the proud warrior forever lame, had changed all that.
But while the days of carrying a sword proudly into battle might have long since passed for her this had not lessened Melosa's respect and yes, even affection for her. It had been Euset's own choice to take care of the goatherd when Melosa would have preferred her to install her into a post more suited to her talents. Euset had always been a fine tactician and because of this Melosa, new to the throne and still somewhat unsteady, had almost denied Euset's request in order that she might much more readily take advantage of her experience should the need arise. After all, her leg might have been crippled but her mind was as sharp as ever and by this time Melosa had been in enough battles to know that, unlike what Solari had heard from that captain, experience did count for at least as much as a strong arm.
However for one of the very few times the queen had gone against her better judgment and granted Euset's request. After all this time Melosa was not sure why Euset had wanted this so badly. Was it shame because of her disability? Melosa doubted it. Even now in her present state Euset's presence was a formidable one and she would not tolerate disrespect from man or beast--or Amazon for that matter. No, there had to have been another reason.
In the end it did not matter. Melosa felt she owed it to her and to her mother's memory and if that was what she wanted, well so be it. And so it had been for several years now.
"The 'Queen's Call,' said Euset, "wonder what it's about?"
Melosa shouldered her bow and shot an annoyed glance in the direction of the village. She had really enjoyed spending this quiet morning with her old friend and was now very much sorry that it had to end so quickly. Sweeping her dark hair back from her forehead, she gave a soft sigh of resignation and said, "Oh, one of the patrols probably picked up some poor bastard who got lost and wandered onto our land."
Euset smiled sympathetically at this. More than anyone she appreciated the load Melosa had to bear and so felt for her. In all the years she had known her queen--even as a child--she had never seen her smile. No, she was not the woman her mother had been, but then, who was? Penthesilea had been one of those remarkable--those...blessed individuals who comes along only once in a lifetime. Her skill and her wisdom in all things had been to all the other, lesser beings as the sun was to a candle. If not for that eternally damned Achilles she would be alive even now for no one--not even this new one, this Xena she had heard so much about--was her equal. It was only a barest source of consolation for her that Achilles had met his own end at Troy as well.
To this day Euset missed her so badly she could hardly stand it. She missed her smile, the touch of her regal hand on her own willing breast and the warmth of her sweet lips on hers. And on those endless days of quite solitude up in the hills with none near but the gods and the goats she often dreamed of coming once more to the bed of her precious queen. Oh Penthesilea! For as long as she would live the great queen--her queen--would never be very far from her thoughts.
"And with her followed
twelve beside, each one
A princess, hot for war and battle grim,
Far-famous each, yet handmaids unto her:
Penthesilea far outshone them all."
This then was why she had asked for such a lowly job. To see Melosa and to an even more extent her younger sister Terreis was to see Penthesilea herself and Euset was not certain she could bear such a daily torture. Yes, she understood how selfish this was and that she should be doing everything possible to see that the reign of Penthesilea's child was a successful one but when one's very soul has been shattered it is no longer as easy as all that. Euset could never quite escape the terrible feeling of guilt that she too should have died at the side of her queen there before the Greek ships. Sick with fever at the time, Euset had nevertheless on the eve of Penthesilea departure for Troy begged on her knees that she be allowed to accompany her queen as always. Instead the beautiful queen had smiled, kissed her on the forehead--and said no. The next morning Penthesilea and her escort were already gone when Euset awakened. Euset never saw her lover again.
All her life Euset had been taught that it was an Amazon's duty to give all of themselves for the good of the tribe. Because of that she knew her considerable talents were being wasted limping around, over and in goat shit all day long, day after day, but she no longer gave a damn about that. Her caring had all ceased at the same moment Penthesilea's heart beat its last. Now it was only a matter of waiting out the days of her own existence. Who knew? Maybe she would get to see Penthesilea again once she crossed over the river Styx. Euset prayed that Artemis, patron of the Amazons, would convince Hades to make it so.
"Well," she said, "let us hope that is all it is."
Melosa knew exactly what she meant. Curling up one corner of her mouth in a wry half grin she said, "Oh I don't know. Perhaps a good sharp battle is just what they need to sharpen them up a bit."
Euset shot her a knowing look. "If you say so, my queen."
"What?" Melosa wryly teased. "Do you mean to say that as the fierce and warlike descendants of the noble Amazons line we should not be thirsting for glorious battle?"
"Ohh but that is precisely how the hot-blooded young warriors--eager to make a name--think, isn't it." countered Euset. "I know. Your mother and I were the same way in our youth. In their minds they long for that chance to catch the eye of their queen, to prove themselves worthy." Euset's smile faded as she continued. "The young do not count on nor are they ever prepared for the carnage and the horror of it all--of seeing those they have grown up with cut down all around them like so much barley. They know nothing of being so terrified that one can scarcely draw a breath or of the lost feeling of invulnerability that comes with the pain of that first wound. But you and I, my queen, we know, don't we?"
Melosa gently laid a hand on the old woman's shoulder and said, "Yes, old friend, we do indeed. We can train their bodies until they are finely honed fighting machines but we can never truly prepare their minds for what is to come." She paused and then added, "Perhaps, that is as it should be. One should never be fully prepared to accept war."
Euset placed her one good hand on top of that of her queen--her dear Penthesilea's oldest daughter--and said, "You have grown very wise, child. Your mother would be so proud of you."
It was a sign of Melosa's respect for the old woman that here in private she would allow her to address her in this manner. No one, not even her very own sister Terreis was permitted to speak to her with such familiarity. "Life is a harsh teacher," said the queen.
"True. Shall I fetch your arrow now?"
Melosa shook her head. "No, I do not care to retrieve an arrow that has learned to miss."
Euset grinned at this and said, "Spoken like the true Amazon you are." Only in her thoughts did she add, Like the true child of Penthesilea!
"Very well then, I'll get your horse instead," said Euset.
Melosa glanced one last time at the thicket and said, "Too bad about the panther."
"Not to worry, my queen," Euset assured her. "I'll be on the watch for him and besides, there'll be another day."
Melosa, Hereditary Queen of the Amazons of Anatolia, stepped to the door of the surprisingly modest hut that was her home and peeked out on the many curious Amazons gathered outside. Glancing back over her shoulder, she asked "Are you certain? They were not simply looking for a better place to ford the river?"
Still standing at the small map table on the other side of the room was Terreis, flanked on either side by an Amazon warrior. These two both carried high rank but that was where all similarity ended and it was more than just the fact they were an entire generation apart.
"There can be no doubt," Terreis answered gravely. "There looked to be at least one hundred and twenty men, perhaps more, all on horseback and headed this way."
"This way?" Melosa walked back to the little table and peered down at the sheepskin map. "Surely they must know they are now in Amazon Territory."
"They know all right," said Terreis. "I saw one of them pull one of our markers off a tree and throw it on the ground."
Melosa's chest swelled in anger. No, these people were not simply passing through. Invasion! "Show me their line of advance."
Terreis' finger started at the river. "They were still in the process of crossing when we left." She then traced across the map in a southwesterly direction. "But their vanguard was already in place here, on the north road."
Turning to the heretofore silent Amazon captain standing on Terreis' left, Melosa asked, "Do you have anything to add?"
The captain's name was Mycinia. Perhaps ten year older than Melosa, she had fought in more major battles than Terreis had digits. This was why Melosa now asked for her assessment rather than that of her nominal commander, Terreis.
Standing on Terreis' right was the other warrior, Velasca. Placed in the same position she would have been furious at this perceived slight but Terreis easily took it in stride. She well knew she could not hope to match the experience of the impressive, battle-wise warrior with the short cut hair graying at the temples who was standing quietly on her left.
"They're 'tweener's,' Your Highness," said Mycinia simply.
"'Tweeners?'" Velasca scoffed. "It that some ancient terminology from your bygone days?"
Mycinia dared not look at the sneering Velasca lest her anger get the best of her and make her do something she would regret. Her long years of faithful service would mean nothing if she were to now suddenly strangle this snotty little royal brat who had not even been on the patrol with them.
Melosa shot Velasca a sharp glance but said nothing in rebuke. For her part Velasca serenely stared right back at her, taking great care, however, not to show too much defiance. After all, "mother" was queen, the "All-Highest" of the Southern Amazons and even Velasca had to respect that--for now.
"Explain, Mycinia," said the queen.
"From what I could see they are not a highly organized army as such," said Mycinia. "But neither are they a complete mob. They looked to be trying to move like an army but their spacing was sloppy and haphazard and their scouts deployed much too close to the main body. However it does suggest that there are a few in the command structure with at least some semblance of formal military training."
"I see. Any wagons?"
Terreis, eager to be included in the discussion once more, answered "A few. But mostly two-wheeled carts."
To Velasca's inward glee Terreis was hesitant with her reply. "I...don't know. They were very far away."
Melosa expectantly turned to Mycinia who dutifully replied, "Several were heavily laden, Your Highness." Unlike the little bitch Velasca whom she detested, Mycinia liked Terreis very much. She was courteous to her underlings, very mature for her age and often displayed a rare humility that sprang from a strong eagerness to learn. Mycinia appreciated that and this was why she felt a little badly for having exposed this deficiency in the young royal's methods. However it could not be helped. Right now hurt feelings must be put aside in order that the queen might have every possible scrap of intelligence. In her excitement Terreis had simply not taken the time to make a thorough reconnaissance of the column. It was a common mistake, one Mycinia was sure the girl would not make again.
Melosa gave Terreis a hard look, prompting Mycinia to offer up, "The fault is not with the Princess, Your Highness. I should have taken the opportunity to provide the proper instruction."
For her part Velasca was perfectly willing to let Mycinia wriggle some more on the hook. "In any case Terreis just got through saying the column was a great distance away. How then with your old eyes could you tell if the carts were laden?"
This time Mycinia eyed her antagonist coolly and in a very even voice said, "I could tell, Princess, by the hard way in which the men in the carts were driving the horses and by how hard the horses themselves were straining in their harnesses."
Melosa was satisfied by this and so came a moment that marked the profound difference between her rivaling young protégées. Whereas Terreis diligently took this important lesson to heart, tucking it away to use another day, Velasca sulked, seething inwardly at being bested by this ass kissing old relic and marking her then and there for the proper retribution when the time came.
"Raiders," pronounced Melosa.
"Raiders," echoed Mycinia with a nod.
"Then we must operate under the natural assumption that we are their next objective," said Melosa.
Velasca put both hands on the table and leaned forward. "They are surely across the river by now. We must attack and destroy them at the earliest possible moment!"
"That would not be wise, Princess," said Mycinia matter-of-factly.
"You speak like a coward," snarled Velasca. "Perhaps you have grown too old to hold a command."
"That's enough, Velasca," Melosa chided sharply.
"They have at least a one and a half to one advantage," Mycinia patiently explained. "They are all mounted whereas most of our warriors would be on foot. We don't possess the horses to match them and to rush up there and meet them on the river plain would be madness."
"I agree," said Melosa. Velasca stamped her foot in frustration, causing the queen to add, "We should not meet them head on if we can help it."
"So what do we do?" Terreis asked. "They will be here by nightfall."
Melosa's nimble mind ran down the list of options. In doing so two stood out in her mind. They could wait for nightfall and attack then or they could try to lure all or a large portion of the invaders into the forest. To wait meant abandonment of the village, turning it over without a fight to be looted and burned. While the queen personally found this notion extremely distasteful she understood that as a leader one sometimes had to take extreme measures in order to ensure the survival of one's people. A village can always be rebuilt but a slain Amazon was lost forever. No, she decided, we will not do that. Better to fight them in the forest where, if things broke the way she hoped, their great skill at camouflage and uncanny ability to move among the trees would more than negate both the invaders' horses and their numerical superiority. If then the great Artemis for some reason chose not to look favorably on the Amazons and they were to lose, well, then would be the time to regroup and think about Plan Beta.
All this raced through the queen's mind and so it was only a couple of breaths later that she replied to her sister, "We will try to lure them onto ground of our own choosing."
"The forest?" asked Mycinia.
"Right," the queen confirmed. This elicited a nod of approval from the veteran captain.
Turning quickly to the two princesses, Melosa began to rattle off a series of orders. "Terreis, take a couple of warriors and go bring in the south patrol."
"Right," said her sister, and immediately bolted from the hut. "Velasca, assemble the village, I will speak to them shortly." Melosa waited until Velasca was gone and then said, "Mycinia, have the other captains report here at once."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Mycinia turned to go and Melosa caught her by the arm. "And bring Phillipia too."
Mycinia grinned at the mention of her old comrade in arms. Friends all their
lives, Mycinia knew the considerably older "Phil" would relish being
included in the planning. "Yes, Your Highness."
A scant moment later Melosa stepped forth from her hut and briskly walked straight out to face the now silent crowd. At first glance she was not impressive to look at. She was not as tall as many of her subjects nor as well muscled. Aside from being well toned her physique was otherwise rather ordinary. Although her face was one some might have even called beautiful the fact remained that if suddenly dropped into the middle of a great city like Athens or Thebes she would have not stood out at all.
However, if one of these lovers of ease had gotten a chance for a closer look, to actually talk to her, they would have seen a very different image indeed. Naturally Melosa's incisive intellect would have been immediately apparent but the real focus would have been on the woman's relentless intensity. It took no great powers of insight to see that behind those dark eyes lurked a smoldering volcano just waiting to erupt. Melosa did in fact have a terrible temper, one which she had struggled all her life to restrain. Few knew this and indeed it was a tribute to the remarkable self-control she had developed over the years that the vast majority of the tribe had never even heard her raise her voice in anger.
Not that she had to. Melosa's fighting skills were worthy of a queen and one icy glare from her was usually enough to send shivers up the spine of even the most formidable of Amazons. At times like this even the quietness of her voice seemed to take on a more intimidating quality and so it was no surprise then that as queen she was almost never challenged.
At the sight of their queen the Amazons moved forward as one and quickly surrounded her.
"By now I'm sure you all know the situation," said Melosa.
"How much time do we have to prepare?" asked Meelah.
"Not as much as I would like," the queen replied. "We must act quickly. Warriors! Willa's group! Arm yourself with bows, the others arm for close combat. Hurry! Gather your weapons and report back here at once. Form into your groups and wait for your captain to fill you in on the details of your mission."
From the back of the crowd a warrior asked "Shall we bring our horses?"
"No," said Melosa. "The main force will be on foot. Where we plan to do battle horses will only be a hindrance."
Most in the crowd immediately inferred from this that the great forest was to be the intended battleground.
"Now go. And hurry!" the queen exhorted.
Meelah cupped a hand to the cheek of her precious, precious daughter and said, "It looks like you will have to look to your own supper, child."
"I wish I could go instead of you," her daughter softly replied.
Meelah smiled and said, "I'll see you before I go."
Observing this little scene, Solari could not help but feel a little envious. Her own mother had died from the fever when Solari was but seven years old. After that she was summarily placed with a warrior by the name of Tasca. This dour woman dutifully fed and clothed her young charge but provided little else in the way of the emotional security a child needs so badly. In all that time Tasca never once combed the child's hair, told her a story or even troubled herself to tend to the many bumps and bruises that are invariably a part of childhood. All Tasca had ever seemed to notice in the child was the labor she could provide. This went on for eight long years until finally one night when Tasca's drinking binge was a little too hard and she ended up choking to death on her own vomit. Since then Solari had pretty much fended for herself.
As Meelah and the other warriors departed to arm themselves Melosa called out to those remaining, "The rest of you, wait here. Phillipia will be out shortly to tell you what to do. Just stay calm and follow her instructions to the letter and everything will be all right." Having spoken her piece, Melosa spun on her heels and strode back into the hut.
"What do you think?" Pomona asked.
"It's bad," said Ephiny, watching Melosa disappear into the darkness of the hut. "Real bad."
Maybe this time, Solari thought hopefully, I will finally get my chance.
That she had just gotten through chiding Morda for her own eagerness did not
strike her as being the least bit inconsistent. Morda was so much younger and
barely half way into the serious portion of her training. Solari, on the other
hand, had finished hers and the training drills she religiously participated in
now were merely to work on improving her own proficiency.
Back inside the hut Melosa found her four captains along with Phillipia bent over the map table. In her mid-twenties, Porticia was the youngest of these commanders and it was she who asked "What's the plan, Highness?"
"According to Terreis and Mycinia the enemy is too numerous and too mobile to engage out in the open," said the queen. "Therefore we must seek to fight him on ground of our own choosing. The plan is to draw all or at least a large portion of their force into the woods." Drawing her dagger, Melosa pointed it to a spot on the map. "Here. Now what we want to do is suck them in and hit them hard with a rapid series of ambushes. It is vital that we knock them on their ass with the first lick and not let them back up.
Mycinia? The task of delivering the first, the heaviest, the most important blow will fall to you. In this you will be supported by Colsethme. Now how to best carry this out I'll leave to your own judgment but what I want is a simultaneous attack on both their flanks."
Melosa keenly eyed her two most experienced captains. Very deliberately she said, "I need not tell you this calls for boldness on our part. We must seize the initiative and not let go. Instead of hitting them and falling back you are to instead take advantage of the cover and move right in among them. Get in close and mix it up with them. Sow as much panic and confusion as you can but make sure you cut off their path of retreat. Identify their leaders and eliminate them. Slash the guts of any horse within striking distance. Above all do not, I repeat, do not, give them a chance to regroup!"
Melosa paused to look at each of her captains in turn. "I know this is asking a lot of you but we have no choice. "Don't forget, we will have thousands of allies on our side." Everyone, of course, knew she was referring to the trees.
"Porticia, you will place your warriors here, along this draw. If we do this right the warriors under Mycinia and Colsethme will funnel the enemy right into you. You will take up positions in there and when the right moment comes you will rise up and attack."
Porticia nodded and it was here that Velasca reentered the tent.
"Are the warriors assembled?" Melosa asked her.
"They are ready," said Velasca.
At the sound of a throat softly clearing Melosa turned to face its source. It was Willa, the fourth captain. "Uhh, what about me...Ma'am?" she asked.
None of these four commanders had ever seen Melosa smile and indeed the ever so slight softening of their queen's eyes that they now saw was about as close as she would ever come to any kind of emotional display in front of them. Though she would never openly admit it Melosa had always had a particular liking for Willa. Although not nearly as experienced as the queen's two pillars--Mycinia and Colsethme--she was nevertheless an able commander in her own right. She was efficient, brave, never complained--a warrior's warrior. She was also more tender-hearted than most Amazons of rank. This was rare indeed. After all, one did not rise up through the relentless crucible of competition to reach a command position by being one of those individuals that the fiery Colsethme often disparagingly referred to as a "tit sucker."
Willa was not exactly a "tit sucker" but neither did she have the cold-hearted ruthlessness that so often prevelent in Amazon leaders. In this way the captain reminded Melosa of Terreis and perhaps this explained Melosa's soft spot for her. Terreis too was a fine warrior--someday she would be a great one--and like Willa she believed that keeping a firm hold on one's humanity was just as important as being a good warrior. Melosa was not one much given to this kind of thinking but even she could respect it.
Terreis! Even she did not know just how much Melosa loved her. The queen was well aware that there were those who thought her younger sister was a dreamer but as long as they held their tongues she was willing to tolerate them. In fact Melosa sometimes wondered if the Amazons could not use some more of these so called "dreamers" like Terreis and Willa.
Amazon life in this day and age was not easy. Every day was in some way a fight for survival. This hard kind of life bred hard women and Melosa was as hard as any of them. Terreis, though a skilled warrior, was not hard but Melosa was confident that when the time came she would be able to assume the Queen's Mask with ease. And she would assume it. Velasca might be her adopted daughter but Melosa was not blind to her cruel ambition. Hatred seemed to consume the girl. No, until her dying breath she would work to make sure that it would be Terreis, not Velasca, who succeeded her.
"I have not forgotten you, Willa," said the queen. "I have already ordered your warriors to arm themselves with bows. How many do you have in your group at the present?"
"Twenty-one, Highness," came the reply.
It's not enough! thought Melosa. But it will have to do. Aloud she confidently said, "Good."
The queen then set the tip of her dagger down at that point on the map where the extreme southwest corner of the forest came nearest the village. As the forest generally lay to the north and east of the village, this put Willa's Amazons at the point closest to the village. There they could make use of the cover forest the provided and still have a good view of the terrain north of the village. "Your job then will be twofold. First and foremost you will look to attack that part of the enemy's force which is not baited into the forest. Should there be none you will then and only then move up here, in support of the other three groups."
"I understand," said Willa.
"Now even if there are some who do not initially enter there is always the chance that the sounds of battle will draw them in later on. If not I want that long range capability of your archers to fall back on."
"Perhaps we can pull the same ruse on the back side of the forest," Willa suggested.
"Perhaps," said the queen. "But under no circumstances are you to give up your position too soon. Remember, you are the village's last line of defense."
"And if they do break through and attack the village?" asked Colsethme.
"Then they can help themselves to an empty village," said Melosa. "Phillipia here will see to the evacuation."
"And then?" asked Mycinia. Already she had a pretty good idea what her queen's answer would be. She was not disappointed.
Melosa gave her a look that was positively chilling and in a voice just as cold said, "Then? Well, the bastards have to get back out, don't they? We will follow them to the River Styx if necessary. We will harass them ceaselessly. We will attack them day and night and pick them off one by one. We won't let them eat, we won't let them sleep, we'll have them afraid to even stop and take a piss. Finally, when we've deprived them of their horses....."
It was unnecessary for her to explain what would happen next. Once their horses were killed or stolen and enemy was on foot they would be easy prey for these warriors and their matchless stealth. The only thing left would be to as the great warlord Xena was so fond of saying, "Kill 'em all!"
Melosa drew herself up to her full height. "Does everyone understand?"
All four captains indicated that they did and then Colsethme asked "Where will you be, Highness?"
Since she deemed Willa's assignment the most pivotal, the one most requiring sound judgment, the queen had already decided that was where she would be. "I will be with Willa's group," she replied.
"She will lead the decoy detachment," said Melosa.
Seething that not one of them had bothered to inquire about her, Velasca huffed and took it upon herself to do so. "What about me?"
"I have a special job for you," said Melosa. "I want you to a pick good rider from each group and scout the hills to the west. I'm going to have Phillipia evacuate the village to those hills and I want you to ride ahead to make certain they don't run into some second jaw of a pincer movement that we don't yet know about."
Velasca's protest was the same as the one Ephiny had made to her mother earlier in the day except hers ended up being decidedly more vehement. "With battle imminent," she howled, "it is inconceivable that you would send an Amazon warrior--especially a royal Amazon warrior--to perform such a menial task!"
"You think ensuring the safety of our children and our aged is menial?" Melosa heatedly asked. Deep within her she felt the fires of rage rising up. How dare she!
Mycinia and Colsethme knew that tone of voice well and now the two younger commanders, Willa and Porticia, suddenly took an intense interest in their own feet. When crossed Melosa was extremely uncomfortable to be around.
"I can assure you it is not!" said the queen coldly.
"I am a warrior!" Velasca snapped back. "I've been trained to kill, to lead! I was not trained to play nurse maid."
Melosa squinted and gave her adopted daughter a hard look. In menacing tones she said, "You have been trained to follow your queen's orders."
Practically shrieking, Velasca retorted, "It's not fair! You shunt me off to the side while Terreis gets to share in the glory of the first attack!"
"Enough!" Melosa thundered. "Your mission is whatever I say it is!" Melosa angrily went over and stood toe to toe with the girl. "By the gods you will obey me or you will face the consequences!"
Velasca was not so consumed by her virulence as to not know she was not yet ready to challenge the queen's authority. Not yet anyway. Enraged and embarrassed, she cast a sidelong glance at the captains and had her fury pushed to even further heights when she saw that tough old Colsethme seemed to be having an extremely difficult time concealing a smirk.
Silently she raged, Laugh now, old hag, but your day will come too.
Watching the girl from the corner of her eye, battle--hardened Mycinia thought she was going to burst right there. Like her friend Colsethme she had little use for this arrogant spawn of a woman whom she had never liked. Mycinia wondered what Melosa had ever seen in Velasca's mother, yet they had been great friends. Velasca was not merely cruel, she was potentially downright dangerous and, having discussed it between them, both Mycinia and Colsethme hoped that when the inevitable challenge came it would be the fair-mined Terreis and not this malignant youth that prevailed.
Eyes bulging with fury, Velasca abruptly turned and without another word stormed out of the hut. After she had gone Melosa drew a deep breath in an effort to calm herself and when she spoke her voice had its usual steady firmness. "Now, if there are no more questions...."
There were, of course, none.
"You have your orders then," said the queen. "Move out."
Outside the hut Ephiny and Solari saw the red-faced Velasca emerge and come steaming straight for them. "Sweet Artemis!" Solari softly marveled. "Look at that."
Before Ephiny could reply Velasca was upon them. Unfortunately for Pomona it was she who suddenly found herself caught in the path of the fuming princess. This earned her a sharp forearm to the stomach as Velasca brusquely pushed her aside.
"Get out of my way!" Velasca snapped.
Moving in amongst the assembled warriors, the princess call out, "I need one good rider from each group. Tylda!"
"You! Calliope! You! And Chloe and Moirira too! Get your horses at once and meet me back here on the double. Move it!"
And so at last Solari thought she saw the opportunity she had been waiting for. Quickly she whispered, "Eph, do you think your mother would let me borrow her horse?"
"Er, uhh...weeeelllll...I don't know, Solari."
Solari, however, did not wait to hear her friend's stammering reply. Instead she eagerly walked up to Velasca and said, "Moirira can't ride. I saw her this morning and her foot is still badly swollen from that snake bite."
Velasca could not have cared less. Impatiently she huffed, "Oh all right, Imicin then."
Solari knew it was now or never. She swallowed hard and asked "How about me?"
"You?" Velasca snorted.
"Well...yeah," said the younger girl. "I can ride pretty well. Let me go. That way I could free up a warrior. I think--"
A sneering Velasca cut her off. "Think? You?" With a derisive laugh she said, "Solari, you dolt, haven't you ever wondered why you don't yet have your warrior's mask?" With a malicious leer Velasca answered her own question. "Because you're too damned stupid, that's why! Think? Gods, every time you thii-iiink you weaken the entire Amazon nation!"
There was muffled laughter from only a very few of the warriors but for each one that did it was like a heavy-tipped arrow in poor Solari's broken heart. At that moment she would have been grateful had one of mighty Zeus' thunderbolts struck her down and ended her shame. She wanted to run away but her legs would not obey her. Crushed, all she could do was stand there with her head hanging.
As for Velasca it felt sooo good to be able to inflict some of the same kind of pain on this simpleton that had been inflicted on her moments before by the queen. If only she were queen right now, she wished. Then she would really make these worms grovel!
Ephiny was well aware that what she was about to say was at the very least disrespectful and might even be construed as treasonous but at the moment she as too angry to care. Already sick and tired of her best friend being looked down upon, this latest display of disdain by Velasca was the last straw.
"Stupid?" said the blonde. "You want to know what stupid is? Stupid is a so-called 'leader' who humiliates an Amazon for no other reason than wanting to do her duty to the tribe."
Horrified by her friend's harsh and dangerous rebuke, Solari choked out a whispered, "Ephiny, no!"
"Why you insolent little snot!" Velasca exploded. "How dare you!"
Returning her attention to Solari for just a moment, Velasca smirked and said, "Solari, here's an important mission for you. Saddle my horse and bring her here."
When the dazed Solari hesitated Velasca squalled, "Now!"
Turning her full fury now on Ephiny, she snarled, "As for you, you little sow, how dare you speak to me that way! Ephiny, so help me when this is over I'm going to give you a lesson in respect that'll you'll never forget for as long as you live."
Undaunted, Ephiny left her friend and walked up to Velasca. The princess was tall, lean and quick as lightning. Ephiny had seen her many times in those rugged one on one exercises and knew what she could do. Ephiny was younger, shorter, more compact, but already she possessed the strong, well developed body of a proud young Amazon warrior. Among those warriors keenly watching this little confrontation there were more than a few who believed that even at this tender age the daughter of Meelah just might be a match for the princess.
"Respect goes both ways," said Ephiny defiantly. "A good leader respects those under her command."
"What would a piss ant, an insignificant slug like you, know about being a leader?" Velasca cried. "You couldn't lead flies to a dung heap."
"Better to be a lowly piss ant than a prideful harpy," the blonde retorted.
"The gods damn you!" shrieked the princess. Blind with fury, she snatched a chobo from a nearby warrior. Even as she raised it to strike Ephiny was already in a defensive posture. "You little shit!" Velasca screeched. "I'm going to--"
Suddenly a strong arm lashed out and caught the raging princess by the wrist. "Nothing," a voice said calmly. It was Meelah. "You're going to do nothing." Forcing Velasca's arm down, Meelah squeezed Velasca's arm ever tighter until at last she dropped the weapon.
"It looks like we have a whole family of traitors here," growled Velasca.
Meelah released her arm and the princess angrily jerked it away. "Ephiny must be punished for her actions," said Velasca
Her gray eyes filled with quiet anger, Meelah grimly clenched her jaw and said, "Ephiny is the legacy of a long line of proud Amazon warriors. More than that, she is my only child and as long as I am still able to draw a single breath no one--not you, not Melosa, not even the great Artemis herself is going to abuse her."
Velasca swept her eyes over the Amazons gathered round and saw among them not one who seemed to be on her side. Damn them! she thought. They hate me. They all hate me. No matter, I hate them too. Damned stupid farmers! What was it someone once said? "Let them hate us as long as they fear us!"
Catching sight of the mounted Amazons, Velasca said, "I don't have time for this now. When this is over we'll let the queen decide what to do with you--with both of you."
"I accept that," said Meelah. "For unlike you the queen is a fair person, a...noble person."
Velasca started off to join the two Amazons already mounted and waiting nearby. Suddenly she stopped. Slowly she turned back to face mother and daughter and in a menacingly thoughtful voice said, "You know, Meelah, it might be better for you if you were to die in the upcoming battle." Abruptly then she spun away and started off again. "Imicin!" she barked. "I said get your horse. And see what's keeping that fool Solari."
Watching Velasca angrily stalk away, Meelah shook her head and muttered a disgusted, "Bitch."
However her black mood was instantly swept away by the soft sound of her daughter's voice. "I'm sorry I got you into trouble, Momma."
It was here that the booming voice of Colsethme was heard. "All my warriors, form on me! Over here!" In all the excitement few had noticed the emergence of the captains from the queen's hut.
Meelah slipped an arm around her child's shoulders and said, "You were right to stand up for your friend but like it or not what Velasca said was true. You were disrespectful."
"I know," the girl conceded. "It's just that she's so hateful, Momma. She treats us young ones like dirt. And poor Solari..."
"Ephiny our society is structured for a reason and me must follow that. Otherwise it all falls apart and where would we be then? There are times when it may not seem fair to all concerned but in the end we must conform. I hope you understand that."
At this gentle chiding Ephiny lowered her head and said, "Yes, Momma."
Meelah lovingly gathered the girl into her arms and kissed her on top of the head. "Good. Still, I'm very proud of you." Catching sight of her own captain, the approaching Mycinia, Meelah pulled away and said, "I've got to go now. I imagine Phillipia will be left in charge so..." Meelah playfully flicked a finger across the tip of Ephiny's nose. "...be sure you do exactly as she says, okay? I think we've had enough insubordination for one day."
With a sheepish little smile the girl replied, "I will, Momma."
"That's my warrior," said Meelah. "Now run along to the hut and get yourself some food. Who knows when you'll get the chance to eat again."
"Please be careful," Ephiny pleaded.
"I will, child," her mother assured her. "I haven't lived all these years by being otherwise." To spur her lingering daughter on, Meelah playfully whacked her on the backside, much to the amusement of the older warriors and, needless to say, the chagrin of the young Amazon. She was afraid the remaining warriors would see her as still something of a baby but as she moved off among them on her way to find Solari quite a different opinion altogether was being reflected in the eyes of even the most veteran of them. Lost too deeply in her on thoughts and still a little shaken from her row with Velasca, Ephiny did not notice the look of newly won respect in their eyes or the several nods of approval as she passed.
It would not be the last time in her gallant life that Ephiny would challenge authority.
Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, swung herself easily up onto her horse and looked down at the maimed woman who had once been Queen Penthesilea's most trusted plenipotentiary. Except for this lone rider the village was devoid of warriors now, the others having already left for the forest at a steady, tireless trot. As it was their departure was none too soon because with the far side of the forest lying a good league and a half away, Melosa wanted her warriors there in time to rest a bit before the coming battle.
Phillipia too had her marching orders. She was to lead the evacuation into the hills and once there make contact with Euset as quickly as possible. The purpose of this was twofold. One, it would warn the goatherd. She could then tuck the herd safely away into one of the many caves that dotted the area and thus hopefully deny the enemy an easy source of sustenance. Two, Euset could then assist Phillipia in handling the other Amazons.
"Get everyone up there as quickly as you can," said the queen. "Some of them will want to take everything but the wash basin. See to it nobody takes along anything other than food, some water and perhaps a weapon."
"It will be as you say, Highness," Phillipia assured her. A wistful look came over her and she said, "I wish I were going with you."
"So do I," said the queen tersely. "We could use your sword."
Phillipia was not surprised by the queen's bluntness. Melosa had never been what one would call sentimental.
"I'll try to send someone up to apprise you of what is going on," said Melosa. "I can't guarantee this will be over by nightfall so just hold fast until you hear from me."
Phillipia nodded and said, "Yes, my queen. May Artemis lend her might to the sword hand of our warriors and may she unerringly guide our arrows home."
For her part Melosa reckoned Artemis would have damn little to do with whether they won or not but this she kept to herself. "Good luck," she said, and with that dug her heels into the flanks of her horse and bolted off toward the forest.
Phillipia paused on the crest of the ridge and wearily looked back at the column of some two hundred individuals slowly working their way up the hill. The hill itself was not steep and was barely more than a stadium to the top. It was an obstacle which in her prime Phillipia could have easily sprinted up without a second thought. But that was then. She was long past such feats now and her gasping lungs proved it.
Damn, she thought ruefully, "I'm not getting too old for this, I am too old for this!" It did not hearten her any to know that some of the ones creeping up the hill were in worse shape than she was.
"Keep moving, everybody," she urged. Sucking in yet another deep breath, she looked up along the crest and saw the daughter of Meelah jogging toward her, her blonde curls bouncing as she ran. Upon her arrival, Phillipia noted with some envy that the girl barely seemed winded at all.
"Did you find her?" she asked the girl.
"All I found was a whole lot of goat dung," said Ephiny. "No sign of Euset."
Damn! she thought again. Euset knows these hills like the back of her hand. She could be anywhere. Wishing however to project a confident image, she said, "Well the queen was with her just this morning. She and the herd must be close by."
"Yes, ma'am," said the Ephiny.
Phillipia cast the girl an amused smile. "Ephiny," she asked, "how old are you now?"
"I'm sixteen, ma'am."
"I think you're old enough to call me by my name."
"Yes, ma'am--uhh, I mean...Phillipia."
The younger children had been banded together in small groups of a half-dozen or so, each under the watchful eye of one of the young warriors-to-be. As Ephiny and Phillipia talked Morda passed by with her pack. Still angry with Solari, angry with Ephiny for being Solari's friend and most of all angry at being stuck with a bunch of runny-nosed children, the seething Morda stubbornly refused to look at these two tormentors as she walked by.
Damn that Ephiny! she thought. I'm as fast as she is. How come she gets to be Phillipia's scout? And just what does she see in that idiot Solari? Such a loser! I'm the one she should be friends with! We'd make a wonderful team and together we could achieve greatness...
Filled with her own selfish ambition, Morda had for a long time wanted Ephiny to be friends with her and only her and now that it looked like that was not going to happen, Morda, as people often do, began to hate the thing she had once coveted most. For this reason Morda's eyes had lately tried to shift her eyes from the staunch daughter of Meelah to that one who was perhaps her greatest adversary--Velasca.
Morda sullenly yanked the arm of the six year old daughter of Jasara and muttered, "Come on, you little shit."
This a far cry from Pomona and her brood. This young Amazon possessed real talent and ever since leaving the village she had been entertaining her small charges with funny, impromptu stories in which she acted out every part, each in a completely different voice. Ephiny thought it was amazing and hearing her now against the background of giggling children, she wondered just how she was able to do that.
"All right," said Phillipia, "we must continue to look." Pointing in a northwesterly direction, she said, "Pick someone reliable to accompany you and search over there, in that direction."
"I'll take Solari," said Ephiny.
"Split up and range out as far as you can and yet still be able to get back to us by dark."
"Where will I find you?" asked Ephiny.
"We must find cover," said Phillipia. It had been a very long time indeed since she had traipsed these hills and her recollection of the area was none too good. "Any suggestions?"
On the other hand Ephiny had been scampering over these hills ever since being cut loose from Meelah's apron strings and consequently knew them almost as well as the elusive Euset. In an instant she hit upon a place.
Pointing to a wooded ridge some two hundred paces away, Ephiny said, "See the tree that's half dead?"
Phillipia shaded her eyes and squinted. "My eyes aren't as sharp as they once were," she admitted.
"It doesn't matter," said Ephiny. "Pomona knows the way. Right there, right where that tree is, about half-way down the opposite slope is an opening that leads back into a cave."
"How far back?" Phillipia asked.
"Not far," Ephiny replied. "Only a few paces."
"Will it hold everyone?"
Ephiny was frank in her reply. "I'm not sure. But it is close at hand and you can at the very least get most of them in there. If need be the others can scatter out in the dense undergrowth that covers the whole hillside. If they are quiet and don't move around too much they'd just about have to get stepped on to be found."
Phillipia nodded thoughtfully and said, "Sounds good. Let's do it. All right, you can look for us there."
"Can I make another suggestion?"
"Of course, Ephiny."
"You might want to post lookouts on these surrounding hills. You know, just in case."
"Sound advice," allowed Phillipia. Naturally as experienced as she was Phillipia had already decided to do just that. Still it pleased her to see such prudence in this fine young girl who for some reason never seemed to smile.
Unused to this unprecedented and prolonged contact with such an important Amazon, Ephiny nervously looked down at her feet. She sensed the woman liked her but even so she was totally unprepared for what happened next
As the girl turned to leave Phillipia said in a kind voice, "Ephiny, wait."
Forgetting the older woman's earlier invitation for less formality, Ephiny answered, "Yes' ma'am?"
Noting the girl carried only a bow of average quality, Phillipia, captain at nineteen, Queen's Counsel to Queen Antiope at twenty-four, Chief Emissary of Queen Penthesilea, veteran of twelve major battles and countless skirmishes, reached across her body and with some difficulty drew her sword. "Here, child, take this."
Stunned, Ephiny stared wide-eyed at the sword as if it were no less than Cerberus itself. "Oh noooo," she sputtered. "I couldn't. That--that's your battle sword. You might need it"
Phillipia looked down at the stub hanging from her shoulder, the pitiful remnant of her once strong right arm. "I don't think it's going to do me much good, Ephiny."
The polished bronze blade, gleaming in the evening sun and nearly as long as Ephiny's leg, was not only longer but also wider than the typical Amazon sword. The hilt was shaped into the likeness of the wings of an eagle and stamped into the forte was the hereditary symbol of Phillipia's family. It was easily the most beautiful object Ephiny had ever seen.
"Relax, it's not cursed you know. Go on, child," coaxed Phillipia, "take it. "
Thrilled and yet almost numb with trepidation, Ephiny reluctantly reached out and took the sword. How heavy it was!
Phillipia cocked her head to one side and with a chuckle said, "You'll get used to the weight soon enough. With that thing you can take down a centaur with one good blow."
"I--I don't know..."
Phillipia did not wait for the rest. "Here," she said, "help me with this scabbard. "You'll need it and I can't take it off by myself."
Her hand shaking, Ephiny started to help Phillipia unbuckle the scabbard but then stopped. "That's all right," she said. "I won't need it."
"Suit yourself," Phillipia said. She drew herself up to her full, impressive height and sternly said, "All right, Amazon, you have your orders. Now carry them out."
"Well what are you waiting for? Move your ass!" This, however, was followed by a little wink.
Ephiny grinned at this and, after giving her bow and quiver to a nearby youngster, broke into a quick trot and went off to find Solari.
With the evening shadows lengthening and the enemy drawing near the Fates
began to pull the many Amazonian strings together, expertly weaving them in and
out into a kind of Web of Destiny. As the immortal fingers of Clotho and
Lachesis trailed along the strings Atropos prepared to make the cuts. Already
it had been decided who would achieve on this day and who would fail, who would
find honor and who would find shame, who would live...and who would die...
In the high weeds beside the road, Draganis lay on her belly, motionless,
stoically enduring the onslaught of swarming horse flies. Their merciless
attacks raised large welts with each new bite but, clenching her teeth and
gripping her sword ever tighter, the great warrior grimly bore the stinging pain
and waited in determined silence for her prey...
Four stadia away, at the edge of the forest, Terreis stood holding her horse by the bridle. As the time drew near her anxiety mounted. Around her was the rest of the "bait"--young Amazons hand picked by herself to make the ride with her.
All her life had been in preparation for this day, a day when she would not merely be called upon to lift up a sword in defense of her tribe but to lead others in doing so as well. All the hard work, the endless hot summer days spent in relentless drills, repeating them over and over again until the aching muscles memorized each move perfectly; all those dark and dreary winter evenings studying everything from tactics to philosophy to Amazon history; all those years of being carefully molded by her sister's exacting hand.
Sidling up to her, a young Amazon by the name of Pycea softly asked, "How much longer do you think?"
Terreis peered across the meadow toward the distant road. "I expect we'll be getting the signal any time now," she said.
Pycea said no more and quietly retreated back to her horse. On the way she cast a lingering glance back into the darker regions of the forest. The thought that somewhere in there forty-five battle tested warriors under Mycinia and Colsethme were lying in ambush did not cheer her. She was a year older than Terreis but like the princess this would be her first real battle.
It was strange, she thought. Amazons were all around her in this wood and yet never had she felt more alone...
Back at her post Terreis took a moment from her vigil to close her eyes and
say a silent prayer to Artemis. In it, she asked not that she be spared in the
coming fight but rather that at the end of the day the queen could look on with
pride at what she had done. The princess dearly loved her demanding sister and
to cause her shame would be far worse than death. Terreis was determined that
she would not cause Melosa shame...
Some distance back in the woods Mycinia puckered out her lower lip and once more tried to blow away the annoying gnat so desperately trying to get in her eye. Melosa's trap was set. All that was left was to hope the bastards fell into it.
Not burdened with anxiety as was the young princess, Mycinia calmly passed the time by trying to count up just exactly how many she had killed in battle. What was it now, fifty-six or fifty-seven? The total depended on who one asked. Colsethme liked to tease her that she could not really count that Thracian on the Nestus River. After all, she never tired of chirping, he drowned to which Mycinia invariably retorted that he most certainly did too count because he would not have drowned if she had not cut off his arm.
To hell with Colsethme, she thought. It's fifty-seven...
Beside her sat Jasara. At a score and eight years she was at that perfect
age--the ideal point in life where fully blossomed physical maturity combined
with hard won experience to create a warrior at the peak of killing efficiency.
In her youth she had been aggressive to the point of recklessness, often taking
on two or more of the enemy at one time. Now, though, she had a daughter, a six
year old bundle of energy named Grace who was the entire world for her. And so
it was that Jasara, instead of eagerly anticipating the fight to come, instead
worried what would happen to her baby if she were to be killed. She had seen
the unfeeling way other Amazon orphans were sometimes cared for and it almost
made her sick to think that her own precious child might suffer the same fate
one day. She was good in battle--she knew that. But one never knew when someone
stronger, or quicker or just plain luckier might come along and end it for her.
Would this be that time?
A stone's throw away from Jasara, in a forward position, Meelah made the final inspection of her trap. An expert at this, it had been left to her by Mycinia to choose the best place. This she had done practically upon arrival and immediately then set her crew of six big Amazons to work with their axes.
Her aim was not so much to inflict damage, although that would certainly be welcome. No, her main task was to break up the enemy, specifically to drive them off the main trail and into the forest itself--right into the waiting Amazons.
Moving in next to a perspiring, wide-shouldered warrior with the unlikely name of Minutia, Meelah quietly said, "Hey, tie that rope off lower down. I'm not as tall as you, you know."
"Oh," the hulking Minutia sheepishly grinned. "Sorry."
In truth it was not Minutia's handiwork so much as it was the need to keep busy. In this way she hoped she might keep her mind off the welfare of her only child. From the first time the old midwife had laid the screaming baby in her arms Meelah had both dreamed and dreaded the coming of the day when her child would be called upon to fight. As a true Amazon Meelah naturally wanted Ephiny to take assume a place of honor in the Amazonian hierarchy but as with most things worthwhile such privilege came with a price. This of course was the grim knowledge that to achieve rank was to be a warrior and to be a warrior meant to risk death. For Meelah this was a thought almost too horrible to bear.
She knew that up until now her child had been fortunate. The past three and a half years of unbroken peace were almost unprecedented in the history of their tribe. It seemed that someone was forever trying to take their land, enslave them or, worse, annihilate them. This respite meant that Ephiny and others of her approximate age had been allowed the luxury to grow and mature free from the necessity of being forced to drink the bloody dregs of battle the way she had. In desperate need of warriors, the tribe had thrown her to the dogs of war when she was only thirteen. The fact that Ephiny was not actually there did not comfort Meelah. With such a large force in the area danger could potentially rise up anywhere.
Meelah looked up at the evening sunlight streaming through the open canopy of the tree tops. The narrow beams of light reminded her somehow of Zeus's great fingers, reaching down to comfort them.
Why can't they leave us alone? she wondered. All we want is to live our lives in peace. Why won't they let us? Oh, Ephiny, I love you so much!
"All is ready."
Meelah turned to yet another of her big warriors, a short-haired Amazon by the name of Celeste. "Very well," she replied. "Take your positions."
As for herself, the proud mother of Ephiny took one last look around just to
be sure and, like those under her command already had, melted into the foliage
On the other side of the draw Colsethme stood leaning against a plane tree, idly cleaning the dirt from her fingernails with her dagger. A drunken Penthesilea had once laughingly declared that she had a "face like a clenched fist" and this was pretty much the case. Worse, while her contemporary, friend and rival Mycinia seemed to have grown even more handsome with age, time had not worked much to soften the hard features of her own face. Not that this mattered. Colsethme discovered early on that power was often just as alluring as an attractive face and she had long ago learned to take advantage of that in order to satisfy her sizable lust. If anyone in the Amazon Nation could be said to be secure in themselves and who they were, it was the prurient Colsethme.
Because of this she, unlike the brooding Jasara, had no doubts about what awaited her. For her part she fully planned on making it to a ripe old age where by the nature of her station in life she could have some tight-assed, firm-breasted young thing do all the cooking and cleaning and perhaps a few more, far more personal, chores as well. No sir, Colsethme had fought men all her adult life and she was not about to let one of those puny bags of dung with their ugly little hunk of gristle hanging between their legs kill her!
As far as she was concerned it was too damned bad then that Mycinia had
always seemed to enjoy lying with those creatures so much. She always thought
she would have enjoyed tasting her old comrade-in arms...
Still farther back, at Willa's position, Melosa took a quick opportunity to answer Nature's call before beginning the climb up the low ridge that afforded the best view of the area. Grim and intense, she wondered how anyone could revel in the slaughter of others. Yet in her own mind she knew there very many who did, not a few of which were in her own tribe and that some of the Northern Amazon tribes were even more aggressive than were her Anatolian Amazons. Melosa was as well versed in the business of waging war as anyone alive today in the entire Amazon nation but to her it had come to be only a necessary means of survival.
Of course her predecessors had not always thought thusly. Her own mother, Penthesilea, one of the most celebrated of all Amazons, had always preferred the thrill of the battlefield to the mundane existence of day to day village life. Like those before her, Penthesilea had never hesitated to use force to advance Amazonian interests when or wherever the opportunity arose. For them it was simply an adherence to a policy which for generations had been marked by continual and often bloody expansion. In those days their burgeoning population had dictated such a policy.
But times had changed. The sight of hundreds of Amazon dwellings dotting the landscape was no more. Wars, disease and just as sadly, growing dissatisfaction with the regimented, austere way of Amazon life had all combined to shrink the tribe's numbers to a tenth of what they once were.
A warlord, defeated and taken prisoner, had once spat on her and told her with a defiant sneer that her "race of sluts" was dying--"sinking in its own shit"--as he had so crudely put it. The slitting of his throat by an enraged Colsethme had not changed the fact that, own deep in her, the truest of Amazon hearts she, had been forced to admit the bastard was right. In just a few generations the Anatolian Amazons would be no more. For such a proud Amazon as she this was a simply heartbreaking thought.
Behind her Willa's quiet voice said, "Highness, one of the advance scouts just reported that the enemy's vanguard will be making contact shortly."
At this Melosa's instinctively nostrils flared and, without turning, she nodded her silent acknowledgment. This would be Terreis' first real test, her trial by fire. The queen had no doubt she would succeed brilliantly but even though she was hardly one to believe in the benevolence of gods this did not prevent her from saying a little prayer to their patron goddess for her safety of her only sister .
Despite the odds the queen was confident of victory. The Amazons she led were skilled and brave. They were also proud descendants of legendary warriors who had once been feared from Iberia to the Black Sea. They would do their duty. The old saying that any three Amazons, stripped and bare, were the measure of any five fully armed warriors was not all that far off. Even their old nemeses, the Centaurs often growled that it was easier to kill a shadow than one of those Amazon she-devils. And so it would be yet again today. Added to their heralded tradition was the very real advantage of these deep woods which every Amazon knew like the back of their hand. In this environment Amazons were practically invincible. All that was needed was for Terreis to wedge the enemy in between the formidable horns of Mycinia and Colsethme and with Willa's support Porticia would then move up and tear his guts out.
Maybe as a race they were dying but they weren't dead yet and on this day it
would be the invaders--not them--who would be doing the biggest part of the
Topping a small rise, Velasca threw up a hand as she jerked her horse to a hard stop.
"What is it, Princess?" asked Imicin. "Do you see something?"
"No," the princess tersely replied. "Not a thing."
That, of course, was the whole problem. One did not ordinarily include sightings of the occasional woodchuck or rabbit in intelligence reports and up until now that was about all any of the five of them had seen. Not that Velasca had really expected to find anything out there in the first place. It was just as she had known all along. Melosa had sent her on this wild goose chase solely to prevent her from outshining Baby Sister. Damn that Terreis! she fumed. Why does everyone pet her so much? Well shit on her, "mommy" and all the rest of them.
Velasca sat, stewing in her own hateful juices for a hundred heartbeats or so until finally a hesitant voice broke the uncomfortable silence and snapped the brooding princess back to the here and now.
"What?" was Velasca's irritable answer.
It was Tylda who had spoken. "We still have a lot of ground to cover," she reminded the princess. "Shouldn't we be going on?"
Enough of this bullshit! thought Velasca. Aloud she scoffed "What for?"
"I-I don't understand--"
"It's simple enough," said Velasca. "There's nothing out here but trees and grass, grass and trees."
As sharply as she dared Tylda said, "As we have not yet reconnoitered this whole sector we don't know that for certain."
"And I say we don't need to waste our time any further," Velasca said petulantly. "And don't you ever take that tone of voice with me again, smart ass."
Tylda was undaunted. "But we have not even gotten up into the hills yet," she persisted. "Need I remind you that our orders were to--"
"Your orders have changed," snapped Velasca.
"But the queen said--"
Again Velasca cut her off, this time much more angrily. "Damn you!" she said shrilly. "The queen is not here now, is she? I am the one in command!"
Noting the appalled look on the faces of her underlings, Velasca cried out "What in the name of Artemis is wrong with you? A battle that may decide the fate of our tribe is about to take place and you want to continue with this joy ride through the countryside? Are you warriors following the proud line of our noble ancestors or are you cowards?" For effect Velasca drew up and spat on the ground. "If you're the latter then may Zeus strike you dead right now!"
Her ruddy cheeks turning even more crimson, Chloe said, "No one, not even you, Princess, can call me a coward."
With a triumphant smirk, Velasca said, "All right then, prove it to me."
"But, Princess!" Tylda pleaded.
"Look if you four want to hang around here and start a debating club, fine. I won't seek to discipline you. As for me, however, I fully intend this day to share in glory of our sisters' victory." Without waiting for a response, Velasca abruptly wheeled her horse around and set off toward the river.
Watching her speed away, Tylda shook her head and said, "The gods help us if she ever becomes queen."
"So what do we do?" asked Calliope. At twenty-one she was the youngest of the group.
"You know? Velasca's right," said Imicin. "Our duty is on the battlefield and not out here in the middle of nowhere chasing crows."
Adamant as ever, Tylda said, "Your 'duty' is where the queen says it is and for the moment that is right here."
"I agree with Imicin," Chloe chimed in. "This is a complete waste of time." She grinned and added, "Besides, if Melosa gets mad it will be Velasca's ass, not ours. Like she said she's the one in command."
Poor Calliope listened and said nothing. Go on, go back, she was not sure what to do. All she really wanted at the moment was for someone to make a decision.
For her part Tylda had already made hers. In a foul mood already, she did not feel like arguing with these two any further. For the past two days a lower tooth had been absolutely killing her. The extent of the pulsating pain was such that it ran all the way down her neck and into her shoulder. It was as if some malicious imp was in there relentlessly and mercilessly hammering away at the offending molar with a mallet and chisel. "Enough talking," she said crossly. "You guys go on back if you want to but I'm going to obey the orders given me."
"Suit yourself," Imicin said with a careless shrug. "But when the battle is over and they start handing out honor knots don't come crying to us because you didn't get one." Intricate knots of leather string, "honor knots" were worn in the hair and signified heroic deeds in the face of the enemy. Aside from the older warriors few Amazons wore them now but they were nevertheless still highly coveted.
"I didn't know one could get a knot for dereliction of duty," Tylda shot back.
With a dismissive wave of the hand Imicin turned her horse and said, "Come on, Chloe, let's go." Together then she and Chloe rode off after the still visible Velasca.
"Well, what about you, kid?" Tylda curtly asked Calliope. "Aren't you going with them?"
At first Calliope feared this like the pit of hell because the last thing
she had wanted was to be forced into choosing. Now, however, after giving it
some thought, she began to think that maybe Tylda was right. While it seemed to
her that the proper thing to do was to indeed worry about the enemy at hand it
was also a very hard thing to ignore the orders of a queen. After all, she was
just an ordinary grunt of a warrior while Melosa was the "Most High"
ruler of the Amazons. Surely the queen understood infinitely more clearly what
was best for the tribe. It was because of this realization that she now
replied, "No. I'm...going with you."
From her vantage point high on the distant hill, a lone figure saw the little knot of Amazons split up and go their separate ways. Even at this distance reading their body language had not so very difficult to know that they were in disagreement about something with a couple of them being quite agitated.
The figure squinted her gray-green eyes as she watched first one, then two more riders peel off and sprint off toward the east. The remaining two lingered but for a moment before galloping off in the opposite direction at a less breakneck pace.
Something is happening! she thought. But what? Whatever it was she sensed it was not good and even before the riders were out of sight Euset had dropped off below the summit and was limping back to her camp as fast as her defective leg would allow.
Perhaps it was her own gut feeling based on years of experience or perhaps it was the ghost of a long lost love or even Artemis herself whispering in her ear but somehow the eremitic goatherd knew that the children of Penthesilea were going to need her.
She was ready.
So were all they all.
Her brow furrowed in deep thought, Solari asked "Have you ever wondered what it's like?"
"You know, to...lie with a male."
Ephiny wrinkled her nose and again said, "What?"
Too embarrassed to repeat it, Solari merely said, "You heard me."
"Gods, Solari, I hardly think this is the time to be thinking about such things."
"Like...sex, you mean?"
"I think it's the perfect time," said Solari.
Uncomfortable at where this was leading, Ephiny asked "How in the world do you get that?"
"Who knows?" said Solari. "I mean, I might get killed today. I might die without ever having--"
"Solari, you're not going to die," Ephiny said firmly. "I promise you."
"But what if I do? I'd never know. What do you think it's like?"
As she already had on several occasions Ephiny shifted the big sword from one hand to the other. Phillipia must have been some kind of strong to lug this thing around all day, she thought. "Well Momma says it all depends."
"If you get a male that's considerate and willing to please it can be incredible but if you get one that just wants to rut like a wild boar and get it over with it's not so good."
"Well how can you tell difference?" Solari asked.
"Beats me," Ephiny said with a shrug. "That's just what Momma said. I guess you'd have to try to get to know them a little."
"How do you do it?"
Ephiny shot her an incredulous look. "You're joking, right?"
Solari was not. In all earnestness she replied, "No-oh. I mean, I know a little. You know how some of the warriors joke about it but other than that I don't really...know."
At first Ephiny thought her friend was being facetious but then she realized that given lack of meaningful guidance in Solari's life it just might be possible she was in fact being dead serious. "It's easy enough, I guess," said Ephiny. That, however, was as far as she was willing to go. Solari might be her best friend but she was going to have to handle this one on her own. This was far too personal for the reserved Ephiny.
She sought to assure her friend. "Look, Solari, I'm sure that when the time comes the male will be more than happy to help you figure it out."
Solari, however, would not let it go. "But what's the big deal?" she persisted. "Why does everyone seem to like it so much? Gee, Ephiny, aren't you the least bit curious?"
It was obvious the girl had never experienced an orgasm or she would not have asked such a silly question. For even the taciturn Ephiny this was too much. With a sly little grin she said, "Come on, haven't you ever, you know...played with yourself?"
Perplexed, Solari answered, "Huh? Well, no. What? Am I supposed to?"
Shaking her head in disbelief, Ephiny said, "We'll talk about this some other time. Right now we have work to do."
Solari stopped but with purposeful strides Ephiny kept going right on up the hill. "E-eeeph! Wait! Maybe you could show me, huh?"
Quickly Ephiny threw up a palm and said, "Uhhh nooo. Do I look like Sappho?"
Solari made a face and stamped her foot in frustration but then once more hurried to catch up with her friend. Fifty breaths later she asked "Eph?"
The blonde's only reply was a deep sigh.
Ever so slowly Draganis lifted her head to take one last peek at the two riders ambling along as if merely out for an evening's ride. Beside her lay Hyacinth, a warrior ten years her junior with only a fraction of her experience. Draganis much preferred to operate on her own and she viewed this slim, affable girl with the auburn hair to be about as useful as a yoke around the neck. Her captain, Mycinia, was always doing this--pairing her off with some little minnow in the hope the youngster might learn from the best. It was not that she disliked the girl. In fact the warrior had found her to be good company. It was just that she was getting tired of being bothered by these young whelps. Still, Draganis understood Mycinia's reasoning and accepted it. As a loyal Amazon she always obeyed orders. That, however, did not mean she had to like it.
The two men were so close now Draganis she could hear every word. With great nimbleness she eased her powerful body up into a very low squat. In a quiet whisper she said to Hyacinth, "Don't move, don't even breathe."
She was surprised and yes, angry in a way about their apparent lack of concern over where they were. From the moment the men crossed the river they were in Amazon Territory and they knew it. Yet from their nonchalant manner it seemed to her they were not expecting serious trouble.
Fools! she silently raged. Do you think we are milk maids; to run and hide at the mere sight of you? If so, Draganis was fully prepared to show them just how wrong they were.
Technically the imminent slaughter of these two was not part of her mission. Manning one of four forward positions which covered the avenues of approach, she and Hyacinth were only supposed to signal the appearance of the enemy's vanguard. These two rascals were merely scouts slacking on the job and she could just as easily let them pass. She, however, was not about to do that. Taking her sword into both hands, Draganis leaned forward, shifting her weight to the balls of her feet. The way she saw it killing these two pigs now would only save someone else the trouble of doing it later.
They were in plain view now. Hold on, she reminded herself. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet...
Like the sleek panther she was, the great warrioress sprang up out of the high weeds. There was no accompanying war cry or warning sound of any kind. There was only the soft swishing sound as her sword cut through the air.
The two unsuspecting scouts never knew what hit them. With a mighty, double-fisted swing of her big sword, Draganis caught her first victim right above the hip, slashing open a terrible gash in his abdomen. The man cried out in agony and instinctively looked down. What he saw horrified him. Blood was gushing forth from his side like an Athenian fountain and there, lying in plain view on his right thigh, was part of his large intestine. So swiftly and neatly had Draganis done her work that even as he screamed the stricken man still as yet had no idea who or what had caused his wound because she was already gone.
Before the shocked man could even raise a hand to the gaping hole in his side Draganis was around the back side of his horse and launching herself on the other man. This one, though startled, did manage to fumble for his sword but it was too little too late. The Amazon simply grabbed a handful of his tunic and with a low guttural growl pulled him down off the horse.
Behind Draganis the first man leaned over and then toppled off his horse as the Amazon slammed the butt end of her sword against the Adam's apple of the prostrate second man, crushing it. The first man was instantly put out his misery by a blow to the head from Hyacinth's sword. The second man tried to scream but all that came out was a sickly gurgling sound. He too did not have long to suffer because in one swift motion Draganis was upon him. Sitting on his stomach and pinning his arms under her knees, the Amazon deftly extracted a dagger from her right boot and plunged it straight into his heart.
And just like that it was all over. In less than ten breaths she had taken the lives of these two men who would have done her village harm. But what to do with the horses? Draganis was loathe to kill them but she could not take the chance of driving them off because there was always the chance they might run straight back to the enemy and thus warn them. Besides, they were fine looking animals and she knew Melosa would probably let her keep them for herself.
What then? She took a quick glance up the road. Nothing yet but others would be coming down it very soon. Then it came to her. Of course! The kid! In a low rasping voice, she commanded, "Hey, kid, come over here." Immediately the younger Amazon was by her side. "You all right?" asked Draganis.
Hyacinth nodded that she was.
"Good." Draganis angled her head toward the horse standing next to them. "Get on."
"Get on. I want you to take these two horses back."
"No, damn it, at the next full moon!" Draganis growled. "Now go on, there's no time to lose."
Though puzzled by this, Hyacinth was not about to question the great warrior. Obediently she got on the horse and was handed the reins to the other horse. "Get going," said Draganis.
Worriedly Hyacinth asked, "But, how will I explain my leaving you to Mycinia?"
Tying the reins to the saddle horn, Draganis grinned and said, "Tell her it's that time of the month for me and I was getting too cranky."
Hyacinth managed a half-hearted smile at this. Then, with a sharp nudge to the flanks of her horse, she took off across the meadow.
Ephiny walked out on the point of the ridge and, taking a deep breath, swept her eyes over the surround terrain. What she saw was the same old thing--nothing. Nobody is going to come through here, she thought. She turned to face west and held her fist out at arm's length to measure the sun's height above the horizon. Now that it was just over a fist's width she reckoned she had ought to report back to Phillipia. I hope Solari remembers where to meet me, she thought.
She was half way down the hill when she heard what sounded like the whinny of a horse. At this exact same moment she detected movement off to her right and there she saw Solari, tearing down an adjacent hill as fast as her sturdy legs would carry her. One did not have to have the wisdom of a philosopher to understand that these two events were related and in that one moment Ephiny realized her earlier assessment was wrong.
For that reason the daughter of Meelah did not wait for Solari to come to her but instead hastened off to meet her. The two friends met a little way up Solari's hill. At first Solari, wide-eyed and breathless, could barely speak. Unlike most other Amazons who seemingly could run all day she had never been much of a runner.
"Eph!" she gasped. "My gods..."
Ephiny took her by the arm and gave it an impatient shake. "What is it, Solari? What did you see?"
Solari gulped and said, "Soldiers, maybe...fifty...I..."
"Put your arms on your head," Ephiny advised. "You'll catch your breath faster."
Her friend complied and after a few more deep breaths was finally able to speak. "Eph, there are maybe fifty men--right over this hill!"
"Moving this way?"
"Not when I left," Solari replied.
"Well, what are they doing then?" asked Ephiny.
Solari's face grew graver still and her lips tightened into a tight line. "Eph, they've got Tylda and Calliope."
"Sweet Artemis!" Ephiny heard a voice gasp. It was her own.
With both bloody corpses now safely stashed in the weeds, Draganis took a moment to look back over the wide meadow in order to check on the progress of Hyacinth. There she saw the girl streaking toward the forest, her auburn hair streaming in the wind behind her. Hmm, she doesn't ride half badly at that, thought Draganis. For a kid.
At almost precisely the same moment that Ephiny was alerted by the sound of a horse, so too now did Draganis' experienced ears begin to pick up the distant but unmistakable sounds of an army on the move. "Our guests have arrived," she muttered.
Looking down at the two dead men, she said, "Stick around, boys. You'll soon be having plenty of company crossing the River Styx."
For her part Draganis was not surprised that the enemy had chosen this route. Indeed she had expected it. Mycinia obviously had as well else she would not have posted her best warrior here. Skirting along the edge of the meadow, Draganis streaked toward a nearby hilltop to get a better look. This was to have been her post all along but she and Hyacinth had been held up by the sudden appearance of the two scouts.
As she neared the crest of the hill the warrior ran straight into another scout. This one was armed with one of those battered old cavalryman's lances that Draganis guessed he had probably stolen somewhere. Upon espying this lone woman warrior on foot, he immediately lowered it and charged. On his face was a look of triumphant exultation as he assumed he was about to be the first to kill one of the stinking Amazons.
Naturally the fierce Draganis had other ideas. Having fought the Centaurs she was not unnerved in the least by the onrushing horse and rider. She even took a moment to cast a quick glance past him and there in the distance at last saw the main body of the enemy force swim into view. She could have used the classic Amazon maneuver to take down the horse but upon sighting the enemy horde decided she needed that horse for herself.
So cool was this great warrior that she did not even bother to draw her
sword. A quick scouring of the ground around her feet revealed just what she
was looking for. With a smug little smile she snatched up a stone, smooth and
round and about the size of a robin's egg. Yes, she thought, this will do
nicely--just like the old days. Pivoting backward on her left foot, she turned
In her restive youth Draganis had yearned to see what life was like in the great big world that lay outside what she then perceived as the suffocating boundaries of Amazon life. Queen Penthesilea, who in her own wild youth had been just as restless, understood this and so gave the girl permission to strike out and see the world. Not before, however, she secretly put ten pieces of gold in the girl's bag--just in case.
So with the queen's blessing Draganis spent the next eighteen moons wandering the northern Mediterranean. In that time she traveled to Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Pella--where one day would be born he who would conquer most of the known world. Brashly she dared to climb Mount Olympus and indeed managed to ascend half-way up the fabled peak before a terrible thunderstorm drove her back down. She visited both Methones, consulted the fabulous oracle at Delphi and spent one night in a backwater little village in Chalcidice called Poteidaia. Later she crossed over into Latium and there ate a meal of smoked fish and moldy barley bread in a dreary little clump of huts called Rome.
Of course the ten pieces of gold had not lasted long and over the course of
her adventure what hard money the young Amazon was able to pick up came by the
way of gambling. In many of its forms she was very proficient but it was of
course in contests of skill that she really cleaned up. Many an unsuspecting
local was sent home coinless and grumbling by this pretty girl with the sharp
eye and unerring hand. In fact the twenty pieces of silver that paid for her voyage
home had been separated from a fat Maltese merchant after winning a series of
bets. Dressed in the well worn tunic of a Illyrian soldier, she had five times
in a row knocked pears down from their lofty perch with nothing more than a
The eleven years since then had done nothing to diminish her accuracy. When her present adversary was close enough she merely leaned back and cracked him hard right between the eyes with her stone. The onrushing rider tumbled to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The horse, startled by this, reared up only to be easily caught by Draganis.
Before she mounted she took a moment to look at the latest of her countless victims. The groaning man was in bad shape. He was twitching and blood was pouring out of his left nostril. Seeing this, the Amazon took the time to hurry Death along his way. She was certain the main body was still too far away to notice her. Besides, there was not much need for stealth now anyway. Very soon they would be getting their fill of Amazons. As she kneeled down beside him the man jerkily raised his arm in a feeble attempt to defend himself but Draganis merely swatted it away.
When the man then tried to speak, she took his head into her strong hands and with a sweet smile laid a finger across his lips. "Shhh. I wish I could stay and chat, love, but I have to run." With that she snapped his neck one with powerful jerk and, mounting the dead man's horse, sped away to warn Terreis and the rest.
Terreis stared off in the direction of the as yet unseen enemy. "You're certain it was the main body?"
"Yes, Princess," said Draganis. "Coming three abreast, right down the main road just as we figured."
"Very well. Thank you, Draganis," said Terreis. "You may rejoin your group." With a respectful nod Draganis went off to find Mycinia.
Rejoining Terreis, Pycea said softly, "I guess this is it."
Terreis' only response was a solemn nod. After another few moments she asked "Have all those in the forward positions returned?"
"All but Elsinore," came the reply.
"Well we can't wait. Everyone! Mount up!" commanded the princess.
Pycea peered through the trees to the meadow beyond.
"Nervous?" asked Terreis.
Pycea had to admit that she was. "I'd rather be at the mineral springs," she said. "Taking a nice warm bath."
"I know what you mean," said Terreis, smiling at the pleasurable notion despite herself. She then furrowed her brow in thought and added, "I guess that's the way it always is. I guess all battles are fought by people who would rather be somewhere else. But we have a job to do. Any minute now the enemy is going to be coming down that road and the queen expects us to do our duty." Sitting in the saddle, Terreis pulled her sword and laid it across her thighs. "And we will."
"Highness!" a voice urgently whispered.
Terreis turned and saw a warrior named Kirah sitting astride her pony and pointing out toward the meadow. There Terreis saw the head of the enemy column just emerging from the small wood on the opposite edge of the meadow. "Amazons," she said in a calm voice. "Form on me and when we get out there conform to my movements. Be sure to wait until I get the order before breaking off."
From her horse the princess looked down on Hyacinth who was still waiting for further orders. Since her return her desire had been to have Terreis ask her to go along but now that it was clear this was not going to happen she rather hoped to be allowed to once again join Draganis for the coming battle.
Terreis was about to grant her her wish. "Go back and tell Mycinia and Colsethme that the enemy is here and that we are moving out."
"Yes, Highness," the warrior replied. Trotting down the narrow trail, she soon disappeared amongst the trees.
So as to appear having been caught in the open, Terreis and her band would approach the enemy left in a wide circle. It was hoped this maneuver would also serve to allay any enemy suspicions about a trap until it was too late.
Keeping back in the forest just enough to remain out of side, Terreis and her band set off to bait Melosa's great trap.
Flat on their stomachs, Ephiny and Solari eased their way up to the crest of the hill and ever so carefully peeked over.
"See?" Solari hissed.
Down at the foot of the hill Ephiny saw a large gathering of men on horses and men. After some scrutiny she guessed Solari's fifty was actually closer to forty. Not that it mattered. Forty was still far too many for the puny two of them to deal with. All but a few of the men were still mounted with the majority of these forming a semi-circle around five other figures who were all on foot.
"That's them!" Solari anxiously whispered. "See? Oh gods, they've got them!"
It was all too true. There were Tylda and Calliope all right. For a fleeting moment Ephiny wondered where the bitch herself was. This passed in an instant, however, as she began to observe what was happening. Both the scouts had their hands bound behind their back and at the moment poor Tylda was being battered from pillar to post by two burly men. As their laughing comrades looked on, these two men kept shoving Tylda from one to the other, punching and kicking the defenseless Amazon with each new encounter.
Watching from the hilltop, Ephiny felt the rage building within her. Fists clenched, she for the first time in her life felt a real desire to take another person's life.
"By the gods!" said Solari bleakly. "They're killing her!" With misty eyes she looked anxiously looked to her friend but unfortunately Ephiny had no answer for her. In the face of such odds what could they do? Nothing, and for one to try would be pure suicide.
A particularly brutal blow Tylda sent reeling to the ground. One of the men bent over and grabbed a handful of her long black hair and, pulling her up to her knees, then proceeded to viciously snap her head back. "Tell us, bitch!" the two friends heard him bellow.
Still holding her by the hair, he leaned over and gave her head a violent shake. "TELL US! Where are the rest of your Amazon sluts?"
With great difficulty Tylda leaned back and nodded. The man, smugly triumphant in the knowledge that he had broken this, one of the so-called "fierce" Amazons, leaned closer still. What he got was not information but rather a great, bloody gob of spit right in the eye. And that was not all. Summoning forth every last bit of strength, Tylda slammed her forehead into the man's nose, instantly breaking it.
The man squalled in pain and reeling backward, landed on his behind as the other soldiers howled with laughter. Enraged and embarrassed, the man struggled to his feet and then viciously kicked Tylda in the ribs with all his might. Even from her vantage point Ephiny thought she could her the cracking of the Amazon's bones. At this Solari let out an anguished little cry while Ephiny with gritted teeth silently raged. You bastards! The gods damn you!
However the worst was yet to come. Ignoring Calliope's pleas to stop, the soldier pulled his dagger. Seizing the limp Tylda by the hair one more time, he clumsily cut her throat.
And for the first time in her young life Ephiny saw it all so clearly. All that ceaseless rhetoric about courage and honor and duty and sacrifice was not just so much indoctrinating mush, ladled out by their instructors to be mindlessly choked down. Nor were they any longer vague concepts to be bandied about in academic discussions around cozy camp fires. For there, lying in the dust below with her life oozing away, was the very epitome of what those words, in all their wretched, valiant glory, were all about. Tylda had given her life for the sake of the tribe and in that burning moment Ephiny truly understood that this was what it meant to be an Amazon. For her it was one of those defining moments that mark the long road to adulthood and the lesson, though tragic, was one she would carry in her heart always.
Very regretfully the daughter of Meelah whispered, "Come on, we need to warn Phillipia."
Solari was aghast. "But what about Calliope?"
"Forget Calliope!" Ephiny hissed. "She's as good as dead already." It broke her heart to make such a harsh assessment but her training was coming to the fore now. She knew their duty lay not with the warrior Calliope but with the children and the elders they had been charged to protect.
However Solari lingered still and Ephiny was just about to pinch a hunk out of her friend's muscular arm when with wide eyes Solari crooked a finger and gasped, "Look! Down by that plane tree!"
Ephiny did and what she saw stunned her. Crouching behind a juniper bush was Morda! Ephiny could not believe it. With dismay she thought, That idiot!
"What is she doing?" asked Solari.
"I'll tell you what she's doing," Ephiny angrily replied. "She's about to get her ass caught." In an instant her mind played out the whole chilling scenario. Forcefully grabbing her friend's arm, Ephiny did not ask but ordered, "This is bad. Solari, you've got to get back and warn Phillipia. Now!"
A little taken aback by the blonde's sudden vehemence, Solari said, "Okay but...what are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet," Ephiny replied. "Something. I've got to slow them down."
Ephiny cut her off. "No time to explain. Just get going."
Solari nodded earnestly and was turning to go when she heard, "Solari?"
Ephiny's grim visage softened just a bit around the eyes and with a surprisingly gentle voice she said, "Watch yourself."
Despite the grave circumstances Solari could not help but grin. This was about as close as Ephiny ever came to displaying tenderness. "Don't worry," she assured her friend. "I'll be like Argus himself."
Ephiny watched Solari scramble down the hill and tried to forget that even the hundred-eyed Argus had ultimately been killed.
Suddenly the young warrior heard loud, shrieking cry of distress. Turning back to the men at the foot of the hill, she barely had time to focus in on them before realizing her fears had become a reality. One of the soldiers was gripping Morda by the scruff of the neck and roughly pulling her back to the others.
"Damn!" Ephiny muttered. She had never cared much for the acerbic Morda and left to her own ends would rather have avoided her altogether. However given the fairly small size of their village and the fact that they were close to the same age it was inevitable the two of them would often be in interaction. It was strange, Morda seemed to always be around.
Over the years Ephiny had seen enough of Morda's true character to know that for all her supposed combativeness she was not very tough mentally. Ephiny was certain that all would take was a couple of good slaps by these goons and she would be singing like a nightingale.
Or so she thought.
With a rough shove and a sharp kick to the buttocks Morda's captor sent her sprawling to the ground right at the feet of his leader, a Babylonian mercenary with the virtually unpronounceable name of R'zha. Having spent many years in and around Greece he was by now fluent in the language. With the toe of his boot he turned over the prostrate girl. "Well well well, yet another Amazon spy. Damned if these hills aren't crawling with these harpies!"
"I--I'm not an Amazon," Morda protested. "I'm a Laconian."
"Laconian huh?" R'zha snorted. "You're a long way from Sparta, girlie." With a broad grin he said, "By the fires of Ishum! I could say I was the King of Libya!" Some of the men, never comfortable with the mention of Babylonian gods, nervously laughed at his crack but R'zha's grin quickly faded into something much more sinister. "But that wouldn't make it so, now would it?"
R'zha jerked the girl to her feet and sized her up and down. "Come to think of it you don't look much like an Amazon at that." Remembering the fierce, muscular females that had routed a gang of marauders he had ridden with some years before he added, "Too damned puny."
"I tell you I'm not an Amazon," Morda repeated. "I'm just a...slave."
Five short paces away Calliope was stunned by what she heard. Never in her darkest nightmares did she ever think an Amazon would say such a vile thing. The appalled "Morda!" she blurted out did nothing more than earn her a backhand across the mouth. For her Morda's words were despicable beyond measure. Morda was now irrevocably beyond mere denial of tribal heritage. This was treason, pure and simple and for the gravest of all crimes Amazon Law prescribed only one punishment--death.
"Quiet, you," a soldier barked. "You'll be screaming soon enough."
"A slave?" echoed R'zha.
"That's right," said Morda. She shot Calliope a look of disdain and said, "Murdering harlots just like this her were the ones who killed my family and carried me off when I was five. I've been their dog ever since."
R'zha coolly eyed her and with a voice as casual as if ordering breakfast said, "You're lying. You're an Amazon." He gestured to Tylda's body and said, "As you can see we're here to kill Amazons."
"Yeah," the bloody nosed man gleefully added. "Every last one of you."
"Kill her then," R'zha ordered. "Kill both of them."
"Wait!" Morda cried. "I can be of service to you."
R'zha leered lasciviously at her and said "Little squab, you're not nearly enough woman for me."
"R'zha, we should be on our way," one of the soldiers urged. "Our lord expects us to hit the village at the same time he does."
"The attack will be coordinated well enough," R'zha said confidently. Once more focusing his attention on Morda, he said, "Where are the Amazons deployed? Tell me that and you'll live."
At this Calliope began to furiously struggle against the soldier tightly gripping her arms. "Don't you say a word, Morda!" she exclaimed.
"The gods curse you, you bitch, and your whole thieving tribe!" Morda snarled at her. "I want to live."
"They would never trust me to know such things," said Morda. She then quickly added, "But I do know something that might be just as interesting to you and certainly more profitable."
"R'zha," the soldier urged again.
"I said we will be on time!" R'zha barked angrily. "Now shut up!" To Morda he said, "So give me a reason not to gut you like a fish."
"I'll give you a hundred reasons," replied Morda.
"You just bought yourself another five breaths," said R'zha. "For your sake I suggest you use them wisely."
"Not far from here is a cave--filled with Amazon brats."
Practically foaming with rage, Calliope squalled. "Mordaaaa! You'll rot in Tartarus for this!"
"Shut that bitch up!" growled R'zha. What he intended, of course, was for the soldier to kill the young warrior. However this strapping young man, long deprived of the pleasures a woman could bring, had other ideas for her. For that reason all he did was to tear off a piece of her tunic and cram it into her mouth.
A gleam came to R'zha's eye. "Their kinsmen."
For Morda the termed seemed technically inappropriate as there were no "men" but she certainly was not inclined to correct him. "That's right," she said. "Strong, healthy children, ripe for the slave market. And the old folk, many of them are still able as well."
For a tense moment R'zha mulled this over. Amazons were known to make wonderful slaves IF one could break them. Perhaps the children had not yet been completely instilled with that troublesome Amazon fanaticism...
"All right," he said, "you will show us. Aeneus, take ten men and go to that cave. Kill all the old hags but be careful with those little seedlings. Those are drachmas on the hoof."
Once more the soldier protested. "But what about--?"
"The gods damn you!" R'zha raged. Filled with fury, he pulled his sword and in the blink of an eye drove the edge of the blade deep into the neck of the nettlesome man. Wiping the sword clean on the tunic of the unfortunate man, R'zha smirked as he challenged the rest of his command. "Anyone else care to voice an opinion?" Not surprisingly, no one did.
"All right then," he said. "Let's move."
Aeneus barked out the names of those who were to ride with him and then pulled Morda up on the back of his horse. The two groups formed up. Those under Aeneus set out to find Morda's cave while R'zha and the rest streaked off to do battle with the Amazons.
All except one named Issus. With hands still firmly grasping the gagged Calliope he stood behind a large oak tree and watched his comrades race away. Spinning the Amazon around, he licked his lips and roughly kissed her on the cheek. In an effort to resist Calliope violently shook her head and tried her best to knee him in the groin. "Ohh," he taunted her, "you've got plenty of fight in you, don't you Amazon? I like that."
Issus struck her hard on the jaw, knocking her down. In an instant he was upon her. "You like to fight? Well, come on, fight me, pretty slut."
Groaning in desperation, the young warrior bucked and writhed in a frantic attempt to keep him from spreading her legs. However, flat on her back with arms bound, she had very little leverage and moments later Issus down on his knees, firmly entrenched between hers.
Eyes twinkling with excitement, Issus began to fumble with his pants. "I'll bet you're still a cherry, aren't you? Tell me, Amazon, have you ever did it? I'll bet you and some of your little friends have kissed each other's little cunts, haven't ya? Ohhhh yes, I'll bet you have. But see, that doesn't count. You need the real thing."
Calliope's eyes grew wide with horror as she saw the grinning Issus finally manage to pull out his swollen manhood. There had been times when she overheard some of the older warriors talking about having sex with these males and, sensing the pleasure they had so obviously derived from it, wondered just what a man's "thing" might look actually look like. Indeed some of the more bawdy Amazons had spoken of the mysterious organ with almost dreamy tones but here, under these traumatic circumstances, Calliope quite naturally thought it anything but that. In fact it was absolutely the most disgusting thing she had ever seen. It was like some fat, grotesque worm.
And now the horrid worm was about to enter her.
Working his way farther up, Issus pressed down hard on the writhing warrior. Gloating, he crooned, "Give it up to me, honey. I'm gonna break you in and there's not a thing you can do about it."
Calliope closed her eyes and in her present state of duress only half heard as a strangely familiar voice said, "But I can."
There was a sickening thump and Calliope heard Issus let out a kind of gurgling little gasp. Opening her eyes, she saw a look of shock and horror on his face as he slowly sank down upon her. Looming behind him was a trim figure with unruly blonde curls holding a bloody sword with both hands.
As the figure pulled out Calliope's gag the warrior cried. "Ephiny! By the gods, it's you!"
And so it was. The moment the young Amazon saw Issus wrestle Calliope back into the cover of the trees she had begun working her way to the hill toward them. She couldn't save Tylda, but gods willing she could save this likeable young woman who so often in the past had tended her when her own mother was away.
Ephiny jammed the big sword into the ground and, grabbing the dead man by the shoulders, wrested him off the panting Calliope. In an instant the warrior bolted up into a sitting position.
"Are you all right?" Ephiny asked.
"Yeah," replied Calliope, kicking the man's arm off her leg. "Thanks to you."
Ephiny retrieved the sword and with one very easy pull cut Calliope's bindings. Never had the girl seen a sword so sharp!
Issus' horse was tied only a few paces away and as soon as her hands were free Calliope raced straight for it. "Calliope, wait!" Ephiny cried.
A moment later Calliope was mounted and holding her hand out. "Give me the sword, Ephiny."
Alarmed, Ephiny asked "What are you doing?"
"I've got to warn the queen."
"It's too late for that," said Ephiny. "You'll never beat them to the village. Besides, the battle has probably already started."
Angry, frustrated and a little ashamed too for having failed in her mission, Calliope's eyes sank as she said, "I suppose it has." Then, perking up again, she said, "But they still need me. Give me the sword, Ephiny."
Backing away from the horse, the blonde resolutely said, "No." It was no small thing for one such as her to disobey a full-fledged warrior. After all, an Amazon's first duty, above all else, was to obey.
Calliope knew this just as well as Ephiny did and was surprised by the blonde's defiance. However she was not that far removed from Ephiny's status herself and as a result was not yet confident enough in her own position to force matters. For that reason her voice had just a hint of a whine in it as she said, "Ephinyyyy!"
Ephiny, however, was adamant. Using the warrior's casual name, Ephiny said, "No, Callie. This is Phillipia's sword. She lent it to me for this scouting mission. See, I've got a job to do too."
Unsure of just what to do, the thought flashed through Calliope's mind to get down off the horse and take the sword. However she quickly decided against this. She liked Ephiny too well to fight her and, besides, she had been seen the girl on many occasions during their incessant drills and was not positive that she could in fact take the sword from the already formidable young woman. Looking over to her dead assailant she thought, All right then, I'll just take that bastard's sword instead.
"All right, Ephiny," she said with a smile. "You win. But I've got to go regardless."
The daughter of Meelah, however, had other ideas. As Calliope nudged the horse forward she quickly stepped up and grabbed the horse's bridle. "Wait!" she said again.
Exasperated, Calliope yanked hard on the reins in an effort to pull the horse free. "Ephiny, damn it, what's wrong with you?"
"Calliope the battle has or is about to begin..."
"Why in the name of sweet Artemis do you think I'm trying to shed you, you little leech!? Now let...go!!!" Frightened by all the shouting and tugging between the two strange humans, the horse reared up on its hind legs and there went Ephiny down in a heap.
In an instant the tender-hearted Calliope was off the horse and beside her friend. "Oh, Effie, I'm so sorry! My gods, are you all right?"
As she helped Ephiny up to a sitting position, the blonde could not help but flash a mischievous little grin and in that moment Calliope knew that she had just been tricked.
"You harpy!" she gasped. "You weren't struck at all, were you?"
A twinkle in her eye Ephiny replied, "I had to stop you somehow."
With a kind look Calliope asked, "Ephiny, why is it so important to you that I not go?"
The twinkle in her eye was gone and once more Ephiny was back to her old pragmatic self. "The battle," she said, "has or will soon begin."
"Yeah, you said that twice already."
"One more warrior is not going to make a difference either way."
Softly Calliope said, "But, Ephiny, it's my duty--"
"Your duty is to the tribe as a whole," Ephiny countered. "Now that your mission is no longer valid the obvious thing to do would be to come back and help Phillipia take care of the others."
Like a bolt of lightning it hit Calliope. "By the gods, the others! Oh gods, Ephiny, we must hurry!" A black scowl of revulsion came across her face as she remembered Morda's treachery. "That bitch," she snarled. "When I catch up with her I'm going to cut out her traitorous tongue and stuff it down her throat."
Ephiny got to her feet and said, "I wouldn't be too hasty if I were you."
Calliope was aghast. "What the hell do you mean?" she demanded. "Didn't you see? That little cow betrayed us. Right now she is leading them right to the children and the others!"
"Uhh no, Callie," Ephiny matter-of-factly replied. "She's not."
"I guess you didn't have a chance to notice but..." Ephiny pointed off in a direction considerably different than that of the others' hiding place. "...Morda led them off that way."
For poor Calliope it was yet another in what had become a seemingly unending series of shocks. Weakly she said, "She did? You mean she...was faking?"
"Of course she was," said Ephiny, "Morda might be a nut but she's not a traitor. What she has done is to split their force and buy us some time." What the young Amazon did not say was that the enigmatic Morda had probably purchased it at the expense of her own life.
Staring numbly at nothing in particular, Calliope softly said, "Strip those two dead soldiers of their weapons. I'll...bring the horse."
Ephiny obediently nodded and then for a fleeting moment her grin returned. "You won't run off and leave me now will you?"
"No," Calliope softly assured her. "I'll be right behind you."
Ephiny patted her friend on the arm and in the blink of an eye was gone. It struck her as odd that Meelah's daughter could remain so calm in all this. Calliope, who had never seen real battle and who had never killed anything more dangerous than a rabbit, was at the moment experiencing a multitude of emotions, most of which were anything but positive. Scared, confused, unsure of herself or just what to do, she, like Solari before her, found comfort in this girl's quiet confidence and unshakable resolve. Ephiny had just killed for the first time and yet she seemed as calm as the waters of that old pond down from the village. Intuitively Calliope understood that, though some five years younger, Ephiny was already a better warrior than she would ever be. Not that there was any shame in that and she certainly did not resent Ephiny for this. Not at all. For some reason Artemis had seen fit to bless this young one with abilities greater than her own. Who was she then, as a devoted Amazon, to question the hand of their immortal patron?
However if the shaken young woman had only been privy to the innermost thoughts racing through Ephiny's mind she would have seen a very different portrait. Trotting out to retrieve the sword of the soldier slain by R'zha, she suddenly found that her knees seemed watery, her mouth very dry and that she could not keep her right hand from shaking. And that man on top of Calliope! Never had she heard such a sickening sound as when her razor sharp sword sliced through his skin, muscle and bone. So sickening in fact that although Calliope did not know it Ephiny had come very close to vomiting right on her.
So that was what it was like to take another life, to actually kill someone! All that talk from their instructors, all the listening to the tales of the old warriors, all the reading about the great battles and heroines of the past....NONE of it had prepared her for what it was really like.
Pulling the dead man's sword from its scabbard, Ephiny was suddenly reminded of her mother. Through all those battles she had endured and survived. Suddenly all those knots of heroism her mother wore in her hair on those special occasions took on a whole new meaning. Suddenly and for the first time Ephiny understood that Meelah, one of the rocks that proud Mycinia had built her success on, was not merely "Momma" who was forever nagging her to do her chores but a great hero who had faced death over and over again in the defense of their hearth and home, always prevailing.
Oh, Momma! she thought. I'd rather die than cause you shame!
Turning back, she saw Calliope, good as her word, leading the horse toward her. In her excitement Ephiny had missed the dagger in her victim's belt and so here now was Calliope good-naturedly pitching it to her.
"You forgot one," said Calliope, smiling faintly.
"Well uhh, I'm still a little new at this," said Ephiny sheepishly. Calliope would have bet everything she owned right there that it would be a mistake the girl would not make again.
Her own sword having been tossed away upon capture, Calliope took the one from R'zha's victim as it seemed to be of better quality and stuck in her own scabbard. Around the other's hilt she tied a piece of rawhide this she looped around Ephiny's shoulder. "Hang onto that," she said.
Calliope then mounted the horse and sticking out her hand, easily swung Ephiny up behind her, big sword and all. And for the first time in her life Ephiny truly felt as if she was a real warrior, as if her long and difficult road to adulthood was about to at long last come to an end.
As if she belonged.
Pausing for a moment at the edge of the tree line, a panting Solari leaned heavily against an ash tree and tried to catch her breath. As a healthy young Amazon she was certainly not out of shape but she had never really been much of a runner--not like Ephiny or the Hermes-like Pycea. Why had Ephiny, who was so fleet of foot, not come back herself instead of sending a plow horse like me? she wondered. The Amazon did not really understand the reason but in the end it did not really matter for she trusted her friend's judgment completely. Ephiny always seemed to know the right thing to do.
Finally Solari's breathing began to slow. The cave was still quiet a way off and she needed to ready herself for this one last push. It was then she heard what sounded like a snort. Instinctively she drew back deeper into the cover the woods provided. Like all Amazons she somehow felt safer, more comfortable in the woods, the deeper and darker the better. This love of the forest was a trait innate in an Amazon, something that had been ingrained in their soul over countless generations. Given a preference an Amazon who sensed trouble always preferred the protective arms of the forest to the uncertainty of open country. In this Solari was no different.
Crouching down, she saw a horse and rider slowly approaching. The man was leaning over and seemed to be studying the ground. And then it came to Solari. Oh no! she thought. Solari realized that this was the same route the refugees from the village had taken to ascend the hill. This man was tracking them!
The man came closer still. Yes, there was no doubt about it. He was following the tracks of the refugees. Drawing her dagger, Solari eased herself into an attack position. As she waited in tense anticipation she allowed that big sword of Phillipia's would sure have come in handy right about then. The man was big and very well armed. Solari reckoned her only chance was the element of surprise. He was still out in the open field and for a moment the Amazon hoped he might break off once he got to the edge of the wood. When he reached the edge he did pause, but only for a moment before nudging his horse on into the wood.
This is it, Toad! thought Solari. He's coming right for you. And so he was. The Amazon crouched there, frozen solid in the flickering shadows. It was not an ideal ambush site by any means but if she moved now he would be sure to see her. Tightening her sweaty palm around the dagger, Solari grimly waited. It would not be long now...
Suddenly there was a fffttttt, a soft whoosh as something zipped practically right over her head. Solari flinched at the sound and, fearing this reflex movement had given her away, shot an apprehensive look toward the horseman. At precisely the same moment she heard a soft thump.
"By the gods!" she whispered.
Sticking out just below the man's sternum was an arrow, an Amazon arrow. With a hoarse gasp and bulging eyes the man leaned over and toppled off his mount. Solari shot to her feet and looked all around in the expectation of thanking her benefactor. To her surprise she saw no one. Who could it have been? she wondered.
There was, however, no time to waste playing guessing games. Taking the dead man's horse by the reins, Solari mounted and rode off. A bare thirty paces away she passed by a sturdy oak, not seeing the lean figure with the weathered but still comely face pressed up against the opposite side. After the horse thundered out of sight the figure eased out onto the path and after a brief pause to look in the direction the young Amazon had gone, flashed a faint smile of satisfaction.
Old girl, she thought, you haven't lost a thing. Shouldering her bow, she
set the tip of her staff on the ground and went to drag the body out of sight
before limping off deeper into the forest.
"Aeneus, look! Here comes Zephron!"
At the approach of Zephron the scout Aeneus reined his horse to a stop and waited. Impatient for news Aeneus, barely waited for the scout to pull up beside him before asking "Any sign of them?"
"What, the Amazons?"
"No, you idiot!" Aeneus said in sharp rebuke. "The Hestian Virgins. Of course I meant the Amazons. Wake up, stupid!" While Zephron was a man would never be confused with Pythagoras but he did have a good eye and an uncanny ability to read a track.
"Oh uh, sorry," said Zephron. "No I didn't see any sign of their warriors at all." Zephron's tone of voice, however, clearly implied that he had seen something.
"What did you see?" asked Aeneus.
"Tracks," Zephron said simply. "Scores of them. I send Malleaus on to follow them." And immediately Morda's heart fell.
Aeneus' eyelids narrowed at hearing this. "Where?"
Zephron turned in the saddle and pointed a good ninety degrees away from the direction Morda had been leading them. "That way," he said. "I didn't see any signs of carts or litters but if I didn't know better I'd say it was a village on the move. There were a lot of children's tracks."
Morda had hoped to keep the ruse up until they made the forest where she would at least have a chance to escape. However all hopes of this were dashed as soon as she saw Zephron nod in the affirmative. The game was up and she knew it. Realizing the moment of her destruction was at hand, the young woman lamented not so much for her own death as for the fact that she would never have the chance to wear the precious mask of an Amazon warrior. At least she could die a warrior's death.
"You lying little shit!" Aeneus growled.
He made a reach for his dagger but Morda's young hand was quicker. With one lightning-like stroke she snatched the dagger from his belt and drove it up to the hilt in his spine, right between the shoulder blades.
Teeth clenched in hate, Morda spat out, "Now you can join all the rest of the bastards that will die today!"
Aeneus groaned loudly and slumped forward in the saddle. In an instant Morda had him by the hips, trying to push him off so she could take control of the horse. The forest! If she could only get to the forest...
Her efforts were in vain. With his lance a nearby soldier sent her flying off the horse with a stunning blow to the head. Morda tried desperately to scramble to her feet but her head was reeling and try as she might she could not seem to regain her balance. Her knees buckling, she heard someone shout, "Kill the bitch!"
Suddenly there was an indescribable pain in her belly as the soldier first gored her bowels with his lance, and then twisted it before yanking it back out. Like snow on a warm spring day Morda melted to the ground, her lips gently kissing the dusty earth. As she descended into darkness she heard the soldiers thunder away on their horses. This left only the already dead Aeneus to keep her company as her own life ebbed away.
As she lay there in the horse dung and the blood soaked earth her last conscious thoughts were of the blonde with the unruly curls whom she had loved since she was ten years old. Sadly, she had never quite been able to work up the courage to tell her this and now she never would. And so, as Death gently cloaked her in his black shroud, Morda gasped one last, mournful, "Ephinyyyyyyy...."
"Their numbers were as the
sands of Egypt.
With pike and bow and sword of bronze,
Thirsting for Amazon blood.
So came the enemy on.
And thus it was that noble Antiope spake...
'Sisters of Hippolyta!
Are we afraid of grim-visaged Death?
Have ever we cowered like beaten dogs,
Before the war cries of our merciless foes?'
'Let us therefore gird ourselves for battle.
Let us take up shield and sword and, rushing forward,
Close our hearts to pity.'
And thus it was that Claudia, daughter of proud
'Let us this day give terrible Ares, that blood bloated god, heavy work.
Let us long not for the comfortable fires of home,
But instead yearn impatiently for hardship and virtuous battle.
For countless generations have we fought and
bled and died,
For this, our sacred home.
The blood of our enemies will soak yon fields such,
That in future days they will see the stains and say,
Here! Here is where they stood. Victorious Sisters of Hippolyta!
And grappled with the demon children of Ixion!'"
~from the nine hundred verse Amazon "Song of War."
"And so it was that with hot blood and cool
I smote my enemies."
~excerpted from a poem by Claudia, grandmother of Meelah.
Owing to her head start and unexpected boon of a horse Solari was already anxiously waiting in the hollow below by the time Ephiny and Calliope arrived. As she saw them ride up a much relieved Solari was very glad to see her friend because a small part of her had feared she might not see her again at all. That Calliope was miraculously alive made it even better.
Boy, am I glad to see you guys!" she said.
"Well you can thank Ephiny for that," said Calliope. Taking the extra sword from Ephiny she tossed it down to Solari. "Here, don't say I never gave you anything."
Instead of trying to catch it Solari wisely let if fall to the ground. "Oh my," she said, picking it up. In truth the weapon was of nothing more than average craftsmanship. It was plain with no engravings of any kind. The wooden handle was chipped and there were even a couple of rusty spots on the forte. Nevertheless Solari was thrilled. Usually an Amazon came into possession of a weapon in one of three ways. They bought it, inherited it or took it from a conquered foe on the field of battle. For the untried Solari this last option was out and without anyone to bequeath her one and unable to have one made for herself this would be the first one that she could ever truly call her own.
"Oh my," she stammered, "I--I don't know what to say. Thank you!"
"Don't thank me just yet," said Calliope. "You might be using that sooner than you think."
At that moment Pomona anxiously appeared at the opening to the cave. Seeing the warrior Calliope who was the highest ranking Amazon now present, she quite naturally singled her out. "Calliope! Come quickly!"
Ephiny slid off the horse to allow Calliope to dismount and then stood aside to let the young warrior pass. As Calliope began to ascend the hill Ephiny asked, "What's that all about?"
Solari's face grew grave. "Phillipia," she said solemnly. "It's bad, Ephiny. Say, how did you manage to--?"
Bolting up the hill, Ephiny did not wait to hear the rest of her friend's query about Calliope's rescue. She eased her way through the hole and stood at the mouth of the cave. Inside she saw Phillipia lying on a blanket and surrounded by Amazons young and old with worried looks on their faces.
As Calliope knelt to speak with Phillipia, Pomona moved in beside Ephiny. "What is it?" Ephiny asked. "What happened?"
"Morda," Pomona answered tersely. "That's what happened. When we found out she was missing Phillipia insisted on helping us look for her."
At this point Ephiny figured there was little to be gained by telling what she knew about the strange girl with the fiery temper.
Pomona sadly lowered her eyes and added, "I guess the exertion of climbing those hills was too much for her."
"Ephiny!" Calliope called out. "Ephiny, she wants to talk to you."
Followed by Pomona and Solari, Ephiny waded through the mass of humanity. Reaching the venerable Amazon the three of them dropped to their knees as they felt it would have been disrespectful to merely stand over her and look down.
Phillipia's voice was weak and labored as she asked "Where's Ephiny?"
Bending down, the curly blonde gently replied, "Here, ma'am."
"Ephiny, Racillione here says it's my heart."
Ephiny shot a questioning glance to the old healer gently holding Phillipia's head in her hands. All she got in return was a doleful shake of the head. "Shhh, just be quiet and rest," the girl said to Phillipia. "You going to be all right."
"We both know better than that," the old woman wheezed. "There's nothing to be done for me. Ephiny?"
Suddenly Phillipia was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance to the cave. An irritated Calliope stood up and asked "What's going on?"
Through the mass of bodies fourteen year old Valerie, younger sister of Hyacinth, pushed her way to where Phillipia lay. She had been one of the lookouts posted by Phillipia at Ephiny's suggestion in what now seemed like a lifetime ago. "Men on horses," she said breathlessly. "Ten, maybe twelve, moving slowly up the hollow."
"Were you seen?" asked Calliope.
"I don't think so," the girl answered. "But they sure seemed to know where they're going."
Vocalizing what they all were thinking, Solari said, "They'll be here very soon."
Calliope shot Ephiny a hard look. "So she gave us away after all."
Ephiny shook her head. "I don't believe that. More likely somebody found all those tracks."
"Ephiny!" the old woman called out again.
Phillipia groped until she found the young Amazon's hand and then squeezed it with surprising strength. "Ephiny," she rasped. "I want you to take command here."
Ephiny was stunned. "Meee? But, ma'am..."
"There's no time for debate," said Phillipia. "I name you."
Despite this Ephiny continued to protest. "But, we have a warrior here. See? Calliope. She should be the one to take command."
The old woman coughed and shook her head weakly. "I know that Calliope is here. But she is a follower, not a leader. You, Ephiny! You are the one I want. Now look to your people."
Phillipia's assessment of Calliope might have seemed blunt but it was not meant in any way meant to denigrate her. As leader it was necessary for the veteran Amazon to disregard personal feelings, both hers and those under her, in order that the tribe might be best served. In her role as royal advisor she had kept an eye on these youngsters practically since the day they were born and consequently knew their individual strengths and weaknesses even better than the instructors. Through countless field exercises and "problems" those exhibiting leadership potential naturally sooner or later came to the fore. Although a solid, capable warrior, Calliope had never shown much ability in leadership roles. Ephiny on the other hand was by all accounts a natural.
Just like Claudia. Gods, thought the old woman, she even looks like her. Looking deep into the eyes of the blonde, Phillipia said, "Your moment is at hand, Ephiny. What we need is someone with hot blood and a cool head." She smiled weakly and said, "That was your great-grandmother's favorite saying. You...you didn't know her, did you?"
"No, ma'am," Ephiny softly replied.
Eyes gleaming, the old woman said, "Ohhh, she was a terror. She had more knots than Draganis, Mycinia and Colsethme combined. She was a captain at twenty."
"Yes, ma'am," said Ephiny. "Mom--I mean, mother told me."
"She taught me how to use a sword, you know. I was a scrawny, weak-kneed girl and she was this fabulous warrior yet she, she took the time to help me on her own. It was because of her that I became a great warrior in my own right. She...she cared, Ephiny. In all the years of my life I've never forgotten that."
Ephiny's eyes began to glisten. "Yes, ma'am."
"You remind me so much of her, child. I know her blood flows through your veins. You should be...very proud."
"Ephiny, take command. Use that hot blood and cool head. Defend your people!"
Ephiny shot an apprehensive glance at Calliope. The warrior's eyes sank as she said, "She's right, I don't think I can do it. Just--just tell me what you want me to do and I'll do it." For practically any other Amazon being placed under the command of one so young and inexperienced would have been a very bitter draught to swallow indeed. Calliope knew this meant she would never be anything more than a simple warrior but instead of being upset or disappointed she was almost...relieved. Things were so much easier when someone else told you what to do. Yes, old Phillipia was right.
Placing a reassuring hand on Ephiny's forearm, Pomona softly said, "We're with you. All of us."
"You can do it, Eph," Solari urged. "I know you can."
Ephiny, daughter of Meelah, looked around at all the faces, young and old, who in turn were so anxiously watching her now. As with most young Amazons she had dreamed of having her own command one day. But now? Gods! she thought. I'm not ready!
"Ephiny," said Pomona, "we don't have much time."
"Ephiny, we need you," said Solari.
Closing her eyes, Ephiny heaved a small sigh, knowing her life would never be the same. "All right," she said. And with that Phillipia drifted off into unconsciousness, her face wearing a faint smile of satisfaction.
Ephiny shot to her feet. "Where's Abisinthe?"
From behind her a thin voice replied, "Here, Ephiny."
Turning to the fifteen year old, Ephiny asked. "Did you bring your bow?" Cheery Abisinthe was one of those people of whom it could rightly be said that they were a stranger to depression. She was also quite skilled with the bow.
"Hey you know me," the girl said with a grin. "I never leave home without it."
"Good. Grab your gear and wait for me outside."
"Pomona! That horse we brought in--there's a length of rope on the saddle. Get it." With a nod Pomona was off.
Nearing the entrance, Ephiny felt a tug at her elbow. It was Anon.
"I want to help," said the youngster.
"Good, because I have a very important job for you," said Ephiny.
Anon's eyes lit up. "You do?"
"Yes. You're a big girl now so I need you to stay here and help Racillione and the others take care of the children."
Disappointed, the girl answered with a dejected, "Awww, Ephiny, I want to do something really important." There was no doubt about it. The girl had the warrior's spirit all right.
Ephiny crouched down and gently stroked the hair of Anon's sister Marsa. "There is nothing more important than keeping your little sister safe," she said. "You wouldn't want anything to happen to her, would you?"
"No-oo, the girl whined, "but--"
"You've got your orders," said Ephiny kindly. "Can I count on you to carry them out?"
"Okayyyy," Anon reluctantly replied.
"Your mother will be very proud of you," said Ephiny.
While not quite understanding what was happening Marsa nevertheless could sense the anxious mood of those around her. So it was that she instinctively reached out to the one who had always been so kind to her--her friend Ephiny. Ephiny took the girl in her arms and after giving her a warm hug softly said, "Sweetheart, I've got to go now. And I want you to be brave, just like your big sister. Can you do that for me?"
The child nodded and as Ephiny stood up she said, "Effie?"
"Can we go back to the pond again? That was fun!"
Ephiny smiled and said, "Sure. You, me, Solari, we'll all go back. I promise."
After a brief word with some of the elders Ephiny and the rest of her little band trickled out through the cave entrance. As to be expected these older Amazons, being former warriors themselves, had almost unanimously offered to help Ephiny and her young warriors any way they could. Some might not have agreed with Phillipia's decision to put such a stripling in charge but a lifetime of discipline was no easy thing to overcome. They would respect the great warrior's wishes.
Ephiny in turn was grateful for their support but in the end concluded that the older ones should remain behind with the children. While many of these elders were still strong, still in fine overall condition, what Ephiny had in mind would require a measure of nimbleness and endurance that few if any of them possessed anymore. To that end she had already made up her mind that they would be her walls of Troy so to speak--the last line of defense. After clasping hands with some and taking a few encouraging pats from others, Ephiny emerged from the cave and stepped forth into the broiling light of her very first command.
"Here they come!"
At Minutia's soft cry Meelah raised up ever so slightly and peeked down the forest trail. Just barely visible outside the tree line was Terreis and the others thundering toward the forest. Looking across the trail to Celeste, Meelah thumped her own chest twice and then pointed to her face meaning, "Wait for me."
Celeste, nodding that she understood, drew her sword and waited...
Ephiny, Calliope, Solari, Pomona and Abisinthe raced down the side of the hill. At a large fallen tree they crouched down and gazed down toward the hollow that ran below. There they saw the men Valerie had spoken of. At the moment they were stopped. One man was dismounted and was bent over, intently studying the ground.
Intently eyeing the inimical men Ephiny whispered, "They've tracked us all right."
At that moment the five young Amazons saw the man Zephron straighten up and point up the hill.
"They know!" Pomona anxiously whispered. "What do we do?"
"Stay calm," said Ephiny.
"I don't get it," Calliope murmured. "Why even bother with this? If their side wins they can just dance up here with their whole force and take us. If they lose it's not going to matter anyway. Why risk it?"
"Amazon children sold into slavery would bring a lot of money," said Solari. "Maybe these guys aren't interested anymore in who wins or loses. Maybe they've decided this is one prize they'll keep for themselves."
Pomona and Abisinthe looked at Solari with some surprise. She was not known for any great stretches of logic.
Noting their reaction, Solari said, "Well it's possible. Right?"
Ephiny could not help but be touched by her friend. Solari was such a good person and she tried so hard. "I think it's very possible," she said.
Demonstrating they were not quite as mature as they thought, first Solari and then Pomona wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue at the other.
Seeing Zephron remount, Ephiny said, "Okay, let's get set up. Abisinthe?" When the girl failed to answer Ephiny gave her a look and saw her staring wide-eyed at the men. "Abisinthe!" she hissed.
Lifting both eyebrows, Ephiny asked, "Are you sure you're up to this?"
"Yeah, yeah," Abisinthe answered.
"All right then, see that big guy?"
"They're all big guys," Pomona ominously observed.
Annoyed, Ephiny said, "Damn it, I mean the one on that big roan horse. The big guy."
Abisinthe gave a nod. "Yeah."
"He's yours," said Ephiny. "When I give the signal I want you to knock that son of a bitch right out of the saddle. Ya got that?"
"Good grief, Abby," hissed Calliope. "Is that all you can say?"
Abisinthe swallowed hard and said, "Yeah."
"You can do it," said Ephiny reassuringly. "Just like you have a thousand times before. It's just another target and a big one at that. Now work your way down the hill, find a good sight line and wait. Make sure you keep an eye on me and stay under cover."
Abisinthe eased out into the dense underbrush and within a few moments was gone.
As Terreis' horse pounded past, Meelah took one last peek in order to gauge the distance. In doing so she was immediately presented with a quandary. The numbers in pursuit of Terreis and her little band were not nearly as great as Mycinia had told her to prepare for. As best as she could tell there were only perhaps a score or so following the princess.
So what to do then? Spring the trap as planned or hold off for a bigger force that may or may not be farther behind? The timing on this had to be just right and Meelah had the luxury of only the span of a few breaths to decide. Crouching there in the bushes, her mind harkened back to something her esteemed grandmother had once told her:
"Only a damned fool asks
for more when
they haven't eaten in the first place."
What she meant of course was that it was unwise to overreach. This bit of wisdom had been imparted to her very many years ago, just as she was beginning her warrior training. It was sound advice then and it was sound advice now.
Kirah was the last Amazon in line and as her horse raced past, Meelah drew back her sword. Keeping a close eye on her leader from across the trail, Celeste did the same. On both sides of the trail camouflaged Amazons heard the approach of this second group of horses and tensed their bodies in readiness. Now that Terreis was clear Meelah's chief concern was not to spring the trap prematurely. This first assault was designed to be lightning-like in its swiftness and lion-like in its ferocity but all that would be for naught if the enemy were hit too soon and allowed to wriggle free. Because of its importance Mycinia had assigned the job of leading the first attack to Meelah, her most trusted warrior, and the mother of Ephiny was determined not to let her captain down.
With the approach of the invaders she tightened the grip on her sword. Like Draganis before her Meelah now calmly reminded herself to be patient. Not yet, not yet, she thought. Wait...wait...wait...
The polished bronze blade caught a narrow beam of light, glinting in the evening sun as the sword whisked through the air to sever the restraining rope. Almost instantly Celeste did the same. As a result two ash logs, both a cubit in diameter, were sent swinging down from their former resting places in a low arc of ever increasing velocity. Meelah's timing was perfect. As was her desire the two logs slammed not into the head of the pursuing column but farther back in order to lessen the chances of escape by the rear. The logs crashed into at least four horses, sending both them and their riders reeling to the ground. Even more importantly in succeeding in effectively cutting the column in two. With the forest ringing with fierce Amazon war cries the warriors sprang forth from their hiding places and set themselves on the stunned invaders.
And so, under the watchful eyes of Ares, Artemis and The Fates, battle was joined.
With Abisinthe's departure Ephiny looked to the good natured girl of many voices. "Like it or not those guys are going to have to come up here on foot."
Solari stared down the wide swath cut through the underbrush by the ascending refugees and shook her head. "Well they certainly won't have any trouble making their way," she said.
"That's what I'm counting on," Ephiny replied. Using an old nickname for Pomona, she pointed to a sprawling elm and said, "Ducks, see that big tree down there by the path? Do you think you can get up that and do a spider on the last guy?"
"You can count on me," the girl confidently replied. Only in her own mind did she add, I hope.
"Good," said Ephiny. "Now hurry. And make sure you get out of there fast after you take the guy out." With a nod Pomona moved out.
After she was gone Calliope gave the two younger Amazons a quizzical look. "Ducks?"
"When she was little she used to go around quacking like a duck," Ephiny explained. "She did it all the time."
And then Calliope remembered. "Oh yeah. Why did she do that?"
Ephiny, not so far removed from childhood herself, merely shrugged and said, "Kids. Who knows what makes them do what they do?" And both she and Calliope smiled.
With the two youngest Amazons gone it was with great reluctance that Ephiny now turned to Calliope. For almost two years now the older Amazon had enjoyed the honor and admiration that came with that coveted mask and here Ephiny was still not even completed finished with her training. Yet it was she who was in command. Because it was Phillipia's order Ephiny was willing to assume the mantle of leadership but that did not mean she was comfortable with it by any stretch of the imagination. As an untested and untried sixteen year old who could blame her? So she did what any Amazon would do, she fell back on her training.
"Look" she said to Calliope, "I feel stupid telling you what to do."
With an understanding little smile Calliope asked "What have you got in mind?"
And there in the dirt, Ephiny quickly drew out her plan. When she was finished she looked up in time to see Calliope nod approvingly.
"With a little luck it just might work."
"As short-handed as we are it's got to work," said Ephiny. Down in the hollow they saw the men stop again and this time they all dismounted, leaving their horses behind.
"Okay," said Calliope, "I'll see you down there."
"Good luck," said Ephiny.
"Good luck to us all," replied Calliope. Like Abisinthe and Pomona before her, she too then eased off into the brush.
That left Solari. In describing the details of her plan to Calliope Ephiny had not mentioned her sturdy friend even once. Afraid of being embarrassed, she waited until Calliope was safely out of hearing before whispering "What about me, Eph?"
Surprised by the hurt look on her friend's face, Ephiny said, "Why, you're coming with me, of course."
"Well, what did you think?" asked Ephiny.
Despite the fact that Solari's heart was bursting with pride in the knowledge that at this perilous moment her best friend wanted her by her side all she said was, "Ohh nothing. Forget it."
Shaking her head in puzzlement at her cryptic friend, Ephiny said, "Come on."
"Are you as..." Solari gulped. "..scared as I am?"
"Damn right I am."
However in her heart Solari wondered if her friend wasn't just trying to be sympathetic. In all her life she had never seen Ephiny afraid of anything or anybody.
The two friends then silently melted into the foliage and soon the only
sound to be heard was the heavy grunts of the invaders as they labored up the
As the last man in line Patralicus paused to warily glance all about before finally starting up the hill. Ever since entering the forest a feeling of foreboding had hung over him. Compared to the expected battle this was supposed to be easy pickings but try as he might he could not shake the feeling that something was not quite...right here.
To the man in front of him, a ruddy faced Illyrian by the name of Axtus, he whispered, "Hey, do you think they're really up there somewhere?"
Axtus was a man whose general disposition was capable of swinging all the way from black to ebony. Flinging an irritated hand out over the wide path he muttered, "Look all around you, stupid. These tracks weren't exactly made by wood nymphs."
"But what if--"
"Shut up!" Axtus hissed. "Gods, man, do you want to give them a chance to escape?"
Ominously recalling the frightening stories his uncle had told about the merciless Amazons and their fighting prowess, Patralicus began to wonder if perhaps it should be they and not those forest demons who should trying to flee.
Suddenly there was a faint rustling behind him. Whirling in panic, he raised
his sword to defend himself from what was sure to an attack from some
diabolical monster. His "monster" turned out to be a ground squirrel,
out looking for its supper. Startled by the man, it scampered off into the
brush. Embarrassed and yet relieved beyond words, Patralicus swallowed hard and
slipped his sword back into its scabbard. Patralicus, old boy, he thought, you
have got to find another line of work!
Lying flat on the thick limb overlooking the path, Pomona coolly watched her nervous prey approach. For generations there had been wild tales of the Amazons' almost magical ability to move through the trees. In fact some shaken escapees from Amazon attacks had even gone so far as to swear they had seen these sorceresses slide up ropes! This was, of course, nonsense but no self-respecting Amazon would ever go out of her way to dispel such myths. After all, it only added to their fearsome mystique. Even so, Amazons were trained early on to be completely at home in the trees and indeed a great part of their tactical philosophy was centered around these devastating attacks from above. So important was this to the tribe that if any young acrophobe could not learn to cope with their fears they could forget about any dreams of earning a warrior's mask. From time immemorial it had been forbidden and so it still was to this day.
As for her Pomona had for the last few moons been practicing the "spider." In truth there was nothing very intricate about it. It was elementary stuff--the most basic of Amazon maneuvers. One simply waited in the trees for an unsuspecting enemy to pass, lowered the rope and attacked from behind.
At that moment Patralicus passed beneath her and Pomona was happy to observe that he was not as big as she expected. At least that was something. Her moment of truth was at hand. Nothing to it, she assured herself. Do it just like mean old Adele has made you do it a hundred times before.
She thought of Ephiny and how cool she had been. That girl really knows her beans, she thought. She's going to be a captain someday. Maybe she'll pick me as one of her "trusted ones."
It was time. With practiced hand the girl flipped down the rope. It made not a sound. Pomona grasped the rope and nimbly rolled off the limb. She quickly descended the rope and as she dropped to the ground, light as a snowflake, an amazing realization came to her.
Like Ephiny she was not frightened at all.
Forty paces away Abisinthe's nerves were not quite so calm. For what seemed like an eon she had with ready bow kept her eyes locked on her big soldier. Unlike Pomona who sought to focus on the positive, the normally cheery young archer could not keep from dwelling on the negative aspects of her task which admittedly required considerably more finesse than what Pomona was about to do. Over and over as her target kept getting closer she thought, What if I miss? Gods! What if I miss? She could never look Ephiny in the eye again!
From her vantage point on the hill she saw Ephiny and Solari slip into
position alongside the trail. Off to her right she saw Pomona drop off the
limb. Heart racing, she then turned once more to Ephiny. Closing her eyes,
Abisinthe took a sharp breath and then carefully laid an arrow across her bow.
From her place by the trail Ephiny was also watching Pomona. As soon as she
saw the girl take to the rope she shot a glance back to Abisinthe and raised
her hand as high as she dared.
This is it! thought the young archer. Ever so slowly she raised her bow. She saw that Pomona was on the ground now and almost within arm's reach of the last man. As she drew back the string she could feel her hands shaking. Take a deep breath, she reminded herself. Let it out slowly. Despite this she found she could not seem to center on her target. Come ooooon!
At that very moment Pomona was reaching for her intended victim. For Abisinthe it was one of those strange moments when time seemed to stand perfectly still. Abby, she thought, you can split a gourd at fifty paces. Surely you can hit that monster...
As a last resort she did something she had not done in a very long time. She
prayed. Great Artemis, noble and wise, I beseech thee to steady my hand and
sharpen my eye, that in your merciful benevolence I might not let Ephiny down.
For perhaps the tenth time Patralicus thought he heard a noise. It was so very strange, he thought. How quiet the forest is!
There! He heard it again, an ever so soft creaking sound. He almost turned around but then he thought, Aah, it's nothing. Come on, you've got to get hold of yourself! If you jump every time a bug farts you'll go crazy in here. Wiping his sweaty brow, he thought, when I get back to Thebes I'm going to get so drunk I--
Suddenly a warm, smallish hand shot out from his the periphery of his vision and, blanketing his mouth, forcefully snapped his head back. Horrified, the wide-eyed Patralicus felt the weight pressing at his back and tried to wrest free. However before he could even raise his arms he saw something metallic flash under his chin.
And then Pomona neatly slashed his throat from ear to ear without so much as giving him a chance to gasp, much less scream.
At that exact instant Ephiny dropped her hand. Almost in reflex Abisinthe released the arrow to send it streaking toward the big soldier.
It was here, as Calliope was fond of saying later, that, "All hell broke loose." With a thump Abisinthe's arrow struck home, hitting the big man, just inside the left nipple. Like some huge oak tree the man teetered for a moment and then went crashing to the ground. Behind the soldiers heard another thud and turned just in time to get a glimpse of brown diving into the brush. In the middle of the trail lay Patralicus, covered in blood. There was, however, scarce opportunity for thoughts of these two dead men because up at the head of the line Ephiny and Solari rose up out of the thick brush to slash open the guts of two more of the men. At precisely the same moment Calliope rose up from the other side of the trail to gut the scout Zephron.
"The gods be damned!" someone shouted.
Like rabbits the three young Amazons darted into the brush and disappeared before a single sword could be drawn against them. In the blink of an eye half the enemy had been slaughtered.
"Who the Tartarus are they?" a shaken soldier cried out.
"Amazons, you fool!" Axtus raged back. Sweeping the seemingly empty forest with eyes full of fury, the man yelled, "Come out and fight me face to face, you filthy sluts!"
Thirty paces away he saw Ephiny's blonde locks pop up out of the brush and up the hill she went.
"There's one!" he shouted.
"She's mine!" another yelled. Off up the hill and through the thick brush he went, all the while raging violently about what he was going to do once he caught the fleeing girl. "You little bitch!" he roared. "I'm going to cut off your other tit and make you eat it!" Like many he subscribed to the myth that all Amazon warriors as a matter of course amputated their right breast in order to better facilitate use of the bow. "I'm going to--"
"Die like the dog you are!" Solari said through clenched teeth as she stepped out to ram her sword into his stomach. The saying was as old as the Amazon Nation itself and one often used upon vanquishing an enemy.
Back on the trail another soldier tried too late to duck for cover. Abisinthe's second arrow slammed into his rib cage and send him sprawling. It was here that one of the remaining soldiers panicked and began stumbling back down the trail. Abisinthe saw him and, her nerves steadier now, drew back and carefully aimed at a point right in the center of his back. I've got you... she thought.
To her surprise she felt the bow go slack. In one terrible moment she
realized her bow string had broken. Throwing down the now useless weapon,
Abisinthe snatched up a fist sized stone. Jerking free the leather strap that
held her quiver, she then speedily tied this around the stone to fashion a
sling. With this crude weapon in hand she dashed off toward the battle.
With eight of the enemy eliminated and one more in headlong flight Ephiny suddenly found the odds in her favor. Raising her big sword she stood up and yelled, "Come on!"
By this time Pomona had managed to work her way around through the brush to a flanking position and was ready to strike again. Rising up as if from the ground itself, her knife found the back of a soldier crouched behind a plane tree. It was now three Amazon swords against two of the enemy.
Holding her sword out before her with both hands, Ephiny yelled, "Give up! You're surrounded!"
"Surrender to a snot-nosed little whelp like you?" Axtus sneered. "I'll see you in Tartarus first!"
With a particularly vile slur on Ephiny's mother, Axtus attacked the young Amazon. It was no contest. Though bigger and stronger, Axtus could not match either Ephiny's agility or her skill with the sword. And now she saw the reason for all the endless drill. This was the payoff for all the monotonous thrusts and parries with those ridiculous sticks; for all those exhausting agility exercises. Now she appreciated those intense practice sessions in which stern Selena had whacked her sharply on the buttocks with her big stick whenever she made a mistake. This was what it was all about. Suddenly Selena no longer seemed like an ogre, but an angel. Ephiny vowed that if she survived she would be sure to thank the cranky sword instructor with the perpetual scowl.
As his broad sweeping swings repeatedly cut nothing nothing but air he became even angrier than before. "Damn you!" he raged, as Ephiny nimbly dodged yet another thrust. "Stand and fight!"
A sage once said, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it" and it was at that very moment that Ephiny's lightning quick stroke caught Axtus under the left arm pit slicing open an ugly gash.
From twenty paces away Solari yelled, "Get him, Ephiny!" Behind her she heard a blood curdling scream. Sword at the ready, Solari whirled and saw Calliope standing over the other soldier. Placing a foot on the body of her victim, the young warrior casually yanked her sword out from between his ribs.
Shooting a fleeting glance in Calliope's direction, Ephiny said to Axtus, "You're the last one. Give up while you still can."
In reply Axtus growled, "I told you I'll see you in Tartarus first." Raising his sword high above his head, he again charged the daughter of Meelah, roaring, "RRRRRRRRUUUUAAAHHHHHH!!!!!"
Bolting toward the two, Solari squalled, "Look out, Eph!"
Farther away Pomona, Abisinthe and Calliope likewise all dashed forward to help their friend. They need not have worried. As Axtus' sword hand came down Ephiny dived to the ground. Her perfect roll safely removed her from harm's way. Neatly popping up, she drew back Phillipia's big sword with both hands and with all her might sent it crashing into the side of Axtus' head. The choleric solider fell to the earth like a stone. Ephiny did not even bother to look. She knew he was dead.
The others swarmed to her. "My gods, Eph," Solari, said in wonder. "I didn't know you had a move like that!"
Grinning, a panting Ephiny said, "Neither did I!"
With Abisinthe shrieking a piercing Amazon war cry Solari and Calliope lifted their young leader on their shoulders. All of them then began to chant, "Ephiny! Ephiny! Ephiny!..."
For the proud daughter of Meelah it was the greatest day of her young life. She had faced the jaws of the lion and prevailed. She had passed the test.
She had won her first battle.
For the young Amazons their euphoria did not last long. Making their way back up to the cave, they were met by Racillione, the healer. As soon as Ephiny spied the woman her heart sank for she knew the sad tidings she bore.
"You have won a great victory," said the healer. "You should be proud."
"Phillipia?" asked Abisinthe fearfully. "Is she...is she..."
"Yes, child," Racillione softly answered. "One of the noblest Amazon fires of life has been extinguished for all time."
Pomona and Abisinthe, the two youngest who had only a very short time ago surprised even Aretemis with their courage, now began to softly weep amongst the trees gently swaying in the evening breeze. Tears misted Solari's sad eyes and Calliope, the only true warrior present, had to bite her lip to keep from crying. For all of them it was a moment of great sorrow. All her life Phillipia had unselfishly devoted herself to serving the tribe in any way she could. Three queens had she unfailingly served with honor and distinction. And now she was gone.
Among the young heroes only the stoic Ephiny showed no outward sign of emotion. Such was her nature but inside her heart was breaking. Phillipia had been so kind to her. Ephiny wondered how the great warrior had known even before she did what she had inside.
Holding the beautful sword out to Racillione, she softly said, "I wish I'd had the chance to give this back to her in person."
An tender smile filled Racillione's face. "No, child. The sword is yours now. With her last breath Phillipia said you were to have it."
And so, with the rest of their grateful people spilling out of the cave to gather about them, the young Amazons with heavy hearts made their way back up to the cave. Despite her sorrow Ephiny remained vigilant and ordered everyone to stay close to the cave. There, with the help of her four brave comrades, the daughter of Meelah held fast and waited in the gathering twilight for news of the great test of arms to the east.
The flickering light of the camp fire caused Melosa's dark, brooding eyes to take on an almost apocalyptic quality as she ferociously glared at Velasca. The battle had been over for the turn of an hour glass but only just now had she learned of her adopted daughter's potentially catastrophic transgression. Her body quivering with rage, Melosa balled her fists and said, "You...turned back?"
"Of course," Velasca laconically replied. "After seeing nothing I decided it was fruitless to continue on. I assumed I would be needed back her and I was right. I myself personally killed five of the enemy." With a haughty sniff she added, "I should get a least two honor knots for this."
"AT WHAT COST??!!" Melosa exploded. "Two entire generations of our people? You were sent west to make sure there was no threat. Now Willa tells me there were at least thirty who came from that direction!"
Velasca was stunned. "But..." she stammered, "...surely they are safe. I watched them find refuge with my own eyes. You, you can ask Chloe. Ask Imicin! They will tell you. We stood on the ridge and made sure they were safe before we came back."
From just outside the light of the fire a voice, cold and angry, said, "She lies."
Only Melosa recognized it. "Euset!" she exclaimed.
The old goatherd hobbled into the light of the fire and pointed a long finger at Velasca. "You!" she hissed. "At the Camel's Hump you and those two other dogs deserted Tylda and Calliope and forced them to go on alone. You left them to be captured by those butchers!"
Velasca's eyes grew wide. "Upon the pain of death it is you who lie, old woman. Tylda and Calliope were both cowards. They refused to obey my orders."
Unable to bear the sight of Velasca any longer, Euset turned to Melosa. "Phillipia is dead. And because of this cur so is the brave Tylda."
Fearing this the precursor to something much more horrible, Melosa gasped, "My gods! And my people?"
"They are safe, my queen." Casting one last disdainful look back at Velasca, Euset said, "Fortunately there are still brave young Amazons who know what honor and devotion to duty mean." To Melosa she said, "They saved them--all of them." Euset's eyes sparkled as she said, "You should have seen it, Highness. She set up a perfect ambush."
"Who?" asked Melosa. "Calliope?"
The goatherd shook her graying head. "Calliope was there, but she did not lead."
"It was the daughter of Meelah."
"Ephiny!" Velasca snorted. "You must be joking. That child set an ambush?"
"I saw it!" With a grin she then added, "And on the way I even got one myself. She's waiting there now, for word to return with our people."
Melosa quickly turned to a nearby warrior. "Draganis, take ten warriors and fetch our people home."
Turning to Hyacinth, the brave young warrior who had fought at her side all throught the battle, Draganis grinned and said, "Are you up to coming with me?" Despite herself the solitary Draganis found herself liking this kid.
Naturally Hyacinth jumped at the chance. "Sure!" she blurted out.
As the two warriors departed Euset limped over to Velasca. The old fire of a generation before returning to her eyes, she said, "You should thank the gods that I am not ten years younger because if I was, princess or no, I'd kill you where you stand."
"Euset!" Melosa said sharply.
"My apologies, ma'am," said Euset humbly. "I certainly meant no disrespect to your house."
"I know that," the queen said gently.
It was here that Terreis joined the group at the fire. As her sister expected Terreis had performed brilliantly. Indeed it had been her boldness that had practically forced the advancing army to chase her into the woods. Since the end of the battle she had been helping with the Amazon wounded and compiling a casualty list.
"How bad?" asked Melosa.
Rolling her eyes up in thought, Terreis replied, "Eleven wounded. Pythera says Jasara is the worst. She'll be a long time in healing."
"And the dead?"
"Four," said Terreis. "Kirah, Elsinore, Pylandora..." Here the princess paused.
"By the gods!" Euset gasped. For her it was almost too much to bear. First Phillipia and now this most noble of warriors? That left only Colsethme, Selena, Adele and herself from the old guard who had stood with Queen Antiope in the First Centaur War. Soon, she thought, we'll all be gone.
But that was not the worst of it. "It was an accident," said Terreis.
"What happened?" asked the queen.
"Apparently one of Porticia's warriors, moving up in support, mistook Mycinia for the enemy in the failing light and killed her with a spear."
"Who was this?" Euset demanded.
"No one seems to know," Terreis replied.
"It's not important," said Melosa. "All that matters is that the hand of my right arm has been cut off." And that was how she had always thought of the duo of Colsethme and Mycinia--Colsethe was the strong arm and Mycinia the dextrous, skilled hand.
Out in the darkness they heard the sounds of approaching horses. It was Pycea and her patrol returning.
As she entered the light, Melosa commanded, "Report."
"The enemy has retired back across the river, ma'am," said Pycea.
With a grin she added, "What's left of them."
For Melosa and her Amazons it had been a brilliant victory. It started ominously enough when a suprisingly reluctant enemy failed to pursue Terreis and her band. This was when the princess took the bow from another warrior and boldly rode up to within a stone's throw of the enemy. From her horse she planted arrows into two of the enemy, practically forcing them to chase her.
Over the hill then and across the meadow they raced, Terreis and her band followed by a score of the enemy. Mycinina had expected more and this was why Meelah was so suprised at how few were pursuing the princess. Once in the forest Meelah sprang her trap and within moments three quarters of the enemy was dead. Despite plainly hearing the death cries of their comrades, the enemy's main force still seemed disinclined to give battle and this was where the bellicose Colsethme took matters into her own hands. In an imitation of Achilles at Troy, she tied one of the fallen enemy to a horse and dragged him out into the open for all the invaders to see. There she proceeded to dismount and with a shrill war cry ruthlessly hack the body to pieces right in front of them.
For the enemy this was too much. Enraged, they charged blindly into the forest only to be hammered to pieces by the Amazons of Mycinia and Colsethme. The part that did manage to break free of the fight ran smack into Porticia's forces moving up and were decimated.
As for R'zha and his men moving in from the west, they heard the sounds of battle raging off in the forest as they came to the village. Fully expecting to meet their comrades at the village, the alarmed men rode off straight away to assist the others. Unfortunately for them they soon came into range of Willa's archers with the result that R'zha and most of his men died without ever getting a glimpse of the enemy.
Only the coming of night saved the invaders from total annihilation.
"Shall we prepare for pursuit?" asked Terreis.
"No," the queen replied. "They won't be back. Let us look to our own people. Terreis, I want you to put Mycinia's body on my horse. Tommorow we will send her in glory to the Elysian Fields."
"I will see to it at once," her sister said with a nod.
With disgust Euset angled her head toward Velasca. "What about her?" she asked.
For the queen it was the most difficult of moments. Velasca's mother had been her best friend and ever since adopting her daughter she had always hoped the girl would one day come to understand that being a royal meant so much more than the rank and privilege it afforded. There was soul crushing responsibility that went with it as well. The people depended on their royalty not only for military leadership but to be a moral beacon as well. Unfortunately Velasca was sorely lacking in the latter. Melosa had known all along that she was utterly ruthless, selfish and cruel but had somehow hoped that the virtuous Terreis would be a strong positive influence on her.
Obviously it was not to be. So it was with heavy heart that she said, "Failure to obey the queen's orders in the face of the enemy is by Amazon law an offense punishable by death."
"NO!" Velasca shrieked.
"Dog," Euset rasped, "take your punishment like an Amazon."
"However," Melosa added, "since you are my daughter and since you did perform bravely on the field of battle my judgement is this: You will be banished for the period of three moons. The other two deserters are hereby permanently banished. If you choose to return to us at the end of the three moons you must accept the fact that you will be stripped of all rank. You will no longer be a princess but an ordinary warrior."
"You, you can't do this!" Velasca sputtered. "I'm your daughter!"
Dark eyes staring coldly, Melosa said, "I have no daughter now. Now choose. Death as a princess, permanent banishment or the return as a common warrior."
"You are lucky the queen is so merciful," said Euset. For her mother certainly would not have been!
"All right," said Velasca. "I accept your..." She almost spit out the word. ..."mercy. But know this. When I return I will challenge Terreis for the right to be your heir." She sneered and said, "Even you cannot deny me that."
Coolly lifting an eyebrow, Melosa said, "Terreis will be ready. Now go."
Drawing her lanky frame up to its full height, Velasca turned with eyes straight ahead and strode out into the darkness.
As for Melosa, despite not having lifted a weapon in anger all day she suddenly felt very tired. Rest however was out of the question. There was still so much to do.
Back at the cave Ephiny sat on the hillside with her sword firmly implanted in the ground between her legs. So much had happened! As of yet there still was no word from Melosa. Sitting there in the gloom, she thought of her mother. Please let her be all right! No wait! Of course she's all right! And just wait till she hears what we did. It made her so happy to think of the pride her mother would feel when she learned of what her daughter had done.
Leaning forward, Ephiny set her forehead against the hilt of the sword. So tired! Can't sleep yet. Must wait for word...
Sitting beside her friend, Solari heard Ephiny's breathing become heavier and more rythmic and knew she had fallen asleep. With a smile she whispered very faintly, "Eph, I'm so proud of you. You have done enough today. Rest now. I'll watch for you--for both of us."
It had been a very long day.
The next day, when the sun reached its zenith, Melosa, Terreis and the three surviving captains, all dressed in the full regalia of their respective ranks, stepped forward from the queen's logding. With Amazon war drums pounding a thunderous beat, they stoically made their way through the two long rows of Amazon warriors to the funeral pyres where side by side lay Phillipia and Mycinia. Up on a high hill to the west stood teary-eyed Euset, tightly gripping her staff as she leaned on it, watching.
When the little group reached the pyres the drums stopped and with the entire tribe gathering before her, the queen began to speak:
"Amazons...friends, we are here today not to mourn the deaths of Phillipia, Mycinia, and the others but to celebrate their lives. As the years went on the Fates wove a different path for them but each in her own turn spent their entire adulthood in noble service to the tribe. Both gave faithful service to three queens. Mycinia, joyful in spirit, peerless in battle. Phillipia, wise beyond words with matchless devotion to our way of life. Both have earned a place of honor in our hearts and in our history. For as long as Amazons walk the earth they will remember these two...these two perfect examples of what our race can be--of what it should be. Let us therefore give thanks to Artemis that we were fortunate enough to have been graced by their presence; to have been forever touched by their lives. Let us carry in our hearts always what they stood for, what they died for. We cannot hope to replace them for how can we replace the irreplacable? All we can do is carry on as best we can and let the purity of their Amazon spirit guide us. In that way will we survive, just as we always have, just as we always will. Artemis, we ask that you embrace in your blessed arms these two noble spirits that we now joyfully send to you."
With the conclusion of the queen's speech the drums again began to rumble their rythmic beat. Taking a torch from a nearby warrior, Colsethme slowly walked to the pyre where lay her friend of thirty-five years. Never had she expected to do this. Never had she expected that her best friend would cross over the River Styx before her. With eyes that had not known tears for many decades Colsethme lowered the torch and as gently as she could lit the flame. "Good-bye, old friend," she whispered. "I will seek thee on the other side."
It would be the queen herself who would send Phillipia's soul to glory. Just as she turned to accept the torch, she sensed a new presence at her side. It was the daughter of Meelah.
"Highness I am sorry," said Ephiny. "I do not wish to seem disrespectul for that is not my intent."
A little incensed by the girl's forwardness at this most solemn of moments, Melosa curtly asked, "What is it?"
Holding up Phillipia's big sword, the girl said, "I ask that you grant me the honor of placing this by her side."
This surprised Melosa. "But Racillione tells me Phillipia bequeathed it to you. The sword is yours, Ephiny."
The daughter of Meelah shook her curly locks. "No, ma'am. I am not worthy of such a beautiful thing. It is the sword of a noble warrior who has died so that we might live and I am not worthy to touch it. Maybe...maybe some day I will be, but not today."
Squinting at this unusual girl, Melosa's eyes hinted at a newfound respect. "You are wise beyond your years, Ephiny," she said slowly. "Meelah should be very proud of the job she has done in raising you. Very well, in the name of your friend and mine I allow you to do as you ask."
Bowing humbly, Ephiny said, "Thank you, Your Highness." Slowly, almost reverently the girl moved to the pyre and as carefully as she could laid the sword at the side of the old woman who had seen so much in her. As she stepped back Melosa lit the flame.
From her vantage point on the hill Euset, tears streaming down her worn face, held her fist high in the air in one last salute to old friends, to fallen comrades. With the funeral fires edging ever higher, the goatherd did not wait for the rest of the funeral fires to be lit but instead limped down the other side of the hill and out of sight.
Five days later the body of Tylda, half-eaten by scavengers, was found and she too was given hero's funeral, this time with Calliope doing the honors.
Later, in the solemn ceremony where were presented the knots of honor, it was Terreis to whom a very proud queen presented the first one. Draganis got her customary two as did Ephiny's mother, Meelah. Fifteen more warriors got one each, including Colsethme, Willa and the dead Tylda. And last in line, the very last one to receive this ancient symbol of bravery, was sixteen year old Ephiny.
At the next full moon, per Amazon custom, Ephiny, Solari and Pomona received their warrior's masks. Naturally all three of them were very proud but it for Solari that the moment was especially sweet. She had waited so long for this! As a gift for this momentous occasion Meelah presented to Ephiny the staff that her own mother had given to her so long ago on the night that she received her mask.
Though proven in battle, Abisinthe was still just a little too young. However Melosa had personally assured the girl that her mask would be waiting for her once she reached the proper age.
Morda's bones were not found until many years later and as they were thought to be those of the enemy were never given the decency of a burial.
Two nights after the presentation of the masks, a lone Amazon warrior stole out into the forest. Since the death of Mycinia she had barely been able to sleep. It had been she who had plucked up the enemy spear and in the darkness sent it hurtling on its way to strike down Mycinia. No one knew. No one had seen it. But Porticia knew for it was she who had killed the great Amazon captain.
And so, unable to cope with the guilt any longer, Melosa's youngest captain sought out the place of her deed and there in the stillness of the night quietly asked for forgiveness before falling on her sword.
The battle had claimed its last casualty.