The Birth of the Lesbian Nation
Copyright © 2004
A tall, silent figure stood framed in the shaft of moonlight pouring in through the window. Deep in thought, she failed to hear the footsteps approaching, and was startled when a small hand grasped her by the arm.
"Are you all right? I Im sorry. I didnt mean to sneak up on you. You missed dinner and I thought perhaps you might be hungry."
Instantly chagrined at having caused the uncertainty in the warm, gentle eyes of the woman before her, the warrior relaxed her posture. "No, no. Im glad you came. I havent seen you all day, Cleis." "And I missed you desperately," she added to herself, gazing into pools of green so deep they reminded her of the lush Amazon forest she had for so long called home.
Cleis reached out and fingered the scroll hanging loosely from the warriors fingers. "Whats this?"
Her companion shrugged weakly, handing over the parchment. In the light from the moon and the torch she had brought with her, Cleis read:
"To: Solari, From: The Committee--Your presence is required in the city of Orlandopolis. Please begin your journey immediately and make your best possible speed to join us. Sincerely, The Committee."
"Oh, Solari," Cleis breathed, reaching out instinctively and stroking the warriors tanned skin. "Whats the meaning of this?"
"I dont know. I have no choice but to answer the summons."
"Of course you dont," Cleis thought, watching the determined set of the strong jaw and the intensity in the whiskey brown eyes she adored. Quietly she asked, "When will you leave?"
"First light." It was hard to choke the words out around the lump in her throat. Solari thought back to the circumstances that brought her to this place, the voyage that had led her to the petite redhead six months earlier.
She was disappointed at having to undertake this mission, even if it was at the behest of Queen Gabrielle.
"Solari, we cant continue on this way. Weve lost too many of our best warriors over the past two campaigns. Xena and I agree, its time for us to branch out. There arent enough youngsters in the village to sustain the Amazons long term."
As Solari opened her mouth to protest, Xena moved alongside Gabrielle in a show of visible support. "We need to perpetuate the nation. We simply cant do that given the numbers we have here."
Solari looked from one of them to the other as they stood side by side. The love that flowed between them and the strength of their bond was a tangible thing. "But the bylaws dont permit recruiting new Amazons this way."
Gabrielle put a restraining hand on her partner. "Youre right, Solari, and weve thought about that. What were proposing is the start of a sister nation, trained in the Amazon ways, based on Amazon traditions, but not technically called Amazons."
"And you want me to travel to the Isle of Lesbos to start the next generation of women warriors? Lesbos barely even has an army "
Xena cut her off. "Solari, Sapphos school for young girls is the best place to find the new blood we need to ensure that the Amazon ways dont die with us. Even if the tribe doesnt survive over time, the philosophy must. And I dont just mean the way of the warrior; its about self-determination. Women should continue to have the freedom and the choice to love other women, relying on each other instead of having to be subservient to men."
Solari sighed. She couldnt argue with that. "When do you want me to leave?"
Xena didnt hesitate, "First light."
Cleis began to speak, stopped, and began again, jarring Solari back to the present. "Will you be coming back?"
"I dont know. It will depend on whats so urgent in Orlandopolis."
Nodding, Cleis made a decision. "Then I guess theres no time to waste, is there?" She moved forward, wrapping her arms around a surprised Solari and bending the warriors head to meet her waiting lips.
The kiss was slow and sweet, sparking embers that each had allowed to lay dormant over the course of the past half year. It was Solari who pulled away first.
"Are you sure, Cleis?"
"More sure than Ive ever been in my life. Ive wanted you since the moment you showed up here, looking for my mother."
"May I help you?" Cleis was entranced by the woman in her doorway, so tall, self-assured and well-built. She wore her long dark brown hair loose, with a small braid on either side of her head. A leather top and skirt left her tanned, toned midriff, muscular arms, legs and most of her chest bare. Her face was strong, but not hard, with an aquiline nose, expressive brown eyes, high cheek bones and a sharp jaw line.
"Im looking for Sappho."
"And you are?"
"Im sorry, where are my manners. My name is Solari; Im an emissary of the Amazon nation."
"Nice to meet you, Solari. Im Cleis, Sapphos daughter and the director of this school. My mother is in seclusion writing at the moment. Im afraid youre stuck with me."
"Do you remember? You looked so different than anyone Id ever known. You captivated me from the start."
Solari smiled. "I remember it like it was yesterday."
"Stuck would hardly be a term that comes to mind." Cleis was gorgeous; small-boned, delicate and fair-skinned, with flaming short red hair and deep, compassionate green eyes in a soft, expressive face. "Thank you, Queen Gabrielle," Solari muttered under her breath.
"Im sorry, were you talking to me?"
"Um, I was just remarking on how beautiful the surroundings are here."
Green eyes twinkled in the sunlight. "Come, Ill give you a tour and you can tell me why you seek the great Sappho."
Returning her thoughts to the present, Solari locked eyes with Cleis and proclaimed, "I have waited for you my entire life." She ran her fingers reverently over the rounded cheeks, along the firm jaw line, down the supple neck and along the fine collar bones. At the unspoken invitation, she began unlacing the leather strips that secured Cleiss blouse, running her palms over soft skin.
"Please," Cleis begged. "Make love to me."
Picking her up, Solari carried Cleis into her bed chamber where she laid her gently on the straw and feather mattress. Standing before her hearts desire, Solari slowly stripped out of her leathers, pausing in her nakedness to marvel at the vision before her. Cleiss pale skin fairly glowed in the candlelight, her delicate features made even more so by the light and shadows that danced on the walls. Small, firm breasts stood out in vivid relief, awaiting a lovers attention.
Solari lowered herself until less than a hairs breath separated the two lovers. "You are so, so beautiful, Cleis. Ive spent so many nights imagining what it would be like to be here with you, like this. But I didnt dare hope that you could want me the way I want you."
"Oh, my sweet, proud warrior. How could I not want you? I only wish I had been brave enough to tell you sooner. We have so little time."
"Shh, baby. Lets not think about that right now. All I want is to make love to you." She lowered herself the rest of the way, covering Cleiss mouth with her own, inserting a thigh between her legs and bringing their breasts into full contact. She could feel the moisture on her thigh, and the wonder of it almost brought her to tears.
"Please, touch me. I need you so much." Cleiss fingernails scraped along her lovers back, her hips arching in supplication.
Shifting minutely, Solari insinuated a hand between them, her long fingers seeking and finding her lovers wet center.
"Oh, by the gods!"
Solari stroked her lover slowly, reveling in the feel of the silky folds and her lovers rising excitement. Her mouth closed around a swollen nipple, sucking, teasing and nipping lightly with her teeth.
Cleiss hands moved lower, rhythmically squeezing her lovers buttocks as her own hips began to buck. "Solari my love!" Cleiss orgasm rocketed through her, setting her entire being aflame, as her legs and arms wrapped tightly around her lovers sweat-slicked torso.
"Im right here, baby. Ive got you." Although the smaller womans pleasure had brought her perilously close to her own release, Solari set aside her needs to focus on those of her partner.
When she caught her breath, Cleis murmured, "I never dreamed anything could feel so good. That was amazing."
"You were beautiful, baby."
"Who says Im done?" Green eyes shining with passion gazed appreciatively at the muscular body hovering above, as delicate fingers and a well-shaped mouth explored moist flesh.
The dawn was just breaking over the horizon as Solari stepped out into the courtyard. She was surprised to see a large contingent of young women gathered there, all dressed in travel clothes and with sturdy leather carry sacks.
She looked back at Cleis, who had followed behind. "Whats all this?"
"When you first came here, you said it was with the aim of ensuring a bright future for all women who desired autonomy, and who wished to live among other women as their family."
"Yes, I did say that."
"You said the Amazons could no longer carry this burden alone, that it would take a new generation of pioneering women who believed, as the Amazons do, in a womans right to self-determination, to live and love whom she pleases."
"You spent many moons instructing, encouraging and emboldening these fine students." Cleis paused dramatically. "Solari, meet the beginnings of the Lesbian nation." A hearty cheer went up from the group of sixty or so young women and girls populating the square.
"I dont understand."
Elda, one of Solaris most able students, stepped forward. "We begin a long journey today, so that we might introduce your teachings and ways to other civilizations."
"Buh " Solari looked at her lover, who simply shrugged. "Where are you headed?"
"Wherever the sea takes us, teacher. Wherever our people might flourish. We intend to colonize new territory, to claim it as our own. When we have settled, we will send word."
"Are you sure?"
"You do not think we are ready?"
"No, its not that, its just " Solari turned fully to face Cleis. "What about your school? Your work here?"
"Our work will go on. More students will come and the school will continue to thrive."
"But this is fully half the enrollm--" Her words were stilled by a passionate kiss.
"I love you. This is my gift to you."
Solari stood speechless as tears streamed down her face. She turned her back, embarrassed by her show of emotion. "I love you, too, Cleis, with all my heart." From her belt pouch she pulled a shiny object. Reaching out, she grasped her lovers right hand and placed a beautiful gold band on her ring finger. "This is so you dont forget me."
"Never," Cleis breathed. "Never."
The crowd seemed to melt away as the two lovers embraced.
The ship sailed west, toward the setting sun. Solari stood on the aft deck, her mind elsewhere.
The Lesbians had wanted to travel with her as far as Orlandopolis, but she had refused the escort, steadfastly declining to explain why, except to say it was foolish for the entire group to head away from their chosen route in order to accompany her. In truth, she had no intention of putting her erstwhile students in any sort of danger, which is exactly what she would willingly be doing herself in just days.
She had heard talk that Theseus, the once-revered king of Athens, had fled to Scyros after being discredited at home. "Couldnt happen to a nicer guy," she mumbled sarcastically. The story of how Theseus had taken advantage of the good will of the Amazons, kidnapping their queen, Hippolyta, was one Solari had grown up on. Her mother, Ipia, had been killed by Theseuss troops in the subsequent Amazonomachy.
Solari could barely remember her mother. She had been little more than a toddler when Ipia had gone off with the other Amazon warriors to invade the hills outside of Athens in retaliation for the abduction of their queen. Like so many of her Amazon sisters, Ipia never came home. She was buried near the agora, and Solari was raised by the Amazon elders.
"And now I will serve justice on behalf of the Amazon nation. Our mothers will never be forgotten or forsaken." She clenched her fists tight to her sides, gazing out toward the horizon.
"Cleis, I dont know if I will live long enough to return to you, but I promise you my love for you will never die."
Solari had gone to Lesbos for the express purpose of fulfilling her mission. Never, in her wildest imaginings, had she envisioned falling head over heels in love. She spent the first few days trying to get her bearings and to set a course of action. Cleis was most accommodating, generously offering her rooms in the huge stone castle Sappho had built overlooking the sea, and inviting her to share communal meals with the students and faculty.
She and Cleis shared walks around the island during which Solari explained the ways of the Amazons, and Cleis shared her dreams for her students. Together, they devised a plan to accomplish both of their goals. She began instructing the young girls in such tasks as hunting, tracking, archery and self-defense, frequently finding her attention wandering to the slight red-head who watched from a distance.
Whenever possible, Solari found excuses to be in Cleiss company. Something about the young woman was magnetic. She was so different from anyone the Amazon had ever known: fragile in stature but with a will of granite, innocent and idealistic but not naïve, feminine yet self-sufficient and confident. As the days turned into weeks, Solari forgot to resent being sent to Lesbos. Her days were filled with the business of training the next generation and her nights were consumed by dreams of passion that she didnt dare express.
Solari was neither inexperienced nor shy when it came to women, but Cleis wasnt at all like the Amazons with whom the warrior had dallied. Never before had she felt that sort of bone deep attraction that bordered on pain, the adrenaline rush from someones mere presence, that breathlessness when someone walked into a room. And it scared her senseless.
Until the night before she set sail on this journey, when Cleis bravely stepped forward where Solari feared to tread. After their first fevered round of lovemaking, it was Cleis who took control, rolling Solari over onto her back and torturing her with talented fingers and mouth until the Amazon begged for release. Just the memory of it made her shudder. And when the first rays of light shone in the window, it was the tough warrior who had shed the first tears.
"Ill do everything I can to come back to you, my sweet Cleis, I give you my word of honor as an Amazon." She didnt tell her lover about Theseus and the trip she planned to make to Scyros on her way to Orlandopolis. She didnt want angry words between them when they parted and she felt sure that the fiery redhead would try to talk her out of her plan. No, this was something she just had to do, consequences be damned to Tartarus.
She checked her weapons one last time as she readied to slip ashore under cover of darkness.
The moon was hidden behind clouds, but Solari was in her element. Finding hand and foot holds on the side of the cliff by feel alone, she made steady progress until, finally, she was able to pull herself up onto firm land. Within seconds she was in the forest, moving noiselessly through the dense vegetation, her senses on full alert.
As an Amazon, she had been trained from the age of five to navigate difficult terrain by using all of her faculties. Her teachers would take her and her sisters into the forest and blindfold them, challenging them to find certain objects and to avoid obstacles and traps along the way. Solari had always prided herself on being the best in the group, a true scavenger.
She smiled briefly, thinking about her students on Lesbos and how she had turned the exercise into a game for them, calling it a "scavenger hunt" to make it more fun. She wrote down the items to be collected on parchment since the girls could never seem to remember what it was they were supposed to bring back. In the end, the kids got pretty good at the exercise, and Solari was proud of them.
The warrior shook her head. This was no time to be thinking about Lesbos and all she had left behind. She needed to stay focused, for she would need all of her considerable skills if she were to defeat the great Theseus.
His exploits were legend. Bards everywhere recited stories of his cunning and might. Theseus, the son of the mortal Aegeus, with the immortal blood of Poseidon flowing through his veins as well, was said to possess superhuman strength. On his journey from Troezen to Athens he performed six heroic deeds, slaying Periphetes, a son of the God Hephaestus, Sinis, a giant and son of Poseidon, the huge Crommyonian sow, the nefarious Sciron, the powerful Cercyon and finally the evil Procrustes.
Solari knew the odds were against her: defeating Theseus could well cost her her life. But it was a price she was willing to pay to avenge the deaths of so many Amazons, and especially the death of a mother she never really knew. At the edge of a clearing leading to an elaborate castle, Solari scaled a large tree. From a sturdy branch near the top she had a clear view over the castle walls.
The fortress was well protected. The guards wore heavy armor and carried highly-polished swords and shields. The front gate was seemingly impenetrable, forged of thick wood and reinforced with ribbons of metal. Torches burned in sconces all along the walls and, even at this late hour, activity was abundant.
"King Lycomedes doesnt like to take chances, does he?" she murmured. "Very well, Im up for a good challenge." She slid down the trunk, moved further back into the forest, and settled down for a few hours sleep before daybreak.
At first light Solari observed the female slaves being herded out the front gate and led to the river to do the washing. "Perfect," she said, as she shadowed them through the trees. She watched the proceedings for nearly three candlemarks, studying the routine, taking note of the positioning of the guards, waiting for just the right moment.
When it came, she moved like lightening. Solaris hand snaked out, grabbing a young woman, covering her mouth and pulling her behind the cover of some brush. She had targeted this particular woman because she was closest to Solari both in terms of size and coloring. "Its okay. Im going to give you your freedom."
The girls eyes were wild. "Theyll kill me," she whispered.
"No, they wont even know youre gone."
"They keep track. They count the number of slaves before they leave here and then again back at the castle."
"Thats just fine, because Im going to take your place."
Huge brown eyes stared at Solari in disbelief. "Y-youre going to take my p-place?"
"Why in the name of Athena would you do a thing like that?"
Solari smiled. "I dont have a lot of time to explain. Lets just say Im anxious to see the sights inside the castle. Heres something less conspicuous to put on. Give me your dress."
The girl wore what looked like a grungy burlap sack with arm holes. Reluctantly, she shed her clothing and slipped into the cloth dress that Solari held out to her. "This is beautiful." The girl looked at her in wonder.
"Yes it is," Solari said wistfully. She had purchased the frock at a market on Lesbos shortly before she left. She had planned to give the garment to Cleis as a gift, but never found the right moment. "Well, at least it will go to good use."
"Where will I go? What if the guards spot me? What if they recognize that youre not me?"
"Relax, they wont. Jerks like that dont see people when they look at slaves, they see property. Youll be fine. Wait until we are well on the way back to the castle, then follow the bend in the river until you come to the next town. You should fit right in. If you want, there are ships down by the docks. Im sure you could find one to take you to another land."
"But how? I have no coin. I have nothing." The girl hung her head.
"Here," Solari said, handing her a small leather pouch. There are enough dinars in there to get you to Athens."
The girl looked down at her hand, then up at her benefactor. "Why are you doing this?"
"I told you, I need to get into the castle. Listen, we dont have much time. Tell me everything you can about the king, the castle, security, anything you can think of."
A few minutes later Solari was bending over some wash, rinsing it in the river.
Solari continued her task.
"I said YOU." A hand yanked hard at her hair, which now was swept back in a ponytail secured with a length of leather.
It took all of her will to hide the rage she felt burning inside of her, but Solari managed to reign herself in. "Yes?" She flinched convincingly.
"Hurry up with that. Youre lagging behind. We need to get back soon."
"Of course." She bent again to her task.
A short while later the group of six guards and eighteen slaves were on their way back to the castle, Solari shuffling along somewhere in the middle of the pack.
As they approached the castle the gates swung open, giving Solari her first close up view of the interior grounds. Slaves hustled in every direction, artisans and merchants hurried through the courtyard, and noblemen strolled at their leisure, engrossed in conversation.
Solari noted the positioning of the guard posts, the placement of windows and the countless stairways, trying at a glance to memorize all of it. The girl had told her that she worked in the laundry and cleaned bedchambers, of which there were many. This could work in the warriors favor, but she honestly hoped to have achieved her goal and be off the island before the next sunrise, when the rooms were scheduled to be cleaned again.
An older woman dressed in a burlap shift similar to her own eyed Solari warily. "I dont recognize you."
The Amazon pondered her options. "Been working in the stables until now."
The elderly slave stared, eyes narrowed, a moment longer. "Well, best be staying close, then. You dont want to make a mistake that might warrant you a beating, now do you?"
Solari smiled gratefully at the woman, falling into step beside her. They made their way into the castle via a staircase leading down, underground. The guards opened a heavy wooden door with a key and herded the slaves inside. The warrior was busy evaluating her surroundings when she was pushed roughly from behind, causing her to stumble forward.
"Keep moving, you worthless slag." The guard laughed as Solari struggled to regain her balance.
She could feel the gentle pressure of her dagger nestled in its sheath tight against her side underneath the burlap. She was sorely tempted to reach for it. "Remember the endgame," she told herself. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness of the passageway, she noticed several doors to her right, all with reinforced locks. "Hmm. Interesting. Wine cellar? Arsenal? Dungeon?" Her musings were interrupted with another rough shove from behind.
Not wanting to risk further scrutiny, she cast her eyes downward and increased her pace. At the end of the hallway, she and her fellow slaves were escorted through another heavy wooden door and into a large communal living space.
"Now get yourselves cleaned up and report upstairs to the dining hall. You all will have special duties today. It seems the king has a visitor he wants to impress."
There was a buzz around the room and much motion as the slaves sorted themselves out by thin straw mattresses, each with a crude bowl perched alongside. Solari waited discreetly until there remained but one mattress, which she assumed belonged to the girl whose place she had taken. She moved over to it, leaning over to pick up the bowl, which she correctly guessed was for washing. There was a rough piece of cloth inside.
She followed the other female slaves over to a cistern, from which she drew a small amount of water, which she ladled into her bowl. A small bit of soap was passed from person to person. When it came her turn, Solari rubbed the soap on her piece of cloth, ran the cloth over her arms, neck, face and legs, then passed the soap on as she set about rinsing herself off.
Half a candlemark later, the guards were back, shouting orders and pushing the slaves roughly as they moved out the door and toward the nearest staircase.
The dining hall was filled to capacity with nobles, members of the kings royal guard, the middle class, and a variety of entertainers. Solaris first impression was one of controlled chaos. "Which will certainly work to my advantage."
The slaves had already been given their instructions. Solari was to serve the tables closest to the raised dais, where the king, his honored guest the great Theseus, his top military advisors and ministers were seated. She could feel the heft of the dagger against her side, imagine the look of stunned surprise on her quarrys face as she plunged it into his ribcage, taste the revenge on her lips.
There was only one problem: she had had neither time nor the opportunity to scout out possible escape routes. The prospects of getting away after killing Theseus seemed slim, but Solari was undeterred. If she had to die to achieve justice for the Amazon nation, so be it. Fleetingly, she thought of Cleis, and her heart turned over. "Im sorry, my love, but it must be done."
As she carried a tray of wine and grog to the table nearest her target, she mentally prepared for the strike. So focused was she that she was completely caught off-guard when rough hands reached out, pried the tray from her fingers and wrenched her arms behind her back. "Wha "
"Yes, thats her."
Solari glanced around wildly. It was the old slave, the one who had questioned her earlier, standing before the king with her arm outstretched, finger pointing ominously. The warrior tried in vain to break free, but the burly guard restraining her was too strong. The king stood above her, looking down.
"Remove her shift."
Eyebrows were raised, but no one dared disobey the king. A second guard stepped forward, leering at her as she struggled. He grasped the material in one beefy hand and tore it open. There was an audible gasp as the burlap fell away, revealing the Solaris leathers.
"She is a traitor to the kingdom, an assassin, sent here by my enemies. She must be made an example for all who would oppose me. Send her to the dungeon to await her fate." Sotto voce, the king said to her, "You ought to be more careful what stories you decide to tell, Amazon. There are no female slaves in my stables."
Before she had a chance to respond, a fist crashed into her jaw, sending her unconscious.
When she awoke it was dark, very dark. And damp. The stench of rotting flesh and excrement, both animal and human, was heavy in the air. Her jaw throbbed. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust, then took stock. Her arms were spread wide and shackled to the thick stone wall. Her legs were encased in manacles, and an iron collar had been affixed around her neck.
"Well, this wasnt exactly what I had in mind. Now what?"
Before she had time to ponder her options, a door creaked open above, and two hefty guards and a well-dressed man, whom Solari recognized from the kings dais, descended the stairs.
"That answers that question," she muttered.
When they were close enough, she said aloud, "I dont suppose youre here to bring me supper? Oof." The first blow, to her midsection, forced the air from her lungs. "Ill take that for a no." The second strike snapped her head back.
"When you are done being a smart mouth " The military hot shot let his voice trail off. "Or maybe women like you," he made a show of raking his eyes the length of her body, "enjoy this sort of treatment. I am Tandor, head of the kings security. If you are nice to me, I might let you live for a little while, anyway."
"Eat dirt and die, scumbag."
With a nod of Tandors head, the guard to Solaris left kicked her viciously in the knee.
"Now, who sent you?"
The warrior glared at her captor. A blow to her midsection and the unmistakable sound of ribs snapping made her wince.
"WHO sent you, and how many more of you are out there? Youd do well to answer me, whoever you are."
Solari remained defiantly silent.
For countless candlemarks the beating continued, all the while the Amazon refusing to utter a word. As she lapsed into unconsciousness for the third time, she saw her lovers face and heard her voice.
"I will love you forever, my strong warrior. Stay with me."
Too weak to speak, Solari sent out a mental apology to Cleis just before her world went black.
The water felt cool against her hot skin, so cool, like diving into a waterfall. She swam slowly toward the surface, moving in the direction of the light. There was a voice, deep and insistent, talking to her.
"I know youre not dead, and you might want to hear what I have to say, Amazon."
Gradually, Solari became aware once again of her surroundings. She struggled to open her eyes through swollen lids, water dripping off her face. She could barely make out a figure in front of her, a man. The king.
"Ah, there you are. Good. I see you have decided not to leave us just yet. I apologize for the rough time youve had; you see, my security chief takes his job rather seriously. When there is a breach, well, you can imagine how he would frown upon such a thing, especially since it reflects so poorly on his image."
She tried to focus on his words through the ringing in her ears. He sounded almost conciliatory to her, which made little sense unless he was trying to lull her into believing that he didnt order his thugs to beat her to death. With effort, she formed words.
"You expect me to believe that you didnt order those bastards to beat me within an inch of my life?"
The king laughed. "Oh no, I dont expect you to believe any such thing. I gave them orders to find out who you were and what your game was. When you refused to cooperate, they got a little overzealous. They tend to do that when someone frustrates them. I told them I wanted you alive, but I never specified in what condition they should leave you."
"Oh, well, then, no harm done, Im sure." The sarcasm fairly dripped from her tongue along with the blood that trickled from her lips. "What do you want, Lycomedes? Im sure you didnt come here for idle chit chat."
"My, my. You are a tough one, arent you? I do so admire you Amazons. Very well. I do not believe that you came here to assassinate me."
"And what brings you to that brilliant conclusion?"
"I have no quarrel with the Amazons, and Amazons are not known to pick fights where bad blood does not already exist. Now Theseus, on the other hand, well, lets just say I suspect there arent too many of your kind who would mourn his death." He looked to his captive for confirmation, but got nothing save a stony stare through bruised and bloodied eyelids.
He sighed. "As it happens, and contrary to appearances, I am no fan of the mighty Theseus, either."
Solari snorted derisively.
"No, warrior. It is true. I am sick to death of the legend of his greatness; his boasting of feats of heroism and strength make me sick to my stomach. And yet, to kill him outright myself would bring the wrath of many who still revere him down on my head."
"But, if for instance, something were to happen to him while he was outside of my protection, well, how could I be blamed for that?" He gave her a boyish grin and winked.
"Let me see if I get this right. You want me to kill Theseus?"
"I couldnt be held responsible if say, the man were to have an accident by the cliffs near the west side of the island tomorrow at sunset, now could I?"
Solari tried her best to gauge the mans sincerity. Her head was muddled, her ribs crushed, her body beaten to a bloody pulp. Should she believe him? Was he telling the truth? What if he wasnt, wouldnt being out of shackles and outside the castle walls be better than waiting here to die? At least then she would have a shot at survival.
"The chances of Theseus suffering an accident with me chained and shackled like a hog ready for slaughter are slim and none."
"Ah, good point." From inside his robes, the king produced a key. He unlocked first the neck collar, then the leg irons, and finally the arm restraints.
Solari slumped to the ground, where she lay motionless for a full minute as she tried to assess her ability to stand. Gingerly, she rose to her knees, then slowly uncurled her body until she was mostly upright.
The king shook his head in grudging admiration. "You Amazons certainly live up to your reputation. Youre a tough bunch, Ill give you that. Okay, follow me, and Ill get you out of the castle safely. The rest is up to you."
She followed him through a labyrinth of dank, dark, interconnected passageways. The torch in his hand illuminated the way. So convoluted was their route that Solari was sure that, even if she had been clear-headed, she would never have found her way out.
After what seemed an eternity, but in reality was little more than a quarter candlemark, they emerged outside the west wall of the castle compound. The king turned to his erstwhile captive, "You have a little over two candlemarks of darkness left. I suggest you make good use of them. I will not send out any guards to hunt you down, but neither will I protect you if you are discovered."
"Youre a real sporting kind of guy, Lycomedes."
"Oh, as for that " He held out his hand to her. In it was her dagger, in its hand-carved sheath.
She looked at him appraisingly.
"You might need this. Youll also find a sword hidden beneath the large boulder at the edge of the forest nearest the cliff." He stared hard at her for a moment longer. She looked a sight, blood caked on her face and neck, her eyes barely able to open, the bruises on her abdomen formed in the shape of knuckles. For just a second, his heart went out to her. Then he locked those feelings away. "Good luck," he said coldly, turning on his heel and retreating the way hed come.
When she was sure she was alone, Solari headed toward the river and the surrounding forest. She had noticed a secluded waterfall on her journey the day before, and the thought of cleansing her wounds and regrouping held great appeal.
She reached her destination nearly a candlemark later, the hike having taken far longer than it normally would have as a result of her condition. The feel of the cold water against her hot skin shocked her senses awake. As she floated in the pool beneath the spray, she took stock of her body: three broken ribs, a concussion, a deep contusion on her left knee, and two black and swollen eyes. Peachy.
The task ahead would not have been easy had she been at full strength. Under these circumstances, it would be nearly impossible. She thought about King Lycomedes and what he had told her. Was he to be believed? Surely he had his own agenda, but did that really include the death of his guest? Why would he lie to her? What purpose would it serve? He didnt need an excuse to kill her. She had been caught plotting against the king, a crime punishable by death. Making a show of her execution would warn off enemies.
"Ill be damned," she growled. "The weasel is telling the truth."
Knowing that the king would not interfere with her plans improved the odds somewhat, but Solari held no illusions that she might receive any assistance from Lycomedes, either. No, she was most definitely on her own. And if she succeeded, would she be allowed to live? Most likely not, since it would not be to the kings advantage to have someone who knew the truth of what had transpired running about free.
"Well, that pretty much seals it then." Unless she was willing to kill the king, too, assuming she could, he would surely eliminate her. Was she willing to assassinate the leader of Scyros, a thriving, essentially peaceful kingdom? It would set off a vicious power struggle, leaving Lesbos, one of its closest neighbors, vulnerable.
Immediately Cleiss face swam before Solaris eyes. No, she couldnt chance that. Her fate, it seemed, was already decided. Her only chance to survive this day would be to escape after killing Theseus, which, given all the factors, seemed unlikely.
For the first time since leaving Lesbos, Solari cried. Her tears were not for herself, but for the lover who might never know her fate. Would Cleis think she had been abandoned? Would she question Solaris love for her? Probably, but there was nothing to be done about it now. Or was there? Suddenly full of energy, Solari waded to the shore, put on her leathers, and set off to find the route she had taken some 24 hours earlier.
It didnt take long to find her way, as she had made a small notch in a large tree trunk where she had emerged from the forest on her way to the river the day before. As dawn broke over the horizon, she reached the spot she had been looking for: the tree she had climbed from which to scout the castle. With difficulty she managed to climb to the top branch and retrieve the leather carry sack she had left there. Inside she located the quill and parchment she had brought on the trip from Lesbos.
Settling down with her back against the tree shaft she began to write:
"My dearest Cleis,
"It is with a heavy heart that I write this note. All I want is to return to you, to live my life holding you in my arms. I want to wake to your beautiful face, taste your sweet nectar, share laughter and love with you forever.
"Alas, I know, given my predicament and what I must do, that my wishes will never come true. Please know that I do not take this action lightly. I am an Amazon by birth and by training, to deny that is to deny the blood that flows through my veins. I could not live with myself and would be of no use to you if I turned my back on my obligations. I hope you can understand this and forgive me.
"If I could but find another way, I surely would. I am the best hope of achieving justice for the Amazon nation for a terrible wrong committed by this monster viewed as a hero by so many. And so I will fight the odds, the elements, and the former king of Athens, with the knowledge that if I die, it will be by the very principles I embodied in life. There is no shame in that.
"You, my darling Cleis, are the best thing that ever happened to me. I shall never forget you. My only regret in all this is that I shall never again see your smile, hear your voice calling my name in passion, grow old with you.
"Remember that I will carry you always in my heart, wherever death takes me. I love you with all my heart and soul.
When she had finished, she blew on the ink to dry it, then rolled the parchment tightly. She felt better for having written down her feelings, even as she knew she had no way to deliver the scroll to her lover. Perhaps someday someone would find it and give it to its rightful owner. She sighed, jumping when she heard the sound of sniffling.
"This is so sad."
"Well, duh. Who else do you know who dresses like this?"
Given permission, Solari looked the Goddess over. "Nobody I know."
"You warrior-types are all alike."
"What are you doing here?"
"When one of my faithful spends hours crying her eyes out in my temple, wringing her hands and praying for a miracle, it tends to catch my attention. Even if she didnt, like, bring me jewels or anything."
"Cleis, are you talking about Cleis?"
"Ugh, you tough girls are like so thick sometimes. Yes, Im talking about your number one girl."
"You saw her? She was crying?"
"Like, thats what I said, isnt it? She showed up in the middle of the night, mumbling something about how she felt that you were in trouble, that you needed help."
"Why would she go to you?"
"Like, I could do without the attitude, warrior-babe. Whats wrong with me?"
"Nothing, nothing." Solari held her arm straight out, palm facing forward in a placating gesture. "I just thought, given the circumstances, it might have made more sense to go to Artemis, or Athena."
Stung by the seeming slight, Aphrodite contemplated taking off before remembering the look of sheer agony on Cleiss face as she pleaded for help. Instead, the Goddess rolled her eyes. "As if. Does your main squeeze strike you as the type to preach violence instead of love? No. So get real, girlfriend."
Solari, sensing that she had made a tactical error, retreated. "No, youre right. Sorry, I got my bell rung and Im not thinking real clearly right now."
"A-yeah. You look like Monday morning in Tartarus."
Aphrodite shrugged. "Dont mention it."
"Anyway, none of this explains exactly why youre here."
"Oh, that. Listen, I cant help you in battle, but I can make sure your babe gets that scroll." With her head, the Goddess indicated the parchment still wrapped tightly in the warriors hand. "At least shell know what happened."
A single tear tracked down Solaris cheek. "Can you," she paused to collect herself, "can you tell her how much I love her? And tell her not to be sad. She has so much life in her, I want her to live it happily."
Aphrodite produced a hanky and blew her nose noisily. "Ill tell her." She reached out her hand and accepted the parchment as Solari reluctantly placed it in her outstretched palm. "Good luck, warrior-babe." As the Goddess made to depart, the Amazon stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"What is it?"
"You cant give Cleis the note until after sunset tonight." At Aphrodites raised eyebrow, Solari added, "Please, its important."
After a moments consideration, the Goddess shrugged her shapely shoulders. "Its your dinar." And with a pop, she disappeared.
Solari leaned her head back and closed her aching eyes, willing her heartbeat to slow. At least she wouldnt have to worry about Cleis not having closure any more. She could concentrate on the matter at hand.
Then her eyes popped open as wide as they were able. Cleis had known that she was in trouble in the middle of the night? How could she know that? Visions of Xena stopping mid-sentence and taking off without explanation flitted across her minds eye. The Warrior Princess always seemed to know instinctively when Gabrielle was in dire straits. Was this the same thing? Could it be?
"No matter now," Solari sighed, "its too late." Resolutely, she began to plan her attack.
The sun began its descent in the western sky. Solari had been in place for nearly a candlemark when she heard the sound of horses approaching.
"Show time." She crouched down behind the huge boulder she had moved into position earlier, blocking her presence from the sightline of anyone approaching from the direction of the castle. She gripped the staff she had fashioned from a sturdy branch in one hand, a good sized stone in the other. The sword Lycomedes had conveniently hidden for her rested in a sheath at her back. Her dagger was at the ready on her hip. There was nothing more she could do to ensure victory.
Out of a habit formed over the course of many battles, she reached down, running her fingers lovingly over the outside of each boot. Years earlier, on impulse before a particularly nasty conflict, she had carved a single word in the leather. She continued to inscribe the same four letter word on each successive pair of boots. In every fight, she faithfully adhered to the same ritual, touching each letter in turn before entering the fray. Solari was a firm believer in making her own destiny, but she also knew it never hurt to have a little insurance.
She could see the riders clearly as they rode at an easy cantor.
"Huh. No extra muscle. Theseus probably didnt want to appear weak by admitting that he needed backup. Nice work, Lycomedes."
She waited until the horses were almost even with her. Lycomedes lagged slightly behind, giving her a clear shot at her target. At precisely the right moment she threw the stone so that it flew directly in front of Theseuss mount. As she had hoped, the horse spooked, rearing up, its eyes wild with fear.
Although Theseus was an accomplished rider, he was unprepared for his horses reaction, focused as he was on the magnificent view of the sea from the plateau. His balance compromised, he fell from the saddle, landing hard on his back.
Solari wasted no time in taking the advantage, darting out from behind the boulder as Theseus rose to his knees, trying to catch his breath. She waited for him to look up, wanting to see his fear, before swinging the staff with all her might at his head.
He just managed to get his arm up, deflecting the blow slightly and lessening its impact. Swearing, he staggered to his feet, reaching for his sword. Solari continued to attack, catching the former king in the abdomen this time.
"Oof. You Amazon bitch. Ill kill you where you stand."
"Like you killed my mother, and so many of our sisters? No, if I die, you die with me, scum."
She swung again, but this time Theseus was ready. With his left hand, he captured the end of the staff, tugging on it hard. Solari stumbled, providing just enough of an opening for Theseus to counterattack. He tightened his grip on the end of the staff, pulling it, and his foe, toward him.
Recognizing that she was about to lose the advantage, Solari let herself be jerked forward, releasing the staff and allowing her momentum to carry her into Theseus. "Well," she thought, "I always preferred hand-to-hand combat anyway."
As she careened into him, Solari drew her dagger, stabbing Theseus in the stomach. He screamed with outrage and swung his fist wildly, crashing it into the side of her head. Still reeling from her earlier concussion, the blow temporarily disoriented the warrior.
Sensing that he had found a weakness, Theseus acted quickly. He wrapped his arms around the Amazon, throwing her to the ground. "Now you will die for drawing my blood, bitch."
Solari fought to clear her vision. At the last second, she saw the sword coming at her chest. She rolled hard to the right, causing Theseus to miss her. Immediately she twisted back to the left, raising her right leg and delivering a vicious kick aimed at his wound.
Theseus doubled over, dropping his sword and howling in agony. Solari sprang to her feet, charging him and knocking him to the ground. The two tumbled perilously close to the cliff edge. With all her remaining strength, Solari twisted her torso left, and then right. The momentum of the movement was just enough to send Theseus hurtling over the edge of the cliff to the rocks below.
Solari, unable to stop her forward progress, was propelled over the side of the precipice as well.
The pain was excruciating, but Solari continued to cling to the thick vine she had managed to snag as she fell. Her body had slammed into the side of the cliff at full force, doing additional damage to her ribcage. She had no doubt she was bleeding internally and her breathing was labored.
"Isnt this a fine state of affairs. I can either let go and be smashed to bits on the rocks or take my chances and try to scale the cliff back to the top." She sighed. "Why cant I ever do anything the easy way?"
Inch by agonizing inch she made her way upward, wrapping her legs around the vine as she searched for handholds. Blood seeped from the corner of her mouth and each breath felt like fire racing through her chest. She had no idea how much time passed before she touched, at last, dirt and grass. With a strength she dredged from deep inside her warriors spirit, she lifted herself up and onto the plateau. And collapsed unconscious on the solid ground.
At the same time, on the Isle of Lesbos, Cleis had just finished reading the scroll Aphrodite had handed her.
"There must be something you can do. Youre a God, you can stop her from going through with this."
Before Aphrodite could utter a word, Cleis clutched her chest, gasping for breath.
"Like, are you okay? What happened?" The Goddess of Love helped the young woman sit down and handed her a skin filled with water.
"Oh, oh no." Cleis looked up in supplication. "Can, can you get me there? Now? Right away?"
Aphrodite looked uncertain.
"Please. Im begging you. Shes in terrible pain. I need to go to her." Tears glistened on Cleiss eyelashes. "We have to hurry."
The sight of the young womans suffering broke the Goddesss heart. "Okay. Ill take you there."
Within seconds they materialized on top of the cliff. It was nearly full dark, but Cleis had no trouble making out the figure of her fallen lover. She rushed to her, kneeling on the ground and bending over the broken body.
"No, no my love. You cant be gone. You cant." Cleis cradled Solaris head against her breast, gently rocking her motionless form. Quietly, she begged her lover to live. Finally, when all seemed to be lost, she remembered Aphrodites presence.
Looking up without moving she pleaded, "Can you do something? Can you heal her? Gods can do that, right?"
Aphrodite shook her head sadly. "I can only do that with Athenas blessing."
"Where is she? Take me to her. Let me ask her for her help."
The young lovers desperation touched Aphrodite. Biting her lower lip, she reached a decision. "Stay here. Ill be right back."
"Solari, my love, please, please dont leave me. I need you so much. Theres so much I want to tell you, so much love I want to share. Please stay here with me." Her tears spilled onto her lovers unnaturally pale face.
With a loud pop and a shower of sparks, Aphrodite reappeared. She was flanked on one side by the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare, and on the other by the Goddess of Victory.
Cleis, shrouded as she had been in deafening silence, was startled by the noise. When she looked up her face was a mask of despair.
Aphrodite spoke first, "Cleis, meet Athena and Nike."
"Hi. Can you help her?"
Aphrodite turned to Athena. "These two were meant to be together. They only just discovered one another. Surely we can give them more time."
Athena looked to Nike, her constant companion.
"Ive always had a soft spot for a valiant fighter. Besides, Ive been keeping an eye on this one for a while. Any warrior who goes into battle with my name on her boots deserves my help."
"Very well. Stand aside."
Cleis remained frozen to the ground, Solari clutched tightly to her chest.
"I cannot help her unless you let me get close to her."
Reluctantly, Cleis lowered her lover back to the ground, moving back a few inches to allow Athena room to kneel down along side the body.
Athena laid her hands on either side of Solaris face. A bright light shimmered over the fallen woman for several heartbeats. The Goddess removed her fingers, and, as she did so, Solari opened her eyes.
Sitting up slowly, the warrior tried to take in her surroundings. The first thing she saw was Cleis, and she opened her arms to embrace her tightly. "Where am I? How did you "
"I love you, Solari. Dont ever do that to me again."
"Shh, its okay my love. Everythings going to be just fine." The warrior looked up, spying the three Goddesses, and it all came back to her. She took stock of her body, which felt surprisingly good. No broken ribs, no concussion, no internal bleeding.
In a voice choked with emotion she said, "Athena, Nike, Aphrodite, I dont have words to thank you." She smiled over her lovers head, as Cleis clung to her, sobbing. Nike offered her a hand up, and she stood, bringing Cleis with her.
"I love you, Cleis." Lowering her head, Solari captured her lovers mouth in a passionate kiss.
Aphrodite giggled delightedly. "I do love a happy ending. Thanks girls, gotta run!" She disappeared.
When she had gone, Solari addressed her other benefactors, "Athena, Nike, I hardly know what to say. You saved my life."
"You have acted with honor and bravery and without fear. For that you have been rewarded."
"Oh, and it was your girl here who saved your life. Shes the one who pleaded on your behalf. By the way, rumor on Olympus has it that theres something big brewing in Orlandopolis, and that youre a part of it."
"Yes, I was told to make my way there with due speed. But Im sure my ship has already sailed without me."
"I think we can take care of that." Athena snapped her fingers, and seconds later the four of them were standing on the docks at the thriving port of Orlandopolis. "The rest," she looked pointedly at both mortals, "is up to you."
Before she had a chance to answer, Solari found herself alone on the dock with Cleis. "What Nike said, Cleis, about you saving my life "
"My life wouldnt have been worth living without you in it. Solari, I knew even before you left that I never wanted to live without you again. I couldnt bear the thought of it. I was so empty inside. Then, when I knew that you were in trouble "
"How did you know?"
"I felt it. I dont know how to describe itit was like I was experiencing it, too."
"By the gods, I hope you didnt feel all of that."
Cleis put her hand on Solaris arm. "No, it wasnt awful, but I knew I needed to do something to help; I just didnt know what."
"Well, you did great. I cant believe youre here, and Im alive."
"And youd better stay that way, too." Cleis squeezed her lover tightly around the waist.
A thought suddenly occurred to Solari. "What about the school? The girls?"
"Ive turned the operation back over to my mother. I told her Id found the inspiration shed been writing about all these years. She laughed and gave me her blessing. Especially when I told her about the next generation of woman-centric girls youd trained. She loved the idea of a lesbian nation to follow in the footsteps of the Amazons."
"Is there anything you havent taken care of?"
"I can think of at least one thing." Cleis turned vibrant green eyes on her lover.
"I, um, I think we have a few candlemarks before we have to report in. Theres an inn over there," she pointed across the way. "Can I interest you in a nice bed?"
"Forget the bed. I just want you."
Footsteps made haste across the wooden planking.
EpilogueSix Months Later
As Solari sat leaning against a rock, her lover lying with her head in her lap, a messenger approached.
"Are you Solari, the Amazon?"
"Yes, who wants to know?"
"This scroll is for you." Intimidated by the dark woman, the messenger fled.
Cleis, snuggled against a warm thigh, opened one eye. "What is it?"
"Huh." Solari continued to read.
"Well, are you going to share?"
"Ill be a daughter of a Centaur."
"If you dont tell me, I swear, Ill Ill tell everyone that the big, bad warrior is ticklish."
"You wouldnt dare."
"Wanna try me?"
"Okay, okay. Its from Elda. You remember her, she was one of my best students. She says theyve found the perfect spot to settle and plant the seeds of the lesbian nation. Its on a spit of land surrounded by water in a far off land. The climate is acceptable and the girls seem to be flourishing."
"Thats wonderful news. What do they call this place theyve discovered?"
"She says theyve decided to call it Provincetown."
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