DISCLAIMER THINGIE: So Hi! It's me. Anyway, this disclaimer is just to let y'all know that I didn't steal any characters from the Xena Warrior Princess TV show. They showed up here in a vision and told me this story. Honest. Anyway, I just wrote it down, and I'm not making a penny, so like, hey, baby, hey baby, hey, don't blame me. But wait, there's more. Please don't steal this story and like, sell it for profit. I guess you can print it out for your own consumption or to wipe with, (but like, Owww!), but it has to have this DISCLAIMER THINGIE still stuck to it, 'kay? Now, on to the next this story is being presented exclusively for the Royal Academy of Bards' Challenge #11, so y'all have to be here to read it. (BTW, if I see you in Orlando please wave and say "Hi" and let me know if you liked it, kay? Y'all are also invited to share a long neck and comment on my new bikini, <wink>).
Well, so anyway, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Here on the northern steppe that means about two weeks in late spring when the rains have stopped, the meat has thawed, and the biting flies, chiggers, mosquitoes, and gut worms haven't become active yet. It's the time for chores, for hunting, and for slogging through mud puddles, but more important, it's the time for checking on how the permafrost has warped the landscape over the past winter. See, up here when the water ice underground refreezes, it expands and pushes the ground up or down. Sometimes it's so extreme that you can get lost a mile from home, (and then everyone ridicules you when they finally find you later). It can swallow landmarks, twist hunting trails, and flood whole camps. Hunting parties have disappeared. Entire tribes have gotten lost!
This spring we'd spent over a week trying to find what had happened to our favorite lichen ground. The sheltered hollow with all those boulders that had been coated with pastel green crusts last fall had simply disappeared. It was a bad omen. Unlike the hunting grounds of our sister tribes in the south, here on the northern steppes food is scarce. It may be only once a month that we can bring down a large animal like a yak or a reindeer, or a bear. In the meantime, we have to depend on foraging. Berries, shoots, tubers, and lichens round out our diet. Many would call it meager and it's embarrassing when we entertain guests, but Gaia provides for us as she has since the dawn times before the first Utma. We tell ourselves this as we chew the ammoniacal gritty lichens to silence our grumbling stomachs, sucking on our teeth and salivating. So for a week my sisters halfheartedly searched through fen and hollow, displaying the same enthusiasm they would while hunting for ticks in her hair, and hoping to find the lichen ground. It was a survival necessity, though success would be a mixed blessing at best. No one actually likes eating lichens, but at least we keep our souls!
The harshness of the steppes breeds desperation and perversion. Spirits make their way through the air and many of these are evil. They whistle on the wind, shift through the fog, and do perverted things in the darkness outside the firelight. Among the other tribes who have lived on these steppes, some turned to cannibalism, some to marauding, and some into animals. Our own legends tell of the first conflict between the Utma and the cannibals, and how we preserved our lives and our humanity and became the Amazons. All through our history there have been conflicts. And then there are the outsiders who come bringing violence. Not so very many cycles of the seasons ago our wise ones and leaders were sla_n by a foreigner from the east, the Destroyer of Nations, who was a demon conjured by the evil shamaness, Alti, and consumed with her ambitions. Alti was an animal, because she had given up her humanity.
Bad things happen here in the cold windy lands of the steppes. During the long winters when the sun is dim, we keep a careful eye on each other, watching for the first signs of slippage in our sisters. We keep a constant vigil for the signs of dementia, malaise, and the abandonment of hope. These are things that have brought great evil because they tempt one to stop thinking and take the downhill path, give up and become an animal. Sometimes it happens after too many weeks of eating nothing but lichens. Sometimes it happens because there's so little privacy.
Even worse is the boredom. Ever been to the steppes in the winter? It's so boring that a person can accidentally lose their soul and become a rock. There's a story about this happening to an entire tribe too the story of the first lichen ground. Anyway, it gets a little better in the spring, but not much. So I was trying to keep the sisters busy and stave off the deadly boredom. Personally, I couldn't have cared less if we'd found the stupid lichens or not, but I told them we must, and since I'm the tribal shamaness, they believed my wisdom. See, as shamaness, I'm responsible for their sanity and spiritual well being.
Now aside from the boredom and the lichens and stuff, I should also tell you that the steppes have been pretty much passed by as the rest of the world moved from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age. I haven't told any of my tribe this because it would lead to upsetting questions and gossip, but I've seen stuff in visions so I know pretty much where we stand. We dress in animal skins, wrap hides around our feet, and make our weapons and tools out of rocks and wood, or bones, horns, and teeth. That's the osteo-kereo-dontic culture for you flint knapping, pebble pecking, you know, and stuff like that. On any given day, most of the tribe is sooty, dirty, and they smell a little. During most of the year, bathing means going to a special hut for a sweat bath in other words, replacing stale sweat with fresh sweat for a couple days, and then climbing back into the same old pelts. I mean, hygiene is how I greet Jean. Anyway it's pretty primitive and all, but it's been our way ever since Cyane was k_ll_d by the Destroyer of Nations. It set the tribe back a few hundred years, what with the elders being slau__ter_d and all. You see, we weren't a big tribe to begin with, and most of us that survived were kids and teens, so we did the best we could.
Now that you know a bit about us, I guess I should get on with the story, since it'll be told by word of mouth for generations around the campfires, being as almost no one here knows how to read. Like I said, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.
Eight of us were out hunting for the lichen ground. The rest of the tribe had tagged along, not wanting to be left behind in case we got lost and never came back. We'd spent the whole morning wandering around the newly warped landscape. I swear that some of it had even changed since yesterday, and this was possible since it had frozen the night before. Besides, all the landmarks from last year had been swallowed up by the marshes.
Of course Otere claimed I was lost again. She always argues with me. Most of the time I put up with her because she had a rotten childhood. See, Otere was abducted by the Destroyer of Nations as a child, (and I think maybe she was abused too), but she was definitely traumatized. She saw her parents killed and her village put to the torch. As she grew up she had fewer nightmares, but she's still so somber most of the time. I don't think I've ever heard her tell a joke and I've rarely seen her smile. Still, she's reliable and devoted to the tribe. She's a good hunter and warrior, and she does her share of the chores. Anyway, she declared that we'd passed this way every other fist width of the sun's ascent and this was the third time today. I groaned. My deerskin hood itched.
"I don't really think we've been here before, Otere," I said, trying to be diplomatic.
"Yakut, we've been here three times today, four times yesterday, and twice the day before that," she said in a huff, "I can understand being through, but if the lichen grounds weren't here before, then I don't believe theyll ever be here no matter how many times we check."
I do believe she was being sarcastic. Being appointed leader of the Amazons had gone to her head, and where that came from I'll never know. Taking Xena's powers had nothing to do with becoming the leader of the Amazons. Xena wasn't even an Amazon herself, let alone their leader. Anyway, it didn't make sense to me.
"Well, since you're leader," I said pointedly, "where would you like to look?"
"How about over there," she suggested, pointing off somewhere to our left. "We haven't been over that rise yet."
I threw up my hands and capitulated. The rise hadn't been there yesterday and one place was as good as another at that point. So we all traipsed up the warped landscape and into a hollow. No lichens. We walked up the far side of the hollow, and that was when we made a major discovery. Not only was there a shrub, (probably the only shrub within twenty miles of grass fields), but there was also a body and it was the body of a foreigner.
The foreigner was a man, dressed in strange cloth robes and wearing leather boots. He bore a sword, a dagger, and a case made of hard leather, slung from a strap over one shoulder. He appeared to be unconscious. A swift kick in the ribs confirmed that. We took his weapons and then wondered what to do. I noticed a couple of the tribe eyeing him with hungry expressions, salivating, and licking their lips. Oh no, I thought, they're hungry and bored. Degeneracy and cannibalism is right around the corner.
"We should take him to shelter and feed him some lichens," I said, trying to head off a nasty situation, "and when he wakes up he can tell us the story of how he came to be lying here on our steppes."
"Or we could roast him," someone suggested hopefully.
"With lichens," someone else added before being silenced by an elbow in the ribs.
"We'll take him off the steppes and put him on the floor," Otere decided. She directed several Amazons to make a litter out of extra skins and thongs.
There was some grumbling, but we quickly had him slung between two rows of hunters and were heading back to our camp. Anyway, I think that carrying the unconscious stranger was enough like carrying a kill that it placated most of the tribe, at least temporarily. Otere's actually a pretty good leader most of the time. Before the sun had dropped a fist from the zenith, we had him bound and lying on the floor of the main hut. Someone poured a bowl of wash water over his head and he sputtered to life.
"Huhhhh? Where am I?" He asked so predictably, shaking the water out of his eyes. He stared around at us in shock. We stared back in curiosity and hunger. "Who're you?"
I nudged Otere with my elbow and she snapped out of her surprise long enough to announce, "We're the Amazons."
Her words didn't seem to comfort him, but then we were looming over him holding clubs, spears, and horn gouges. I guess I'd feel threatened too in that situation.
"Who're you?" I asked. "And how come you were lying on our steppes?"
After swallowing and blinking he said, "I'm a messenger from the Committee, and I've come to deliver a message."
We all stared at him, then at each other, then back at him. None of us had ever gotten a message from outside the steppes and none of us knew about any Committee. I hadn't had any visions about this and so I began to doubt if it was even real. Maybe he was a spirit. Maybe he was trying to lure us into a netherworld.
"Who's the message for," Otere asked. The others nodded their heads in agreement.
"It's for someone named Yakut."
I choked. The others looked at me. I looked back and shrugged. If someone was sending a message, I guess it made sense to send it to the tribal shamaness if it wasn't for the tribal leader. It wasn't like we had any elders. So maybe it was from a spirit.
"What's the message say?" I asked suspiciously. Nobody living sent me messages.
"It's on a scroll in my scroll case," he said, nodding to the hard leather case that had been strapped over his shoulder. It was lying next to him on the floor.
I prodded it with my axe, being careful just in case it had been enchanted. You can't be too careful. It budged a little but it didn't go up in flames or unfold into a demon. I stooped down and undid the fastener, then emptied it out. Inside there was only a scroll, a crust of bread, a rind of meat, and a lump of hardened cheese. I picked up the scroll and straightened my hood. For a few moments I held it, trying to sense if there were any spells on it, but it was just a scroll. There was nothing supernatural about it. That made me more certain about the messenger being a real person that and the food. Demons don't eat human food. Finally I unrolled the scroll. Almost everyone's eyes were on me. The rest of the tribe was in the back of the hut, fighting over the food scraps from the messenger's case.
I read the message out loud, since it was too dim for the few who can actually read to snoop over my shoulder. The message was brief, to the point, and cryptic, all at the same time. It left me with many questions. Here's what it said, for those of you who can read.
TO: YAKUT, Shamaness, Northern Amazons, The Steppes
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.
Attached on a separate sheet of parchment were a pair of maps showing the starting point and the destination. It looked like it was really far away, since it showed some parts of the world that I'd never heard of or seen, even in a vision. I'd never met anyone who'd been off the steppes, and though there were rumors of places beyond them, I'd never met anyone who'd heard more than stories. In fact, the last person I'd heard of who had come from beyond the steppes was the Destroyer of Nations, and she was a demon. If the lands in these maps were actually real, they were likely to be the abode of demons, ghosts, monsters, and evil spirits. It was a bad omen. For all I knew, the Committee wasn't even human. I didn't have any intention of going.
I thrust the scroll back at the messenger, showing it to him while eyeing him derisively.
"This is yakwash," I declared, "and there's no such place as Orlandopolis. Most of this map is off the edges of the world." I turned to my tribe and explained, "He's almost certainly possessed by a demon, and this message is probably a trap sent by an evil shamaness or wizard. If I go I'm certain to be killed. Let's gut him and have a feast."
Everyone cheered and closed in on the messenger, who had shrieked in horror and was struggling against his bonds. The hunters raised their weapons, preparing to smite him, but Otere stopped us. Spoilsport.
"You know I can't read that message, Yakut, but I can read these maps," she said. "When I was a child in Borias' camp I saw maps just like this. I recognize the shapes of the land. There might be such a place as Orlandopolis. I think you should make a ritual and try to have a vision. In the meantime, let's gut him and have a feast."
I was shocked. Otere had actually seen and remembered maps that showed lands like this one did? Why hadn't she ever said anything? To be honest, I had some doubts. Otere's childhood had been pretty wretched and Borias had been the demon's boyfriend. Maybe the maps had been fake and Alti had arranged for her to see them, knowing that this situation would come to pass in the future. I looked at Otere as the circle of hunters closed in on the messenger.
"Otere, are you really sure what you saw back then were maps that looked like this?" I shook the parchments at her. "Are you sure they were real and that you weren't being set up for this occasion by Alti?"
"Yakut, I'm pretty sure of what I saw, yes," she said, "but just in case, I want you to seek a vision to confirm it. I had a fucked up childhood and Alti might have been playing games with the future she was always doing things like that from what I remember. Anyway, after feasting I think you should at least try. We'll save the blood."
After thinking about it for a moment, I nodded in agreement. What else could I do? I'm the tribal shamaness and it was my job. Besides, the message was written to me. The hunters were slaughtering the messenger without even being sure if he'd brought good news or bad news. It could affect the taste of the meal. I looked at them in alarm.
"Save the blood!" I yelled.
Later, after finishing a delicious meal that tasted like roast pork, (which we haven't had on the steppes for eight generations), I started preparing for the Ritual of Hypermetropy. It's one of my favorites. I'd decorated a circle outside my hut with strings of bones, animal skulls, and carved goonies. Weebies and twizzels hung from branches overhead. It looked primitive and shamanistic in the light of my ritual fire. I was concentrating on drooling ladles of blood over the skulls. I wiped my bloody hands on my face.
After preparing the ritual ground, I chanted and danced around the ritual fluids that were bubbling in a cauldron over the fire. Most of the messenger's blood and some of my own, along with eagle juice, chewed moss, and several sacred grubs made up the Elixir of Far Sightedness. I added the hallucinogenic mushrooms and lichens. The color was pretty nice and the aroma nauseating. That was a good omen. It would be a powerful trip.
The Ritual of Hypermetropy can be dangerous, since technically it's astral travel. The spirit leaves the body and journeys through the aether, (a.k.a. the spirit world), to view whatever it may desire. This form of remote viewing leaves the traveler's physical body vulnerable, lying helplessly wherever it was left. If it's damaged, then the injuries are manifest by the spirit wherever it goes and can even prevent the spirit from reintegrating with its body. Of course if the body dies, then the spirit is trapped in the spirit world forever. Either possibility sucks. But since I was going on my journey and leaving my body in my home village, guarded by members of my tribe, I felt relatively safe. They'd all just eaten and were well fed.
Finally after dancing myself into a tizzy, a dipped a ladle into the ceremonial fluids and downed a mouthful of the fetid brew. The stench of my breath made my spirit flee my physical body. I was off and flying through the astral plane.
At first there was a lot of confusing visuals, shivering, and vertigo. These sensations soon gave way to a floating feeling and a clear view down at my body. It was lying at rest in the circle just like I'd left it, surrounded by members of my tribe and sweating lightly. All seemed well, so I headed southwest at a frightening pace. The ground rushed beneath me; forests and plains sped past. I saw strange people, stranger settlements, and all manner of strange events unfolding. There were wars being fought, farmers tending crops, travelers moving on many roads, and ships plying the great waters. I saw many islands beneath me as I flew over blue-green waves under several fast suns. Finally, I came to the island where the map had shown Orlandopolis.
I made a quick overflight and saw wondrous buildings, fanciful constructions, and the oddest assemblage of animals dancing among happy humans. Everything was bright and sunny. It was hypnotic, hallucinatory, and wholly unbelievable. I was mesmerized and I had to get closer. I dropped down to ground level and walked among the crowds. People were eating all sorts of delicacies and there wasn't a lichen in sight. I saw a silly looking giant rat with a wide smile on his huge face lean down to give a little girl a spindle of pink cobwebs, then gasped in amazement as she ate it! All I could think was that this was a magical kingdom where everyone was happy and well fed. So it did exist! Orlandopolis was a real place! The world didn't end at the edge of the steppes and no one fell off while traveling. I couldn't wait to get back to my body and tell my tribe what I'd seen. I knew I was going to go and meet the Committee in Orlandopolis even if I had to walk every step of the way. I wanted to meet those strange creatures and taste the food. I wanted to be happy too.
Coming back to my body was about as depressing as anything I'd ever felt. It was dismal, cold, and filthy. Everyone stank of rancid food, wood smoke, and body odors. For the first time in a long time I noticed the blackheads, and the lice clinging to their eyebrows. I felt sorry that we'd treated the messenger so badly, but there wasn't anything I could do about it now except chant over his bones. Then I gathered the tribe around me and commanded them to wash. They groaned and complained, but eventually they followed my example and splashed themselves in the freezing puddles among the hummocks in the warped landscape. We all put on our smelly old pelts and gathered for my report.
I told them of the wonders that I'd seen in my vision. They chuckled at my descriptions of the magical kingdom and looked at me suspiciously. I heard them muttering about my having been possessed during my time in the spirit world. They thought I'd been bewitched! They didn't believe a word I said. Even Otere received my words with ridicule, then shook her head in disbelief and walked away. Finally I was left alone in my ceremonial circle. It was disheartening but what I'd seen had given me hope. I was sick to death of lichens and I wouldn't be deterred! I walked into my hut and began packing the implements of my trade. To be honest, I was so excited that I couldn't sleep a wink all night. Visions of my vision played in my head, tempting me with the opulence and carefree nature of the world I'd seen. I realized that there was no choice for me. I would answer the Committee's summons to Orlandopolis!
The next morning, while the sun struggled to clear the horizon, I slipped out of my hut, hung the skull of a two-faced dog in the doorway, (signifying that I was away), and started on my way through the warped landscape. I plucked some breakfast from the stones and tree trunks, a grub here, a palmful of moss there, passing among the clumps of windswept grasses and walking with my back to the rising sun. My vision had shown me small seas and mountain ranges that would be difficult to cross to the south, and so I walked due west. All morning I followed my shadow as it grew shorter, and when I was standing atop it, I stopped and ate the lunch I'd gathered along the way, a pouch full of dried berries, a small pile of twigs, and a few bitter rhizomes. After that I walked with my shadow following me for the rest of the daylight hours. By nightfall I had covered about eight leagues and the landscape was twisted into unfamiliar shapes.
That night I heard strange sounds in the darkness the whispering of spirits and the conversation of demons. I huddled under a tussock and pulled a pelt over my face, and lay shivering in the wind. Eventually I fell asleep and dreamed of the magical kingdom.
For half a moon I walked with the sun and dreamed with the moon. I made good time and saw no one. At a guess, I placed myself just north of the Anal Sea, about 100 leagues or so from home. On the last day, the steppes gave way to thin pine forests that grew doubtfully atop loess, a fine yellowish clay, thinly overlain with humus. For the first time I could find deadfall and make a fire at night without fearing that I'd start a wildfire I couldn't outrun on the grassy steppes. This landscape progressed to real forests on the fifteenth day. These were forests much like those to the far north of the steppes, and they felt a bit familiar in their wildlife and vegetation. That afternoon I brained a rabbit with a rock and roasted it over a small fire. I was so hungry I ate it, pelt and all, only spitting out furballs and bones.
Things went on pretty much the same for another half moon, as the forest grew deeper, the trees larger, and the climate warmer. The land was uncivilized and unsettled. To be honest, I was happy to have escaped the clouds of biting flies that swarm over the steppes during the warm months. I was also happy to find that most days I could brain some animal and have a dinner that would have been regarded as a feast by my tribe. I put on weight and got stronger as the days passed. I hung the creatures' skulls in the branches over my campsites and flung their blood at the trunks to consecrate the trees. Some nights I danced and chanted. One morning, after a night of frenzied ceremony, I saw flocks of sea birds passing south overhead at dawn and knew that I was probably north of the Cassiopeian Sea. I had covered 200 leagues on foot in a moon and I was just outside the red circle on the map.
Over the next week I made my way into lands with an occasional wheel rut that passed for a road, an occasional shack that passed for a homestead, and an occasional barren acre that passed for a farm. For centuries, these lands had been called, "The Wild Lands", which was preposterous. They'd been ruined long ago by irresponsible human habitation. It was a shoddy excuse for a country. Several times I saw people in the distance, but I remained hidden, relying on my Amazon stealth to pass them unseen. I had no idea if they were friendly or if they were hungry, and from what I'd seen of the country, I figured that they were probably starving. This continued until I crossed the Vulgar River.
Crossing the river was an ordeal. True to its name, the river was uncouth and polluted. It flowed down from Vulgargrad far to the north, where it was basically an open sewer. Thereafter it threaded its way through cow pastures and pigsties, picking up effluent and excrement with each passing mile. By the time it reached the Cassiopeian Sea where I had to cross it, it was a muck stream, a stinking, brownish surge peppered with bloated carcasses and flotsam so dense that I could almost have walked across it. Instead I watched its bilious torrent flow past, spying out the pitiful excuse for a ferry that the locals entrusted with their lives for the crossing.
Now I've faced down demons, ghosts, and evil spirits. I've hunted bear, boar, and Beserker. No one thinks me a cowardess. Nevertheless, the sight of those four moldy boards, lashed together with rawhide, and anchored to the landline by only the ferryman's palsied hands filled me with dread. If it swamped, a dunking would surely lead to pneumonia if I were lucky. More likely, I'd expire on the spot with diphtheria, typhus, dysentery, and cholera. It was a moment of high drama. I chewed my nails.
Finally, after waiting a fist's travel of the sun after the last person's passage, I broke cover and approached the ferryman. He was asleep, leaning up against a windbreak, dead to the world and completely unaware of my presence as he snored and drooled. A swift kick in the ribs woke him. I gave him a friendly smile as he rubbed his injury in blank-faced confusion, and then asked for passage across the reeking flood.
"Well, uh, sure," he said, "that's what I'm here for."
"Of course it is," I agreed, thinking, better you than me, this place stinks. "So how much?"
He stared dumbly at me and then confessed that, "I never make any money at this so just pay me what you can."
I looked at him. It was no wonder he didn't make any money at it. He misunderstood my silence and said, "it's such a filthy river I just can't charge much to cross it."
I dug around in a pouch and produced a coin. Actually, I think it was really just a silver nugget someone had smashed flat with a rock, not a real coin, but he took it and stared at it. He stared at it for so long I thought he might refuse it. I was just about to start explaining that I was a Northern Amazon and no one used money, but finally he looked back at me with an idiotic smile.
"You're going to give me this whole thing?" He asked in disbelief. I shrugged. "So how many times do you want to cross?"
"I just need to cross once in this direction," I said, "and maybe I'll cross back the other way later if I come this way."
He nodded in agreement and then got to his feet. I followed him to a log sticking out from the bank that allowed us to board his "ferry". We stepped onto the soaking boards and the whole sorry thing sank a half hand's width into the putrid liquid. I cringed as the fetid water soaked the pelts wrapping my feet. He waited until I'd found my balance, and then shoved off from the shore with a long pole that he quickly set on the leaky deck. He snatched the landline where it passed through an iron ring, and pulled up some slack. The ferryman passed the line from hand to hand, slowly drawing the ferry across the river. It seemed to take forever. I held my breath every time a carcass slammed into the pathetic craft. Not only did it usually liberate a large puff of foul gas, but also I was sure we would be swamped. Ironically, the ferryman was in his element. He was grinning and pulling on the rope, and then, as we passed farther from shore, he began to croak out what passed in these parts for a song. I grimaced at the wretched sound, the disgusting river, and the pure pathos of the situation.
Hi ho, hi ho,
'Cross the vulgar stream we go,
With floating dung and nitling mung,
Hi ho, hi ho
Hi ho, hi ho,
Past carcasses we row,
To Getae lords and Scythian hordes,
Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho.
While the first verse was simply disgusting, that second verse filled me with foreboding, for the region between the Cassiopeian Sea and the Black Sea had been the realm of the many tribes of the Scythians and the Getae since time immemorial. They were all barbarians, pretty much. The stories that had been passed down from Themiscyra and Lycasteia, the ancient Amazon homelands, about these barbarians still chilled my blood. They both took the scalps of their defeated enemies, using them for wine cups. The Getae also kept the nails, eyes, and teeth. The Scythians flayed off the skins and tanned them in gravy made from the brains, then used the resulting parchment for tent windows. Of course it had been generations since anyone from our tribes had been here or discovered whether any of them still survived.
I was going to ask him about that when a Siamese twin bullock came floating downstream. All eight of its legs were stiff as flagpoles, pointing straight up as it swirled in the chop. I think I saw it before the ferryman did and my eyes widened in terror. It was headed straight for us, of course, and probably outweighed the ferry by double or triple. I grabbed his arm and pointed toward the threat of an impending collision. The ferryman frantically hauled on the rope and began to sing more grimly.
Hi ho, hi ho,
To Tartarus we go,
In Charon's boat and lacking hope,
Hi ho, hi ho
Hi ho, hi ho,
We'll soon see Hades you know,
So hold your pack and watch your back,
Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho.
"I soooo did not want to hear that," I yelled, frantically helping to pull on the landline. Of course it didn't matter a bit. Just as it looked as if we had a chance in Tartarus of being missed by that dead bullock, an eddy caught the massive carcass, spun it around, and slammed its heads right into the ferry. Boards splintered and the landline snapped clean at the ring. For a moment we were adrift, caught by the same eddy, and then that sad excuse for a watercraft simply disintegrated. Suddenly we were flailing in that fetid river of waste, fighting to keep our heads above water; fighting to keep that stuff out of our mouths. Diphtheria, typhus, dysentery, cholera I chanted those words as a panicky mantra in my head. I added tetanus for good measure. Diphtheria, typhus, dysentery, cholera, tetanus. Diphtheria, typhus, dysentery, cholera, tetanus. Diphtheria, typhus
I was as panicked as I'd ever been in my life. The bullock was bearing down on me as if it had a will of its own, or a wretched sense of humor. I gave up on trying to keep my head dry and dug in, swimming with a frantic dog paddle stroke. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ferryman, a sodden clump of excrement plastered over his hair, splashing like a drowning cat. It was obvious that he couldn't swim. There was nothing that I could do for him. It was everyone for themselves. I was fighting for my life, paddling like a mutt in a pool of naphtha, while behind me the dead freak bullock passed by. Soon my terror and disgust blended into a disassociative state in which I simply continued what I was doing. I was numb. Disgusting things were bumping into me from the right and left. I turned and fled from them by reflex. I have no idea how long I swam or even in what direction. It seemed like half a day passed before I realized that I was paddling in a mud hole beside the far shore. I had crossed the Vulgar River, little thanks to the ferry.
I'm glad no one I know was there to see me, weakly paddling in the mud like a soaked cat, babbling my mantra of pestilences and occasionally breaking into hysterics. Finally as the sun began to set, I keeled over in exhaustion and fell into a troubled sleep.
The next morning the sun came up as it does, and found me half buried in mud. My skins had stiffened and plastered to my body. The water of the Vulgar had marinated my person and I stank. Clots of sickening stuff were stuck all over me. I'm sure I looked a fright. I crawled up out of the ooze and dragged myself onto the bank. I was sure I'd die at any moment of a dozen malaises if I was lucky and hadn't been fated to live indefinitely in a diseased state of health. Let me tell you, I was depressed.
The ferryman was nowhere to be seen, and I can only assume that his carcass had been added to the flotsam carried downstream by the river. I chanted a few words for his benefit when he met Hades in the underworld. Bad as all this was, the worst thing was that his stupid song had gotten stuck in my head. I heard his grating off-key singing in my inner ear. I discovered I had memorized the words to his song when I caught myself humming the tune. Being a shamaness, I quickly diagnosed this as evidence of possession; the ferryman's spirit had attached itself to me! I was mortified.
At that moment, as if things weren't already bad enough, a troop of travelers came into sight around a bend in the road to the ferry. I suppose being covered in muck served to camouflage me, and I slowly lowered myself out of sight behind a patch of reeds. From there I watched them closely, for they were really a strange bunch.
The group was composed of three wagons with brightly colored fabrics stretched over their tops. Behind the wagons were wheeled cages filled with outlandish animals, none of which I recognized. But strange as the animals were, they paled by comparison to the people. Some rode, but most walked beside the wagons. They traveled at a comfortable pace, chatting together and laughing. Most notable among them were a trio painted white from head to foot, with ridiculous faces painted over their own in black, a Cyclops carrying a big drum, a quartet of pinheads, and a pair of Siamese twins. Naturally I thought of the bullock.
Now I began to put two and two together. My ill fortune had begun with the appearance of the freak bullock in mid-river. (I discounted the ferryman's singing since I can't carry a tune myself). After being swamped and soaked in sewage, I was being confronted by an assemblage of freaks. It's what's known as a Karmic Monomania or Self-fulfilling Fixated Fatalism. I was obviously destined to be spending some time with the genetic fringe. They'd Bismarked my past, intruded into my present, and had become an impending aspect of my future. It was so irritating! My vision of the future had already skipped over a few annoying details, and now I was finding that there was more to this journey than I'd anticipated. As I reflected on this depressing tidbit, I realized that there could be another interpretation. Everything I'd encountered since crossing the river had been part of a diabolical astral projection!
Perhaps the river was a gateway into an unforeseen spirit realm! I'd left the real world behind at mid-stream and entered a hoodoo landscape populated with nightmare entities in grubby environments with foul smells and bad water. That world might have attracted me simply for my torment, or maybe to keep me from my journey, or as part of a malevolent plot by some spiritual enemy or it could have been simple coincidence. As a shamaness, it was likely that my spiritual power had attracted this absurd and unpleasant pseudoreality, and that now I'd just have to deal with it. Well, I could do that.
As the wagons came down to the riverbank, I took a deep cleansing breath and abruptly stood up, waving my arms and chanting an incantation of protection. To say that the travelers were startled would be a profound understatement. The wagons jerked to a halt. A cacophony of voices were raised in shock and fear, all speaking in some unintelligible chatter that sounded like bird calls to me. I took that as proof of my hypothesis. It was the mindless chittering of ersatz entities! Yup, I was in a hoodoo world all right. I strode towards them fearlessly until I was standing right in front of them.
The Cyclops blinked at me. The Siamese twins cowered and covered each others eyes. The pinheads giggled and chattered, flapping their hands and shifting their feet. The animals created a din in their cages, bellowing, trumpeting, and roaring. The spirit projection of a man in a tall, black, cylindrical hat hopped down from the lead wagon and walked up to confront me. Ahh-ha, I thought, the fetch of the sorcerer!
He stopped a couple paces away and stared at me in curiosity, tilting his head and furrowing his brow in concentration. I expected him to try some incantation, perhaps to silence or immobilize me. I made a gesture of warding off and spoke a spell to create a barrier around myself. He addressed me in a language of gibberish. It was about what I expected from an insubstantial spiritual creation. The actual sorcerer, or at least his body, could have been anywhere perhaps in one of the wagons, perhaps a continent away.
"Speak some sense wizard," I commanded sternly. He gave me a blank look.
"What is this place called?" I asked, making a sweeping gesture to our surroundings.
He nervously looked around as if expecting an army to appear.
"Who are you?" I asked in exasperation, pointing at him. Stupid wraith, I thought.
He pointed to himself and made a noise like a belch, naming himself, "Yug."
He pointed to the Cyclops and said, "Zat."
He pointed to the white painted trio and proclaimed, "Gitauf Yur Butt."
He pointed to the Siamese twins and said, "Ka Choo."
He pointed to the pinheads and said, "Eenee Meanie Myknee Mo."
He pointed to me and cocked his head in question.
"Yakut," I said to humor him, pointing at myself. They all burst out laughing.
It was an inauspicious beginning, fraught with questionable omens. They seemed too stupid, and frankly, too weird to be a threat. I decided to play along and walked with them to where the ferry would have landed. There was only a log and a slack rope drooping into the filthy water. Yug watched as Zat pulled it up until he retrieved the frayed end. They groaned in reaction to his discovery and sat on the ground. Ka and Choo stood hopefully shifting back and forth on their three legs, shading each others' eyes and staring our over the water at the far shore as if the ferry would suddenly appear. The pinheads flapped and did a little spastic dance. I shook my head as I watched. Stupid spirits. Finally, when it looked like they'd just stay there, I started off down the road heading west.
I'd gone about fifty cubits when I heard Yug hollering. I looked back and saw that he'd prodded his group into motion, and that they were following me down the road. It appeared that I was to have company.
Now normally I would have fled and continued on alone after laying a few false trails to confuse them, but I was in a hoodoo land I didn't know and decided that some company might hide my presence from whatever malevolent intelligence inhabited this place. So I waited for them to catch up.
I will say this for them. Though they moved with a lot of wasted motion, they maintained a reasonable pace. Obviously they had been conjured up to be proficient travelers. As the day wore on they ceased their futile efforts at communication and muttered among themselves. I was thankful. Trading words I couldn't understand with such obviously contrived creatures would only be a pointless distraction. I needed to keep my senses tuned for threats, both physical and spiritual.
After less than a half day's travel, we came to a small settlement. There were a handful of shacks littering a crossroads, and a handful of people bartering, a handful of animals wandering, and a handful of barbarian warriors loitering. They seemed happy to see the travelers and greeted them heartily in an unintelligible tongue. With surprising speed, the wagons were pulled into a field beside the crossroads, several tents were set up, and a crowd began to gather. It was a flurry of activity in which all of them did their part, and it was ready before the passage of a fist width of the sun. With awkward gestures and guttural exclamations, Yug directed me to wait in a small tent. It held only a milking stool, and I sat down to wait, leaning up against the tent's central pole. The inside of the tent grew hot. I had been walking most of the day. My eyelids rapidly grew heavy and soon I'd dozed off.
I was awakened later by the voices of a smallish crowd, who stood around the tent's entrance gawking at me. They were mostly settlers, with a couple of the barbarians mixed in at random. They whispered among themselves in their gibberish tongue, coming and going in no discernable order and conducting no visible business. The few times I chanced speaking to them, they started at the sound of my voice, gawked at me with greater interest, and commented excitedly to each other. Yug was nowhere to be seen, and none of the others came in. To assuage my hunger I fished a scrap of dried meat from my shoulder bag, gnawed on it, and drank from my water skin. Still none of the odd troop returned. Finally I gave up, bored. I pulled out a pelt, curled up, and fell asleep.
Sometime in the dead of night I woke from a strange dream of the magical kingdom. A crowd of strangers was gathering in the enchanted city of Orlandopolis. I had the distinct feeling that I was late. I was unsettled. Perhaps the city or even the entire magical kingdom lay in jeopardy. The Committee's request had been for me to begin my journey immediately and make my best possible speed. They had sent for a shamaness in their time of need. That they'd sent their messenger all the way to our steppes implied that no reliable help lay closer. Their situation must truly have been dire. I felt the weight of responsibility enshrouding me, demanding that I move with greater speed, and offer what assistance my powers could provide. I gathered my things and walked out of the tent.
Overhead the moon shone clear in a starry sky. The camp was still. About me, other tents had been pitched, and from these came the soft sounds of entities sleeping. Near the wagons, the animal cages were populated by silhouettes of drowsing creatures, all fanciful in shape and peacefully at rest. I looked back at the tent I'd slept in and noticed that a large poster had been painted and hung beside the entrance. It displayed some undecipherable script and a fairly accurate portrait of myself, wild-eyed, covered with mud, and gesturing as I had when I'd first stood up and confronted them by the riverbank.
For a long moment I wondered why they'd have advertised my presence to strangers, dramatizing my appearance, and displaying me to gawkers. I looked closer at the other tents. The tallest one's entrance was flanked by a poster of the Cyclops playing his drum. A poster showing the Siamese twins, Ka and Choo hung beside the entrance of a second tent. The pinheads were pictured in awkward postures, in a grinning group on a third tent. I turned and checked the animal cages. Sure enough, each had its depiction as well. It all meant something; I was sure of it, but what that was escaped me. In any case, I was in a hurry now.
I left the camp and headed west down the road, guided by the moon and the stars. Just outside of the settlement I came upon an orchard and plucked a few apples. They were surprisingly good despite their pathetic surroundings, crunchy, juicy, and sweet. I greedily ate two, spritzing my hands and face with their juice. It was their only drawback when compared to lichens. At least it smelled better than that Vulgar river mud.
The moon had traveled noticeably west as I walked. I guessed that I'd covered about a league when my senses detected the presence of a large group of people. I could hear the faint sounds of a large encampment, smell the aggregate scent of animal herds, and over a low rise, noted the glow of watch fires silhouetting the ridgeline. I slipped into the broken woods off the road and crept silently forward, climbing the slope for a vantage point from to spy on the strangers. Soon I'd crept to the ridge crest where I crouched in the darkest shadows within a copse of trees.
Down in the small valley below me lay the encampment of a large army. I lost count of the cook fires, for they appeared as numerous as the stars. Tents in similar numbers sprouted in a grid across the lowland. I guessed the army's complement at no less that five thousands. On the perimeter, a paddock held a herd of horses numbering in the hundreds. Parked nearby were wagons. These drew my eyes just as a tasty lichen etching itself onto a boulder enchants the starving, yet I stared at them in horror. Their walls were perforated with yellowish windows, almost certainly glazed with cured human skins. This was an army of Scythians!
So then, if there were Scythians, the chances were pretty good that this was the real world after all! I wasn't really sure if I'd returned to it, or if I'd always been in it, but I was definitely in it now. I mean, here I was, a lone Amazon facing thousands of my ancestral enemies, and I needed a horse. Only by riding could I hasten my journey to save Orlandopolis. Now despite the apparent odds, I had some factors in my favor. It was dark. The Scythians were probably crawling drunk. The horses were on the side of the camp nearest my position. I was covered in reeking mud that would cover my own unfamiliar scent, and I had the element of surprise. On the negative side, I was ridiculously outnumbered, and I had never ridden a horse. Well, I thought, how hard could it be? Lots of people ride every day.
I crept forward, working my way downhill and a little sideways, so that I could approach the horses from downwind. It worked pretty well for a while, but when I got within a few dozen paces of the paddock, the horses perked up their ears, snorted, and moved en mass to congregate across the fence rails, staring at me with their big dark eyes. It was weird, but I would swear they were almost happy to see me. I moved swiftly forward to the fencing, then slipped in among them.
Suddenly I was surrounded by inquisitive noses, intrusive muzzles, and by horseflesh pressing against me from all sides. They were literally beside themselves to get to me. I was astonished. The tales of our tribe recalled the Utma having all kinds of trouble tempting the "swift ones" near. Well, in that situation I wasn't willing to look a gift horse in the mouth. Instead, I picked one that looked swift, (as if I would know about that), and grabbed its mane. Then I gritted my teeth, swallowed my fright, and with a heave, hoisted myself onto its back.
Well, maybe it was a mistake, or maybe it was a brilliant move. In the end it turned out for the best. The horse I'd mounted took three strides and launched itself over the fence. A large contingent of the others followed. Before I knew what had happened, I was racing out of the camp with a herd of over a hundred horses following me. We rode for a long time, or at least it seemed that way to me, thundering down the road and heading west at a gallop. It was exhilarating! The herd only stopped when we came upon another orchard with a trickling stream running through it. The horses pulled up short, wandered among the trees, and feasted on the fruit hanging from the branches. I could feel their spiritual happiness as they ate and drank. I suspect that either the Scythians didn't give them many apples, or had corrupted them to the point of addiction. For whatever reason, they had followed me because they'd smelled the juice from the apples I'd eaten lingering on me and scented the remaining fruit in my bag. We left the orchard when the sun rose and a screaming farmer chased us off.
Now I traveled faster than I had ever imagined. Riding is a skill best learned by doing. Like the Amazons in the old tales, I rode bareback, without halter or bridal, and I learned to guide the horse with my knees. I rode different beasts indiscriminately and found them all accommodating. My bargain with them was that they'd bear me down the road and we'd stop to pilfer fruit at every place we found it. It was a good arrangement.
In the next week I covered the rest of the land between the Cassiopeian Sea and the Black Sea. Long ago, the Black Sea had been called the Amazon Sea, for the great nations of Themiscyra to the south and Lycasteia to the north. The lands to the east had been the homelands of their enemies, the Scythians and the Getae. When I finally reached the coast, I spied a fishing village, a simple place of thatched huts and leaky boats that reeked of fish and smoke. Long before I entered it the fisher folk had gathered along the road to stare at me. Now along the way I had found a clean stream to bathe in, and I'd washed my pelts and skins and repaired my gear in the evenings when I made camp, so I looked respectable now, though I was being followed by over a hundred horses. I know for a fact that every stray and loner we'd encountered had joined us, for horses are herding animals, and feel a visceral compulsion to join any herd that happens by. So I entered the fishing village with a wealth of horses that would have bought everything in that miserable hamlet twice over, and it threw them into turmoil.
Apparently, like many peoples ringing the Black Sea, they maintained a strong oral history tradition that included the old Amazon nations. Though no living Amazon had been seen there in countless generations, still the memory of them was ingrained into their culture just as the stones of their citadels were imbedded in their landscape. They knew what I was without a doubt, and with such a wealth of horses in my herd, they assumed that I was traveling royalty. Some even seemed to recognize the significance of the antlered hood and bone encrusted bib that I wore, for they made gestures of greeting to the spirits using hand signs that were the same as our own.
In the center of the village I found the elders. Recall that in my tribe, the elders had been exterminated years before by the Destroyer of Nations. I had never seen people so old. I had never imagined a person could get so old as some of the codgers and dames that I confronted now. I bowed my head in deference to the stores of wisdom I supposed they held after all their years of life. When I looked back up I saw an amazing change in the people gathered around me. They were smiling.
That night I stayed with the family of the village headman. His father and grandfather had been headmen before him, and so he lived in an extravagant three-room shack with his wife, six children, their parents, and grandparents. We sat practically in each other's laps around a driftwood fire, eating, trading tales, and sharing history. Despite the fact that they did serve a few lichens, I learned much about the old nations. They knew stories that hadn't been preserved in my tribe, but most importantly, those tales contained the names of past leaders that I could call on in my rituals. Later, I struck a bargain with the headman, to trade five mares to the village in return for transporting me and my horses to the port of Sinope. We would leave on the morning's tide with the fishing fleet.
Well the next morning there I was, a shamaness from the Northern Tribe of the landlocked Steppes, stepping into a boat for the first time in my life. Come to think of it, I don't think anyone in my tribe's even seen a boat before, let alone sailed in one. It was horrifying. I think it was much worse than riding a horse. Five ships took five days to transport me and one hundred and three horses to the port city of Sinope. According to the fishermen, the sailing was smooth. I couldn't have disagreed more. They recalled that the old Amazons had hated stepping aboard ship too, so I guess I didn't contradict what they knew of Amazons. I simply gritted my teeth for five days straight. The horses ground theirs so loud I couldn't sleep. We were all glad to thank the villagers and stagger onto the dock.
Now I suppose I was quite a spectacle. I mean, there I was dressed in pelts, surrounded by milling horses, while all around me smelly sailors and finely dressed merchants stood around and gawked. I'd gotten a lot of that lately so the novelty had worn off and I wasn't too concerned. The captain of the lead fishing boat had begun searching for a ship that could take me to the island where Orlandopolis was. He'd actually undertaken this task unasked, milking his proximity to my unintended celebrity for all it was worth. I didn't stop him since I really had no idea whom to talk to. While he canvassed the ship captains for possible transportation, I was approached by a woman who was dressed as a huntress, in buckskins and boots, carrying a bow and quiver.
I had noticed this woman on the docks earlier, simply because she seemed so out of place. Except for rats, there was nothing but people to shoot for as far as the eye could see. When I had all the horses off the boats, she walked up and introduced herself as Chryssia, and then offered a salute, right fist struck twice against the breast and then held straight-armed outward. To say the least, I was surprised to see this, especially here. It was an ancient Amazon salute, and though it was no longer used in my tribe, it was known from old stories. I returned it with the salute of my tribe, the right fist pressed against the breast then the open hand turned palm out to sweep in a circle symbolizing the universality of life's spirit.
"So, you're from the northern tribe," Chryssia said, "a survivor of the Destroyer."
"Yes. My name's Yakut and I had no idea that Amazons still lived in this land."
"A few still live here, in the lands east of the city," she said. The land to the east had once been the realm of Themiscyra, perhaps fifteen hundred years ago. "And what of you? Where are you bound with your string of horses?"
Several of the horses in question had crowded in around us, sniffing, whiffling, and finally laying their heads on our shoulders.
"I've been asked to journey to a far away city called Orlandopolis, a place I'd never heard of, on an island near the Attic mainland. These horses they were taken from the Scyths to the east and joined me for the sake of apples," I confessed. "They've been a great help traveling overland, but on the sea they'll be unhappy. I don't really need them but I'm responsible for them now and I can't leave them uncared for."
Chryssia looked at me sympathetically, and I recalled the mythic regard the ancient Amazons here once had for their horses. It gave me hope.
"Perhaps you could take them to your tribe," I suggested, "this land once hosted a great partnership between humans and horses."
Chryssia looked at the horses, and then checked the sun. A short distance away, the captain of the fishing boat was having no luck talking to the sea captains. A group of them had gathered around him and were laughing and jeering at his questions. I noticed that a couple had even engaged in the Ritual of Derisive Mimicry. To them he was a yokel of the sea. The huntress shook her head.
"No ships will sail until tomorrow's tide, Yakut. Why don't you spend the night at my camp, and we can settle your horses. You'll find it much easier to arrange passage for one person than for a person with a hundred horses."
It was a welcome idea to me; just what I'd hoped for really. I'd feel much less guilty if I knew they didn't have to board another ship, and they'd be well cared for here. It solved another problem for me at the same time. I had no coins to pay for the passage and would have had to barter for the fare with horses. I was loath to leave any of them in Sinope. They weren't used to cities any more than I was.
"I accept your hospitality, Chryssia," I said formally, then added a sincere, "thank you."
I walked over to the boat captain and told him about my arrangements and thanked him again for the passage from his village. He'd been getting nowhere and seemed relieved.
"Give my thanks to the headman," I told him as he returned to his boat.
With that, Chryssia and I mounted and rode away from the docks, the horses following behind us in an unruly herd. She led us down a maze of streets, heading away from the water. After living on the steppes, which were deserted for scores of miles except for my tribe, the crowded city was stifling. I was overjoyed to pass out through its gate and follow Chryssia down a road that quickly turned to a dirt track in the farmland east of Sinope. We continued to ride for almost two fists' travel of the sun, before turning off into open woods and climbing a series of steepening hills. Finally we came to a break where a green field ascended a long slope to a ridge, atop which sat a fortress of stones so old that their shapes had been softened by centuries of weathering. There, Chryssia dismounted and we turned the horses loose. They stood happily cropping the grass as we climbed a dirt path to the fortress.
We had nearly reached the structure when an ancient woman hobbled out, leaning on a cane. For a moment she stood staring at the horses standing about downslope, and then she shifted her eyes to us. Now as a shamaness I have developed a sort of second sight that allows me to read somewhat of the spirits of the people and things around me. In this case it showed me that this woman's spirit extended beyond her physical being very strange. It was almost as if her spirit had been superimposed on her body, rather than contained within it. She was staring at me in turn, probably seeing my confusion.
"Greetings, mother," Chryssia said, bowing her head to the old woman.
"I see ya brought young Yakut, huntress," the woman said, "and she's brought the horses which is good. Stole 'em from the Scyths too, just like in the old days," she cackled.
Chryssia nodded and then turned to me and said, "Yakut, this is old Mother Hubbard, the Seer and head of our Elder Council. She foresaw your arrival."
"Glad to oblige," I said, "it's so irritating when life doesn't imitate a vision accurately."
"Yes it is," Mother Hubbard agreed with a conspiratorial wink, "annoying too."
"I had an experience with that recently," I confessed, "crossing the Vulgar River, things happened that weren't in the vision I'd had of this journey."
"Oh I know," the elder sympathized, "swamped in effluent, picked up and displayed in a side show with the carnival freaks you were the 'Mookie the Mud Girl', Yakut. I must say, you looked and smelled the part." She fell into laughter that degenerated into a fit of coughing.
I stared at her in shock. So like, I'd been on display? In a freak show? Mookie the Mud Girl? I thought it over and realized that it explained the tent, the gawkers, and the poster. It was so undignified it really pissed me off.
"I hate the name too, dear," Mother Hubbard said, "but nevermind that. You've fulfilled the prophecy of restoring horses to us. I'm so happy! I want to reward you with the gift of a vision, Yakut a vision of the past."
I nodded in acceptance, since a shamaness seldom turns down a vision, especially from another of the gifted. Mother Hubbard hobbled over and stood beside me, and then directed me to look out over the lawn where the horses were grazing. She made some gestures at the space in front of us that I recognized as the drawing aside of the veil.
Before my eyes the landscape changed. The trees shimmered and faded away. The lawn crept forward and extended until it covered many leagues, but it also lost its rich green. In its place was the coarser green of prairie grasses. The ground rose, swallowing the hills, and the land smoothed like a body of water becalmed. Now a vast plain stretched from our feet to the distant sun flecked sea six leagues away. Upon the water lay the dark specks of ships.
Now I saw the plain's surface moving. Figures wavered and solidified as time stretched back further. The landscape was alive with horses and riders, in massive companies of cavalry, riding towards us in a front that stretched a league's width. They were dressed in leather, tanned the dun and ochre hues of their landscape, and they bore weapons and implements of war. There were thousands upon thousands, moving at a walking pace, advancing, not in ordered companies, but in an unstoppable tidal front that raised a cloud of dust behind. The riders sat their horses with the natural ease of living things in concert, a collaborative state between creatures. For each rider, perhaps a dozen horses followed, to be ridden in turn as they tired so that the army could move swiftly at need. As they reached us they faded away, but I could taste the dust in my throat and feel the tremor of their hooves beneath my feet.
The vision shifted, perhaps by a year, perhaps by many, and now from the coast came a straggling line of warriors. There were scarcely a hundred leading twice their number of mounts. Fatigue radiated from their posture and from the tired gait of their horses. They were weary from travel and from bitter defeat in war, limping home to a nation that would never recover its majesty. These too passed us, the worn and wounded, to evaporate like specters in the morning's light. And then the tides of time hastened. The land eroded into valley and hill. Trees grew and closed into forests about us. The green of the lawn grew vibrant underfoot where today's herd cropped the bright grass.
I blinked. The late afternoon sun warmed the pasture and the stones of the ancient fortress. It warmed the air and my skin as a gentle breeze ruffled my hair. The world of the now was pleasant and sadly diminished. From a great nation the scattered remnants recalled lost glory; on the north steppes, in the woods of Greece, far to the south in Libya, and here at Kapru Kale. I looked over and saw the old Mother Hubbard was morose.
"Thank you for the vision," I said honestly, "I'd never could have imagined what the nation was like back then. I'd only heard a few stories about it."
"Personally I find it both inspiring and depressing," the elder confessed, "don't know why I keep tormenting myself with it...really I don't." She shook her head at her own behavior, then her face brightened. "Today though, you have brought horses back to us, and besides, we don't get many guests. I'm glad you were able to come, Yakut. If you hadn't, then my vision wouldn't have come true and I'd suspect I was losing my touch. It's not good for the elderly to lose touch." I nodded in agreement. "Come on inside, Yakut," she continued, "you can snack on some lichens."
Mother Hubbard turned to the entrance and hobbled through the arched gateway. Inside there was a long narrow stairway leading up between walls that featured shooting ports, waterspouts, and a mezzanine for dropping rocks. It was a strongly defended entry.
The stairs led to a spacious hall with a large hearth and a few trestle tables and benches. Torches in sconces lined the walls between tall narrow windows in deep embrasures. The ceiling was a bit low and it was blackened with centuries of soot. For the first time I saw a few other Amazons. They seemed to be an eclectic bunch, spanning many decades in age. There was a cook stirring a cauldron over the fire while her preteen apprentice kneaded a massive wad of dough almost as large as herself. In a corner under the light from a window stood a desk where a scribe labored over a scroll, copying a map from a dry rotted parchment. At another table near the hearth, a healer sorted herbs, tying them into bundles to be dried. I walked over to a window and looked down into a courtyard enclosed by a high wall. Wooden sheds had been built against the stonework to house craftworkers. One shed held a chimney and rang with the blows of a hammer on steel. Outside another stood vats and the frames from which a leatherworker would stretch tanned hides. Yet a third clacked with the movements of treadles and shuttle as a weaver plied her craft. I realized that this tribe had tried to preserve the range of occupations necessary for a functioning nation.
Old Mother Hubbard had wandered over to talk with the cook. I feared that she'd come back with a tray of lichens but my fear was unfounded. She returned with a couple bowls of soup and gestured for the huntress and I to join her at a table. She hovered over us as we ate and seemed slightly nervous. A couple times she began to speak and then fell back into silence. Eventually it became annoying and I asked what was wrong.
"Well, Yakut, I've seen things in visions and heard secondhand stories, but I've been uncertain about whether they're true or not. I guess I should just come out and ask you, but honestly, I'm embarrassed."
"Oh just go ahead and ask her," Chryssia scolded, "at the worst, she'll be offended and think you a silly old woman."
Mother Hubbard looked at her and finally nodded in agreement as if steeling herself for an unpleasant task. I noticed that the cook and her apprentice had snuck up behind us and were eavesdropping. Even Chryssia had leaned forward. Sheesh, I thought, there are plenty of embarrassing things about living on the steppes, I mean, it's pretty primitive, but what could have them all so fascinated?
"Um, Yakut? Do the women of your tribe really eat lichens?"
That was it? I stared at her in amazement. It was the most pathetically mundane thing. I couldn't believe that this was the question that had caused her such uncertainty. I became convinced that it was just a prelude to something really embarrassing. I looked her straight in the eyes. The cook leaned in closer.
"Yes, we eat lichens and yes, they suck. No one likes them but it's better than starving."
Mother Hubbard burst into tears. Well, she's definitely out of touch, I decided, probably slipped right off her rocker and out of her mind in other words, she's senile. But it wasn't just her. The cook was looking at me with a sad pitying expression. Her apprentice's lower lip was trembling. Even Chryssia swallowed hard and looked away.
"Look," I said, "I know it's pathetic, but really. It's not as bad as when we had to draw straws to see who would sit in the pond as bait for the leech fishing, or when we had to groom each other so we could make tick soup. Life's hard of the steppes. We do what we have to so we can survive. What's the big deal?"
"It's the long twilight of the nation," Mother Hubbard said. "We've fallen so far, and I don't think we can get up. I just had to check." She sighed dramatically, then placed a fingertip over her nostril and blew her nose explosively. She repeated the process on the other side. It was disgusting indoors. She dabbed the tears from her eyes. "I know you try hard, Yakut, but you've got so little time left. Go to Orlandopolis with my blessing on your journey."
It sounded prophetic to me, and the words sent a chill down my spine. The rest of the evening was somber. Supper found the tables filled with women who ate in a depressing silence. They eyed me sadly over their plates and then left as soon as they finished eating. To be honest, I'd had a better time with the village headman and his family. Almost immediately after dinner, Chryssia showed me to a room with a bed of fresh cut rushes. A candle burned in a dish on a simple table.
"Have a good rest, Yakut," the huntress said as she left, "I'll wake you before dawn and guide you back to Sinope to find a ship." She closed the door behind her but I'd swear she was sobbing as she shuffled off down the hall outside.
Okay, I thought, this tribe has no nightlife. Bad as the steppes were, there was always someone singing or dancing around the campfire after dark. It was our time for stories, chants, and rituals. A lot of the spiritual life of the tribe happened in the darkness, and it enriched an otherwise harsh existance of privation, starvation, boredom, and occasional threats from outsiders. If we'd had only the daylight, everyone in the tribe would have been crazy in a moon depressed and maybe cannibalistic. I couldn't stand it. The room was oppressive, the fortress was overbearingly grim, and the night called to me.
I got up and took the candle with me. The door creaked as it opened but I heard nothing in the hall. Stealthily I slipped down to the hall, and from there through a passageway to the courtyard. I found kindling and fuel in the smithy and set a circle on the ground. Then I lit a small campfire and rejoiced in its lively dancing flames, the warm light that flickered like a living thing, and the curling smoke that always reminded me of home.
Slowly I let my eyes defocus as I stared into the flames. I felt my body take up their rhythm. I heard the whispers of gases and the crackling chuckles of the wood. The embers began to form, shifting spirits within them beckoning me with their secrets as they pulsed in a yellowish incandescence. I chanted softly at first, then louder as I heard the voices of the wind, stroking the stonework and the leaves of the distant trees, joining in my chorus. My feet stamped out a beat. My arms swung as the world turned. Vision found me and I welcomed it.
My fire and I inhabited a broken ruin. Crumbled stones lay in heaps all around us, disintegrating over countless years as the unstoppable cycle of the seasons turned again and again. The tumbled remnants of the fortress lay about me, revealed in the firelight that danced playfully among its fractured blocks. Far overhead, impersonal stars kept watch over the slow twilight of the nation. I sank into my dance and became embraced by the vision. Now I called on the old leaders, the great warriors, and the heroines of myth, chanting the names I'd learned in the headman's stories. I called on them to join me, here in their ancient home I called them to witness that it was twilight, but not yet night. Dance, dance with me, for a dance undanced for a generation is forever lost.
One by one they appeared in translucent apparition; Cyane, Antiope, Hippolyte, Myrine, Penthesilea, Tecmessa, Alcippe, Prothoe, Andromache, Deianeira, and many others I didn't know who came as their guard. They were silent but not still. Around the fire they danced with me, a celebrant circle of wraiths in the starlight under the waxing moon. And finally, as my strength was coming to its end, she joined us, the Utma, dancing with abandon and joy, with strange moves and a smile on her face, lost in a moment long past.
I awoke in the darkness, covered with dew. The world had been cleaned and it lay chilled and peacefully still all around me. The moon had set and the morning star had risen. The fortress had remained a ruin, its spell broken by my dance. No one would come to wake me. I scattered the embers of my fire and picked up my bag. Beside it lay an arrow with a golden head, a gift from the huntress that would pay my fare aboard ship. I smiled. A whistle brought a horse, a mare who appeared softly out of the darkness and shook her mane, waiting for me to mount.
The horse seemed to know the way, and moved quickly through the hills and valleys of the woods. It was still dark and I gave the horse her head. (That's a figure of speech, okay?) Soon we joined the road and she took off at a gallop, her hooves stamping the dirt track in a primal rhythm I felt in my Amazon blood. Swiftly the miles fell behind us. Soon a league was added to the history of my journey and as the sun rose, a second joined it. Birds were still announcing the dawn when we passed the gate and entered the city of Sinope.
The city was already bustling like a hive. People scurried through the streets. Outside the taverns, last night's drunks lolled in the gutters or staggered to their feet. It reminded me of nothing more than a nest of black fly larvae ensconced in a reindeer's sinus, writhing with activity wholly cryptic to humans. To be honest, I loathed it worse than the steppes. Instead of too little, there was too much of nothing I wanted to see. I made my way to the docks as quickly as the traffic would allow.
The dock was another scene of bustle, but here at least there was discernable purpose. Cargoes were being loaded, stores taken on, and passengers boarded. I went to the guildhouse of the harbormaster. There I asked for ships were to sail that morning for Attica and the islands nearby. I discovered that one was headed to Piraeus, the port of Athens, by way of Delos and Naxos. It was carrying a cargo of gold, tin, and copper, as well as several merchants as passengers. I got the ship's name and hastened to its berth.
The Phiale, (a flat shallow bowl in the Greek tongue), wasn't the most auspiciously named vessel I the harbor, but it was the one sailing nearest to my goal. In trade for the golden arrowhead minus its very tip I was granted passage to the island where Orlandopolis lay, since it was directly between Delos and Piraeus. The only real drawback was that I'd have to wait while the ship's business took us to Naxos. It was the best I could do, and better than I'd hoped. I thought that maybe old Mother Hubbard's blessing had graced my journey.
Back in the street I freed the horse, telling it to find its way back to the ruined fortress. It seemed to understand, for it regarded me with serious eyes and nodded its head. When I released it and walked up the gangplank, it waited until I was aboard and then turned and trotted off into the city, back the way we had come.
The crew cast off the lines a short time later and the tide caught the vessel and drew it out from shore. On the deck I stood with the merchants, (with whom I had nothing in common), and watched the port of Sinope slip away. True to its name, the Phiale rocked in the chop as if it were a shallow bowl. Despite being loaded with a hold full of metal ingots, bullion, and coin, it sailed as if lacking ballast. I overheard the sailors grumbling and wondered if I was the only passenger concerned about that. The merchants seemed oblivious. Still, the day was fine, the weather clear, and the sea calm. Soon the shore was a thin line in the distance and the waters of the Black Sea became our world.
The sun moved up to the zenith and then began to fall towards the waves. I watched as its light reflected off the water, letting it hypnotize me and offer the song of its lapping on the timbers. As evening tinted the sky I smelled the noxious fare of the galley, wafting up from the cookfire below deck. A cauldron of stew and ships' biscuits made up the meal, and I was thankful to have it. Afterwards, off duty sailors drank and sang under the stars while their mates trimmed the sails at the pilot's orders. The captain had disappeared below deck with the merchants, probably for drinking and gaming. The ship had a nightlife and that made me more comfortable. The chances were good that the crew was likely to remain sane and human. I lay down atop a crate near the prow and stared up at the stars. It was a place from which I could watch most of the deck and see anyone who approached. I'd paid for my passage, but I didn't kid myself about these people being my friends. Before I slept, I encircled myself with charms and talismans. The sailors peeked nervously at me after that, probably suspecting me of witchcraft. Later, the ship's cat joined me, probably attracted by the animal skulls I'd suspended all around. It brought me a rat it had killed as an offering. I kept the skull and gave the rest back. The night watch whispered what they'd seen to the crew.
With each day's sailing we moved closer to my destination. On the third day out from Sinope we joined other ships entering the Bosporus, the narrows separating Anatolia from Thrace and dividing the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmara. It was twenty miles' passage between banks that lay only a bowshot apart it seemed. Towards the end of the strait lay the cities of Chalcedon in Anatolia, and across from it, Byzantium in Thrace.
The inhabitants of the two cities traditionally despised each other, but confederated to levy a fee for passage through the strait. Greed was the great peacemaker. From bank to bank they'd strung a chain just below the water that would crack a ship's hull. A furlong before reaching the chain, ships were compelled to wait in a squadron where they were assessed a fee. Then at the ringing of bells from the cities, the chain would be hoisted and the ships allowed to pass. The chain was raised but six times a day.
The Phiale bobbed through the strait and under the chain just behind a galley full of slaves and just ahead of a merchantman filled with amphorae. I wondered what happened to trade when Byzantium and Chalcedon were at war. With any luck, the navies of a dozen nations would gather to demolish both cities to ensure free trade. Again, self-interest as an irresistible motivator. Little did I know, but in three more days we'd encounter the same exact scheme in the Dardanelles, where the cities of Sestus and Abydus flanked the Hellespont. Hereditary enemies managed to capitalize so predictably on the God-given blessing of geography. At every turn I was finding civilization to be appallingly uncivilized.
While we were passing through the Dardanelles, I took the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing. Real sightseeing, not the kind based on ritual visions or remote viewing, but plain old gawking at the landscape. Just across a narrow plain lay the ruins of the city of Ilium a few weathered stones marking a hilltop.
I knew the story of Penthesilea and her doomed sisters, who had fought and died there long ago. It was a just reward for getting involved in a foreign war, and from what I'd always heard, she'd gone there looking for trouble. No threat had come from that war to the Amazon lands, but the warriors had ridden to defend the city for personal reasons. Some said that Penthesilea had joined the battle in a suicidal act of atonement for the accidental death of Hippolyte II, while others claimed she was eager to strike any possible blow against the Greeks. I'm sure the truth has been clouded by opinion and the passing years. There was a lesson to be learned, but as I stared at the outcropping of foundation stones, it escaped me.
The next day we began the crossing of the Aegean Sea. This was a place wholly alien to me; a place only known from legends and a few visions. It was the wading pool of the Greeks, the Persians, and now, the Romans. Vast as it appeared from the Phiale's deck, we almost constantly sighted other ships sailing in the distance. As it was, the amphorae merchant and the slave galley were shaping courses similar to ours, bound for the Greek mainland and sticking together for security against pirates. The sailors wanted nothing to do with any other ships, and their tension grew each time another was sighted on the horizon. Was it approaching, they asked the lookout? How were its sails rigged? How many courses of oars? Anyway, their nervousness got on my nerves.
If they'd asked, and been willing to offer up some blood, I could have looked in on those other ships for them from the spirit realm, but I was irritated and said nothing. Had they known, they probably would have bled each other just for the chance to ease their minds. As it was they left me alone. I was a witch, a sorceress, and their mythology centered on the stories of Cerce and Medea, both of whom had had a taste for mayhem. Neither of them had been Amazons, and to be honest, I had difficulty believing the myths about them. Still, I was just waiting to threaten someone with transformation into a pig. Aboard ship a pig wouldn't have survived a day, surrounded by hungry sailors long past being enamoured of biscuits or stew. I'm sure they'd assume I could also provide the fire.
Anyway, we sailed on. The ship's cat continued to bring me rats. Sometimes I kept the blood and took short "excursions", mostly because I could, and partly to check on our progress. Mostly I saw other sailors on other ships, who regarded us as nervously as we regarded them. At the same time, I was acquiring a nice necklace of rat skulls. It was very fashionable really, and I imagined the faces of my tribe when they saw it. They'd lick their lips and envy me the string of meals I must have enjoyed on my journey. I'd never tell them that I'd given the meat to the cat and eaten biscuits as hard as steatite instead.
After passing through the Hellespont, the Phiale had turned south, sailing past the Troad and the islands of Lesbos and Chios. Mostly the sea was calm, and considering that we were riding in a ship named for a shallow bowl, that was a good thing. Every time the wind came up gusty, the sailors would begin muttering prayers to Poseidon and nervously trimming the sails. I'd long ago noticed that the heaviest cargo sat amidships to enhance the vessel's stability, but a shallow dish was a shallow dish. The Phiale bobbed like a cork in the chop.
Well, sooner or later we had to encounter a storm. I mean it's just the odds, right? If you spend long enough at sea, sooner or later the weather will turn ugly. It happened while we were to the southwest of Chios, after we'd left the coast of Ionia. We'd begun our transit of a stretch of open water, still heading due south towards our first port of call at Naxos. According to the captain, this was a run of about a hundred miles, or another three days. The second day should have brought us in sight of the island of Icaros to the east, at which time the ship would head half west for another day. The end of the third day would bring us to the island of Naxos. The port was on the western side of the island, and we would dock on the morning of the fourth day. I should have known better. The first night of our run south, the ship's cat brought me two rats and sat staring at me until I drank the blood.
It was the Ritual of Hypermetropy again. I felt the rushing of space and the fracture of time. The stars whirled sickeningly overhead, dragging trails of starlight behind them. The creaking of the Phiale's rigging and the groan of her planks screeched in my ears. I held on metaphysically and metaphorically as the deck lurched underfoot. The wind was rising, bellying out the sail and magnifying the waves. My spirit rose from my body and looked around at the increasingly panicky crew. Then it rose up over the ship, flying above the Phiale as it bucked and heaved on the waves.
Ridiculous, I thought, this is barely a storm at all. The wind was shifting and the waves had grown, yes, but it's all relative, really. On the steppes, such a weather pattern would have been an annoyance, nothing more. On the road, it would have qualified as an inconvenience. In a decent ship, the added wind would have been a blessing. Aboard the Phiale, it was a cause for dread. The words of the sailors' prayers came to my ears. I rose higher, into the underside of the clouds, making a large circle around the boat.
To the west lay the heart of the storm, and it was moving southeast, far faster than the Phiale was moving south. So the brunt of it would eventually catch the boat and toss it around a bit. So what? Surely the crew had dealt with bigger storms many times in the past. I traveled further to the west and watched as rain fell in curtains that were lashed by ever stronger winds. Waves rose into troughs and crests taller than the ship. Hail drove in barrages rivaling the artillery of an army besieging a town with shot and bolt. The storm's true heart was concentrated with a malevolent will I could sense.
Well this could be a problem, I thought, for that sorry dink of a boat. The heart of the storm was moving towards land, and I saw that it would pass right over the Phiale if it continued on its present course. The captain was trying to outrun the weather, and he should have known better. His vessel couldn't have outrun a lame goat. I saw that his best, (really only) chance lay in turning back and tacking into the wind. He must turn northwest into the storm and let it pass him by to the south. Of course the idea of doing that would run contrary to every sense of terrified cowardice that was natural. I had no doubt that he intended to maintain his course to the ruin of us all. With a groan I made my way back through the aether to my body, which was drenched and rolling dangerously atop the crate, all too near the railing. Only the cat kept me company, and it was miserably squalling and kneading my cold limbs.
I crashed back into my physical self, slightly misaligned because the wretched Phiale had taken a lurch as I landed. I shook my spirit into my body just like I'd settle my pelts on my shoulders. All around me the sailors were in a frenzy, trying to trim the sail and lash down the hatches. I could hear the mast groan under the stress of the billowing sail. If it snapped, we would be lost, wholly at the mercy of wind and current, and likely to be dashed and swamped by the waves. The ship's cat meowed pathetically beside me and I scooped it up as I leapt to my feet. I hauled it along with me as I went to find the captain.
Now the rain had started coming down harder and the wind had risen to a very disturbing moan. The deck was becoming slippery. Sailors were lurching about as the ship began to shift with the growing waves. I grabbed one of them and asked him where the captain was. The man was wild-eyed and barely containing his terror. He jabbed a finger towards the rudder till at the back of the ship and then broke away from me and staggered forward toward the prow.
I made my way to the captain. He had a white-knuckled grip on the tiller that was as desperate than the cat's grip on my arm except that the cat had claws. I could see his lips moving in prayer as he tried to keep the Phiale's heading constant. His eyes were widening with terror as he stared at the sail bellying and snapping in the growing wind. The rain began to pelt down, making him blink. The cat bawled as it laid its claws deeper into my flesh. I wanted to throw them both overboard.
"If you stay with this heading we're all going to die!" I yelled at him. He barely noticed me. "This wind will snap the mast unless you furl the sail, but what's more important is that you will never outrun the storm in this shallow bowl!"
He shifted his eyes toward me for a heartbeat before looking back at the mast. It would almost have passed for a nervous tick, but he was far past nervous. Maybe a spasm of panic would be closer to the truth.
"Are you listening to me?" I screamed.
He was still muttering his prayer, but I couldn't hear a word of it over the wind. I was fairly sure that Poseidon couldn't hear him either. The rain was falling faster. The wind was blowing harder and beginning to gust erratically. Sailors were running helter-skelter around the deck. A bolt of lightning split the sky and the thunder boomed so loud that I felt it I the ship's timbers.
"Any moment now it's going to be too late!" I yelled at him. I saw his eyes shift to me and hold before turning back to a sound in the rigging. A spar snapped with a crack of overstressed wood. A line whipped free and the broken end of the spar impaled a sailor and took him off his feet. His body swung on the end of the line like a hooked fish. Someone on the deck wailed. The situation was rapidly going out of control.
In desperation I shook my necklace of rat skulls in the captain's face, breaking his paralysis with a new source of danger. He looked over at me just as I backhanded him with the ship's cat. It dug its claws into his face and hung on. He grabbed it with both hands and the rudder went free. The tiller slapped to the right and then to the left, cracking him in the hip. He shrieked and tore the cat off his face. The tiller had rebounded away, but now it was headed back at him again. He grabbed for it and caught it with his jaw. He pitched forward as the deck shifted and somehow got his hands around it. With a struggle he brought it under control. From his expression, I suspect that he wanted to kill me. Finally I had his attention.
"I've seen into the heart of this storm," I told him. His eyes widened in horror at the implications of sorcery. "It's off to the west and it's coming for us. We can't outrun it! If you don't turn around and go behind it we'll be overtaken and Poseidon will laugh as we sink to our graves!"
I jabbed a finger to our left where the darkest part of the storm lay. The captain looked where I'd pointed and a tremor went through him. He stared at it with his mouth hanging open. The sky was nearly black and there was no difference between it and the sea. All detail was lost in the sheeting downpour, but it was lit with cracks of lightning.
"You've got to head into the wind and circle behind it," I screamed, tearing his attention back from the storm, "or you may as well take down your own mast with an axe. We still might not make it, but the way we're going now, we're dead for certain and I don't want to die." He was still panic-locked, only now he couldn't tear his eyes off me. I needed him to act like a captain, order the sailors, and command the ship.
"If you kill us all my ghost will haunt your spirit for the rest of eternity!" I shook the rat skulls at him again for good measure. He cringed. I began a herky-jerky dance around him and chanted nonsense for effect. It overloaded his capacity for fear.
With a howl he wrenched the rudder around hard. He began cursing and yelling orders at the crew. I saw the sail being half-furled as the boom was raised and swung about. Sailors climbed the rigging and secured the canvas to the boom. Someone freed the dead man from the line and began replacing the spar. The Phiale hove over and headed into the wind. It floundered and heaved, but slowly it began to make headway.
Now no one had a moment to stare at the storm. No one had a heartbeat to spare. Their terror drove rather than paralyzed them. They were too busy to be afraid. The crew followed the captain's orders. Soon they were shifting the sail for the first tack, hauling on the lines to bring the ship through the eye of the wind. For a moment it stalled there. We held our breath. Then a gust bellied the half sail and the Phiale heeled onto its new course, inching ahead. The time passed but no one counted it. Whether they struggled for a candlemark or five held no meaning because they were alive in each moment. It was the primitive life of an animal, of the steppes, of battle, lived in the present and lived fully. And soon they were ready to tack again, to find the mirror heading and struggle for their gains against the sea.
The captain himself was most changed of all. He stood mastering the rudder, accommodating the vagaries of the swells and troughs, and maintaining our course. He called out over the wind to the crew. He cursed Poseidon and the weather. The mates and hands scurried about with purpose, as determined as the sea dogs of the Roman Empire's Navy, if somewhat less efficient. Off to the west the storm was approaching fast, but now it wasn't coming right for us anymore. Even the most dull witted could see that it would pass to our south. All this because the captain was back in command.
Much later the storm pelted us with a short barrage of hail. It rattled off the deck and bounced off the canvas, but by now, the darkest part of the storm was far to the south and the last of the day's light was peeking beneath the squall to the west. The captain ordered the ship rigged for station keeping, the cook to light the fire for dinner, and a triple ration of wine for the crew. Last, he had the dead sailor sewn into a sail patch and prepared for a funeral to sea. I was happy that he'd mastered himself. I was happy that the crew had found the will to master the ship. I was happy that the ship had held together despite being a shallow bowl. But mostly, I was happy to have survived.
By the next morning the storm had blown itself out after crashing against the Ionian coast near Ephesus. The crew was happy, but still too relieved to brag. They raised the sails and made their course south in good spirits. Another two days of fair weather sailing brought the Phiale to the island of Naxos.
Other than having been the site of a battle during the Peloponnesian War, the island of Naxos had little to recommend it. It was the home of a fishing fleet and sponge divers. A few families raised goats on the steep ground inland. A few more families raised olives and vines. They kept the bitter olives for oil, the tough meat and sour wine for local consumption, and traded sponges with the mainland. The Phiale took on a load of sponges, to humor the natives I suspect, offloaded some odd goods and left as quickly as possible. They were trying to make up the time they'd lost to the storm.
The next day we docked at Delos, the island to the north. In my opinion Delos was an unimpressive crag with even fewer goats and vines, but it had been the home of the Delian League a few hundred years ago and retained an unwarranted sense of self-importance. Added to that, the island was sacred to a cult of Apollo, and so it housed a crumbling temple and a cynical clergy. The stay at Delos was to be as brief as the stay at Naxos which was fine with me.
A scant fifty miles to the west lay the island where Orlandopolis was located. The end of my journey was a day away. I pulled the scroll out of my bag and reread it. The scroll was ragged from being crushed at the bottom of my bag. It had been sodden and soaked with sewage in the Vulgar River. It had been covered with mud when I'd been displayed as "Mookie the Mud Girl". It had been smeared with apple juice on my ride from the Scythians. And it had been soaked aboard the Phiale during the storm. Now the parchment was torn at the edges and a hole had worn through it on the map. Some of the ink had smudged, but so what, I knew the words by heart.
It seemed like a lifetime ago that my tribe had found that messenger lying on our steppes. I'd done as the Committee had asked. I'd left immediately and made my best possible time. But was that good enough? I'd literally crossed half the known world, but it had taken over two moons. I had no way of knowing how long it had taken the messenger to find me. It could have taken him longer to find me than it had taken me to find Orlandopolis. It could have been a season and a half since the Committee had sent for me. So did they still need me? Did they still have a problem, or had they solved it themselves? Was there even still an Orlandopolis at all? And would they be upset because we'd eaten their messenger?
I'd really liked the magical kingdom of my vision. I remembered all the happy people, the funny animals, and the little girl joyfully eating cobwebs. I thought I'd been given an omen too. The ship's cat had brought me so many rats, and the animal that I remembered most from my vision was that silly giant-headed rat. I'd wear my necklace of skulls in his honor. I hoped that maybe it would help make up for the messenger.
It was only two fist's travel of the sun when the Phiale hoisted its anchor and sailed from Delos. The ship made good time towards Orlandopolis. I sat on a crate and let the early afternoon sun dancing on the waves hypnotize me. My eyes defocused. The present blurred. Time suspended itself. My spirit took a little trip.
It was night. The sky above me held stars and a crescent moon. I was on land, walking through open woods where trees grew straight and the paths were clear. Somehow I knew that I was close to the city of Orlandopolis. I walked faster, anticipating my arrival, and soon I saw the buildings of a great city. There were tall castles and massive temples built in myriad styles just like in my vision on the steppes. I saw a road that led to a gate. Ahead lay a broad avenue, and in the distance, a castle. Soon I was in a crowd and we were all moving towards that gate like worshippers attending some temple festival.
Then suddenly there was a loud report. The night was shattered as bursts of colored fire erupted over the castle! An aerial barrage! Firebombs! The magical kingdom was under attack! All around me the people in the crowd gasped at the sight. Another battery loosed its destruction with reports I could feel in the air. More blasts of colored fire, reds, yellows and blues, with twinkling trails of gold and silver. Here, even the destruction of war was pretty.
I blinked and opened my eyes. In the vision Orlandopolis had been under attack! On this coming night or on some night soon to come, the Committee would be in need of defense. But I realized that I wasn't too late yet. I had been there for the start of the attack! It wasn't something in the past, or I would have been visiting a ruin. Visions don't usually lie, though they can be annoyingly incomplete. Now I felt anxiety and a need for haste, but the Phiale was at the mercy of the wind and the currents, and nothing I could do would hasten it. Silly bowl, I thought, if only I could draw you over the waves with those hundred horses I left behind.
There was nothing I could do but wait and curse the passage of time. The Phiale sailed like a currant through molasses on a shallow grade; as if taunting me with delay. I'm sure it was a trick of the mind. I tried to calm myself by breathing slow and deep and gnawing on the railing timbers, sucking on the salty wood like a pacifier. The crew looked on, whispering uncertainly among themselves regarding my sanity. Was this normal behavior for witches? Was this a prelude to consuming the ship? The ship's cat sauntered up and curled around my feet, but it brought no rat; an ill omen, I was sure.
Despite my impatience the miles did pass. The sun sank towards the horizon in the west and the island of Delos disappeared below it in the east. The island of Syros passed us close by to the north as the evening began. I smelled the cook fire in the galley and heard the pounding of the mallet flattening the dough for the ship's biscuits. The sun sank into the waves, painting the few clouds red. I could only think of fire ravaging the castle in my vision, and the blood of happy people spilled by some unknown invader. All too soon it was dark. Another night at sea.
At first I slept, but I was soon awake again, staring out over the bow, carefully checking the undersides of the clouds for any evidence of distant pyrotechnics. I was in the strange position of looking for what I hoped I wouldn't see. By the moon's position I guessed that half the night had passed. The island should have been near ahead. But the moon slipped west in the dome of stars, the water lapped monotonously at the hull, and the ship passed steadily over the sea. I may have dozed on my feet.
Finally, not long before dawn by my reckoning, the lookout called out that he'd sighted land. It lay to south, not due west as expected. I strained my eyes but saw only darkness where the horizon eclipsed the sky. The captain ordered the sail raised halfway and shifted our course slightly more to the south. While the darkness lasted he would draw closer to shore but not attempt to land. I waited, pacing the deck, impatient for the dawn.
When the first rays of light brightened the sky the captain turned the Phiale due south. A glint of reflected light had hinted of habitation on the coast, and he made for it under full sail as the sun rose behind us. Soon we could see fishing ships setting out to hunt for their day's catch. We drew nearer to the shore and spied a dock with some buildings, and the town surrounding a port settlement. The sun was a fist above the horizon when we dropped anchor in a pleasant bay. I bid the captain and the crew goodbye with heartfelt thanks and climbed down into the longboat. A team of sailors rowed me to shore.
At last I set foot on the island. The people seemed friendly. They smiled at me though I was dressed so much differently from them. It seemed that they had become used to strangers. I could only guess that they'd seen many foreigners coming to Orlandopolis over the years, and like the people of Athens, accepted the differences of distant cultures. They were free with directions as well. The natives of the island pointed me to a road that they said led directly to the city of Orlandopolis. The only thing that seemed strange to me was that they had no inkling of a threat to their land. When I asked if there were invaders they shook their heads "no". When I asked about uprisings or warlords or rebels they shook their heads "no". Finally, suspecting that the danger came from a well-hidden plot, I took to the road at a quick pace.
Now it happened that by landing on the north shore of the island I'd cut my travel time to Orlandopolis to a third of what it would have been had I made landfall as planned on the eastern coast. In fact, the island as it was drawn on the map looked like a crude rat head, and I had landed between the ears. Orlandopolis was placed where the rat's right eye would have been. I had a walk of perhaps two leagues, perhaps a bit less. The ground was flat. The road was in good repair. I expected to reach the city in less than two fist's travel of the sun. So I walked, absently humming a song.
Hi ho, hi ho,
To Orlandopolis I go,
To meet the rat and all of that,
Hi ho, hi ho
Hi ho, hi ho,
The Committee's request you know,
Has drawn me here to drink the beer,
Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho hi ho.
When I realized what I was doing I clamped my hand over my mouth and looked around to see if anyone had overheard me. Among the things I gained on my journey was that horrible little ditty from the ferryman at the Vulgar River. Not the actual words, but the structure of the song had intruded into my psyche. I was spiritually polluted! I chanted a quick spell to cleanse myself of inane influences and continued on my way. Before Id walked another furlong that song had reinfected me! I was humming it without words, but the words for more verses were forming in my head. They were bad, but it was so easy that unless I was vigilant, my concentration would slip and give way to the ferryman's mind-eating compulsion. I saw in all this a very subtle and malicious plot to destroy my effectiveness as a shamaness. What possible aid could I bring to the Committee if at a crucial moment, I produced, instead of a powerful counterspell, something like ?
Hi ho, hi ho,
My name's Yakut you know,
I'm a shamaness but what a mess,
Hi ho, hi ho
Hi ho, hi ho,
A messenger asked me to go,
To stop your plots and eat your socks,
Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho.
It was soooo embarrassing. The ferryman's lyrics were better than mine! And what if I held a ritual and danced like Eenee, Meanie, Myknee and Mo? Orlandopolis would be doomed! They may as well have sent for Yug. I was still berating myself when I came around a bend in the road and stood before a gate. Over it curved a sign that said, "Welcome to Orlandopolis". Below it were smaller signs, "Rotary", "Shriners", "Knights of Columbus", "Masonic Order", "FOP", "Big Brothers", and "BardCon". I had no idea what any of these meant. At the gate stood a "Tourist Information" hut. I walked up to it for lack of any better choices. It was customary to check in with the city council's representatives when entering a polis, lest the local militia suspect criminal intent. Some places were more paranoid than others, but any polis could have strange laws about foreigners.
Inside the hut I found a rack of colorful folded announcements about local attractions. One immediately caught my eye. There on the front was a picture of the castle and the giant rat. He was waving and smiling and surrounded by a crowd of happy people. I'd just taken a copy and started to read it when a perky young woman in odd clothes approached me and asked me what I was interested in doing here in Orlandopolis. She glanced at the announcement I was holding and smiled.
"Jus' 'bout everyone comes to see the Maa-gic Kingdom," she said.
"Well, actually, I was asked to come here by the Committee," I told her.
I dug around in my bag and pulled out the travel worn scroll. I saw her trying to cover a cringing reflex as she took it from me and flattened it out on a counter. As she read it she began to smile. Finally she looked up.
"Why we've hadda few 'a deese come in o'er th' pas fee-uw weeks," she confided, "an' frankly, I shoulda' guessed by how ya'lls dressed. I do believe we've even hadda fee-uw other Amazons a-rrive ya'lls an Amazon, ain'tcha?" She asked the last with a slight uncertainty. I nodded "yes". "Then I'll jus' send ya'll after the others an' ya'll otta fin'a fee-uw friends here 'bouts," she said.
The woman went to a desk behind the counter and searched for some documents. Finally she brought over the "in-fur-ma-shun paa-kit" and spread it out on the counter.
"Now then, Yah-kuut, ya'll gowan o're to the Waldorfus Astorian inn. Jus' show the desk clerk these hee-ya papers an' ya'll otta be all set." She gave me a sparkling smile that I'm sure she'd practiced to perfect. I was instantly suspicious. Her teeth were too perfect; maybe she was an elemental construct or a poltergeist.
"But what about the Committee?" I asked.
"Well now, I'm sure they'll find ya'll when the time comes. In'a meantime, jus' re-lax. It's lookin' like ya'lls hadda long jour-ney. Maybe ya'll'd like ta go fur a swim? Or try a rest-a-rawnt? Ya'll prob'ly find plen-ty of thangs here 'bouts that's to yur lichens."
I stared at her for a long time.
And so Yeah!
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