Cyane, queen of the Amazons of the Steppes, raises her head to stare up at the skeletal remains affixed to the tree before her. Bringing her clenched fist to her chest, she taps it over her heart twice then extends her arm towards the skeleton. She rises to her feet and looks with reverence upon the moldering body caught in the limbs of the great tree. She comes here often to the Queen's Grove. To the place where decades ago the great Amazon queen Cyane was killed. To honor that warrior queen's courage and nobility they have left her remains where she died. It stands as a symbol to all the Amazons of the Steppes. And to the queens in particular. Cyane is not her birth name after all. Like those before her she has claimed the name to pay tribute and honor.
With careful steps she walks backwards out of the Queen's Grove, never taking her eyes from the queen's body. Once she has crossed the boundary of the grove she turns to walk back towards the village. Some distance away she is greeted by a woman clad in thick leathers and wearing a horned cowl.
"You did not have to wait for me Iolanthe," Cyane informs her shamaness.
"If it is any consolation I have not waited long," Iolanthe replies.
Cyane laughs as the two of them begin their brief journey back to the village. "Is there still not response from Marga?"
"None my queen," Iolanthe answers. She turns to gauge the reaction of her childhood friend turned queen. The visage is as she expected. Worried. Afraid. "It may be that weather is hampering her messenger. Or perhaps she is taking her time with a decision."
"She is taking too much time." Cyane stops in her tracks and stares down at the ground. "We were a scattered and lost people even before the death of our patron. We must have this conclave."
Iolanthe halts as well to hear the queen speak. She takes note of her friend's reluctance to say the goddess's name. While it is true that for many years Artemis had seemed to neglect her chosen people it was never far from the hearts of the Amazons that they could claim the Goddess of the Hunt as their progenitor. But then some time ago each and every Amazon felt it in her heart. Something had been ripped away from them. A part of their souls died with Artemis. Regardless they had all felt her die. Now her name seems to be blasphemy. For none will speak it. Resentment perhaps. Or maybe grief. Cyane speaks the truth of course. So distanced had Artemis become that in the past a mad queen turned goddess once vowed to replace her. Velasca's name is pariah amongst Amazons to this day.
Then there is the conclave. To be a meeting of representatives from each Amazon tribe in all the lands. A messenger was sent to Marga's tribe in Greece asking for her participation. She was then to dispatch messengers to all the others and to send word back to Cyane of their replies. But as yet there has been nothing. This meeting of their leaders could be crucial to their survival as a culture. But Marga is either ambiguous or perhaps too headstrong to accept the idea. Either way seems folly to Cyane.
"Perhaps it might be best to send another messenger." Iolanthe watches Cyane closely. She doesn't have to be a shamaness to feel the anxiety of her queen.
Cyane takes a deep breath then continues forward towards the village. Iolanthe walks in step beside her again. "No. No messenger. I will go myself to speak with Marga."
"Are you sure that is wise my queen?" Iolanthe asks with trepidation not sure how the queen will respond to her questioning the subject.
"I have to speak with her. She must see the sense in the conclave." Cyane stares straight ahead not looking at her friend.
"That is not what I mean Larisa." Iolanthe calls he queen by her birth name to underscore her concern. "Rome continues to gain more land. To travel to Greece you will have to cross territory under their control. Need I remind you what became of the last queen who made any kind of overture with Rome."
"No Iolanthe. You do not." Cyane's reply lets her know with its tone that while they are dear friends she will not brook being scolded by the shamaness. "My mother spoke to Xena and Gabrielle while they sojourned here. Though she was loath to speak of it my mother coaxed from Gabrielle the telling of their crucifixion by Caesar. That we did not go to war with Rome for the murder of an Amazon Queen shows just how lost we are as a people."
By now they have reached the edge of the village. Two warriors drop from nearby trees to escort the queen and shamaness. The guards are acknowledged briefly before Iolanthe speaks again. While she understands the queen's resolve she refuses not to speak her mind on the subject. " You must see that it will not be safe."
"I do." Cyane turns her gaze to her friend. "Believe me I have no intention of marching our entire village across the breadth of the land to Greece. I meant myself, you and maybe one or two others."
Iolanthe feels a bit relieved but still cannot quail the worry about such a journey. Especially if that journey involves the queen. "If you are serious about this endeavor might I make one request concerning it."
They pass into the village proper and are greeted by the others. Cyane nods and smiles as they make their way to the queen's residence. "And what might this request be?" As they enter the queen's residence the two guards who had been their escort part ways and go about their individual business.
"Travel in disguise," Iolanthe speaks the words knowing that there will be a backlash.
"What? You'd have me wander about dressed as some peasant." Cyane's eyes bore into her friend. She feels mildly betrayed that such a thing would even be suggested to her. "I am the queen of…"
Iolanthe cuts her off. "Yes. You are our queen. And while you are brave, noble and a bit proud as well, you must also be protected. You have been raised since childhood to be our leader. And we prosper under your rule. I just ask that you not throw it away to bolster your pride. There is no shame in subterfuge. Especially if it spares your life."
Cyane's face turned from anger to a wry smile in an instant. "You shame me too often Iolanthe." The queen places her hands on her friend's shoulders and laughs.
Iolanthe shrugs. "I think that is why I am here. Spiritual advice and queenly humiliation."
Cyane's smile broadens. "Or maybe just to be a pain in my ass."
"That too." Iolanthe laughs.
"My queen!" a voice calls out from the entrance to the residence.
Cyane focuses her attention on the owner of the voice. "What is it Kharis?"
"I'm sorry my queen," Kharis says. "But there is something you should see."
"Of course," Cyane replies. "I will join you in a moment."
Kharis exits the residence hastily. Iolanthe watches her leave and wonders what could be worrying the woman so. "What now I wonder?"
"Let's not keep her waiting." Cyane leads her friend from the residence. Outside they find Kharis already rounding the residence to make for the opposite side of the village.
"The training ground?" Cyane says when she realizes where they are going.
"Not again," Iolanthe groans. She knows in a moment what , or more precisely who, is causing a disturbance worthy of the queen's attention.
Once they are within sight of the training ground they can see them. Most of the village seems present in a circle shouting about something in their midst. Kharis reaches the circle of people and indicates the queen's presence. The outer edges of the crowd turn and fall silent as Cyane approaches. Those within continue to scream and shout.
Iolanthe shakes her head as they move through the jeering crowd. Once she and Cyane reach the inner perimeter of the crowd her worry becomes justified. Within the wide circle of Amazons, three warriors circle a fourth. Here and there lie the unconscious forms of two other Amazons. And she can see some members of the crowd pulling another clear from the combat area. Amazingly most of those present are still unaware of the queen's presence as they cheer on the combatants.
The fourth woman being stalked by the others is not in truth an Amazon. But an outsider who joined their ranks some time ago. A stranger who walked into the village seeking sanctuary from the world and a place among them. Most were skeptical, even the queen. But the woman knew their ways as if born to them. She could recite many of their rites and even knew of the death of Artemis. And she soon proved herself to many to be a warrior born. To many. But not to all. Some still challenge her presence. Twice this has occurred. Each confrontation has ended the same. With the outsider standing amongst her unconscious foes. Challenge number three has already begun. She turns to Cyane to gauge the queen's demeanor on the situation. Cyane like all the others is just watching. Just as she had the first two times. And no doubt were Iolanthe to ask the queen would reply as she has before. She must prove herself to the others.
So Iolanthe turns back to watch the combat. The outsider moves with a feline grace as her three opponents move in tighter towards her. All of them are armed with staffs. An obvious mistake on their part for challenging the outsider with the weapon she seems most skilled with. One of the warriors takes a swing while a second moves in low for a sweep. The outsider leaps into the air tucking her legs tightly under her. While in midair she thrusts her staff towards the woman taking a swing at her. The attacker leans back to avoid the thrust. When the outsider hits the ground she spins sweeping the other woman's feet. Overbalanced by leaning away in a dodge she falls to the ground. The warrior who had tried sweeping her stands to her feet again just in time to receive the outsider's horizontal strike right across the bridge of her nose. With blood flowing from her now undoubtedly broken nose she stumbles back. The third warrior takes aim at the outsider's vulnerable flank. She switches her horizontal grasp to a vertical one blocking the attack. Twirling the staff in her grasp she hits the third woman squarely in the temple. She drops like a sack of rocks to the ground. All this has happened in a matter of a few seconds. In that time the fist attacker has had time to kick up to her feet. But she is barely vertical before she is struck in the gut with one end of the outsider's staff. The second attacker seizes the distraction to bring her staff down in a huge arc before her. The outsider once more holds her staff horizontal to block the blow. But the savagery of this attack splits her staff in two. The outsider leans back just out of reach of the descending weapon. The attacker's staff hits the ground between her legs. Without a moment's hesitation she steps on the staff and uses it to jump with her other knee up at her attacker. Iolanthe winces as the knee smashes into the already broken nose. The warrior crumbles and the outsider rolls through coming to her feet on the other side of the warrior's unconscious form. She turns to where the last attacker is once more getting to her feet. She jumps up and hurls one broken end of her staff at the woman then charges. The remaining warrior manages to knock the projectile from the air an instant before it collides with her face. But the action leaves her wide open. The outsider is upon her before she can draw her staff back to defend herself. The single stroke of the broken staff in her hand ends the combat with a resounding crack. But as the last attacker goes down a young Amazon steps from the circle , not to attack but to pull the bleeding warrior who is her older sister from the circle. The outsider sees this from the corner of her eye and believes it to be another attacker. As her last opponent goes to the ground she snatches the staff from her limp hand and whirls around. The end of the staff sings its way towards the head of the unsuspecting girl.
"Sotira!" Iolanthe shouts.
All is silence in the training ground. The end of the staff vibrates a hair's breath from the temple of the young Amazon. All eyes are on either the dominant warrior in their midst or the shamaness whose words still seem to echo through the village.
"That's enough," Iolanthe declares with her eyes locked on Sotira. And when the grey eyes of this outsider meet her own she is struck again by the beauty of the woman. Though she will admit it to no one , even Cyane, she has become enamored of this stranger now living among them. This is the third time she has watched her lithe, muscular form in combat. The movement is fluid and precise, more like a dancer than a warrior. It embarrasses her to think that she has dreamed of Sotira dancing more than once. Then there is the red hair. Long, the color of fire and always braided tightly so as to not be in her way.
Sotira drops the staff to the ground. Others rush from the circle to gather the unconscious Amazons. The rest stand about looking at one another unsure of what to do next.
Cyane scans the faces of all those present, even Sotira and Iolanthe's. Only those two do not look down to the ground in abashed shame. Sotira's gaze bores into Iolanthe and she is sure her shamaness sees nothing but the outsider. She has her suspicions about that. Her childhood friend is not as good at hiding her emotions as she thinks.
"Surely there is something more important you could all be doing!" Cyane exclaims. She looks around at her tribe in disgust. Why are they acting this way? Almost like children. "I grow tired of this. I'm going to ask now that anyone else who wishes challenge Sotira's presence here to do so right now! For I will have no more of it after today."
Amazons start looking from one to the other half expecting the woman next to her to step out. None come forth.
"Very good." Cyane walks into the middle of the circle. "We have had outsiders in our tribe before. And we will have them in future. Many of you can , in fact, trace your ancestries back to outsiders. Our people are few and scattered enough without us picking fights amongst ourselves over pointless offenses. Am I understood?"
"Yes my queen!" The answer is loud and unanimous.
"Good. Now go." Cyane says with a loud clapping of her hands. The Amazons disperse leaving only Cyane, Iolanthe and Sotira present. Cyane turns to walk away. As she passes Iolanthe she whispers, "I'll let you handle her." She walks on without waiting for any retort by the shamaness.
Sotira remains motionless as the other Amazons leave the training ground. Soon only she and Iolanthe are left. Iolanthe looks hard at the woman before her. It is not just Sotira's physical attributes that interest her. Sotira is an enigma to everyone in the village. Since the day she walked into their midst, she has been secretive about her past. A past that many are sure includes Amazons for she cannot know as much as she does of their culture without having had prior contact with it. But more than that since she has come tension and unrest have been high in their tribe. These women who have lived together for their whole lives in peace now suppress a boiling hostility. A hostility that is typically directed at Sotira herself. And while Cyane and the others cannot comprehend why, Iolanthe can.
Sotira is not just the object of the hostility. Iolanthe is sure she is the cause of it. Since first laying eyes on the outsider she has felt a vague but prevalent trepidation. Each time she comes close to Sotira she can feel it. There is a darkness in the woman that is so pervasive the others cannot help but feel it. And act upon it. As a shamaness , Iolanthe is more attuned to the spirits than the others. Thus she can feel the aura of rage and pain. It is a sickness of the soul that draws Iolanthe closer to Sotira for she wishes to help her heal.
"Walk with me," Iolanthe says calmly as she passes by Sotira towards the outskirts of the village. The outsider does not respond except to follow the shamaness. Once at the edge of the forest Iolanthe turns and begins making a circuit of the village. Sotira continues to follow without saying anything. They walk in silence until they arrive at the back of Iolanthe's hut.
"Please," the shamaness says indicating the doorway leading into her residence. There is no hesitation as Sotira walks through the door into Iolanthe's home. She has taken them here via the long route so as not to expose Sotira to any challenges, though she is sure the queen's order will stand. But also because she didn't want anyone seeing the two of them entering her home together. Sotira causes enough trouble without rumors of a tryst. She closes the door behind her.
Sotira is standing over a small table on which rest the wares of an Amazon shamaness. Small bowls containing dried herbs and salts. A larger bronze bowl filled with water. Several crystals of varying size and color. A dagger made from the bone and hoof of the same deer she fashioned her cowl from. And an etched leather pouch.
Iolanthe approaches. As she does she removes the horned cowl and places it on a rack near the table. It is the first time Sotira has seen the shamaness without it. Underneath is golden blond hair cut very short but shot through with streaks of ebony black. One lock of hair dangles in front of Iolanthe's eye before she pushes it back behind her ear.
As she places her cowl on the rack it occurs to her that this is the closest that she has been to Sotira since her arrival. It makes her aware of two things. First, quite embarrassing to her, is that her heart is beating much faster than before due to the proximity of the beautiful outsider. Second, she can feel that darkness now more than ever. It causes a twisting in the pit of her gut akin to physical nausea. And if she closes her eyes and attunes herself to the spiritual , that darkness is visible to her in Sotira's aura. And while she doesn't feel the desire to challenge or antagonize Sotira like so many of the others she can feel the rage that exudes from her like some emotional pheromone. Her eyes travel over Sotira's body for a moment. She hopes the other woman doesn't notice as she feels embarrassed enough as is. When her gaze lights upon the small of Sotira's back she notices a curious thing. Between the leathers covering the woman's body, Iolanthe spies a black discoloration just above the waist. And while it is not uncommon for Amazons to mark themselves, they typically do so openly on arms, upper chest or even on their face. It is odd to have a marking on a part of the body that is not readily visible. But Iolanthe reminds herself that Sotira was not born a Amazon. Thus it could be a mark for some other purpose.
"I am sorry for the trouble I'm causing," Sotira remarks. She turns away from the altar to bring her full attention on the shamaness. "It is not my intention to cause such unrest. I came here seeking some kind of peace."
Iolanthe fins herself once again looking into the steel grey eyes of the outsider. She also notices for the first time that Sotira is taller than she by a few fingers. She has to slightly incline her head to meet the woman's gaze. "It isn't your fault," she replies. Though in a sense it is not true. The dark aura lingers on Sotira like a cloud. And this close to her Iolanthe can trace the darkness to Sotira's heart. Dark veins creep out from it like an infection throughout her body. She has not had much cause to view people who are spiritually corrupted. But she cannot believe this is normal. What could have happened to Sotira to cause such damage to her heart and soul. The death of a loved one? The disillusionment of some core belief? Betrayal?
"I know that I am trying the queen's patience," Sotira continues. "Will you apologize to her for me?"
"There is no need." Iolanthe draws her lingering gaze from Sotira's eyes and walks past her to stand before the altar. She looks down into the bowl of still water. Unsure of what to say. How do you tell someone that their very presence is disruptive perhaps even dangerous?
"I have seen the way you look at me," Sotira states.
Iolanthe's eyes go wide and she spins to face the other. "What?" she mutters.
"I know that you are attuned to the spirits and can see things that others cannot." Sotira looks down into the face of the shamaness as she speaks. Is the woman's face turning red? "Do you see something in me? Something. … wrong?"
"Sotira. I …" Iolanthe stutters to halt in her words much faster than she would have expected. It is the question she has been dreading and preparing for. But , of course, now that the moment is here to speak of she is unable to string more than two words together. It doesn't help that her heart is racing once again with those grey eyes boring into hers. Without thinking she reaches up and places her hand on Sotira's cheek. As soon as their flesh touches daggers of cold pierce her hand then race down her arm.
Sotira bats away Iolanthe's hand like she is parrying a weapon and steps back out of the shamaness's reach. Iolanthe stares down at her hand in shock, seeing it suffused with a lingering darkness. She turns her gaze to Sotira's face and sees the utter confusion on her features. "Sotira. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have…" Her words trail off again. She looks at her hand again to see the darkness dissipating.
Sotira can still feel the lingering warmth of Iolanthe's touch on her cheek. She is confused almost to the point of emotional shock at the intimate nature of the physical contact. This is the first time she has truly spoken to the shamaness. She has been desiring to do so in order to ask for spiritual advise. But now what has occurred here has her totally at a loss. "I need to go." She turns and walks quickly from the shamaness's home.
Iolanthe looks from her hand to the spot where Sotira had just stood. Had she just , for an instant, experienced what Sotira feels in her heart of hearts? Darkness, cold and pain. She has seen the emotional effect Sotira's presence has on others. But to think physical contact with her could transmit, even momentarily, the spiritual sickness she carries is evidence of its magnitude. The outsider needs her help far more than Iolanthe could ever have guessed. She just hopes she hasn't ruined that by letting her physical and emotional desires come before her duty as a shamaness.
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