Set in Great Britain at the cusp of the Renaissance, this is the tale of the pious but troubled young noblewoman Riell, Christian heir to her Crusader father's powerful realm, who learns of her pagan Amazon heritage from a darkly beautiful assassin named Alexandra, who has come to kill her and steal her throne. Instead, a forbidden love unites them, igniting the wrath of the Church and forcing Riell to choose honor, duty, and faith, or a passion that will cost her everything, and will alter the course of world history...
If you enjoy this story drop me a line. I will reply.
Email me at: email@example.com
by Dawn Lemanne
The dark-haired assassin turned her horse off the dirt road and dismounted. She tied the reins to a low branch, crept through the shadowy woods as quietly as she could and crouched behind an old oak to survey the guard post. It was barely twilight. She was early, as she always was, but the task ahead of her--murdering an innocent young woman--made her queasy. She had to finish soon, or she would lose her nerve. And if the soldiers were drugged as promised she would be at the heiress's throat in no time.
But the two pacing soldiers were very much awake, and the dutiful crunch, crunch, crunch of their boots carried on the warm evening air. To stay on schedule she'd have to find a new way into the fief. She cursed softly. Killing the heiress should have been an easy job. Suddenly it seemed to be more trouble than it was worth.
She decided to return to her horse, but as she took the first step backward she stepped on a twig. It snapped loudly. She cursed again and ducked out of sight behind the tree as one of the guards halted and called to his companion. With her back pressed hard against the rough trunk, heart pounding wildly, eyes squeezed tight in prayer to her neglected goddess, she eased the heavy dagger from its scabbard on her belt.
But the guards soon resumed their short march, apparently satisfied that everything was in order. With a quick hiss of relief, she pulled a folded piece of paper from a smooth leather satchel on her back. She was over-reacting to the tiny setback. She could certainly find another way onto the heiress's land. Why not go ahead with her plan? She had come a long way, after all, all the way from Greece. She studied the map in the waning light.
She would have to abandon her planned route and take a long detour through the woods. The new route would be riskier, although the forced diversion did have an upside. It would probably take her directly to her young victim. The silver tip of the dagger blade outlined a pond just north of the castle then deliberately tapped the center of the blue puddle. She nodded with a realization. The heiress probably followed Amazon bathing ritual, even though she had never been to the Amazons' Old Village in Greece. Like all Amazons, the heiress would bathe at dawn and dusk, and outdoors if possible. That meant the intruder could finish the task in the next hour.
The intruder inhaled deeply. As she exhaled, she raised her eyes and stared at nothing in particular. Maybe this was ridiculous. Perhaps she should just turn back now and forget it. Did she really imagine she could murder an Amazon? That she could break her precious Amazon Oath in this way? She quickly pushed her misgivings far away. If she had to break her oath, she was willing; it was the price she would have to pay to live here, out here in the Other World where everyone but Amazons lived, where she belonged, where she deserved to live.
She folded the map, slid it carefully into the leather satchel, and sheathed her dagger, making everything tidy except for the fact that the heiress had never harmed her. And the intruder had sworn never to kill another Amazon for gain.
But, she reminded herself, the heiress wasn't really an Amazon--the heiress had not yet taken the Oath of Artemis. And the heiress stood between the assassin and what she needed more than anything in the world, recognition as the rightful heir to this realm. She fingered the silver medallion hanging from her neck and crept back to her horse. Then, like a dagger slid expertly between ribs, she slipped deep into the heart of Riell's domain.
"Lady Riell," called the cheerful serving woman, Frances, pushing noisily through the bushes that hid a small pond near the castle. "You're late," she said, placing her hands on her stocky hips. She was carrying a basket on one arm.
The blond heiress Riell lay naked on the shore, her lithe limbs splayed shamelessly on the cool green grass. She blindly patted the ground at her side until she felt the smooth leather pouch that she had filled with cherries that morning. But the tart globes were gone. Riell sat up and spit the last cherry pit far out onto the pond, where a lone swan circled aimlessly on the water, a small wake fanning behind it. For some reason the sight filled her with a vague melancholy.
Frances opened the basket and lifted out a white dress with a tight bodice. "For dinner. Lord Henry insists I'm to have you looking like a lady, not a knight."
Riell's eyes widened, then she frowned. "I'll go naked before I'll wear that," she announced.
"I'm sure you mean that, Lady Riell." Frances returned the dress to the basket. "But hurry and dress. In something."
"I shan't go back yet," Riell protested. "I haven't had my evening bath."
Frances became impatient. "Lord Henry requires your presence. He says you're to decide on marriage. He's even brought a special guest to help you make the arrangements." The stout, middle-aged woman held out a work-hardened hand and pulled a reluctant Riell to her feet. "And believe me, this guest won't approve of all your baths."
"I shan't have a husband who thinks women should stink." Riell paused. "In fact, I shan't have a husband at all. I'm the heir, and I'll stay alone and rule my realm, as my father would have wanted. Perhaps I'll give Henry a little war over it." She glanced around for her sword.
Frances had stepped over the golden sword handle jutting from an ornately jeweled scabbard to pick up the dull green tunic and brown leggings scattered on the grass. She held them out to Riell.
"Don't worry about all that. Just wear clothes to supper. And don't say anything that will get either of us beheaded."
Riell dressed, stepped into her sandals, adjusted her sword and scabbard, and turned her short-cropped golden head toward the pond for a final glance at the swan, before following Frances on the long walk back to the castle. Its turreted towers seemed to loom especially dark against the evening sky. At least the bright yellow lights shining from the windows promised some cheer inside. Riell sighed.
"Lady, forgive me," Frances said, "but are you sure marriage is truly not for you?"
"It's the swan," Riell fibbed, straightening her shoulders. No use inflicting her gloom on Frances. "I've never seen one here."
"Beautiful bird," Frances said, looking back at the pond. Riell caught the look of nervous longing on her face. "A long time ago two swans lived here. Your mother would toss bread crumbs to them." Frances whispered her next comment. "Where she came from they were sacred, you know."
As the pair’s soft footfalls stirred the dusty path Riell tried to imagine the Amazon Old Village, hidden somewhere in Greece. The thought left her feeling lonely. Perhaps that was because she knew that no one there had to marry.
Frances continued. "She was a special woman, Princess Aella was. A lot like you, your mother was." The servant glanced at Riell for a moment, then turned her attention back to the path. "She refused to wear a silly frock, as she called it. How Lord Roland loved her for that."
Frances frowned, as she always did when speaking of Riell's dead parents. She recovered her cheer, however, and added, "Will you be going to your Aunt Selene's later this evening?"
Riell stopped dead on the path. It was summer solstice. That meant midnight would bring new Amazon scrolls to Selene's little house deep in the woods.
As far back as Riell could remember the precious Amazon scrolls arrived exactly on time, eight times a year. A lone horsewoman would stand at the door of Selene's cottage at the edge of the fief and bare a tattooed breast. Speaking hastily in Greek, the horsewoman would exchange scrolls with the old woman, then gallop away. The next morning the perimeter guards would be disciplined for falling asleep at their posts. Selene told her that the guards were secretly drugged.
Riell resumed walking, but a little faster now. "After dinner I'll check on Aunt Selene. Tell the squire to ready my horse."
Entering the dimly lit great hall of the castle weighed Riell down. She could see the long table covered with a white cloth and laden with wine and meat. Three men were already seated there, laughing and eating. What did they need her for? As she walked the forty-two paces from the door to her chair, her sandals slapped softly against the stone floor and she imagined her horse galloping away without her, and never returning.
"The Lady Riell," announced Frances. The graying regent, Lord Henry, and his only son Richard rose quickly. The third man, the thick-necked priest Candor, rose more slowly than the others did, as if his black robes and copper cross weighed him down.
"Forgive us for starting without you, Riell," said handsome young Richard, holding her chair at the end of the table. Riell took her place with only a slight nod to him. Richard was black-haired, tall and slender, with fine features. He kept one arm hidden behind his back. His intense dark eyes twinkled with a secret.
Bowing and sweeping his arm into view, he presented her with a red rose, lasciviously wide open and fragrant. Richard had removed all the thorns.
"Happy twentieth birthday," he said.
"Why, thank you, Richard," said Riell politely. A vase sat in empty anticipation at her place setting. As she placed the rose in it, several wine-red petals fell onto the white tablecloth.
Henry sat down again at the other end of the table opposite Riell, followed by Candor on one side of the board. Richard hesitated by Riell's chair for a moment, as if he expected her to say more. "Sorry I'm late," she offered. Richard nodded and took his place across from Candor. Candor's presence had put her in a particularly bad mood, she realized. Now even darling Richard annoyed her.
Before resuming his meal, the priest crossed himself. The other diners, excluding Riell, crossed themselves in quick succession. What a waste of time, she thought. These men had certainly not come to pray with her. They had come to marry her off.
"Shall we get on with it?" Riell insisted. Instead silence ensued, underscored by loud smacking noises coming from the priest, who looked only at Henry.
Riell's knife moved rhythmically as she sawed through an especially tough piece of meat. Perhaps she had miscalculated, she thought. Perhaps she would escape for another year. Hope glowed faintly around the edges of her mind. But finally Candor began to speak, his open mouth revealing a mound of partially ground flesh.
"Richard must marry Riell."
"Fine." Riell's fingers tightened around the hilt of her dining knife. "I'll reign, and he shall be my consort."
"It's not right for a woman to reign over a man." The priest looked at the regent, refusing Riell's green eyes. They narrowed and her breathing quickened. "She ought to obey a man, as a man ought to obey God. Her only proper occupations are virgin or wife."
"Preferably both," said Riell, finally catching the priest's eye and fixing him with an icy glare. She turned the knife around and around in her hand, grabbing blade, hilt, and blade again. "But again, the Church is a bit inconsistent on that point, isn't it."
"Riell, the Church is God's instrument," said the priest, propelling morsels of food and saliva onto the tablecloth as he spoke. "And you shouldn't speak as if you knew better than the pope."
He stopped to place more food in his mouth. "A woman's mind is weak, ruled by lust and desire. A throne is no place for her. Rome will go against you if you don't take your rightful place…" Riell found her fingers pinching the blade of her knife. "…under your husband."
Candor had thrust a particularly large piece of meat into his mouth. As he struggled to chew, his eyes bulged and sweat ran down his forehead. Riell's dinner knife flew through the air and the blade lodged in the large roasted leg on Candor's plate. The handle quivered in the animal flesh. The priest's surprised face hung pale as moonrise over the black robes.
"Perhaps you've bitten off more than you can chew, Candor," said Henry, the gray-bearded regent, one side of his mouth curling up a bit.
"Well, Lord Henry, Richard…Candor," said Riell, her chair legs scraping along the stone floor before the nearest servant could reach her. "I'll consider your very romantic proposal seriously. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm not feeling quite myself tonight." She rose and strode toward the exit.
Henry smiled to himself as the three men watched Riell leave. She always seemed taller than she really was, he thought, just like her father Roland had. There must be a trick to that.
Richard looked aghast. He stood. "Riell, are you alright?" he called. Riell did not turn around and disappeared around a corner.
"Don’t worry Richard. She’s not ill," said the regent, taking another sip of wine. No, not ill at all. She was wild, like her mother Aella, and wouldn't be easily tamed. "She’s just being a good Amazon virgin, isn’t she Candor?" he said, pleased with his own cleverness. Candor didn’t answer. "And I rather agree with her comment on your table manners." The man had no sense of humor, thought Henry. That was clear twenty-seven years ago in Greece, too, when the Amazons had changed everything.
Twenty-seven years ago, Henry, hot-blooded, black-haired, sixteen, and ready to die for the Virgin, had followed the fair-haired and beloved Lord Roland on the calamitous crusade to Palestine. The bitter desert defeat had extinguished his youthful zeal, and Henry had been glad when Roland, with the wretched remnants of his knightly band, broke from the main Latin army to return home. Of the one hundred survivors, only a fortunate twenty still had horses.
The men trudged overland from the sparkling marble of Constantinople toward the bustling port of Thessalonika, avoiding the green but hostile Greek coastal cities, hugging the brown foothills, hoping to catch a fast ship back home to Britain.
Henry suffered. A maggot-filled leg wound poisoned his blood. Ruminations over the recent defeat sickened his soul. As the youth swayed upon his horse, the young priest Candor prayed for him. But the Virgin turned a deaf ear to his torment, and though his body lived, Henry's faith died.
Hopelessly lost beneath the cloudless sky and snow-capped mountains north of Thessalonika, the men were starving when the Amazons seized them. At first Henry thought an arrow had struck brave Roland as he slid off his horse and sank to his knees on the dry Grecian earth. The line halted. The horses snorted and whinnied in fear. But it was not an arrow that had lodged in Roland's heart.
Ahead on the dusty road sat the princess upon a black horse, beautiful, long brown hair flowing in the breeze, flaunting weapons and pride. Behind her bristled fifty mounted Amazon warriors, dressed in black satin, left breasts bare, heads bare, magnificently defiant. Henry gasped. He was jubilant. Now he could redeem his soul and his pride in a final battle with these pagans. The princess rode forward and offered her simple message in perfect Latin.
"I am Aella, daughter of Queen Cybele. You and your knights are not welcome. If you try to cross Amazon land we will kill you." Henry marveled at the clear strong words. Women didn't speak that way.
"Please," said Roland from his knees, "have mercy on us." Henry stiffened. His noble Roland wasn't going to bargain with these creatures, was he? "I don’t want to fight you. You can see the condition my men are in. We are lost and starving. We want to go home." The Amazon seemed to consider the unspoken offer for a few moments.
"If you surrender to us, we will feed you and care for you for one month, then we will release you with some supplies. You will pay us."
"How?" asked Roland. "We have nothing of worth to your people." Aella studied Roland for a moment, her silence accentuated by the snorts and whinnies of the horses. At last she spoke.
"You will make children for us."
"I accept," said Roland immediately. He unsheathed his sword and cast it on the ground.
First a rumble of astonishment rolled through the column of men, then a clatter of metal on earth as they threw down their weapons and fell to their knees. Henry followed, pain slicing through his sore leg. And for the first time, he cursed Lord Roland. To surrender without a fight, and to a band of women! His stomach clenched in humiliation.
Only ruddy young Candor remained upon his nervous, prancing horse. "I won't give you my body," he spat. "You're abominable. Women living without men. Go to hell!"
Aella nodded to a beautiful golden-haired Amazon upon a large sable horse. As the Amazon rode nonchalantly past Henry, azure eyes, eyes the color of the Mediterranean Sea, glanced at him, and he stopped breathing. Smooth muscles rolled under bronze skin as she guided her horse close to the raving priest, so that one of her long legs touched his thigh.
"Won’t you give up peacefully?" she asked in Latin.
"Never! You'll have to kill me." Candor reached for his sword. Swiftly, the Amazon struck the priest with each hand in some way on the sides of his throat. Poor Candor dropped off his horse like a stone to lie writhing and choking in the dusty road. Henry felt his own eyes widen. His throat closed in sympathy and terror. The blond Amazon dismounted and looked down at Candor with mild interest, then looked back to Aella.
The princess nodded again. Leaning over him, the Amazon struck Candor again in the neck, and he began to breathe, great, relieved breaths that brought relief to Henry as well. Henry understood that Candor would have died had the Amazon not released him from her touch. It was apparently clear to Candor as well; he came along quietly enough after that.
A drumming sound brought Henry's thoughts back to the dining table in the great hall. His own fingers tapped the cool white tablecloth. The priest was talking to Richard. "The girl has changed lately." A black sleeve mopped the sweating brow. "She thinks too much. A thinking woman is nothing but trouble."
"Riell has an incredible mind. She’s shown me some of her writing," said Richard. " She knows a lot about the stars, and mathematics. And she's shown me some of the history scrolls she gets from her aunt." His intense eyes gentled, as if the long black lashes weighed down the lids. "I don’t read much Greek, but the Latin poetry she writes is beautiful."
"Has she written any to you, my dear boy?" asked Henry, the edges of his lips curling upward almost imperceptibly.
"N-no. But I have shown her some of mine."
"And?" asked Henry. Poor Richard. He was as unlucky in love as his father was. Perhaps his other son, the one he left in the Amazon village, would have been able to capture Riell’s heart, he mused.
The priest broke in before Richard could answer. "The girl shows no interest in marriage, Henry. Her old witch-aunt Selene is probably teaching her the abominations of her mother's race. It’ll be her ruin."
"Well, Candor, we both know that the best marriages are based on power and politics, not love." Henry turned to his son. Suddenly Richard's petulant French mother crossed Henry’s mind. Henry had divorced her after two years, out of sheer boredom. "Richard, if you don't marry Riell, I'll have to marry Candor, or his Church, to keep the fief in our family."
"You can mock me, Henry," Candor said. "But the Church will stand behind you if you go against Riell. Rome doesn’t take kindly to Amazons, especially ones who stand to inherit a throne."
"Father! And you, Candor!" said Richard, leaping indignantly to his feet. "How can you joke about this? You know I would never forgive you for hurting Riell."
Ah, yes you would, my poor son, said Henry silently. Tilting his goblet toward the priest, he added, out loud, "Land and treasure have a way of soothing almost any sorrow, don’t they Candor?"
The priest raised his goblet to toast his agreement. "Yes indeed, especially when they're used to further the will of God."
As Richard stormed out, Henry took another sip of the deep red wine. It warmed his throat and chest. Too bad the boy had feelings for the girl. Riell was dangerous, like all Amazons, and Richard was no match for her. Candor broke into his thoughts again.
"Name your time, Henry. A mercenary army has helped many a friend of Rome."
"Perhaps, Candor." Henry stroked his neatly trimmed beard. "Perhaps next year." His fingers resumed their tapping. "Actually, I'm rather fond of Riell."
Candor grimaced into his cup as Henry continued, enjoying the priest's flush of anger. Candor was so easy to tease. "I have a soft spot for Amazons. And I've heard that the best mercenary armies are led by Amazons, my dear friend. Maybe Rome could get me one of those," he said, swirling his wine and savoring the tart fragrance. The priest's freckled fist clenched around the stem of his goblet.
"Those are rogue Amazons, Henry, remember that. Rogues are the most dangerous women on earth. No one can control a rogue Amazon, not men, not Rome, not even the Queen of the Amazons."
Henry chuckled. My, how Candor could get worked up over his own exaggerations, thought Henry. "Sounds like just the thing to take care of our local Amazon problem," said Henry. But Candor wouldn't do it, Henry knew. Candor, like most people, was all talk.
And then, right on time, the familiar, daily ache returned to Henry, but it surprised him tonight with its power. How was it, Henry pondered, that he could love a son that he’d never met, a son that might not even exist? Ah, he was becoming too philosophical in his old age. He swirled his cup with more vigor and stared hard at the tiny purple vortex. What an arrogant young fool he'd been. How much he'd give now for one sip of that special Amazon elixir he'd been offered twenty-seven years ago.
Having fled from the evening meal into the warm darkness, Riell headed for the stables, grateful to have escaped long before midnight, the scrolls' expected arrival time. Her young squire had her favorite horse ready. The boy led the horse to her and Riell mounted.
"Lady," said the boy, handing her a note, "Lord Richard asked me to give you this."
I love you more than life itself. Please know that I would never hurt you, and I would give my life to keep you from harm. Land and gold mean nothing to me. The only treasure I care for is your heart. Please tell me how to win it, for I would do anything to hear you say you are mine.
Riell folded the note and placed it in her saddlebag. She felt confused. And irritated. Whatever was it that Richard wanted from her? What did he mean, give him her heart? Wasn’t it enough that she would probably marry him? After all, she had no other plans in that regard, she thought. And she wasn't a fool; she knew she wasn't likely to hold onto the kingdom without the marriage, not with Candor's scheming. She couldn't lead her father's faithful army into a hopeless defeat against Church-backed mercenaries. But with that thought the melancholy tightened in her chest.
She rode to the chapel and entered the dimly lit cavern. Her hesitant footsteps echoed through the deathly still air and the stillness pressed upon her, so that she barely breathed. As usual, she passed the bloody, thorn-wracked God and chose the next image. Crossing herself, she knelt in front of the blue-robed Virgin, and turned her green eyes up to the gentle face. Surely the Virgin would understand. Riell prayed earnestly and dutifully, her palms pressed together in front of her aching heart.
"Hail Mary …blessed art thou among women…pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."
When she finished, she stood and took a deep breath. The Virgin looked at her kindly, her hands reaching out to her worshipper in gentle acceptance. But nothing had changed. How was she to know if her prayers had been heard? Riell returned to her waiting horse and climbed into the saddle.
She heard fast footsteps and a shadow ran toward her. Richard. Breathing hard, he stopped beside her and closed his slender warm hands over one of hers. Lifting her fingers to his lips, he kissed them, and placed them on his smooth-shaven cheek. His breath tickled a bit.
"Did you get my note?"
He was handsome. Why didn't she feel more for him? She would try harder. She decided to leave her hand in his. " I don't know what to say."
"Say yes; just say yes, Riell, and make me the happiest man on earth." Richard's beautiful brown gaze danced from one of her eyes to the other, melting with adoration. Riell felt nothing. Or was the melancholy twisting even more securely around her heart?
She could talk to her Aunt Selene about it tonight. Perhaps Selene would have a potion or something.
"I'll think about it, Richard. That's still all I can promise for now." A restless feeling made her shiver in spite of the heat. She pulled her hand out of Richard's, turned her head and horse away from the regent's son, and galloped off down the road into the woods.
The warm night air, fragrant with summer blossoms, caressed her face and hair. The powerful churning of the animal below her and the rhythmic pounding of hooves on the soft earth lifted her dismal spirits, loosening the melancholy's grip, changing it to a vague longing, almost an anticipation of sorts. It was still long before midnight. She would have her evening bath after all.
The heiress tied her horse to a sapling, unclasped the leather saddlebag, and stepped through the curtaining bushes onto the familiar shore. For some reason she glanced around uneasily. Across the pond, she could make out the wild tangles of her mother's long-neglected rose garden. The only sound she heard was a warm breeze that rustled through the trees; still, a faint dread whispered within her. She disrobed anyway and dropped her clothes and saddlebag on the grass as usual, but this time she hid her sword beneath them.
Riell gasped, then sighed as she stepped slowly into the cold, clear pond. She felt better already. She waded out chest-deep, closed her eyes, tipped her head back, and sank with another sigh beneath the smooth black water.
A moment later, she surfaced with a muffled splash and pushed her hair off her forehead. Water trickled down her face and shoulders and she shivered a little. The droplets felt as if someone were touching her, tickling her. She lay back, floating weightlessly, her white body spinning slowly under the starry sky. Her arms and legs relaxed; she felt her breasts drifting pleasantly with her thoughts. Thousands of stars spun slowly above her. Perhaps, she thought, she had never really seen them before.
Riell had studied the stars. She had memorized and diagrammed the constellations. She had calculated their positions relative to the planets in the various seasons.
But tonight, tonight Riell's imagination spiraled in a new direction. Perhaps the stars watched her as well. Perhaps the stars had watched Xena and Gabrielle as they made love under an evening sky a thousand years ago, oblivious to all but each other.
How much she'd loved to hear Selene tell that wonderful old Amazon tale as a child. The words had transported her to another land and time, a world so old and long ago, but somehow familiar, too. It felt like one of her own memories, she had heard it so often. And soon she would hold the tale in her own hands. Tonight's scroll would let her glimpse the most intimate and secret yearnings of Gabrielle, as if the greatest Amazon bard were still alive.
A chill shuddered through Riell, bringing her thoughts back to her surroundings, raising gooseflesh on her arms and legs. Perhaps the water was too cold; perhaps she should get out. She climbed onto the grassy bank and lay down next to her clothes to let her skin dry in the warm air.
After a while she sat up and reached for her saddlebag. That was odd; the flap was open, and Richard's letter lay on the grass beside the pouch. She reached for the letter, but for some reason could not bring herself to read it again. Instead she held it tightly and closed her eyes.
The old Amazon fable drifted through her mind again: Xena and Gabrielle, the star-crossed lovers. Could love like that really exist? Riell's mother and father had had a great love. People still talked about it. Perhaps she and Richard could also. She would try harder.
She opened her eyes to read the letter again, but as she did, motion on the glassy water distracted her. She lifted her head. The swan! And for some reason its luminous beauty filled her with a wild joy. As if it felt her awe, the great white bird stopped paddling for a few heartbeats. Coasting, it cocked its head, one shiny black eye looking rather kindly at her, Riell imagined. Then the shimmering creature smoothed a feather with its bill and tooled around the pond, apparently unconcerned with its admirer. That drew yet another unexpected response from Riell.
Loneliness suddenly seized Riell, a great loneliness. It usurped the joy brought by the swan only moments before and forced a soft sob from her. She placed the letter back on the ground and covered her face, her bare shoulders heaving.
"Why would such a beautiful sight make an even more beautiful woman cry?" said a low but distinctly feminine voice behind Riell's right shoulder. She gasped and fumbled for the sword she had hidden under her clothes, then whirled to her feet to face the velvet-voiced intruder. She gasped again and tried not to panic. Never before had Riell's sword faced anything like this.
Leaning casually against a tree a few paces away stood the most beautiful woman Riell had ever seen. She was tall. Long black hair cascaded past finely chiseled features. A blue silk tunic fell over violet pants gathered at the ankles. Gold links graced a slender waist. A long curved sword hung on her left hip, a bejeweled metal ring on her right hip. Riell guessed it must be a weapon by its placement near the stranger's right hand. Instinctively Riell tried to get a good look at the well-armed stranger's eyes, to better deduce her intentions.
She was an assassin. Why hadn't she already done the deed? She must have had ample opportunity. Riell had been utterly vulnerable. The woman smiled coldly through perfect white teeth and took a step toward Riell. The heiress jumped back and pointed her sword at the stranger's throat.
"Stay back!" The tip of the sword trembled in the air.
"I am sorry." The assassin stopped, but the insolent smile stayed on her lips. Then she tilted her head, as if Riell had somehow caught her interest. "I have frightened you?" The words were spoken with a strange, yet familiar inflection. A foreigner. "You will forgive me, please."
"Who are you?" asked Riell, her voice trembling as much as her sword. The foreigner's confidence was unnerving. Something played in the blue eyes, and it wasn't fear of Riell or her sword.
"I am only an Amazon courier." Of course. A Greek accent. Riell's weapon dropped a little. The scroll delivery. The realization should have soothed Riell, yet she remained uneasy. But she hesitated for only a moment more, then took a deep breath and lowered her sword, resting the tip on the grass. The woman bowed slightly in response and pulled a scroll from a pouch on her back. "This one, it is for you, I think."
The Amazon started toward the heiress, but stopped again, as if she were pondering something. She studied the naked heiress from head to toe. The Amazon's clean warm scent entered Riell's consciousness. Finally the Amazon held out the scroll, and as she handed it to Riell her fingers lingered on Riell's arm for a moment, raising gooseflesh again.
"I hope you will enjoy it?" At that moment a breeze rippled through the little glade. The blades of grass around Riell's feet trembled and the surface of the pond grew fuzzy. Closer now, Riell could see the intruder's ice-cold eyes better. And were her slender fingers stretching toward the sword at her hip? Riell's eyes widened in fear.
Their gazes locked and Riell thought that the Amazon shuddered. Perhaps the eyes softened for just a moment. But if they did, they quickly froze again. The stranger turned toward the pond and nodded. The breeze passed and the water stilled again.
"Now I will leave you with your beautiful friend," said the Amazon. Riell followed the Amazon's gaze onto the water. The swan nosed into hollows on the far shore near the wild rose garden. When Riell turned again the stranger was gone. The sound of galloping hooves faded in the distance.
Riell turned back to her pile of clothes and saw another strange sight. Lying across the garments was a single perfect red rose, a bud, closed and sleeping. She picked it up. She held it to her nostrils and breathed in deeply, but the scent was faint. She glanced back at the tree where the stranger had stood. Why in the world had the Amazon given her a rose? She felt compelled to keep it however, and she looked around for a safe place to put it. Aha!
But as Riell pushed the thorny stem into the hollow of the scroll, she cried out in pain and snapped her hand away. A shiny red globe bloomed on the pad of her index finger. A salty metallic taste filled her mouth as Riell sucked on the tiny wound. She scolded herself.
What was she doing? The scroll was priceless. The thorns might damage the parchment or the flower's juices stain the ancient document. All for a rose? A rose left by a stranger, a woman she had never met and would likely never see again? A woman who had frightened her and violated her privacy and perhaps meant her ill?
Hadn't she already forgotten the rose that gentle Richard had given her earlier that night? Why was she doing this? Riell silenced her thoughts and placed the scroll-wrapped rose carefully into her saddlebag. Then she dressed quickly and left the pond.
On the shore lay Richard's earnest letter, open to the stars, forgotten otherwise. Another breeze picked it up and carried it out onto the pond. As the swan watched indifferently, it gathered water and sank out of sight.
At that moment, deep in the woods, Selene returned to her cottage and hung the bearskin coat she wore winter and summer on a peg near the door. She was still slender and graceful. Her age would have been indeterminate but for her deeply lined face and long white braid. She set a small corked vial on a table. Her green eyes scanned the room.
"Riell? Are you here?"
Shelves lined several walls of the dwelling's main room. Upon the shelves rested flasks and vessels of various sizes and colors, all labeled and neatly arranged. Drying plants hung from the ceiling, imparting a sweet odor to the room. Dominating one wall was a large hearth, and in front of it lay a bearskin rug. A roomy sleeping pallet was built into the last wall, and several scrolls lay rolled inside little cubbies over the bed.
A second room lay off the main one, on the opposite side of the hearth, and contained a large bathing tub and a flushing ceramic chamber pot, both built onto the floor. The Amazon plumbing frightened the local folks, so Selene had installed it away from easy view.
Odd, she thought. Riell usually arrived early on scroll delivery nights. She would be disappointed to miss this delivery, especially. Tonight's new scroll would probably become one of Riell's favorites. And the courier delivering it was famous. Or perhaps infamous was a better word.
Selene made herself a cup of sweet-smelling tea, plucked a scroll from its cubby, and lounged on her pallet to read Cyrene's most recent letter again.
You are still missed here in the Old Village. I've not forgotten your kindness over these twenty-seven years. Your sister Cybele misses you, although I can't persuade her to write. She has never recovered from her daughter Aella's death. Even though it was twenty years ago, writing to you in Britain is too painful for her still. She loves to hear about her granddaughter Riell, though, so I share your letters with her.
I've written to you before about my daughter Alexandra, and as always, you've been kind in giving your advice when I've requested it, and just as kind in refraining from giving it when all I needed was an ear…
Selene recalled the anguished letters Cyrene had sent in the past. Alexandra had been born exactly nine months after the Amazon queen, Cybele, had released the crusading Britons. She had Cyrene's blue eyes, her father's black hair, and grew tall, strong, and fair of face. In fact, Cyrene had written, Alexandra had much more than the usual Amazon share of beauty and strength. Of course she did, Selene had thought wryly. Didn't every mother's child?
…Alexandra will be coming to Britain soon. She will of course deliver the scrolls, but don't think for a moment that she's going for the adventure of riding the Amazon delivery circuit…
Alexandra, Selene recalled from previous correspondence, had been wild and headstrong, even for an Amazon child. She was rude, disdainful, and always in trouble. She had taken well to the martial training of Amazon tradition, perhaps too well, if that were possible, and could best the strongest and most experienced Amazon warriors by the time she was sixteen. All except the queen, that is, with whom she clashed bitterly and constantly. She left the Old Village at seventeen to become a pirate and mercenary. The rest of the village had been relieved.
… Alexandra always showed a deep interest in the scrolls, and as a child loved to hang around the shamans, so I am surprised that she shows so little interest in following Amazon traditions, and prefers living in the Other World. She's certainly traveled all over it. Rumor has it that she's amassed quite a treasure, although I've never heard her mention it. The younger Amazons are quite in awe of her, although she doesn't have many friends. She doesn't let it show, but I think that hurts her.
She keeps to herself most of the time when she's around, but she does her military and civic chores without complaint, even the most distasteful ones, things which would challenge the sensibilities of someone less fastidious than she…
Selene dropped the hand holding the scroll to her lap and stared into the distance. Riell had been so different from Alexandra. It was a shame Aella had died giving birth to Riell. Riell would have made her Amazon mother proud.
Fortunately, Selene remembered, the regent Henry had been a bit cowed by the Amazon mystique. After Roland's death he had been quite happy to leave Riell's education to Selene. And so Selene had insisted that Roland's daughter be instructed in the military traditions of the kingdom along with the noblemen's sons. As she lay dying, Aella had sworn Selene to it, but she would have done it anyway. Selene was an Amazon, after all.
In those days Roland's soldiers were mostly veterans of the Amazon Crusade, as they liked to call it. The soldiers had virtually adopted the child, and the little orphaned princess had flourished from the attention.
And now Riell's knightly skills were good enough to earn the respect of her father's soldiers. She led them on the most difficult drills with ease. And she was a sight, thought the old woman, sitting astride her horse, helmetless as Amazons often were, her short golden hair gleaming as brightly as her sword. But Selene doubted that a warrior's life was Riell's calling. The girl had a greater gift.
Like her father Roland, the girl had a knack for awakening love in others. All kinds of love. One could avoid a lot of battles that way. But Riell was still oblivious to her gift. And its consequences. Selene frowned and lowered her cup. Her tea was cooling.
And Riell, rather unfortunately, also learned Candor's religion. Selene found it a dreary affair, full of death and retribution, and all of it blamed on women, of all things. But some of its shamans gathered considerable power, and with it could accomplish untold good or evil. She sighed audibly, placing the cold drink on a table beside the pallet. When she was younger anyway, Riell, like most children, did not question the Church or its teachings, yet she seemed to emerge unscathed from daily mass.
But afterwards, every day, little Riell would run into the cottage, park herself in front of the fire, and beg Selene to read from the marvelous scrolls. The little girl would flounce on the bearskin rug squealing with delight as the wondrous stories unfolded. As the hearth crackled merrily, tales of princesses, warriors, dragons, magic rings, goddesses and Amazons filled the cottage, enthralling the child, making her green eyes sparkle with joy.
Riell developed a keen mind and an insatiable curiosity. It became obvious to Selene that the girl had a prodigious gift. Writing often to the Amazon scrollmaster Cyrene for advice, Selene began to teach her in earnest, and in secret. Henry needn't know that his ward was being taught the most powerful knowledge and wisdom the world had produced. His female ward.
"Riell," Selene might say, reaching into the very special treasure chest of old scrolls, "read to me from the newest scroll today." And little Riell would form the Greek words carefully, obediently, and when she had finished Selene would say, "Now tell me what you've read about, and what it means."
After rolling up the crisp yellowed parchment with her small pink hands, the little girl might reply, in perfect Greek, "These are the writings of Hippocrates, who lived long ago in Greece, a land between the Adriatic and Aegean seas. He was a learned physician, and wrote of medicine and healing. He gained some of his knowledge from the Amazons. The Amazons are keeping all of it in their scrolls to share with the world."
…But lately I've sensed a new restlessness about Alexandra, perhaps for lack of a challenge. She's been coming back to the Old Village frequently. She's been asking about her father, and she just asked me if she could ride the circuit to Britain this season…
Hooves pounded outside the cottage and stopped. "Riell?" Selene climbed off the pallet and made her way to the door. But it was a dark-haired Amazon courier. The horsewoman stepped all the way into the dwelling, and studied it slowly and meticulously, as if she owned it. The latch clicked shut behind the tall traveler, who nonchalantly bared her left breast to reveal a crescent tattoo.
"You must be Alexandra." Selene spoke in Greek and gestured toward the vial on the table. "A bit early, aren't you? I barely got the sleeping potion to the perimeter soldiers. You could have been caught."
"No chance of that with those fools they're using as guards," answered the traveler in Greek. "I got by them while they were wide awake."
"Hmmm. Your mother was honest about your arrogance," said the older woman. And, she added silently, about your beauty. It was deadly.
"Well, old woman, you know it all so I don't have to waste my time telling you that I didn't come just to deliver scrolls." The traveler handed three scrolls to Selene. Selene placed the rolls on a table and bent to gather several more from an old metal chest on the floor. The traveler stopped her.
"I'm not leaving right away. And I won't be riding the Amazon circuit when I do leave, so save those for one of the regular riders." The old woman bent down again to return the scrolls to the chest. When she stood, the traveler was gone. Selene raised her brow at the absence of retreating hooves.
Selene decided to wait until Riell arrived to open the new scrolls. That way she could keep an ear open for anything unusual. She sat at the table, slid the new scrolls carefully to one side, and began sorting leaves and twigs into clay pots and jars.
Methods and Madness
Outside Selene's cabin, the waning moon now hovered directly overhead, casting misshapen shadows on the silver earth. Alexandra stood by her horse for a moment and held the reins, wondering where the heiress was now. She decided to wait for the heiress right there and finish the task once and for all. The Amazon quietly led her horse away from the cottage and crouched nearby in the woods to wait, hidden by shrubs and darkness.
As she waited, a faint breeze, like the one she'd felt at the pond, whispered across Alexandra's skin, and she shivered a little, though she didn't feel particularly cold. Alexandra felt the pounding hooves in her bones before she heard them. The heiress dismounted in front of the cottage. Alexandra's eyes widened, then narrowed. By the gods she was beautiful. Selene's letters hadn't exaggerated. Alexandra's heart sank. Did she have to kill Riell? Could she? And how? How should she do it?
Riell would have studied the Amazon pharmacopoeia diligently with the old woman, thought the Amazon, and would be difficult to poison. And she seemed to be an excellent swordswoman. No one, however, was a match for Alexandra in that regard. Alexandra supposed a direct confrontation with a weapon would be simple and effective.
But the Amazon's mind continued to balk at that idea. She hadn't been able to do it at the pond. Riell was so beautiful. And she was no Man's Woman, either, by the way her green eyes had touched Alexandra's. Alexandra could not bear to take her life that way, face to face, eye to eye. She found it distasteful.
Yes, from a distance. It would have to be from a distance. And what was she waiting for? An invitation? She would do it now. Alexandra removed the chakram from her hip and cocked her wrist. But wait! What was the heiress doing?
Alexandra's heart pounded as Riell took the scroll out of the saddlebag and carefully removed the rose. And why in the world had she given her that rose? Was she mad? Why hadn't she drowned her or….
The heiress raised the bud to her lips, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. Yes. Yes. The heiress liked it. Alexandra's eyes closed in a prayer of gratitude. Then she was sure she was going mad. She had better have a talk with the regent. That would set her back on track.
Riell entered the cottage without knocking and placed the scroll with the rose sticking out of it on the table. Selene's brows lifted. An admirer?
"Ah, Riell," said Selene flatly in Greek, continuing her sorting, "you remembered the scroll delivery." Riell pulled up a stool and sat across from Selene. She began to help with the sorting.
"Toadwort, Medusahead flax, velvet spurge," said the younger woman, also in Greek, fingering the herbs and placing them into containers. "You're making poultices, for battle wounds?"
"Always good to have around."
"Hmmm. You're not having one of your premonitions, are you?" She didn't wait for Selene's answer. "Richard asked me to marry him." Both women kept their eyes on the sorting task. "Or rather, Candor told me to marry him, and Richard didn't protest."
"Sounds like Richard."
"Oh, come on," said Riell. "He's not that bad."
"No, he's alright, I suppose. Did he give you that rose?"
"Well, yes. I mean he gave me one, but not that one."
Selene guessed where the other rose came from, but decided against pursuing the matter. These things had a way of working themselves out. The less interference the better. Selene finally stopped her work and looked up. "Well, are you going to marry him?"
"Maybe." Riell continued sorting. "I don't have anything else in mind."
"Riell, do you love Richard?"
"Sure. We grew up together." Riell didn’t look up. "We get along."
"Except the time you broke his arm. You didn't really have to do that."
"I suppose." Riell smiled a little. "He's a terrible jouster. I warned him not to force me into a rematch. His father embarrassed him into it, I think."
Funny, Riell didn't seem to take her fighting prowess seriously, thought Selene, as if she didn't think it important. That was probably because the girl had never seen a battle, or a war. That would not have been the case had she been raised in the Old Village. Hmmm. What else didn't she take seriously? wondered Selene.
"Riell, are you a virgin?"
"Artemis or Mary?" asked Riell, her brows lifting a bit as she concentrated on the leaves and sprigs before her.
"Either," said Selene, immediately.
Riell, thought Selene, was obviously enjoying her little game of wits. Especially since she was winning, said the older woman to herself.
"…for now," continued Riell. "That might change soon." She stopped working for a moment and looked up and past Selene. "Maybe I'll give Richard a try." Riell tilted her head for a moment, then, with a sigh, turned back to her sorting.
Silence fell for a few moments until Selene decided to cut to the heart of the matter. "You know, Riell, some women aren't made for men."
"What do you mean? Who are they made for then?"
"For whomever they choose, I suppose. Like the Amazons." The old woman watched Riell carefully. "I've got the new scrolls. There's a special one for you here." Selene leaned over and began rummaging in the scroll chest beside her chair. Rising to the table with several rolls in her hands she shuffled through them, until with feigned frustration, she said, "It's not here."
"I know." Riell nodded toward the scroll on the table next to her. "The messenger stopped by the pond and gave it to me herself." Riell tapped the scroll with her finger.
"She did, huh?" said Selene. The old woman glanced again at the red bud peeking out of the parchment but bit her tongue. "Aren't you going to open it?" How carefully the younger woman removed the rose and set it on the table, thought Selene. She unrolled the ragged yellow document. Riell's lips moved as she softly pronounced the first words she came to.
Xena: Warrior Princess, the last scroll, by the Bard and Amazon Queen, Gabrielle of Potedaeia.
For some reason, Riell stopped reading. Selene saw tears in her eyes. This scroll, thought the old woman, is always a favorite with young Amazons who are coming of age.
"I can't believe I'm holding the Bard's writing in my hands."
"It's a copy. That's not the original, although it's so worn you could be fooled." In fact, the youngsters wear out dozens of copies a year, thought Selene.
"I know it's not the original scroll," said Riell indignantly. "But Gabrielle's thoughts and feelings are in here…" Riell shook the scroll a little for emphasis. "…as if she were right here with us tonight."
"Many Amazons have worked hard the last thousand years to keep that story alive. Riell, will you copy this scroll for me before the next rider comes?"
"Why, yes! Of course. This is my favorite Amazon story." Riell stood up and began gathering her things to leave. "You know that, don't you?"
No, but I’m not surprised, thought the old woman.
Henry sat in the great hall alone for some time after the other diners had gone. He didn't make his way up the three flights of stone steps to his large, but nearly empty chamber, until most of the castle was asleep. Quietly, he prepared for bed, which meant indulging in the nightly bath that his manservant thought so odd. It was something that connected him to the Amazon homeland, though he would not have admitted that to any living being, had his life depended on it. He dismissed the servant, disrobed, and folded his clothes neatly, placing them on a wooden chest in a dark corner of the dimly lit room. As he sank into the gently sloshing warmth, his thoughts drifted back to his first Amazon bath.
Henry could still feel the cold chains around his wrists and the smothering blackness of his blindfold as Princess Aella delivered the captive Crusaders to the Amazon Old Village. As best Henry could figure the Old Village lay several hours off the road at the end of a rocky path. Aella's mother, Queen Cybele, gave her blessing to the detainment, and the men were released into a prison of sorts, with stone walls and iron-barred windows.
Though they were heavily guarded at all times, the men hadn't been so well off during the entire three-year campaign. Food was plentiful, the bedding clean and comfortable, the running water pure, and the porcelain waste buckets emptied themselves with a gush of water which swirled into the ground at the pull of a rope.
An Amazon physician tended to Henry's leg. Candor warned against taking any of the healer's potions. The witchcraft would destroy Henry's soul. But the pungent poultices cooled the pain, and the awful wound began to heal. The youth's strength returned quickly.
The Amazons imposed a most unusual custom on the prisoners; the men were required to take daily baths. Candor, who spoke fluent Greek, said that the Amazon harlots were so filthy that they had to bathe twice a day. Henry, like most of the soldiers, ignored the lunatic priest's exaggerations. The Amazons couldn't have bathed more than once a day; that would have been fatal, thought Henry, and they certainly didn't seem dirty.
Anyway, most of the men enjoyed the warm spraying bath that sprang from high on the wall and ran over their bodies into a hole in the floor. They lined up eagerly at the appointed time, which was just before the evening meal. Even Candor took the showers, though he groused the whole while, for show.
An even more curious phenomenon occurred right after the bath and before the evening food was brought. Amazons would come by and gaze at the prisoners, pointing at them, talking among themselves in their strange tongue. As if, thought Henry, they were discussing melons in a marketplace. But he understood perfectly well what they were considering.
Henry grabbed the hard metal rim of his tub and rose out of the cooling water. Standing naked in his dimly lit chamber, he dried off with a large, scratchy cloth. The brisk rubdown refreshed his still strong body. He had learned that from the Amazon healer, who had helped him regain his health.
Most of the Amazon women were exceedingly handsome, with strong white teeth and long muscular limbs. They were taller than the Greeks in the surrounding towns, just as the noblemen’s children grew taller and stronger than did the peasant children in Henry's land. And the elders didn't go to flesh as they did in his country.
On warm days the Amazons were often naked, or nearly so. If they wore any clothes at all they draped knee-length tunics over one shoulder, leaving a breast, usually the right, bare, exposing a blue crescent-shaped tattoo just outside the right nipple. A few of the women, probably the noble or warrior caste, thought Henry, bared the left breast instead.
One day, the beautiful blond Amazon, the one who had struck Candor, came in with the Amazon queen, Cybele. Both women looked at Henry, and as the blond woman's gaze met his, he saw those eyes again, eyes as blue as the Mediterranean Sea. He tried furiously to remain calm, unconcerned, manly, but his mouth went dry. His heart pounded in his chest. The queen and the blond woman conferred for a moment, then the blue eyes looked back at Henry. The woman smiled. Henry's mouth dropped open helplessly, and in spite of himself he took a step toward the bars separating him from the woman. Candor looked at him and sneered.
"They may have captured your body but don't let them have your soul. Think about Mary, the Blessed Virgin." Feverishly, Candor crossed himself and began to pray in Latin. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb-"
At the last line, the Amazon queen, an extraordinarily comely woman perhaps nearing forty, tilted her head questioningly at Candor. Was the queen choosing the priest? Henry chuckled to himself. How strong the priest's vows would have to be to refuse this request.
But the blond Amazon touched the queen's forearm, said something to the queen in Greek, and shook her head. Candor's face opened wide in shock at the Greek words. Although Henry couldn't understand the remark, he knew that the priest, despite his posturing, had been wounded by the rejection. Poor Candor. Perhaps that was why he hated the Amazons so much.
And the third day Candor lost his cross. He ranted and cursed and tore at the hole in the floor under the shower and said that the Amazons had stolen it. He swore he would bring them to ruin over it and he spat at them when they walked by. But Candor’s actions just seemed to make the Amazons more curious; they would come by in great numbers to watch Candor rave, which he especially did at bathtime.
Every night the Amazons took some of the men away. The men returned in the morning, apparently whole, but could remember nothing of the previous night. Except for Roland. He remembered everything. He was taken on the first night and every night thereafter, and much to Henry's irritation, came back every morning pining and babbling about Aella.
While Henry’s eyes rolled, Roland whined incessantly about his impending separation from Aella. He went on and on about how he'd never met a woman who touched him as deeply as she had. How she was a Man's Woman and their souls were joined and he'd been born just to find her or some similar nonsense. He'd die, utterly bereft, if she wouldn't come with him back to Britain. And death would be preferable to life without his beloved Aella.
The mighty Roland trembled until his cot shook, until Henry thought his poor liege was going mad. Young Henry, frightened by the sight of his proud lord so humbled by a woman, tried to comfort Roland. Candor prayed over him for hours a day, but to no avail. The Amazon physician examined him, but seemed unconcerned, though she did give him a potion that made him sleep some of the time.
Henry folded the rough drying cloth into a tidy square and laid it over the back of a wooden chair. Twenty years had passed since he buried Roland beside Aella. Henry could still feel the spade lighten in his hands as the first clods thudded into the open grave. Roland’s death released Henry from his oath. Didn’t it?
Still naked, Henry climbed into his canopied bed and covered himself with a blanket. Actually he'd never had the canopy replaced when it rotted and fell off years ago. He had no need to impress anyone with his furniture, though he did tire of the four posts jutting endlessly at the ceiling. His bed was empty, as usual, for he rarely found delight for long in the soft women of his realm. He had sent Richard's French mother back to her homeland after two years. He preferred solitude to the abyss of loneliness he felt with the wrong woman. He stared hard at the ceiling. The cracks there annoyed him, as they did every night. He would have to remember to talk to his manservant about that.
Thank the Virgin he had a son, thought Henry. He crossed himself. Richard wasn't everything Henry had hoped for. Richard preferred love and poetry to war. But soldiers could be bought. And after all, neither was Henry the perfect father. He wasn't coming up with a decent inheritance for the boy. Henry shifted on the bed. The nightly melancholy was more powerful than usual. Richard was his only remaining joy in life. No, that wasn't quite true. Henry still had his memories and he definitely preferred them to his present life.
On the last night of the imprisonment, and after asking his permission, he recalled, two Amazons blindfolded Henry and led him deep into the woods as best he could tell. The blindfold was removed, and he was left alone, sitting on a cool bench inside a small wooden building.
In front of him lay a board groaning with a huge feast. Henry's eyes were drawn, however, to one end of the table. There stood a bronze statue, six hands high, of a woman with a bow and arrow. Her feet rested on a crescent moon. A white tunic of real linen draped her right shoulder and hung to her knees; her left shoulder and breast were bare. A silver chain girdled her waist and several white candles burned at the base of the figure. A small scroll lay in front of the goddess's feet.
"Hello again, Henry." The voice spoke in Latin. It belonged to the blond Amazon. She was tall, taller than he had remembered. She was dressed exactly as the statue. Henry had not heard her enter and was dismayed at his lapse. He stood up out of surprise, or perhaps, habit.
The only sound he heard was his own breathing. Sweat prickled his forehead. It ran down his back.
"You know why you're here, Henry." She addressed him in the familiar. "I assume you're still willing?" His captor eyed him cautiously. She began to circle around him, studying him, her feet padding softly on the polished wooden floor. Henry felt like a deer waiting for the lion to pounce. She spoke again.
"I’ve seen how you look at your lord, Roland. Do you envy him?"
"I obey him faithfully." Why, thought Henry, was the Amazon asking these questions? Was she curious about him? And why, oh why was he answering them truthfully? "But I do envy him. Everything comes so easily to him. And our people love him. He has no son, though, and he is no longer young. If I am faithful to him, he will make me or my son his heir." Henry’s mouth went dry as he realized what he was divulging to the stranger. He quickly added, "But I have sworn fealty to him. Only death ends my bond."
"What do you know about the Amazons?"
"Candor tells me that you are pagans, that you don’t worship the one true God."
"He says you engage in abominable acts among yourselves, and murder men after making sure their souls are going to hell."
"Do you believe him?" The woman stopped pacing and tilted her head questioningly. The blue gaze fixed him. He felt warmth in his groin.
"I don’t believe in much of anything these days." He paused. "Life is a joke. A short one. If there is a God, he’s not paying much attention." Henry narrowed his eyes at his beautiful captor. "Why do you care what I believe?"
"Because you don't have to participate tonight." She nodded toward the statue. "Our Virgin Goddess demands that you be willing. If you aren't, I'll have you taken back to the prison. You can eat all you want first."
"The Virgin Goddess?" asked Henry. His confused expression must have prompted the Amazon to try again.
"All Amazon mothers are virgins. And the fathers as well."
"Then how do Amazons exist? You have to be made by a man and a woman, just like every other human being."
"Artemis, the Protector of the Amazons, is a virgin." She gestured toward the statue. "She owns her own body and soul. She shares them with whomever she pleases. She requires the same of us. No one on Amazon land can be forced into an act of love. Or worship."
What did an act of love have to do with virginity, or worship for that matter? Henry did understand that his body was prepared to overcome any misgivings his soul might dredge up.
But Candor's silly exaggerations had him worried again. And even Henry, in his newfound and very adult cynicism would not hurt an innocent. "If we make a child you must promise to send him to me."
"Perhaps," said the Amazon. The woman reached out and touched his arm. The touch was kind, not possessive, perhaps even tender, thought Henry. But he stiffened. "Are you afraid I'll hurt you?" asked the Amazon. Pride swelled his muscular young chest. His words, however, remained calm, and to his continued consternation, truthful.
"Yes." He was utterly incapable of lying to the woman. His jaw dropped at his own admission. He didn't want to end up like Roland.
"That's what this is for," she said, walking to the table. She poured a deep red wine from a glass bottle into a silver goblet. "It contains an amnestic potion. Drink this and you won't remember anything about tonight. You'll leave a free man, without painful memories of your time with me."
"And you?" asked Henry.
"I won't need to drink," replied the Amazon simply, holding the cup out to Henry. "I’m not a Man’s Woman."
His arm flew out and struck the cup. It sailed through the air to smash against a far wall. Wine stained the wall and slid down it in long pink lines. The Amazon had the youth down, limbs pinned, a dagger at his throat by the time the goblet hit the floor. The silver vessel rolled metallically to and fro in a half-circle.
"I won't drink!" spat the youth. "I want to remember everything!" He struggled intensely for a moment, then stilled, panting. "Don't you?"
The Amazon released the youth and walked to the table. Nonchalantly she sat down facing Henry, who rubbed his throat, found it intact, and made his way to his feet. The Amazon shrugged.
"As you wish," she said. She was silent for a moment, then looked up at him as he stood over her. "I like your passionate personality. I want a child like that." The woman's insouciance should have maddened him further, but for some unfathomable reason he felt calmer. And then the reason gelled in his soul. If they made a son tonight he wanted to know. He wanted to remember.
Henry reached both hands to his neck, removed his silver medallion and held it out to the woman. She looked at him quizzically for a moment, then accepted the gift.
"It's my family crest. Give it to our child, so that when he comes to me I'll recognize him. I'll make him my heir." The Amazon inspected the medallion for just a moment then placed it on the board.
"Are you sure? You want this child to be your heir?" she asked. Henry's mind laughed at his sentimental foolishness, but another part of Henry had never been more certain of anything. The candles at the base of the statue flickered, as if nudged by a puff of air.
"Yes. I swear it upon my eternal soul." The steel in his voice surprised him. He didn't believe in anything anymore. So why did he obey the quiet urging inside him that compelled him to make such a rash and sacred pledge? Why did he believe the silent voice that told him that he was born to make this child, that he would be utterly bereft if he didn't accept this child, and accept his fate at its hand? The woman looked at him with true tenderness now.
"I understand. Really I do. The child will be special. The prophecies say the goddess will bless this child and help her. She will have a great task." The Amazon unrolled the parchment lying at the foot of the statue.
The child shall be surrounded by treasure, yet destitute.
The child shall rule the queen, yet be utterly subject to her.
The child shall be homeless, yet shall lead its people home.
More gibberish. Superstitions. Like Candor and his Virgin.
But Henry had a question. Did he dare ask? Now would be his last chance. He could still turn back. If the answer matched Candor's he could stop. He would have to stop or he would loathe himself forever. The woman turned to face the food. "Would you like to eat?" she asked. She motioned toward the spread.
"Yes," said Henry, taking a seat next to the Amazon, "yes, I would." That fool Candor had to be wrong. He began to eat.
Henry sat up suddenly on his bed. Had he heard something? The candles, which the servant never allowed to burn out, flickered in their holders. It was just the loneliness, thought Henry. It was deeper tonight, he reminded himself. Whenever that happened, sleep fled. He lay down, but his eyes stayed open. He stared at the cracks in the ceiling. He really should have them repaired one of these days. No wonder the old Amazon aunt preferred her cheerful cottage.
The Journey Home
After a month of captivity the Amazon queen released the crusaders, with food and provisions enough for the journey to Thessalonika, and money for the passage home to Britain. The men were blindfolded and led back to the main road at night, so that the Old Village's location remained a secret. And, of all things, Aella came along, bringing her aunt, Selene, and nothing else. Candor had been livid. Roland was taking a pagan wife. Though Henry had thought it impossible, the priest became even more maniacal in his ranting against the Amazons after their release. But the rejuvenated men, grateful for the respite, roundly ignored him. They were in good health and even better spirits when they reached the great port of Thessalonika and boarded the ship that would carry them home.
All except Henry. How he cursed himself for refusing the wine of forgetfulness. What a fool he'd been not to drink. Oh yes. A fool. What good was his pride now? He suffered constantly. All day and all night he dreamed of the blue eyes. As the ship rose and fell on the waves, the salt breezes reminded him of nothing but the sweet caresses he had shared for one night with his Amazon. He stood alone in the bow of the ship for hours at a time, drenched in bright sun and spray, heading home, locked in a dungeon of pain and regret.
She did not love him, and he knew it. This injured him, but it was his own fault. He would recover. But what if he had left a child with the Amazons? He wondered about his innocent child, his son, his heir, and felt a great loneliness. For the rest of Henry's life not a day passed without a memory of that one night, memories tinged with wonder, and with sadness, and with longing for the child he never knew.
And as Henry watched Roland and Aella in their joy, his heart filled with bitter envy at his lord’s incredible fortune. How could Henry have known that Roland’s happiness would be short-lived, that Aella would die seven years later giving birth to their only child, Riell, and that Roland, broken thereafter, would follow Aella in death within the year, leaving Henry as Regent? But before he died Roland had made Riell his heir and had extracted yet another oath from Henry. And in service of that oath, Henry had protected Riell for twenty years.
And he had nothing to show for it except his honor, thought Henry, sitting up in bed and leaning against the wall. He reached for the glass flask of pungent spirits his manservant always left on the bedside table. Henry would have to go back to his small family fief and be vassal to Riell. And that's all that would be left for Richard. Henry couldn't bear it. He lifted the cool glass to his lips and drank.
But he couldn't bear to do anything about it, either, he thought, lowering the flask to his lap. He had sworn to protect Roland's daughter and hand her the reins when she was of age. And she was an innocent. Why wouldn't she marry Richard? She was smart enough to see that it was her only choice.
Couldn't Riell see that Henry was no longer strong? If Candor kept pushing him he might be tempted to break his oath, even though he no longer believed that God would absolve him of that kind of sin. He had become weak, cowardly, and he had begun to loathe himself. And a man who loathes himself can't be trusted.
A fluttering of his curtain in the warm night breeze yanked Henry's thoughts back to his room. The flask knocked the edge of the table as he tried to set it down and some of the spirits splashed on the floor. He grabbed the dagger he kept under his pillow and pointed it into the room.
"If I wanted to kill you, you would be dead by now," hissed a voice off to one side. He jumped off the bed away from the voice and backed toward the window. He stumbled against something cold and sharp. A grappling hook lay atop a rope coiled on the floor below the sill. "I will not hurt you. I will help, if you like." A Greek accent. He spun toward the voice to face a tall shadow.
The woman stood before him fingering a silver medallion that hung around her neck. He recognized the Amazon poise. He recognized the Amazon insolence. He gasped. Words failed him. She was magnificent. Could it be? Had Candor found a rogue Amazon mercenary for him?
Perhaps she meant him harm. He backed away from her and collided with the chair. The wooden legs scraped loudly along the floor.
"What do you want?" he finally managed. He retrieved the folded towel off the chair back and wrapped it around his naked waist, dropping his dagger in the process. The Amazon raised one brow.
"I want to help you." Henry found the Greek accent delightful, the warrior terrifying. She released the medallion and dropped her hand to her sword.
She walked to the chair, pulled it toward her, turned it around, and straddled it. Her weapons tapped on the wood.
"You have many difficulties with the heiress, yes?" said the Amazon, her Greek accent familiar to Henry. Henry stayed on his feet. So Candor, the old boy, had actually done something about all this. The rogue certainly looked as if she could do damage. Perhaps she could help him after all. Perhaps his life wouldn't be an utter failure. But then, perhaps she was all talk, like most people.
"What will you do?"
"I will kill her for you, if you like." Now or never, thought Henry.
It would be never. He couldn't do it. Riell was still an innocent in all this.
"What's your price?" he found himself asking, just for the hell of it. The Amazon pursed her lips, as if she were thinking hard. She stood, turned the chair around, and sat down again, still facing Henry.
"Very high." Sprawling back in the chair, tipping it onto two legs, the Amazon fingered the medallion again. "Perhaps you've heard of my work? My name is Alexandra."
Alexandra? At first Henry thought he hadn't heard correctly.
Alexandra, thought Henry, was the most famous mercenary in the known world. She was brilliant. And ruthless. She worked for the highest bidder, and was worth every piece of gold she was paid.
"So, I will kill the heiress for you?" She stood up and looked down at him, cocking her head a little.
Henry didn't answer. She frightened him.
But the rogue looked puzzled. She picked up the hook and attached it to the sill. She stepped out the window, and with feline grace, rappelled silently down the wall of the castle to the ground. With a flick of the rope, she released the heavy hook and caught it. As Henry looked down, she coiled the rope quickly around her arm, mounted a waiting horse with a leap, and was gone.
For the first time in years, Henry thought he'd better talk to Candor.
The next morning Riell awoke early, surprisingly refreshed. She would skip mass today; she had other things to do. After ringing her bedside bell, she rose hastily and kicked her way through last evening's clothes and boots to kneel at the prie-dieu near the window.
Still naked in the cool morning air, she looked up at the wood-framed painting of the Virgin, which hung on the wall above her, silent and compassionate. The Virgin's feet rested on a crescent moon, and she held the Infant on her lap.
As Frances bustled in and out with the two buckets of daily morning bath water and a breakfast tray, Riell crossed herself and folded her hands in prayer. Frances had dropped some of Selene's fragrant herbs into the hot water, and the copper bathing bowl released lavender and sweet marjoram to fill the sunny chamber. When she finished her Hail Mary’s, Riell rose and made her way around Frances to the steaming bowl.
While Frances busied herself about the chamber, Riell stood beside the bathing bowl and washed her whole body carefully, reverently whispering the Morning Bath Prayer Selene had taught her as a small child.
Artemis, Great Huntress, hear me, your daughter speaks.
Carry me today on your swift arrow
Make my words as true as your aim
My work enduring and useful
And when I am no longer strong
I will rest beneath an old oak and call you
Set my soul upon your string
And pull, and send me to your starry garden
After her prayers, Riell donned the clean green tunic and leggings spread on the freshly made bed. Her riding boots now stood at attention next to the desk. Standing by the tray, she ate quickly, then stuffed some of the remaining bread into her leather pouch along with the scroll. She pulled her boots on, whipped the bag over her shoulder, and turned toward the door when something red caught her eye.
She took the rosebud out of a vase on her desk. Frances must have put it there for her. She was careful not to touch the thorns. It was open a bit now, and its heavenly scent made Riell dreamy. She held the flower to her nose and breathed in deeply. As she exhaled, behind her closed eyes she saw the beautiful black-haired woman with the insolent smile. Riell caressed the velvety outer petals with her lips before replacing the bud in its vase. Thus fortified, she headed for the pond.
Once settled cross-legged on the cool grass under the cloudless morning sky, and having thrown some breadcrumbs to the lazily swimming swan, Riell opened the scroll and began to read.
I am Gabrielle of Potedaeia, and though I'm a common person by birth, I've been blessed by the fates with more good fortune than any King or Queen, or the gods themselves. For I love and am loved.
When I first saw the Warrior Princess, I only knew that I had to follow her, go with her, and yes, although it sounds absurd, protect her. How could I, a simple peasant girl, protect one of the greatest warriors who ever lived, you ask?
I had to protect her from herself, as she was filled with such self-loathing that she tried to destroy herself at every turn. But I knew how to protect her, because I loved her.
And she, of course, had to protect me. I truly was helpless at first, in the larger world. In return I taught her of the goodness still alive in her soul, the goodness that I could always see there.
Riell took a bite of bread and threw another piece to the swan before continuing.
Eventually, I learned how to fight and protect myself, although I was never the equal of Xena in that way. No one was.
I don't think Xena ever grew to love herself as much as I loved her. She always needed me near her, though she wouldn't admit it while awake. But at night, to my delight, her arms would reach for me in sleep, and she would awaken in distress if I were gone, even for a moment.
But I was still a child long into our journey together, and our love was chaste. My love didn't fully awaken until I lost Xena. Or more to the point, once she returned from death to be with me. It was only then that I knew in the depths of my soul that I was meant to be with her, that we would never be parted, even by death. I had to show my love for her in a new way, a more powerful way…
"Good reading, yes?" The accented speech fell softly onto Riell's awareness.
Riell turned with a gasp to see the Amazon standing behind her. The Amazon moved closer and knelt on the cool shady grass facing her. Deep blue eyes looked intently at Riell. The Amazon bared her left breast, revealing the blue crescent, then covered it up again, lifting an eyebrow, as if waiting for Riell to respond. Riell felt confused, her thoughts muddled, for some reason.
"My mother was an Amazon, but I-I don't have a crescent, yet," said Riell, opening her tunic shyly, baring her breasts.
"Already I knew that," said the stranger, glancing briefly at Riell’s chest. "From our meeting at the pond last night." The accent delighted Riell, the words angered her.
Riell's hand flashed out to strike the woman but was caught firmly a hair's breadth from the finely chiseled face. The strong grip wasn't painful. Riell liked the way the Amazon's hand felt around hers, the way her thumb gently stroked her skin.
Riell, blushing, was now angrier at her naive responses to the stranger, than at the stranger. "What do you want? And why did you give me the rose?" The stranger kept Riell's hand and studied it for a moment before looking at Riell again.
"Did you like that I gave it to you?" And Riell didn't answer just because she liked the sound of the stranger's voice. She wished the stranger would speak more.
But the Amazon didn't say anything, and she did not release Riell's hand, either. Instead, she moved it to her warm, soft lips and kissed the back of Riell's fingers, one at a time, slowly, sensually, holding Riell's eyes with pure azure.
Riell, astonished by the strong sensations evoked by the erotic caress, let her jaw drop open. A soft cry of pleasure and surprise escaped. "Oh."
"Already I thought you weren't a Man's Woman," said the stranger, releasing Riell's hand. "Now I am sure." This time Riell's open hand connected firmly with the stranger's face in a resounding slap. Riell scrambled backward, away from the stunned stranger, and staggered to her feet.
"I'm not your woman either!" said Riell, gathering up her scroll and pouch.
No more than I am yours, said Alexandra to herself as she watched Riell leave. She rubbed a finger under her nose, and studied the drop of blood she found there. Why hadn’t she killed the heiress? Why was she dawdling? But then the regent hadn't seemed that sure about it either. It was no use rushing into something that couldn't be undone.
A First Kiss
Riell spent the rest of the day in her chamber working on the scroll. She copied the Greek letters carefully, with a large gray quill.
It was under a full moon, in the Amazon village, that Xena first came to me as a lover. It was summer solstice as well, and the full moon and solstice only come together once every twenty-nine years or so.
This is a special sky for first-time lovers. Artemis unites them for life, and beyond.
I didn't know this, of course. I only knew that I had to touch her, to tell her with my body what words could only leave unsaid.
Riell looked up for a moment, feeling the Amazon's soft lips on her hand again. An echo of the voluptuous feeling she'd had earlier that day rang through her flesh.
The Amazons had a big celebration that night. Xena and I missed it. I'll never forget our first kiss. The mighty warrior's lips were so soft and gentle I thought I'd faint…
Riell was roused from her work by a tapping sound. Someone was knocking at her door. It was late afternoon.
"Come in," Riell called, annoyed, trying to continue her writing.
"M'lady," said Frances. "There's someone here to see you." Richard peeked out from behind the serving woman. He looked more distressed than usual. Riell sighed and put down her quill. Frances stood unmoving in the doorway, her eyes and mouth wide with curiosity.
"Come in, Richard," Riell said. Richard made his way around Frances and into the room, stepping over Riell's scabbard and boots. Riell glared at Frances. Frances looked disappointed, but backed out of the chamber and closed the door.
The young man sat down heavily on a hard chair near Riell's table and put his face in his hands. Hurriedly, Riell searched around inside herself for a feeling of any sort. Richard was certainly good-looking, thought Riell, almost as good-looking as—Riell forced her thoughts back to the present. What did she feel for Richard? Ah, yes. There it was. Riell felt sorry for him.
"What's come up?" she asked. Richard laced his fingers in his black hair as he took a deep breath.
"You've got to marry me. Or run away. I think someone's hired a mercenary to kill you. I heard Father arguing with Candor about it in the cathedral this morning."
"What's her name?" said Riell. Her heart dropped. Her first impression was correct. She should have known.
"Alexandra. She's from Greece." Richard looked at her incredulously. "How did you know it was a woman?"
Alexandra! said Riell under her breath. So that was her name. Just an Amazon courier! Alexandra had been toying with her. Riell felt pain and anger rise in her heart. Her throat tightened. She stood up and walked to her window.
"Riell? Are you listening to me?"
"Oh. Sorry." She continued to stare at the window though she hadn't bothered to open the curtains. She tried to sound unconcerned. But she was angry. She was angrier than she had ever been.
She finally turned back toward Richard.
"If you marry me Candor will call her off," said Richard. "Otherwise you'll have to run away."
"I'll do neither one!" cried Riell.
Frances poked her head through the door instantly. "Is everything all right m'lady?" Riell's lively glare answered her question, and she shut the door again.
"I ought to kill her myself," said Riell, almost under her breath, knowing she was exaggerating beyond belief. Alexandra was one of the best Amazon fighters who ever lived. The scrolls ranked her with Xena. She would squash Riell like a fly.
"Kill her?" Richard turned white. "How?"
"I was joking, Richard." He took everything so seriously. She'd better be more careful when she spoke to him.
"Well, I'm not. And if you die before we're married-"
Riell looked at him as if he were mad, her expression cutting him off.
"Aren't you afraid of going to hell, Riell?" His voice was earnest.
"I don't think about it very much."
"Candor keeps telling me that you'll go to hell and I…" Richard paused. He knelt in front of her chair and took her hands in his. "…I couldn't stand it if we were separated, even after death."
Richard's hands around hers were warm and firm, and the little hairs on his knuckles and forearms tickled. She waited for the erotic flush the Amazon had enticed from her. Nothing. But it was time. Richard seemed willing enough. She would learn to love him. She would force herself. But something in her balked.
Richard's liquid brown eyes searched hers deeply. She looked back, her green eyes flat, her mind's eye imagining something else. Xena and Gabrielle. They knew they were meant for each other. Ah, but that was just a fairy tale, too good to be true.
Richard raised Riell's hands to his lips and kissed them gently, then stood and pulled her to her feet. Encircling her with his arms and pressing her tightly against his firm body, he lowered his head until his rough cheek scratched her skin. His mouth enveloped hers, and as he pushed his large warm tongue against her lips it dawned on Riell that he meant to force it into her mouth. Recoiling, she wrenched free.
"Richard! Stop it!" She was repulsed by the cool wetness she still felt on her lips and tried to wipe it off. She stared at the back of her hand. Her angry eyes flashed back to Richard.
"I'm sorry, I thought you wanted-"
"No! I don't want anything of the sort!" Riell turned away from Richard, both hands clamped over her face, surprised by the strength of her revulsion. What was wrong with her? "Just go, Richard. Please go."
"I'll go." His deer eyes looked puzzled at first, but his confused expression quickly cleared. "But Riell?"
Riell turned back toward him. "I won't go on like this." Richard's voice rang with new power. "Meet me at the pond at midnight. Yes or no, tell me your answer then." He left without saying good-bye.
Another First Kiss
After Richard had gone, Riell lay on her bed, her hands behind her head, thinking too much. Xena and Gabrielle. Two women? In love? It must be an Amazon metaphor.
Yet she didn't feel any closer to loving Richard. How could she marry him? She tried to imagine living as Richard's wife, but the thoughts were gray, colorless, dim. And in spite of her efforts to concentrate on Richard her mind moved naturally to thoughts of the stranger, thoughts of the stranger's velvet voice and azure eyes, her silken touch and bright clothes. And pain squeezed her heart and her throat tightened.
Alexandra. Riell had indeed heard of her. The rogue Amazon. She was as wildly beautiful as the stories claimed. Alexandra. Alexandra. Riell breathed the name over and over in time with the rhythmic pulsing in her chest. But someone had hired the woman to kill her. And if that were the case, why hadn't Alexandra already done it? She'd had plenty of opportunity. Why was she trying to seduce Riell instead? Out of cruelty beyond her duty?
Riell trembled with a quiet simmering rage, a strange rage mixed with fear, and desire as well. She would not run away. And she would force Alexandra to face her. Riell was an Amazon, too, and she would not give her freedom away. To anyone. If Alexandra meant to kill her, she would have to look Riell in the eye while she did it. Riell turned onto her side and only one tear slid onto her pillow before she closed her eyes.
Riell napped fitfully and dreamt of swans and fire. She woke at sunset and Frances brought her evening meal to her room. She ate at her desk.
… I had been intimate with men. I was married. Perdicus, my husband, was a childhood friend. I thought I loved him in some way. But I was wrong. All it took was one embrace; one kiss and I knew.
What I felt for Perdicus was a candle flame next to the mighty sun of my love for Xena…
She looked up from her work. Gabrielle's words struck her in some deep way. She had to touch the power that pulsed in the space between her and Alexandra. It would be dangerous. But it was her only hope. But first she had something to tell Richard.
She worked late into the evening then went out for a long ride. She was still breathing hard from the ride when she stepped onto the pond's bank. Moonlight lit the glade and glistened on her sweaty skin. Crickets chirped in the still air. It was almost midnight.
Something moved in a shadow near her. Like lightning, Riell's sword flashed in the moonlight.
"Please, don't be frightened." It was the rogue Amazon. Her enemy. She stood in the shadows near the trees. Riell could see that her hands were raised to show their emptiness. "If you want it I will leave."
Riell lowered her weapon and commanded, in Greek, "No, Alexandra, come here." She would probably die tonight at the stranger's hand, but she would not run away. And she would not let Alexandra run from her.
"You know my name?" replied Alexandra, also in Greek. She approached Riell until she was an arm's length away and Riell could smell her clean warm skin. The Amazon hadn't reached for a weapon.
"You are famous." Riell sheathed her sword.
"I haven't done much to be proud of. I've been on the winning side of a few wars. I've collected some baubles and a nasty reputation. That last comes in handy. I can always find work." Alexandra gave a weak, lopsided grin.
Yes, thought Riell. I'm your latest task. But she was drawn to the rogue warrior. She wanted to know more about her enemy.
"Do you miss the Old Village?" asked Riell.
"Sometimes. A woman can be free there." The azure eyes looked far away across the water. "I left because I wanted to be free anywhere."
And are you, my beautiful enemy, are you? A poignant feeling, like a memory, came over Riell and compelled her to move closer to the dark woman. She had to capture Alexandra's eyes. Alexandra must look at her, must see her. But Alexandra moved away, as if she sensed danger. Long fingers played upon her sword handle. Riell would have to try something else.
Slowly, so as not to further alarm the skittish Amazon, Riell held out a hand. It glowed white in the moonlight. Alexandra looked at Riell's hand suspiciously, thought Riell, as if it were disembodied, and with a puzzled expression glanced at Riell's face. Finally, Alexandra accepted the hand. Riell drew closer.
Riell slipped her arms around the taller woman's waist. The gold belt was cold against her forearms. Closing her eyes, she laid her head against Alexandra's chest. Warm skin slid past her cheek and hands under the silk clothes. She let her hands wander on the Amazon's back. Alexandra felt so unlike Richard, so soft. Her scent was different, too, light and sweet and warm, like the Amazon soaps Selene gave Riell. Riell breathed the Amazon’s scent in deeply, and as she exhaled she sank more deeply into the Amazon.
Then, slowly, as if pulled by an invisible puppeteer, Alexandra's arms rose away from her weapons to wrap around Riell, one hand warm and firm against Riell's back, the other gently pressing her head closer to the Amazon's heart. The heart beat slowly and powerfully against Riell's ear. Alexandra laid her cheek on top of the golden hair.
They stood like that for a long time. Riell sighed. How had she ever lived without this feeling? She wanted to stay here forever. She was home. This was no metaphor.
"Have you read the scroll you brought me?" whispered Riell, her cheek brushing against the silk clothes as she spoke. The powerful heart accelerated.
"Yes. Of course." Alexandra lifted her head and looked down at Riell. It was time, thought Riell. Riell looked up and captured Alexandra's eyes, eyes that were no longer frozen, but were instead dark and warm with desire. For some reason she suddenly remembered Richard, and the failed kiss earlier that day.
"This is so very, very different," whispered Riell, more to herself than to Alexandra, "like candle and sun." Then, as if they had a mind of their own, thought Riell, her fingers wound their way into the black hair and pulled Alexandra down into a long, deep, sweet kiss. Riell moaned softly as the Amazon shuddered against her. Alexandra's arms tightened around her. But Riell broke the kiss.
"I have another question," whispered Riell, searching Alexandra's eyes, running a hand along a finely chiseled cheek. Long dark lashes curtained the azure for a moment as the Amazon turned her face into the caress. "Are you still going to kill me?"
Alexandra broke away from the embrace and stepped back, her mouth agape. "If you are, just do it now and get it over with," Riell continued. "I'm no match for you, I know that." Alexandra looked stricken, the way someone who had just been wounded by a dagger or a sword might look, Riell imagined.
When Alexandra didn't reply, Riell turned toward her horse. "I didn't think so." Riell was pleased with herself. Her plan had worked. She was still alive. The rogue Amazon, struck dumb by the heiress, watched helplessly as Riell rode back to the castle.
Greek to Me
In the chapel Candor tended the votive lights. He preferred the still hours just after midnight in the dark sanctuary. The Spirit felt closer then. His footsteps echoed on the stone floor as he inspected each of the stations and blessed the holy water for morning mass. Suddenly Richard stood in the main door, but only for a moment, before running to the priest and kneeling at his feet.
"Father," he sobbed. "You must help me." Candor pulled the lad to his feet. The poor boy's romance must have gone sour. Again. Richard continued without prompting. "The Amazon, and Riell. I saw them. Together."
Candor's eyes bulged. He couldn't believe his luck. These Amazons would destroy themselves. God would see to that. And Candor would help. "And were they engaging in…abomination?"
"I don't know." Richard sounded annoyed at the interruption. He crossed himself and sat on a bench. "They were speaking Greek. I don't understand Greek." Richard shoved his hair off his forehead. "They kissed. Like lovers. And Riell seemed to like it." The priest listened raptly. This was much better than he had expected. Richard stood again, agitated, and began to pace. "But Alexandra will kill her. That's what she does."
"And Riell will go to hell, where she belongs," said the priest, praying for a particular response from Richard. He got it.
"How can you say that?" cried Richard. "What has she done to God, or to you, to deserve everlasting punishment?"
"You want to marry her, right?"
"If she'll have me."
"And you want her to go to heaven?"
"I couldn't enjoy an eternity in heaven if I knew she were suffering in hell."
"Right," said Candor, "Right. And if she marries, God will bless her. It would be the best thing for her." Richard looked at him blankly. He continued. "She will have a chance at heaven." He patted Richard on the back. "God will help you, my boy. You must kill Alexandra. It's Riell's only hope." The priest led Richard to the door. "You go to sleep," he said, handing the young man a rosary, "after one hundred 'Hail Marys'. But just repeat the second half. And think of Riell."
After taking her ritual evening bath at the pond, Alexandra put her clothes back on, then sat on the grass with her back against a rough-barked oak and watched the swan meander across the still water. The sweet taste of Riell's kiss lingered in her mouth.
A cord tightened around her heart as she recalled the lips that had reached up to hers so trustingly, the warm strong arms that had encircled her neck so surely, the soft moan as tongues played lightly against each other. A deep sadness welled up from her belly and overflowed in a sob. How had she ever dreamed of hurting this beautiful woman? It couldn't be. She had almost broken her Oath. Was she mad? What was she thinking?
She lay down under the tree and looked through crisscrossing branches into the night sky. The crickets' song and the wild rose garden's heavenly scent called her to sensuous imaginings, all centered on the beautiful heiress. She began to drift off to sleep.
Suddenly Alexandra sat bolt upright. Inky blackness, silent as death surrounded her. She couldn't see the swan or the pond or her hand in front of her face. Something was wrong; she was in trouble. What was it? What was it? She leapt to her feet. Cobwebs tickled her face and arms and she tried to brush them off, but the more she swept at them the more tightly they wrapped around her, until bound like a chrysalis, she loosed a terrible scream.
She opened her eyes. She was still lying under the tree. The pond and the swan were visible again. The moon floated serenely above her. The crickets chirped. She tested her arms and hands; they were free.
Alexandra stood and walked around, looking for her horse. She had to leave immediately. She must go back to the Old Village. There was nothing for her here now. She would be lucky to escape with her life. But she woke the next morning still under the tree, Richard's sword pressed upon her throat.
Riell woke that gray morning still sitting at her desk, slumped across her scrolls, her head resting on one arm. A blackened wick lay in a congealed puddle of wax at the bottom of the candleholder. Riell took her morning bath, then dressed for riding. She had something to tell Richard, and she would do it today, since she had missed him last night. She mounted her steed at the stable. The squire asked if she was going to watch the duel at the pond and if he could please come along. She drove the horse at a frenzied gallop.
A crowd had already gathered. "Your love is false, you Amazon harlot!" Richard's voice rang out clearly from behind the thicket. Swords clashed again and again amidst the shouting.
Riell parted the bushes. Fury twisted Richard's face and he lunged at the Amazon repeatedly. But Alexandra easily held off Richard's attacks, and it was clear to Riell that the Amazon could have fended him off in her sleep, so superior were her parries. She made no attempt to strike him either, and the patronizing arrogance further infuriated the young man. If she were going to kill him he'd be dead by now, thought Riell. Finally, gasping for breath, Richard backed away from Alexandra.
Just then he saw Riell. And just then, for some reason, Alexandra turned her blue eyes toward Riell as well. No, thought Riell, don't turn away! But their gazes locked. Riell's heart twisted in her chest. She loved Alexandra. She knew it. But Alexandra looked confused, startled, perhaps sad, thought Riell.
Suddenly, Richard lunged, plunging his sword into Alexandra's right side just below the ribs.
"This is for you, Riell," he cried withdrawing his bloody sword and raising it over his head for another blow as Alexandra sank to her knees on the green grass. But Riell leapt between Richard and the fallen Amazon, and raised her hand.
"Stop! Don't kill her!" she cried. She didn't bother to draw her sword. She knew Richard would not strike her.
Richard lowered his sword and looked confusedly between the two women. He tilted his head from side to side and squinted, as though his eyes bothered him.
"But you wanted to…" Richard shook his head, and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. A knowing look came over him. His mouth widened in surprise as he looked at Alexandra, now lying on the ground, then back at Riell. "Oh, no," he said, "Oh, no." He threw down his bloody weapon, backed out of the thicket and ran away.
Ignoring the onlookers, Riell quickly led her horse into the thicket. It knelt obediently on the grass. With difficulty Riell helped Alexandra into the saddle, then mounted behind her. Surprisingly, Alexandra didn't seem that heavy, thought Riell. Alexandra's eyes were closed but she was still speaking, mumbling, actually, in Greek. That was a good sign, thought Riell. She wrapped both arms tightly around the wounded Amazon and galloped at full speed toward Selene's hut.
Life is Sweet
"Selene!" cried Riell as her horse thundered up to the cottage. "Help me! Hurry!" Selene held the door open as Riell helped Alexandra inside and onto the low healing pallet.
"Wash your hands, then bring me the wound poultices I made the other night, quickly!" said Selene as she removed Alexandra's belt and tunic.
Riell did as she was told. The wound was small, about three fingerbreadths long, but deep. It lay just below the ribs on the right. Alexandra groaned in agony as Selene pulled the edges apart and explored the wound with a finger wrapped in a clean white cloth. Riell had never seen so much blood. It poured out of the wound and around Selene's hand in a great red gush.
"Well, your liver is punctured," said Selene to Alexandra. "I'll cauterize it to stop the bleeding." Selene grabbed a glass flask from a shelf and soaked a clean cloth in the pungent smelling liquid. She deftly inserted it into the wound. Alexandra moaned again, weakly, this time, and her head thrashed from side to side. Worried that she might vomit, Riell turned away. She felt the blood drain from her own face and steadied herself against the hearth.
"Riell," barked Selene. "I'll need the spurge wound infusion. Add opium. Then make me two…" Selene looked back at her bloody hands. "…make that three large flasks of blood salts."
Riell was grateful for the task. She hung a tiny black kettle over the fire and fetched the appropriate ingredients from Selene's shelves. She dropped the mold powder, spurge and several other herbs into the boiling water in the correct proportions, just as Selene had taught her years before. After counting three hundred heartbeats, she removed the kettle from the flames and strained the liquid through a cloth into a metal flask. She plunged the corked flask into a bucket of cold water. When the infusion was cool, she added the precious golden opium, exactly one farmwife's thimbleful, and corked it again.
Next, she hung a larger kettle full of carefully measured water over the flames on a swinging rack. She let the water warm until she could not feel it with her finger, until it was no warmer than she was. She swung the kettle a little away from the fire, so that the water stayed at the same temperature while she worked.
Now Riell's hands shook with concentration as she measured sea salt, dried grape sugar, and one half thimble of the powdered lye and urine mixture Selene always made when she had a premonition. With a large wooden paddle, she stirred them together in the warm water until they dissolved. She put her finger into the lukewarm solution and tasted it. It was ready.
Meanwhile the old woman worked quickly but calmly, skillfully exchanging the blood-soaked cautery compresses for clean ones. She used smaller and smaller cloths as the bleeding slowed.
Selene continued talking as she worked, addressing Alexandra, although Riell didn't think Alexandra was paying much attention. She was quiet now. Her skin was dry and cold. The only sign of life was a flash of silver with each rapid shallow breath. Riell walked to the pallet and lifted the medallion off Alexandra's chest.
"Look, Selene. It's Alexandra's Promise."
Selene didn't answer. Her movements became more hurried and perspiration ran in fast rivulets down the lined face. The frown on her forehead deepened and her voice grew frantic. Or was it angry? Riell looked back down at Alexandra. The azure eyes were open but unseeing.
"What is it, Selene? She's not going to—"
Selene interrupted Riell to address Alexandra. "Well, I hope you at least won the fief in exchange for a piece of your liver. Aphrodite's ass. Is that how much an inheritance goes for these days? Was it worth your life, you foolish, angry Amazon? Was it worth your Oath?"
"Selene!" Riell couldn't believe that the old woman would berate Alexandra now, when she was half dead and in such pain. But at that moment Alexandra shuddered. Then she began to struggle and move. Relief washed over Selene's face.
"Riell," said Selene gruffly, "come here!" The old woman pulled the last poultice out of the wound and dropped it onto the great heap of bloody rags and clothes strewn on the floor around the pallet. Selene peered closely at the wound, and looked satisfied. The clean pink gash just below Alexandra's ribs moved with each breath. The bleeding had finally stopped, but Alexandra still struggled.
Selene held an oily-smelling cloth to Alexandra's face and she stilled again, eyes closed now, her breathing regular and easy.
Selene dropped onto the edge of the pallet to catch her breath. Riell went to her and put an arm around her. They were silent and sat that way for a little while. Eventually Selene stood up and pointed at Alexandra's wound. "Sew it up. Five stitches, not one more or one less."
Selene walked to the bathing room behind the hearth and Riell heard her wash her hands in the running water. She returned wearing a clean apron and tossed the bloody one onto the pile. "She'll come around in a moment. Make sure she drinks all of this…" She tapped the flask containing the spurge concoction. "…and half of that." Selene pointed to one of the three blood salt flasks. "In the meantime, I'm going out to collect more spurge."
As Selene turned away, Artemis caught Riell's eye. The small statue sat as it always had on a pedestal by the door. But this time, as she walked past, the old woman kissed her own fingertips and touched the lips of the bronze goddess. Riell would thank the goddess, too. But not yet.
Riell sat on a stool next to the healing pallet and raised the needle to begin her work.
"This will hurt a bit," she said apologetically in Greek, not really expecting an answer. But to Riell's pleasant surprise Alexandra opened her eyes and nodded her consent. Riell pierced the skin on both sides of the wound with the first suture and drew the edges of the wound together. Riell looked down into her patient's face again. Alexandra looked back with complete trust, like a small child, wide-eyed, open, quiet.
"So you and Richard decided to kill me?" whispered Alexandra weakly.
"I was only joking," said Riell, but as she began the second suture, her eyes filled with tears. She turned her head away, but not before a tear fell on Alexandra's bare skin.
"I see," continued the Amazon. "I deserved it." Alexandra shrugged her brow. "Well, you could just finish me off now, and blame it on Richard." Riell squeezed her lids together to force the tears out more quickly as she continued suturing. She could see her task better if they flowed freely down her cheeks.
"Hey, I was joking," said the Amazon. Reaching up to touch Riell's cheek she added, "It's been a long time since anyone shed a tear for me." A smile tugged at one side of Alexandra's mouth, and at Riell's heart, but Riell turned her face away.
By the time Selene returned Riell had administered all of the prescribed medications. She had cleaned up the blood and rags and had burned any visible remnants of the mess in the hearth, as was Amazon custom. The cabin was swept and tidy again. The patient slept peacefully on the pallet.
Selene set a bundle of leafy stalks on her table and dusted her hands on her apron. She nodded approvingly as she checked the throat pulse of the sleeping woman. A little fast, but strong. And the breathing was slow and even. Very good. Selene glanced at the statue of Artemis and nodded to Riell. It was time to give thanks.
Riell walked to one wall and plucked a plain wooden longbow and a full quiver from a hook. A hunting knife rested in a leather sheath on a nearby shelf. She wasn't sure why she kept Aella's weapons at her aunt's instead of the castle, but she always had and by now it felt right. She removed her ornate scabbard and leaned it against the wall by the door.
After fastening the knife to her belt she stepped into the noon sun and disappeared into the woods with the bow. Artemis expected a life today. It would not be Alexandra's. Riell would see to that. Her hands were steady as she held her breath just before releasing the arrow.
Riell left the doe where it fell. After removing the arrow from its heart and breaking it in two, as was Amazon custom, she gathered as much dead wood as she could find and piled it into a sturdy heap as tall as she was. Then she lit the pyre, with the deer on top of it and prayed aloud.
Artemis hear me, your daughter speaks.
For I have stilled a beating heart
I have taken another's breath
Wind blows through my sister's empty veins
That I might live another day
When I am done with these things I have stolen
I will give them back to you
Until then have mercy upon me
For life is sweet
And I am not ready to die
Riell felt the fire on her cheeks and backed away from the heat, frowning. She had saved Alexandra's life. Any Amazon would have done that. But she would not let Alexandra rule her or her fief. She was done with Alexandra.
Riell's expression softened. But Alexandra had responded to her kiss by the pond last night and though Riell was new to such things she wasn't a fool. Could it be? Did Alexandra love her?
For just an instant Riell thought she might die, sword or no sword, if the answer was no. But then she decided to push that thought away, just as she would push Alexandra, her enemy, away. Riell felt strong. She would be fine as long as Alexandra didn't touch her, as long as she didn't touch Alexandra. It would be best if she never saw her again.
Riell watched the thick black smoke rise above the treetops and drift toward the castle in a long plume. The events of the last few days had clarified other things as well. It was time for her to take her place in life. Alexandra had given her just what she needed to accomplish that. She would not marry Richard, of course. And she would get rid of Henry. That would be easy now. He was all talk. And she was better at talking than just about anybody. And Candor could go to hell. She wasn't afraid of him. Why should she be? She gathered Aella's weapons and turned resolutely away from the pyre.
A crowd had gathered outside the cathedral next to the small cemetery. As Riell rode up a path parted for her and the crowd hushed. She dismounted, ignoring the bows, and strode into the quiet sanctuary. Henry and Candor stood in front of the altar. Richard wasn't there. Henry must be hiding him. Good, she thought. He might get in the way.
"Where is she?" asked Candor. By this time the crowd had pressed through the doors and filled the spaces between the benches. But silence still reigned. Everyone could hear Riell, though she spoke softly.
"Your daughter is dead, Henry." The crowd murmured. A voice shouted.
"Henry's daughter?" it cried.
"Yes. She came here to kill me."
She tossed a cloth sack on the floor in front of the regent. It landed with a dull thud. He reached for it and turned it upside down and shook it. The curved sword clanged on the stone floor. The bloody silk clothes floated into a colorful puddle at his feet.
"I don't believe it," said Henry. "How could Richard, of all people, kill Alexandra, the great mercenary?" It seemed to Riell that he spoke more to himself than to her or to Candor. "And what do you mean, 'my daughter'?
"She wore your family pendant around her neck, Henry. You made her during the Amazon Crusade. She was a famous mercenary. Perhaps you even hired her to kill me?"
"She's lying," said Candor. The words were soft but drenched in loathing. "If the Amazon is dead, maybe Riell did it herself." And softly, so that only Henry and Riell could hear, he added, "This is your chance, Henry. Arrest her! I'll tell the crowd about the abomination."
But, thought Riell, Henry never took his chances, and he had just run out of them. She knew what to say.
"I didn't kill her. I tried to save her out of respect for you and your house, Henry. So that your son would not have his sister's blood on his hands."
The crowd murmured again, more loudly now.
"The Amazon was dead at the pond," someone shouted.
"Riell tried to save her," cried another voice.
"Yes, we saw it with our own eyes, we did."
"Where is she? I want to see her," said Henry. "I want to see my daughter." Riell was taken aback for a moment. He was grieving Alexandra's death? A pang of sorrow grazed her heart. She pushed the pang aside and held out a small urn.
"She wanted an Amazon funeral. It was her last request."
Henry accepted the ashes. Tears ran down his cheeks.
"Richard. Will you pardon him?" asked Henry.
"Yes. The woman was my enemy, after all." Riell paused for effect. "Even though she was your daughter." The crowd murmured again, and two of Roland's old soldiers stepped out of it, their hands on their swords. They dropped to one knee and one of them addressed her.
"We heard what you said. We will follow you. Do you want us to arrest Henry? "
"No. Leave him alone. He is pardoned, too. But he is no longer Regent. I am taking my father's place today, if you will have me." She looked at the crowd.
The crowd began to chant.
"Long live Riell! Long live Riell!"
Candor, calmly and slowly, drew closer to her. The crowd would not hurt him either, Riell realized. With his face close to hers so that she could feel his wet breath on her skin, he spoke to her in Greek.
"You think you're so smart, but I know you're lying. Alexandra's not dead. You're hiding her so you can carry out your abominations." Riell didn't know what he meant at first. What had she done that was so terrible that it warranted one of the strongest condemnations in the Bible? "Two women together. It's disgusting."
Riell's mouth fell open. Whatever she had done with Alexandra, it certainly hadn't been evil. Candor was upset about that? And how did he even know?
"And as soon as I can prove it, I will see you dead, Riell, if I have to do it myself." She felt his utter hatred and her blood ran cold. Candor was telling the truth. Candor stepped back from her. He raised his hand and crossed himself. As he stared Riell in the eye he joined the chant. "Long live Riell," he repeated. "Long live Riell."
After Riell had gone to give thanks to Artemis, the old woman cleaned the spurge she had gathered and hung several small bunches of it from the ceiling to dry. Then she lay down on the bearskin rug and fell asleep. When she woke up several hours later Aella's weapons were back in place, but Riell was gone.
Selene shivered. Darkness had fallen, rather suddenly, and a chilly fog had rolled in. She fetched her bearskin coat off its hook and placed it over her shoulders. The old woman fed the fire until it roared in the hearth. She glanced at the patient while she worked. Alexandra slept peacefully. But it was time for another dose of the concoction.
She hung the pot with the next dose over the fire. While it warmed, she fetched a bearskin blanket from a chest.
"Here," she said, touching the warrior's arm gently. "It's getting cold. Let me put this over you." She spread the skin over Alexandra and helped her sit up a little. "It's time for more medicine." Selene held a cup to her lips and Alexandra drank the warm liquid. She lay down without a sound.
Alexandra turned her head toward Selene and said, earnestly, "I can't remember when I've been treated so kindly. Thank you."
"That was something any Amazon would do for another Amazon," said Selene, studying Alexandra through narrowed eyes. She waited a long time before she spoke again, and she spoke very softly.
"But you almost broke your Oath." The words hung in the air. Alexandra didn't answer right away. Instead, she turned her gaze toward the ceiling and bit her lower lip. A single tear slid from the corner of her eye toward her ear.
"I was fifteen. I thought it was a great looking tattoo. I didn't take the oath part seriously."
"Oh, is that so?" said Selene nonchalantly. Another tear escaped Alexandra's eye. Selene moved to the edge of the pallet and sat down. She took Alexandra's hand, squeezed it gently, then released it. "People say you're only after conquest and treasure."
"I don't pay any attention to what people say about me."
"Yes, I can see that." Selene got up to put another kettle of the medicine on the fire, then returned to her seat on the edge of the pallet.
"Why hasn't Riell taken the Oath?" asked Alexandra. Hmmm. So Alexandra had been hanging around the pond, thought Selene. Selene raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Alexandra continued, "Does she take things pretty seriously?"
"Not really. Especially not love."
"Oh," said Alexandra weakly. Selene tucked the bearskin in a little more snugly around Alexandra.
"I suppose it's just as well if she marries your half-brother, Richard, even though I don't think she particularly fancies him. It'll keep peace, anyway. She may not be happy, but at least she'll be alive." Alexandra turned her face away from Selene. The old woman narrowed her eyes again.
"Alexandra," she said, her voice low, "how did a mediocre fighter like Richard get lucky enough to almost kill one of the greatest Amazon warriors who ever lived?"
"See. I'm not arrogant. Just honest." Alexandra raised an eyebrow and smiled crookedly. Selene pursed her lips. Alexandra had her own brand of charm. "I decided not to kill him even though he attacked me. He is my brother, after all, and he thought he was helping Riell." And she had her own brand of scruples.
"Anyway, I planned to let him tire himself out so I could walk away." Alexandra looked away. "But I felt Riell's eyes on me. She was off to the side. I couldn't stop myself from looking at her. I was distracted and he surprised me." Alexandra turned back toward Selene. "That's never happened to me before. But it wasn't a mistake."
"No. It was the most powerful feeling I've ever had." Alexandra's voice was weak but her eyes glowed with new ardor. "I knew why I was here. It wasn't to claim Henry's inheritance. That suddenly meant nothing. It was to be with Riell. That's when Richard wounded me."
"Hmmm…get some rest. You can talk to her about it in the morning. She mentioned that she'd stop by to see how you were doing."
Alexandra's eyes closed at the news and she let out a contented sigh. She was soon fast asleep under the black bearskin blanket.
The Oath of Artemis
A misty hush surrounded the little hut. Inside, Alexandra opened her eyes. Her first thought was of Riell. Had she come? Was she here? Alexandra looked around the room, her heart pounding hard with hope. The graying windows hinted at first light of morning. The hearth was silent. Even Selene was nowhere in sight. She was alone.
Good. That was good. Better than seeing Riell again. She needed to get away from here. She was falling in love with the heiress, a dangerous turn of events to say the least. It had almost cost her life.
The bearskin felt too heavy, too warm and she threw it aside. The room's chill nipped at her bare skin, raising gooseflesh. As she sat up a searing pain below her ribs grabbed her, forcing her hand to her wound and shortening her breath. It passed in a few heartbeats, thank the goddess. She had to get going.
Otherwise feeling rather well, considering, she carefully swung her legs over the edge of the pallet. A suit of hunter’s clothes was draped over a nearby chair: a tunic and pants of sturdy green cloth. Alexandra stood to put them on and reeled with dizziness. It hurt to raise her hands to put on the tunic, and it hurt to bend her knees to pull the pants on, but she managed. And they fit.
Outside, footsteps approached, directing Alexandra's gaze to the door. Riell? The door squeaked open and in came the old woman with a load of wood in her arms. Alexandra moved to help, as was Amazon custom, but she had to sit down on the pallet and catch her breath instead.
"Where do you think you're going?" Selene said crossly. "And don't rip those stitches out. I don't want to redo them." Selene set down her burden next to the hearth and after arranging the logs neatly, made a fire. "Can you eat?"
"I think so," answered Alexandra. The old woman hung two small, blackened pots over the flames then walked to the pallet where Alexandra sat observing her.
"Better?" asked Selene. Alexandra lifted her tunic so Selene could examine the wound. The old woman nodded in satisfaction. "Healing up like a good Amazon, I see."
Alexandra ate a small breakfast of gruel and venison. She was finishing a cup of medicinal tea when hooves clattered outside. There was a rap at the door. Riell, thought Alexandra, her heart pounding. But even before Selene's pointed glance at her, Alexandra, clutching her side, scrambled to hide behind the door.
Satisfied that Alexandra was out of sight, Selene wiped her hands on a cloth and pulled the door open. It was Riell's young squire. He looked nervously at the old woman and handed her a note sealed with Riell's ring. She thanked him and shut the door and waited until the hooves faded away. She read the letter silently.
I have taken the kingdom from Henry so I am rather busy. Henry thinks his daughter is dead. If Alexandra is still alive you must hide her somewhere else. Both of you will be in danger otherwise.
Candor is our true enemy and correctly suspects my duplicity. If Alexandra is alive, then yes, I have lied, but for good reason. I will trust your judgement in this however; and if you believe I am making an error by protecting Alexandra I will abide by your advice.
Destroy this letter. Please come to see me soon. I am ready for the Oath.
Selene tore up the letter and threw it into the hearth. A slow smile spread over her face. She knew exactly where to hide Alexandra.
Riell reviewed her troops, then spent the rest of the day with her councilors. Henry and Richard could stay in her castle but she would confiscate their small fief. And she cut the Church and Crusade taxes in half. At nightfall she returned to her chamber and sent for Selene.
"Thank the goddess you're safe," said Riell in Greek. The younger woman sank into a large, purple, velvet-covered chair, exhausted.
"I'm just fine," said Selene, moving some clothes off a smaller chair and taking a seat herself. "And it sounds like you certainly outdid yourself." The girl had won her first battle. She had protected herself and her place in the world. And she hadn't even drawn her sword. So Riell was an Amazon after all, but a bit different than Selene was used to. She had more of her father Roland's style.
But even that wasn't the main thing in life, especially for someone like Riell. Selene put her big full basket on the floor beside her chair and waited a moment. Silence. "Aren't you going to ask me about Alexandra?"
"All right. How is Alexandra?" Riell pretended indifference, but badly. It irritated Selene. "I was too busy to come by this morning," Riell added.
The girl was smart and brave and growing up fast, but gods, she could be dense about some things, thought the old woman. It was obvious she loved Alexandra. Did Riell think that she could stop caring if it wasn't convenient? Did Riell think it mattered if Selene approved of her choice? Selene decided to play a little rough. Wake her up a bit.
"She's dead?" Riell clutched the arms of her chair so tightly Selene thought the young woman's knuckles might burst through her skin. "No, please, tell me that's not true!" Selene couldn't stand the look of pain and panic in the emerald eyes. Riell had called her bluff. The old woman relented, but she was disappointed in herself. If she grew too soft in her old age, she’d be of no use to the young ones.
"No. She’s not dead. She was better this morning, but weak and still in pain. She ate a little. She left. I don't know where she is." Riell stood up and walked around her chair aimlessly.
"Selene, I think I'm in love with Alexandra. Is that possible? Two women?" She stopped behind the chair and looked at Selene, her milky hands rubbing the velvet chair back as if they were shoulders in need of a massage. "And she's not exactly a diamond, either."
"How far along are you with that scroll, anyway?"
"Well, yes, I know, Xena and Gabrielle. I didn't imagine love like that existed in real life, much less between two women." Riell looked almost panicked again. "Selene, I touched her."
"Yes…and?" Selene had to make a conscious effort not to roll her eyes. Raising a Separated Amazon was so difficult, she thought. Reinventing the wheel with each generation. Somehow they all made it through, though. Now, had she remembered to bring everything? She pulled the big basket into her lap and began to look through it.
"It felt different…so…so much more than touching Richard. I felt so many new feelings, ones I'd never imagined. And then when she was hurt, I couldn't bear it…I'd have done anything for her."
Riell walked to the open window and looked out. "Selene, she's read the scroll. She knows all about these things, how to be with women. She's probably an expert. And for all I know, she'll still try to use me for her own purposes. She wants my kingdom, just like everyone else. I never want to see her again!"
"Do you think you might be overreacting?" Selene put her basket back on the floor and motioned to Riell's empty chair. "Come back here and sit down. Hurry up now." Her voice contained annoyance. Riell obeyed absently, but continued talking.
"I know her reputation. She's arrogant and ambitious and ruthless."
"When used correctly those are good qualities in a ruler," said Selene, thinking that Riell had a good measure of each, and in just the right proportions. "And what if she did take over? Would that be so terrible?" It was time Riell stopped taking things for granted, time she worried a little more about her place in the world, Amazon or not. And the prophecies said clearly that Alexandra was destined to rule, but not over a kingdom, thought Selene. She was destined for higher things. She would rule over a queen.
At that moment Selene noticed the flimsy curtain over the window move a bit, as if kissed by a breeze. Fortunately, thought Selene, Riell was lost in her own thoughts, and felt the need to express each one out loud and in detail, as if they were all of great importance.
Selene coughed several times, then scraped her chair along the floor. She pushed it around and tried out various angles, as if she were unsatisfied with her view of the chamber. She reached down and rustled around in her large basket, making a lot of noise.
Riell slumped down and rested her head on the back of her chair, pondering Selene's last statement. It was obvious that the idea had never occurred to her in that way. "How could those be good qualities? I can't stand the thought of being subject to the will of anyone, even Alexandra…" Everything was going perfectly, thought Selene, peering into a dark corner of the room. It was time.
"…The kingdom belongs to me. I'm the rightful heir..." Riell carried on out loud with her thoughts. "…I'll never bow to anyone—"
"Riell," said Selene, trying not to sound too irritated. "I brought the Ritual Scroll." Selene reached into her basket. "You asked me to, remember?"
"Oh." Riell stood up. "Thank you."
"I have everything we need right here."
She pulled out a white cloth and draped it over a small table. On it she set the small bronze statue of Artemis, the Virgin Goddess. She draped the statue with a robe of real white linen, so that the left breast remained bare. After girdling the waist with a silver chain, she lit several white candles and placed them around the base of the figure.
Riell disrobed completely. Selene handed her a piece of fine white fabric and a silver chain and Riell draped herself exactly as Selene had draped the statue. The garment hung to Riell's knees. Her skin glowed in the candlelight and pride lit her face, taking the old woman's breath away for a moment.
"Ready?" asked Selene gently.
Selene saw a surge of certainty flow through the young woman. Riell nodded. She was ready to take the Oath of Artemis.
Selene fetched a small scroll from her basket and handed it to Riell.
The young woman unrolled it and began to read out loud.
I am Amazon, a daughter of Artemis, the Virgin Goddess. I will submit to no man against my will in any matter, nor will I harm another Amazon at the request of any man. I will not give up my freedom in exchange for succor from men, but will provide for my needs by the labor of my own hands. If necessary, I will shed blood to defend my life or freedom or that of any Amazon. I take this oath freely, and it binds me above any other oath I have taken.
"That was beautiful. Now I'll finish up with the crescent and leave you two alone."
Riell wheeled around. Crouched in a shadow near the window, in her green hunter's garb, was Alexandra. She stood and made her way stiffly to the purple velvet chair to watch the rest of the ceremony.
After casting a wary glance at Alexandra, Riell lay back on her large bed and tucked her left arm under her head. Selene pulled up a stool and worked on Riell's left breast with a sharp needle. She finished quickly then stood up and gathered everything that came from her basket, all except the ceremonial clothes. Riell still wore them, as was Amazon custom. When Selene finished packing, she hoisted the basket over one arm and pointed to Alexandra's abdomen.
"Let me see that once more."
Alexandra lifted her green tunic as Selene bent close.
"Hmmm…Good. Take the stitches out in seven days." Selene placed a flask of medicinal tea on the table where the statue had stood. "Drink the rest of this tonight." She turned toward the door. "By the way, is Frances down in the kitchen?" Riell nodded. "Good. Perhaps she can show me out."
Candle and Sun
After Selene left, the two younger women sat on the bed cross-legged facing each other. Alexandra wriggled closer so that her knees touched Riell's.
"Now don't slap me, but it is very becoming." Alexandra nodded toward the new tattoo on Riell's breast and smiled crookedly. "And I like the tunic. You look like a goddess." Alexandra fingered the white hem, and then the silver belt. She looked up to the emerald eyes again and spoke softly as she took Riell's hand. The warm azure began to melt Riell's iron resolve. "The ceremony was beautiful, Riell."
"How are you?" asked Riell. "Does it hurt a lot?" Riell looked away but left her hand in Alexandra's. Suddenly, in her mind, Riell saw Richard’s sword again plunge into Alexandra's side. Pain clamped around Riell’s throat, even though she didn't care anymore.
"It does hurt. I can't ride, and I'm weak from blood loss," said Alexandra. "Selene wanted me to come here. You know the old Amazon saying. The best hiding place is under the enemy's nose. Selene thinks your chamber would be the last place Candor would look."
Riell nodded toward a rope and hook curled neatly on the floor under the window. "How'd you climb…"
Alexandra laughed. "It took a long time and I made a lot of noise. Selene covered for me when I finally got to your window."
Alexandra lifted Riell's hand to her lips and kissed it. She looked thoughtfully at Riell.
"On the way over I heard people talking about you, the common people and your soldiers." Alexandra looked at Riell with curiosity. "They all love you, you know. That's a gift." Alexandra kissed the back of Riell's fingers again, one at a time, then placed them against her own cheek. "One I don't have." An insistent pulsing now filled Riell's groin and she felt her breathing quicken. She grew annoyed with herself.
"Believe me, you have many of your own." Riell's voice contained ice. She pulled her hand away and looked Alexandra in the eye. "Why are you trying to seduce me?"
Alexandra’s face burned as if she’d had her cheeks slapped and she picked at the bedclothes. "I’d hoped I wasn’t doing all of the seducing," she said. "I thought that you felt the same way and-"
"What way would that be? You came here to kill me and steal my land. Now you want to keep me alive? For your own amusement?"
Supporting her wounded side with her right hand, Alexandra turned away and sat on the edge of the bed, her back to Riell.
"You didn't let me die yesterday." She paused. Bending her dark head, she stared at her own hands in her lap. Finally she spoke again. "But you could have, and no one would have faulted you. I know that at least part of you must have wanted me dead." Alexandra turned to look over her shoulder at Riell. "But I know why you saved me, Riell. I saw it in your eyes, at the duel, when you looked at me. I felt it, too."
Riell's hands covered her face. Her shoulders quaked with silent sobs. In a few moments her reddened eyes rose and searched Alexandra's intently.
"Alexandra, three days ago I was a free woman. Now you've made me love you. And when you recover you'll leave, and I'll never see you again."
Alexandra made her way back to Riell and knelt on the bed in front of her. She took both of the blond woman's hands in hers and squeezed them. "Riell, we're meant to be together. Why don't you come with me?" she asked earnestly.
"With you? Where? Where would we go? You don't have a home."
Alexandra looked away. It was true. She had no place to go, no center to her life. She could always go back to the Old Village, but that world was too small to hold her for long. And her chafing irritated the other Amazons.
"I belong here." A soft certainty strengthened Riell's voice. She had stopped crying. "I won't go with you."
"Yes. Of course not," whispered Alexandra, lying back on the bed and tucking her hands behind her head. "I understand." She understood that there was no room in Riell's life for her. She could not be with Riell, even though that was the only thing left on earth that could bring her any purpose or joy in life. She had offended the gods too much this time.
She loathed herself. Nothing of worth existed within her or because of her. She was like a desert. Alexandra had always told herself she didn't care. That was before Riell. Before. Alexandra would measure her life differently from now on: the Alexandra before Riell and the Alexandra after her.
But she would bring no more trouble or pain to her beautiful Riell. She would leave as soon as she was able. She swore it to herself.
But, for some reason, perhaps because she had gone truly mad, thought Alexandra, her left hand rose off the bed and reached out to Riell, wordlessly inviting her into the empty space beside her. And for some ineffable reason, Riell came to her.
"I haven't figured out how I'll manage when you're gone, though," Riell said as she lowered herself carefully into the empty space on Alexandra's good left side and placed her head on her shoulder. She tried to be gentle as she wrapped an arm around the precious wounded waist covered by the coarse green hunting clothes. Yes, of course Selene had tricked her into being close to Alexandra. But still, it felt so right, so inevitable, as if she had been born to it.
Riell tipped her head up toward Alexandra's face. She thought she saw an endless sadness deep in the blue eyes, then she thought she heard a soft tapping. But all thought drained from her mind as warm lips met hers and fingertips grazed her newly tattooed left nipple.
"Lady Riell!" Frances poked her head into the chamber. "Your door's unlocked and I was worried…Mother Mary!" Alexandra and Riell sat up in bed. Alexandra clutched her wound with the quick motion.
"Frances! Come in and shut the door, for God’s sake!" said Riell.
Frances closed the door, turned around, and began to giggle. "Your secret's safe with me, Lady Riell. I prefer it that way myself." Riell's jaw dropped.
"You promise you won't tell anyone?"
"Of course not. Now I just came by to see if you might need anything else this evening, perhaps some extra food and drink?" Frances nodded toward Alexandra, who raised an eyebrow.
"Uh, sure, Frances. That'd be great. But knock next time. Please."
"May I have please a bathing bowl?" asked Alexandra.
"Certainly, m'lady." Frances bowed to Alexandra and smiled broadly. "Right away."
After they had eaten and drunk a little, they bathed silently using the two large copper basins Frances had filled with warm water. Riell finished first. She climbed into bed naked, as was her habit from childhood and watched the dark woman wash.
Alexandra was lithe and muscular, long and smooth. Her left side was tan like her arms and legs; her right breast and shoulder were white. She moved slowly, favoring her right side.
When she finished, Alexandra dried off with a cloth and stood still in the middle of the room, next to her bowl.
"Waiting for an invitation?" asked Riell.
"Yes," said Alexandra solemnly. "You are the granddaughter of my queen. Now that you've taken the Oath of Artemis and are a true Amazon, I am your subject." Alexandra knelt stiffly on the floor and bowed her head.
"Stop it. That's silly. I'm just me. I'm not going to subject you to anything. Unless you're willing, of course." Riell feigned seriousness. "Are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Yes. I was just pulling your leg." Alexandra grinned insolently and moved slowly toward the bed. She winced a little as she climbed in and clutched her side. "But be gentle. I'm not at my best." She lay back stiffly against the pillows then looked over at Riell, and gasped. Riell lay on her side facing Alexandra's good side, an arm bent under her head, attentive.
By the gods, she's beautiful, thought Alexandra, taking in the full length of smooth white skin that glowed in the candlelight. The emerald green eyes studied her with friendly interest. Then Alexandra figured something out. Riell was waiting for her to say something. Awkwardness suddenly gripped the warrior.
What should I say? I'm in love with her, thought Alexandra, but she'd never believe me if I told her. Why should she? A few days ago I was plotting her murder. This is horrible. I must be mad. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of this…
Riell traced a finger down Alexandra's breastbone, breaking her morose concentration.
"Having second thoughts?" she whispered.
Words failed Alexandra.
"Well, then," whispered Riell again. "Let me tell you a story."
Her hand wandered to Alexandra's blue crescent and outlined it. Alexandra's mind protested, but her body drank in the caress thirstily, as dry earth absorbs a raindrop. Then her eyes closed as soft, wet warmth enveloped her nipple, and Alexandra's head rolled back, slowly, Riell's gentle touch cleaving through all resistance as if she were plowing a field of water. Riell's lips found her other breast as well and with patient insistence pulled a soft moan of pleasure from her. Riell's fingertips played along her hair and face. Then Riell was gone for a moment and Alexandra opened her eyes.
"You see, that was just the beginning of the story…" said Riell.
Floating above Alexandra were the emerald eyes, now deepened and darkened with desire. Alexandra could see a light within them, a light lit only for her. It would lead her home, the way a candle in the window invites a weary traveler. "…Let me tell you the rest…"
Riell's silent lips descended slowly and rested on her barely parted ones. Riell's tongue danced with hers and spoke to her in the language of lovers.
New to love, Riell's hands wandered, exploring the sand-colored dunes, laughing and calling out to her, not imagining the dark despair lying mutely below. The small hands dallied about Alexandra’s beautiful lips and throat. They flirted shyly with her breasts and delighted in the puckering of tender pink flesh. And another small cry, this one born of pleasure and sadness, escaped the dungeon of misery in Alexandra's chest.
While roaming the smooth bronze thighs the delicate fingers found an oasis and with innocent joy began to play in the spring.
And as her mind's sullen protestations grew feeble and faded into nothingness, with wonder and with wordless abandon Alexandra began to say yes.
As she drew in her next breath, a longing faint like a distant memory began deep in Alexandra's chest and belly, and with each breath that filled Alexandra's lungs it grew. Riell drew it hand over hand to the surface of Alexandra's body, like clear water from a deep well, and Riell spread it over the desert of Alexandra’s soul. For Riell's new hands held an ancient wisdom, as old as the gods, and they found the rhythm of Alexandra's need as if they had practiced it for a thousand years.
Alexandra trembled. Her body grew taut like a bow bent in the hunt. She felt a vibration in her throat and felt air rush past her parted lips. In the distance she heard a sound over and over again. It was her own voice.
"Riell! Riell! Riell!"
"I'm sorry! Are you alright?" The blond was beside herself. "Oh, I've hurt you! I don't know what I'm doing…your wound…"
"No, no. I'm not hurt." Alexandra cupped Riell's face with both hands to quiet her. "Far from it." Beyond that, words failed her again. She pulled the blond head onto her shoulder and stroked it and stared in wonder at the ceiling as she held Riell.
The Dance of the Warrior
Alexandra slept long and woke in the early afternoon. Frances sat quietly in a far corner of the chamber drawing a needle and thread through a piece of cloth. She lifted her head when she saw Alexandra move. Stretching her arms above her head, Alexandra seemed to be testing her wound. She sat up and swung her bare legs over the edge of the bed. Alexandra did not seem at all surprised to see Frances; in fact, she stood and stretched again. She was completely naked.
My, that Lady Riell has fine taste in women, thought Frances. What a beauty! And not a lick of modesty. Just like Lady Riell. And oh, that foreign accent. Very attractive.
"How are you feeling today, m'lady?"
"Better, thank you."
"Lady Riell asked me to stay with you until you woke up. Would you like some food?"
"Very fine, yes."
"And a bath again, m'lady?"
Lady Alexandra liked to keep clean, bathed twice a day, just like Lady Riell. She was comfortable with service, too. She must be high born, thought Frances, as she bustled about efficiently, being careful to avoid calling attention to the amount of service being rendered to Riell's supposedly empty chamber.
"Anything else, m'lady?"
"No, thank you. Is enough." Alexandra flashed a crooked grin. But Frances didn't move. A large smile had spread across her features. "Maybe you come back in hour or two?" said Alexandra.
"Oh! Uh, certainly, m'lady," Frances said, bowing low and backing out of the room.
After Frances had gone, Alexandra bathed and ate. She put on the green hunter's clothes and looked around for something to do. Her attention fell on the wooden desk. The scrolls lay unrolled next to the rose, where Riell had left them several days ago. Frances had replaced the burned-down candle and freshened the water in the rose's vase. The bloom was fully opened and fragrant, and it leaned heavily over the edge of its vessel, as if trying to read the words that lay below.
Alexandra sat down at the desk and studied the original scroll and Riell's copy, and found where Riell had left off. Alexandra had been allowed to copy some shorter scrolls near the end of her studies. She could help Riell with this one, especially since she was so familiar with it. She picked up the quill, dipped it in the inkwell and began to write.
Some moments, however, I will remember above all others. These have formed my most precious memories of Xena, memories I will cherish to the end of my life, and beyond, if the gods will it, so special are they. These were times when Xena was not strong, not beautiful, and not courageous, times she had allowed no one to share, in the past. Gradually, she began to look to me during those times and to search deep in my eyes for the goodness reflected there. For I always saw goodness in Xena, even in our darkest moments, and I kept it in my heart, waiting, waiting for her alone.
Alexandra put down the quill and raised her dark head, staring at the stone wall in front of her as if it held a fascinating view. She had read this scroll many times, but she couldn't remember feeling the Bard's words as she felt them today. A keen ache lodged in her chest and wouldn't yield to several deep breaths. She felt ashamed.
It was late afternoon when Riell hurried back to her chamber. Alexandra slept on the bed in her green clothes. In a corner, Frances sat sewing. Riell whispered some orders to Frances and the woman nodded and left quietly. Riell bolted the door and climbed onto the bed. She curled around the Amazon's back and Alexandra snuggled close, still asleep. Riell wrapped an arm around her and gently buried her face in fragrant black hair. She breathed the scent in deeply, with closed eyes and parted lips, and began to tremble.
Holding the sleeping Alexandra, Riell floundered alone in the agony of her love. Alexandra already lived in the center of her life, in the center of her heart. Now she could never send Alexandra away. She was ruled, utterly ruled by Alexandra. She ached to touch her again deeply. She ached to be touched by Alexandra. But something held her back. On the desk, a deep red petal slipped from the rose and sank in a scalloped path onto the open scroll.
Alexandra grew somewhat stronger over the next few days. Riell was gone most of the daylight hours training with the army and working with her ministers. Alexandra spent her days working on the scroll. She slept frequently. Frances cared for her in whatever ways Alexandra allowed. The pair spent the warm nights oddly chaste, although Frances guarded their privacy fiercely.
On the seventh day Riell took the stitches out of Alexandra's wound.
Late that night, Riell awoke from a disturbed sleep, sweaty and hot. The bed felt empty. Alexandra was gone. Still folded neatly on a wooden chest, where she always kept them, were Alexandra's green clothes. The rope dangled over the windowsill, attached by the hook, and hung within arm's reach of the ground. It shone silver under the waning crescent moon. Riell dressed quickly and made her way out of the castle. Somehow, she knew where to find Alexandra. And as she neared the pond, she saw Alexandra on the shore. She was dancing.
The warrior had something in each hand. As Riell got closer, she saw that they were small clubbed-shaped rattles, which Alexandra shook rhythmically. Strings of small round bones, perhaps the vertebrae of an animal, circled her wrists and ankles. She wore nothing else. Ragged stripes of black and white paint sliced across her torso and face. Heavy perspiration glittered on her skin and flew off her arms and hair as she spun with her head hung back, her arms open wide.
As quietly as she could, Riell made her way into the thicket until she stood behind the tree Alexandra had leaned upon at their first meeting. Alexandra didn't see her, or if she did, she didn't acknowledge her presence.
It occurred to Riell that Alexandra might be practicing her fighting forms. But something about the way Alexandra moved was unfamiliar to Riell. The look of controlled concentration that fighters wear was absent; her motions lacked precision. Her movements were agitated, feverish, jerking, her eyes unfocused and heavy-lidded. She dipped and swayed. Her head whipped up and down and from side to side and the great black mane lashed the air. The bone bracelets' hollow rattle kept time to the thud of bare feet stomping the soft grassy earth. And Alexandra was chanting.
Riell recognized the ancient language as the Mother Tongue of the Amazons, older even than the old Greek of the scrolls, but she could not understand the words.
When Riell first arrived, the dance had been slow, deliberate. Gradually, as Riell watched transfixed, the tempo increased. Riell's heart began to beat wildly, as if to follow the dance. The rhythm quickened, the spinning accelerated, until finally, with a dreadful cry, Alexandra dropped exhausted to her knees on the grass and arched backward, face toward the crescent moon overhead, arms outstretched in heart-wrenching supplication.
In spite of herself, Riell gasped in wonder at the sight, and deep within her soul she remembered something very old, and was moved. At that moment, Selene, dressed in her bearskin, stepped up to the kneeling Alexandra and tapped her firmly on the forehead.
Riell's attention had been so fixed on the warrior that she had not seen Selene until then. Alexandra fell backwards onto the grass, chest heaving, as Selene spoke in the ancient tongue and sprinkled something over her. Riell could stay hidden no longer and stepped into the clearing.
"Stay back!" warned Selene sharply. "Don't go near her now." Riell froze. Awe and dread filled her. Alexandra lay on the grass twitching and breathing heavily, her eyes closed. Selene removed the rattles from Alexandra's hands and placed them on the ground beside her head.
The old woman looked unsmilingly at Riell and said something in the old language, her tone still sharp. And although Riell could not understand the words, somehow she knew what they meant. Riell quickly dropped to her knees and bowed her head. Selene nodded approvingly, then turned her attention back to Alexandra. Kneeling beside the warrior, she began to speak to Alexandra in the Mother Tongue, softly now.
Riell, kneeling nearby, listened to the ancient words flowing past her and remembered, as the utterances reached beyond her mind and into her soul. She felt the meaning of her people's history, the Amazons' beginnings as warriors and hunters, the bitter separation from their brothers. She heard, as if for the first time, of the sanctity of an Amazon life, a woman's life, and of the wrath of Artemis should that sanctity be violated in any way. She saw the loving work of innumerable Amazon hands poured upon the earth through the ages like a mighty river, to benefit all, sisters and brothers alike. And she understood the secret source of the flow. She understood. She understood.
Riell opened her eyes and raised her face to the moon. She had been chanting. Her cheeks were wet with tears. Selene was sprinkling something on her head.
"Alexandra?" asked Riell, looking at Selene.
"You may go to her."
Now Alexandra was in the pond. She had washed off much of the paint, but stripes still marked her face. Smiling, she held out a hand to Riell, then lay back so that only her head remained above the water. The swan swam slowly near the far shore, silvery in the moonlight. The night air was warm and filled with rose. Riell had disrobed, but stood rooted on the shore.
"Go. Go to her," whispered Selene over Riell's shoulder. But when she turned toward the old woman's voice, she saw nothing.
Riell waded into the clear water. Clasping both of her hands, Alexandra drew Riell close. Then something tapped Riell firmly on the forehead.
Riell was lying on her stomach, in her own bed. Above and below her were warmth and softness. She was wrapped in a sleeping Alexandra, legs and arms enlaced in the silken embrace. Riell raised her head from Alexandra's chest and looked around the room. The stars still shone outside, but light was gathering in the eastern sky.
Under the window Riell saw the rope and hook, now neatly curled, and on the wooden chest lay Alexandra's folded green clothes. A cream-colored hand smoothed a lock of black hair from the sleeping face. Faint black and white stripes still crossed the beautiful features. New desire rose within her, and Riell could not resist placing her lips on Alexandra's forehead. At that moment a rooster crowed. Riell opened her eyes. She woke to a feeling of impending doom. She was going to lose Alexandra.
Alexandra's eyelids fluttered. As slumber gradually released her the first thing to enter Alexandra's consciousness was the exquisite weight of Riell's body upon her. Alexandra groaned in her ethereal pleasure-state. She remembered the dance. She had called Riell, and Riell's soul had answered, and had come to her. She was forgiven. She was loved. She was home.
Then it seemed to Alexandra that Riell's lips floated down to hers as a leaf glides to the ground in fall: dreamily, erratically, first playing near an arched brow, next kissing a tender eyelid, turning a little to brush a temple, then a cheek, before finally alighting on the waiting lips below.
"Lady Alexandra!" Frances burst into the room. Candor knows about you. He's talking to Lord Henry right now. I overheard them. Please Lady Alexandra, you have to hide! And quickly!"
Alexandra had already jumped up and donned the green tunic before Frances had finished. As the warrior pulled on her trousers, Riell looked around the room for her own clothes. Alexandra hooked the rope to the windowsill and turned back toward the room, toward Riell.
"You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. You are my family, my home. Please don't forget me."
She slipped over the window's edge and dropped noiselessly to the ground, then released the hook. Riell leaned over the sill and watched her slip away into the forest. All of a sudden she realized that Alexandra had no shoes, no horse, no weapons, no money. Riell looked around the room. There were no remnants of Alexandra's presence at all, anywhere in the chamber.
Alexandra Meets Xena
There was a knock at the door. Frances opened it to Lord Henry.
"Come in." Riell, dressed in riding clothes, sat at her desk, quill in hand, working on her scroll.
Henry entered the chamber. Candor followed him inside and scoured the room hungrily with his gaze.
"You see, Candor, there's no one here but Riell." Henry spoke gently to the priest, a feat Riell could not have accomplished at that moment.
Candor hurried to the window. Leaning out, he looked down. Nothing! The heathen was gone. Wait. His hand on the sill brushed against a notch in the wooden frame. Keeping his face expressionless, he slid his hand along the sill. Another notch. Marks from a hook. So, he hadn't imagined the striped naked banshee climbing the wall to Riell's chamber.
Henry may not believe him now, but he was on the right track. He would keep pressure on the young harlot until he had her by the throat. The scrolls, she always worked on those scrolls she got from the witch in the forest. She was doing it now, shamelessly, in front of him. And the scrolls were the key. Why hadn't he seen it before? The scrolls would give him what he needed. The jezebel would pay for her sins.
As soon as Henry and Candor left, Riell dismissed Frances and turned back to her work. Red petals littered the parchment. The drooping rose was nearly bare; and it was all that Alexandra had left behind. Riell's eyes filled and overflowed and a drop landed on the precious old writing.
As Riell wiped the tear from the document, she noticed that an unfamiliar hand marked her new scroll. Alexandra must have copied some of Gabrielle's words for her! So she had something of hers, even if only until the next rider came to take the scroll away. She followed the new script backwards until it met her own.
Xena has never read my scrolls. I don't know why; I think she would like them. Perhaps she's read some and kept it from me. That's a secret wish of mine, I guess. We do keep things from each other, or we think we do.
Xena probably thinks that my scrolls are filled with my version of all her heroic deeds. (She can be quite full of herself, at times.)
And the deeds are there and glorious: battles won, wars ended, wrongs righted, monsters slain, innocents rescued, et cetera. All are heroics worthy of a god.
But Xena is no god. She has to rise from the mire of selfishness, pain, fatigue, and greed every day, as do we all. Often she succeeds. Just as often she fails. And I've put it all in the scrolls. After all, Xena's humanity is her best trait.
But I know it hurts Xena to fail. It takes her back to times she can't forget, yet can't bear to think about. I know how frightened the courageous warrior princess is of her past, of being possessed again by the spirits of rage, revenge, bloodlust, and blind ambition. And I know she hides those fears from me as best she can. I also know what Xena fears above all else.
I catch her watching me at odd moments. I can always sense Xena's gaze, and I turn automatically toward it. It might be across a quiet campfire, or in the heat of battle.
The first few times it happened, I thought perhaps she was afraid of harm coming to me. Perhaps she was afraid she wouldn't always be able to protect me. But that wasn't it. Xena would give her life to protect me, if she had to. I know that. Next, I wondered if she feared that I would leave her, or hurt her in some way. That wasn't it either. The gods know I have done both. And Xena has forgiven me.
The thing Xena fears is closer to her than any enemy. It lies even closer than I do, I who press tightly against her in love every night. Xena is afraid of something inside herself; she is afraid that she herself will hurt me, again.
I am ashamed to say it, but it is the truth, so I will. Xena and I have struck each other, and worse, in the past. I once hated her more than I imagined I could hate anyone or anything. I tried to kill her and she me.
The gods must have taken pity on us, or perhaps we were merely a favorite amusement, because we survived. Even more miraculously, our love survived, and became stronger than any force I have encountered in my days on earth….
Everyone Misses Alexandra
Riell tried to fill the Alexandra-shaped space in her life with her drills and duties. It worked well, for the most part. Her men were loyal and hardworking. They respected her. In some ways, ruling came easily to her, much to her surprise. There wasn't that much to it.
So Riell's days were full. And in the evening Riell sat at her pond and fed the swan, and the memories that came at those times were pleasant and comforting. But the nights were empty now, with a deep emptiness that Riell had never known before Alexandra.
All the hot summer Henry mourned Alexandra as well, but quietly. He had her torn clothes cleaned and repaired, and folded them tenderly into his wooden chest.
Candor sympathized with Henry, reminding him at every opportunity that the witch Riell had finished off his daughter when she was wounded and weak.
The hot days gradually shortened and cooled. Autumn was near. On the fall equinox, Riell waited until dark, then rode to Selene’s. When she arrived, Selene was gone. She was making sure the guards slept through the night, thought Riell. She pondered this for a moment. These were her guards, now. She would make sure they weren’t disciplined for it.
Selene returned shortly, and the rider arrived after midnight. Blond hair. A right crescent. Riell was stunned by the strength of her disappointment. Had she really expected to see Alexandra again? No, it was better this way. There was no future for them. The rider exchanged scrolls with Selene quickly. Out went Xena and Gabrielle, the scroll Riell had labored over, the scroll with Alexandra's hand on it, out to its next stop in someone’s heart, she thought. She wished that unknown Amazon better luck in love than she'd had and turned her attention to the new delivery.
Selene closed the door behind the rider, and in spite of all her rationalizing, Riell shook with anticipation. Any news at all from Alexandra? Selene shuffled the scrolls and stopped at a small one, a letter from Cyrene, Alexandra’s mother. Selene read it out loud.
Thank you for sending my little black swan back to me. She arrived midsummer. She was weak from traveling hard, and from the wound she’d suffered in Britain. She told me how you’d saved her. I am more grateful than any words can express. Alexandra has changed, though. Her health and strength returned…
Riell let out an audible sigh of relief. Selene raised a brow, but didn’t look up.
…gradually, and she began to participate in village life. But there is a distance in her eyes that marks a loss. I’ve never seen that in her before. She won’t talk about it. Not a word. She doesn’t talk about leaving the village any more, either, though I know she has enough treasure to live like a king in the Other World. By day she hunts and works in her garden. And at night she dances the Warrior’s Dance at the bonfires until she drops. Several times I’ve seen her hard at work in her hut, bent over a blank scroll, marking it so carefully that she sweats, just to throw it across the room in frustration, cursing.
One of the prettiest young girls in the village has taken a fancy to her…
Riell felt a new sensation in the pit of her stomach.
…and perhaps that will be good for Alexandra, though I’ve never known her to be overtaken by love for long. The girl follows her like a puppy, and sometimes she makes Alexandra smile a little. But more often Alexandra brushes her off like a fly and walks away, leaving the poor girl alone and weeping.
I know, Selene, that you may be able to shed some light on this situation for me. I’ve not told Alexandra that I’m writing to you, though she of course knows that we correspond from time to time.
I’m looking forward to the fresh copy of "Xena and Gabrielle" that you promised. Our young separated Amazons in Asia are clamoring for it. The spring was wet so the hunt should be good this fall. Cybele is well, as always, and sends her best.
Selene rolled up the scroll and looked at Riell, whose throat was knotted with emotion. "Hmmm. I'd say she misses you," said Selene.
"I'll write to her," Riell responded shakily. "I have to write to her. But what'll I say? How can there be anything for us out here in the Other World, my world?"
"These things have a way of working themselves out. Just be truthful when you write." Selene put the scroll into the chest with the other new deliveries and closed the metal lid.
A twig snapped outside the hut and both women turned toward the sound. "What was that?" said Riell, a note of alarm in her voice.
"An animal." Selene removed her bearskin and threw a log on the fire. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep. You'll need your strength these next few months."
"May I stay here tonight?" She needed to be away from the Other World. Riell wanted to be near the scrolls, especially the one with news of Alexandra. She wanted to be near the bearskin. She wanted to be near the Amazons.
"Of course," said Selene. It won't be long now, thought the old woman, listening for more sounds outside.
Outside the window in the shadows Candor could hardly believe his luck. He had figured out the little jezebel perfectly. She would walk right into his trap.
Over the next few weeks the days grew short and gray, the nights cold and damp. For a while after Cyrene's latest letter had brought news of Alexandra, Riell spent much of her free time at her desk with a feather squeezed between her fingers, trying to write a letter to her. Each time, her mind became as blank as the parchment in front of her. After a few weeks she gave up.
The night before winter solstice she began again. As she dipped the gray quill in the thick black ink she remembered Selene's advice. Be truthful.
How I've missed you. Not a waking hour goes by that I don't wonder what you're doing, or feeling. Artemis allows me some comfort at night. It's then that I dream that I'm back in your arms. And while I sleep I'm happy again. But every morning I wake to a terrible loneliness, a space in the center of my chest that won't be filled by anyone or anything but you.
I'm happiest at Selene's, and at the pond, if I can call my tears happiness, because at least I have memories of you at those places. I know I will never see you again, but I want you to know that I will never forget you, and that you are in my heart, wherever you are. I want to say the good-bye I owe you.
I would like to ask you a favor. Would you send me something by which to remember you? Something small would be best, something I could carry with me. That would be a great comfort to me.
The letter was short, but rather uncharacteristically, Riell could think of nothing more to say. She rolled it up, sealed it with wax, and delivered it to Selene's that very night. Candor's eyes followed her as she left the stable. He was ready.
The next day, winter solstice, was cold and bitter. Candor shivered as he hid in the woods near Selene's hut. The old witch had better come out soon or he would freeze to death stuck against this tree, he thought. Ah, there she goes. Right on time. He did know her habits well enough, after all.
Wrapped in her bearskin, the old woman emerged from the hut with a basket and headed down the path. Candor slunk from his hiding place and slipped through the unlocked door. He scanned the room until his eyes lit upon the scroll chest. He crouched beside it, his eyes wide. He raised the squeaky lid. He rummaged through it until he found a small, freshly sealed scroll. Riell's ring seal embossed the wax clot. Success!
Smiling, Candor removed the scroll and replaced it with one he pulled from his cloak, and crept back outdoors. He as well as anyone knew that the pain of a broken heart was worse than death. And he was going to break both of those Amazons' hearts into little pieces. They would curse each other and pray to their pagan gods for death.
Later that day Riell stood by her gray, ice-covered pond and pulled her scratchy wool cloak tightly around her. Her breath hung in small clouds in front of her red-cheeked face. She looked around at the familiar spot that seemed so different without leaves or sun or roses. The swan was gone.
But still, she needed to try to get on with life, even a life without Alexandra. Nothing good would come of sitting around hoping against hope that tonight's rider would bring a letter.
And Riell did feel better knowing that her own letter would be on its way tonight. She had said goodbye, and had been honest about her feelings. She had some closure, some peace.
That night the priest sat on a hard bench near the altar with Riell's letter open on his lap. He took a deep breath of the quiet incensed air and thanked God for his many blessings. He ran his thick freckled fingers slowly over the Greek writing. Everything was working out as he had planned. No, better.
Candor knew that this spring would bring an important change in Richard's life. He just had to convince the young fool how lucky he was. Now Richard could force Riell to marry him. They had what they needed, Riell's letter to Alexandra. The vixen would burn for her abominations and heresy if the letter became public. Perhaps she'd prefer death to marriage, but that was all the same to Candor. She'd be out of his way forever, married or damned in hell for her abominable sins.
On second thought, marriage would be easier. If the letter became public Henry would know Alexandra was still alive. Henry had been blubbering about Alexandra's "death" for months, now. Who knows, if Henry thought Alexandra lived he might be foolish enough to send for her.
Oh, but he was worrying too much. The Banshee wouldn't show after her humiliation. After all, she had lost to Richard twice, smirked Candor, and the second wound must have been so much worse than being pierced by a sword. No, she would stay far away.
Yes, Richard owed him. But why Richard insisted on marrying a Godforsaken Amazon harlot was beyond him. Riell was as evil as Eve, and would take every man she touched with her to Hell. He thanked God again that he had never let himself be touched, sullied, by womanly flesh. Not once in his life had he succumbed to that most vile of temptations.
A few weeks later Alexandra sat in her small house under the winter-dimmed Greek sun and reread the letter from Riell. Something wasn't right. The words didn't ring true. Riell was not a Man's Woman. She must be in trouble. Maybe the letter contained a message beyond the words. Maybe it was a cryptic plea for help.
Alexandra exploded off her one wooden stool and kicked it, sending it clattering across the room along with the letter and a curse. It wasn't true. It couldn't be. She would go back and see for herself. She would rescue Riell, make everything right again, and then she would bring Riell back here, to live with her.
Instead, she picked up the stool, sat down, and wept into her hands.
But not for long. She stood again, with measured, inhuman determination. She would go. Today. Nothing, no one, god or mortal, would stop her.
The British winter passed slowly for Riell, and the midwinter rider came without word from Alexandra. Riell understood that Alexandra had forgotten about her, or moved on to other adventures. Richard came around now and then, and Riell talked to him.
Sometimes she would dismiss Frances and talk to him alone in her room, just because he looked like Alexandra, and she could pretend to see her again in his face. Why she enjoyed that heartache she didn't understand, but she did, and she didn't apologize to herself for it.
And two or three times, yes three times it was, she let Richard into her bed, and holding his warm, firm body, she desperately tried to imagine Alexandra there with her, and for a moment she imagined she wasn't lonely and miserable and without her.
But each time, when Richard had finished with her—perhaps he meant well, but that was how it seemed to her—and lay sleeping beside her, she wept quietly, and for a long time.
One day she found something Alexandra had left behind. It lay under the window in plain view. It was odd that neither she nor Frances had come upon it before, as Alexandra must have dropped it as she leapt from the window for the last time.
In any case, it was at least an answer to her letter, if not her wild and impossible prayers. She now had something by which to remember her beautiful Alexandra, something she could carry with her, a beautiful swan medallion. Once she had that, she never let Richard into her bed again.
And she wrote another letter to Alexandra. It was for the first spring rider. She hoped Alexandra would think it good news. Riell wanted her to know. After displaying her own crescent Riell placed the letter in the red-haired courier's hand herself and hurried the new deliveries into the hut.
Alas, spring's red-haired rider had brought no letter from Alexandra, but instead another from Cyrene. Riell and the old woman sat under a bearskin blanket next to the hearth, close together against the damp chill. In the late night darkness, Selene read aloud to Riell by the crackling firelight.
Thank you for your help. Now I understand what happened to poor Alexandra. I'm not sure I can help her very much. Alexandra has been disconsolate since she received the Separated Amazon's letter a few months ago…
When it first arrived she left for four weeks. I have no idea where she went. When she returned she stayed in her hut raving like a madwoman for two more. I'd hate to think what would have happened if I hadn't brought her food and drink. Your letter didn't hint that bad news was on its way, but I finally put two and two together.
Finally I demanded to see the letter from Riell. Alexandra refused to show it to me, of course, and I had to ask Cybele for help. Cybele was able to force the letter from her hand (you know how charming and persistent she can be). Poor Alexandra!
And to lose Riell to her half brother, the one who almost killed her. She comes out of her hut now, but only part of her is here with us. The rest of her is gone, and I fear we'll never have our little black swan back again entirely.
Tell Riell that I wish her no ill. A Man's Woman is entitled to love, and I hope her upcoming marriage is a happy one.
Cybele sends her greetings to you and Riell. Tell Riell the 'Xena' scroll was beautiful. The young Amazons will enjoy it.
Selene lowered the letter, took a deep breath. "Is it true, Riell? Are you going to marry Richard?" The old woman pursed her lips. "It would make everything easier, in a way."
"I'd rather die! I don't know where Alexandra got such a ridiculous notion. I'm not a Man's Woman, Selene."
"Then somebody must have written a false letter to Alexandra."
"Candor!" The thought of the slimy old snake writing a letter in her name, sending it to Alexandra, Alexandra's beautiful hands touching the despicable document, the agony it must have caused her, nearly drove Riell mad. Riell threw off the bearskin and jumped to her feet, her knuckles whitening around the hilt of her sword. The old woman reached up and grabbed her arm.
"Wait! He's too powerful. You mustn't take him on alone. Please, Riell, he'll be expecting you."
"Let me go!" Riell broke free and ran out into the night. "I'm going to kill him." Leaping onto her mount, she thundered through the fine cold drizzle toward the cathedral, leaving Selene standing alone in the doorway of her cottage, looking after her.
A smoky pall hung in the air of the sanctuary. Candor swung the incense to and fro as he walked down the aisle. He had asked Richard to meet him at the cathedral that night. He had promised Richard very good news indeed. The Holy Mother would set everything right tonight. He set the incense down on a table behind the altar.
Man was ruler of Woman, just as God was ruler of Man. It was a sacred symmetry, and Riell had spurned it, and brought misery to the houses of Roland and Henry. But tonight, Riell would understand her place. She would accept it or die. The abomination would end, and righteousness would be restored.
Candor inspected the votive candles under the Virgin, crossed himself with holy water, and walked to the altar. He stood behind it facing the main chamber and waited. He had called Riell and she would come to accept her fate. The dead young god hung pierced high upon the wall behind him. A deathly stillness filled the cathedral. It was time.
The candles flickered. The priest felt a slight chill or breeze, and he shivered. So, she was here. "I know you're here, little witch. Show yourself!" he hissed. He gripped the crucifix on his belt as the hair on his neck stood on end.
Candor whirled to the sound of scraping metal directly behind him. Riell stood under the crucifix, three paces away, her sword drawn and pointing at his heart. She panted through curled lips and bared teeth. Her wet hair and clothes were plastered against her skin, and her eyes were wild with rage. Like the cornered animal she was, thought the priest.
She advanced slowly, and Candor backed away, holding the crucifix between them. God would protect him from her evil. His heart thundered in his ears and a cold sweat beaded on his forehead. How in heaven had she gotten behind him? Where was Richard? The priest suddenly stopped, halted by the altar at his back. Get her to talk, say something to her!
"Your harlot ways are over, Riell." He shook the crucifix at her. "I have your letter, the one you wrote to the Amazon banshee. You'll marry Richard or your letter will disgrace you forever." Riell did stop, and she looked at him as a cat studies an injured bird.
Words fell out of his mouth, but he might have been speaking a language she didn't understand, because she could not comprehend him. Her sword began to rise.
"Riell! No!" Richard's voice echoed through the hall. His running footsteps slapped on the stone floor.
"Stay out of my way, Richard," said Riell, her voice cold and measured. Riell grasped the hilt with both hands, raising the sword over her head for the killing blow.
Richard reached her as the sword fell toward Candor's open-mouthed face. Richard tackled Riell from her left, and the sword struck the stone altar beside the priest. The blade shattered with a loud crack and the tip flew through the air and clattered on the floor. Richard landed on top of Riell at Candor's feet. Instantly, she coiled into a tight ball and bucked him off with a powerful thrust of both feet. He landed on his back, and scrambled to his hands and knees.
Rolling to her feet, Riell kicked Richard expertly in the jaw as he began to rise. He fell back again and lay on the floor at her feet, senseless for a moment.
Riell looked at her right hand confusedly, as if it weren't hers. With a howl of fury, she threw the broken sword it still held to the ground. Candor was on his knees, babbling, she thought, his thick fingers thrusting the crucifix toward her face. Riell reached down to Richard's black dagger and wrenched it free of the jeweled scabbard on his belt. Richard's hand shot up and clutched frantically at her wrist as a rivulet of blood trickled from his mouth toward his chin.
"Stop! Riell, stop! Please!"
With a grunt of anger, she twisted free and turned again toward Candor, who still knelt by the altar. She rushed the priest and thrust her knee solidly into his chin, flinging his head back against the massive gray stones behind him.
He was dazed and when Riell's left hand seized him by the neck he seemed to float to his feet. Riell felt calm and clear-headed. He was much lighter than she had expected. The priest stared at her, his face twisted in fear. She tightened her grip, nearly squeezing his eyes from their sockets. She pulled the dagger back behind her right hip for the final upward thrust.
"No! Don't kill him, Riell!" cried Richard again.
She did not feel her arm move forward. She did not see Richard step between the knife and the priest. She heard a dull sibilance as the dagger slid deeply into flesh, and felt something warm and sticky cover her hand.
Richard's eyes widened in a question. His lips formed a silent "o" as he looked down at the hilt sprouting from his chest, Riell's hand still wrapped around it, as Candor scurried toward the front door of the cathedral and disappeared into the night.
Richard staggered back from Riell, leaving the knife, and Riell's bloody hand around it, suspended in midair. His eyes locked on hers and stayed there as he leaned back against the altar and slowly sank, to sit with his back against the cold stones. A large stain spread across his tunic. Riell lowered her arm and released the dagger. It clattered loudly on the stone floor. "What have I done?" she said.
Richard's mouth moved. He was trying to speak. Riell ran to him and touched his face lightly. She could see Alexandra in his fair features and black hair, and her heart clenched in anguish.
"I'm sorry," she began, but stopped. Of what use were words now?
"I couldn't let you kill him," he whispered, with the faltering breath of the dying. He saw that she could not answer, so he continued. "Candor wouldn't have forgiven you, and you would go to hell. I do forgive you, Riell, and if I forgive you I'm sure God will, too. You deserve to go to heaven. You're a good woman. I know you didn't mean to be cruel. You didn't know what it was like…to love someone..."
He paused, and fought for air. "…until Alexandra. I know you loved her. I'm sorry I killed her."
"Richard, she's alive. You didn't kill her."
Richard smiled weakly. "Thank God. So maybe I will see you again someday, in heaven," he said, and stopped breathing.
"Richard! Richard, listen to me!" But he was gone. Riell held one of Richard's hands in hers and wept silently and for a long time. She knew what Richard must have suffered when she toyed so carelessly with his love. Alexandra had taught her.
After a while she stood and looked around. The priest was gone, she had no idea for how long, but probably long enough to reach Henry. Henry would let Candor kill her now. And she couldn't die. She had to live, not just for herself, but for Richard, and for Alexandra.
"Here, m'lady, take this, and go quick!" Frances shoved a large leather pouch at Riell and pushed her out a back door of the castle. Tears ran down the stout cheeks. "I'm just sorry you didn't finish off the old snake like you tried. Please be careful. I've put as much as I can in there, and it should get you far away. Now hurry! There's not much time." Frances gestured to the east. Riell saw flames in the distance and was puzzled for a moment.
She galloped up the narrow path from the road to Selene's hut, or rather, where the hut had been. Smoldering ash surrounded the stone hearth. Nothing else remained.
"Selene!" called Riell until her voice was ragged, her horse crashing through the brush and trees surrounding the burned out carcass of the old woman's dwelling. Where was she? What had happened to her? Weeping, Riell dismounted and waded through the hot ashes toward the hearth. Her eyes fell upon a box on the stones. Selene had hidden something in the hearth.
Miraculously, the metal scroll chest had survived the blaze. She opened the warm lid. Inside lay one old roll. Riell retrieved it and placed it in the leather pouch Frances had given her. Riell heard soldiers nearby. Candor's soldiers now. She mounted again, and as the new day's sun broke through the clouds and lightened the eastern sky, she rode away from the only home she had known, as quickly and quietly as she could.
Riell rode all that damp, gray day, resting her horse as little as possible, but she made little progress as she was often forced to hide in the woods or travel in streams to avoid the soldiers and their dogs. When the starless night fell, she slept on the hard ground like an animal, not bothering to wash or daring to make a fire. She wept constantly: for Richard, for Selene, for her mother and father whom she had disgraced, for her lost inheritance.
But she didn’t weep for Alexandra. She would go to Alexandra. She would go to the only person in the world who might still love her, to the only person with whom she could make a home. And now she had to have a home. By the third morning she was faint with hunger, and her horse was lame. Blood still stained her hands and clothes and she was covered with filth. But the sun reappeared and warmed her a little.
She opened the pouch and pulled out the scroll and sat down against a tree to read it. It was a map. She had seen maps before. Selene had taught her how to make and read little maps of the hut, then of the castle, and finally, of the whole estate, with its rivers and groves and peasant villages.
But this was a map of the world. The countries that had previously been abstractions and exotic words lay before her in a puzzle of words and color. Riell discovered that she could read the map, though. She found her place on the Isle of Great Britain and with her finger, traced a path to the sea. That was the fastest route to Greece and the Old Village. To Alexandra.
On the blue-skied morning of the fourth day Riell was leading her lame horse slowly down a dirt road when a cart laden with a bearded old peasant and firewood pulled up beside her.
"My goodness, child!" His accent was unfamiliar, but not at all foreign. "Got in a bit of trouble, did you?" Riell was surprised when the man addressed her with such familiarity. But then she realized that nothing about her appearance resembled a highborn woman at the moment.
"Pardon me, but how far is it to London?" she asked.
"Just a day's ride on this road. I see your horse is lame. I can take you as far as the next town. I'll pick up your horse on the way back and keep him for you, if you like, until you pass this way again."
"That would be very kind. Thank you."
Riell left her lame horse tethered to a tree and climbed into the straw-covered wooden seat to sit beside the peasant. To her relief, the man spoke little and asked no questions. Instead, he whistled and hummed cheerfully to himself until they pulled into the town an hour later.
The town bustled with people, and Riell found herself unnoticed in the throngs. She leaned against a building, feeling faint. She needed food. Riell reached inside the pouch and felt around. Her hand closed around a smaller leather sack. Riell pulled the purse out and reached into it. It was full of gold. The yellow coins jingled musically through her fingers. How had Frances-
She quickly replaced the coins in the purse and glanced around to make sure no one had seen her good fortune. When she was satisfied that her secret was safe, she made her way to an inn and ordered a meal and a bath, ignoring the quizzical looks she got from the innkeeper at her frightful state.
Inside the large pouch she discovered a fresh yellow tunic and new green leggings. After her bath she discarded her old bloody clothes. Then she went to the marketplace and bought a heavy dagger with a solid hilt and a good leather scabbard and belt. By afternoon, Riell was in a coach on her way to London. She arrived in the smoky city early the next morning and set off for the docks along the Thames.
Seagulls wove among the swaying masts of the tall sailing vessels, their raucous cries cutting the briny air. On the decks, sailors shouted to each other in strange languages as they loaded and unloaded crates and barrels and other cargo. Riell wandered around past the ships, not knowing exactly how to proceed at this point. But as she passed one of the last ships, she heard a familiar word. Then another.
Greek! She walked over the plank onto the deck. She felt dizzy for a moment, until she realized that the ship moved gently with the water. The laboring sailors scrutinized her quickly, then returned to their work, apparently not thinking her terribly odd, thought Riell.
She approached one of the sailors, who struggled with a large box. He straightened up from his task. "I'd like passage to Greece," she said in Greek. Riell wondered if the man would understand her.
"The captain's in the cabin, right behind you." He nodded his head in the appropriate direction and bent over his box again. Riell walked to the cabin and knocked on the open door. Large maps covered the walls. The captain sat facing away from the door, working at a great desk, and turned a salt-and-peppered head to face the knock. Riell gasped. The captain was a woman.
Something about her seemed familiar, though Riell was sure they had never met. She stood and looked down at Riell, examining her for a moment through narrowed brown eyes. A tilt to her tanned face showed Riell that she felt the familiarity, too.
"Come in and shut the door," ordered the captain in Greek, and Riell immediately did as she was asked, or rather, commanded, thought the younger woman, glancing at the long curved sword that swung over bright purple silk. The captain opened her blue tunic. A left crescent! Riell hesitated for a moment, then bared her own crescent, briefly.
"How did you know I was an Amazon?" asked Riell.
"Actually, I was expecting a courier. What can I do for you?" asked the captain unsmilingly, closing her tunic and taking her seat again at the desk. Long slender fingers closed around a gray feather quill as she turned back to her work.
Riell was sick every day of the journey. She leaned over the rails into the salt spray to relieve her nausea and horrible memories. But the misery lessened whenever she thought of Alexandra waiting for her in the Old Village. It was her mother Aella's home and it would be her new home.
The ship docked in Thessalonika on a late spring day and the captain sent for Riell. She arrived at the captain's cabin with her leather satchel, ready to disembark. The captain looked up from a chart, where she had been using her quill to mark numbers in neat columns. "Ah, Riell."
The captain stood and retrieved some scrolls from a chest in a corner. "This one's a map to the village. It's for Amazon eyes only. Guard it with your life. If it falls into the wrong hands many Amazons will die. And take these to my sister, Cyrene. Some news from my end of the circuit."
"Cyrene? Your sister? You're Alexandra's aunt?" said Riell, stuffing the scrolls into her bag.
"You know Alexandra, do you?" The older woman studied Riell from head to foot.
"Well, she's a handful. Deep down she's a good kid, though. Give my greetings to all of them, and to the Queen."
Riell bought a horse in Thessalonika and headed north into the mountains, following the winding road on the map the captain had given her. She traveled hard all day and camped through the chilly spring night. She ate little. Mid morning two days later, she stopped at the double-humped boulder described by the map as the first sign of the unmarked route to the Old Village. The rock stood one hundred hands high, and its smooth gray surface was roughened here and there by thick black moss. Being careful not to leave visible tracks, she turned west off the dirt road into the woods. It was a warm day, and once she left the main road Riell removed her yellow tunic, for comfort.
With the map's guidance, she found the few cryptic signposts easily, and by noon she was at the outskirts of the village. Soon she would see Alexandra.
A path reappeared under her horse, and several women passed Riell and nodded to her after inspecting her crescent.
As she approached the village she passed many huts nestled in the woods, all with stone chimneys and plank walls, all exactly like Selene's. An ache, now familiar as her own hand clutched at Riell. What had become of the old woman? What had Candor done to her? Selene would have liked it here, thought Riell, adding yet another tear to the ten thousand she had already shed. Selene would have been coming home, too.
The path converged with a wider road at a large clearing. Riell hurried through a huge flagstone circle and past a large marble fountain into the lively center of town. Bare-breasted Amazons were carefully piling wood in many places, probably to build bonfires, thought Riell. Others called to each other as they pulled large tent posts erect with sturdy rope and horses. Barely noticing the fantastic murals of the Huntress and the Bear on the walls of the largest edifices Riell hastened into the colorful throngs obviously preparing for some festivity. She cared only for one thing. Soon she would be in Alexandra's arms. Riell's heart beat hard in her chest. She tied her horse to a hitching post and walked among the people, searching. All women. Riell scrutinized every face and body. Alexandra?
She continued on foot through the center of town and toward the outskirts of the village. An olive grove and a small vineyard lay on each side of the dirt road. The road wound through a large flat meadow that held many more wooden cottages, all alike, some surrounded by gardens, some with drying venison hung in three-sided sheds. And as she neared the dark forest near the very end of the road, she saw her.
Alexandra was hoeing a row of greens outside a cottage next to the woods. She was perspiring in the heat, and stopped her work for a moment to lean on the hoe and mop her brow with the back of a hand. She wore only loose gray pants, and her deeply tanned shoulders gleamed with muscle and sweat. All the wild beauty was there, thought Riell, and it was even more exquisite in its natural setting.
Riell's mouth was dry and her hands shook. She stopped in her tracks, and tried to think above the furious beating in her chest. Riell had relinquished, destroyed or lost everyone and everything else precious to her. She now lived and breathed only for this moment, to be with Alexandra again. It was all she had left. She was home.
Just then, someone came out of the hut and handed Alexandra a cup. She took it and hung her head far back, draining it in one draught. The young woman took the cup from Alexandra's hands and let her fingers linger on the warrior's forearm for a moment. And Alexandra smiled, that wonderful, crooked, perfect smile, then picked up the hoe and started working again as the young woman returned to the hut.
Riell didn't recall returning to the town. She found herself sitting on a hard bench at a smooth wooden table in a dim tavern, dazed, alone and entirely empty of thought and feeling. Several little girls circled her table. Three were red haired, except for the youngest, who had brown hair and sad brown eyes, and wore a big copper cross around her neck. The youngsters studied Riell with shy curiosity at first. They left when Riell, lost in her misery, paid them no attention.
She stayed in the cool darkness until a gentle voice said, "We're closing up early for the solstice festival tonight, but we'll open up again tomorrow afternoon. Why don't you stop by then and see what we've got cooking?"
Riell must have looked so distraught that the keeper took pity on her. The woman sat down on the bench next to Riell. "Say, you're new in town, aren't you? What's your name?"
Riell looked up into a kind blue-eyed face and said, "It's my birthday." Then she burst into tears.
"Not off to a very good start this year, are we?" said the innkeeper, patting Riell's hand with her own freckled one. The flame-haired woman stood and went to the bar. Riell saw that she limped.
After pouring two mugs of good ale, she set them down one at a time on the table in front of Riell, and retook her seat. Riell's new friend pushed a mug toward her, then picked up the other, took a drink, placed the mug back on the table, and said, "Well, whoever you are, this stuff is guaranteed to get you talking."
Over the next hour Riell poured it all out, and the bushy red curls nodded sympathetically.
An Ordinary Life
Alexandra had been recovering, but slowly, from Riell's letter. Months later, she was able to keep the green eyes and golden head out of her mind part of the time, at least while she worked. And so work she did. She labored fiercely in her garden, until it swelled with more vegetables than she could eat in ten years.
She rose shivering before dawn to join the hunting party, and she always volunteered for the bloody, heavy task of cleaning and dressing the meat. And with the carpentry crew she could mill and saw and plane the fresh rough lumber until she dripped with sweat, until her mind became as smooth and flat and blank as a plank.
Hard work made her days bearable. But at night, thoughts of Riell, of Riell and Richard, kept her wide-open eyes riveted on the wood-beamed ceiling in sleepless torture.
Riell had wanted a home, the home Alexandra could not provide. Yet, so many times since she had arrived back at the Village, Alexandra had sat down on her wooden stool at her wooden table to write to Riell, to ask her to come live here with her; after all, it was Riell's village, too. And Alexandra would be at home wherever Riell chose, as long as they were together. But the words would not come. The pieces didn't fit, somehow.
And then the letter came. But Richard? Did Riell want Richard? Did she want a home with Richard? Riell was not a Man's Woman.
When the letter came she traveled day and night for two weeks to get to the castle, exchanging her exhausted mounts every few hours along the circuit. Painted black to blend into the night, she had climbed the rough rope up to Riell's chamber with exuberant hope galloping like wild horses in her chest. She had not been sure exactly what it was she hoped for; she had hoped to see Riell, to make sure she was safe. No, it was more than that. Of what use would it be to lie to herself now?
She had gone there to give Riell something to remember her by, or to help her, or, if the gods were to ever grant a mortal's most dizzying dream, to take her back to the Old Village. It was a good thing, too; she would never have believed it if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. She had been so sure of Riell's love, that even though they were separated, its memory gave her a comfort she had never known before.
It was a lie, though, and the bitter truth had forced its way into the warrior's eyes and down her throat when she pulled herself up to the sill and saw Riell in her chamber, with Richard. Anguish worse than that dealt her by Richard's sword buried itself in her heart and she reeled on her rope and almost fell.
She must have dropped the pendant she meant to give to Riell; at least, it wasn't around her neck when she returned. It didn't matter. She would never need it now. She would never go back there.
It was the bitterest thing Alexandra had tasted in all her twenty-eight years. She lay on her pallet facing the wall for weeks. Endlessly, she replayed every word, every touch, every glance, and every nuance that had passed between her and Riell.
Her mother would enter quietly and put food and water on a table for her and leave, usually without a word, allowing Alexandra some privacy in her grief. The queen came to visit once, and to Alexandra's surprise, the visit brought her some comfort, and she was able to confide in Cybele about the events that had brought her to such destitution.
But Alexandra had forbidden Elethea to visit her while she was mourning. The girl had come around almost every day before the letter. Sometimes Alexandra appreciated the company; other times, when she was missing Riell, the girl was at best mildly annoying, at worst, a reminder of what she was not. She was not Riell.
And after the letter, Elethea's presence became utterly unbearable, her touches a stark reminder to Alexandra of what would never be hers again.
Elethea had written notes to Alexandra instead, and had begged Cyrene to leave them with the meals. For weeks they lay unread in a growing pile next to the empty bowls and platters.
But one day Alexandra found her eyes returning several times to the little heap of parchment, and she picked up one of the leaves. She was expecting saccharin and fatiguing declarations of eternal love. Instead, she found brief and simple descriptions of the life that continued on around her, despite her misery.
Two more goats were born today, and my mother will let me have the nanny for milk.
Another day's news:
Aunt Hippolyta fell off her horse yesterday and broke her leg. The healer had trouble setting it. She had to give Hippolyta a lot of opium before she could get near her. Hippolyta's taking it better today. She should be able to ride as well as ever, but she might walk with a limp.
Elethea wrote of herself a little, too.
I finally finished my last two scrolls this week. I was proud when Cyrene gave me my certificate. Thank the gods I finished my studies before my youngest sister. I'd have never heard the end of her boasting if I hadn't.
Another leaf held something of a world very familiar to Alexandra.
I've advanced to the Guard. Cybele says I'll get a battlesister within the year.
And, bit by bit, the words pulled Alexandra back from her living grave to the world of her people, to an ordinary Amazon life that she had never considered before. After four weeks, Alexandra emerged from her hut. Her first thought, as she stepped into the bright sunlight, was that the world seemed different, different than she remembered. It seemed…ordinary.
As spring progressed she planted a garden. She repaired the roof on her meat-drying shed. She helped with the hunt and the communal carpentry projects. And she invited Elethea to visit her.
So, by day she lost herself in labor and sweat, and by night in Elethea's soft warmth, and that, thought Alexandra, was as much as any mortal dared to wish for.
The tavern keeper filled Riell's mug five times before her story was out. Outdoors, the sun was setting and the ritual solstice drumming had begun. "Well, that's quite a story, and a very sad one, too."
Actually, the innkeeper had heard them all, and this story sounded like all the other ones with Alexandra in them, thought the bartender. But the girl was hurting, and seemed decent enough. She shouldn't give in to her soft spot, though; tenderhearted bartenders collected trouble like a bee collects pollen. "Tell me, who are you staying with?"
"Who am I staying with?" Riell repeated. She realized she had expected to stay with Alexandra, and had absolutely no other plans in that regard.
"Yes, who are you descended from? Separated Amazons are all linked to the Village by someone. What's your name, anyway? You still haven't told me." She pulled a rag from her apron pocket and began to rub the table, though it wasn't dirty. "I'm Hippolyta, by the way."
"I'm Riell, daughter of Aella, granddaughter of Cybele." Riell, quite tipsy by now, was proud that she remembered how to use her formal Amazon identity.
Hippolyta's face opened in shock. "The queen's granddaughter?" She recovered quickly and dropped low on her knees and bowed her head until it almost touched the floor. Centaur shit, thought Hippolyta, this is not good.
"Puh-leez, get up!" Riell giggled. "I hate that kind of thing. But if you want to do something for me, how 'bout another mug? I'll buy yours, too."
Hippolyta didn't dare refuse Riell's drink, though the girl had clearly had enough. With a sigh, she poured another. The tavernkeeper had quite a dilemma on her hands. She couldn't just put the princess up in one of the rooms upstairs to sleep it off, since the girl had relatives in town. Actually, thought Hippolyta wryly, that was an understatement.
It was Amazon custom to spend the first night of a Return in one's ancestral dwelling, and she was going to deposit the princess on the queen's doorstep drunk as a Bacchae, wailing about her first love.
Cybele didn't have a sense of humor about these things. She was strict about protocol. And decorum. But there was no way around it, as the queen would find out sooner or later. Riell would be in bigger trouble if it were later. And so would she. She might as well get it over with.
"Princess…I mean Riell, let's go for a walk." Riell drained the last mug and stood up, wobbling a bit on her feet.
"That shounds nishe." Thank the goddess she was cooperating! Steadying the drunken princess by the elbow, Hippolyta led her out the door into the celebrating town. Huge bonfires roared, and masked and feathered dancers circled them with choreographed abandon.
"Hey, Hippolyta, whush wrong with your leg?" asked Riell, although she could not walk as well as the tavernkeeper. Hippolyta steered Riell away from the center of town and the revelry. And, thought the tavernkeeper, an accidental meeting with Alexandra.
"I fell off a horse."
Alexandra and Elethea dressed for the festival and headed for town. This was the first evening celebration Alexandra had been to in a long time. She was going mainly to please Elethea, though she would enjoy watching the dance. Alexandra hadn’t danced since the letter, and she wasn't going to tonight either, but she could watch. And remember.
She had been feeling strangely for a few days. Sleep had come more easily, now that her bed wasn't empty. But she had been dreaming, something she had rarely done before, and the same dream came every night. Someone was calling her, but not by name, and the summoner was not to be refused.
But Alexandra did not know how to respond to the wordless question; instead she struggled and hurtled screaming into black nothingness. She twisted and spun and spiraled down, down into an abyss of loneliness, certain she would smash her skull against the jagged rocks that rushed toward her.
Instead she would wake up to find Elethea cradling her head, brushing tears from her eyes, soothing her sickened soul with soft words.
"Shhh…shhh…everything's alright. Sleep now, my darling, please sleep."
But surely she was going mad. For today Alexandra had heard the call while she was wide awake, while she was hoeing in the heat. She probably had stayed out in the sun too long. After all, she hadn't seen the woman come down the road out of the woods. By the time she caught a glimpse of her she had already passed her hut and was heading back toward town.
From behind the woman looked so much like Riell that Alexandra nearly swooned. She had almost run to the woman, and had almost called Riell's name, but then she pulled herself together. Months ago, before the letter, she would see Riell in many other faces, and she was always startled and disappointed by the deception. She no longer let her mind indulge in that cruel fabrication.
When Alexandra and Elethea arrived at the flagstone-paved town center, the celebration was in full swing. They headed for the bonfire that would host the Dance of the Warriors, one of the best loved of Amazon rituals. The pair had settled in on a rough straw mat near the outer edge of the crowd of several hundred onlookers, just as a great hush came over the celebrants.
Out of the silence a lone, slow, drum began to beat. Soon a second drum added its voice from a different direction, and the dancers, thirteen in all, appeared suddenly, swirling silently through the crowd toward the bonfire, the diagonal black and white slashes on naked skin weaving hypnotically with the dancers’ slow undulations.
The rhythm quickened, and as it accelerated, it drew Alexandra into the trance-like state so visible on the dancers’ faces, and her body began to sway and twitch. And again she heard the nameless call, far away, but closer than her own soul, and absolutely, utterly, irresistible. But who was calling? Alexandra, wanting to answer but not knowing how, felt agonizing loneliness suck the breath from her lungs. She clutched her chest and gasped, so that Elethea reached for her in alarm.
"Are you alright?" Elethea asked, touching the warrior’s arm. And even though she nodded, Alexandra knew that something was very, very wrong. She was going mad.
The innkeeper guided Riell through the crowds and far around the drumming. No need to linger at the festivities, though it did look like fun, because the queen, Hippolyta knew, would be at home. She tended to stay in and read the scrolls at night, no matter what else was going on. Ah well, to each her own.
The queen's dwelling was at the edge of the woods on the north side of town. It was a little larger than most of the other huts, and a brilliant rose garden graced both sides of a flagstone path leading to the front door. Otherwise, the only thing that distinguished it from the other Amazon dwellings were the two solemn guards that flanked the front door, and the door itself.
A life-sized young Artemis stood in relief on the solid hardwood, a crescent moon under her feet, a breast bare, a bow in her hand. A long-clawed bear roared behind her. The dark wood was burnished to a fine red sheen, and the transparent grain shone through like blood in a living being.
Hippolyta knelt on the smooth wooden porch in front of the guards, and quickly pulled Riell down with her. Even the princess had to kneel before the queen.
Called by one of the guards, Queen Cybele answered the door herself, and recognizing Hippolyta, ushered her two guests inside. Inebriated Amazons were common visitors on feast days, and although she didn't much care for loud raucous partying, Cybele had to put up with it, as it was an ancient Amazon penchant, and there was no diverting it.
And Cybele had a knack for using whatever tools were available to get a job done quickly and well, and since it was easy to get classified information out of a wine-soaked woman, the Amazon feast schedule had proved advantageous in the running of the nation time and time again.
Riell's grandmother was of medium height, like Riell, but she seemed much taller because of her slender build and graceful, confident carriage. Her hair was white and cut fairly short, but would not lie against her head, instead jutting out in several directions as if blown by a constant breeze.
"Who's your friend, Hippolyta?" asked the queen. "I hope she doesn't vomit on one of my bearskins." No smile graced the royal face.
"I'm sorry, Majesty," said Hippolyta blushing hotly, and lowering her gaze. "I thought I'd better bring her over right away when I found out who she was." Hippolyta tried to hang on to Riell, but the drunken fool walked around the room as if she owned it.
"And as I was saying, who is she?" repeated the queen. Riell swayed a little but, thought Hippolyta, seemed to pick up on the irritation in the queen's voice.
"I'm Riell, daughter of Aella, granddaughter of Cybele. That makes me an Amazon princess. Isn't that a hoot!" Hippolyta winced, and continued to stare at her feet. She could feel the queen's long silence in her bones. This was not good. Not good at all.
"We-ell, Prin-cess," drawled the queen at last, "did you know that it's a crime for an Amazon of the warrior caste to be drunk without permission from the queen? You might leave your post unattended and open to enemy attack." Hippolyta dropped back to her knees. The queen was not taking this well. The barkeeper didn't like groveling but she wasn't too proud to beg for mercy. She began to speak but was cut off.
"And Hippolyta, I know you're out of commission for a while because of your accident, but aiding the inebriation of one of my warriors is also a crime, and your leg will get you no special treatment or mercy."
"Hera's tits!" cursed Hippolyta under her breath. This really couldn't get any worse. She reached up to pull Riell back to her knees, but the "prin-cess" was walking around the room, picking up the various mementos and rolling them around in her clumsy hands. She should have dumped her back in town and minded her own business.
"You'll both spend a week in the jailhouse. Guards!"
"A week? " gasped Hippolyta.
"Another word and I'll make it two."
As the guards took the two prisoners away, Cybele sat down at her desk and reread a tattered little piece of parchment for the thousandth time. Then she kissed it and put it in her pocket.
Making New Friends
Riell awoke the next morning with a horrible headache. Her mouth was filled with cotton, and her clothes were stiff with dried vomit. What clothes she had that is. She was wearing only trousers and boots, and was lying on a cold stone floor. She had lost her leather bag.
Glowering at her with utter hatred from across the cell was a red-haired woman who pressed up against the opposite wall as if to get as far away from Riell as possible. Across the cell?
Riell sat up and looked around. Iron bars covered a small high window. The opposite wall contained a thick wooden door reinforced with metal strips. A tiny slit at eye level was the only view. The redhead did look familiar though.
Riell lay down again on her side of the cell and tried to think. Gradually she pieced together the events of the previous day and evening. She had gotten as far as the queen's house when the heavy door swung open.
"Visitor," announced a guard, and a young woman hurried in, to have the door close and latch soundly behind her.
"Oh, Aunt Hippolyta." The young woman hurried over to the redhead, and as she passed, she looked askance at Riell's prostrate form, almost as if she were frightened of her. "What happened?"
Riell recognized her as the woman at Alexandra's hut. And she was drop dead gorgeous, thought Riell disgustedly. The young woman had golden brown skin and light brown hair that fell in loose ringlets down her back. Her eyes were a golden light brown as well, and she was well formed. More so than she was, thought Riell, looking down at her own crescent. She might have been two, perhaps three years younger than Riell.
"My friend over there really, really annoyed the queen. I got to come along for the ride."
"I'll see if Alexandra will talk to the queen. Maybe she can talk her into pardoning you," said Elethea. "And what about your friend?" The young woman tipped her head toward Riell.
"Oh, Alexandra may want to put in a word for her, too," said Hippolyta, rolling her eyes. Riell groaned. Holding her head, she rolled onto her side and faced the wall.
Alexandra knelt at the queen's carved door later that day, and was ushered inside. The queen sat at her large desk. It was covered with opened scrolls and inkpots. She motioned to a large wooden chair facing the desk.
"Have a seat, Alexandra. I hope you've come by to ask for another commission. There's a bit of a brouhaha in Constantinople, and I worry that it might spill over into Greece and Macedonia one of these days."
"That does sound tempting, Majesty," said Alexandra politely, sitting on the edge of the wooden chair, "but I've come about a personal matter."
"Another letter from Riell?" The queen raised her eyebrows and her green eyes seemed to crinkle a little more around the edges.
"No, thank the gods. I'd hate to go through that again."
"Well, I suppose these things have a way of working themselves out. And I hear you're seeing someone new?"
"Yes, actually. That's why I'm here. Elethea's aunt got in a bit of trouble and is cooling her heels. Elethea asked me to see if you'd relent a bit and let her out early. Maybe she could take an extra turn at sewage crew this week or something."
"I'll tell you what," said the queen. "Why don't you go over there and release her yourself? And that'll cost Hippolyta two sewage shifts."
"Thank you, Cybele," said Alexandra, as the queen scribbled something on a small piece of parchment and stamped it with a ring dipped in ink.
Alexandra headed to the jail, which lay near the center of town. Three little girls, two redheads and one with dark hair, had piled some crates against the wall, and were peering into the barred window and giggling. Alexandra could hear loud cursing coming from the cell. She entered the cool building and handed the release to a guard.
"Two to go!" yelled the guard to an invisible compatriot down the hall.
"Two?" said Alexandra. "Let me see that!" She snatched the release back from the guard. It did allow the release of two prisoners, at the discretion of the bearer. She should have known. As always, breathed Alexandra to herself, Cybele was up to something. And why, wondered Alexandra, was she always the last to know?
The guard led Alexandra down the short hall to a cell. Another guard had already unlocked the door, and was pushing it open. Hippolyta squeezed through it as if she'd been waiting next to it all day, shoving Alexandra aside in her rush.
"Uh, thanks, Alex," she called over her shoulder. "Owe you one. Gotta go. Stop by the tavern sometime."
Alexandra looked open-mouthed after Hippolyta. When the tavernkeeper limped around a corner and disappeared, Alexandra turned back toward the heavy door and looked into the cell. She recoiled, then whirled back to the guards and said, "Leave us," as she stepped into the cell and shut the door behind her.
Alexandra leaned back against the heavy door, trying to assemble the scene in front of her. The cell held a blond stranger. And a bad smell permeated the room. It smelled just like drunk tanks everywhere, thought Alexandra. She ought to know, and she'd been in this one herself once or twice.
The woman in the cell was lying on her side, curled up in a ball facing a far corner of the cell. Her hands covered her face and she was sobbing. Alexandra deduced this from the shuddering of her shoulders, because there was no sound in the room. The golden hair was familiar, but longer than she had remembered, and the girl was thinner than Riell, and sunburned. It must be the stranger who had walked by her house yesterday. But why in the world would Cybele….
Alexandra approached the woman slowly, as if she were closing in on a wild animal. Why did she feel that something terrible was going to happen?
"Please! Please just go away!" begged the woman, her voice dissolving in agony. But it was a familiar voice, a precious voice, and a voice Alexandra could never forget, despite not having heard it for a year, despite its pain-filled disguise. Alexandra ran to her and dropped to her knees.
"Riell?" she whispered. Her hands were over the blond head but they stopped with a jerking motion and pulled back a little. The woman was not hers anymore. Or was she? "Riell, look at me. Please, look at me."
Riell rolled to her knees and sat on her heels, facing Alexandra's voice, swollen eyes tightly shut, sobbing still. What grief could this be, that had brought her here across such a distance, to cry her heart out in the drunk tank? Had things gone sour with Richard? The sobs gradually lessened, then stopped. The emerald eyes opened. Alexandra saw. She saw pain. And she saw light. Her light. Her home. The love was still there. And her swan hung around the sunburned neck.
Alexandra could bear no more, and gathered Riell into her arms. Riell stiffened and beat against Alexandra's chest with her fists, and screamed in pain with each blow, and with that Alexandra knew that the woman on the road yesterday had been Riell. And Riell had seen her with Elethea. Alexandra, as usual, didn't know what to say. But she knew the pain that Riell felt. She knew it intimately.
So she let Riell beat uselessly against her and held her as tightly as she could and rocked her, until Riell leaned spent and sobbing against her, and Alexandra ignored the open-mouthed little girls who stared at them through the barred window. She placed her cheek against the golden hair and stroked it with her hand, and with closed eyes thanked the gods for answering her most fantastic prayers. They stayed that way for a long time.
Then, for once, Alexandra spoke first. She whispered so the children at the window couldn't hear, and she said what was on her mind. "What about Richard?"
"I killed him," Riell said.
Alexandra lifted her brows. That sounds final, she said to herself. She decided not to ask any more questions about it right then. "I have to tell Elethea that you're here, and that I'm with you--I mean, if that's true." Alexandra paused, then smiled. "I'm not quite as arrogant as I used to be, you see."
By now word was out all over the village that the queen's granddaughter had Returned and had spent the night in the drunk tank, so to spare Riell further humiliation, Alexandra decided to wait until dark to fetch her from jail.
But first Alexandra stopped by the tavern and retrieved Riell's leather traveling pouch, which still lay under the table, unmolested.
Declining Hippolyta's offer of a drink, she ducked back into the midday heat and found Riell's horse, tethered and thirsty in the town center, and led it to the queen's stables to be tended. She found the captain's scrolls in the pouch as Riell had said she would, and she delivered them to her mother Cyrene, the Scrollmaster. Then she returned to the prison with fresh white clothes for Riell, and had the guards fill a large bathing tank in a private corner of the prison, so that Riell could wash. And when it was finally dark she put Riell in front of her on her own horse, and rode quickly to Cybele's. They were ushered through the carved door to kneel before the queen.
Alexandra was nervous, thought Cybele, as she studied the kneeling warrior. She kept her head bowed. That was a good sign. Whatever she was going to say next was important to her. It never failed. The more trouble they were when they were young, mused the queen, the better they turned out, eventually. If they survived. And it was her job to see that they did. Cybele absently stroked a ragged little piece of parchment she held in one hand.
"I'd like to take Riell to my house after her Return, Majesty."
"I'm afraid Riell missed her Return ceremony last night, but I will keep her here tonight anyway, for old time's sake, and you can have her tomorrow." The queen took Riell's hand and helped her to her feet. "If that's what you want, Riell." Alexandra looked up, then lowered her head again, waiting for the answer.
"Yes. It's what I want."
"Good," said the queen. "Then it's settled." She looked at the warrior. "Alexandra, will you excuse us? I believe you have some business to attend to as well." When Alexandra didn’t respond, the queen raised her brows meaningfully. Alexandra stood quickly, bowed stiffly, and walked into the night without another word.
On her way home, Alexandra stopped by the tavern. She found Hippolyta and handed her a little box. "You've got two sewage shifts this week," said Alexandra. "And give this to Elethea for me, but only when she's done mourning."
Gods, she's bossy, thought Hippolyta, and arrogant, too, but she would do what Alexandra asked. As Alexandra strode out of the tavern, Hippolyta sighed and opened the box. She gasped. A tiny silver dove flew at the end of a fine chain. But even more amazing was the other object in the box. Hippolyta had never seen anything like this from Alexandra. She doubted that another like it existed. It was a note, signed by the warrior.
To Elethea. Thank you for saving my life. Alexandra.
At her hut Alexandra found Elethea packing up the few things she had been keeping there. Elethea had been crying. "How did you find out?" asked Alexandra gently. She didn't know what else to say.
"The queen told me. She said these things had a way of working themselves out. But I don't see how that can be true. I'm going now. The queen ordered me to her house tonight." Elethea turned and walked out. Alexandra knew it would be months, perhaps longer, before they would speak again.
"Riell," said the queen, "I want you to make yourself at home." The queen stood beside her own bathing tub, which was placed in the center of the main room near the hearth, as was Amazon custom. Cybele held one of the flat leather-wrapped scrolls that Riell had only heard of. She placed a small, tattered piece of parchment inside the bound volume and closed it, then set the book down on a small wooden table next to a large comfortable-looking chair. A ragged edge of the little square peeked out from between the leaves. "Let me show you to your room. And I do mean your room. It's good to have a place that's all your own, and this one's yours whenever you want it. Although I do understand you'll be spending a lot of time with Alexandra."
Cybele smiled cheerfully as she opened a door to a small room off the main part of the hut. It was a smaller version of the main room and as she entered Riell's feet sank into a soft bearskin rug. In a three-walled recess in one corner lay a large sleeping pallet. The wall by the bed contained built-in shelves, which housed dozens of scrolls and bound volumes, and on the other side of the room, facing a night-darkened glass window, were a wooden desk and stool.
The whole room had a serene coziness that Riell liked right away. But her eyes lingered hungrily on the huge scroll collection, and the queen seemed to notice.
"Feel free to look through it. I make my own copies in my spare time. I have quite a few bound volumes, too. They're all the rage now, and I can see why. It's much easier to lose your place in a scroll. I think I'll always be partial to scrolls, though; nothing else reads as well. Guess I'm getting old, or at least old fashioned."
The queen went on with her friendly chatter, and thankfully, thought Riell, didn't mention the events of the previous night. Riell walked over to the open window. Rose scent drifted on the warm air. The stars twinkled through the treetops. The outdoors felt close.
"Perhaps you're hungry. One of the guards brought you some food from tonight's meal." The queen tipped her head toward a corner of the room. On a small table lay a cloth-covered platter. "I don't like to cook; I eat at the communal dining hall most of the time. Keeps me in touch with things, too.
"Well, I've gone on and on and you must be tired after your…travels and all, so goodnight and sleep well."
"Thank you, Majesty." Riell decided that she'd better attempt Amazon protocol. She dropped to her knees.
"Oh, please, I hate that kind of thing." Cybele reached a hand toward Riell to help her up. Cybele's hand was not large, but her grip was firm and strong. And Riell liked the queen's eyes. They were a beautiful green color. But they seemed sad all the time.
"You're family. You'll figure out soon enough when to bring out the formalities." Cybele winked. "Like next week. You'll begin training with the Amazon Guards."
Cybele shut the door behind her, leaving Riell to explore her new quarters. An inkwell and quill rested upon the desktop. Candlelight gilded the scroll library. A warm breeze, laden with the sound of chirping crickets, wafted through the open window.
Riell walked over to the platter of food and lifted the cloth, but she wasn't hungry. A bone-deep weariness overcame her instead, and she stripped for bed, arranged the bedclothes on the pallet, and had just lifted them to crawl in after blowing out the candles, when she heard one of the guards announce a visitor.
Curious, Riell tiptoed across the darkened room and pressed her ear to the door. She heard Cybele's voice first.
"You've been crying. I take it things went from bad to worse. So the rumors were true, then."
"Y-yes, Majesty. Thank you for telling me. It would have been worse if I had been the last to know."
The second voice dissolved in weeping before Riell could identify it. For many moments the pitiful crying was all Riell could hear. The sad sounds washed into her, and she felt sorry for the suffering voice. When the sobs softened, then ceased, the queen spoke again.
"Was this your first love affair, Elethea?" Horror, hatred, and pity together swirled through Riell. She gasped loudly, then bit her lower lip as she concentrated on hearing the next part of the conversation.
"I suppose so."
"Hmmm…What about Danae…last fall, wasn't it?"
"But I didn't love her. I tried, but I couldn't, not the way she wanted me to."
"The way you love Alexandra." Another long pause. "Funny how that works, isn't it?" The queen's voice was gentle, though.
Riell listened guiltily, knowing she shouldn't be eavesdropping on such intimacies, but she couldn't help herself. Then the queen's voice took on a serious tone. "You are one of the most promising new Guards, and it's my job to make sure you live up to that promise."
"An Amazon Guard can let nothing interfere with her duty to protect the nation. Not even her own pain or hatred." Riell heard light footsteps and decided that the queen was pacing slowly in front of a kneeling Elethea. "Do you understand that?"
"We'll see. Remember that you don't have to become a Guard. You've already proved yourself a more than adequate Defender. You are free now to pursue any other occupation, and you'd only have to fight if the Village were directly attacked. A military career isn't for everyone. If you do decide to proceed, I can promise you the most difficult three months of your life. And I'm not referring to the physical training."
More silence. Finally, the queen spoke again, so softly that Riell strained to catch the words. She pressed her ear tightly against the cool wooden door. "An Amazon warrior will shed an enemy's blood to protect her own life. Our enemies know this, and respect it, and that's how we've remained alive for so many generations.
"She will shed blood to protect another Amazon, even if she risks her own life in doing so. And that means any other Amazon, no matter her caste, occupation, age, or anything else, including the ins and outs of personal relationships. That's what you'll learn to do if you become a Guard."
"Yes, Majesty. It's what I want to do, more than anything."
"Alright. Up you go." A floorboard creaked. "Report for training in seven days."
"Yes, Majesty. Goodnight then." Elethea's voice was strong and clear. Not a trace of tearfulness remained. That Cybele was a charmer. There must be a trick to that, thought Riell.
The Secret Rites
Riell waited until she was sure Elethea had gone before tiptoeing back to her pallet. But now she wasn't sleepy. She noticed that over the head of her pallet, which was actually just a wall, two candleholders protruded conveniently so that she could read in bed propped on some pillows. She lit both candles and browsed through the library shelves. She passed over the plumbing manuals and anatomy texts and selected a bound volume, freshly copied, with an intriguing title: "The Secret Rites of Artemis," and settled in.
From the original scrolls rescued from the library at Alexandria, Egypt by the Amazon Guard in 30 BC, at the time of the sacking of the library by the army of Julius Caesar; copied and translated from the Old Language by Cybele, Bard and Queen of the Amazons in the year 1199.
I, Artemis, have chosen a special people to bless and protect. I have chosen them because I love them, and as long as they wish I shall guard them and keep them safe.
I, Artemis, give the following rites to my people alone, so that they may call me in times of need or joy. Whenever these rites are performed I will give my ear and my hand to the worshiper.
I, Artemis, the Virgin Goddess…
…shall call certain women away from the Other World. A woman hearing my call shall dream of my domain: the forest and the trees, the rivers, and the mountains. She shall yearn for skill and wisdom, and shall desire to work with her hands and her mind and her heart to bring forth the fruits of her labor, without hindrance from her brothers. She shall long for freedom from the bitter yoke of her brothers, the yoke that binds women in the Other World to the bidding of men.
Riell looked up toward the darkened window for a moment before continuing.
When a woman hears my call, she will find her sisters, and they will join together and form a Nation, so that they may live in peace and prosperity and follow the Rites.
And when they are together, some of them will hear one more call, and they must obey this call or suffer the death of their own soul, for through this final call are the Rites made complete. When a woman hears this highest call she must pay attention.
She will feel a yearning that will be satisfied only by her soulmate, whom I shall give to her. She must go to her soulmate, and stand by her for life, and beyond, if I will it. For a soulmate is the highest gift I bestow upon my worshipers, and to spurn it will bring suffering greater than that of the most dismal hell.
And the soulmate shall usually be a woman, but not always. When the soulmate is a man, the woman shall leave her sisters and her Nation, to go with him, but she must never forget her allegiance and vows to me. If she does this, I will bless her virgin daughters and protect them, wherever they are.
And if the soulmate is a woman, the Nation and the Other World will be blessed; for it is not only children which issue from an act of love, but all manner of blessings and bounty.
The blessings which flow from these rites and through my people shall be poured generously upon all humankind, called and uncalled, brothers and sisters alike, to heal the sick, comfort the dying, welcome the newborn, and bring light and prosperity to the benighted of the world. Your love for each other shall be the source of this bounty.
Alexandra spent the warm evening cleaning her hut and rearranging her few pieces of furniture several times. When the hut was fresh and spotless, she lay sleeplessly in the dark on her pallet, dressed only in a loincloth, excited, trying to hurry the morning so she could fetch Riell.
How had such an undreamed of turn of events come to pass, she wondered, when just a few weeks ago she had despaired of anything but a numb, joyless existence, punctuated by frightening episodes of pain and hopelessness? Suddenly she sat up and remembered. She had someone to thank.
Rising from her bed she moved noiselessly across the dark room and knelt by a wooden chest. She opened the squeaky lid and removed a sword. She held it in both hands. The cold weight felt both strange and familiar. She turned it over and back, inspecting it in the meager light, and tested the edge with a finger.
Suddenly she stood, and not bothering to retrieve the scabbard, or a lantern, walked purposefully out of the hut and down the road into the forest several hundred paces away. Silently she entered the hidden grotto with the ancient, life-sized stone bear rearing on its hind legs.
The bear's huge paws were outstretched, pads up, and Alexandra laid her sword across them and dropped to her knees. "Thank you, Artemis," she breathed, her head bowed. Feeling a little embarrassed, she jumped to her feet and strode back home, leaving her sword in the bear's grasp. She would retrieve it in the morning, on her way to Riell.
Alexandra arrived at Cybele's house at first light, dressed in the satin black one-shouldered tunic, gold belt, and black pants of the Elite Amazon Guard. Her newly consecrated sword flashed at her side. She dismounted and tied up her horse, but didn't dare disturb the queen's sleep, so she paced in the rose garden, waiting for an invitation as the two guards looked on with unsuppressed amusement.
Still, the lovesick warrior was grateful when, two hours later, one of the guards wiggled her brow and tilted her head to let Alexandra know that the household had awakened. Alexandra leapt in front of the carved door and knelt as her presence was announced.
Riell, who had already taken leave of Cybele, stepped onto the porch with her traveling pouch in hand. Wide-eyed and without a word, Alexandra and Riell ran hand in hand to the waiting horse and Alexandra mounted. Riell leapt on behind her, and they galloped off as if pursued by a pack of wild dogs, leaving the two guards smirking in a cloud of dust.
Once inside the coolness of Alexandra's little house, the warrior, still breathless from the hard ride, or perhaps from her proximity to Riell, found words difficult to come by. So Alexandra removed her sword and laid it on the trunk, as if she needed something to do.
Then they stood silently, facing each other in the one room dwelling, Riell's back near the wall at the foot of the sleeping pallet. Awkwardness settled upon Alexandra again, and she cursed herself mercilessly. Except for the exchange in the jail, they hadn't spoken for a year. They were strangers.
"Having second thoughts again, warrior?" said Riell softly, locking eyes with Alexandra and narrowing her lids suggestively, as a tiger might while it circled its prey. She slowly removed the tunic Alexandra had brought her the day before, and stood before Alexandra in the loose Amazon summer pants, without shame.
The nameless yearning struck Alexandra full force. Her mouth went dry. She trembled as if she had been plunged into icy water. She couldn't seem to find her voice and her breathing quickened. The power of the feelings coursing through her body eclipsed awareness of anything but Riell. But this time she was ready; she was empty of everything else and could hold this power within her. Perhaps she had been afraid of Riell; perhaps she had been afraid of love itself. No longer. She had changed. Come what may, she would be with this woman. Nothing else mattered. If she died tomorrow her life would be complete.
But she couldn't have said any of that if her life depended upon it.
"No," the warrior breathed, her hands wet with terror. "I just don't know what to say."
Riell took a step toward Alexandra, and held out a hand to her. "Oh, I think you do." She pressed Alexandra's right hand against her heart. Riell felt the warrior's body tremble like a newly plucked harp string. "And I can hear you very well." Cupping Riell's face with her left hand, Alexandra lowered her mouth onto Riell's. The warrior groaned as the lips beneath hers parted easily and sheathed her tongue in a gentle welcome.
Riell reached up and curved her arms behind the dark head, her fingers entwining feverishly in the ebony strands, deepening the kiss. Alexandra advanced, impelling Riell backward against the wall behind her, so that her skin slapped loudly against the wood. And that sound, of all things thought Riell, meant that she was going to make love for the first time in her life.
Somehow, Riell knew what to do. Or rather, her body knew what to do, for she could not find a coherent thought within her. She pressed back hard against Alexandra, and one bare breast met the cool black satin over Alexandra's right shoulder, the other found a warm softness that threatened to drive her mad with desire.
Alexandra held Riell's face with both hands now, and offered no evidence that she would soon relinquish it. Still clinging to the kiss, Riell swept her hands down Alexandra's chest to the gold belt and fumbled uselessly with the clasp, which was of a type she was unfamiliar with.
The links jingled like coins in a pocket, but the belt imprisoned the slender waist securely and would not release it. In near desperation, Riell pulled up on the satin tunic. It slipped free of the belt and with another tug, fell off Alexandra's shoulder to the floor.
Riell broke the kiss to drag her lips urgently down the newly uncovered expanse of fragrant skin toward an erect nipple. Ravenously she fastened on it, rolling the resilient ball of flesh across her tongue and teeth until Alexandra flung her head back, moaning, and pressed deeply into the warm wet caress. Still fastened tightly between the wall and Alexandra, Riell's hips began to rock.
Suddenly, Alexandra pulled back and reached for the drawstring of Riell's trousers. With a swift yank the garment lay on the floor. Riell stepped out of them to find Alexandra's warm hands on her buttocks, and the warrior's satin trousers gone.
In one movement Riell wrapped her arms around the long neck and wound her legs around the warrior's slender waist, which was still bound by the golden belt. Riell was suspended between the wall and the warrior and Alexandra fell upon the lips that were now at her level, and found the rhythm of Riell's hips with her own. Riell felt the cold links of the gold belt contrast with her own warm moisture as Alexandra's relentless belly forced her against the wall over and over, and pleasure sluiced through her in nearly unbearable waves.
Alexandra's mind tried uselessly to slow down, her body thwarting every attempt with ever more delirious desire, until it engulfed her completely. She was the yearning, only yearning, and Riell was what she yearned for. But the yearning called her beyond Riell, back beyond her own name, too, to a place where she wasn't Alexandra, she was just love, love for Riell. And even that wasn't enough, not nearly enough.
It was like a drop of water to a desert traveler, precious beyond measure, but not enough. She had to get closer, and with Riell still wrapped around her, Alexandra lowered herself to the floor. Supporting herself by her arms and straddling one of Riell's thighs, Alexandra pressed her own thigh against Riell's center, and her hips began a powerful rhythmic churning. Riell clung to Alexandra's arms, and moved under her with each impulse, her beautiful face straining toward her own impending climax.
Closer! Alexandra had to be closer. All of a sudden, Riell opened her emerald eyes, now deeper than before, and looked into Alexandra's. "Alexandra!" was all she said, before she closed her eyes again and stiffened in release, but it was enough. It began as a whisper deep within Alexandra's soul.
"Riell!" The whisper crescendoed to thundering waves of pleasure as Alexandra came to memories of the ancient lovers of the scrolls. "Riell!" She came to know that she was part of a never-ending stream of love and lovers, which flowed from the beginning, through her and Riell, and on to the end of time. "Riell!" She was filled to overflowing with the waters of this sacred stream, this gift from Artemis, and she was satisfied. It was enough.
Tap! Tap! Tap! Alexandra woke up on top of Riell's chest. She lifted her head from its warm, gently rocking cradle and looked around. Riell was asleep below her, but her arms tightened around Alexandra automatically when she felt the warrior move. By the way the light flooded the hut it must be at least mid afternoon, Alexandra deduced.
Tap! Tap! Tap! Hera's tits. Someone was at the door. Alexandra unwound her limbs from Riell's and rose. Stepping over the clothes strewn around the room, she pulled the door open and squinted into the setting sun.
"Dinner time!" chimed a cheerful voice. It belonged to an orange-haired girl. The child had newly budding breasts and no more clothes than Alexandra, who still sported only the gold belt. The delivery girl studied the belt very carefully, ignoring the warrior's frown, then handed Alexandra a large heavy tray. "Here you go, Auntie Alex." She bent sideways to look past Alexandra at the sleeping figure on the floor.
Alexandra had arranged for meal delivery for the next few days, but had completely forgotten about it. "I see you didn't get to lunch." The girl nodded at another large covered tray sitting by the door. "It's got to be spoiled by now after sitting in the heat, so I'll get rid of it for you." The youngster squatted and picked up the old tray. "See you tomorrow morning," she called over her shoulder as she dashed off the porch.
Alexandra closed the door with her foot, walked back across the room, and set the tray down on a table. But a glance toward Riell's sleeping form awakened a hunger in Alexandra that had nothing to do with food, and she hurried back to Riell to lie by her side on the hard wooden floor.
Propped on an elbow, Alexandra brushed a golden lock from the sleeping face, not because it needed to be moved, but because she needed to touch Riell.
The backs of her fingers trailed to Riell's cheek, which turned slightly into the caress. With back arched and arms overhead, Riell stretched, as Alexandra's hand continued its reverent roaming down her throat, over breast and ribs, and came to rest on the taut belly. The green eyes opened and turned toward Alexandra. The goddess's lips moved.
"I smell food."
"Over there." Alexandra nodded toward the tray. "You want some?" she asked huskily. Her fingers now drew lazy circles just below Riell's navel. Riell gasped, and the green eyes threatened to close again, this time in pleasure. But instead, suddenly Riell rolled on top of Alexandra and looked down into desire-darkened azure.
"Sure." Ever so gently, she traced Alexandra's lower lip with a finger and tugged a bit, barely exposing the moist inner surface. "Later," breathed Riell. The golden head descended toward the slightly parted lips, which, though wordless at the moment, as they often were, commanded her with a call she was wholly, utterly unable to resist.
She slowly traced the inside of Alexandra's lips with the tip of her tongue, before slipping it gently between the wine-dark shores and past the smooth white teeth that guarded the hidden pleasures which lay beyond. Riell's arms tightened powerfully around Alexandra.
Desire built until it filled Riell, and its power began to frighten her. She felt Alexandra's breathing quicken and deepen along with her own, and their bellies pushed against each other with each breath. The warrior's smooth arms encircled her, and Riell could feel great quaking waves of passion flooding the body beneath her. Riell suddenly broke the kiss and raised up, her knees straddling Alexandra's waist.
"What is it?" asked Alexandra gently, raising herself to her elbows.
"I'm afraid." Riell's voice was hushed. "It's all so strong. I've never felt anything like this."
"Having second thoughts, Princess?" Alexandra's tone was without sarcasm, but she raised an eyebrow knowingly.
"Is this what you-"
"What do I do, Alexandra?" Riell's voice was choked with frustration and her eyes brimmed with tears.
"Well, don't cry. Let me up and I'll show you something." Riell climbed off. Alexandra rose and lit some candles against the fast-approaching darkness, then, as an afterthought, grabbed the tray and headed for the pallet. She set the tray down on the large sleeping pallet, crawled across to the head, and pulled a scroll out of a cubby in the wall. After propping a pillow against the wall for herself and another beside it for Riell, she patted the bedclothes bedside her as an invitation to Riell, and unrolled the parchment.
"This is from the Secret Rites scroll. Cybele made me a copy and brought it to me a few months ago. It's one of the few I have. I read it again last night." Riell cuddled under one of Alexandra's arms and put her head against the warrior's chest. Alexandra began to read aloud.
I, Artemis, Goddess of the Moon, give to my daughters this last and greatest rite. Only those who are called to it by a soulmate shall perform it. If the rite is not completed you shall die, in body or in spirit.
Those who are called shall know it by these signs:
Near the time of the first meeting, a deep restlessness or melancholy will begin, and will grow with time.
At first touch great fear will threaten the soulmates. The lovers may push each other away at this point, or may separate. They will think this is because of outward circumstances; but it is because of fear, and the fear will only grow until the lovers surrender fully to my will.
The fear will become greatest whenever the soulmates enter the chamber of love. As they touch in love, the lovers will encounter an unendurable yearning, desire only a god could bear. A mortal alone cannot possess this desire and will die of it without divine grace.
The lovers will feel as if they are being flung from a cliff without wings, or thrown into the deep and dragged under, not knowing which way to go for breath. They must then do the following.
Alexandra stopped reading and stared out into the room. A gentle squeeze around her waist brought her back. She kissed the top of the golden head and continued.
My daughters, when the fear comes, allow the desire to grow unhindered, until it fills your soul with such longing that you taste the lips of death, trusting that I, Artemis, will hold you to my bosom, and will soothe your longing. And when you have done this, and have surrendered to me and to the love I have given you, I will fulfill your desires, and more, beyond your dreams.
For I, Artemis, the Great Bear, have given you this greatest gift so that you may bring good into the world, with love, companionship, and pleasure to inspire and comfort you in your labors. Those who are called to this rite shall bring great blessings to the Nation and the Other World, and their deeds shall be remembered and honored by my people to the end of time.
"Xena and Gabrielle were soulmates, weren't they?" It was a rhetorical question, and Riell didn't expect an answer, nor did she wait for one from her taciturn lover. "When I copied the Bard's scroll it was as if I knew, or remembered, what she felt. And I kept thinking of you." Alexandra shifted a little as she rolled up the scroll. She placed it carefully back in its cubby, then kissed Riell on the top of her head again.
"How about some food now?" Alexandra reached for the tray and pulled it near. Under the cloth cover lay thick-crusted brown bread, oven warm and fragrant. Its mate for the evening was a pale yellow cheese with a tartness that drew moisture to Alexandra's mouth.
She examined the rest of the meal: olives, grapes, oranges, almonds, and a small flask of strong dark Amazon wine. Thank the goddess, thought Alexandra. The delivery girl had thought to bring food that could withstand a wait. Two metal cups stood upside down on the platter. The girl would get a big tip for that.
It was fully dark now, and the mountain air grew chilly. Alexandra lit a fire in the large hearth. The firelight flickered amiably on the walls and ceiling. After she had eaten and drunk, Alexandra filled the oval bathing tub and climbed in. To Alexandra's amusement, Riell continued to eat.
Alexandra washed. "You're welcome to join me if you like. The water will get cold soon." Riell looked up, then back at the tray. Alexandra's head tilted in a question.
"I starved in the woods for a few days after I left the castle," explained Riell. "Then I didn't eat a lot on the way here because I was seasick. And, well, you know about the last few days, here in the Village. Not much of what's happened has involved food." Alexandra laughed.
"Eat as much as you want. In fact, if you bring that tray over here I'll feed you everything on it, if you like, and you'll still get a warm bath."
"Sounds good." Riell placed the tray on a small table near the tub, and climbed into the tub in front of Alexandra. Sitting down, she nestled back against the warrior. The hot water and the expanse of smooth soft flesh against her back relaxed her. Resting her hands on Alexandra's bent knees she closed her eyes and sighed. Alexandra reached over the edge of the tub and plucked an olive from the tray. She touched the salty morsel to Riell's lips, and they parted to receive the little globe, which was drawn to its oblivion by teeth and tongue. Riell reached up with her own hand to retrieve the pit, but the hand was stopped midway by another.
"Allow me, my Princess," said Alexandra with mock seriousness.
"Alright," responded Riell, with the same mock seriousness. She pointed her pursed lips toward Alexandra's raised hand.
"Oh, no. Not like that." Alexandra gently turned Riell's chin toward her until she could seal Riell's lips with her own, then expertly exchanged the pit for a whole olive.
"How'd you do that?" Riell munched happily on the second olive.
"Oh, I have many skills," said Alexandra, spitting the pit into the hearth.
"I hope you'll show me more of them, warrior." Riell spit her pit at the hearth. It landed short and to the side.
"Well, you puff out your cheeks while you hold the pit between your teeth-"
"Not that skill," said Riell, finding the soap and running slippery hands down Alexandra's legs.
"Alright," said Alexandra in a low, dangerous voice. "Give me the soap." Alexandra lathered up her hands, and moving Riell forward a tad, washed her neck and back slowly and thoroughly. When she finished, she lured Riell back to settle in against her chest again, then sank lower in the tub, so that Riell was lying on top of her.
Riell released a long slow breath, and closed her eyes. Her head lolled back on Alexandra's shoulder and her hands ran dreamily along the outside of Alexandra's legs. She was floating, floating on Alexandra, rocked by the warrior's gentle breathing. It reminded her of her pond. She remembered the melancholy she had felt at first seeing the swan, but it was distant, like the howl of a wolf deep in the forest.
Alexandra lathered up again. Placing her soapy hands on Riell's hips, she drew them with aching slowness up Riell's sides and over the smaller woman's breasts, fingers spread, carefully avoiding the nipples. Slowly, like snow melting on the first day of spring, the languorous hands returned via the valley between the breasts to the flat belly and beyond, to tender inner thigh, then back to hips, grazing the wiry triangle in passing.
Riell could barely sense the slippery hands, the almost imperceptible motion. Instead, she was aware of a keen voluptuousness spreading over her skin and echoing deep within her. Riell's breath became uneven. She tried to speak, but her lips would not obey, and she mumbled incoherently.
Noting the positive effect, Alexandra repeated the little journey several times, the last time skating the bar of soap lightly across the pink nipples until Riell arched out of the water, moaning pitiably. Riell had never imagined such exquisite desire, and from such a small, light touch. At that moment the melancholy returned, and it mixed with desire into a powerful longing.
Riell's passionate beauty deeply moved Alexandra, and her own hips threatened to swing to life underwater. But she had to concentrate. She took a deep breath and cleared her mind, then whispered directly into Riell's ear, "Do you want me to go on?"
And though a fine mist of fear had already settled over her, Riell replied softly, "Yes, I do. Please don't stop." She shuddered.
"Alright. Remember the scroll, then. And tell me right away if you change your mind."
As lightly as a feather tumbling in a breeze, and still with agonizing slowness, Alexandra's fingers skimmed Riell's hair and face and lips. The slender hands slid down Riell's throat and Riell began to move again above the warrior.
Alexandra's hands reached Riell's breasts and glided imperceptibly over the delicate pink nipples, which stood erect and heaving on the quivering globes, searching vainly for the tormenting digits. Riell tried to fathom where Alexandra's hands were, and where they would go next, but in the warm water she could only tell where they already had been, and that only by the maddening hunger left in their wake. And as the touches lightened, their power grew. Riell’s body strained toward the phantom caresses with a will of its own, so that water sloshed over the edges of the tub and splashed noisily on the floor, and Alexandra did not restrain her. And when Riell thought she could take no more, that she would go mad with desire, the touch would become even fainter, hurtling her to a higher level of need, until, at last, she was sure she would die right there in Alexandra's arms, if indeed that was where she still lay.
Alexandra fought supremely to hold her own body motionless as Riell writhed above her. As the younger woman's buttocks pressed against her, the warrior opened her mouth wide and labored to breathe. But she continued the erotic communion without interruption, and drew her fingertips slowly to Riell's belly, just below her navel.
Fear gripped Riell. The desire was so strong now she could never escape it, nor could she contain it. She yearned for Alexandra with such melancholic fierceness that without fulfillment she would die within the next few breaths. Alexandra? Alexandra? Her scarcely audible cries searched for her lover's ear.
"Riell," she whispered. "I'm here. Remember." Alexandra's hand had reached the golden triangle and one finger slipped unnoticed into the tiny canyon at the apex. And Riell remembered. Alexandra! Yes! From the beginning of time it was Alexandra! It had always been Alexandra! Riell let the longing and desire expand until it filled her, forcing out all fear, replacing it with ecstasy. Then she was falling. She fell through air and splashed into deep black water, swirling and spiraling down, into safety and warmth and love. Alexandra was with her, arms tightly around her now, her chest and belly pressed against Riell's back, the warrior's climax fading with hers in consonant waves.
They lay like that for a long time, until the water grew cool, then cold. Then they climbed out, and after drying off, sat together wrapped in a blanket on the bearskin rug in front of the hearth, and fed each other the rest of the food and wine. They spoke very little.
Alexandra lay down on the bearskin and Riell with her, nestling her head into the hollow at the front of Alexandra's shoulder.
"That's some skill," said Riell.
"I learned it from one of the Asian scrolls."
"Would you teach it to me?"
"With pleasure." Riell draped an arm across Alexandra's waist and began to stroke her side. The warrior's breathing became gentle and rhythmic. She was asleep. Riell kissed the hand that was wrapped around her, pulled the blanket up over both of them, and joined Alexandra in peaceful oblivion.
"Please, Aunt Hippolyta, just one more?" Elethea shoved her mug across the counter toward the bartender. She was the only customer. It was the usual mid afternoon lull. Most of the village slept through the heat. But the tavern was always pleasantly cool. Several little girls at a table in the corner began to argue over a rag doll, pulling the cloth limbs in various directions and raising their voices.
"Two's plenty for a new Guard." Hippolyta finished wiping the shiny bar down with a cloth and poured Elethea some grape juice. She plunked the pitcher down in front of Elethea. "Have as much of this as you want, though."
The last time she'd let one of Alexandra's girlfriends get soused she'd paid dearly. And never let it be said that Hippolyta didn't learn quickly. Her poor niece did look miserable, though. What was it that they all saw in that overbearing, arrogant pirate, anyway?
Even back in the old days, thought Hippolyta, when they were growing up, Alexandra was a troublemaker. Alexandra had been born exactly one day before Hippolyta, and Hippolyta had been one step behind her ever since.
She'd talk Hippolyta into sneaking the queen's best horses out for a hard ride in the middle of the night, and by the time the guards would catch up to them, Alexandra would have ditched her mount and escaped into the woods, leaving Hippolyta to face an angry Cybele alone.
Then there was the time Alexandra spiked the ceremonial wine with salt at the big solstice ritual. Somehow, Alexandra had kept a straight face at the sight of the old women spewing purple at each other, but Hippolyta had rolled on the ground in laughter. Hippolyta took the blame for that, too.
Alexandra had her good points, though. She had teased Hippolyta mercilessly for being a Man's Woman, but she had covered for her countless times when Hippolyta sneaked away to see that Thracian boy her mother hated.
In their thirteenth summer Alexandra and Hippolyta would ride together to the boy's village and Hippolyta would whistle to him from the woods while he worked in his father's vineyard. Alexandra would watch for a while as they copulated in the long grass, but she was slower in those things than Hippolyta, and didn't have any breasts yet, and eventually she would wander off to shoot her arrows into the air, just to see how high they would go.
"You took the girl-making herbs first, didn't you?" Alexandra had asked.
But Hippolyta hadn't. So she knew her first child would be a boy, and she was embarrassed. She had tapped on Cyrene's door when the pains came in the middle of the night and Alexandra was ready, like they planned. They did it in the Bear Grotto, because the old ones never went there anymore.
Alexandra turned the baby around and pulled it out and cut the cord, then sewed up Hippolyta’s tear, just like the physicians taught her. Then they looked at the baby boy, pink and wrinkled and covered with white wax.
"Shall we kill it, like the Ancient Ones did?" Hippolyta had asked.
"All right," said Alexandra. But she didn't know how, because she had never killed anyone. She held it away from her and it peed. "Did you get a Promise?"
"Yes." Hippolyta held up a brass ring hanging around her neck next to her own Promise.
They left the child in a basket in the vineyard the next morning with the Promise attached in plain view, and waited in the woods. The boy shouted to his father, who looked at the basket as if it contained a poisonous snake. The boy's mother came running and swept it up.
"An Amazon foundling! The gods have blessed us!" the farmwife cried, whisking the basket and the child into the farmhouse.
Hippolyta turned her attention from the overly polished counter to her wine bottles. She picked them up one at a time and dusted them. One of the little girls at the table, the dark haired one, began to cry. She held a decapitated doll.
"Why is it I always fall for older women, Aunt Hippolyta?" asked Elethea.
Hippolyta lined the wine bottles up from smallest to largest, switching several a few extra times to test their heights. "They always have a lot of baggage, don't they?"
Alexandra had grown spectacularly the year after Hippolyta's first baby was born, remembered Hippolyta. By then Alexandra was tall and had breasts. She looked like a woman. She was thin, though. And she fell in love. The woman was old, too, twice Alexandra's age, at least.
Hippolyta, who was pregnant again, would write notes for Alexandra to take to the woman. Hippolyta would write things that the boy had said to her, or that she wished he would say to her. She always had to put one of the notes in Alexandra's hand and then coax her across the tavern to the counter where the woman sat night after night fending off admirers.
Every night the woman would read the note and grab Alexandra's wrist, seductively, it seemed to Hippolyta. Then she would place the note back in the girl's upturned hand and close Alexandra's fingers around it. Hippolyta could see the woman's lips move and see her shake her head no, but the woman's eyes danced playfully. And Alexandra would come back to their table nearly fainting with false hope, and Hippolyta felt sorry for her.
One night Alexandra came back to the table in a different mood. She was serious, and frowning.
"She said to meet her at her hut after midnight," Alexandra had whispered.
"And the Captain Major?"
"She's on patrol until tomorrow morning."
The next night at the tavern Alexandra had walked straight to the woman, without a note, and kissed her full on the lips in front of everyone. It still made Hippolyta shiver to remember how the whole tavern stilled. When she finished kissing the woman Alexandra turned around to see why it was so quiet, and the Captain Major knocked her down with her fists. And when she tried to get up the Captain Major knocked her down again and again and again until she couldn't get up and her face was cut and bleeding and she was crying. Someone called the queen and she made the Captain Major stop beating Alexandra and took her away.
Alexandra wouldn't go in the tavern for a whole year. She practiced war games instead, all day and all night until she went to bed, and the only other things she did were eat and sleep, so she could get strong she said. And exactly one year later she went back to the tavern. But she told Hippolyta that it wasn't because of the woman. Alexandra had said she didn’t care about that anymore.
She found the Captain Major and challenged her to a duel. It was dark, but everyone went outside to watch. Somebody lit some torches so they could see the fight. Hippolyta was afraid for Alexandra because the Captain Major was the strongest warrior in the army and had killed a lot of people. But Alexandra was stronger. She beat the Captain Major with her fists and kicked her until she was on the ground and begging for mercy. But instead of quitting the fight Alexandra raised her sword over her head. Everyone made a noise and then got quiet.
Just as Alexandra was about to swing her sword down, the queen ran up between Alexandra and the Captain Major. The queen just held up her hand in front of Alexandra’s face. Cybele didn't have to pull out her sword. She knew Alexandra wouldn't hurt her.
"Stop!" she cried. "She's an Amazon!" But Alexandra just looked madder.
"Get out of my way. She deserves it."
"I'll decide that, Alexandra, no one else." And the queen stood there in front of Alexandra until Alexandra finally threw her sword down and walked away. Hippolyta heard what the queen said to the Captain Major after Alexandra was gone.
"She's ready. But you'd better watch your back. I won’t be able to control her much longer. No one will."
Even though she was years younger than the other Guards were, the queen put Alexandra into Guard training the next day. She let Hippolyta hang around unofficially, since she had a stabilizing influence—that was the queen's opinion—on Alexandra.
Hippolyta smiled as she remembered when they decided to get the tattoo. Alexandra liked the way it looked on the bare breast of one of the other Guards. Alexandra chose the noble left crescent of the Elite Guard. Hippolyta took a right crescent because she wasn't sure if she wanted to be in the army forever.
The next year, when they were sixteen, Alexandra took an arrow for Hippolyta. It was their first battle. Hippolyta had ridden into the Thessalonian infantry ranks as ordered, but had forgotten to keep a retreat path open and soon found herself surrounded and cut off. The Amazons behind her were ordered to fall back. But Alexandra saw Hippolyta's struggle, and against the queen's orders, charged into the midst of the Thessalonians after her.
Hippolyta's horse had fallen by the time Alexandra reached her, and Hippolyta was fighting hand to hand with two Greek soldiers, her sword arm tiring despite her intense training. But Alexandra's sword had left a grisly swath of death on its way to Hippolyta, and by the time she held out her left hand to swing Hippolyta into the saddle behind her, the Thessalonians were in disarray, and the Amazons were advancing again.
But a crossbow lifted toward Hippolyta as she climbed behind Alexandra. Alexandra saw it and leaned into Hippolyta and turned the horse quickly. The bolt struck Alexandra's left shoulder, which lay just a few fingerbreadths in front of Hippolyta's heart, and the force almost unhorsed both of them, but Hippolyta reached around Alexandra with both hands and grabbed the reins and they thundered back to the Amazon ranks.
It was just a flesh wound and Alexandra recovered quickly. It was something any Amazon would do for another Amazon, Alexandra had said. But no one else had done it, and Hippolyta would never forget. And she never let a word of criticism pass her lips when it came to Alexandra.
But even Hippolyta had to admit that Alexandra's activities had become more questionable as of late. She'd been in prison in the Other World for piracy, and had been sentenced to the gallows, narrowly escaping with the help of some underworld friends, and rumor had it, the large treasure she'd amassed. She'd come and gone five times over the past ten years, and must have broken at least twice as many hearts.
She'd taken a few short commissions in the queen's Guard, and had been decorated each time, and was apparently in great demand in the Other World as a mercenary. The old folks clucked, but secretly they thought she cut a rather dashing figure, Hippolyta supposed. Too bad she was a Man's Woman, thought Hippolyta. Apparently she was missing a lot of fun.
But in the last year a change had come over Alexandra. Hippolyta had noticed it. The whole village had noticed it. The warrior was even more morose and distant than usual. She no longer favored the flashy Guard uniform, and spent most of her time holed up in her house or scratching in her garden.
Rumor had it that she'd lost a duel and had been dumped by a foreign princess. And she'd even tried to murder the princess. And Hippolyta had begun to wonder if maybe some of the rumors were true, because even after taking up with Elethea, the warrior didn't seem herself. Hippolyta picked up a broom. She swept absently under the tables, not bothering to move the chairs.
And then, a week ago, lo and behold, the foreign princess appeared, and Alexandra hadn't been seen or heard from since. Life was stranger than the scrolls, mused Hippolyta, listening to the sweep, sweep, sweep of the straw against the wooden floor.
Ah, well, this was Elethea's first broken heart. She'd recover. Changing the subject for a few minutes couldn't hurt. Besides, the barkeeper was getting pretty sick of listening to 'Alexandra' stories, even though she owed a lot of her business to the warrior, or rather, the warrior's girlfriends. Alexandra rarely came to the tavern.
"By the way, Elethea, when do you start Guard training?"
"Tomorrow. I think the queen has a surprise for me."
"I think she's found a battlesister for me."
"That's great, Thea. Any idea who it'll be?"
Just then, Alexandra walked in. Elethea and Hippolyta looked up. Gone were the gardening clothes and hoe. Alexandra wore the black satin uniform over one shoulder, girdled with the gold belt. Her sword hung at her side again. She seemed even taller than before and her eyes flashed proudly. Elethea's mouth dropped open. The broom stopped.
"Auntie Alex! Auntie Alex!" The little girls swarmed around and over the warrior, tugging on her clothes and sword. "Give me a ride, puh-leez, Auntie Alex?" said the smallest, the one with sad dark eyes and a headless doll. Alexandra laughed and picked up the child by her armpits. She swung the child effortlessly over her head until she squealed in delight.
She's back, thought Hippolyta, leaning her broom against the wall and wiping her hands on her apron. "All right. Everyone outside to play now. Hurry up."
Alexandra walked to the counter and said nothing. That was usual, sighed the barkeeper to herself. Hippolyta, as always, would have to start things off.
"Hi Alex. What can I get for you?"
"Hey Pol." Alexandra cleared her throat. "Uh, hello Elethea." Alexandra hesitated for a long moment and stared at the floor. When Elethea didn't reply she looked up shyly at the bartender and placed some gold coins on the counter. "I, um, want to pay for the delivery service…"
The mighty warrior was embarrassed, thought Hippolyta with amusement; she's embarrassed in front of Elethea. Hippolyta found it cute.
"…and, uh, cancel it." Hippolyta wondered how Elethea was doing. Not too bad, apparently, thought Hippolyta. At least she had finally closed her mouth.
"Was everything satisfactory? Did you enjoy the food? Was the service acceptable?" Hippolyta recalled that her daughter had brought back as many full trays as empty ones, and some interesting stories as well. Hippolyta had made sure to send nonperishables.
Alexandra shoved her bangs off her forehead. "Sure. Yeah. Great." Alexandra's eyes pleaded with Hippolyta. "Could we please just get on with this?" they asked.
The barkeeper collected the money from Alexandra, who counted her change carefully before walking out into the mid afternoon heat. Hippolyta picked up her broom.
"Well, how'd that go for you, Thea?" The keeper resumed sweeping, this time behind the counter. Elethea had one hand wound through the handle of her mug, the other twisted in a lock of amber hair. Hippolyta was impressed that the girl seemed to take the breakup very well, considering. Elethea'd be on to her next adventure soon.
"I'll get her back. You wait." Elethea poured the last of the grape juice into her cup. "She won't stay with that scrawny, arrogant, irritating blond. I'll make sure of that."
A Day in the Life
Riell spent the night before her first day of Guard training in her room at Cybele's house, alone. She didn't want to risk angering the queen by being late, and being near Alexandra in the morning, or any time for that matter, meant that she was liable to lose track of time, and most of her other senses as well.
As the sun rose over the snow-capped eastern peaks, Riell stood at attention on a large bare drilling field, with nine other new Guards. They wore the black wool uniforms of the rookie corps: left breast bare, pants gathered at the ankles, leather belt, sturdy boots suitable for riding and walking. Five trainees were Separated Amazons who had Returned, like Riell, and all ranged in age from seventeen to twenty-one. Riell was embarrassed to find out she was the oldest.
Riell had expected Elethea to be there; Alexandra had told her she would be. No matter, thought Riell. It might be a bit awkward here and there, but no one expected them to be friends. They already had successfully avoided each other this morning. And she could pretend to get along with anybody, temporarily, if she had to.
As the new Guards watched, an Asian Amazon showed off powerful hand combat techniques, and an African Amazon her lethal three-sided throwing knife. An Indian Amazon demonstrated the chakram or quoit. This was a particularly difficult weapon to use, and although the weapon was known in Greece since ancient times, very few warriors had mastered it.
According to Amazon lore the ability to use a chakram was a gift, and couldn't really be learned. Xena had been an elite quoit warrior, according to the legends. And Alexandra was the first adept in the village in over a hundred years.
Alexandra was busy as well. She had requested a new commission, and the queen had granted it. All Amazon children were taught self-defense and escape techniques from the age of three. The best warriors were assigned to instruct them.
Riell's group passed the children's training ground a few times during her riding exercises, and she saw Alexandra hard at work, demonstrating horse escapes with a tiny rider on her back, and repairing a broken toy bow for a tearful little Amazon archer.
The week passed quickly. The queen would review the new Guards in the morning. Riell had invited Alexandra to spend the night with her at the queen's house, after asking permission, of course.
"Riell, this is your house. You can have whomever you want over anytime." The queen was packing a bag as she spoke. "In fact, I'm going to do some visiting of my own tonight. Don't wait up for me." Her green eyes twinkled. "But if you need me, I'll be at Cyrene's."
"Did you know that?" asked Riell incredulously as she and Alexandra lay together on Riell's pallet late that night. Riell's head was nestled into the hollow of Alexandra's shoulder. Suddenly Riell sat up and reached over Alexandra to the bedside table and grabbed a bowl of olives.
"Of course," answered Alexandra without emotion, twining golden hair around several fingers as Riell ate olives and lined the pits up between Alexandra's breasts. "I don't remember when Cybele wasn't around." Alexandra shifted on the bed as Riell climbed over her and stood up.
"So Cybele is your—?" Riell found she had no word for the relationship. Her bare feet padded across the bearskin.
"My Other Mother."
"That makes you a princess, too." Riell climbed back onto the pallet carrying a tray. Holding it carefully she walked on her knees back to her spot next to Alexandra and set it down on the bedclothes. She knelt beside the tray and picked up some food. "Want some?" she asked, holding out a large piece of bread covered with a slab of cheese. Alexandra shook her head.
"Not really. My Guardmates were jealous, though. They called me the Warrior Princess, because they thought I got favored treatment."
"Did you?" asked Riell, finally draining the carafe of grape juice that had been wobbling on the tray.
"No!" Alexandra raised her voice a little. "In fact, Cybele was a lot tougher on me than she was with the other Guards." "I could never please her. I couldn't stand it anymore. That's why I left."
"So why did you come back?" Riell moved the tray aside and nestled into Alexandra's shoulder again. She plucked the olive pits off Alexandra and tossed them toward the tray.
"For you." Alexandra said no more, and closed her eyes to go to sleep.
Riell was quiet. And worried. So Alexandra had wanted to make a home with Riell. Why wouldn't she talk to her about it?
"Richard stepped in front of the dagger just as I was going for Candor's heart. I didn't mean to kill him. Candor got away. That's why I had to leave." Alexandra opened her eyes and gathered Riell into her arms.
"You certainly are Cybele's granddaughter," she said thoughtfully.
"What do you mean?"
"She's a dangerous woman, too. Rumor has it that when she was young, she killed a man for insulting her."
"Insulting her? Was she punished?"
"No. Maybe it was a duel or something." Alexandra closed her eyes again and gave Riell another squeeze. "Don't worry. You can't be tried here for a crime committed in the Other World, unless it was committed against another Amazon." Alexandra laughed gently. "Good thing, too, or a lot of us would be in jail. Or worse." Then she was asleep.
Riell stared at the ceiling in frustration. How did Alexandra do it? She always changed the subject, thought Riell.
There's a Trick to It
After the review, the ten trainees knelt on the hot, dusty ground before the queen. Large drops of sweat tickled Riell's back and her clothes clung to her damp skin. The trainers stood at crisp attention at each end of the rank, and called the new Guards by name, one at a time. Riell stood in front of the queen to receive her orders second to last. Only Elethea continued to kneel.
"Very good, Riell. Only one new Guard scored higher than you did overall." The queen carefully looked over a yellowish piece of parchment, then accepted a quill from one of the trainers. She scribbled quickly, then looked up at Riell again, handing the quill and document back to the trainer. "Your equestrian skills are top notch. You need some remedial work in Amazon tactics and escapes, but that's par for a Returnee, and you'll catch up in the longbow and hand combat in a couple of months." Riell accepted the silver trainee's belt that Cybele held out and clasped it around her waist. "I hear you can show us a thing or two about staff fighting."
"Thank you, Majesty." She turned away to join the rest of her classmates in the shade of a nearby oak to hear Elethea's admission to the Guard.
"You have scored highest, Elethea, and I am proud of you." Riell watched the queen sign another piece of parchment but let her thoughts drift. She never spoke to Elethea, but nodded to her once in passing. Elethea hadn't acknowledged her greeting and Riell hadn't repeated it. Let her be. Easiest for everyone. "Elethea, you are ready to accept a battlesister, today."
The queen looked at Riell. Riell sneaked a look around. Perhaps she was blocking the queen's view. "Riell, please come here." Ah, so the queen was going to assign several battlesisters today.
But as Riell walked toward the queen, and toward Elethea, the queen said nothing else, called no more names. Hera's tits! She wouldn't. Elethea and I, battlesisters? Elethea'd probably kill me herself if she could get away with it.
"Riell…" Cybele's glare warned her: now was the time to follow strict Amazon protocol. She was queen, Riell subject. Under Cybele, it felt natural, to her great surprise. There must be a trick to that, she thought.
"…You will protect this Amazon's life with your own, whenever your Nation calls on you for defense from its enemies. You will be partners in battle for one year and will allow no higher duty, except as ordered by the queen. You will help and sustain each other in all your duties and you both will advance to the completion of your training, or neither will."
Riell knelt and bowed her head as low as she could. By the gods! She had sworn never to do this. She was groveling. Could she get the queen to change her mind, to see that this was a big mistake? She glanced at her new battlesister. Elethea sank too, but slowly, a stunned expression frozen on her beautiful features.
Fun and Games
"She likes to do things like that," said Alexandra, filling her tub for the evening bath. Alexandra was grateful that her good Amazon plumbing still worked at all. "Cybele says her warriors are strong because they've had to overcome their worst enemy."
Alexandra was a bit distracted. She was still peeved that Hippolyta had broken the water main last week. Hippolyta had to do things her way. Alexandra had tried to warn her. But Hippolyta had insisted she was over the old septic tank. But she put her spade right through the freshwater intake from the aqueduct. They'd spent all their sewage shift time repairing it, and now the village toilets were about to back up. Alexandra had better take another sewage crew out within the week or the queen would rightfully be upset. Riell unclasped her new silver belt and laid it on Alexandra's pallet with a muffled jingle.
"Their battlesisters?" asked Riell as she peeled off her dusty clothes and dropped them on the floor. Naked, she crossed the room toward the tub.
"No." Alexandra turned off the water as Riell stepped into the tub and sat down. "Themselves." As Alexandra lowered herself into the tub in front of Riell, the water rose and threatened to spill over the metal rim.
"That's a cliché." Riell sounded annoyed. She began to rub the warrior's back with a soapy sponge.
"Whatever. But the idea is that once you've gotten used to helping the one Amazon you least want to help, you'll never have to wonder whether you'll choke in easier situations."
"Who was your first battlesister?"
"The Captain Major."
"It was more for her benefit than mine, I think." Alexandra leaned forward and sputtered as Riell poured water over her dark hair and began to lather it with the lavender-scented Amazon soap. "Everybody hated me, so Cybele could have assigned me to anybody and gotten a good effect, I suppose."
"The new Guards are still telling the story about you rescuing Hippolyta." Riell searched Alexandra's left shoulder for the famous scar and found it. She kissed it. "Why didn't you take the medal Cybele tried to give you?"
"The queen ordered me back when I started going after Pol." Riell rinsed Alexandra's hair with a wooden ladle and ran an ivory comb through it, gently smoothing it off her forehead.
"But I saw a weak spot in the Thessalonian line and I knew I could get to Pol and bring her back. I knew it. So I went in." The comb paused for a moment in a tangle, then resumed its smooth descent. Alexandra kept her eyes closed while she talked.
"When they carried me into the healer's hut to have the arrow removed, my mother ran in. She went crazy. She and Cybele went back and forth about not being able to control me, and whose fault it was."
Alexandra opened her eyes and switched places with Riell in the tub. "They yelled at each other so loudly that the healer had to kick them out. They didn't speak for a month." Alexandra massaged Riell's head vigorously. Fragrant white foam blossomed under her hands.
"Eventually Cybele and mom made up. But I could never please Cybele. Nothing I did was right, or good enough. She was always on me about something. I'd been right about the Thessalonian weak spot, and I think it bothered her that she hadn't seen it first, that she hadn't been perfect. But she's never said anything to me about that." Alexandra rinsed Riell's hair, then rubbed it with a drying cloth. Finally she wrapped and knotted the cloth around the blond head.
"Later, in front of everyone, she tried to give me a medal, said the Amazon Nation owed me a thank you for being brave. I told her that the Nation didn't owe me anything; I was just doing my duty, but she owed me an apology." Alexandra stood beside the tub and dried off with a large soft cloth. "Mom started to cry, and I felt like an ass," she said.
"I stuck around for a couple more months, long enough to pass the last commissioning tests, then I left." The warrior lit the candles around the pallet as Riell, with the cloth still wrapped around her head, climbed under the bedclothes. "I was sure I'd never come back."
Alexandra climbed across the pallet to Riell and whipped the covers off, admiring the smooth expanse of fragrant skin glimmering golden in the candlelight.
"Hey." Riell automatically reached for the blanket and covered her belly up again.
"Are you cold?"
"No. It's hot as a bonfire in here tonight. You surprised me, that's all." Riell sat up and unwrapped her hair, tossing the damp cloth to the foot of the pallet.
"I've got another surprise." Alexandra whipped out a large bunch of grapes and dangled it in front of Riell. Riell reached for it, but Alexandra snatched the little banquet just out of reach, and chuckled. She plucked an inky sphere and thrust it into her own mouth, exaggerating her expression of pleasure as the sweet fruit burst between her teeth, then with mock pity, offered one to Riell.
The smaller woman held the grape up to a candle so that it glowed like a precious gem in the warm light. Capturing Alexandra's gaze, she lowered the fruit to her mouth, and nibbled a hole in it, then rubbed the sugary nectar on her lips. Alexandra's lids lowered with lust. Still holding the warrior's gaze, Riell swallowed the grape and slowly licked her dyed lips.
"Oh, puh-leez, great warrior," drawled the blond, "may I have another?" Riell sucked on her two purple-tipped fingers.
"Yes." Alexandra's voice was low but breathy. "I have another one for you. But you'll have to find it." Alexandra paused. "And I've hidden it very, very well."
"You know, warrior…" said Riell, crawling on hands and knees toward Alexandra, "…I've got a few skills of my own. Soon you'll be begging me to find that grape. Now lie down." Alexandra lay back. "No. Not like that. On your stomach."
The warrior rolled over as commanded, but slowly, and with leonine insolence. She raised herself onto her forearms and looked over her shoulder. Riell climbed over one thigh and settled into it, her smooth, ripe breasts dangling in the small of Alexandra's back.
"I said, lie down." This time, Riell's icy tone urged the warrior to immediate compliance. No need to risk offending the fingernails scraping deliciously down her back, or the luscious warm weight pressing her hips into the pallet, she thought. Obediently, Alexandra put her head down. No harm in allowing the soft tongue to continue down the little gully in the small of her back. Let it play in the sensitive dimples just above her buttocks. Her eyes closed easily.
Why rebuff the full breast now molding itself delectably into the dark recess between her thighs? Alexandra pulled in a deep breath and let it out with a long sigh. And why chase away the velvety hand that at this moment glided along the delicate inside of one thigh.
Alexandra's thighs opened. She felt Riell eyes survey her secret folds even before gentle fingers nudged the hidden lips, and before a light breeze strummed over them. It was Riell's breath calling her to pleasure. Alexandra moved a bit toward the lips she imagined were so close. A tongue probed the delicate opening once, then withdrew. Alexandra tensed. Her breath caught. She clutched at the bedclothes.
"So, warrior," said Riell, very softly, "do you still want to keep all the grapes to yourself?" Alexandra felt fingertips caress both buttocks and brush down the dark crease. They hesitated at the glistening entry.
"No," whispered Alexandra. Something soft and wet and silky flickered across her tiny node of desire, and pleasure filled her and escaped through her lips in a moan, and her hips moved of their own accord.
"I didn't think so." Another flicker. And another. "Then hold still so I can get my share of fruit." Now Alexandra's entire existence centered on remaining within range of the ethereal tongue. Ah, but she was tricked. Almost imperceptibly, slick fingers had replaced the tongue. Now freed, it returned to tease the little petals, which waited in anxious expectation, hoping to entice Riell into their ravenous succulence as a flower draws a bee.
"Now! Take it now!"
"What do you say, warrior?" The fingers and tongue teased again. "What do you say to your Queen?"
Suddenly the tongue plunged in, deep and strong, over and over again, mercilessly ramming the innocent purple stowaway Alexandra had hidden so well. Finally, as the powerful tongue curled around the grape within, Alexandra, with a cry, allowed the persuasive fingers to coax exquisite paroxysms of pleasure from her, as Riell claimed her prize.
Later, in the deepest part of the night, Riell cried out. "Alexandra, wake up! It moved!"
"What is it?" The warrior sat straight up. "Is something wrong? Are you ill?"
"Oh." Relief permeated Alexandra's words. "Good."
"In fact, I feel great."
"You're looking well these days, too." Smiling, Alexandra leaned over her lover and her hand roamed playfully on Riell's fuller breasts and pleasantly rounded belly. "All that Amazon food you're eating must agree with you." Riell began to cry. Alexandra's mouth fell open. "What did I say? Did I say something wrong?"
"Why haven't you said anything? Why won't you talk about it?" Alexandra's dumbfounded look finally sank in and Riell stopped crying. "You didn't get my last letter, did you?"
Candor stared at the badly decomposed corpse at his feet on the darkly shaded forest floor. Bright red hair was the only feature he could distinguish. It blended with the orange leaves now thick on the ground. An arrow sprouted from the white ribcage. The priest shivered and pulled his cloak tight against the brisk fall wind. The Amazon courier must have been dead for six months.
"We found her bag, too," said one of the perimeter guards.
"These were inside," said the other, handing the priest two scrolls. They were undamaged. Candor shuffled through them quickly. More luck. God was with him. It was time to move. He decided to read the scrolls in the chapel and pray for guidance.
He walked into the sanctuary and unrolled one of the scrolls, the one sealed with the murdering harlot's ring. As he scanned the Greek letters his face lit up with a great gloating smile.
I hope you don't mind if I write to you from time to time. I know you aren't fond of words, or of writing letters, but I gain some comfort knowing that I can tell you about some of my life here. I do believe that you care for me in your own way, and I do not think my letters will intrude upon you, but if they do please accept my apologies and forgive me.
I am with child. It will come before winter solstice. It is Richard's of course, and I haven’t told him, because I can't imagine sharing my life with him in that way. Of course if the child is a boy, Henry shall insist that I give it to him, and Amazon that I now am, I will not. And it is possible that it will be a boy, because I had no foresight in my three times with Richard, and did not ask Selene for the girl-making herbs.
And I did not ask her for the finishing herb either, because this child has got to want its birth very badly to pick such an unfortunate situation by which to enter the world. I hope Selene's pronouncement is correct, and things will work themselves out, but it is difficult to see how things might turn out well. I will try to trust in Artemis and Mary; I hope I have not offended either one too much.
I am well otherwise, except for missing you terribly of course, but I have even gotten used to that, and bear it well most of the time.
I found your little swan on the floor and I carry it with me all the time. Forgive me for keeping it.
The priest unrolled the second scroll. It was a map, and it made Candor's eyes turn heavenward. God had spoken. Now the Pope would listen to him and give him what he needed. The Crusaders were having some success in that neck of the woods. He could take an army to the Old Village and rescue the boy-child, Henry's heir, before the Amazons killed it.
Sharp cracks echoed through the shaded glen, accompanied by an occasional grunt. Late afternoon rays slanted through half-bare branches. The amber-eyed woman circled slowly around Riell, and the eyes were hot and emotional. Riell's attention narrowed to those eyes and waited as her opponent's feet shuffled through the thick blanket of dry autumn leaves on the ground. Elethea's staff swung to the right and back a little before abruptly striking out at Riell, allowing Riell to counter instantaneously, blocking the blow and sweeping one end of her opponent's staff harmlessly into the ground.
"Alright, let's try it again." Riell backed away and raised her staff to defensive position. She was heavier now, and didn't move as fast as she had even two and a half months ago. But pregnant Amazons got no special treatment. "Don't give yourself away before the strike."
She tried to keep the irritation from her voice, but Riell was frustrated. The staff was Elethea's only true weakness. If she didn't pass the next examination in two weeks, both she and Riell would fail to graduate to their commissions.
On the next attempt, Elethea rushed headlong at her. Riell knocked the staff out of Elethea's hands and feigned a blow to her head as she stumbled past, then swept at her ankles, not connecting, but making her point.
Riell tapped the ground with her staff impatiently. "Now you're trying too hard." If she'd stop trying to beat my brains out she could probably land a decent blow, she thought. "Relax a little." It was really quite annoying. They'd be here all night at this rate. Why wouldn't Elethea just follow her instructions? "Let me show you—"
"Just shut up and get ready." Elethea retrieved her staff and charged again. This time Riell ducked under the intended blow and spun her weapon up and over Elethea's, connecting satisfyingly with the beautiful mouth. Elethea dropped like a log.
"How's it going?" said the queen. She had stopped her horse between two trees to watch the little drama. Elethea stood up and wiped her burst lip with the back of her hand.
"Just fine, Majesty." She spit out some blood and glared at Riell.
"Hmmm. Well, let me know if I can be of any assistance." The queen turned her horse and headed off into the woods.
With a sigh, Riell turned to resume the practice session. The last thing she heard was a soft whoosh.
Darkness swirled around her and leaned on her like a heavy blanket. But she could hear voices, distant voices. The voices swirled closer, mixing with the darkness.
"Is she coming around?" The voice was vaguely familiar.
Another familiar voice. Anguished. "I didn’t mean to hit her that hard. Thank Artemis she's alive."
"Where is that damned healer anyway?" The first voice again. It was Cybele's! Riell’s head hurt.
"Here I am. Let me through, folks, let me through." Someone pulled up on her eyelids and held a candle close. She was in a hut. Lying on a pallet. The light hurt. She closed her eyes against it
"Has she said anything? Anything at all?" A new voice.
"No. Not a word."
"Centaur shit. That's not good." The new voice again. "Not good at all. Riell? Riell! Open your eyes. Can you hear me?" The voices were far away again.
"She's here. She's here. Let her through, come on, make way folks." Many voices. Shuffling. Footsteps. A murmuring. "Shhh." Then quiet. A hand grasped hers and lifted it. Soft lips on her fingers. Familiar. Safe.
"Riell?" A warm hand squeezed hers. "Can you hear me?" A low gentle voice. "Riell?" Who was it? A special voice. "It's me, Alexandra." Quiet for a long time. "Please come back." Sad voice. Don't be sad. I'm still in here. I love you. Only you.
Riell opened her hand a little, then squeezed Alexandra's fingers. Warm air. Tickle. Alexandra was breathing on her fingers. Funny. A sliver of light opened in the swirling darkness.
"Look! She's coming around!" Cybele's voice. More murmuring, closer. The sliver of light grew larger and congealed into a crowd of hovering faces.
"Here. I'm right here."
"Ooh, my head hurts so badly." Riell groaned and reached up to find a rag wrapped around her forehead, soaked in something half-dried and stiff. She was in the queen's hut, but on Cybele's large pallet, not her own. At least two dozen people filled the room. The healer was searching through a large basket. She looked up from the basket at Cybele and tipped her head toward the roomful of people.
"Alright folks. Thanks for your concern. Let's give the healer and the patient a little privacy. I'll let you know how she's doing tomorrow." Cybele began to usher people toward the door.
While Cybele was thus occupied, Hippolyta limped up to the pallet and placed a hand on the kneeling Alexandra's shoulder. She bent down and put her mouth to Alexandra's ear. "Don't take this out on Cybele," she whispered. "If you want to talk about it, you know where to find me." Then she grasped Elethea's elbow and shepherded her out of the queen's house.
Alexandra stayed with Riell all night, waking her every hour and giving her the potion the healer had made for her. Cybele left her house to the pair. In the morning, the healer came to sit with Riell. Exhausted, Alexandra went home for her morning bath, then took a nap. In the early afternoon she showed up at the empty tavern and sat down at the bar. She sniffed. Was a faint but bad odor coming from the plumbing room?
"What'll it be?" Hippolyta set a mug in front of Alexandra.
"How's Riell?" The bartender filled Alexandra's mug and plunked the pitcher down beside it.
"Better." Alexandra took a sip. "The healer says she'll be fine in a few days."
"Whew. That's a relief." Hippolyta rubbed down the countertop with her white cloth.
"Yeah." Alexandra put an index finger on the handle of her mug and spun it slowly around and around on the counter.
"Have you talked to Cybele?" Alexandra didn't answer. The mug spun faster. "You're one of her favorites, you know."
Alexandra's fist slammed onto the counter, rattling the pitcher and mug. "What a bunch of goat dung! Why does everyone think that?"
"But you don't care what people think, right?" mumbled Hippolyta, folding her cloth and tucking it away under her belt.
"Nothing." Hippolyta crouched down, her back facing Alexandra. Reaching into the open shelving behind the counter, she began rearranging the wine flasks so that the tallest bottles stood in the center of the display. "Cybele cares what you think about her. She wants your respect."
"She's the queen. I treat her with respect. I follow protocol."
"You're better about that now." The barkeeper stood up and inspected her work. Twenty or so wine bottles were neatly lined up, the tallest bottles in the middle, the tapered shoulders of the display stair-stepping precisely to the ends, not a cork out of alignment. "That's fine. But that's not all she needs from you."
"Needs? From me?" Alexandra's features curled in derision. "Cybele probably faints from happiness whenever I leave."
"Life here is simpler when you're gone." Hippolyta refilled Alexandra's mug. "Simpler, but not better," she added softly, patting the warrior's forearm with her free hand. "I for one was once very happy to see my delinquent young comrade-in-arms." Swirling her juice, Alexandra studied the resultant vortex. Hippolyta's white cloth began scrubbing an imaginary spot on the countertop. "You did exactly what the queen would have done. You just saw it first. I've forgiven Cybele for that." The cloth stopped for a moment as Hippolyta looked at Alexandra. "You know. For not being perfect." Hippolyta kept rubbing during the silence that followed.
"Did Elethea tell you anything about the fight?"
"Alex," Hippolyta began. "I'd rather not—"
Alexandra stood up suddenly, noisily knocking her stool aside, and turned to go.
"Alright, alright," said Hippolyta. "Sit down. Take it easy." Alexandra complied. Hippolyta shook out her cloth, snapping it a few times in the air, and refolded it. She resumed her massage of the glistening countertop. "You know, you're not easy to get along with."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. What did you want to know about Elethea?"
"You can ask me yourself, Alexandra," said a voice from the doorway. Elethea, in her black Guard uniform, walked in and sat down at the bar, leaving an empty stool between her and the warrior. A swollen purple lip marred her otherwise perfect features. Hippolyta plunked another mug on the counter and slid the juice pitcher in beside it. Elethea poured her own juice before raising her eyes to Alexandra's. "Well, what do you want to know?"
"Why?" said Alexandra, stretching the word out in a low, dangerous voice.
"I did mean to hurt her, but not badly."
Hippolyta picked up the broom. Her grip tightened around the hard oak handle. The warrior was already touchy, and the kid could be an idiot at times. Nervously she began sweeping behind the counter. That broom had broken up many a barroom brawl. Raising her brows, Hippolyta nodded toward the door.
"Thea, why don't you come back in a while and let Alex and me catch up a bit in private?"
"It's alright, Pol. I won't hurt her…" That's good, thought Hippolyta. Whenever Alexandra finally said something she meant it. "…badly "
"You already did, but that's not what this is about." Elethea sat up taller and turned a little toward her ex-lover. Hippolyta thought she'd better sweep in front of the counter.
"Oh, isn't it?" hissed Alexandra, leaning a little toward Elethea. The warrior's eyes were narrow and unblinking. Hippolyta found some dust balls under the stool between the two and moved the stool away so that she could get the broom into the space between the Guards.
"By the gods, you're arrogant," said Elethea contemptuously, narrowing the space between her and the warrior, her purple lip quivering in anger. The barkeeper thought she saw Alexandra wince. The broom handle moved faster, poking the air near the fat lip. Elethea turned back toward her juice. "This isn't about you, Alexandra. I was angry because Riell split my lip in front of the queen. She didn't have to do that. She was showing off…" The amber eyes stared vacantly over the counter. "…again."
Alexandra turned back to her mug. Hippolyta took a deep breath and looked at the floor next to Alexandra's stool. Had she found all of the floor floozles?
"You could have killed her," said Alexandra. "What were you thinking?" Ah, said the barkeeper to herself. More dust right here by Elethea's elbow. She began to sweep again, but accidentally tapped her niece in the side with the broom handle. Hard.
"I had no idea that stupid stick could do so much damage. Especially not in my hands." Elethea's fingernails drummed melodically on her ceramic mug a few times before she lifted it to her swollen lip.
"You were raised on weapons. You know what they can do." Alexandra raised her own mug and found it empty; lowering it, she glared at the pitcher of juice. Hippolyta's broomstick jammed into Elethea's ribs again. Elethea shoved the pitcher of juice toward the warrior.
"Look, Alexandra, I'm sorry," said Elethea as Alexandra reached for the pitcher. "But I owe an apology to Riell. Not to you."
"So this is just between you two?"
"Yes. Just between Riell and me."
Alexandra stood, and after counting them carefully, placed several coins on the counter.
"Any time, Alex. I mean that."
"Uh, Pol?" The warrior headed toward the door of the tavern as she spoke.
"You still owe me a sewage shift." Sunlight swallowed Alexandra as her words fell on the barkeeper's ears. Hippolyta looked after her a moment then shrugged and returned to her sweeping.
"How'd I do, Aunt Hippolyta?"
"Not bad." Hippolyta continued sweeping. "Did you mean any of it?"
"Sure I did." Elethea turned the pitcher upside down to emphasize its emptiness. "Riell really gets on my nerves sometimes. She can be such a princess." Hippolyta bit her lip and decided to make no comment. Instead, she picked up a tray of clean mugs, set it on the counter, and began stashing the mugs on the shelves underneath.
"You weren't trying to hurt Alexandra?"
"That's over." Rising from her stool, Elethea walked around the end of the bar. She rummaged among the flasks until she found another pitcher of grape juice. Setting it on the counter, she looked at her aunt. "You knew that, right?" She took her seat again and poured another mug of the purple drink. She smoothed her amber hair away from her face between sips.
"Alexandra's a friend of mine. A good friend." Hippolyta began sweeping under the tables and chairs.
"I know, I know." The girl rolled her eyes. "She saved you a long time ago in the Thessalonian War and you owe her. Well she wasn't so good to me. And I don't owe her anything." Hippolyta stopped sweeping and looked at Elethea.
"Elethea, she's a true Amazon. She'd give her life for any one of us. If I were you, I'd aim for that, instead of squabbling with my battlesister."
"Spare me the Ancient Amazon sermons." Elethea sighed. "I really loved Alexandra. And I don't think she even noticed."
The scrape of the straw broom filled the otherwise silent room. After a while, Elethea looked up at her aunt. Dreaminess half closed the amber eyes. "Hey, Aunt Hippolyta?" Goose shit! The girl wasn't going to go on and on about Alexandra, was she?
"Have you met the Returned Amazon from India? Will you introduce me? You've got to know someone who knows her…"
"Uh, why don't we wait until that lip heals up?" Hippolyta started to sweep again, but stopped. She stood leaning on her broom for a little while, then reached into a deep pocket in her apron. "I think it's time I gave you this." She handed Elethea a little box. "It's from Alexandra."
Late that afternoon Riell sat up in her own bed. Through the little window over the desk, she could see the rose garden still profligate with blooms. But gold and red now frosted the dark trees beyond, and the changing leaves quivered in the occasional cool breeze spawned in the shade of a passing cloud. The dull autumn light cast long somber shadows across the wooded path leading back to town. The healer sat snoring in a chair; an open scroll on her lap dangled toward the floor.
Riell's head still hurt, but she was restless. She wanted to be outdoors. As silently as she could, Riell placed her feet on the cool wooden floor. After slipping into the dark winter pants and tunic Cybele had given her, and putting on some sandals, she crept into the main room and onto the porch. Riell shivered in the chilly air. She sensed the guards' furtive glances in her direction.
Riell found Cybele working in her rose garden, squatting beside the trellised gate, guiding some young shoots along the arched lattice. The queen stood in surprise. She winced a bit at the sight of her injured granddaughter. Then her face relaxed and she smiled.
"Why, you're up. Thank the gods." Cybele wiped her muddy hands on her pants. "That's quite a goose egg." Riell touched her head where it hurt the most. Above her left ear was a large tender lump. A clean, narrow, cloth strip encircled her head just above her brow, covering the lump. "How do you feel?"
"It hurts some, but I'd rather be up. I couldn't stand another minute in that bed."
"I suppose. Anyway, I know someone who can talk you back into that bed, if the healer insists." A tiny smile teased the edges of the royal eyes. A cold wind rolled brittle leaves along the path outside the gate. Riell shivered again and rubbed her arms.
"Where is Alexandra, anyway?" she asked.
"She'll be back after the evening bath." The queen placed an arm around Riell's shoulders. "Let's go inside before you catch cold."
As they entered the front door, the healer came out of Riell's room rather sheepishly, and appeared relieved to see Riell alive and fairly well without her. Excusing herself, she bundled off with her basket after leaving a small vial of medicine and some hasty instructions on its use.
Cybele built a fire in the hearth. Riell sat on the bearskin and enjoyed the blaze as the queen prepared her evening bath. The queen disrobed, stepped into the tub, and began to wash.
"The healer said you could have a full bath again tomorrow. You can use my bathing bowl until then, if you like." Riell followed Cybele's eyes to the large copper bowl leaning against a wall in the corner. Lost in thoughts of Alexandra, she had forgotten about her own bath. It sounded grand.
She rose to claim the tub, placed it near the fire next to the queen's large one, and filled it with hot water.
"Riell," said the queen as they bathed, "I owe you an apology."
"Obviously, your battlesister assignment isn't working out. It sounded good in theory, but putting you and Elethea together was a mistake. I'm sorry." Riell finished her bath first. She dressed, and began to put away the bathing bowl. "If either of you want a new battlesister, I'll give my permission."
"We've not been the best of friends, but Elethea isn't evil. I think it was an accident, Cybele." Riell took her place in front of the fire again and crossed her legs under her. She had to lean back a little and put her hands on the floor to make room for her belly. "I'm not worried about it. Let me talk to Elethea."
"You're both young. I may have pushed you too hard." Cybele stepped out of the tub and began to dry off. "We Amazons have many enemies who would rather we didn't exist. I worry about that a lot." The queen's lips curled in a wry smile. "That's my job, of course. But sometimes I lose sight of more immediate problems."
Riell thought she saw Cybele's shoulders droop for a moment. Riell froze for half a breath. Why the worry? Something was wrong and it frightened her.
"B-but our weapons, and fighters are as good as any on earth." Looking quizzically at her grandmother, she tilted her head. "The Amazons haven't lost a battle during your entire reign."
"Hmmm." Cybele donned wool trousers and knee high riding boots. "I suppose. But I've lost a few." As Riell watched, the queen pulled a tunic over her head. The lined face seemed more deeply etched, and tired, the emerald eyes more sorrowful than usual.
"What do you mean? What battles?"
"Alexandra, to see the Princess," announced a guard. Riell turned toward the slightly cracked door to glimpse the warrior kneeling behind it.
"Send her in," said Cybele, slipping into a cape and picking up that little ragged piece of parchment that Riell saw her read over and over. She slipped it into a pocket and addressed Riell. "See you tomorrow. Call me or the healer if you don't feel well."
All the way inside now, Alexandra knelt again. She wore the large black cape of the Elite Guard and smelled of the outdoors.
"Majesty." Cybele headed for the door. Alexandra stayed with head bowed until the queen left. She rose, took off her cape, folded it three times, and laid it across a chair.
"You two aren't speaking?" Riell was incredulous.
"Probably not. I haven't tried." Alexandra joined Riell on the bearskin and faced the fire. "How are you? You really had me scared last night." Uncurling from her cross-legged position to lie on her back, Riell pillowed her head on Alexandra's thigh and placed her hands on her abdomen. Alexandra knew that meant the baby was kicking.
"Better, I guess. I don't remember it all. But everything seems to be working right." Riell wiggled her fingers and toes.
"Now what's going on with you and Cybele?" asked Riell. Alexandra placed her hand over Riell's swollen belly to feel the baby move. "She seems troubled," said Riell.
"She should be." Alexandra's hand stopped in mid-caress. She looked down into Riell's face. "You could have been killed."
"I wasn't." Riell lowered her voice a few tones. "It was an accident."
"Humph. Maybe," said Alexandra sullenly, looking back to the flames, her hand drifting up to rest between the ripe breasts
"Elethea, to see the Princess," announced a guard. Riell's mouth opened a bit in surprise.
"You don't have to see her. I can have the guards send her away," said Alexandra, staring into the hearth.
"No. I need to talk to her." Riell sat up. "Send her in," she called out. Elethea stepped cautiously into the room, glancing around nervously, as if she expected to be challenged. At the sight of Alexandra next to Riell, she flinched a bit, but recovered quickly.
Immediately Alexandra stood up, to leave thought Riell. Reaching up, she took the warrior's hand and gently squeezed it. The simple gesture asked Alexandra to stay, and to be patient. Riell had, after all, learned something of her lover's language.
"Sit down, Elethea." Riell patted the bearskin with her free hand.
"I, uh, can come back another time-" Elethea looked at Alexandra as she spoke.
"This is fine," said Riell. Alexandra sat down, followed by Elethea. The warrior's eyes were riveted on the newcomer, untrusting, suspicious.
"H-how are you, Riell? Does it hurt badly?" Elethea asked hesitantly.
"Better. How are you? I'm sorry about the lip. I really am."
Elethea looked down at the rug, plucked at the fur for a while, and said finally, "I've never felt worse than I did yesterday." Her eyes darted convincingly toward Alexandra. "Never." Resuming her grooming of the rug, she went on.
"I never meant to hurt you like that. I just wanted it to smart, like my lip." Elethea met Riell's gaze for a moment, allowing Riell a glimpse of the horror she was relating. "It was horrible. The queen came right back when she heard me scream. You wouldn't move or talk. I thought I had killed you."
Elethea continued. "The queen stopped the bleeding. She was crying. She tried to send me away, maybe to get the healer, I don't know, but I couldn't move. She called for her two guards. They brought you home. We all thought you were dead." Elethea began to cry but she kept talking.
"I don't like you. You know that…"
Elethea yanked several hairs out of the bearskin.
"…I mean, you're probably not all that bad, but we got off on the wrong foot, and…"
Sniffling, she wiped a hand across her eyes and nose. "I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'm sorry. And even if you can't forgive me I want you to know that I wasn't trying to kill you."
Alexandra looked so uncomfortable that Riell had to submerge a chuckle. Riell squeezed the warrior's hand again, releasing her from further duty. Alexandra jumped to her feet, and clearing her throat, picked up her cape and threw it around her shoulders. She fastened the gold clasp at her throat. "See you in a bit. I think I'll get some fresh air. Bye, Elethea."
Alexandra rode through the chilly night air straight to the tavern. The establishment bubbled with voices and warm bodies until tall, dark, and alone, in strode Alexandra. She stopped in the doorway for a moment and sniffed. Was the bad smell a little stronger now? A hush fell over the crowd as the warrior made her way to a table and sat down.
Alexandra felt the stares. She had grown used to them over the years. She had stopped trying to fit in. She had almost convinced herself that she had stopped caring what people thought of her. Gradually the murmurs grew again into the dull roar of wine and festivity, leaving Alexandra alone with her thoughts. "What'll it be, Alex?"
"Oh. Hi Pol. Spirits." Hippolyta raised an eyebrow at the uniform. And at the request. Alexandra rarely drank.
"You on duty?" Alexandra was even wearing her medals. Maybe it was a trap.
"Alright. One glass of spirits coming up."
"Put that on my tab, and bring me one, too." Alexandra and Hippolyta turned toward the third voice. Cybele stepped out of the crowd and sat down at Alexandra's table. "May I join you?"
Both of them on the same night. There must be some tension in the royal household, muttered the barkeeper to herself as she went to fill the order.
Neither woman spoke until the drinks arrived. Alexandra went first. "Riell thinks we're not speaking."
"Is she right?" asked the queen.
"Have you something to say to me?" Alexandra stared deeply into her drink, then threw back her head and took a large sip. The cool liquid warmed her throat pleasantly.
"By the gods, you're hard to get along with! But yes. I have a lot to say to you." Cybele's eyes crinkled mirthlessly; she was studying her, Alexandra realized. The warrior returned her attention to her glass. I hope this isn't about the toilets, she thought. I should have them working again in a couple of days.
"Alexandra, I made a mistake with Riell and Elethea." Cybele paused. "And I've made a lot of other mistakes, too. Especially with you."
"Yeah. I've been a bit of a disappointment, haven't I."
"No. That's not what I meant. You've surpassed my wildest dreams for you. Whenever you defied me, or shall we say stood up to me…"
The corners of Cybele's eyes crinkled mischievously. Alexandra did like Cybele's eyes. They were very deep in some way.
"…you were usually right about whatever it was."
The queen's voice was low; the warrior strained to hear. "You don't have to believe me, but that's exactly the way I planned it."
Alexandra looked up from her drink. A new tone filtered through the voice into Alexandra's consciousness. The queen was speaking to her as an equal. Perhaps she'd better pay closer attention. Go on, Alexandra wanted to say, but her tongue lay dead behind her teeth. She raised her glass instead and took another sip of spirits.
"You and I haven't seen eye to eye all the time. Some of that was because of our personal circumstances. You were a difficult child to raise because you were so gifted. And I was harder on you than the others, because I was not only your Other Mother, I was your Queen. I had a duty to make sure you developed all of your talents, for the good of the nation. Even if it challenged our relationship."
How could someone talk so much at one time? It was a miracle. Maybe she ought to say something too. Alexandra squeezed the glass in her hand and stared hard at it.
"At least, that's how I thought about it then. And you are one of the best warriors the nation has ever produced." Cybele looked away from the table. Did Alexandra see a tear filling the bottom of the queen's eye? The warrior drained her drink. "But I lost something I'll never get back. I lost your trust. I lost you as a daughter. That was a mistake, the biggest one of my life. I wouldn't do it again."
Cybele took a small sip, barely enough to wet her lips and looked at Alexandra again. The warrior tried to close her gaping mouth. Nothing was going to come out of it anyway, thought the warrior, though she wished she could speak. As they always did at crucial moments, words failed Alexandra.
"I hope I'm not embarrassing you." Cybele patted Alexandra's hand. "I really do hope we can be better friends one day, but that's not the only reason I'm telling you this now."
"Ahem." The bartender stood beside the table nodding at the empty glasses. She looked impatient, as if she'd been ignored for a while. "Another round, Amazons?"
"Uh, sure Pol. This one's on me."
"Coming right up." Leaving the queen's nearly full glass, Hippolyta limped back into the din with Alexandra's empty one. Alexandra blundered into the conversation.
"Why are you telling me all this now, then?" Quickly she added, "I mean, I'm glad you did. I appreciate it, really I do."
Just tell her what's on your mind you big oaf, she hissed to herself. Is that so hard? "I wanted to please you so much." Her stomach felt funny. The warrior bit her lip until she winced, and continued. "When I was younger, of course. I always blew it. I guess I finally gave up."
Hippolyta set the new drinks down. She didn't budge until the warrior put some coins on the table.
"You did please me." Cybele squeezed Alexandra's hand again. "You frightened me, too." The warrior sputtered into her new drink, splashing a few drops of spirits onto her uniform. Slight dizziness washed over her. She'd had enough. Sitting taller, she pushed the glass away.
"Frightened you?" Whatever could she mean? "I'd never hurt a fly, unless of course it was an enemy fly." A roguish curl dressed the warrior's lips.
"I wasn't referring to enemies, or flies." A smile sparkled at the edges of the queen's eyes. Then they grew serious again. "I worried about you. You seemed so reckless, self-destructive. I was afraid you wouldn't make it to adulthood alive. It was my job to keep you alive."
Cybele pushed her old drink away, even though it was still half full; it now sat forlornly next to her untouched new glass. "But, that's one thing I'm happy to admit I was wrong about. You've proved quite capable of taking care of yourself. And then some."
Leaning far back in her chair, Cybele sucked in a deep breath, and folded her arms across her chest. Alexandra had never seen the green eyes so sorrowful. And why was she looking at her that way? Was something wrong, Alexandra wondered? Really wrong?
Bawdy laughter filled the tavern as clinking mugs toasted Sappho at a nearby table.
"I'm glad your personal life is looking up, too."
"Riell is special," said Alexandra. "Everyone loves her. Even her enemies. You should have seen her with Elethea tonight. She's like you that way." Alexandra's lips lifted lopsidedly. "But perhaps not so tricky."
"Perhaps," said Cybele. "But let's talk business."
"Your service has been impeccable. No, spectacular. When I can talk you into it."
"You just talked me into another commission. You put me on the diaper detail, remember?" Alexandra smirked. "But actually, I like it. The kids are a lot of fun."
"They adore you, Alexandra."
The warrior rolled her eyes. "They don't know any better."
"They know better than anyone." The queen paused. "Alexandra, everyone respects you. They know you're your own woman. They've seen you stand up to me and anyone else who gets in your way."
"I don't believe that for a moment."
"Just stand up. Right here." Alexandra knitted her brows and gave a crooked smile of derision, but she stood. A hush fell over the tavern immediately. Alexandra's jaw dropped. "Alright, Alexandra, alright," whispered the queen, "sit down." As soon as the warrior complied, the patrons resumed their loud merrymaking. "You think they're staring at you because you don't fit in, right?"
"Yeah." The warrior laughed nervously. "Why else?"
"You have their attention. And their respect. Watch." Cybele stood as Alexandra had. Again, sudden silence. When she sat, the noise returned. The queen went on. "You're right. You don't fit in. And the Amazons need you because of that. That's why you have to stay alive." Alexandra looked quizzically at Cybele. She was certainly in a morose mood tonight, thought the warrior.
Cybele leaned forward and took both of Alexandra's hands in hers. "Something is brewing in the Other World that can only be trouble for us. The followers of the Blue Virgin are on the march again. They've sacked a few cities near here and have threatened Constantinople. I want you to go to Constantinople and save what you can from the libraries. See what you can do for young Alexis, too, while you're there."
"The brat from the German Emperor Phillip's court?" Alexandra's mind brightened at the thought of real work.
"Oh, good. You're friends."
"Not exactly. I was a friend of his sister, Phillip's wife. She had me rescue the kid when his uncle seized the throne in Constantinople."
"Oh. I see." Cybele took another tiny sip of spirits and swirled her drink. "She's a beautiful woman, I hear."
Alexandra blushed deeply. "That was a long time ago." She paused. "So, Alexis has the throne in Constantinople again?"
"Yes. The Crusaders put him there a couple of months ago. But I hear they're not getting along. I doubt Alexis can hold the Crusaders back. And if he fails-"
"They take over Greece?"
Cybele finally took a real swig of her drink.
"I've fought against western armies." Alexandra felt a surge of excitement at the prospect. "They're usually a bit backwards."
"I suppose. But Alexandra, it's not our war, yet. So don't engage the Crusaders; just look them over. Throw in a wrench or two, if you can. And if things look bad, at least try to save some of the priceless Constantinople University scrolls before they go up in smoke. I'll give you an Amazon pass. Otherwise the fools won't allow a woman to read them. And Alexandra?" The queen frowned.
"You need to be ready to leave at any moment. My spies are monitoring the Crusaders' troop movements. There will be a window of safety while they are crossing the river; I want you to go then."
"I'll be ready." As Alexandra rose and walked out of the tavern Hippolyta, who had been carefully polishing the next table, looked after her, and a tear came to her eye.
Back in the royal hut, Riell leaned against the wall at the head of her pallet. Elethea had gone a long time ago, and though she had gotten ready for bed, Riell wasn't sleepy. She missed Alexandra. She thought perhaps reading would make time go faster until the warrior returned. After choosing a particularly old-looking scroll from the collection and resting it just below her breasts on her smooth, stretched belly, she began to unroll it carefully. Just then the door creaked softly and opened a little, allowing Alexandra to slip in. The warrior looked surprised.
"Hi there. You're still up. I'm glad," said the warrior softly, as if she were still afraid of waking Riell.
"Yeah. I couldn't sleep. I missed you." A brief frown flickered across Alexandra's brow. The blond woman's heart skipped a beat. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Oh. Uh, nothing. I had a talk with Cybele." After taking off her cape and carefully folding it over the stool, Alexandra crawled onto the pallet and placed her head on Riell's shrinking lap. Riell had to lift the scroll in the air to make room for her.
"And? Did you have a fight?" Annoyance tinged the words.
"No." The warrior feigned indignance. "Shop talk." Alexandra's finger reached up to smooth the frown from Riell's brow. "What are you reading?"
"Your mind," said Riell as she stretched her arm out to put the scroll on the bedside table.
"Stop trying to change the subject. Something's wrong."
Alexandra sat up on the edge of the pallet with her back to Riell, her hands knotted together in her lap. "It's nothing. Just a simple errand for Cybele."
Riell knelt behind Alexandra and put a hand on her shoulder. "You're leaving, aren't you? You can't bear to stay here."
"No. That's ridiculous," said Alexandra, rubbing her own thighs rhythmically with her open palms. "I'm going to do a little spying. It's routine."
"You could have said no."
"I can't Riell. It's my duty."
"And what if something happens to you? What will I do?"
"It's an easy job. Nothing is going to happen to me." She rubbed her hands together nervously and hung her head.
Riell stroked the black satin on the warrior's right shoulder. "Alexandra," she whispered, "if the child is a boy I will have to leave."
Alexandra turned all the way around and gathered Riell into her arms. "I don't know what this is all about, but I will never leave you." But Riell pulled away. She lay back flat and turned her face toward the wall.
"Alexandra, listen to me. To the Other World I am just a woman," said Riell. "And an evil one at that. In the Other World I'm not a princess anymore. I'm not even a whole person, since I'm not a man. Out there I would have nothing. Nothing at all, except you."
Not knowing what to say, Alexandra touched Riell's small hand, tentatively at first, and finding it still under hers, grasped it firmly and brought it to her lips. After kissing the back of Riell's fingers she stroked them with her thumb. "What do you want me to do?" she breathed.
"Stay alive, Alexandra." Riell turned back to her with sad eyes. For some odd reason Alexandra thought it was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen and her heart twisted in her chest. Riell reached for Alexandra's hand and squeezed it. "And come back to me."
Alexandra saw in the emerald eyes the light that she had seen that first night in Riell's chamber in Britain. That light was her home. She leaned over Riell, and being careful not to put weight on the firm, round stomach, she placed her lips on Riell's trembling, familiar mouth and with practiced artistry drew a soft sigh from the younger woman. Riell's arms rose slowly to cross behind the dark head and pulled Alexandra down. Riell turned onto her side. She placed her head on Alexandra's shoulder.
Pressing herself softly against the woman lying next to her Riell decided not to think about the future. Instead, she took several deep breaths and tried to lose herself in Alexandra's scent. She closed her eyes, and as she had so many times before, sank once again into the deep comfort of Alexandra's embrace.
Meanwhile Alexandra's fingertips began to dally about her earlobe. Riell hardly noticed until a sudden and searing voluptuousness shot through her. She stiffened and quivered a little.
"Th-that's nice," she breathed.
"Mm-hmm," was all Alexandra said, continuing the tease. Riell began to writhe on Alexandra's shoulder. Her breathing became rapid and shallow.
"Ooh…wh-what are you doing?"
"Do you want me to stop?"
"Oh gods no, don't stop!" Riell was breathless.
"I didn't think so," said Alexandra calmly.
Alexandra turned a little toward Riell and pulled her closer. A graceful hand cupped her cheek and Riell heard herself moan as Alexandra's beautiful velvet-soft mouth met hers once more. And as Alexandra's expert hands moved over her chest and back as they had so many times, Riell began to feel an urgency the likes of which she had never known. With frantic tenderness she kissed Alexandra's precious hair and eyes and lips and throat.
"Do you know how much I love you, Alexandra?" she whispered.
She gripped the warrior tightly, her knuckles whitening with the effort, and tried to pull Alexandra's full weight down upon her. Alexandra wordlessly refused and stayed off Riell's belly, and a little to the side. Riell groaned in frustration. But instead, Alexandra's hand slid along a smooth thigh and found Riell's buttock and firmly lifted and stroked it, rekindling the sweet burning deep inside that always made Riell's body move of its own accord. Something fiery slid from her hip across her swollen abdomen and up to her breast. She arched toward the pink tongue tip flicking across her nipple as Alexandra's gentle fingers slipped between golden curls to the very edge of Riell's deepest desire, and stopped. Alexandra always waited for an invitation.
"Yes," was all Riell whispered as she moved a little toward Alexandra, closing the small space between loneliness and ecstasy. Then, safe in Alexandra’s arms, she was falling, falling, falling in love again, falling into Alexandra. Afterward, tenderly, with both hands she pressed Alexandra’s head to her face and held it there, breathing the warm scent of her hair, enjoying the small tremors still echoing within. They stayed that way a long time.
Rap! Rap! Rap!
Cursing, Alexandra froze for a moment then rolled from the pallet to answer the door.
"Forgive me, Alexandra." The guard looked at her own feet. "It's the queen. She wants to see you now, at Cyrene's; it's urgent."
"Alright," growled Alexandra. "Leave us for a moment." She shut the door. Riell was sitting on the edge of the bed.
Alexandra grabbed her cape and rising to her full height, threw it over her shoulders. She fastened the gold clasp at her throat. Leaning over the pallet, she cupped Riell's cheek and kissed her quickly, but thoroughly, then embraced her as hard as she dared.
"I love you," whispered Alexandra, "more than anything in the world. Please don't forget that. I have to go. Cybele will explain. I'll be back before you know it. I promise."
As she turned to go, her big black cape swung out wide, knocking the old scroll off the bedside table. It landed on the floor with a sharp thwack and rolled open at Alexandra's feet. She picked it up and smiled in recognition.
"Hmmm. This is my favorite scroll. I've always loved this one," she said. She rolled it up a little so that it would fit back on the table and turned again toward the door.
"Wait!" Riell removed the swan from her neck. "Take this." Alexandra hesitated for just a heartbeat, then slipped the swan around her neck and left.
She didn't return.
The next morning Riell stood on the flagstones shivering in the fog with the rest of the Amazons. The fountain splashed merrily but the town center buzzed with rumors of war. Riell felt a hand slip into hers and squeeze it firmly. She turned to find Elethea. The amber eyes were cool with purpose; gone were the petulant glares and glum silences. Elethea's black uniform and silver belt hung proudly on her erect frame. Riell squeezed back.
"Hello, battlesister," said Elethea, giving Riell's hand another squeeze before releasing it. "I'm with you, if you'll have me." Not waiting for Riell's response, she continued, "Can you fight?" Riell touched her head.
"Yes. The healer says I can't go bare, but the swelling's down. Maybe I can get a helmet on today-"
All eyes turned toward Cybele as a deathly hush settled on the crowd. "Amazons, soon we may have a war on our hands. The soldiers of the Blue Virgin are heading this way. All able-bodied Amazons are to begin training immediately. The rest will prepare the town for war. I hope it won't come to that, but if it does, we must be ready.
Alexandra reached Thessalonika at dawn. As promised, her aunt's ship was waiting in the harbor. The anchor lifted as Alexandra's feet hit the deck. They had a good wind and sailed through the Bosporus at midnight. By noon the next day Alexandra stood on a cobblestone street in front of the emperor's palace in the walled city of Constantinople, studying the great marble edifice. Crusader uniforms mingled uneasily with Greek tunics. The city had sold its soul to keep a tense peace, she thought. The Amazons, her people, would never have done that. Ah, but that was Alexis's business, not hers.
She took a deep breath. It felt good to be out in the Other World again. It felt good to be able to do her Amazon duty while roaming the earth. When she finished this assignment she would take Riell out of the village. They would live together in the Other World. They would Separate. She climbed the marble steps to the entrance of the palace, handed her Amazon ambassador's pass to the guards and was escorted inside.
Alexis accepted a rolled parchment from Alexandra, broke Queen Cybele's seal, and read the letter silently. He handed it to a rogue Amazon mercenary standing at attention near his large red and gold throne. The rogue held the scroll with two hands and scanned it for a long time. When she finished she raised her brows and looked perplexedly at Alexandra. The young emperor also seemed a bit stiff to Alexandra. But then, they weren't really close friends.
"Welcome," he said. "I am already indebted to you, Alexandra. I would be happy to assist your queen."
"Then you will give me access to the university scrolls?"
Alexis's young face looked a bit surprised for a moment, then he said, "Of course. But tomorrow. Tonight I want to honor your arrival with a special dinner." Alexandra sighed. She really hated that sort of thing. She was glad she wasn't a queen; the royal types had to put up with this sort of nonsense all the time.
"I'd be delighted, your majesty," she said, bowing.
The table was small. In fact, the rogue, the emperor, and Alexandra were the only diners. A few servants brought in the meal then even they seemed to disappear suddenly. The food was good, however, and the dinner proceeded in pleasant silence. Alexandra was grateful that Alexis and the rogue seemed as disinclined to vapid conversation as she did.
Alexandra had finished the first glass of dark wine and a few bites of the heavy food by the time she realized that the rogue was glancing sidelong at her and whispering to the emperor. Something was wrong. She had been betrayed. But she could not lift her head off the table, and her arms would not move away from her sides.
Alexandra woke up in a dungeon, dressed in sackcloth, chained to a rock wall by cold thick links. Her weapons were gone, but the swan pendant still hung around her neck.
Over the next eight weeks, as the Amazon nation bristled at the war rumors, Riell's belly grew heavier. Every day she hoped for news of Alexandra, and every night the tears came, as if to fill the hollow of her arms where Alexandra should have been.
Although she was kind to Riell, Cybele grew wan and distant. She spent her time with the army or working on her scrolls, and waiting for messengers to send them off. Then she began sending the Amazons away.
Alexandra spent her dark days counting her heartbeats, willing herself to go on, for Riell. Alexis must have thought the Amazons were spying for the Crusaders, she thought, although where he could have gotten such a ridiculous notion she hadn't a clue. Or perhaps the rogue thought Alexandra threatened her employment. But even rogues rarely broke their Oath. But Alexandra could get no further than that before her mind returned to a more important matter.
Riell. Alexandra would die here in this dungeon and Riell would never know. And Riell would have her child alone. Every day Alexandra scoured her black hole of a prison for any crack or chink that would lead to freedom. Not finding any, she raged and threw herself against her clanking chains until her wrists and ankles bled. Near delirium, on her knees, trying to see past the darkness, the black mane wild around her, she prayed like a madwoman. Panting, with her face on the rank dirt floor, she cursed herself for leaving the village, she cursed herself for failing Riell, and she cursed herself for being born.
Then suddenly, one week before winter solstice, Alexandra was released from prison. She had been pardoned, the prison guard told her as he returned her clothes and weapons, though her crime remained a mystery. In the past she would have sought out the emperor and the rogue and murdered them, but now she had something more important to do. She had a promise to keep.
She stole a horse and fled the marble city, passing the Crusaders' war camps outside the walls. She raced overland along the green coast of Greece and saw the Latin standard flying over and over again. Towns without it were razed and lifeless. Only one thought filled her mind and heart. Riell. She had to get back. She pounded the road until her horse fell under her, then stole another at sword point and tore onward. The wails of the defeated and destitute Greeks rang in her ears, but she swept by unheeding, her expression forbidding, her black cape flying behind her.
On a cold clear morning six days later she turned into the mountains north of Thessalonika. Soon after she turned, however, a large division of Crusaders passed her, forcing her to hide in the woods. She resumed her journey after several hours. At night her horse stumbled often on the dark, deeply rutted road. It fell several times, throwing Alexandra into the cold hard ground. Still she forced the horse and herself on.
Winter solstice dawned cold and frosty as she reached the double-humped boulder and turned off. And right away she knew. Something was wrong. The lowest branches were snapped and hanging broken across her path. And the path was plainly visible and heavily trodden.
She spurred her exhausted mount on to the Village. Tendrils of smoke drifted up from the remnants of the first huts she came to. The smell stung her nostrils, making her eyes water. The village was empty. Not a living soul greeted her. Alexandra found it odd that so many rags lay scattered about, fluttering softly in the faint breeze. The scene repeated itself until she reached the queen's hut. The rose garden lay trampled and broken. The door, thought Alexandra, where is the beautiful door? The hearth stood proudly, surrounded by the smoking skeleton of charred wood.
Near the smashed white trellis, was another pile of rags. Alexandra dismounted. It couldn't be. Trembling, she approached the black satin. An arrow, a Latin arrow, sprouted from the little heap. Elethea. Her dead fingers reached toward a shiny object on her breast. It was the silver dove.
Alexandra pulled the arrow from Elethea's heart and broke it in two, as was Amazon custom, and placed the two halves near Elethea's head in a 'V' shape, pointing north, toward the Great Bear. Alexandra sang the Last Song for Elethea as best she could, but her voice broke.
Leading her horse, she continued on foot to the town center. The horse's hooves clopped on the flagstones. Otherwise there was no sound. She called out, but even the fountain was silent, and the water in the pool beneath it was brown with blood. Remnants of Hippolyta's tavern lay in front of her; smashed jars and broken wine bottles littered the ashes. Bodies lay here and there. Every face she could see, she knew. She had no heart to turn over the ones she couldn't see.
On she went, unblinking and dazed, out the lane past her own hut, also now a charred ruin, to the woods beyond, to the forest. As she entered the bear grotto, an arrow whizzed past her and lodged in a tree next to her head.
"Wait! Don't shoot! It's Alexandra!" cried a young voice. She heard a stage whisper.
"Are you sure? It doesn't look like her. She was good looking." The warrior looked down at herself. Her black cape was filthy and torn. A pause, then a loud shout. "Identify yourself!"
"Alexandra, daughter of Cyrene." Hands raised, the warrior stepped into the grotto. The stone bear stood unharmed behind two terrified red-haired youngsters with a bow and some arrows. They ran to her as if to embrace her, but hesitated as they reached the warrior.
"Gods, you smell bad, Auntie Alex," said one. Then they embraced her anyway, and began to cry. Alexandra got on her knees so she could be closer to them while they talked.
"They came two nights ago. We were afraid they'd come back. We've been hiding here ever since." Alexandra brushed the tears off the youngster's cheek. The girl continued. "The queen sent away as many scrolls as she could in the last few weeks before they came. She began sending away the old folks, too, and the sick ones, and then she tried to send away most of the Defenders. The queen wanted us to go. She tried not to scare us, but I heard her talking with our soldiers. The Latin army was huge, too much for us. She said our only hope was to try to escape, and rebuild later. A lot of the Defenders wouldn't leave. And all the Guards stayed."
The second girl added, "The last day the Latins blocked the roads, and no one could leave any more."
"What did the Latins want?" asked Alexandra softly, distantly, but she already knew.
"They called us names. Pagans. Heretics. Said we'd burn in hell for our abominations. That kind of thing."
Alexandra looked away from the girls while she uttered her next question, almost as if she were asking it of herself. "What happened to Riell? Do you know?"
"The princess? Yeah. The Latins went looking for her right away. I saw them get her." Alexandra stiffened and her eyes glazed over, as if she'd been tapped on the face by an unseen hand. "Her battlesister fought like a demon, but they got the princess and threw her on a horse and took her away."
"Alive?" whispered Alexandra.
"Sure was. Kicking and screaming and fighting. But there were too many. She couldn't get away." The girl paused. "But she's the only one they took. They killed everyone else. We played dead then ran away and hid in the woods."
"Are you two the only ones left?" Alexandra stood up again.
"No," said a firm voice behind the trio. A figure limped into the grotto, followed by two small redheads and a dark-haired child with large sad eyes. "I couldn't fight and the queen tried to send me away with my children. But this is my home. Where else could I go?"
"Pol!" At the site of the bartender, the warrior's expression broke. Hippolyta embraced the stinking warrior. They wept. Finally the red-haired woman spoke.
"I have something for you, Alex." Hippolyta turned toward the bear and called out. "Come here, Rena." A red-haired teenager entered the grotto. She carried an infant dressed in deerskin suede and wrapped in a blanket. Hippolyta took the bundle and held it up for Alexandra to see. "It's a boy," she said.
Alexandra's eyes filled with tears again, but she tried to see the little face as clearly as she could. And it seemed to Alexandra that the child looked right at her.
"Go ahead," said Hippolyta, holding the infant out to her. "Take him."
Alexandra carefully cradled the infant, her face filled with wonder. "When?" was all she said.
"Two nights ago. Riell knew they were coming for her by then, but she was in labor and couldn't leave. The queen gave him to me and asked me to hide him, and to give him to you when you got back. She said that's what Riell would have wanted. Riell didn't want the Latins to have the child. She didn't want the child raised by the ones who murdered her." Hippolyta glanced at Rena. "She had a boy child a few days ago, and gave him back on a Promise. She has milk, thank Artemis." Alexandra wasn't paying attention.
"How did the queen know when I'd be back? If I'd be back?" Alexandra looked up from the infant.
"Alex," said Hippolyta, looking straight into the warrior's eyes. "You are awfully smart. I mean that. But you have never caught on to Cybele, have you?"
"You mean she knew? And she sent me away?" Alexandra reeled as the realization set in.
"Now listen, Alex. And listen well." Hippolyta grabbed Alexandra's chin to force her eyes toward hers. "Cybele said that Riell needed you. You were her only hope. And if she had let you stay, you would have fought to the death for Riell and the child. She said the Amazons would need you alive more than ever now. So she arranged for your capture." Hippolyta released Alexandra's chin. "And your release, apparently. She knew you'd come right back here for Riell. She said you'd understand someday. And she hoped you'd forgive her. "
Hippolyta waited a few moments with her hand on Alexandra's arm. Then she spoke again. "Anyway, she's dead. She wanted me to give you this if I ever saw you again. She said it would help you understand her." Hippolyta held out a ragged little piece of parchment. Alexandra exchanged the infant for it, and sat down on the grass in the grotto to read it. It was her Prophecy.
The child shall be surrounded by treasure, yet destitute.
The child will rule the queen, yet be utterly subject to her.
The child shall be homeless, yet shall lead its people home.
While Rena cared for the infant, Alexandra, Hippolyta, and the five younger girls gathered as many bodies as they could find into the few remaining buildings. They broke arrows for as many as they could and at sunset they lit the buildings on fire. Alexandra watched, still as a stone, as the snapping flames vaporized the remnants of her life. One of the girls sang the Last Song.
Hear me Artemis, your daughter speaks.
The last grain of sand has fallen
The well is empty
The arrow lies broken in the dust
Only the flames still reach up
And I with them
Artemis, take me home
As the flames died, Alexandra made her way to the remains of her hut, where she searched for her hoe blade among the ashes. Having found it, she knelt in the middle of what was once her home, and began to dig purposefully in the earth. Presently she raised several large clay vessels from the ground. Removing a metal cover from one of them, the warrior reached inside and pulled out a heavy bladder, closed with a drawstring. She untied the string and plunged a hand into the bag. The hand returned to view filled with jewels and tinkling gold and silver coins, all unharmed by their long sojourn in the ground, and ready to do the warrior's bidding. She realized she had never needed them before. Alexandra looked up to the sky for a moment. She had always relied on something else.
The warrior returned to the grotto with her heavy bags and set them down near the statue. The rest of the survivors were already huddled there by a campfire, passing around some water and flatbread they had found.
"What's in the bags, Auntie Alex?" asked one of the girls.
Hippolyta answered. "Treasure," she said, matter-of-factly. She sat on a smooth rock, her freckled hands pulling a piece of flatbread apart, bit by bit. The girls' eyes went wide.
"Really? Can we see?" They were already squatting next to the sacks, pulling on the drawstrings. "Wow!"
"You had better get away from there," said Hippolyta without emotion, stuffing flatbread into her mouth. She nodded toward Alexandra and the stone goddess.
Alexandra stood between the outstretched arms of the bear, eyes and fists squeezed shut, pounding on the stone breast. Ragged sobs escaped with each useless blow, until the spent warrior sank against the hard beast and slid weeping to the earth.
Hippolyta clapped the crumbs off her hands and went to her. Alexandra left things unsaid, but she didn't. She would speak for Alexandra. With the warrior at her feet she faced the bear.
Hear me Artemis, your daughter speaks.
Strengthen my heart
Make me cruel to my enemies
But not as cruel as they are to me
And when we have vanquished their hatred
And they are no longer our enemies
We will forgive them, you and I
And make them our brothers again
And we will live with them again, in peace
The next morning Alexandra hitched her horse to a wagon and the ragged little party made its way toward Thessalonika. The queen would have tried to get word to the captain. With any luck the captain would be waiting for more survivors.
Four days later the survivors stood in the cold salt air on the docks at Thessalonika, the forlorn cries of the seagulls echoing their disappointment. At least they were fed, bathed, and dressed in the local garb. But The Artemis was nowhere to be found. She had sailed several days ago, said the bald, round-faced harbormaster, his fat hand accepting several gold coins from Alexandra. It seemed the captain was suddenly in a big hurry. And that was unlike her. But then the Latins made everybody nervous, he said.
He stopped talking. Alexandra dropped several more gold coins into his outstretched hand. Did any of them know the captain's niece, he asked? The harbormaster pulled a sealed roll out of his tunic.
"I do. I'll give it to her," said Alexandra, reaching for the scroll.
The foursome headed to a quiet corner of the docks and Alexandra opened the scroll.
My dear niece, Alexandra,
If you are still alive and reading this letter, you should know that I left Thessalonika four days after the massacre. I had to leave quickly, as the Latins had become suspicious of my ship and crew and had been prowling around trying to see what I was about.
I have on board one hundred survivors, mostly children, the elderly, and the infirm. I will deliver these souls to various stops on the circuit.
You will also want to know that the Amazon Riell was taken onto the ship docked next to us. It sailed three days before we did. I recognized her, and so did several other Amazons, so we are sure it was the princess. She was dressed in the black robes of the Priestesses of the Blue Virgin. She made no indication that she saw us, although I saw her glance at The Artemis, and at me. She made a wise choice, for the Latins were in a bloodthirsty mood, and would have been happy for an excuse to slaughter more of us, I suppose. She seemed well in body, though her eyes were sad.
Alexandra, I am assuming and hoping that you eventually escaped the misfortune you must have met with in Constantinople, and are now prepared to lead what's left of the Amazons into whatever future we might have.
I will maintain the circuit as best I can and will be waiting for word from you if you can manage it. The Artemis will dock in Athens next, and I will stay there a few days, hoping for word from more survivors.
May Artemis embrace you always,
Your aunt, Thalassa
"Yeah. You're going to Britain," said Hippolyta, reading the warrior's expression like a scroll. "We'll only slow you down-"
"Wait for me in London." Alexandra thrust a bag of coins at Hippolyta. "Leave word with the captain, and I'll find you." And she strode away.
"Wait for her?" asked one of the children.
"In London?" said another.
Hippolyta turned to the youngsters. "Yeah, I know. She's bossy. But you got any better ideas?"
Candor posted at least two guards in the damp, swaying hold with Riell at all times. He was worried, Riell knew, that she would destroy herself before he delivered her to her deserved fate. And she had considered it. She was still sore, yet the guards preyed upon her as she lay helpless in her chains, and the rocking ship made it impossible to eat any of the thin gruel they threw at her once a day. Memories of her capture, Elethea's sacrifice, Cybele's death, worry over the fate of her child, and the burning of the Village tormented her constantly, making death resemble a welcome friend in contrast.
Riell, however, still breathed for only one reason, and it wasn't Candor's diligence. She sensed that Alexandra was still alive; she could feel it in her marrow. And nothing, nothing at all would stop Riell from living until she saw the warrior again. Riell had memorized the passage Alexandra had called her favorite on their last night together and she whispered it constantly. She whispered it as her captors raped her; she whispered it as she vomited on herself; she whispered it as she tossed sleeplessly in the sloshing, stinking hold, until the guards, unable to comprehend the strange tongue, laughed nervously at her madness, and wondered what curses she was calling down upon them.
The ship landed in Britain on the twenty-first day, and Riell, sick and raving, was carried into the castle three days later and thrown in the dungeon. She could barely feel Frances's cool hands on her burning forehead, soothing her, trying to give her water. She sensed other, rougher hands carrying her into the cold winter light, heard Candor's voice as if from a great distance, shouting about abominations, and depravity, and uncleanness, and wickedness, and the natural order. She felt the coarse post against her back and felt her arms lashed roughly to it. She heard a crackling sound, felt heat under her bound feet, and tried to pull away from the searing pain. "Alexandra!" she cried in Greek, as hot smoke filled her lungs and choked her. "Alexandra! Nothing but death will part us!"
"See, still she curses us and calls on her pagan gods. She is the devil's handmaiden," said Candor to the crowd, gesturing toward the burning pyre. But many turned away weeping, and cursed Candor in their hearts.
A loud, blood-curdling battle cry pierced the air, whipping all heads toward a large black horse, which thundered toward the crowd trailing dust. Long black hair flowed behind a brightly dressed rider. The crowd parted, onlookers scrambling aside as the horse reined up in front of the growing flames. A shiny object flashed in the warrior's hand. The quoit slashed through Riell's bonds as the horsewoman leapt into the flames to catch the limp form as it fell from the stake.
As she bounded from the flames with her burden, Alexandra's eyes met Candor's just once and just for the most fleeting moment. But Candor knew. She would be back. For him.
"Stop her!" yelled Candor. But it was too late. Slinging Riell over the horse, Alexandra mounted behind her, sword slashing in deadly warning, and she was away, leaving the crowd in stunned silence, the crackling pyre empty.
Riell woke up in a peasant's hut. Selene bent over her and slathered a cool balm on her stinging feet.
"My, that Alexandra has good timing," said Frances. Frances?
"Maybe too exciting for me," answered Selene in broken English. "Would have saved me some work if she'd gotten there a few hours earlier.
"Will she walk alright?" asked a kind, masculine voice. In a corner whittling on a stick, sat the peasant who had given Riell a ride so long ago. "If not, I still have her horse."
"Yes. Just fine," said Selene. " I gave her something for the fever too. But no telling how far it'll spread if it's what I think it is."
"Selene," said Riell, sitting up. "I thought you were-"
"I've been fine. Dagnon let me live here this past year, thanks to the good word Frances put in for me." Selene nodded toward the whittling peasant then winked at Frances, who beamed broadly.
"But the fire that night-"
"The courier was camping in the woods and heard the commotion. She fought off the soldiers and got me away. She took an arrow and wouldn't let me stay to help her. I'm sure she didn't make it."
"Where's Alexandra?" Riell looked around the little room expectantly.
"Lady Alexandra had some business to attend to," answered Frances. "She said to tell you she has the child, too."
Henry had stayed in his chamber during the execution. He had no heart for that kind of spectacle even though it was his duty. He had run to the window and looked down, however, when he heard the sudden roar of the crowd, followed by Candor's cries. Could it be? His heart leapt in his chest. Was it she? Alexandra? His daughter was alive? Candor had lied?
But she was saving the murderess. So the stories of abomination were true. Why would she do that? Henry went to the chest he kept by his bed and opened it, pulled out the mended silk, and held it to his heart. He felt ill. Still clutching the only remnant of his daughter he had, he eventually fell asleep on his bed.
He awoke after dark to a fluttering of his curtain. It made him nervous. That surprised him, as he hadn't cared much whether he lived or died over the past year. And why were his candles all out? Someone was standing over him, a shadow, a shadow with a knife! Henry rolled away as the knife came down hard on the mattress.
"Why?" cried Henry looking at the familiar face.
"Now that Alexandra's back I can't trust you. You've been nothing but a blithering fool lately, anyway. Look at you, saving those clothes from your harlot daughter. You're as depraved as she is."
"You knew she was alive all this time? You lied to me?"
"She should have been dead to you. She's an abomination. She saved the murderess, the one who killed your son, and you still love her!" Candor raised the knife again.
"Wait, Candor," hissed a low feminine voice. "Is time I finish something Riell started." Candor whirled around, his knife still raised.
"You witch! You'll burn in hell for your sins." As he lunged Alexandra easily sidestepped, blocking the blow with her forearm as she spoke.
"Maybe. But today, today is your turn." Alexandra's dagger flashed in the darkness and embedded itself deep in Candor's heart. He died before he hit the floor.
Henry lay panting on his bed, sweat rolling down his flushed face. Should he too fear Alexandra? He had signed Riell's execution order. Yet, if Alexandra were going to kill him he'd likely be dead by now. He glanced at his window. A grappling hook and rope lay coiled neatly under the sill. And why would she have bothered to save him from Candor's knife? "What do you want?" he asked.
"That," said Alexandra, nodding toward the corpse at her feet. She squatted next to it. What was she doing with the dead priest's robe, he wondered? Perhaps she was just cleaning the dagger. She squinted in the dim light, inspecting the weapon, turning it this way and that. When she was satisfied that it was clean, she stood and sheathed it in her gold belt. "I also want another thing. I want that you pardon Riell."
"But she murdered your brother."
"She says it was accident." Alexandra paused. "I believe."
"I'll consider it." Henry lay back. The room spun. Yes, he was very ill, he realized; perhaps he was even dying. And he had nothing to show for it. He had even lost his honor in the end.
"Do it now."
"Take the kingdom. It's mine now and it's yours, if you want it." Henry studied Alexandra as best he could in the darkening room. He had never given his daughter anything. " Take it. You're like me. I know you love power, and treasure. "
"No," said Alexandra. "I love Riell only."
Henry's eyes opened wide. "You admit it, then?"
"Is it crime? Love? Something to admit?" asked Alexandra. Then her voice softened. "But you are right in one thing. In that thing I am like you." She pulled out the medallion and handed it to him. " I know that you loved, too. She died when Candor attacked our village."
His eyes filled with tears as he slid the necklace through his fingers. He remembered his blond Amazon. What Alexandra felt for Riell, that was the same thing? That's all there was to this 'abomination' business? Candor was an even bigger fool than he seemed.
Suddenly, Alexandra stepped away from him, rather jerkily, and wiped a hand across her eyes. "I-I go now," she said. It seemed to Henry that she staggered a bit on her way to the window. But she slid gracefully over the sill and was gone, the hook following noiselessly a moment later.
Henry's melancholy had disappeared. But thirst bedeviled him. Shaking with fever he rang for his serving man.
Riell felt much better that evening. She could walk on her sore feet, with effort, and the fever had broken. She had watched Selene spend the afternoon slaving over a pot of one of her herbal concoctions. She had insisted that Dagnon and Frances sample it, and took some herself, after giving Riell a full dose. Riell, remembering her studies, feared the worst.
"It's plague," said Selene, wiping her hands on her apron as she turned away from her pot. "This will cure it if you've got it, and head it off if you've been exposed." She motioned to Dagnon, who lifted the pot from the hearth and poured the contents into one hundred small vials that Selene had set in a row, a small funnel guiding the precious liquid to its new containers. "It came from the ship. It'll be through the land in another two days, unless we can stop it."
"How do we do that?" asked Frances.
"We have to get this medicine to as many people as we can, and right away," said Riell.
"It's safest if you go, Riell," said Selene. "You've already gotten sick, and are recovering. You can't get sick again." Selene corked the bottles tightly, placed them in a large leather bag, and handed the whole thing to Riell.
"I can't go back to the castle." Riell was indignant. "They tried to execute me, remember?"
"Oh, that's right," said Selene. "I forgot."
"We'll disguise you," offered Dagnon. "It'll be fun." He scratched his beard. "You're limping. How about being an old woman?"
"An old peasant woman," added Frances, giggling.
Riell rode onto the castle grounds after moonrise, dressed in a ragged gray peasant's frock and tattered shoes. She dismounted in the courtyard, her feet burning as they hit the frosty ground, and tied her horse to the commoners' post. Pulling the hood of her scratchy wool cloak low over her forehead, she adjusted the pillow between her shoulder blades so as to force the false dowager's hump into prominence. Leaning on her crooked cane, she limped to the first stricken person in her path. It was her young squire. He lay next to the door of the stable breathing heavily and coughing. A large black swelling jutted from one side of his neck.
"Here," she said, cradling his feverish head in one arm as she knelt beside him. The boy looked directly into her eyes. "Drink this. It's medicine." Obediently the boy drank the vial dry. "You'll be alright now. Rest here until you feel better, then go home." The boy continued looking at her and nodded.
My God. He recognized her. Her blood ran cold. "Don't worry, I won't tell," said the squire. "I'm glad the Amazon saved you. Thank you for helping me."
Riell continued her mission quietly throughout the castle grounds, ministering to fallen peasants and nobles, her disguise making it easy to travel unchallenged. "Old woman, over here," someone would cry. Or, "Hurry, this way, please." The pleas weighed on Riell's heart, so that she thought it would break. Thank the gods she had something that would help.
In several hours she was down to her last vial. Selene had sent for more ingredients, but they wouldn't arrive for a few more days. "Healer, please." A well-dressed manservant grabbed her arm. "It's Lord Henry. He's ill. Can you help him?"
Riell stood next to Henry's bed. He looked older than she had remembered, and tired. Shivering, he peered at her from under half-closed lids. He labored to breathe, coughing miserably with nearly every breath. She sat on the bed beside him, and held the vial to his lips.
"Thank you," he gasped, "but just put it down on the table." He waved his hand toward a little stand next to the head of his bed.
"But Henry, it's the last one. And you need it right away." But she set it on the tabletop as requested.
"Leave us," he said to the servant, who bowed as he backed out of the room, closing the door after himself. Henry turned his attention to Riell.
"Thank you, healer. I'll drink it soon. I haven't much cared whether I live or die, though, since Richard's death." Hot tears rose in Riell's eyes, tears that burned and blinded her, that spilled onto her cheeks, that dripped onto the sheets of Henry's bed.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, choking on the sadness that lodged tight in her throat. "I'm so sorry. It was an accident."
Reaching a fevered and trembling hand toward the hood, he managed to push it off. "I believe you, Riell."
"You knew all along?"
"It's not bad, really. The costume, I mean." Henry smiled weakly. "But you don't make a very convincing peasant." He coughed. "Everyone you helped figured it out. And word got around."
"But I killed Richard. Why didn't they arrest me again?"
"Because Alexandra told me that you were trying to kill Candor. I pardoned you. I signed the order a few hours ago. " Henry paused to cough again. "You are their queen. And you should be. Everyone forgives you, Riell."
"I, too." He took her hand and squeezed it. The act seemed to drain his last bit of energy.
"Leave me now, Riell, I'm tired."
Riell stood, kissed Henry's hand and walked away. She looked back at him once. She knew he would not drink the medicine.
The manservant waited outside the door. He hesitated for a moment, then bowed deeply to Riell. So he had eavesdropped, just like Frances always did, she thought. He bowed because she was the queen. It weighed upon her for a moment, and her shoulders drooped under the dowager's hump. Then she felt just as she always had. It was an ordinary thing for her. And then she felt sad. Very sad.
Henry stared at the cracked ceiling of his chamber flickering in the candlelight. So those cracks would be the last sight he would see on earth. Odd thoughts a man has at the end, he mused. He reached for his bell and rang for the servant, who slipped in so quickly and quietly that it seemed to Henry that the man passed right through the closed door.
"How's Alexandra?" asked Henry.
"Getting worse, sire." In his fevered state Henry had almost forgotten.
"Bring her in here. Now!"
Two servants, guided by Henry's manservant, placed Alexandra's litter down next to Henry's bed. "Give it to her!" As Henry watched, propped on one elbow, the manservant scrambled to the bedside table, uncorked the vial, and held it to Alexandra's dry lips. She drank, then fell back heavily on the litter, wheezing. "Now leave us."
Henry watched Alexandra. In a while she appeared to breathe with less difficulty. Perhaps he could speak with her a little.
"You are luckier in love than I was," he said, and it seemed to him that she smiled a little through one side of her mouth. "But at least I had one night of joy in life." He thought of Candor. "That's more than some have, I suppose."
Alexandra turned her dark head and looked at him with her blue eyes. "You had fourteen. You drank the wine the first thirteen nights. The last night, the night you gave your Promise, you refused it for some reason."
Henry had a few heartbeats left. He would ask his question now. The one he hadn't dared to ask that night so long ago. "Is it true? Do the Amazons kill the boy children?"
Alexandra turned her gaze back to the ceiling. "The Ancient Ones did. But only if they had been forced to make a child, and even then only if they couldn't get a Promise." Henry pondered that for a while. Then he spoke again.
"Riell was here," he said. "It's done."
Alexandra looked over at him. So, thought Henry as his vision darkened, the last thing he would see on this earth wouldn't be the cracks in the ceiling after all. Perhaps her lips moved, but he didn't hear anything. Thank you, said his daughter's eyes, eyes as blue as the Mediterranean Sea.
And it was enough. It was more than enough.
He smiled to himself and clutched the medallion tightly.
Alexandra recovered in a day or so and went to London to fetch Hippolyta and the baby. In the meantime Riell moved back into her chamber at the castle. She had the ceiling repaired in Henry's chamber for Alexandra.
Alexandra found The Artemis docked along the Thames. Hippolyta and her brood were on board. They gathered around the warrior on the gently rocking deck in the salty morning fog.
"I guess I'll stay with you for a while. The baby needs its wet nurse." Hippolyta glanced at Rena, who cooed and clucked into the infant's face. "And I have no place else to go."
"Show me your Promise," said Alexandra. Alexandra had seen Hippolyta's Promise almost every day of her life, and so she had not paid any attention to it, as is usually the case with familiar things. She was almost certain, but she had better check. Hippolyta pulled the one black-haired child by the hand and placed her in front of the warrior.
"I didn't get a Promise for her, so I let her wear mine." As the child's large brown eyes stared sadly at her Alexandra held the copper cross she had taken from Candor up next to the one hanging from the little girl's neck. Hippolyta gasped.
"My mother never told me very much about my father," said Hippolyta. "She just giggled and said he was crazy but was very good in bed. He could go on all night. She was a Man's Woman and wanted to take him every night he was there, but she had to share him with the other Amazons. Even the queen wanted to borrow him for a night because he had a powerful shaman force and could make lots of children, but he was all booked up."
Hippolyta went on. "But eventually I learned more about him. He was the son of an Amazon. An aunt of mine recognized him. His mother didn't have a Promise for him. She disguised him as a girl because she loved him too much to give him away and she couldn't bear to move to the Other World."
"Everyone knew the child was a boy," continued Hippolyta, "but they humored her. After all, things had been changing in the Old Village. But she died when he was seven and the old queen sent him to Thessalonika. The monks took him. We heard that he eventually ended up in Rome."
"Humph," said Alexandra. "Let's go." Hippolyta rolled her eyes.
"Come on, kids. You heard her. Get moving." Alexandra strode off the gangplank with Hippolyta herding her brood behind her.
Alexandra rebuilt Selene's cottage for her, and even though Riell invited Hippolyta into the castle, she declined, and built her own hut near Selene's. Unlike Selene, she put her good Amazon plumbing and tub in the main room, as was Amazon custom.
Rena stayed in the castle until little Alexander had two rows of teeth, then she left for London. She sent word back now and then about the tavern she opened. Apparently it was very successful.
Selene spent her days playing in the sun with Hippolyta's ever-growing brood of red heads, telling fantastic tales of witches and goddesses and Amazons, leaving the healing and midwifery to Hippolyta, who found she had a knack for it. After all, much of it involved listening, especially to what was unsaid.
Riell left the army to Alexandra, and spent her days among her people and her councilors, and the kingdom prospered and was at peace. And sometimes in the late afternoon, she would sit by the pond with little Alexander and toss bread to the swans. The sight of the two white birds always brought her joy and sadness at the same time. She never tended her mother's rose garden, but sometimes she would pick a wild bud and bring it home to Alexandra. But first Riell would remove the thorns. All but one. She spent her evenings reading and copying scrolls, and kept in touch with as many Separated Amazons as she could.
Alexander rode upon his Other Mother's back, exploring the castle and squealing with delight. His green eyes and black hair never failed to astonish Alexandra.
And in the quietest part of the night Alexandra would lie awake beside Riell and stare at the ceiling, wondering at her good fortune. Then she would turn her head and watch Riell sleep, and the words of her very favorite old scroll would drift to mind. Alexandra would whisper it to herself as she touched a lock of Riell's golden hair as it lay upon the pillow.
…and Ruth said to Naomi, entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee, for wither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy gods my gods, where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried, and nothing, nothing but death shall part us.
Leave it to an Amazon, she would think, to hide a beautiful love story under the noses of their enemy-brothers. They would never see it, and an Amazon would always recognize it.
As she was thinking these thoughts, often Riell would awaken, and Alexandra would look deep into the emerald eyes, now ancient with sorrow. Or was it wisdom? Riell would say they were the same, after all.
"Our people love you," Alexandra would say to Riell as they lay side by side in the dark.
"There's a trick to that, you know," Riell would answer. Alexandra would roll over onto Riell's belly and nuzzle her neck, and Riell would giggle. "I see you in every face," Riell would say. "And so I love them all."
And Alexandra would submerge herself in the warmth and softness of Riell's love, to burst refreshed to the surface each morning, her lungs filling with the joy and preciousness of the new day.
The Artemis carried the scrolls, filled with the precious knowledge and wisdom of the world to the ends of the earth, and the Separated Amazons copied them and distributed them secretly, so that everyone benefited, just as the goddess had promised. And soon the darkness began to lift from Europe and the rest of the world as the ancient truths were rediscovered.
And at night, when the world grew quiet and the silver crescent rose high, Hippolyta would sit in her hut at the edge of the kingdom and rock her newest granddaughter to sleep with a story.
In a quiet grotto in the woods, beside an empty, wind-whipped meadow, a stone bear stands silently day and night, smoothed by years and memory, seen only by the moon. And at night, at special times, perhaps solstice, it is said that the bear weeps. But the tears are born equally of joy and sorrow.
For the Amazons have all gone home.
Copyright by Dawn Lemanne, August 3, 1999
Return to The Main Page