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Chapter Ten: Memories of the Sword

Aradia was awakened by clamouring outside of her house shortly before dawn. She arose, grabbing for her sword, then remembered that she had not yet replaced the one broken in Athtar's cave. She threw on trousers and boots and ran out to the front door, Mhari close behind her.

"What's going on?" asked the shamenki, clutching a shawl about her shoulders.

"I don't know - " Aradia began. She was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was her lieutenants, Anaea and ProthoŽ.

"Your Majesty," said Anaea, offering a hasty salute. "The Romans are camped about below the lower town. They're just beyond the first perimeter, but they've not attacked the platoons there."

"Yet," said ProthoŽ. "But even worse, the Sword of Artemis is gone!"

"Worse?" said Aradia, raising one brow and shaking her head. "Okay, okay - where is Thraso?"

"She's in the lower town, positioning the archers and mobilising the cavalry," said Anaea.

"Good," said Aradia. "Let me just get my gear and - damn! I need a Sword!"

"Never mind about that," said Mhari, emerging from the back of the house. "ArynŽ's gone."

Aradia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Okay," she said. "You two go to your posts. I will find ArynŽ. Mhari, assemble the elders to the Temple - please."

"Wait a minute," said the shamenki, moving past her. The others followed her gaze to the Temple. A bright silvery light spilled out as the door opened and ArynŽ emerged, the Sword of Artemis glowing at the girl's waist. She carried a wooden chest in her two hands and she started, then quickened her step when she saw the women gathered outside of Aradia's house.

"Anaea, ProthoŽ, let the Amazons know that the Sword isn't gone, then report to your posts," said Aradia. The two women nodded and left to obey the orders.

"Aradia, don't scold her," said Mhari.

"Why not?" asked the queen, one brow raised.

"Because she has the 'look'," said the shamenki. Aradia looked at her puzzled. "She's been doing the work of the Goddess this night and I think you would regret any harsh words to her."

"Very well - I'll control myself," said the queen, drily.

"Aradia - you - you're awake," said a dirt-smudged ArynŽ. "Looks like the whole town is, actually."

"ArynŽ, what is this?" asked Aradia, arms folded across her chest.

"I don't know," said the girl, handing the chest to her. "It's for you."

Aradia took the chest and looked in wonder at the mark carved into its lid. "Where did you get this?" she asked.

"Aradia, what would you say if I told you there was huge hidden room beneath the Temple?" said ArynŽ, smiling, her eyes shining.

"I'd say you inherited your mother's imagination," said Aradia, guiding the girl into the house. Mhari followed and the three sat before the hearth. Aradia rested the wooden chest in her lap. She spoke as calmly as she could, containing her annoyance with the girl. "What were you doing in the Temple, ArynŽ?"

The girl looked down at her grubby hands for a moment before answering. "My mother sent me there," she replied, not expecting to be believed.

"Thalia was here?" said Aradia, her brow slightly furrowed, her voice soft.

ArynŽ looked up and nodded. "She took me to the Temple and moved the altar aside. You know where the scrolls were hidden?" Aradia nodded and the girl continued. "Well, if you push the altar a bit further, there's another trap door which goes into this long tunnel."

"And at the end of the tunnel?" asked Mhari, her eyes shining with excitement.

"There's a wooden door - and you're not going to believe this, but the Sword of Artemis is the key," said ArynŽ, her voice hushed, scarcely believing her own words as the night's excursion slipped into a dreamlike memory.

"I do believe you, ArynŽ," said Aradia, quietly. "This huge chamber is beyond that door?"

"Yes - Aradia, you wouldn't believe what I saw there!" said ArynŽ, her eyes widening at the memory. There's so much food stored there, the Romans could lay siege on the towns for a hundred years and we'd never go hungry!"

"ArynŽ ... now, I believe that there's a secret chamber below the Temple," said Aradia, slowly.

"It's not really a secret - it's just been forgotten," ArynŽ interrupted.

"Even so," said Aradia, frowning. "This room could not be as big as you describe - why, the whole town would collapse if the integrity of this mound was so compromised. Further, even if there is some food stored there, the latest it could have been put there was before the Battle of Chadesia ten years ago; what the rodents and bugs didn't get to would be rotten."

"I saw it with my own eyes," said ArynŽ, firmly.

"Okay, look - I don't have time to argue with you, ArynŽ," said Aradia, wearily. "The Romans are camped below the lower town, and - "

"Already?" ArynŽ cried out in alarm.

"Yes," said Aradia, rising and setting the chest on the floor.

"Wait, Mother said that whatever was in that chest could help you against the Romans," said ArynŽ. "Open it - please, Aradia?"

Aradia sighed and sat back down, lifting the chest to her lap again before lifting the lid off of the chest. The queen grew pale.

"ArynŽ, where did you get this? The truth!"

"In the chamber below the Temple - I swear it, Aradia," said ArynŽ, solemnly.

"I - I have to believe you," said Aradia, lifting her amulet, destroyed so long ago by Athtar, out of the chest.

"Oh, that's beautiful!" said ArynŽ.

"That's not all," said Aradia, her voice barely above a whisper, She reached in and pulled out a silver sword-belt, decorated with the same Triple Moon and labrys design as the Sword of Artemis. "The Girdle of Sovereignty - this has been lost to the Amazon Nation for hundreds of years. And this - " She pulled out a silver circlet with the same design centred where it would rest on the brow.

"Is that the queen's crown?" whispered ArynŽ in awe.

"No - it was worn by the last High Priestess of the Amazon Nation," said Mhari, reverently. "It was believed lost with her - so long ago, no one can even remember her name now."

"I'll bet it's recorded in the scrolls I found there, too," said ArynŽ.

"There are more scrolls?" asked Aradia.

"At least one whole chestful - I didn't have time to look at everything in there," said ArynŽ.

"Blessed Artemis," whispered Aradia. "I must see this place!"

"You can't," said ArynŽ, sadly. "Mother told me that if anyone who is not a priestess sets foot in there, the magic will disappear."

"That's nonsense," said Aradia, frowning.

"No, I think not," said Mhari, thoughtfully. "It's a sacred place; it makes sense that only consecrated servants of the Goddess would be permitted there."

"ArynŽ isn't a priestess," Aradia argued.

"Oh yes, Aradia, she is," said Mhari, softly. The shamenki moved to the girl, gently lifting her sleeve to expose a new tattoo. The Triple Moon and labrys which graced the "royal regalia" was now and forever etched into ArynŽ's skin. " She asked for it and I put it there myself, so there's no sense in scolding the girl. She's earned it. She passed every test and trial the gods have seen fit to put before her. Many women twice her age would not have risen to the same challenges that this girl has. Since she asked, I figure she's committed herself to the path of a priestess. We'll worry how to get her fully trained after this thing with the Romans is all over."

Aradia smiled and once again rose to her feet, setting the now empty chest to the floor. "I can't argue with the truth," she said, embracing ArynŽ, holding her closely for a moment before releasing her. "I have to go - and so do you two - we all have our jobs to do. Say a prayer for me, little priestess."

"I already have," said ArynŽ, smiling back. "Aradia - please be careful."

"I'll try," said the queen, fastening the girdle around her waist and placing the Sword of Artemis in the sheath attached to the belt; it was a perfect fit. The amulet Aradia lovingly lowered over ArynŽ's head until it rested in the hollow of the girl's throat. "I want you to have that, ArynŽ - I didn't have a chance to make one for you before your Initiation."

Tears welled in the girl's eyes and she hugged the queen one more time. Gently disengaging herself from the girl, Aradia quickly kissed ArynŽ's forehead, then left the house without another word.

)O(

Ares arose, dazed. Except for the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees, the clearing was silent. Myrina was long gone, with the Sword of Artemis.

"Ares." The god of war turned to see Artemis standing behind him.

"If you've come to gloat - " he began, annoyed.

"Hardly," said Artemis.

"Good. Because the Amazons are doomed," said Ares, grinning at her. "Their sworn enemy has your Sword now. It's only a matter of time - "

"Oh please! Don't insult my intelligence by pretending you had this planned all along," said Artemis, shaking her head. "You really don't get it any more than that pathetic creature did."

Ares looked to see Athtar stumbling out of the cave, blinking in the brightness of the clearing.

"Get what?" asked the god. "As I see it, it won't be very long at all before I am the Supreme God, the one and only, the Alpha and Omega - "

"This is just a game to you, isn't it, Ares?" said Artemis. "'He who has the most followers, wins' - well, it isn't a game to me, Ares, and it isn't one to Her either."

"Oh, Her," said Ares, rolling his eyes. "Please - at the end of all this, I will be even bigger than She is, so don't try to scare me off with that threat."

A slow smile crept across Artemis's face. "You think so?" she said, softly.

"Oh, yeah," said Ares with a grin. "You still want to play - I can see it in your eyes, Artemis."

"Ares, this ceased to be a game when you started on the Amazons," said the goddess, severely.

"Aw, did I pick on your pet mortals?" Ares taunted.

"You have no idea what you're doing, Ares," said Artemis. "I'm warning you - "

"You're warning me?" Ares laughed. "Artemis, the Amazons are as good as extinct. And when they are, you will be answering to me. You might want to think about that a while before you say another word to me."

"Well, Ares, let me just give you something to think about," said Artemis, smiling. Suddenly, she changed before Ares's eyes and before him stood Medusa.

"What ... that was you?" he said, incredulous. Artemis changed back before replying.

"Yes, it was," said Artemis. "So you see, you 'played' yourself right out of the Gorgons. They are still mine. And they have the Sword." Chuckling, she faded from his view.

"Yeah, well I still have one move left. This isn't over by a long way, Artemis," said Ares, glaring at the space she once occupied before disappearing with an audible "pop".

)O(

Aradia made her way down to the lower town and found Thraso.

"Aradia, I have everyone in position," said the Second in Command, grimly. She looked around at the troops, all armed and in their places. "Romans ... Sweet Artemis, are we ready for this?"

"Is anyone ever ready for war?" asked Aradia. "More importantly, we don't have a choice."

Thraso nodded. "So, what do we do now?"

"We wait," said Aradia. "Let them make the first move. Have the archers ready to back up the platoons at the perimeter - do they have the new arrows?"

"Aradia, those are repulsive!" said Thraso, grimacing. "The whole lot smells worse than stable offal. But yes, I have followed your orders to the letter."

Aradia chuckled. "That smell may be just the edge we need to survive this," she said.

"Well, don't expect me to bathe in it, despite all of that," chuckled Thraso. Then she grew solemn. "Aradia, Silas is with the Romans. I saw him down there on horseback, right next to Aurelian."

"I had a feeling it was he who betrayed us," said Aradia with a sigh. "I didn't want to believe it, for ArynŽ's sake, though."

"No, Aradia, you don't understand," said Thraso, shaking her head. "I don't think he's there by choice."

"What do you mean, Thraso?" asked Aradia, frowning.

"I mean, he looks terrible," said the Second in Command. "Come."

She led the queen to a hidden lookout where they could see the Roman troops without themselves being seen. The Amazons crouched down low in the brush.

"Look - there," Thraso whispered, pointing.

Aradia felt a quiet rage rise up within her. She had to consciously restrain herself from rushing down the hill and grabbing Silas, killing any Roman who got in her way.

Silas sat on the back of a horse. His head hung down as if he hadn't the strength to hold it up. His hands were tied in front of him and a gaping wound in his temple still oozed blood. Other wounds on his face and limbs were crusted over with dried blood, leading the Amazons to think that his ordeal at the hands of their enemy had been a long one. Suddenly Silas looked up and turned his eyes to look directly at the hidden Amazons, giving the women a start, but his eyes were glassy and vacant.

Silently, Aradia arose and started back towards the ruined fortress where the troops were mobilised and waiting, Thraso right behind her.

"Aradia, we have to get him out of there," Thraso said. "They'll kill him.

"He's already dead," said Aradia, continuing to walk.

"But Aradia - "

"Thraso, we can do nothing for him," said the Queen. "Let it go."

"If it were an Amazon down there - "

"He isn't an Amazon," said Aradia, stopping and whirling to face her Second in Command.

"No but he raised one," said Thraso.

Aradia closed her eyes for a moment. "I take your point Thraso," she said. "But I really don't believe you have any idea what we're dealing with here. These are Romans, not Kaskans."

"I don't see any difference, except that there are more of them than there were Kaskans," said Thraso.

"You don't understand - you don't what Aurelian is capable of," said Aradia, her eyes taking on a far away, haunted look.

"I suppose you do," said Thraso, quietly.

"Unfortunately, yes," said Aradia, coming back with a sigh. "Yarg was a brute. He could fight well enough, but he was not cunning, not outright ... evil like Aurelian. He could never have overcome the Amazons without the Gorgons' betrayal."

"And Aurelian could?" asked Thraso, quietly.

"Yes, he can," said Aradia, troubled. "But that's not for general knowledge, Thraso."

"No, of course not," said Thraso. "Can we stop him?"

"Yes, we can," said Aradia, smiling. "You see, the other side of knowing what he is capable of is knowing his weaknesses. I will not lead the Amazons into battle against an enemy if there is no hope of winning - not ever again."

"You're talking about the Battle of Chadesia," said Thraso. "But you couldn't know that we would be defeated - could you?"

Aradia was silent for a moment. "No, I didn't know - I didn't believe it," she said, quietly, the haunted look back in her eyes. "I had been given certain ... warnings, which I ignored because I didn't consider the source reliable."

"What source was that?" asked Thraso.

"The old priestess, LeilŽ - she was having visions; told me to take the Amazons and leave our home," said Aradia. Thraso looked down and hesitated a moment before speaking.

"Aradia, I'm not sure what I would have done in your place," said Thraso. "It's easy to look back ten years down the road and say what we should have or have not done. I know that all those years, hiding and being hunted like animals, it would have been such a relief to burst out and confront the enemy once and for all."

"Thank the Lady you had the sense I didn't have at the time or none of us would be here," said Aradia.

"Now that we are, what are we going to do about this?" asked Thraso. "I mean, I see the problem about rescuing Silas. I just can't stand to think of him down there like that - and what about ArynŽ?"

"ArynŽ is not to know of this," said Aradia, firmly. "If I see an opportunity to rescue Silas without risking the Amazons, I will take it - that's all I can do, Thraso."

Thraso nodded, then turned to the troops. "How long do you suppose we'll have to wait?" she asked Aradia.

"Aurelian will want to make absolutely certain that we see him," said Aradia. "I am certain that he has already sent scouts this way."

"We saw them - they did not see us," said Thraso. "What's more, they've not yet reached the perimeter where our warriors are. It's entirely possible that he's not certain we're here, after all."

"Oh, he knows we're here - don't underestimate Aurelian," said Aradia.

"What did he do to you that makes you so afraid of him?" asked Thraso.

Aradia remained silent, but the memories of that time after her capture assaulted her with a vengeance.

Aradia woke up in the dark hold of the ship bound for Rome. The captured Amazons were packed, side by side and shackled to one another, unable to move in any way. Sickened by the movement of the seas, they lay in their own vomit and filth. Their miserable and pathetic moans went unheard by any, save the occasional guard who, holding his nose against the indescribable stench, opened the door to the hold from above to throw down food and water which lay there mostly untouched until it rotted.

How long the journey lasted, Aradia did not know, but at the end, of the fifty or so Amazons captured, only Aradia and three others survived. The last day of the journey, they were pulled roughly from the hold below the deck and Aradia saw the bodies of her dead sisters thrown into the sea. The four survivors, too weak to protest, were taken to a place where they were bathed, dressed in thin gauzy veils and their hands were chained with links of gold.

Aradia at last felt the vestiges of this nightmare begin to pierce through to her soul. With a feral scream, she broke the golden chains and attacked the guards. It took several of the Roman soldiers to subdue her. She was then chained with heavy iron, beaten where the bruises and lash marks would not show through the filmy and revealing Greek chiton and marched with her sisters through the streets of Rome.

Aurelian rode ahead of the Amazons, proudly waving to the masses who were lined up along the streets, alternately cheering the General and screaming obscenities at the "unnatural" women. Aradia kept her head up, hissing to the others to do the same. They were marched before the emperor's palace and there the procession ended. Aradia glared defiantly upward at Gallienus who stood above them in the balcony. He had taken great pains to hide the ravages of both time and debauchery before appearing to the citizens who worshipped him like a god. His face was painted and powdered, his purple robes hung on his gaunt frame like draperies over a skeleton. The Amazon could find no mercy or even nobility in his cold black eyes which reminded her of a snake's eyes. She glared up at him until she was roughly pushed to her knees, her head shoved down in a sign of obeisance she certainly did not feel ...

"Aradia ... Aradia," Thraso said, gently pulling her away from the memory.

"I'm sorry, Thraso," said the Queen, shaking her head, trying to shake the images which still haunted her dreams.

"What happened to you in Rome?" asked her Second in Command.

Slowly at first, Aradia began to tell Thraso the story, the images again coming to her in such a way, it was as if she were back there in that hell all over again.

"What happened after you saw the Emperor?" asked Thraso, gently pulling the memories to the surface.

"We were taken to the auction block to be sold as slaves," said Aradia. "Aurelian and the Emperor were done with us. That's why they took such care to bathe, perfume, and paint us like whores - that's where they figured we'd end up anyway. And we almost did ..."

It was far too cold for the revealing garment. Aradia stood on the auction block along with the other three Amazons. All four shivered in the chill, damp wind waiting to be bought. The Romans' language was starting to be understandable to the women.

"A hundred denarii!" cried one bidder.

"Each!" cried another, trying to outbid the first. The two men began to argue with one another. Aradia's violet eyes rested on the man who had put her in this nightmare. Aurelian stood outside of the throng, watching coldly, waiting to see the outcome of his expedition to Amazonia. Then he would be finished with them.

Aradia heard the hushed voices of other women, awaiting their turn to be bought.

"Huh, my old master wouldn't give 'em one denarii - unnatural women! What could they know about serving in a brothel? Like as not, they'd rather do each other than paying customers."

"There'd be plenty who'd pay a fortune just to watch that," chuckled another.

The other Amazons looked to Aradia, panic in their eyes, silently begging their queen to save them from this fate.

"Sold! To Amor for three hundred and twenty denarii - each!"

The brothel owner stepped up, grinning, to take possession of his newly acquired property. Aradia looked at her sisters, tears welling in her eyes, praying they would understand. Then, with a furious howl, she grabbed a dagger from the unsuspecting man. So fast it was a blur to the watching crowd, Aradia whirled about, and sliced the throats of her sisters in one flowing move. Their blood flew and splattered all over the flimsy garment she wore before the three fell dead at her feet. Aradia completed the revolution with the point of the dagger at her own chest. Just before she could plunge it into her heart, Aurelian was there. He grabbed her long hair in one hand and the dagger with the other, shoving the Amazon Queen to her knees.

The brothel owner stood, shaking as Aurelian handed the bloody dagger back to him without a word. The auction announcer stammered ... "S...sale cancelled." Aurelian dragged her away from the auction block by her hair. As she passed, she saw the women who had been talking earlier, one looking at her with a smug satisfaction and the other with an almost wistful mistiness to her expression.

Aurelian took her to a cell - really a hole in the ground - and threw her in it. It was so small, Aradia could not stand or even sit up. She was forced to crawl about on her knees just to get to the door where her daily ration of thin gruel, mouldy bread, and stale water were left. She didn't bother; Aradia was haunted by her deed, though it was what she would have wished for in her sisters' place. She hoped that they understood, wherever in Eternity their souls rested now.

Aurelian left her there for three days before he came and pulled her out. She was taken in the back of a cart to a large estate just outside of the city, then permitted to bathe and change into, by Aradia's standards, more suitable clothing. She was still in the heavy iron chains though and shackled about her ankles as well as her wrists and now the chains had been considerably shortened.

She was escorted to Aurelian who awaited her in his study. He was sitting on a padded bench, reading a roll of parchment. She stood, staring dully at him until he dismissed the escort and the two were alone in the room.

"You cost me a fortune and I should take it out of your flesh," he said, awaiting her reaction. There was none. "Don't pretend like you can't understand me - I know better."

Still the Amazon Queen stood, silent and waiting. Aurelian arose and began to pace. "I should, but I have managed to salvage something out of this fiasco. The whole expedition was a waste of resources, but I have a feeling, my dear Amazon Queen, that you will make all of that up to me."

Despite the fact that Aradia still said nothing, simply staring vacantly at the Roman General he continued. "You are going to fight in the arena for me. An Amazon should bring in quite a revenue in wagers alone."

That's what you think, Aradia thought to herself, though she remained silent. Aurelian whirled around and looked at her.

"Oh you will fight, Aradia," he said, grinning at her. The only indication that she was aware of his words was a slight , involuntary shiver. "If you do not, I will find another use for you, one you may not like as well."

Aradia tried to still her mind, seeking that oblivion which had been eluding her since this nightmare began on the battlefield of Chadesia.

"You may even come to enjoy it, Aradia - many do," said Aurelian. "Unfortunately, I cannot allow you the luxury of an income to one day buy your freedom as the others are permitted, but there will be rewards, I assure you."

"And were there any rewards?" asked Thraso.

Aradia snapped out of her reverie at the sound of Thraso's voice.

"No, not really," she replied. "Only those the citizens found amusing or entertaining were rewarded. I did neither."

Aradia stood in the centre of the ring, listening to the roaring from the stands. From both doors at either end of the arena came her opponents for this match. The retiari ran at her from behind, net trailing, trident extended. Before her, a Samnite approached more cautiously, hiding behind his long shield, only the bright quivering plumes of his helmet were visible above the top.

The Amazon tried to stand her ground. Oh, please, Sweet Lady Artemis, if you love me, you will let them kill me this time, she thought. Almost against her will, Aradia twirled her sword over her head. She was not permitted anywhere near this weapon or any other except when she entered the arena, but at least they had ceased to keep her chained between matches. The Samnite hesitated, allowing the retiari to approach her first. He yelled and ran at her, raising the net to throw it over Aradia's head. With a bland expression, Aradia merely extended the sword and in as small a swing as possible, took the warrior's net hand off at the wrist. He staggered back, dropping the trident to hold his spurting wrist. Aradia stood her ground, aware of the Samnite creeping slowly up behind her. She heard his metal armor clink as he shifted his shield to strike at her. Suddenly, she whirled around, swinging the sword with the momentum of her turn and sliced through the exposed neck of the Samnite. He fell to the ground, already dead. The crowd booed, clamouring for the death of the retiari, but Aradia was done. She threw down the sword and walked off, back to her cell, knowing that she would pay later for her lack of showmanship.

Aurelian awaited her in the tunnel which led to the Gladiator cells. Aradia stopped and waited for him to produce the metal-tipped whip, but this time was different.

"I can no longer afford you, Aradia," he said, shaking his head with a sigh. "If only I could trust you, you would be the perfect warrior in my Legion."

"I would never fight for Rome," Aradia said, her eyes flashing in rare emotion.

"No you would not," said Aurelian, signalling to the guards. They stepped up and clamped the shackles and chains on Aradia's wrists and ankles. "I could, however, try to breed you - what kind of warriors would an Amazon and Rome's elite produce, I wonder?"

"I will kill any man who tries to touch me that way, if I have to rip out his throat with my teeth," said Aradia through clenched teeth. "Failing that, I will strangle the thing as it comes from the womb."

"Yes, I know that, too," said Aurelian. "I don't have the time or patience to see that experiment to that end, anyway. So, I am sending you to the Provinces. They are not as jaded as the citizens as Rome; they won't expect such spectacular kills."

"I suppose being shipped out of Rome and out to the Provinces was a reward after all," said Aradia, breaking out of the memory. "Aurelian was right - they didn't mind as much if I wasn't entertaining when I fought; if they saw blood, they were happy."

"These Romans, they are like animals," said Thraso, incredulous.

"No, animals are more honourable," said Aradia. "They kill only to survive, not for sport. I thought I would spend the rest of my days in the arena, waiting to die. At first, I was kept chained all the time, touring the Provinces. Some of those places didn't even have an arena, just a dirt ring scratched out in some farmer's field. Those were the worst."

"Why is that?" asked Thraso.

Aradia closed her eyes against the memories. "Because every young peasant boy wanted to take down the Amazon Queen in battle," she said, softly. "Stupid. Such a waste of young life."

"Did you ... Didn't you ever ... um ..." Thraso stammered, unable to stop herself from asking the question. Aradia's eyes gazed unwavering at her.

"What?" asked the queen, gently. "Try to escape?" Thraso nodded. "At first, many times. Every time, Aurelian was there, stopping me and punishing me for the attempt. I even tried to fall on my own sword in the arena almost every time they put me there the first several times. Each time, Aurelian stepped in and stopped me. It was almost as if he read my thoughts before I even thought them. He always knew what I was going to do even before I did sometimes. It was uncanny."

"How did he know?' asked Thraso. Aradia shook her head.

"I just don't know," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "But he did - and something tells me he still does."

"No, Aradia - no mortal has that power," said Thraso.

"I keep trying to tell myself that until I believe it," said Aradia with a wry chuckle. Then she looked around at the fortress ruins and all the bustling activity of her Amazon troops as they prepared for war. "Here, I almost can believe it."

"Aradia, he will never hurt you again," said Thalia. "By coming here, he has pretty much signed his own death papers."

*************

Aurelian sat in his tent. He hated this place and never expected to have to return here.

"Aradia," he snarled, then arose pacing. The Emperor didn't feel the Amazons were a threat to the Empire - they were so fragile, most hadn't even survived the journey to Rome. Except Aradia had proven to Aurelian that they were not fragile, not at all.

It had been a mistake to send her from Rome. Aurelian realised that now. Up until she reached Thracia, he knew her every thought. The general had studied Aradia carefully. He knew what she was likely to do with any opportunity. Even after so many years, he never let his guard down. If she had been planning escape, he would have known it and been there to prevent it.

"She must have had help," the general muttered to himself.

"Of course she did."

Aurelian whirled around to see a stranger in his tent. He almost called for the guards, then stopped himself. There was something familiar about this man.

"Do I know you?" Aurelian asked.

"Oh, yes. Around here, I'm called Ares, but you probably know me as 'Mars'," he said.

"A god - that explains how you got in here without me knowing," said Aurelian, going to the wooden table he used as a desk on campaign. "Would you care for wine?"

"Thank you, no," said Ares, pleasantly surprised.

"What did you mean when you said she had help?" asked Aurelian, pouring a cup for himself. "Do I need to be concerned about a traitor?"

"No, nothing like that," said Ares. "One of my kind. There's really nothing you could have done once Aradia stepped foot in Thrake - uh, Thracia."

"I should have left her in Rome," said Aurelian. "But I was losing too much money on her."

"Why not just kill her?" asked Ares.

"No," said Aurelian, shaking his head. "Letting her escape into death before I figured her out would have been a terrible waste."

Ares stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I see," he said. "And what is it that you need to figure out?"

Aurelian laughed bitterly. "I don't know," he said. "She's like a wild beast, you know - unpredictable. And yet I knew her every move before she made it, her every thought and feeling before she even thought or felt it."

"Yes," said Ares, smiling. "Of course you did."

"That was you, wasn't it?" asked Aurelian absently before sipping from his cup of wine. "You got inside both our heads and let me know what she was up to."

"As a matter of fact, yes," replied Ares, surprised. "It was my pleasure to torment one of Artemis's Amazons. I couldn't control her any more than you will ever be able to - you cannot break an Amazon. They usually die before allowing that to happen, but we came close with Aradia until Thracia ... damned interfering goddesses!"

"Why didn't she die?" asked Aurelian.

"Because they wouldn't let her," said Ares with a shrug.

"But why?" asked Aurelian.

He thought back to that day on the auction block. What had it taken for Aradia to kill her own people? Yet she had done so to protect them from what they would have considered worse than death. Aurelian had seen her fight and kill hundreds of times in the arena, always with that same dull look of bored disgust in those strange eyes of hers. Yet when she had killed the Amazons on the block, there had been something else there; fear, certainly, but love and passion, too. A certain spark of life that had been lacking in the Amazon Queen after had flared, brilliantly in that moment, then gone out.

"If these goddesses truly cared for her, they would have let her die," said Aurelian.

"Why didn't they?"

"They needed her," said Ares. "In the Amazon city, there are thousands of Amazons, young and old, warrior and not. And there is one young girl. She is the reason Aradia was brought back here."

"A young girl? Of what importance could that be?" asked Aurelian, frowning.

"She is very important," said Ares. "I have seen your destiny, Aurelian; you are fated to become emperor and Rome's influence and power will expand to encompass the entire world under your command. Imagine it, Aurelian." He paused a moment to allow the general to absorb his words.

"What has a young Amazon girl to do with all that?" asked Aurelian.

"The Amazons are all that stand between you and all that power - and wealth," said Ares. "And ArynŽ is the one the goddesses have chosen to be the Amazons' salvation."

"A young girl? Forgive me, but I find that hard to believe," said Aurelian, shaking his head.

"She killed Yarg," said Ares.

"Yarg was a pig who needed killing," said Aurelian, his lip curled in disgust. "He was probably intoxicated and the girl got a lucky hit."

"She also dispatched the Graii and retrieved the Sword of Artemis from Athtar, the Gorgon Queen," said Ares. Aurelian raised an eyebrow.

"Indeed?" he said. "Well, then she will bear watching. Aradia and this girl must be brought back to Rome - alive. Tell me, Mars are they any more like these two amongst the warrior women?"

Ares hesitated a moment. "That remains to be seen," he said, cryptically, then disappeared.

)O(

(TBC)

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