Arynë made her way to the Temple, carrying the circlet of the High Priestess in the wooden chest. Aradia's amulet fit comfortably in the hollow of her throat, but Arynë remained aware of its presence. It comforted her in a way, though she was still terribly afraid. The Romans were too close for comfort.
"Rome would still be too close," she muttered to herself.
She arrived at the Temple and entered. Looking around, she could scarcely remember the previous night's journey here, but the evidence of the lamps still burning showed her she was.
The girl set down the wooden chest and began trying to push the altar aside. She wanted to hide the circlet with the scrolls. The altar wouldn't budge and Arynë was just about to go and try to find some help when she felt her arm tingling, just where Mhari had etched her mark. Absently, the girl started to scratch, then remembered. She pushed up her sleeve to look at it again.
"It's still there," she heard. Arynë looked up, startled, to see the woman who had been guarding the hidden room."Oh " she said."Wh - who are you?"
"I was the last High Priestess of the Amazon Nation," she said."I've come to train you."
"You're a ghost," said Arynë, her eyes wide."You're not supposed to be here in daylight."
The priestess laughed."I see we have some work to do," she said."You have much to learn. Come."
She pointed at the altar and it slid away from the trap doors. The woman led Arynë to the second one and through the tunnel to the hidden room. She pointed and the wooden door swung open.
Arynë looked around, again amazed by what she saw.
"If the Romans do try a siege, the Amazons will not starve - at least not for a while," she said.
"That's true - unfortunately, you'll be on your own when it comes to lugging sacks of grain up there," said the priestess. She walked over to the chest of scrolls."You've read the others, I assume?"
"And copied them," said Arynë, proudly.
"You will do the same with these," said the priestess."You must begin as soon as possible."
"I understand," said Arynë."Mother said that time does not move in this place. I could be here for what seems like a few hours, yet days or even weeks may pass up there. I should work on them someplace besides here."
"Very well," said the priestess."You are permitted to take them up to the Temple, but they must not leave the consecrated space."
Arynë nodded and bent to lift the chest.
"Oof " she cried, unable to budge it. She frowned as the priestess chuckled."You see what I mean about the grain. Take a few scrolls at a time - you will be permitted to return to this room at will - but remember, only you."
"I will remember," said the girl, solemnly. She took three scroll from the chest and turned, but the priestess was gone.
Arynë walked swiftly through the tunnel up the trap door. She pushed at it, but it wouldn't budge.
"Oh, no she cried, panicky. She set the scrolls down carefully and pushed at the door with both hands, but it was firmly shut."Someone must have pushed the altar back "
Arynë began pounding on the door with both fists, crying out to whoever might be on the other side, but the altar was made of heavy stone. It was dark in the tunnel. Arynë sat down on the floor and put her head in her hands, trying to think of a way out.
"Someone will come looking for me," she whispered to herself."Mhari and Aradia know of this place; one of them will surely figure out where I am and come for me. They have to "
Mhari and the rest of the elders assembled in the Temple as Aradia ordered; it was the safest place in the upper town as it was the most easily protected. They were escorted by Anaea and another warrior whom Aradia had assigned to guard them there - just in case.
"Thank you, my Dear," Mhari told Anaea as she guided her to a chair. The warriors had set up chairs, Temples, and sleeping mats for the elders. They had also moved the altar back over the trap doors - wouldn't do for one of the grandmothers to fall in there, after all. The warriors settled them in, then took their posts at the doors.
"Let us know if you need anything else," said the other warrior. She was eager for this watch to be over so she could down to the lower town so she could be there when the Romans made their move.
Mhari settled down in a chair next to her friend, Alkaia. Alkaia sighed and poured tea for both of them.
"What's wrong?" asked the shamaness
"Ah, I'm just being an old fool," said her friend."Regretting things which are long past changing. I was just thinking of how much I wish I had completed my training."
"It's being in the Temple that brings that to the surface," said Mhari, nodding her understanding."What would you have done differently?"
"I'd have finished, of course," said Alkaia.
"What stopped you?" asked Mhari.
"Well, the Persians, to start with," said Alkaia."Then the Scythians, and then ... oh, I see what you're saying."
"Sometimes things are out of our control," said Mhari with a sigh.
"Yes," Alkaia agreed. The two sat in companionable silence, sipping their tea for a while.
"Where's that girl?" Alkaia asked suddenly.
"Arynë? I don't know," said Mhari."I imagine she's with the other girls, guarding the top of the steps from the lower town.
"Like the Romans will even get that far," said Alkaia, shaking her head.
"They may - we didn't think the Kaskans would get as far they did, either," said Mhari.
"They wouldn't have if the Gorgons hadn't betrayed us," Alkaia said."Never would have seen that coming."
"No, we didn't," said Mhari.
"Leilë did," another woman interjected.
"Asteria, you hush now," said Mhari.
"Well, she did," Asteria grumbled."If Aradia had listened to her, we'd never have been in exile for ten years."
"That's not true, Asteria," said Mhari."Leilë was telling Aradia to take the entire city of Amazons and go into hiding - that simply wasn't practical."
"Leilë spoke in so many riddles, how could anyone know what she was really telling them to do?" said another of the elders."No, I stand behind Aradia. She did what she had to at the time. And she will again this time around."
Asteria grumbled a bit more, but quietly and to herself.
"Who else knows about Leilë's visions?" Mhari said quietly to Alkaia.
"Most of the women in here," said Alkaia."But most of them stand behind Aradia. Besides, Leilë didn't predict Athtar's treachery. And she did speak in such riddles. Not like you when you have your visions, Mhari."
"No, I just don't remember them afterward," the shamaness said with a chuckle.
"No, but as long as you have someone there to remember for you, you do alright," said Alkaia with a smile.
An ally will come to us from an unexpected place ... and perhaps an enemy from one we trust ...
Mhari heard her own voice speaking those words, but couldn't remember the images which had produced them or when they had come to her. She had a feeling it was important, though, so she closed her eyes and drifted off. Nothing came to her and she sighed.
This getting old is way over-rated, thought the shamaness. I can't even control these things anymore - not that I ever could, but it's even harder now.
Instead of the vision she was trying to recall, she kept seeing Arynë's face, smudged with dirt and streaked with tears. She opened her eyes with a start and arose quickly, walking to the doors of the Temple. Alkaia, alarmed at her friend's actions, followed.
"Anaea, have you seen Arynë this morning?" Mhari asked.
"Not since she came out of the Temple before dawn, why?" asked the warrior.
"I need her - can you please send someone to look for her?" said Mhari, her brow furrowed in worry.
"We don't have many to spare, but I can go," said Anaea."She should be with her age-mates at the top of the stairs to the lower town."
"If not, try the stables - she's pretty excited about her horse," offered the other sentry with a smile.
"Right," said Anaea."I'll be right back." Mhari returned with Alkaia to their chairs to wait. The shamaness closed her eyes and sighed.
"What's wrong?" asked Alkaia.
"I know she isn't in either of those places," said Mhari."The trouble is, I don't know where she is."
Arynë sat at the trap door for a while. Finally, she could bear it no more; she had to get out of here. For all she knew the Romans had already attacked and she wasn't where she was supposed to be when that happened.
She picked up the scrolls and started walking back towards the hidden chamber. The wooden door was closed and Arynë sighed in frustration before remembering that the priestess had given her permission to return to the room whenever she wished. She reached out and pushed open the door, stepping into the chamber.
"Okay," she said to herself."I have to be careful here - remember, time stands still here." She set the scrolls in her arms back into their chest and walked around the room, counting her heartbeats so she wouldn't lose track of how long she had been here. It was then she remembered the door that had been locked.
"Well, it's worth a try, anyway," she said, startled by her own voice. The only other sound in the chamber was running water, as if from a stream close by. Arynë walked to the wooden door and tried it, but found it locked.
"My daughter, what is that you seek?"
Arynë looked around to see the Great Goddess who had been Hekau standing behind her.
"Lady, I need to get out of here," said the girl, desperately.
"I'm sorry, Child, but that isn't a way out - it will only take you deeper," said the Goddess."You are not yet ready for that place."
"Lady, you know that I must get out of here - the Romans are coming They're here. I need to -" began the girl.
"To what? Fight?" asked the Goddess.
"I need to be there to stand by my sisters and to do whatever I can," said Arynë, solemnly."Can you help me to get out of here?"
The Lady nodded."You know what is kept in this room, My Child?" she said.
"Food, scrolls ... stuff?" said Arynë, frowning.
"All of the treasures of the Amazons, past, present, and future, are kept here and in the rooms beyond," said the Goddess.
"Rooms? Are there more?" asked Arynë, her eyes widening in excitement.
"Yes, but they are for another time," said the Goddess."You, my dear Arynë, are the most precious of treasures for the Amazons right now. Perhaps that is why you are unable to leave this chamber."
"And maybe someone just put the altar back where it belongs because they didn't realise I was down here," said the girl, both hands on her slim hips.
The Lady threw back her head and laughed heartily."You are indeed a treasure, Little One," she said.
So does that mean that you're going to keep me down here? Or help me back to where I need to be? asked Arynë.
"I'm tempted to keep you here where I know you'll be safe, Arynë, said the Lady. Then again, if I could, I'd have the whole Amazon Nation tucked away someplace safe.
Then why don't you? asked Arynë. Or better yet, make the Romans and everyone else just leave us alone?
If only I could, said the goddess.
Why can't you? Aren't you the Great Mother of All? asked Arynë, worriedly. I mean, you're supposed to be able to anything ˆ otherwise ∑.
It doesn't work that way, Arynë, said the Lady, gently. Somewhere inside you, you knew that already. I suppose it's appropriate that you receive your first 'priestess lesson' from Me ˆ though this isn't your first lesson, is it?
Arynë looked at her, puzzled, for a moment. Then a long-forgotten memory came back to her and she was transported back in time, to a day long ago ∑
Leilë still haunted by the dream from the previous night, walked up to Aradia's house from the Temple. Arynë watched her approach from her bedroom window, bouncing excitedly on her little bed. She liked the priestess; Leilë always had a sweet tucked in her pocket for Arynë and she told really wonderful stories. It was Leilë who had given Julisa to Arynë. Julisa, who was tucked safely under Arynë's arm, was more than just a dolly; she was Arynë's best friend.
Something was different about Leilë today, though. Arynë could sense that the priestess was worried about something. She said as much to Julisa.
"She's worried about you, Arynë," said Julisa. Arynë always saw her as a girl her own age or maybe a little older.
"Why?" asked Arynë.
"She has to warn Aradia about the bad thing that's going to happen," said Julisa.
"Bad thing?" said Arynë, her little face started to screw up in preparation for the impending tears. "What's going to happen, Julisa?"
"You're going away," said Julisa, sadly. "So's Mama and Aradia."
"And you, too," said Arynë.
"No. I have to wait here for you and Aradia to come back," said Julisa.
"And Mama," said Arynë.
"Mama isn't going to come back," said Julisa, shaking her head.
Arynë started to cry in earnest and ran from the room to find her mother.
"Mama! Mama! No go!" she cried as Thalia bent and lifted her up, drying her tears.
"What's this?" asked Thalia, hugging her close. "Where do you think I'm going?"
"J'lisa said," said Arynë, sniffling and tucking her head into her mother's neck.
"Ohhh, Julisa told you something?" asked Thalia, smiling as she cuddled her little girl. "Come, Leilë is here to see us."
"No, Mama, see 'Radia," said Arynë, solemnly.
Thalia blinked in surprise.
"Yes, she did come to see Aradia, too, this time," said Thalia. "But Aradia is at the Fortress this morning."
Thalia brought the child to the main room where Leilë sat with a cup of tea before the hearth. She smiled when she saw Arynë, but her smile faded swiftly when the child began to cry at the sight of her, though she did go to the priestess and snuggle.
"Thalia, you must tell Aradia to get the Amazons to safety," said Leilë
"No!" cried Arynë, looking at her, stricken. "No! Mama no go! Mama stay, me stay right here!"
"She knows something," said Leilë looking at the child intently. "Come, we must bring her to the Temple there may be not time later."
"We should wait for Aradia," said Thalia, frowning.
"There's no time," said Leilë Then she smiled. "Besides, you know Aradia; she won't deny you anything especially where the child is concerned."
"That's true; though I think she thinks me silly for spending so much time in the Temple," said Thalia.
"No doubt she does," Leilë chuckled."Since Aradia's gods are a good sword in the hand and a good horse under her butt."
Arynë rode to the Temple on her mother's hip. She leaned over, reaching for the shiny pommel of the sword on Thalia's other hip.
"No, Arynë, ouch," said Thalia, gently moving the little girl's hands away.
"I save Mama from bad thing," Arynë declared, again reaching for the sword.
"What bad thing?" asked Thraso.
"Bad thing - J'lisa said bad thing take `Raea's mama away," said Arynë.
"Julisa said that?" asked Leilë, looking at the child with keen interest. Arynë nodded and stuck a finger in her mouth then hid her face in her mother's neck.
"Julisa is what she calls the doll you made for her," Thalia explained.
"Yes, I know," said Leilë, absently."Arynë, may I see Julisa?"
Arynë handed the rag doll to her maker.
"She just talks to me," said Arynë."Mama `n `Radia can't hear her."
"Oh, I see," said Leilë, handing Julisa back to Arynë."You must be very important for Julisa to talk to you then."
Arynë squirmed proudly, causing her mother to set her down.
"Come on Arynë. You really are getting too big to carry," she said, extending her hand for the little girl to take.
They entered the Temple and Leilë led them to the altar. She held out a hand and the altar slid over to reveal two trap doors. Leilë lifted one and motioned for Thalia and Arynë to precede her into the dark tunnel. Leilë came up behind them, carrying a torch.
"Just walk forward, follow the tunnel to the door," she said, softly.
The three made their way through the tunnel in silence until they came to a wooden door. Thalia tried it, but found it locked. Then Arynë reached out with her tiny hand and pushed it open.
"H - how did she ...?" began Thalia, looking to Leilë.
"She will be a strong spiritual leader for the Amazons - if she lives long enough," said Leilë."You and Aradia must ensure that she does live long enough."
"Naturally we want the same thing, Leilë," said Thraso."We'll do everything in our power to protect her and see that she grows up."
"That's not enough - if Aradia will not take the Amazons into hiding, you must at least hide Arynë," said Leilë.
"`Radia not hide from nobody," said Arynë, shaking her dark curls before toddling through the door.
"Arynë " called her mother, starting after her. Leilë stopped her with a hand on her shoulder,
"No - this room is forbidden to all but the priestess-born," she said.
"You mean Arynë ...?" said Thalia, trying to see into the chamber.
"Yes - but you must take extra care for her, Thalia, and convince that stubborn warrior, too," said Leilë, desperation tinging her plea.
Arynë looked about the huge chamber in awe. She wandered over to the wooden door on the other side of the chamber and pushed it open ...
Arynë was jolted out of her memory.
"Blessed Lady - how long have I been here?" she asked. She ran back through the tunnel to the trap door leading up to the tunnel.
"Okay, now what the priestess did was this - " Arynë said softly to herself. She raised her hand towards where the altar sat over the trap door."And the alter slid over -"
She was interrupted by a scraping, grating sound and the trap door opened, spilling light down into the antechamber of the tunnel.
"Arynë, are you alright?" Mhari cried, reaching down to help the girl out.
"Yeah, I'm fine," said Arynë, climbing out through the trapdoor and into the bright Temple. She glanced out of the window and sighed with relief.; it was still only about mid-day.
"Yeah, but of what day?" she muttered.
"What was that, Dear?" asked Mhari, brushing the dust off of the girl.
"Mhari, how long was I down there?" asked Arynë.
"Well, I haven't seen you since you left this morning - oh, my Have you been down there that long? You must be starving," said the shamaness.
"Yeah, a little," said Arynë as Mhari led her to a table, set up by the warriors, laden with food and drink."Mhari, how did you know I was down there?"
"Because you weren't anywhere else we looked," replied the shamaness."I remembered you were coming here to put the crown back for safekeeping and I hadn't seen you since, so it was logical you were still there."
"Oh," said Arynë."I thought that maybe ..."
"What?" asked the shamaness."That I'd had a vision?"
"Yeah, something like that," said Arynë, wearily scrubbing her face with her palm."I'm going up to the summit watchtower - I think guarding the steps is just busy work anyway."
"Arynë, be careful," Mhari called after her. She stopped at her house and retrieved her mother's old sword, carefully sheathing it at her hip. Then she climbed the trail to the summit.
Four Amazons stood watch there and they saluted Arynë in greeting before moving aside to allow her to climb in with them.
"What are you doing here, Princess?" asked one of the sentries.
"I just wanted to have a look," said Arynë. She was becoming accustomed to the title, though it still made her feel a bit uncomfortable.
The sentries moved aside from the lookout window so Arynë could see.
"You can see where they left their trail," said another of the Amazons.
Arynë could indeed see the wide swath of trampled and littered ground left by the Roman soldiers.
"So they came up and circled 'round the mound, apparently looking for a way up ...." mused the girl.
"No, Princess, they would have sent a few scouts to do that - not the whole army," said the third sentry.
"According to Prothoë, they did send their scouts, but we are well hidden; we saw them before they saw us," said another of the sentries."You'd better get your post, Little Sister - Aradia is very strict about following orders."
"Yeah," said Arynë, turning to go."What are the chances of them having seen us and us not knowing they did?"
The sentries looked at one another warily, then back at Arynë."Let's just say ... the scouts won't be a problem in any case," one replied.
Arynë frowned, but said nothing as she climbed out of the tower and began to walk down the trail to the town. She didn't want to know what the sentries meant, though inwardly she chastised herself for her squeamishness.
Any right you had to judge them left when you agreed to Aradia's plan about the poison arrows, she thought to herself.
Still, the girl felt troubled. She decided that the steps had enough"guards" and instead passed by her age-mates on her way to the lower town where Arynë sought out Aradia.
"Hey, Princess - what are you doing here?" asked Prothoë, riding up to her; the lieutenant was in charge of the cavalry unit."Why are you not with the rest of the younglings, guarding the steps?"
"It's a bit crowded," said Arynë.
Prothoë raised an eyebrow."Does Aradia know you're not there?"
"No, I was just looking for her - is she around?" asked the girl. Prothoë nodded once in the direction of the ruined fortress. Arynë waved her thanks and trudged over to where she could see her foster mother, talking earnestly with Thraso.
"Aradia," she said as she approached. Aradia looked up and saw Arynë walking towards her. The queen frowned, angrily.
"Why have you left your post?" she asked, stepping forward to prevent Arynë from advancing any further.
"I - I wanted to see -" began the girl, startled by Aradia's anger.
"Damn it, Arynë When I order you to a post, you do not leave it until I say so - is that clear?" Arynë's eyes narrowed in anger and she nodded once, then turned and started back to the top of the steps.
"If my own daughter disobeys orders, how in the four hells can I expect the rest of the Amazons to follow them?" Aradia called after her.
Tears welled in Arynë's eyes, blurring her vision even as Aradia's words blurred the anger in her heart. Aradia had a point - and she had called Arynë her daughter - how could Arynë stay angry with her? Still the scolding had stung. She bumped into Prothoë, now leading her horse rather than riding, cooling the creature from the drills the cavalry had exercised in the paddock earlier.
"She's right, you know," said Prothoë, softly."But I could talk with her about allowing you to join with the cavalry - I imagine watching the steps is pretty ... well, dull. And dulled senses can kill a warrior."
"I'd love that, Prothoë, but I don't think Aradia will let me," said Arynë, sadly.
"She may - I'll talk with her," said the warrior, leading her horse back toward the stables.
Arynë climbed the stairs and waited with the others her age until Thraso came to tell them they were relieved for the night.
"Where's Aradia?' asked Arynë.
"She won't leave the fortress until the battle now, Arynë," said Thraso."You go on to the Temple and stay with Mhari until morning."
"Who's going to guard the steps until then?" asked Arynë, the sarcasm slipping into her voice. Thraso smiled, sympathetically.
"How do the others like guarding them?" she asked.
"They love it - it makes them feel like they're actually doing something," said Arynë with a shrug.
"But for you - there's so much more that you could be doing, isn't there, Arynë?" asked Thraso, sympathetically."I mean, you killed Yarg. You helped lead the Amazons back to our ancestral home, you killed the Graii and confronted Athtar, helping to retrieve the Sword of Artemis - and Aradia treats you like a little girl. I understand how frustrating that must be for you."
"You do?" said Arynë.
"Yes I do," said Thraso, sitting on the top step."I do understand, but I want you to see it from Aradia's view point - she's already lost your mother in battle; she's scared."
"So am I," said Arynë, sitting with Thraso. "I know - we all are; well, all of us with any sense that is," Thraso said with a chuckle.
"I would feel better if I could be down there with her somehow," said Arynë with a sigh.
"I know you would, but Aradia would be so busy worrying about you that she wouldn't be able to do what needs to be done," said Thraso.
"I can take care of myself," said Arynë, stubbornly.
"I know, but Aradia would still worry," Thraso said."Try to understand, she loves you. She thinks of you as her own daughter. It's just too bad you couldn't find a way to watch from a safe distance."
Arynë smiled."I know - it's okay, Thraso," she said."I really do understand." The girl rose and walked to the Temple. Mhari saw her face as she entered and sat next to the shamaness for the evening meal.
"What's going on Arynë?" she asked. Arynë merely offered a small smile and shook her head.
"I was just talking with Thraso," she said, quietly.
"And what did Thraso have to say?" asked Mhari. Her only reply was a small shrug from Arynë.
Mhari sighed, but remained silent while Arynë ate very little of her dinner. Afterwards, the girl sat in silence as the others in the Temple sat in a rough circle on the floor and began to sing and chat together in a comfortable camaraderie.
"Hey, Princess, how about a story?" called one of the women. Arynë shook her head and started to refuse, but Mhari stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Go ahead, Arynë," said the shamaness."It will be good for them - and for you."
So Arynë joined the women sitting in the circle.
"What ... what kind of story would you like?" she asked. "Something funny with a happy ending," said Momi. The other girl's eyes were wide with fear of the Romans camped so close.
Arynë nodded, then closed her eyes to think. Suddenly, images began to play before her closed eyes and the girl was completely unaware she had begun to speak, telling the story which played inside her head.
The Amazons in the Temple laughed and clapped. Arynë opened her eyes and blinked.
"What?" she said.
"Oh, Arynë, that was wonderful " said Momi, clapping her friend on the shoulder."I don't remember that one being in the scrolls. Did you just make it up?"
"Um," said Arynë looking desperately at Mhari. The shamaness smiled.
"No, that was a true story," she said.
"Dragons and magic?" said one of the craftswomen, raising her eyebrow.
"Remember, this was a long time ago," said another of the women.
The women nodded and begged for another story, but Arynë declined; the trance had exhausted her and she lay down behind the altar on her bedroll to sleep.
(To be continued)
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