Chapter Thirteen: Messenger of the Sword

Arynë awoke and sat up. It was morning and Aradia was not in the tent. The girl splashed water on her face and went outside.

The Amazons were once again in formation and Aradia was mounted on Kalika. Arynë's horse, Kaiyanta, was saddled and waiting.

"Come on, Arynë," said Aradia. "We've got an hour's ride around the mound to meet the rest of the cavalry in the trees before the foot warriors attack."

"Oh!" said Arynë, running and mounting Kaiyanta. "Are we really going to ..."

"Yep - we're pushing back," said Aradia, with a grin.

"What about losing Amazon lives to impatience?" asked the girl as the two rode to the stables and the secret trail behind them.

"If we do this right, we won't lose anyone," said the queen. "Come on, a little faith here, Kiddo."

"You must have a flawless plan to be letting me ride down with you," said Arynë, checking her sword.

"No, I don't," said Aradia, soberly. "No plan is flawless, but I don't think you'll be in any danger. Our cavalry ride out and attack the wings while our foot keeps the Roman velites busy. You and I have a special mission. We're going to capture Aurelian's standard."

"Why are we going to do that, Aradia?" asked Arynë.

"Because it will really annoy him," said Aradia, chuckling.

"Okaaay, who are you and what have you done with my stuffy, overprotective ... uh, m-mother?" asked Arynë, stumbling slightly over the word as she tasted it, feeling it with both her heart and mouth and liking it.

Aradia, too, liked it and smiled slightly at the appellation. "We need his standard for my plan against them," said the queen.

"What plan is that?" asked Arynë,

"Diverting his re-inforcements if he decides to send for any," said Aradia.

They rode down the secret trail in silence, whistling a signal to the hidden sentries posted along the way to let them pass. They continued their silent ride , accompanied by the sounds of the birds singing and the buzzing of bees, gathering the last pollen of the autumn blossoms until they reached the edge of the hazelnut grove; there they met with the rest of the mounted Amazon warriors. They greeted their queen and princess with a salute. Aradia acknowledged them with a nod and returned the salute, then rode to the further edge of the trees. She watched as Thraso led the foot warriors into their places. They crouched behind large rocks and in the thick, concealing brush around the perimeter of the Roman camp.

Aradia waited until they were all in place. She nodded to the mounted warriors, then whistled a signal to attack. The Amazons emerged in a wave. Aradia led the mounted Amazons, bursting out of the trees with Arynë at her side. Arynë held her sword in her hand, screeching a battle cry as she rode like a missile straight into the Roman camp, knocking Roman foot soldiers out of her way with the flat of her blade. The Amazon warriors followed her, dispatching the fallen Romans. Aradia stayed beside the girl, struggling to keep up as she skirted around Amazon and Roman warriors alike, engaged in their own battles on the ground.

Aurelian emerged from his tent at the sounds of fighting, his sword drawn. He shouted orders at the Roman soldiers, getting them mobilised and ready to fight.

Gods-be- damned unpredictable women! he thought as his soldiers assembled against the attacking Amazons. They were engaged with the soldiers at the perimeter of the camp. Then Aurelian saw them, two mounted Amazons, riding straight towards the heart of the camp. He watched with fascination, as if he were mesmerised by the women. They came ever closer and Aurelian remained frozen, watching in disbelief. He could not fathom the suicidal dash - what were they after? Him? Was this an assassination attempt? Were the women mad?

He saw them stop short of his command tent. They were close enough that he could now see they were Aradia and the girl. Aradia looked at him, a slow smile spreading across her face. The the girl looked over at him, grinned, and made a rude gesture just before grabbing the wooden pole of his standard and riding off back to the Amazons. Aradia shrugged, then grabbed the Emperor's standard which had stood next to Aurelian's and rode after the girl.

The realisation then hit Aurelian. No, not an assassination attempt - they had stolen the Roman standards! They were playing with him, mocking him once again as the old woman had.

"Stop them!" he yelled, but too late; the Amazons were already gone, retreating from the battles at the perimeter, leaving the Romans standing there, bewildered, as the women faded back into the trees, rocks, and brush, disappearing from sight as if they had never been.

Aradia and Arynë rode around the mound, escorted by the rest of the Amazon cavalry. The sentries posted along the hidden trail emerged and silently saluted the cavalry as they returned the horses to the stables. The foot soldiers climbed the cliffs to the lower town, Amazon archers covering their ascent.

Aradia and Arynë cooled down the horses, then brushed, watered, and fed them before taking the Roman standards to the ruined fortress where Silas awaited them. Two Amazons approached, dragging an unconscious Roman soldier between them.

"Okay, Silas," said Aradia. "Are you ready?"

"Absolutely," he said. They stripped the Roman of his armour and helm. "Are you sure more Romans are coming, Aradia?"

"Yes," said Aradia. "Aurelian wants to overwhelm us with numbers. I saw his face yesterday, watching. He was disappointed we didn't lose more Amazons than we did."

"He must be fuming today," said Arynë, grinning.

"Yeah," said Aradia, smiling. "The fact that we stole his standards right out from under two legions - with no loss of Amazon life, thank you very much - probably has him crazy. We'd better be prepared; Aurelian will try to regain what dignity he can by attacking. I expect more Romans within the week."

"And I'll be there to meet them and take them to what is left of the village," said Silas.

"And we'll be there to hijack the supply wagons they will undoubtably bring with them," said Arynë.

"Which only buys us a bit more time," said Aradia. "We have to figure out how to get rid of Aurelian for good."

"We need re-inforcements like he has," said Arynë, quietly.

"Yes, that would be ideal," said Aradia. "If Aurelian thought that there were more of us than those here in the city, he would realise that he won't ever defeat us. Unfortunately, that isn't possible. We just have to find another way."

"What about our allies?' asked Arynë. "Surely we had some before ..."

"We've had no time to negotiate and renew the old treaties," said Aradia, with a sigh. "And no guarantees that our friends would side with us against Rome. They are a formidible enemy."

"They aren't so much," said Arynë. "There's just so many of them. If everyone came together and fought them, they would be crushed for good."

"That's true," said Aradia. "That's why, like any wise predator, Rome strives to separate its prey from everyone else before pouncing and conquering them. No if Rome ever falls, it will be from within."

"Yes, it will," said Arynë, a faraway look in her eyes. She shook her head. "But we can't afford to wait for that."

Silas looked at her sharply. "Has she been doing that again?' he asked with concern.

"All the time," said Aradia. "Why?"

"She did that when she was small, too," said Silas. "Woke up one night right after she came to me, screaming that her mother had been killed. Mhari gave her something and it seemed to stop. Well, mostly. She still told stories about seeing ghosts."

"Those were no stories, Silas," said Aradia. "She does see them. It's just part of who she is. Being here brings it out more, I believe."

"Yes, but ... is she okay?" asked the concerned uncle.

"Of course she is," said Aradia. "Now come - we have to get this Roman somewhere safe until our armour-makers can duplicate his armour. I don't want Aurelian getting any ideas about what we're up to. We can take him back to his camp as soon as they're done."

They dragged the unconscious Roman into an unoccupied tent. Silas waited there for him to wake up.

"You!" said the Roman when he saw Silas sitting there, bound as he himself was. "What happened? Why are you tied up? Aurelian said they would rescue you."

"They think I betrayed them - that I led you to them here," said Silas. "We have to get out of here before they kill us both."

The Roman began struggling against his bonds until the tent flap slapped open and Aradia strode in, accompanied by Arynë and two Amazon warriors.

"Amazons, mercy, please!" cried Silas, his eyes wide.

"Shut up, Traitor," said Aradia, delivering a kick to his ribs. Silas fell and rolled to his side, moaning. "You." Aradia cast her eyes on the Roman. She motioned to the warriors flanking her and Arynë. They moved as one, bending and pulling the Roman to his feet.

"Take him to my tent," said Aradia. The warriors dragged him off and Aradia followed. Arynë remained behind until the tent flap closed, then she bent and untied Silas. She handed him a bundle.

"Here's the duplicate armour, Uncle," she said, quietly. "Please be careful."

"I will," said Silas. He stood as two more Amazons entered the tent. "I'll see you soon. Ready?" He bent and hugged Arynë tightly. One of the Amazons splashed rabbit blood on Silas's shirt. Then they took him by the arms as Silas made himself limp. His head lolled to one side and the Amazons carried him past the Roman who was being escorted to Aradia's tent.

Thraso waited in the tent for Aradia and the Amazons to bring the Roman soldier. As soon as they arrived, she signalled to one of the warriors who had escorted the Roman. The warrior nodded slightly and left them. The remaining Amazons shoved the Roman roughly into a chair as the beat of Amazon drums started outside. The young Roman soldier heard a ram's horn blaring outside of the tent.

"Aradia, I've sent out the call for our sister Tribes to join us against the Roman scum," said Thraso smiling.

"Very good, Thraso," said Aradia, sitting across from the Roman. "What is your name, Soldier?"

"I am Briccius Venatus Amazonum," said the soldier.

"'Briccius, Amazon Hunter', eh?" said Aradia. "Is this your first campaign, then?"

"Are you going to kill me?" asked Briccius.

"I don't know yet," said Aradia.

"That other man - "

"Silas was counted as a friend to the Amazons - he betrayed us," said Aradia, coldly. "You, on the other hand, are a soldier, doing your job. The Amazons understand that. We respect it. We are still enemies, you and I, but the Amazons have honour and that honour is very important to us."

Briccius sat there. The drums pounded in his head, confusing him. He was disoriented and afraid. What did these women want from him?

"Why am I here, then?" he asked.

"I want you to carry a message to Aurelian," said Aradia. "Tell him that Aradia sends her greetings and that if he will take his men and leave Amazon territory for good, I will not crush him and his troops to oblivion when our siser Tribes arrive to fight by our side against him."

"The general will kill me for bringing him such a message!" Briccius protested. Swiftly, Thraso was behind him, her knife at his throat.

"You don't seem to understand your position here, Briccius," said Aradia. "You are a man in a city full of women warriors who have every reason to hate you and none to help you - save delivering that message."

Briccius hesitated only a moment longer; bringing Aurelian the information that the Amazons were expecting re-inforcements might save his life if he agreed to do this for the Amazon Queen. If he refused, the Amazons would surely kill him.

"Very well," he said, swallowing hard. Thraso backed off and put her knife away, then tossed Briccius's armour to him.

"Get dressed and we will escort you to your camp," said Aradia, rising and leaving the tent with Thraso right behind her.

Briccius dressed swiftly, then emerged from the tent. The Amazons immediately placed a blindfold over his eyes and took both of his arms, leading him towards the cliffs.

"M-my sword," said Briccius.

"Not until you are out of the city and among your own people again," said Thraso.

They wound a thick rope about his chest and waist, then handed the ropes over to the sentries on the wall. The sentries lowered Briccius to the ground below the lower town while Thraso and the two warriors descended by way of the rope and pulley system they had devised first for the tree village, then adapted to use here for swifter descents and ascents. They met Briccius on the ground and led him by the ropes still fastened around him to just beyond the perimeter.

Almost Briccius didn't realise that the ropes were gone, so deftly and silently did the Amazons remove them and disappear, fading out of sight and into landscape. He removed the blindfold and looked around, blinking in the sunlight. Then he bent and retrieved his sword. He straightened and looked around. Seeing and hearing nothing but the wind blowing through the trees and tall grasses and the birds chirping in the trees, Briccius ran to the Roman camp, occasionally looking back to see if the Amazons were watching him.

Briccius was no fool; there was no way the Amazons would be able to kill him if he did not deliver their dangerous message to the general now. Aurelian, however, might not look favourably upon a soldier who withheld knowledge that might be useful to the general. Briccius was undecided. He didn't want to die, not like that. If his time came, he wanted it to be in glorious battle, not hanging from a tree like a traitor or a coward. He decided that the best course of action was to wait and see what happened.

Aradia sat in her tent and waited for Thraso to return. The Second in Command did not keep her waiting long.

"Well?" asked the Queen.

Thraso smiled. "He ran to his camp as fast as he could," she said, chuckling. "Think he'll deliver your message?"

"It really doesn't matter - that was just a diversion from the real reason we captured him," said Aradia with a shrug.

"The armour," said Thraso, nodding.

"Yes," said Aradia. "I don't want Aurelian to have an idea what I'm doing. This is our one chance to buy a little time until I can figure out how to rid our land of these damn Romans once and for all. If he figures out what I'm up to, it will blow that chance and we won't get another."

"He won't figure it out, Aradia," said Thraso. "How could he?"

Aradia grew silent, withdrawing against the tight fear which clutched at her chest and had since Aurelian arrived in Amazon Territory. Resolutely, she tried to push the fear away, but it was no good; it was an old resident in her mind, well-established and nearly unevictable.

"Aradia, did he anticipate you and Arynë grabbing the standards?" asked Thraso.

A crack in the shell of fear surrounding the queen opened. "No ... no he didn't - he was completely surprised," she said, thoughtfully. "He would have certainly stopped us if he had."

"Whatever power this man may or may not have held over you, Aradia, it's gone now - perhaps being here, in the city of our Ancient Mothers, protects you," said Thraso. "Or perhaps this man never really had any power over you at all, save what he made you believe he had. In any case, you are free of this hold he had over you now."

"Maybe not free, but it's shaking loose and crumbling away, little by little," said the queen. "Thank you, Thraso, for helping me put it into perspective."

"Eventually, Aradia, you will realise fully that you have nothing more to fear from this man - other than in battle, of course," said Thraso. "Though I have heard it said that many of Rome's generals have merely bought their commission, rather than earn it in battle."

"No, you can tell by the way he moves, Aurelian is a warrior," said Aradia.

"So are you," said Thraso.

"If only we had more of an advantage," said Aradia. "If Aurelian wasn't so sure of victory against us, I could challenge him, one on one, winner decides the war. Unfortunately, there's no reason for him to believe such a match would be to his benefit in any way."

"Well, if your message is delivered, he may believe that more Amazons are on their way," said Thraso. "That may shake his confidence a bit."

"I wouldn't count on that hap-" began Aradia. She was interrupted by Arynë bursting into the tent.

"Roman ships approaching," she gasped. "Three of them"

"Where's Silas?' asked Aradia.

"He took a horse - and the standards - to meet them," said Arynë.

"Thraso mobilise the cavalry for an ambush - " Aradia began, then stopped.

"Aradia, I'm no rider," said Thraso, quietly.

"I am! Let me go!" cried Arynë. "Please, Aradia? I can lead the ambush."

"Arynë, I just don't know," said Aradia.

"Aradia, there's no one else," said Thraso, slowly. "With your wound, you can't do it."

Aradia flexed her arm and saw the bandage seeping red from underneath. "It's too soon," she said. "Even if Aurelian sent for troops during the truce, it would take at least a week for them to arrive, even from the nearest Roman outpost. Something's not right about all this."

"What do we do?' asked Thraso.

"Arynë, stop Silas and Thraso, take some scouts down there to spy out the ships," said Aradia.

"Do you want me to send Mhari - or Anikha - to take a look at that wound, Aradia?" asked Arynë.

"No - just hurry and get to Silas," said the queen. "I'm fine - go, go you two!"

Arynë mounted Kaiyanta and started down the hidden trail, whistling for the sentries to detain Silas before he left the trees. She met up with him just at the bottom of the trail.

"Arynë," said Silas. "What's going on?"

"Aradia says it's too soon for the Roman reinforcements to be coming," said Arynë.

Silas dismounted and looked out of the trees and the three galleys slowly approaching the shore. He whistled.

"She's right. Those aren't Roman, they're Greek-made - pirates, by the look of them, too," he said.

"What are they doing, Silas?" Arynë whispered. "Are they coming ashore?"

"I don't know," said Silas. He looked up at the sky through the trees. "Not likely - by the time they get close enough it will be too dark to navigate the coastline."

Thraso appeared with a group of scouts while Silas was removing the Roman armour. He bundled it up and tied it to the back of the horse.

"What's happening?' asked Thraso.

"Greek-made galleys - unmarked, so they're most likely pirates," said Silas.

"Not Roman, then," said Thraso with a nod. "Aradia was right - again. Karia, go and inform the queen. The rest of you - how close can you get to those boats without being seen?"

"Let's just find out," said one of the scouts with a grin. The group moved forward, then seemed to disappear into the land.

"How did they ...?' began Silas.

"This land is our home," said Arynë "And we are a part of it."

Silas looked at the two Amazons standing before him. They did indeed look as if they risen from the land around them. Arynë's eyes were the colour of the ripe hazelnuts hanging in the trees around them. Thraso's eyes matched the green of those same trees' leaves. Arynë's long, wavy hair was the colour of the dark, rich earth from which those trees grew. Thraso's was as golden as the reflection of the setting sun upon the sparkling water of the sea before them. Arynë's skin was as dark as the fallen leaves all around them while Thraso's was a fair as the sand on the shore. Light and dark, both Amazons were a part of this place.

Silas heard the cry of a strange bird arising from the rocks lining the shore. "What was that?" he said.

"It can't be," Thraso whispered. "Can it?"

"Can wha-?" began Arynë as Aradia came swiftly down the trail on Kalika.

"What's going on?" asked the queen.

"Those ships," said Thraso. "Silas says they're Greek - pirate ships, most likely. But the ccouts just whistled - "

The group in the trees heard the odd birdcall again. Aradia rode past the others to the edge of the trees at the bottom of the trail. She frowned and began riding faster towards the shore. A slow grin spread across her face.

"Telepyleia!" she cried, waving both arms at a small figure on the deck of one of the ships. The figure waved back enthusiastically. Aradia turned her head and called back to Thraso. "Quickly - get a platoon down here - I want torches and a huge fire on the beach to guide their boats to shore."

Thraso nodded and sent a sentry from the trail up to the lower town to carry out the queen's orders. Then she rode up the Aradia.

"Aradia, what's going on?" she asked.

"Looks like we got some re-inforcements," said Aradia, smiling.

part 14

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