One by one, boats were lowered from the anchored ships. Telepyleia came in the last boat launched, leaving only small crews to guard each galley. Aradia dismounted and ran to greet her old friend.
Telepyleia was about the same age as Aradia, though the sun and wind of the sea made her look at least a decade older. Her straw-coloured hair was generously threaded with silver, her blue eyes remained in a perpetual squint. Her dark, leathery skin was deeply creased with lines that deepened even more when she smiled. Her hands were rough and calloused, as was her speech.
"Aradia, how in the Four Hells are you?" she cried, grabbing the queen and pulling her into a tight embrace.
"How are you?" asked Aradia, deftly avoiding the question.
"Freakin' great," said Telepyleia, releasing her from the strangling embrace. "Now that we're all home. We heard the call a while back, but damned if it didn't stop before we found you. Then, just this morning, there it was again. I told my girl, Meploeo here, to turn about and follow those drums. Shoulda known we'd find you here eventually."
"Eventually? You've been by here before then?" asked ArynŽ.
"Well, sure - we were just waitin' for Ari' to come back," said Telepyleia, smiling at the girl. "Ari', this isn't ... is that Thalia's little one? She can't be, can she?"
"She can and she is," said Aradia, putting one arm around ArynŽ's shoulders and giving the girl a re-assuring squeeze. "This is ArynŽ."
"ArynŽ, good to see you again - you grew up real nice," said Telepyleia. "I've got two girls about your age - Meploeo, Kleite, come on over here and meet your kin."
Meploeo was fair-haired like her mother, with a quick grin and an even quicker wit. Kleite was dark-haired and fair-skinned, solemn and quiet.
"Meploeo was born onboard," said Telepyleia, ruffling the girl's short-cropped hair. "And she's a born sailor for more than just that - my right hand at sea, she is. My Kleite, though, she was born right here in our city. Been studyin' in Alexandria these past few years at the Pharaoh's own library."
"Really?" said ArynŽ. "What is it like there?"
"It is alright," she said, quietly.
"As much as I would love to catch up," said Aradia. "We have two Roman legions camped below the lower town around the other side of the mound."
"Point us to them," said Telepyleia, her bright blue eyes gleaming.
"Will do - when the time is right," said Aradia, smiling. "But for now, let's get you and your women settled - "
"Nah - thanks, Ari', but we'll camp here," said Telepyleia. "Need to stay near the ships just in case those Romans get any ideas."
"Well, suit yourselves, but I would really like it if you could come up to my tent," said Aradia.
"Oh, yeah?" said Telepyleia, wagging her eyebrows teasingly at Aradia. The queen laughed aloud and playfully punched Telepyleia's arm.
"Stop it," said Aradia. "We really do have some things to discuss."
"Alright," said Telepyleia. She turned to the rest of the women from the ships and ordered them to set up camp, then took her daughter Kleite by the arm and propelled her towards the secret trail as Aradia handed Kalika's reins to ArynŽ. "Take her up for me, ArynŽ, then join us in our tent, alright? Thraso, come with us."
The group went up the trail to the lower town, signalling the hidden sentries along the way. Silas followed, but went to the warriors' camp around the fortress instead of to Aradia's tent.
"Now, I have to ask you, Ari' - you allow that man among your warriors?" said Telepyleia, sitting in one of the chairs at the table in Aradia's tent. Aradia poured koumiss for her guests before answering.
"That's Silas, Thalia's brother," she said, sitting across from the sailor.
"And?" said Telepyleia looking intently at the queen. Kleite sat on the cot and Thraso stood behind Aradia.
"And he raised ArynŽ," said Aradia. "It's a long story. Just trust me, he's a valuable ally."
"Okay," said Telepyleia, with a shrug. She downed the cup of koumiss. "Ah, I've missed that. Now, what's going on?"
"Well, as I told you, we have two Roman legions camped below," Aradia began as ArynŽ entered the tent and sat next to Aradia at the table.
"Any engagements?" asked Telepyleia.
"Two - only the first held any casualties," said Aradia.
"And the second?" asked Telepyleia.
"Rome pushed - we pushed back," said ArynŽ, darkly.
"We, ah, captured their standards," said Aradia.
Telepyleia threw back her head and laughed. "Well done," she said, wiping her eyes. "I've been tweaking the damn Romans' noses for years, but that is priceless. Hit 'em where it hurts - the pride."
"Silas thought you were Greek pirates," said ArynŽ.
Telepyleia chuckled. "And well he might," she said, sobering. "We were captured by the Kaskans and sold to Greek merchants. Only about half of us survived. Those of us who did found ourselves on those very ships, bound for Greece."
"How did you get the ships?' asked ArynŽ, almost breathless as she listened.
"The Greeks were merchants, not warriors," said Telepyleia. "As soon as my women got their sea-legs, we took over - threw them over-board and took the ships. We removed the markings and we've been uh, 'privateering' ever since. Which reminds me, we have grain, cloth, wine, oil and other supplies on the ships. In the morning, we'll unload them. I imagine they'll come in handy."
"Will they ever," said Aradia, smiling gratefully. "Are you sure you want to camp by the water? It gets awfully cold at night this time of year."
"Yep, I'm sure," said Telepyleia. "Kleite, now, if you could find a warmer spot for her to sleep, it would be much appreciated. She's used to warm Egyptian nights."
"Of course," said Aradia, smiling at the girl. "ArynŽ, why don't you take Kleite to the Temple and get her settled in?"
"Sure, come on, Kleite," said ArynŽ, rising and taking the other girl by the hand. They left the tent and Telepyleia shook her head.
"I had to practically drag her aboard," she said.
"She didn't want to leave?" asked Aradia, pouring more koumiss.
"Nah, wasn't that - she hates being at sea," said Telepyleia. "Seasick the whole way here."
"Well, I can speak from experience - I don't blame her," said Aradia. "I will never get on another boat as long as I live."
Telepyleia chuckled. "Eh, Amazons are notoriously bad sea travelers, that's true," she said. "'Cept for that lot out there." She pointed back towards the sea with her thumb.
"So you've been a pirate for the last decade, huh?" said Aradia.
"That's 'privateer', if you don't mind," said Telepyleia, a twinkle in her blue eyes. "Yeah - and you've been a gladiator; I caught one of your matches. Little town called Patara - you were really out of it - did they drug you or something?"
"No," said Aradia, quietly. "At least I don't think so. It's pretty much a blur now. I don't even remember Patara."
"Thank Artemis for that," said Telepyleia. "It was a slaughter."
"They all were," said Aradia, not raising her eyes from her empty cup.
"Hey - we all did what we had to do to survive," said Telepyleia. "There's no shame in that. My women and I tried to get a message to you - we were going to try and rescue you. We couldn't get within an arrow shot. Some Roman - Aurelian, was his name - he had you guarded and locked down so tight - even had these amulet-thingys hanging outside of your cell. I suppose he thought he was using magic to keep you a prisoner as well as the locks and the guards."
"Amulet - what did they look like?" asked Aradia, frowning.
"Well, let me see," said Telepyleia, scratching her chin. She took a stick and began to draw in the dirt as Silas had earlier. "They were these clay tablets - 'bout the size of my palm - covered in wax. Under the wax, there was this symbol painted, but I couldn't really see it because it was dipped in wax. And then the wax overlaying it had another symbol scratched into it - like this. Then hanging from the whole affair were these strings with a bunch of knots tied in them."
"What does it mean?" Thraso asked, looking at Aradia.
"I don't know," said the queen, puzzled.
"I asked Kleite," said Telepyleia. "She's the scholar in the family. She said that the symbol in the wax was the Roman symbol for Mars - or Ares, we call him."
"Sweet Artemis - she couldn't find me," Aradia whispered. "She wasn't ignoring me - she couldn't hear me."
"Aradia? Are you alright?" asked Thraso.
Aradia shook her head. "What I fool I was - I should have known ... should have believed ... I'm fine Thraso," she said. "Just ... I'm fine. I need to go up to the Temple for a bit. You two are welcome to join me, but I need to do this."
"Sure, I'd love to see the old town - how'd it hold up, anyway?" asked Telepyleia.
"Almost perfect," said Thraso, smiling. "You two go on ahead - I'll stay down here and keep an eye on things."
"Are you sure?" asked Aradia. "ProthoŽ can handle things here for a bit - you haven't had a break since all this started."
"No, really - I'm fine," said Thraso, yawning. "Sorry - maybe I'll just hit my bedroll."
"Go ahead, then," said Aradia, smiling at her Second. "Get some rest - you're going to need it in the days ahead."
Aradia and Telepyleia walked up the steps to the upper town and on to the Temple. Telepyleia looked about, smiling. "You're right - a bit time-worn, to be sure, but almost perfect," she said. "Ah, it's a sight to warm my heart. I can hardly wait to rout the Romans and move back up here."
Aradia smiled at her old friend. "Me, too," she said.
"So what's the game plan?" asked Telepyleia. "Oh, wait - there isn't one, is there? You're gonna play it as it happens, right?"
"No - I tried that last time," said Aradia. "That was a costly lesson. No, I'm waiting to see what Aurelian is going to do."
"Aurelian? He's here?" asked Telepyleia.
"Yeah - he's leading the legions," replied Aradia with a sigh.
"Ooh," Telepyleia whistled. "So it's personal."
"Maybe for him," said Aradia, lips pressed tightly together. "I didn't ask for him to come here; in fact, I would have been a lot happier if he had just stayed in Rome and away from me forever."
"But now that he is here, if you get the chance, you'll be just as happy to kick his ass all the way back to Rome, right?" said Telepyleia.
"If that's what it takes to make him leave us alone, then yes," said Aradia.
"That's it? You don't want revenge for what he made you do?" asked Telepyleia, brows raised.
"What are talking about?" asked Aradia.
"Killing all those people - that wasn't you, Ari'," said Telepyleia, darkly. "This Aurelian put some kind of spell on you."
Aradia grinned. "Blessed Goddess - as if the Amazons aren't superstitious enough, now we have sea-faring Amazons - add the sailor superstitions to the mix and we're really in trouble."
Telepyleia grinned back. "Okay, Ari' - maybe you're right - but I saw you out there - there was something missing in your eyes - and then those amulets," she said, shaking her head.
"Those amulets hid me from the goddess," said Aradia, quietly. "Oh, when I think how many times I cursed at her in my heart for abandoning me - and all the while, she just couldn't find me." Aradia shook her head.
Telepyleia looked at her, doubtful, then sighed. "Well if that's the case, then if it's any consolation, Ari', she probably didn't hear ya cursin' at her, either," she said.
The two women walked into the Temple. The Amazons who were settled in there for the duration of the war all arose and saluted their queen. Aradia smiled and returned the salute, then motioned for the women to go back to what they were doing. Aradia and Telepyleia walked over to where ArynŽ was settling Kleite with Mhari and Alkaia. Kleite was now wearing some of ArynŽ's warmer Amazon clothing instead of the light-weight Egyptian-style clothing in which she had arrived.
"Mhari! I can't believe it!" said Telepyleia, delighted as she grabbed the shamaness and hugged her tightly. "It is so good to see you."
"And you, Little One," said Mhari, tears oozing from her eyes. "I never thought ... I am so happy you have come home - and brought us your daughter, as well!"
"Two daughters," said Telepyleia, proudly. "My youngest, Melploeo, is down with the ships."
"Two - ah, Telepyleia, truly you have blessed the Nation and have been goddess-blessed yourself," said Mhari, speaking the ritual words of congratulation one usually said to a mother who had just given birth.
"Thank you," said Telepyleia, softly. "It is good to hear at last."
"ArynŽ, I need to talk with you," said Aradia, pulling the girl aside.
"Yes, Aradia?" said ArynŽ.
"Where is Hekau?" asked the queen.
"I haven't seen her since we came back up here," said ArynŽ, frowning. "Why?"
"I need to see her," said Aradia. "I need for you to take me to that room below the Temple."
"Aradia, you know that I can't do that," said ArynŽ.
"Just take me through the tunnel, to the door," said Aradia.
"Alright," said the girl with a sigh. She went to the altar around which the women had left a wide space, clear of bedrolls and personal belongings. ArynŽ pointed at the altar and closed her eyes. It shifted to the side, slowly and halting at first, then slid the rest of the way to reveal two trap doors. ArynŽ went to one and pulled it open. Then she and Aradia stepped down into the tunnel.
"We could use a torch," said the queen, squinting in the dimness.
"Use the Sword," said ArynŽ, absently as she felt along the rough wall.
Aradia unsheathed the Sword of Artemis which began to glow, illuminating the narrow tunnel. Aradia marvelled at the paintings along the wall. "This is amazing," she whispered.
"I know," said ArynŽ, taking Aradia's free hand and leading her down through the twisty passageway. They arrived at a wooden door.
"Here, but Aradia, you can't - " began ArynŽ.
"I know, but just open the door - I promise, I'll not step foot on the consecrated ground, I just need to see if - just please open the door, ArynŽ," said Aradia, biting her lip.
ArynŽ sighed and pushed opened the door. Aradia gasped. It was as the girl had told her. There stood the Guardian Priestess.
"Queen you may be, but priestess you are not," said Jaiel. "You may not pass, Aradia."
"I know," said Aradia. "I seek an audience with the Lady."
"She knows already what you would say," said Jaiel. "Think you, Aradia, Daughter of Artemis, that the Great Mother of All could not pierce through the charms and icons made by mortal man's hand?"
She held up an amulet like that described by Telepyleia and crushed it between her fingers.
"Then why ...?" began Aradia. "I don't understand."
"All that has happened has happened for a reason," said Jaiel. "The amulets did not hide you from Her - they hid Her from you. She was with you the whole time; you could not see or feel Her, but She was there, by your side, guiding your hand."
"If She could hear me, then why didn't She let me die as I begged Her to do?" said Aradia, tears springing to her eyes.
"If you could have heard Her, you would know Her reasons for making you live," said Jaiel. "You know them now - they are camped in her Temple, around the ruined fortress, and now on the shore."
Aradia nodded, slowly. "I guess I know that - now," she said. "But - "
"Aradia, the Amazons were nearly decimated," said Jaiel, gently. "It was necessary to wait for the Amazon children to grow up into the warriors they are now. Who are your leaders? Think, which Amazons lead your troops?"
"Living in fear and on the run, hiding like animals - this was supposed to prepare them?" asked Aradia, angrily.
"The Goddess knows what Her daughters are made of," said Jaiel. "It strengthened them, where others might have given up and died, they survived and not only that, they thrived and grew stronger still. They became part of the land of their mothers and of their goddess. The land is your ally. It is the body of the Great Mother."
Aradia shook her head. "Priestess-talk," she said. "You were making sense up to that last. I have the answers I sought and I thank you."
"Ever too impatient for wisdom, Aradia," said Jaiel, smiling indulgently at the queen. "Is it any wonder the Lady must use such extreme measures to make you see and hear Her? Go, then, Sister, and know that Great Mother goes with you wherever you may tread."
Aradia sighed and turned to leave. ArynŽ smiled at Jaiel.
"I'll see you later, Little Sister," said Jaiel. She raised two fingers and the wooden door swung gently closed, latching with a quiet snick.
In silence, Aradia and ArynŽ walked back up the winding tunnel and crawled out through the trap door to the Amazons waiting in the Temple. The warriors had brought in braziers and more blankets to keep them warm during the cold night to come.
Shyly, Kleite approached ArynŽ. "Thank you ... for the warmer clothes," she said, her voice almost a whisper.
"Sure, Kleite," said ArynŽ, smiling brightly at her. She looked at Aradia. "If it's alright with you, I think I'll sleep here tonight, too - it's a lot warmer in here than in the camp."
"Of course - just be down at the tent early - by sunrise; I'll have the sentries wake you. We have a lot to - " Aradia was interrupted by a loud rumbling and shaking of the earth beneath them. Cries and shouts of fear and confusion filled the Temple. Aradia strove to be heard over them.
Finally, the Temple was still. Women rushed to put out the small fires caused by the fallen lamps and tipped braziers.
"Hades' jewels! What the furk was that?" said Telepyleia.
"Earthquake?" offered one of the women. "They're not unknown here, remember?"
"No," said Aradia, remembering the words of the priestess, The land is your ally. It is the body of the Great Mother. "When in war, you attack not only your enemy, but his allies, too. Come on - the Romans are firing the catapult!"
Aradia, Telepyleia, and ArynŽ ran to the steps leading to the lower town, stopping briefly to cling to the walls on either side as another quake hit. Stones and gravel rained painfully down upon them until the earth stopped moving. As soon as they could, the three hurried to the warrior camp where Thraso was standing on a tall pile of rubble, calling out orders to the warriors. There was no panic here, but Aradia could see the fear in the warriors' eyes.
"Telepyleia, you may want to get down to your boats," she said, quietly. The sailor nodded and ran for the hidden trail, ArynŽ following.
"She hasn't learned the signal yet - I'll give it to the sentries for her and come back," said the girl, looking over her shoulder to Aradia as she ran.
"Then get back up here - fast, ArynŽ," Aradia called out to her, then turned her attention to her troops. She strode over to Thraso. "Thraso, that's not stable - if another quake hits, you could fall," she said so that only Thraso could hear. Thraso hopped down, her face grim.
"What's going on Aradia?' she asked, and Aradia could see the same fear in Thraso's eyes as in the rest of the warriors'. Aradia mustered a grin.
"Catapult," she said.
"Cata- ... gods-be-damned Romans!" said Thraso, her eyes now blazing in anger instead of hooded with fear.
"Find ProthoŽ," said Aradia, chuckling. "And we need to promote another Lieutenant - for Anaea's platoon."
"Oh ... I, um ..." began Thraso, biting her lip.
"You already did," Aradia said, her eyes twinkling. "Well done - who is it?"
"Well, not yet, not without your approval, but Pisto has been filling in - without a formal promotion," said Thraso.
"Excellent," said Aradia, her eyes already scanning the neatly assembled troops. "Give it to her - we'll have the ceremony after we kick Aurelian's ass back to Rome."
"Will do, Aradia," said Thraso, going to seek out Pisto and bring her and ProthoŽ to the Queen, along with the other lieutenants.
"At ease, Sisters," Aradia called out to her troops as the lieutenants approached.
There was one Lieutenant per platoon of fifty to one hundred warriors. Each platoon held a specialty; there were three of archers, one of cavalry, three of swordswomen, three of spearwomen, three of warriors bearing the labrys or double-headed battle axe, and four of warriors wielding quarter-staffs. There were also the scouting units and a separate platoon of sentries, specially trained to watch and observe without being seen by the enemy. A few of the platoons had warriors who expertly wielded several weapons and could change in mid-battle, especially in the cavalry unit. Aradia smiled at the two dozen lieutenants who stood before her awaiting orders.
"Tell your people not to be afraid of the earth shaking - it's just the Romans playing with their little toy," said Aradia, smiling at them. "I want them mobilised and ready - we're going down in a little while - I'm getting tired of playing Aurelian's game - "
Suddenly, she was interrupted by a man's voice, a voice that her made her skin feel as though small creatures crawled about underneath it even as her blood turned chill and cold at the sound.
"Aradia, Queen of the Amazon Nation!"
She looked at her troops and with a grim nod, approached the lip of the wall which separated the lower town from the cliff. There Aurelian sat astride his war-horse, surrounded by the two legions and four huge catapults. Aradia merely looked down upon him and waited.
"I call upon you to surrender yourself and the girl known as ArynŽ to me," he said, a smug smile on his face. "Otherwise, I will tear your mountain down out from under you."
"It will take more than you have to do that, Aurelian," said Aradia.
"I have one half dozen more of these," said Aurelian, inclining his head towards the nearest catapult. "Waiting to be assembled. You cannot hide up there forever. Surely you must realise, Aradia, that you cannot defeat Rome. We outnumber you. We have the supplies and the troops to lay siege to your city for years - of course, it will not last that long; long before we eat the last of our food, we will have brought your city - and your people - down and destroyed you."
As if to illustrate his point, Aradia saw a cloud of dust in the distance as thousands of horses and their riders approached the two armies. Still Aradia glared at Aurelian in defiance.
"If you think you will ever get your hands on me again - or my daughter, ArynŽ - think again," she said. "I will kill the girl with my own hands before I ever let you near her - you know I will, Aurelian."
Aurelian thought briefly back to the auction block in Rome and knew she meant it; he must not let that happen. Ares said he needed the girl to complete his destruction of the Amazons for good.
"Surrender yourself and the girl to me, Aradia, and I give my word as a Roman citizen that I will leave the rest of the Amazons alone," he called to her. "What are two lives to save your Nation and your people? Are you so selfish that you would not sacrifice yourself to save the rest of your people? What kind of Queen are you, Aradia?"
Aradia felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and glanced briefly back to see ArynŽ standing behind her. The girl's eyes were dark and unreadable.
"ArynŽ, get back," Aradia said, quietly.
"No," said ArynŽ. "Let me stand at your side ... Mother."
Aradia sighed and tears fell from her eyes. "ArynŽ ... what I said ..." she began. The girl stepped up beside her and put one arm around her shoulders. "If it comes to that, I will not make you kill me," she said, softly. "I will fall upon my own sword and spare you that anguish. But Aurelian shall not have either of us, no matter what happens. The Goddess Herself and the Amazon Nation will not allow either of us to make that sacrifice." ArynŽ turned back and Aradia followed her gaze. As one, the troops slowly saluted them both, then readied their weapons.
On Thraso's command, the archers swarmed to their posts along the wall, flanking Aradia and ArynŽ and knocked flaming arrows to their bows.
"Ready your marks," said ArynŽ, looking defiantly at Aurelian. "Loose!"
The flaming volley hit their marks - the wooden catapults and their operators. Romans struggled to put out the flames and save their machines, but to no avail; the arrows had been made of the same resinous wood and attached to the arrows were small leather bags filled with the volatile oil of the fire blossoms. As soon as the arrows hit their mark, the bags broke open and the oil spread over the wooden catapults.
Thraso came closer and stood next to her queen. Her eyes caught the cloud of dust in the distance and narrowed.
"Aradia, is that Roman re-inforcement approaching?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know who else it could be," said Aradia.
"Are we in trouble?" asked ArynŽ, following the gaze of the other two. "'Cause that looks like a lot of horses coming our way."
"Yep - I'd say at least two more Leg-" began Aradia. Her eyes widened as the leading rider became recognisable.
Just then, Telepyleia approached, gasping for breath. "My women are waiting for orders," she said. Aradia turned once more to see not only the women of the ships joining the ranks of warriors, but the women who had been in the Temple, streaming down the stairs, armed and grimly determined. She nodded, then turned to look at the scene below once more.
"What in Poseidon's piss is that?" Telepyleia cried, pointing at the rising cloud of dust.
"More trouble," said Aradia, darkly.
"Myrina," Thraso whispered, her eyes looking stricken.
"Treacherous Gorgon bitches," Telepyleia said, seething. "Figures - well, that just gives us a chance to avenge all those they betrayed to their deaths. Say the word, Ari', and we're down there."
"No, wait!" ArynŽ cried, as the Gorgon army came closer and began attacking the rear Roman flank. "Look, Aradia - see? Look who's with them!"
Aradia squinted to see through the dust and the late autumn afternoon sun which was slowly sinking towards dusk. Hekau sat, perched securely on Myrina's saddle. The cat leaped gracefully down and picked her way safely through the battle raging all around her, then ran to the brush at the foot of the cliff and disappeared inside the trees.
"No, not Roman re-inforcements - they've to help us!" cried Aradia, grinning.
She left the wall, ArynŽ, Thraso, and Telepyleia close behind her. Thraso got busy, assembling the additional warriors into a tight formation.
"Sisters - the Gorgons have come - they are our allies in this battle," Aradia called to them. "We must all put our personal feeling for their former betrayal aside, at least for this battle. Do not - I mean do not attack them. Anyone who does will be tried for treason against a sister Amazon. Be angry with me later if you must for this decision, but for now - Attack the Roman invaders!"
With a collective roar, the Amazon troops swarmed down the cliff, the cavalry taking the long way around and mustering in the trees before riding against the Romans.
With the Amazons before them and the Gorgons behind them, the Romans spread out, seeking a way out around the warrior women. The Gorgon cavalry flanked the Roman camp on both sides.
Briccius looked around; he had gone to the general's tent to give Aurelian Aradia's message - or at least the part about expecting Amazon re-inforcements - but the sight of the General's elite honour guard standing outside of the tent had given him pause. The sound of the general roaring in anger at the Amazons' stealing of the Roman standards inside the tent had made him turn back, the message undelivered. Now he was terrified that his dereliction of duty would be discovered. He looked around for some opening to escape, but the Amazons were all over the field. No way past them was visible. Briefly, Briccius considered his options, then he stepped up to the nearest Amazon lieutenant and surrendered.
The Amazons and Gorgons now outnumbered the Roman legions. They swept across the battlefield like a swarm of angry bees following the two queens and stinging the Roman Legions painfully with swords and axes.
Aradia sought out one Roman in particular. She spied Aurelian, watching from the distance astride his horse. In determined silence, she rode as fast as Kalika could carry her towards the general, twirling her sword, the Sword of Artemis, over head. Aurelian caught sight of the battle-crazed Amazon queen riding straight for him and unsheathed his sword, bracing himself for her attack.
The two warriors manoeuvred their horses around one another, each looking for an opening. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, ArynŽ streaked by on the back of Kaiyanta, screeching a battle cry. She swung her staff hard, hitting Aurelian in the midsection. The general flew off of the back of his horse and landed flat on his back, struggling to breathe. ArynŽ stopped a little distance past him and grinned wickedly before riding off to assist a group of Gorgon swordswomen against a platoon of Roman cavalry.
Aradia leapt down from Kalika's back, warning away the the Amazon and Gorgon foot soldiers who swarmed near, ready to dispatch the enemy.
"No - he's mine," she told them. They backed off and went on to other fallen Romans. "Get up, Aurelian." Aradia pushed at him with the toe of her boot. The general groaned and started to roll over. Aradia pushed a little harder. "I said, get up."
She waited until the Roman managed to pull himself to his feet and grab his fallen sword. He looked at her, his gaze intense, but Aradia showed no sign that she was intimidated as she always had before. For the first time, Aurelian began to doubt his victory against the Amazons. Still, he took his stance against her. He knew that she would kill him; he'd seen her innumerable times in the arena and knew that his death was imminent. He would die with honour and never have to endure the humiliation of his failure. To be defeated by a woman - even such a woman as he knew Aradia to be - would be the ultimate blow to his pride. Better to be dead than to face that for a lifetime. He silently made his peace with the gods and lunged, waiting for the killing blow. Aradia merely side-stepped the blade, neatly avoiding it. Aurelian checked himself against the momentum of his movement and turned again to face her.
"Why don't you just get it over with?" he said. "Go on - kill me; take your revenge out in my blood. We both know that you can without much effort."
"No," said Aradia. "That was a woman you created, the Gladiator. I am Aradia, Queen of the Amazons. Amazons don't kill like that. We have honour. Either fight me or run, but I will not give you the mercy of a swift death."
Aurelian saw her eyes. They were no longer the steely eyes of the gladiator, empty of all life and spirit. They held fire and passion and rage, but not the dead emptiness he was so accustomed to seeing there. Then he found hope; perhaps he could defeat her, after all. She had lost that killer inside of her. If he killed her, then the Amazons would capitulate at the loss of their queen and surrender. He might find victory this day, after all.
Aradia stood, silent and still as a statue, waiting for him to make his move against her. Aurelian did not disappoint her. He lunged again, but at the last moment pulled back and twisted to the side, his blade slicing through Aradia's leather jerkin. Aradia stepped to the side, swiftly enough that the blade merely grazed the scant flesh covering her ribs. She whirled, following the momentum of her step and dipped low, her sword slicing neatly through the muscle of Aurelian's thigh. She pulled back just before reaching the vital artery, though. Aurelian dropped to one knee, bleeding. Aradia stepped back and waited for him to rise. Before he could rally and attack, the Amazon flipped her sword, the sharp point cutting a wide path in the general's brow. It bled freely into his eyes, blinding him for a moment.
"Something to remember me by," she said, then began beating him back, hitting him repeatedly with the flat of her sword, though occasionally turning it so the sharp edge would superficially knick some exposed flesh.
Finally, Aurelian's vision began to clear. He shook the blood and the sweat from his eyes and roared, rushing the Amazon with his sword outstretched. Aradia stood her ground, then turned just when Aurelian was close enough. She extened her arm, allowing the point of her sword to catch in his side. Aurelian followed the momentum of his rush at the queen and her sword tore free of him, creating a jagged gash along his ribs. Aurelian fell to the ground and lay there.
"End it," he gasped.
Aradia stood over him, the point of the Sword of Artemis poised bare inches from piercing his heart; suddenly she flipped the Sword up in a neat, quick motion of her wrist and sheathed it.
"Live with it," she said.
"No," Aurelian gasped weakly. He tried to reach for her, but his hands fell weakly across his chest and tears of shame flowed from his eyes.
Aradia looked coldly down at him, then rolled her eyes in disgust and walked away; she signalled to two Amazons who walked over and flipped the weak, helpless Roman over his horse, then slapped the horse's backside. It ran off, jolting the wounded Roman into unconsciousness.
The Roman Commander saw his general being carried off by the runaway horse and called the retreat. The Amazons watched them go, cheering wildly, hugging one another - and the Gorgons with whom they had fought; for the moment, all old animosities were forgotten in the joy of their victory. Almost all.
Thraso wandered the battlefield, dirt and blood covering her, her hair disheveled and escaping her tight braids. She called orders to the Amazons to collect the wounded for triage and the dead for the funeral rites, but her eyes scanned the field, searching for one warrior ...
"Looking for me?"
She started at Myrina's voice. Equally dirty and disheveled, the Gorgon Queen sheathed her sword. Thraso saw it and gasped.
"That's - "
"I know," said Myrina.
Thraso looked up and into the Gorgon's eyes.
"Why?" she asked.
"You may not believe this," said Myrina. "No reason why you should believe anything I tell you, but it's the truth. When Ares approached me about fighting for him, I refused - at first. He told me that Artemis had turned her back on the Gorgons because of Athtar's betrayal. He got terribly angry when I told him that if that was the case, I would spend the rest of my life trying to win back her favour."
"But you did fight for him," said Thraso.
"It was a mistake - a big one," said Myrina. "Or so I thought at the time. He got angry because I neither challenged Aradia or beat you - then he told me I could 'redeem' myself by retrieving the Sword of Artemis. I found Athtar. She told me that the Romans were marching on the Amazons here. We fought and I got the Sword away from her. Turns out, the Sword is Ares' bane. I decided to keep it and take my people home. I figured as long as we had the Sword, Ares would leave us alone - and as long as the Romans were busy with the Amazons, they would leave us alone, too."
"That figures," said Thraso, angrily.
"Wait - you haven't heard the best part yet," said Myrina, smiling a bit sadly. "On our way back to Hesperia, Artemis showed up - see, I told you that you probably wouldn't believe me."
"No, I do believe you," said Thraso with a sigh.
"Hm," said Myrina, then she continued her tale. "Artemis had apparently heard my spiel about doing whatever it took to win back her favour. She said the best way to do that was to come here and fight with her other Daughters, the Amazons against our common enemy, Rome. She never turned her back on us, after all."
Just then, Aradia approached the two. She smiled at Myrina and clasped hands with the Gorgon Queen. "Thank you," said Aradia.
"You're welcome, Aradia," said Myrina, solemnly. "I know it doesn't make up for ..." Myrina looked at Thraso and sighed. "You're welcome."
"What will you do now?" asked Thraso.
"I'm going home," said Myrina, softly. Thraso clasped hands with Myrina, looking into her eyes.
"Be well ... Sister," she said.
"You, too ... Sister," said Myrina before turning and calling out the order for the Gorgons to form up and begin their long march home.
Aurelian looked up from the litter his men were carrying him on. His wounds had seemed less severe before they began bumping him over the rough terrain back to Rome. He groaned at the feel of a rough hand on his shoulder, then saw the god, Mars, wearing a centurion's helmet walking alongside the crude litter.
"My life is forfeit, my Lord," said Aurelian, closing his eyes. "I failed to destroy the Amazons. I failed to re-capture their queen."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Aurelian," said Ares, quietly. "I'm not sure anyone can defeat those women, not with their allies. But take heart - I'm sending you north - to the land of the Goths and Teutons. You will capture some of those women and take them back to Rome with you to appease the Emperor. How long can a nation of all women survive anyway? One generation, maybe two. They will die out and then, the way will be clear for us. Trust me, Aurelian, we are not defeated - not yet."
As Myrina stood gazing out over the waters of Lake Tritonis that spring, the first of the Amazon babies was born. Mhari joyfully announced the little girl's arrival to her mother, holding her up as the baby took her first breath, then made her displeasure known at being forced from her nice warm nest.
"Truly you have blessed the Nation and have been goddess-blessed yourself," said the shamaness as she swaddled the little one and handed her back to her joyful mother.
It hadn't been an easy winter, but the Amazons survived the snows on grain they had harvested from their ancient crops, now growing wild. The fortress had been re-built by the hands of all the Amazons. Even Mhari had hobbled to the lower town to lay a brick. It was harder for her to leave her snug little house and make the journey down to the lower town now. ArynŽ had spent most of the winter helping her and Alkaia in the little house the two elders shared.
ArynŽ at fifteen Springs old, presided as priestess over the dedication ceremony of the fortress. She blessed it, then lit the celebratory bonfire. She now sat between Aradia and Mhari, watching the Amazons dance their joy around the fire. The celebration would last long into the night; the Amazons had a lot to celebrate.
The shamaness gazed into the fire and sighed, wishing her joints were young enough to join in the dance. She had to be carried down to the ceremony. She was a full ninety birth-seasons now and she was weary. Soon, she would have to ask to be taken back up to her house so that she could rest, but for now, she was content to sit with her younger sisters.
"Tomorrow, ArynŽ," she said.
"Yes, Granny?" said the girl, leaning closer to hear her.
"Tomorrow you will preside over the Planting of the First Seed Ceremony," said Mhari. "Do you remember the invocation?"
"Yes, Granny, every word," said ArynŽ, smiling proudly. "I remember everything you've taught me."
Mhari smiled and closed her eyes. "Then all is well," she said, sighing one more time. "I wish I could have just one last dance ... "
In the festive firelight, ArynŽ saw all the lines on the shamaness's face smooth. Her smile remained, though the gentle rise and fall of her chest had ceased.
"Aradia," said ArynŽ, softly. "Mhari ... she's ..."
Aradia looked over to the shamaness. "I know," she said, softly, one tear slipping from her eye. "It's okay, ArynŽ; she's still here. They all are."
ArynŽ looked up through tear-filled eyes to see Thalia, Anaea, and a younger Mhari, surrounded by a host of other glowing Amazons stop briefly to wave at the two before joining the dance around the fire.
"Will they always be here, Aradia?" asked ArynŽ, smiling through her tears. "Will we?"
Aradia looked over at the youngest Amazon, sleeping contentedly in her mother's arms then back at the whole Amazon Nation, past and present, dancing in celebration and joy. She smiled and nodded.
Return to the Academy