2005 Posted to AcademyChapters 1-5 posted.
June 13 – Chapters 14-15 posted
MAY 2 – Chapters 12-13 posted
APRIL 18 – Chapters 10-11 posted
MARCH 21 – Chapters 8-9 posted
MARCH 13 - Chapters 6 -7 posted
THE PERSIAN ENCOUNTER – by Patricia and Xanjaa
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Disclaimers in Prologue
Chapter 14 - The Powers Behind The Throne
The Imam had remained in the relative coolness of his tent, conferring with his advisors. He questioned Adbul Hadi about everything the Amazon had said on the way back to the encampment. The leaders deliberated and tried to put together all the pieces of the various stories they’d been hearing for weeks.
“What do you think Alim?” the Imam asked his closest confidante as he paced in front of the men.
“I believe we should talk to the Amazon. She may have information that will help us make a better decision.” He replied in earnest.
“You’ve been on patrol Abdul Hadi. What do you hear from the passing nomads?”
“The nomads appear to be running from the marauding army; some south to the sea and some to the east, my Lord"
They tell tales of massive horses and equally massive warriors. This army is not intent on conquering, but in annihilating and destroying everyone and everything in its path. They scorch the earth and even scorch the sands of the desert. What kafir (infidels) would do that?” He asked. “They take few captives from what I’ve been told and those only women.”
Kadar listened solemnly to this news considering his options. “Hasbu-nallah (May Allah save us).” He meant every word of the little prayer.
“Hasbu-nallah” the men replied in unison.
“Bring the Amazon to me!” he commanded.
As his deep voice resounded, the higher pitched tone of women’s voices near the entrance to his tent surprised him. No women were expected at this time.
“Imam, I believe the Amazon is already here. She comes with your wife and the council-women.” The guard at the tent door informed him.
Ikram pushed past the guard and strode into the tent walking directly to her husband, while leaving the group of women at the doorway.
“Za’og (husband) I ask that you listen to the Amazon woman’s story” she said without preamble.
The chieftain looked at his wife, considering whether to reprimand her for this breach of protocol or let it slide as he usually did wherever she was concerned. He decided to ignore the customs. This woman was his life’s challenge and yet, the love of his life.
He looked at Ikram closely, seeing her red puffy eyes and wondered what darkness had caused his beloved’s distress. It was custom that he not ask her any personal questions in front of the others. That custom he would follow. He’d inquire about her sadness when they were alone.
“I’ve just sent for her, Za’oga (wife) and here you bring her to me. I’m ready to hear her story.”
His wife nodded and said, “Shukran (thank you).”
She walked back to the entrance of the tent and summoned both Adara and Hala inside. The other men watched this breach of protocol but held their tongues. If the Imam had asked for Adara they wondered why Ikram and Hala were also joining the discussion without permission. No one uttered a word.
Given his wife’s discomfort, the Imam also said nothing. He watched the three women approach awaiting his invitation to sit among the men. He gestured to the rug and pillows that had suddenly materialized in front of the men’s seating arrangement.
Ikram invited both Adara and Hala to sit next to her as the women settled themselves waiting to be addressed.
“Kaifa-halok (how are you) Adara?” The Imam addressed the Amazon directly. “Are you more rested now?”
“Shukran, Imam. Ana bakair (I am fine). Your hospitality is renowned as always. Fi amaan Allah (May Allah be with you)!” she said formally.
“Afwan (You are welcome)” he responded then got to the point of the visit. “I understand you have news to share with me?”
Adara looked at Ikram before speaking and received a nod of support in response.
“Imam, I’ve come a great distance riding all night, to ask for your help.”
“What is it you need of me?” the Imam inquired.
“Let the child tell her story, Kadar, there is no time for formalities.” Ikram said pointedly to her husband.
There was a collective intake of breath in the room as Kadar’s advisors expected their leader to finally censure his wife. Ikram stared at her husband as he fixed her with a scowl. Already she’d challenged many customs since entering his domain. He nodded, hiding the slightest grin at the spunk his woman continually hurled in his face.
With a flick of his right hand, he commanded the young woman, “Tell me your story.”
Adara told her tale for the second time that day. There were no interruptions as the men took in every detail she related. She shared with them how the marauding army attacked her village, corroborating what the nomads had told Abdul Hadi. She told them the soldiers were larger than any she’d ever seen and rode horses twenty-one hands high or more, she told them about the firebombs torching everything in sight. The tribal leaders looked fearfully at one another as they absorbed the news, some commenting with a prayer to Allah. Throughout the telling, Kadar said nothing as he listened to the woman’s story.
Then she explained why she was there. She told them of the ride from the western Amazons of Greece back to the Caucus and what they hoped to accomplish.
“There are seven Amazons counting myself” Adara explained. “We’re led by Xena, the warrior princess. She means to stop this army but there are so many soldiers in this army. She needs the help of the desert tribes in turning them back.”
“What? You want the desert tribes to follow a woman?” One advisor said.
“This is lunacy. We should pack up now and go east.” Another pleaded, his fears getting the better of him. .
“How will we get news to all the tribes in time?” A third asked.
The men spoke as one, each shouting out a question to their leader, each declaring his position by the question.
Still Kadar said nothing as he contemplated the woman’s words. Ikram knew her husband was weighing all the advisors questions as well as his own. For now she held her own counsel, waiting for her husband to speak.
“We have no fight with this army of which you speak” he finally said, “And until we have cause, I see no reason to engage them.”
Several of his advisors nodded in agreement with their leader.
“You will have cause, Kadar” the Amazon challenged him. “This army attacks without provocation. They brutally murder and destroy entire villages for the sport of it. We did nothing to them either yet they burned our village and tossed our women into the fires. They torch everything for the joy of it. They murder children.”
He considered her words before answering. “We can pull up our tents and move the tribes further east or south to the sea. We may still evade this army.”
“You won’t evade them, Kadar. They intend to destroy everything in their path. Neither the mountains nor the seas will stop them.” She said forcefully.
“Alim?” the imam called to his top advisor. “Your counsel?”
“The news is the same, no matter where we hear it, Imam. Those that run will escape for only a short time. I fear what this woman says is true. We must join forces now while we have a chance to fight back. Otherwise, there will be no one left to fight with us.” The advisor spoke his words thoughtfully.
“The tribes will never follow a woman into battle” the advisor who had said these words before spoke again as others joined in the discussion.
The imam held up his hand to silence all of them. “I need more time to think this through” he said.
“There is no time Imam” the golden eyed woman spoke, her fears betraying her. “Xena will lead the others into battle against these animals without help if necessary, but I beg you, we can not win alone. I have promised to bring help by sundown tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? This Xena would engage an army with only six women?” the chieftain was incredulous.
“Seven, Imam. If you send no help, I return alone to fight with the Amazons.” Her statement was impassioned.
Ikram could contain herself no longer. “Kadar, you’ve not heard the whole story. My own sister’s tribe has been slaughtered and some of the women taken into slavery.”
The chieftain immediately understood why his wife’s eyes were red and swollen. “Yur-humma-kul-lah (May Allah have mercy)” he said to his wife. “Ikram, your loss is great and I am so sorry to hear this news. You ask me to sacrifice the desert tribesmen if I attack this army with the Amazons.”
Slowly, Ikram rose to her feet before she responded. “Kadar, my za’og, you will sacrifice all the desert tribes if you don’t join forces with the Amazons.
When her husband still hesitated, the rotund woman moved closer and leaned down next to his ear where only he could hear her. “And I tell you this old man, you had better think about how much you enjoy the company of these tribesmen because you’re going to be sleeping with them. You will not be welcomed in my bed furs if you don’t help the Amazons.” The woman had fire in her eyes as she whispered her oath.
Despite her attempt to keep her threat private, Alim heard her and chuckled out loud but his friendship with the Imam didn’t save him from the deadly look that was directed at him. He bowed his head in response, studying a loose thread on the rug.
The Chieftain swore to himself even as he thought about publicly reprimanding his wife. The look on her face told him she was deadly serious and he wasn’t sure he wanted to challenge her.
“Abdul Hadi” he bellowed, directing his fleeting anger to the task at hand. “Bring me five riders, now!”
“Yes lord” replied the old sentry.
“Alim, where are our tribal brothers now?”
“All within hard riding distance, Imam. A good rider can find them and bring them here before the moon is high. ”
“Abdul Hadi” he yelled again to the sentry before he’d reached the doorway of the tent.
“Yes lord?” replied Abdul Hadi.
“I want your five best riders and mounts. Tell them what you heard today so they can relay it to the chieftains. Give each chieftain the message that Kadar summons the tribes to war.
“Yes, Lord. What about Abbas? What shall I tell him?”
Kadar laughed remembering that Abdul Hadi was generally apprehensive around his brother. The sentry never understood Abbas’ sense of humor and Abbas took full advantage of the fact. Kadar’s brother was a daring warrior and men clamored to ride with him.
“Give Abbas this message. Tell the Lion of Allah that his brother has need of his services and tell him I want him to lead the tribes into battle.” Kadar knew he’d get his brother’s attention immediately.
“It shall be done, Imam!” Abdul Hadi said, bowing to the imam and backing out of the tent. He was grateful for he knew that once Abbas got the Imam’s message he would focus on the war at hand instead of badgering him like he always did.
The sentry left the tent to summon his riders. The Imam had told him to select five of the best riders and horses but he planned to select only four. He would be the fifth. If they fanned out across the desert they could reach all the tribes, deliver the Imam’s message, and lead them back to Kadar’s encampment by the time the full moon was high.
Adara had been listening to the interchange of the men. She heard the instructions and her heart skipped a beat. If the tribes didn’t return until the moon was high and the customary tribal welcome observed, they would not reach the others by sundown tomorrow as she’d promised. Without understanding why, a growing sense of urgency threatened to swallow her, forcing her to abandon her manners.
“Kadar, we must leave as soon as your soldiers arrive. There’s no time left.”
The men seated around Kadar were sure he’d finally put one of these women in her place.
Several hoped he’s usher them out of the men’s tent and back to the maharama where women belonged. Instead the Chieftain looked solemn.
“Sabr, ukht (Patience, sister)” he said to the dark skinned woman. “Please. Go with Ikram and Hala to the maharama. Let the riders do their duty. When they return they’ll need to rest and refresh themselves. Then in the morning, you’ll join us and we’ll ride out.”
“But Imam, in the morning it will be too late” the woman pleaded.
It was clear the Imam was done. He looked at his wife who understood the unspoken message that the women should leave. Ikram took the woman’s elbow, and with Hala, they left the tent to the men.
* * * * *
Walking back to the maharama, Adara tried unsuccessfully to conceal her displeasure from her host.
“Ikram, if we wait till morning we’ll never arrive in time. I can’t explain it, but I know we’re out of time. We must be there by sundown tomorrow.” Although she didn’t know the reason for her certainty, the anticipation and dread in her stomach seemed to grow with each second.
“As my husband told you, ‘patience, Adara, patience.’ Let’s see how this plays out, yes?”
“I don’t have time to see how this plays out, Ikram. If need be, I’ll ride back alone and die fighting with my sisters.” She replied, her frustration mounting.
“Yes, I know child. The truth is you’re asleep on your feet. You’ll die in the desert and help no one when your horse drops from under you. You both need food and rest.” She said patiently as they reached the maharama.
They were greeted by dozens of women eagerly anticipating the story of the encounter with Kadar.
“Bring us hot tea and cakes” she directed one of the young women who was standing by the doorway.
The majority of the women gathered around outside the tent door trying to overhear the conversations inside, while the council women joined Ikram and Hala inside with Adara.
“Let me tell you a little story, Adara” Ikram said as she settled herself on her pillows.
“An old camel driver, after completely loading down his camel, asked the poor camel what he would like best – to go up the hill or down the hill. The poor beast replied not without a touch of reason, ‘Why do you ask me? Is the level way through the desert closed?”
The assembled women, hearing the fable, howled with laughter. Adara looked puzzled.
“I’m not sure I understand this joke, Ikram.”
“Ah child, let me explain it then. You see, most men are like the old camel driver. They plan and they plot and they study every angle of a problem, but all that they do is confuse the issue. Why would the poor camel want to go up or down a hill when the easy way is through the flat desert?” The women laughed again, hearing her explanation.
“I see” the Amazon replied, “but how does that fit here?”
“Kadar and his men will continue to study every angle of the problem facing them. Will they fight? When should they fight? Who will lead? Who will follow? Is it up or is it down a hill? In the end, the level way through the desert is open and the camel knows the way.”
The women murmured their understanding and assent.
“So what do we do now?” she asked still not sure she understood.
“Now? Now we rest. There’s nothing more to be done. The men will talk and plot and plan. The tribes have been called together and they won’t arrive until late tonight. So, let us drink tea, and eat sweet cakes and tell stories and the young girls will play the shabbaba (flute) and rababa (single stringed violin) and sing the songs of the desert for us. When it’s time, the camel will know the way.”
* * * *
Evening fell and the moon rose in the black sky. Two of the tribes had arrived with great fanfare and a typical tribal welcome was extended to all in the riding party. The horses were cared for and staked out for the night. Music and food filled the night air as Kadar awaited the remaining tribesmen.
Adara too kept watch in the moonlight from the doorway of the maharama, counting the numbers of men and horses who arrived. So far the numbers were small and she fretted over the count.
“They will all come soon” Ikram told her, standing beside her in the moonlight. “Come, let us sit with some of the women. I want you to hear the words of Nadirah.”
Adara allowed herself to be led back inside where she was introduced to a tiny elderly woman with shiny silver hair. The wrinkled dark skin and bent form revealed her great age but her clear blue eyes captured those of the Amazon and held her gaze.
“Nadirah, may I present Adara of the Caucus Amazon tribe.” Ikram said formally touching her forehead with her thumb and index finger and bowing to the elderly woman. She was the Imam’s wife, but like all members of the desert tribe, she paid deep respect to the oldest among them.
Adara followed Ikram’s movements and bowed to the old woman in turn saying, “As-salamu’alaikum (peace be upon you).”
“Wa’alaikum salam (and upon you be peace)” the old woman responded, pleased with the Amazon’s respectful greeting. She gestured to the younger woman to sit down.
Several other women moved over closer to hear what Nadirah was going to say to the Amazon guest.
“I’ve heard of your story.” the old woman began in a shaky voice. “Bis-millah hir-Rahman nir-Rahim (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful) do not fear this kafir (infidel) army, child. Things are not always what they appear to be. Do you understand me?” She fixed the Amazon with a penetrating look.
The way the old woman said the words and the way in which she held Adara’s eyes, gave the Amazon hope for the first time since she’d returned to the desert, though she didn’t understand why. She nodded a yes response.
“I will say a prayer for you, Adara of the Caucus Amazons” she continued.
“I seek the protection of Allah for this woman and her people.” She began her intonation in a sing song voice.
“Allah-hu-akbur (Allah is great)” responded the gathered women, knowing the prayer verses by rote.
“May Allah lead her to victory over the infidels.”
“Allah-hu-akbur (Allah is great)” responded the women.
“May Allah accept my prayer for this woman.”
“Allah-hu-akbur” the women said again.
“May Allah reward you.”
“Allah-hu-akbur” sang the women ending the prayer.
“Allah will be with you tomorrow” the old woman told her.
Then Nadira opened a gnarled hand which held a thick hammered silver medallion with an intricate and ornate design carved into the face of it. It looked like a maze of knots entwined around themselves with no beginning and no end. There was a deep blue silk cord knotted on one end so it could be worn as a pendant over the neck. She held out the object so Adara could see it better.
“What is it?” the young woman asked.
“A sacred talisman with sacred powers of protection,” she replied. “The goddess gave it to me when I made my vision quest as a young girl. I've never needed it, but it's from the goddess, herself. Tomorrow when you ride into battle, I want you to wear this. It will keep you safe.”
Adara felt a chill with the old woman’s words and shivered. Someone just walked on my grave, she thought as the Amazon expression for second sight premonition resonated in her consciousness.
“Bend down” the old woman told her. She placed the amulet over the young woman’s head, moving her long dark hair out of the way as she settled it securely around her neck.
“Thank you, Nadirah. I don’t know what to say.” She was touched by the old woman’s heartfelt prayer and gift.
“May Allah be with you.” The old woman said as she gently stroked the young woman’s cheek.
“And with you too, Nadirah.” She responded, turning bright red at the old woman’s gesture.
The sounds of galloping horses signaled the arrival of the remaining tribes, with Abbas leading the largest, loudest and most colorful group of riders. His horses were beautifully decorated with brightly colored halters and saddle blankets hanging in stark contrast to the white or gray Arabians’ bodies. Multi-colored tassels hung from the horse’s reins and Abbas’ brilliant green and yellow tribal colors were braided into their manes.
The women rushed to the entrance of the maharama to watch the arrival. Clouds of dust billowed up in the moonlight as horses were reined in and men dismounted and jostled each other. Yells and hugs and laughter greeted the arrivals as brothers and cousins and friends greeted one another after so many months of separation.
Abbas’ loud booming voice could be heard above the fray. “Where’s my fat brother?” he yelled with great affection.
Abbas was a tall dark muscular man with a proud bearing. He had flashing black eyes and long black hair like his older brother. His mustache was thick and filled his face. He cut a handsome and dashing figure and his brilliant white toothed smile was known to melt many women’s hearts. Many of them had joined him eagerly in his bed hoping to capture the warrior’s heart, but he’d never wed.
Laughter from his group of riders washed over the crowd. They clearly knew their rank and stature among all of Kadar’s tribes.
“Fat? You call your Imam, fat?” Kadar’s booming voice echoed his brother’s.
Abbas jumped from his stallion and rushed into his brother’s embrace. They laughed as they kissed each other on each cheek. “May Allah bless you, my brother.”
“And you, Abbas. You look well as always.”
“I serve you, Imam. Tell me what you need.” The younger brother said earnestly.
“Come inside. Let me welcome you properly and we’ll talk there.”
Adara and the women watched the interchange between the brothers and the other riders. She had only one thing on her mind, to return to help Xena with as many soldiers as possible. She began counting riders again. In the commotion of moving men, horses and dust she thought she’d counted one hundred but she wasn’t sure.
“Should we talk to Kadar about when we can leave?” she asked Ikram.
“No, no child. Let them visit and enjoy each other’s company. They need to rest themselves and their horses or they’ll be no good to you in the upcoming battle. Tonight? Let them be men tonight. Remember the camel, Adara? The camel knows the way. At first light you’ll join them and ride out to help your friends. Now, you need your rest too. It’s very late.”
* * * *
It was still dark but Kadar had ordered an early start hoping to make better time in the still cool early morning. The noises of men breaking camp assailed the ears as horses were saddled and weapons were checked over. The voices of the tribal leaders could be heard barking orders or giving direction to the men.
Adara had been summoned to Kadar’s tent before the others to discuss how they would travel. He explained to her, that while she knew exactly where they had to go, as a woman, she was not allowed to lead the small army nor would she be near the front. She had to ride behind the tribal chieftains and must follow all their orders. The woman bristled at the news but held her tongue. At least we’re moving, she thought.
Those not joining the battle group lined the way into the desert as the riders mounted up. Women hastily said goodbyes to their husbands and sons. There was a sense of pageantry and pride as the tribal colors were hoisted on tall lances. It was clear that Abbas’ horsemen would have the honored position of vanguard of the small army. His horsemen, each one proudly holding their colors aloft, rode out in front of the other chieftains. In deference to his brother’s rank, he rode next to Kadar and right behind his men. A mighty roar erupted as the horses broke into a canter.
Adara, astride a somewhat rested Mahtab, brought up the rear. As she approached the place where Ikram waited, she touched her index finger and thumb to her mouth and forehead and bowed to the formidable woman, grateful for the many honors and kindnesses she had bestowed upon her. If it were not for Ikram she knew there’d be no army going out this day. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of Nadirah standing in the doorway of the maharama and she bowed low to the old woman and said a silent prayer “Bara-kul-lah (May Allah bless you)”.
In response, she saw Nadirah put her hands together as though in prayer and bend her frail body towards her.
“Bara-kul-lah” she said to Ikram as Mahtab slowly came alongside the woman.
“As-salamu’ alaikum, Adara (peace be upon you)” she responded.
Reaching out, she stopped the Amazon’s mare. Gracing the rider with a brilliant smile, she reached up and tied her red and black colors, into the horse’s mane. Then, releasing the mare, she began a high pitched trilling in the direction of the Amazon – “ala ala ala ala ala.”
The chant was picked up one by one as the women saw what Ikram had done and joined in with her. Louder and louder it rolled across the encampment. The high pitched incantation reached the ears of the tribal leaders who pulled up their horses and turned around to see what had caused the commotion.
“What in the name of Allah is that racket?” Abbas asked his brother, his horse anxious to gallop jumped about nervously.
“Keep moving” Kadar directed his brother. He guided his stallion to the side and rode back towards the sound. As he approached the end of the line of horses he saw the source of the noise. Ikram stood with the women of the tribe as they chanted in honor of the Amazon warrior. The imam reined in his horse, watching his wife proudly. Every man should have the honor of a wife like mine, he thought.
He rode his horse in the direction of his wife as Adara passed him by. Seeing his wife’s colors on the Amazon’s horse, he continued towards Ikram while removing one of the agal-ropes that held his headgear in place. The agal’s colors signified the rank and responsibilities of the wearer and was an important part of the Imam’s attire. He kissed the agal handed it to her and bowed to his wife, then turned his horse and galloped back to the front. She beamed her love to this man of her heart as his retreating form grew smaller and smaller.
* * * * *
They rode till first light when they stopped to rest the horses and eat an early meal. The women had prepared dates and figs and cheeses and flat breads so the men would be well fed for this journey.
Adara heard the chieftains discussing how they should proceed for the rest of the day. Several wanted to stop before noon and travel again after dark. When she heard that, her sense of urgency again threatened to overpower her and she leaped into action, forgetting her agreement with Kadar.
“If it please the Imam” she began “If we wait much longer the battle will be lost; you know six women won’t stop the barbarians, Kadar. We need to keep moving now.”
Her words caused loud grumbling among the tribal leaders. They were already disturbed by the breach of custom which allowed a woman to ride with them. But this one was trying to direct their plans and for this they had no tolerance.
“Who is this woman that seeks to tell a desert tribesman how to ride to battle?” Abbas demanded.
Kadar introduced her to his brother. “This is Adara of the Caucus Amazons, brother.”
The big warrior turned on the charm and slowly circled the beautiful dark woman.
“She has fire in those golden eyes, Kadar” he said. “Maybe she has fire in her loins too?” he laughed suggestively with a wink to the woman.
“She is misliyah (woman who loves women), Abbas, leave her alone.” Kadar replied.
“She loves women because she’s not met a real man” Abbas continued circling the woman.
Adara chose to ignore the big man and addressed the Imam again. “Please Kadar. You know we have to get to the north quickly. We have to move out now.”
“Impatient too” Abbas said as he touched her cheek.
She whirled and threw a kick to his mid-section and caught the big man in his gut. He groaned and held his stomach.
“She does have fire!” he said a bit more respectfully.
“Abbas, this woman is the hearth mate of the woman who bred the stallion you now ride. I would hope my brother would show her some respect.”
“You are Tynet’s woman?” He asked. “Please accept the apologies of a big fool, Adara.” He respectfully bowed to the woman. “That woman knows horses like no other. It seems she knows women too. How is she?” He smiled indicating it was a compliment.
It was the first time the Amazon had been asked the words directly and she knew that voicing the reply would etch it in the stones of time. She took a deep breath and looked directly at the big warrior and said, “She was killed by the barbarian army that we ride against.”
“Allah be merciful” the tall man replied with deep understanding. “I see the reason for your urgency. I am very sorry, Adara. Perhaps she’s right, Kadar. Perhaps we should ride on.”
* * * *
They headed out again, riding six abreast. They crossed the barren plains as the sun rose in the sky. At mid-day, the dry hot winds blew in from the west with the force of a gale, the resulting sandstorm leaving them little visibility. The men pulled their head cloths tight around their heads and faces with only a narrow slit to see out of. No one knew how long the sandstorm would last.
“We should try and make the shelter of the big oasis” Abbas told his brother. “There’s a rocky outcropping where we can rest till the storm dies down.” Kadar agreed.
“No one dismount” Abbas commanded. “Pass a rope from man to man and tie it securely around yourselves so we don’t lose anyone.”
The command was passed from rider to rider as they moved slowly and cautiously across the open plains. Abbas had never lost a comrade to a sandstorm and didn’t intend to lose one this day.
By late afternoon the storm had let up and the winds died down. They reached the large oasis hungry and tired from the heat, grueling winds and the drain of keeping focused on every person their rope touched. They dismounted to eat and water the horses and figure out how long they would rest before moving out again.
Kadar made his decision. They’d already braved the worst of the day’s heat which only fools and the suicidal ever attempted. They would water the horses, rest them a short while before moving out again when the sun began its descent.
Adara satisfied that this was the best she was going to get from the tribal chief, took Mahtab to the far side of the oasis, the same one she’d stopped at on her way to find the desert tribes. As she let the parched mare drink, she stared out across the desert in the direction she knew the Amazons were waiting. Anahita, tell them we’re coming. And tell my beloved Tynet I miss her, she prayed to herself.
She patted the horse’s neck continuing to look to the north when she heard the unmistakable voice of Tynet inside her head say, “Adara, you are my light and my strength and in my heart I will love you always!”
“What?” she gasped out loud startling the mare. She looked all around hoping she’d see her hearth-mate. All too soon she realized she must have been daydreaming about her lover again. That must be it, she thought but you sounded so close, my beloved.
The mare finished drinking and the woman led her to the shadow of a large rock so they could rest a while before venturing into a battle from which she feared she’d never return.
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* * * * *
CHAPTER 15 – NEW FOUND FRIENDS
Breathing hard, the three women crouched at the edge of the cliffs near the crevice Adara and Xena had descended only a candle mark earlier. In an effort to minimize the evidence of their presence, they had jogged the one-mile distance instead of traveling on horseback. With only two candle marks until the dawn, they had a short time to complete their mission. Already Xena's sensitive eyes had noted the slight lessening of the night's stranglehold on the landscape in the east.
With a nod of her head, Xena indicated the small fissure in the stone and began to lower herself through the sandy cleft. When only her head was visible, she spoke in a barely audible tone, "Follow, one at a time."
Pony and Solari looked at each other after the dark-haired warrior had disappeared. Shrugging, Pony went next. Giving the thumbs up signal to Solari, Pony disappeared through the opening. Glancing around one last time to assure herself they were alone on the cliff, Solari followed her friends.
Legs dangling, Pony felt hands grasp her calves guiding her and heard Xena's muffled voice commanding her to drop. Years of depending on her comrades allowed Pony to let go. She found her feet guided to the smooth stone below her. She straightened as much as she could under the rocky overhang while moving out of the way. Just as she turned, Solari landed beside her.
With a finger to her lips, Xena indicated the need for complete silence. She pointed to the camp below them. The three warriors made their way closer to the tumbled boulders concealing them from the soldiers camped on the desert floor.
Using only hand signals, Xena pointed out the various landmarks, first the slave pen on the southern perimeter and next to it, a large tent about ten feet away. Most likely it was used for supplies as boxes, and barrels were stacked next to it. Pointing to several places around the encampment, she indicated the sentry positions and finally, the central pavilion. Decorated with black and red streamers, it featured a malevolent looking banner dangling from a tall pole above the entry.
When they saw the size of the sentries, who looked to be at least seven feet tall and muscular, both of the Amazons blanched and stared at each other in disbelief.
When they'd seen all they could from that vantage point, they turned and slid down to a sitting position. Unaware of the Amazons' initial reactions to the size of their foe, Xena began explaining her plan for this evening's reconnaissance. There was no danger of them being overheard. She spoke so softly that the other two women had to lean in close to hear her orders.
"We need to get to the prisoners. We have to know what their condition is and how many able bodies we can count on to fight when the time comes."
After casting a quick glance to the rocks behind them, the two Amazons looked at each other, incredulity mirrored in each face. Swallowing hard, they both looked back at Xena. It was Pony who spoke for both of them.
"Big bastards, aren't they?"
Admitting to herself that the initial shock of seeing these troops had given her pause, Xena understood their reaction. Still, they didn't have time to waste.
"Yeah, it looks tough, but we can't let our own minds work against us. We need to know we can win or there's no point in trying and we might as well head back to Thrace."
"Hades balls, Xena," Pony whispered back in a low undertone. "We didn't say we're quitting. Just kind of shocking is all."
"Yeah, I know it is," Xena agreed. "I think we can beat them, but we need more information. Are you with me?"
Blowing out a collective breath, they nodded, indicating she should continue with her plan.
"Okay then, this is what I want to do. We're going to go down there. Solari, you'll stay in the rocks, just high enough to see what's happening. Use a night call to warn us if anyone approaches the slave pens."
Solari nodded and said, "I'll use three short bursts if I see anything."
"Pony, you're with me. We're going into camp. This late, everyone but the guards is bedded down. Adara and I watched the sentries earlier and they seem to make a half candle mark circuit. But I don't know that we can count on that. This isn't the most disciplined group I've ever seen. I want you to hide near the supply tent, the one with the water barrels next to it. From there you should be able to see the back of the prisoners' compound. You see anyone coming or hear Solari's warning, let me know."
"You want me to get a look in that supply tent?" Pony asked quietly.
Xena thought about that for a second. "Okay yes, but only a quick peak. I need you at my back. I can hardly believe the stupidity of the way this camp is laid out. I'd never have left my prisoners and supplies so exposed on one side like they have."
"Maybe it's arrogance as much as anything." Solari suggested. "Look at 'em. The men are huge ugly monsters, and it's a big fighting force. Who would think of attacking them?"
"You mean besides seven women?" Pony made a halfhearted attempt at levity and the other two broke into grins before sobering once more.
Xena broke the silence whispering, "Okay, one last thing; if I get caught, you two get out of here and alert the others. I mean that, got it?"
Both Amazons were well aware of the dangers and the rules of a covert operation. The safety of the mission was always put above the individual. Every Amazon child knew this from an early age. But they also knew that they'd always return for a comrade. The two women answered as one, "Yes."
"All right, let's go." Xena said as she rose to her feet.
Only minutes later, the three squatted behind a pile of rubble about fifteen feet above the encampment. Silently, they watched as the sentry passed beneath them. Xena squeezed Pony's shoulder.
Careful not to disturb any of the loose scree, the two of them moved noiselessly down the remaining trail. Reaching the edge of camp, they ducked behind the sizeable tent next the slave pen. Wordlessly, Xena indicated to Pony to take up her position next to the water barrels.
Relying on stealth and crouching low, Xena ran undetected across ten feet of open area to the edge of the prisoner enclosure. Quickly, she moved to the rear of the pen away from the center of camp squatting down on her haunches. Peering inside, it was clear that most of the women had also been asleep for some time. Only one was still up. Xena watched as the woman paced like a caged animal. Back and forth she walked, eyes always focused into the main camp beyond. Xena thought her senses might be deceiving her, when she heard a low growl emitted from the woman's throat. Ahhh, here's one that's ready to fight.
Attempting to catch the woman's attention, Xena pursed her lips making a sound, "psssttt".
The prisoner's head snapped around at the foreign noise. She stared hard in the direction of Xena's darkened form before cautiously moving in that direction. It was evident the woman was well indoctrinated into the ways a prison worked as she covertly looked around to see if she was being observed. When she reached Xena's position, the woman casually leaned back against the bars, folding her arms across her chest. Before speaking, she allowed her black eyes to study the soldier's campground. Satisfied that no one and nothing was out of place, she acknowledged Xena's presence.
Her lips barely moving and the timbre so low that no one but the warrior princess could have heard it, she asked her questions in rapid succession.
"Who are you?"
"How did get here?"
"What do you want?"
Standing up and positioning herself directly behind the woman inside the bars, Xena leaned close to answer the questions. To anyone looking it would appear that there was only one woman standing there.
"My name is Xena. I came with a group of Amazons. One of them, whose camp was attacked by this army, came to us for help. She led us here. We want to help free you and stop them."
The dark skinned woman sucked in a breath at this news, looking side ways at Xena. Disbelief warring with hope, she asked, "How many fighters do you have?"
Xena almost didn't want to answer, knowing it would crush the woman.
"Seven." She admitted.
The woman leaning against the bars, snorted in disgust before she could catch herself.
"You're on a fool's errand then." She spat. "You can't think to defeat these animals with only seven women."
Ignoring the woman's disdainful remarks, Xena asked. "What's your name?"
"Well Kunjana, let me worry about defeating them. I've got a few tricks." Xena replied before continuing. "I'm looking for someone, a woman named Isaura. She in here?"
"Yes, a good woman. Her lover died fighting these scum. How do you know her?"
"Her daughter is the one who came to us. Let me talk to her." Xena replied as she glanced around. "We don't have much time before dawn."
The dark woman regarded Xena over her shoulder for a moment seeming to consider this request before nodding once in agreement.
Glancing around her, Xena hunkered down again to watch.
Kunjana went to an older woman wrapped in a threadbare blanket. She shook her shoulder and indicated with a finger to her lips that she should remain quiet. The woman, disoriented by heavy sleep, looked around confused.
Disturbed by the shuffling noises, two other women with dark hair, one smaller and one much larger, also sat up. They all listened attentively to Kunjana as she appeared to explain the situation. The older woman audibly gasped. Immediately, Kunjana clamped her hand over the woman's mouth and adamantly shook her head, no. Then the taller woman pulled the older woman to her breast and held her tightly.
From Xena's vantage point, it was clear that the older woman's relief had overwhelmed her causing an outpouring of tears. The big woman seemed to be crying in empathy. And then they pulled apart turning toward Xena's hiding place. Kunjana motioned to the shorter woman who immediately got up and began patrolling the inside edge of the enclosure closest to the main compound. Cautiously, the other three moved to Xena.
She eyed the newcomers assessing their health and strength. The older woman was perhaps forty-five summers, maybe more. Except for looking thin and malnourished, she appeared healthy and still muscular. The bigger woman was another story. Xena was truly taken back at the evidence of physical abuse this woman had suffered. She too was muscular, but thin and fairly young, perhaps twenty eight to thirty summers. Her black hair hung long and matted with blood and dirt. Innumerable large bruises, cuts and a swollen knot on her temple indicated she'd been in more than one battle. Some of her wounds appeared to be old, while others were much fresher. Before Xena could wonder any further, the older woman spoke.
"I'm Isaura. You've spoken with my daughter?"
Xena tore her eyes away from the battered woman focusing on the woman speaking.
"Yes, Adara and her children reached us in Thrace two weeks ago. We've come to help."
Relief clearly written on the woman's face, she collapsed against the tall Amazon, who enclosed her in a comforting embrace.
"They're safe. Thank the goddess, they're safe."
Now the tall abused warrior spoke. "Are my children well?"
Your children? Having come to believe that Adara's mate had long since passed to the Amazon Land of the Dead, Xena was having some difficulty comprehending this question.
Then the truth hit her and she whispered urgently, "Your children? By the gods, are you Tynet? Adara thinks you're dead."
Waving away Xena's incredulous reaction, the bruised warrior pressed on; she had no time for this small talk.
"Tell me about my daughters and my mate. Are they well? How did they manage to travel so far so quickly?" her words poured out like water from a broken vase.
"Yes, the children are well. We left them with their aunt Marianna in Thrace." Xena spoke to both the mother and grandmother of the youngsters.
Still in mild shock, the older woman muttered, "Bless the goddess, bless the goddess, bless the goddess."
Tynet would not be denied. She'd not missed the fact Xena hadn't said her lover was in Thrace. Insisting that Xena tell her of her hearth-mate, Tynet prodded. "And Adara, what of her?"
Reluctantly Xena admitted that Adara had not stayed safely behind. "She's here. She's ridden into the desert to get more men. We're gonna need it."
Relief turned quickly to fear and disbelief. Tynet said. "She came back with you? She's no warrior, she's a healer… what were you thinking?"
Acutely aware that dawn was fast approaching, Xena cut her off. "My friend now is not the time for debating that. Your mate is a persistent woman, shall we say."
At first the tall warrior continued to glare at Xena, and then for the first time in almost a moon, Tynet's eyes lit with the simple pleasure of happy memories and she acquiesced "Yes, she is that." A smile broke through the bruised and torn lips.
Xena was about to reply; when she heard the warning calls and saw the woman across the enclosure motion them down. Quickly Xena turned and ran in a stooped over crouch to Pony's hiding spot.
Kunjana hustled Isaura back to her blankets. They both lay down just before a large man carrying a mace appeared out of the gloom. Clearly, he was the night sentry on his rounds. Wearing no helmet, an angry red scar on his face could be seen in the moon light. It ran from his hairline to his chin passing through his left eye.
Tynet had remained rooted to the spot, looking lost, and staring after Xena's retreating form.
Spying the lone woman near the bars, the massive brute moved nearer to taunt the helpless woman. "Ahhh, it's you, the ugly cow whose worthless life is about over." He chortled at his own cleverness.
His words brought Tynet back to the present. She looked hard into his eyes before she spoke.
"Whatever happens, Malvik," she said using the guard's name familiarly, "the likes of you won't have anything to do with it. You couldn't kill me with your precious club when you hit me from behind like the coward you are. You wouldn't last a minute with me in the ring."
Even with only the faint light of the moon, crimson could be seen flushing his unpleasant features. Spraying spittle, he raged, cursing her.
"You bitch," he spat. "Enjoy your last two days of life, because when they take you to the ring this time there is no question of the outcome."
Sneering he moved closer to the woman, his foul breath nearly gagging her. "You'll die slowly I promise you. And then we'll fuck your precious baby Amazons until they beg for death. Oh yes, we'll show 'em what they been missing." Leering, he cupped his crotch waggling it at her.
Gripping the bars until her knuckles glowed white in the moonlight, she cursed him in return. "You couldn't show anyone anything, you miserable eunuch."
Without warning, he grabbed hold of her neck through the bars squeezing hard until Tynet's breath was choked off. Using her fingers she levered under his hands loosening them enough to allow her to draw a small sip of air. But a month with only minimal nourishment had left her weakened and she was unable to break the hold. Even her ability to keep up the pressure to insure she could breathe slowly failed. As the blackness began to close in, she was aware of a flash of motion and the sound of a short yelp.
Bending over and sucking in big gulps of oxygen, Tynet barely heard the growled curse, "You bitch!" The sound of running feet, announced the arrival of another sentry.
Looking from the two women inside the stockade, one with blood on her mouth to his fellow guard, who was clutching his damaged right arm, the newcomer demanded, "What's going on here, Malvik?"
Embarrassed at having been bested by the fiery Indus slave, the scarfaced man shrugged it off, rubbing his arm and glowering into the enclosure.
"Nuthin's wrong. Mind your own god's be damned business."
"Up yours, Malvik. I heard you cry out." The second sentry cursed him right back.
Then grabbing Malvik's forearm and examining the wound, he laughed, "You scream over a scratch like this. What are you, a woman?"
Wrenching his arm free, Malvik minimized the event. "The little whore caught me by surprise. Get back to your watch. I can take care of them."
"Well unless you want to eat a fireball, asshole, you better leave the big one for the General's party." The other guard tossed back as he strode away to the east.
Glowering into the pen, Malvik lobbed more insults at the imprisoned women.
"You slut, I'm gonna be there when your day comes. Bet on it." He threatened Kunjana.
"In your dreams, you fat sow." She retorted knowing the female gender for the animal would enrage him further.
Tynet merely stood looking at the menacing guard. Knowing her life was at its end, a strange calm had possessed her for days. Saying nothing, she continued to stare as one might examine a particularly disgusting pile of dung.
"Don't look so smug. Tomorrow night, we'll each have a piece of you before you draw your last breath." He said to Tynet, and then added "after we toss a blanket over your ugly face." Laughing at his own joke, he snorted dismissing her.
Striding away, he walked north through camp, passing within a foot of Xena and Pony crouching behind the water barrels.
They both stood up after the sentry passed by. Under her breath Pony asked, "What's that all about?"
Xena replied softly, "I'm not sure, but that big woman is Tynet."
Trotting back to the prisoners, Xena left Pony to continue watching the camp from behind the supply tent.
The power of the words nearly felled the Amazon. That big woman is Tynet…That big woman is Tynet.
Stunned disbelief sucked the air out of Pony's lungs. Helplessly staring after Xena, all thoughts of the battle and their mission were forgotten. She was assailed with tumultuous thoughts each battling with one another for domination. Hope that she might have a future with Adara was dashed. Despair replaced that hope. That big woman is Tynet. By the goddess, she's still alive. A hole opened up in her heart and she felt the ever-widening ache inside engulf her entire being making her nauseous.
Throughout the time she had spent with Adara, she knew she was always battling Tynet's ghost but she thought, given time, she just might have a chance to win Adara's heart. Whatever chance she thought she had was gone. That big woman is Tynet. Tynet is alive. She'd never win Adara now, no matter what.
Hopelessness replaced the initial feelings of shock and disbelief. As the reality of the situation hit her, Pony's heart seemed to shatter. Grief and loss ripped the joy from her very soul. Relentlessly, these painful emotions battered the woman and a new mantra repeated itself until no other thought could enter in.
Tynet is alive. Adara belongs to Tynet.
Left alone to deal with the jarring revelation Pony watched Xena and the others as if in a dream.
When Xena reach the two women inside the enclosure, she asked them the same question Pony had asked her. "What's going on?"
Kunjana looked to Tynet expecting the fierce woman to explain to the newcomer, but the large woman remained silent glowering into the distance as if her tormentor was still visible.
In Tynet's mind, the horrors since the attack on her village played out in images so real it might have been happening now. Pictures, like the engravings in the goddess's temple, had carved themselves into her memory.
Standing here in this filthy pen, held captive and treated like an animal, she found herself face to face once again with the events leading up to this night. Perhaps because of the blow to her head, she could not remember the initial attack on her village. Her first conscious memory was of being helped roughly to her feet.
* * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter 16
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