The characters Ephiny, Solari, Terreis, Velasca, Eponin and Melosa are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended in any way. All other characters are mine. This story contains descriptions of violence along with a few instances of graphic language.
Note: This story is the third entry in the Adventures of Young Ephiny series and contains several references to characters and events from the other two stories, most notably Coming of Age. It is not necessary to read the first two in order to follow along with this latest story; however the reader will find that many of these references are presented "as is" without any further amplification.
They had been there since dawn, two young warriors perched atop a lonely summit strategically situated among the hills that lay to the west of their village. Well armed with bow and sword, clear-eyed and rippling with finely toned muscles, these two easily fit practically everyone's image from the noblest lord down to the lowliest of peasants of what a fine young warrior should be. Except for one thing. These two were females.
They were of course, Amazons, members of the branch known as the Southern Tribe. This branch of the Amazon Nation, at best a scattered and only loosely bound race, was on the whole more advanced, more prosperous and more socially stable than their sister tribe which dwelt chiefly on the vast plains to the north and east. For countless generations the Southern Tribe had made this land to the west and south of the great Euxine Pontus their home. Naturally with the land being as desirable as it was the tribe's fierce warriors had been over the course of those generations called upon many times to defend their homeland from those who would have taken it from them.
This then was the reason for Ephiny and Solari's presence on the hill on this beautiful late summer morning. Barely three moons before, Mysian raiders had swooped in on them from the north and west. Although the ensuing battle had ended in a complete Amazonian victory the price paid in the blood of their warriors had been dear enough and the surprise of the enemy's western approach complete enough that Melosa, Queen of the Amazons, was determined to never again take for granted the notion that the western hills presented any sort of natural barrier from attack. Every day since then this, the tallest of those hills, had been constantly occupied by lookouts.
They were not, however, completely alone. At that very moment, somewhere among those same hills, goats tended by the reclusive Euset were wandering the narrow draws and green hill sides, idly grazing on the lush summer grass. Once or twice Ephiny, the more sharp-eared of the two young warriors, was just barely able to pick up a faint stuttering cry from one of the far off animals.
Bored from the mind numbing, seemingly endless routine of visually sweeping again and again the plain stretching out below, first one way and then the next, Solari decided it was time to take a well deserved break. Easing herself down to the ground, she rubbed her tired eyes and groaned, "Ohhhh, how much longer?"
Her companion took her eyes off the plain only long enough to take a quick glance up at the sun now arcing high in the morning sky. "Not long," she replied. "But if our captain finds outs that you were up here goofing off it could turn out to be a very long one indeed--for both of us."
Unmoved by her friend's caution, Solari fell straight back onto the soft grass. Rolling over on her side, she then propped her head up on an elbow. "Oh, Eph, don't be such a soggy biscuit. After all, our captain is your mother for goodness sake." It had been barely two moons now since Melosa had promoted Ephiny's mother to command one of the tribe's four fighting units.
Ephiny, daughter of the noble Meelah, kept her eyes locked on the distant horizon as she replied, "Damn it, that's all the more reason to toe the line and you know it. Mother has worked hard to get to where she is and it's going to be a cold day in hell before I put her in a position to have to discipline me. I mean, how would it look if she had to chew out her own daughter for doing something stupid?" Her eyes still on the plain, Ephiny stoically added, "She's fed your hungry belly on many a cold night so now that she's a warrior of rank that goes for you too. Neither you nor I are going to take advantage of her position. Now get up off your ass and get back to your post."
In the strict hierarchy that dominated the Amazonian way of life Ephiny, already a twice decorated warrior, outranked Solari and thus Solari was bound to obey her, even though the daughter of Meelah was younger. However the two of them had been best friends almost their entire lives and having shared side by side first the small adventures of childhood, and now the terrors of battle they were now as close as sisters--perhaps even closer. And although Ephiny had time and again proven to be the more gifted of the two she had never once acted in a superior manner toward her friend. Ephiny was not one to pull rank unnecessarily and even now her tone to Solari had been what was for her a good natured one. Still, Solari knew she meant it. That was the thing about "Eph." She always meant what she said and when it came to military matters there was no gray area. To her duty was duty and as she saw it, like it or not, they were there to do a job. For the daughter of Meelah duty to the tribe always came first.
With an exasperated moan Solari rolled over on her back. "Ugh, you're impossible," she said. "I simply don't know what I'm going to do with you once you're queen." As Solari waited for her friend's inevitable protest she idly plucked a blade of grass and stuck it in her mouth.
Ephiny shot her friend the expected little side glance of incredulity and snorted, "Ha ha. Oh yeah, aren't we the jester today."
In truth Solari was only half joking. Better than anyone she knew the taciturn Ephiny's potential for greatness, better even than Ephiny herself it seemed. Had her friend not already shown it twice in less than three moons time? Despite her tender years there was no doubt about it, Ephiny had a real talent for leadership.
"You know you will be," Solari nonchalantly countered. "Someday."
Ephiny considered this kind of talk foolish. Melosa's line had reigned for several generations now. The queen herself was still young and with her younger sister Terreis waiting to succeed her there was no reason to believe their house was going to fall any time soon. More than that, it made her feel extremely uncomfortable to even think such a thing. Her? Queen? Ridiculous! Her tone hushed, Ephiny immediately admonished Solari. "You shouldn't say things like that. So just drop it, okay?"
Although the look on Ephiny's face had changed little Solari knew her so well that she could tell she was getting to her friend--if only a little. There was not too much that could ruffle Ephiny's feathers but this topic was one that could do it ever time. "All right, Eph, have it your way." However Solari just simply could not resist one final little tease. "Just don't forget me when they're all up there kissing your ass after you've taken the Queen's Mask."
For perhaps the thousandth time Ephiny's sharp eyes swept the horizon. Except now she was not looking for intruders but rather now for something, anything that would put an end to this silly conversation. And there it was. Casually she nudged her friend with the toe of her boot. Still intently peering at the two tiny specks approaching in the distance, she said, "Get up, our relief is coming."
"About time," Solari happily declared. "I'm starved!"
Ephiny might have told her that she did not know her friend to be any other way but not on this occasion. She was hungry too and therefore said nothing.
Within very short order the two young warriors had been relieved and were on their way back to the village for a breakfast of cold pheasant and stale bread. As theirs was a small, tightly knit society they quite naturally knew their replacements, Therpida and Therris, very well. These were low ranking warriors like themselves and yet the watch change itself had taken place with remarkably little of the usual familiar small talk one might expect from young women of about the same age. Young or not, these were warriors of the noble Southern Tribe and they were there to carry out their queen's orders. No other reason would have placed them out there on that lonely, wind swept hill. Tired and hungry, Ephiny and Solari wanted to go home. Unenthused by the prospect of spending a long afternoon at such a dull task, Therpida and Therris gloomily just wanted to get it over with. And despite Ephiny's insistence on a strict adherence to procedure, down deep she knew that her friend Solari had been right all along. Gods! It was a boring detail!
Their usual way home took Ephiny and Solari through the village, past Melosa's spacious hut. As the two of them neared they noticed several Amazons of all ages milling about outside the queen's lodgings. This was highly unusual because at this time of day nearly every adult Amazon had their own duties to attend to--Melosa saw to that. Clearly something was up.
Nearing, Ephiny caught the eye of a willowy girl by the name of Phoebe.
"What's going on?" Ephiny asked, nodding toward the hut.
"Marleen and a couple of the others caught an intruder over by the river," said Phoebe.
"The river?" echoed Solari. Immediately her thoughts turned to the Centaurs, occupants of the lands on the far side of the river and for the moment at least participants in an uneasy truce with the Amazons. No one expected it to last long. The deep hostility between the two races stretched far back beyond the memory of anyone alive. Theirs was a collective history filled with violence and bloodshed.
As it turned out, though, Solari's fears on this occasion were unfounded. For her part Ephiny was only mildly interested. After all, such an event was not all that uncommon. Almost always these incursions were nothing more than some poor traveler who had gotten lost in the vast forest beyond before finally stumbling over onto Amazon land.
Ephiny had patrolled the banks of that river more times than she could count and she certainly did not think it plausible that any lone Centaur would be foolhardy enough to cross in broad daylight. Indeed outside of the occasional provocative probe Centaurs were rarely seen around their side of the river at all. As a matter of fact it had been Ephiny and Solari themselves who had caught the last interloper encroaching upon their land and he could hardly have been called warlike.
Recalling all the trouble that had resulted from that seemingly minor encounter, Ephiny muttered, "Not another one of those crazy Getae, I hope."
Phoebe shook her head. "Naw, this one's a woman. Pretty tough one too I gather. You should see the mouse she laid on Pomona."
"Yep. Marleen said if Min had not been there she might have taken them all."
Ephiny and Solari glanced at each other with the blonde pulling down the corners of her mouth to indicate that she was impressed. And why not? Marleen was a seasoned warrior, second in command in Willa's unit and Pomona was a tough little fighter with already two kills in battle. This stranger, whoever she was, obviously was no mere peasant woman.
It was here that Ephiny's horse took a step forward, causing Phoebe to reach out and idly begin to gently stroke the side of the animal's head. "What do you suppose the queen will do with her?" she asked.
In reply Ephiny shrugged and said, "Beats me. If Melosa determines she's not a serious threat I guess it will all depend on what she says." Mindful of her growling stomach, she added, "At any rate it's all over our heads. Come on, Solari, Mother has some pheasant waiting for us at home. Melosa can take care of the intruder, we'll pronounce judgment on our breakfast."
"See you guys later," Phoebe said cheerfully, as Ephiny gently pulled the horse away. At least two years away from becoming a warrior herself, the girl longed for the day when she could ride out on patrol with both grizzled veterans like Marleen and Polymenia and fine young blood like Ephiny and Pomona. As she stood there Phoebe's mind drifted into a sweet reverie of all the great things she was going to accomplish once the cherished warrior's mask was finally hers. Yes sir, any foe stupid enough to threaten the tribe would certainly feel the vengeance of her wrathful sword. Why there weren't going to be enough knots to...
And that was when it dawned on her. Sword? OH NO!!! Caught up in the excitement of the stranger's capture, The Savior of the entire Amazon Nation had completely forgotten that she was at that very moment supposed to be at sword practice.
In consternation she again softly gasped, "Oh no!" and off she scurried toward the training grounds. Gods! she thought. Selena will kill me for sure. As a "turd" it was utterly unthinkable for her to be late for a training class.
Oh no! She's gonna kill me. Oh gods I just know it.
As it turned out Selena's measures proved to be not quite so Draconian. Having spent more than fifteen years churning out young warriors for the tribe she knew how easily it was for a young girl to get distracted. Even so, instilling discipline in these sprouts was an integral part of her job and so for her purposes Phoebe's detainment after practice to run twenty long laps around the pond, both hands clutching a heavy staff above her head would do nicely toward improving the promising young trainee's memory.
As for Ephiny she too was about to be affected by the presence of the stranger. For at that very moment the stranger was uttering the name of the daughter of Meelah.
"Ephiny?" Surprised and incredulous, Melosa, the All Highest, Queen of the Amazons, repeated the name of her lowly young warrior. "Ephiny? What do you know of Ephiny?"
"Only what I was told by a friend," the stranger replied. "That though young and inexperienced she is tenacious, brave and wise beyond her tender years. That in a tough spot, she would be someone to count on."
Catching the eye of her queen Willa, one of Melosa's company commanders, cocked her head to one side and said, "That's Ephiny all right." Though the girl was extremely young, Willa had already seen firsthand her bravery and resourcefulness.
However this did little to allay Melosa's skepticism. It would take more than the mention of a wet-behind-the-ears lower echelon warrior to impress her. "Interesting," she said. "And just who is this, uhh, 'friend' of yours who knows our Ephiny so well? More importantly, what has that got to do with you trespassing on our land?"
Although Melosa had gone ahead with these questions she had by now formed a strong opinion as to just who this "friend" was. In the heavily regimented life of young Ephiny she had been afforded only limited opportunities to meet others from beyond the village. Consequently it was not that difficult for Melosa to ascertain just on whom she had made such a positive impression.
Flanked by Celeste and Minutia, two of the tribe's most physically imposing Amazons, the stranger remained undaunted as she looked the queen squarely in the eye. "I get the impression you already seem to know."
"Diandra sent you here, didn't she?"
"You mean the Getae woman who helped Ephiny free us?" a surprised Minutia blurted out.
"She said she knew you once, and that you were just and fair," the newcomer added hopefully.
Melosa thought back to her meeting with Diandra long ago. "That was a long time ago," she said quietly.
It was strange how old paths could converge. Barely two moons before Melosa had sent a diplomatic mission to the Getae at the invitation of their king, Burebistas. Upon the arrival back in the village a few days later of a half dead Polymenia the queen had learned that the rest of those in the party, including her own sister, had suddenly found themselves caught up in the middle of a government overthrow by parts of the Getae military. Because she was away on a scouting mission at the time, Ephiny had been the only member of the party to escape capture. Ultimately then, with bravery, skill and determination--and no small amount of help from this same Diandra--she had been able to successfully free her princess and her other friends and return safely home again. Already the daughter of Meelah's exploits in Getae were becoming the stuff of legend among her fellow junior warriors. Of course Melosa was well acquainted with every detail of this affair, having heard first hand accounts from Terreis, Willa and Ephiny herself.
As for Minutia she could be excused her mistake. Her job was to crush bones, not to pay close attention to detail. Whether she had on that eventful night missed the significance of Ephiny's plea to Diandra to "come home" or whether she had simply forgotten, the fact remained that she had erred in an important point concerning Diandra.
Melosa saw no need to correct her on it but the stranger certainly did. "Diandra is not Getae! she said sharply. "She is---"
"Amazon," said Melosa suddenly. She paused for just a beat before adding, "Like you."
Unlike her hulking subject, Melosa's sharp mind had by now put all the pieces together.
Coolly eyeing the stranger, she said, "Let's see how close I get to the truth in all
this. I think we can safely say you're not from one of those renegade bands that give us
all such a bad name. No, you're from the Northern tribe, a true Amazon warrior, not some
marauding child stealer."
Many generations before the unexpected death of a young queen barely six moons into her reign had produced in the tribe a bitter succession dispute. This resulted in great political and social upheaval in what had up until then been a united Amazon Nation. With no clear successor at hand the majority of the Amazons favored the most senior captain, a twenty-eight year old, highly decorated warrior by the name of Druis. It was this woman who was destined to become the great-grandmother of the noble Antiope. The rest of the warriors fell behind Scelles, trusted advisor to the late queen.
As with all disputes of this magnitude it was decided in true Amazon tradition, in the only way it could be decided--single combat. Thus the challenged was issued and duly accepted and it was on the day after the first full moon of the summer solstice that Druis and Scelles fought it out under a blazing afternoon sun.
Before the fight Scelles received a great deal of advice about her choice of weapons. Podicia, one of the more battle wise among the allies of Scelles, had stunned her by urging that as challenger she should take the unusual step of naming the sarissa as her weapon of choice. Scelles' reaction had been to immediately dismiss the proposal as insane. Indeed, she wondered whether her friend had simply been affected by the heat or if she was not scheming against her.
And who could blame her? At a full fourteen cubits in length and weighing almost fifteen mina the sarissa was in fact a huge pike, the shaft was of which was made in two pieces joined together by a metal tube. In short the thing was a log. It was of course a highly specialized weapon, one used exclusively by densely massed formations of men known as a phalanx. Later the Macedonians under Alexander would use both the formation and the weapon to great effect but, being a light and highly mobile force, the Amazons looked down on the sarissa with great disdain. However in the past such weapons had been captured by the Amazons and Podicia knew there were still a couple of them lying around rusting in one of the storehouses.
Podicia's reasoning, for all its peculiarity, was based on frank assessment of the two combatants. Scelles was big and strong but she was also neither very quick nor very clever. Druis, on the other hand, was both and Podicia recognized that these qualities would indeed pose a real problem for the lumbering Scelles. In her mind the bigger, heavier, very unwieldy weapon would be better suited to Scelles' superior strength. Her view, however, was strictly a minority of one and consequently no one gave it a second thought when Scelles chose for her weapon the one she knew best, the sword.
When the sun came to cast the appropriate shadow the grim contest began. To most of the Amazons gathered round, even those who backed Druis, there was very little thought of the fight ending in anything but a triumph for the mighty Scelles. Standing almost a head taller than her foe, she was seen as simply being too big and too strong and probably too experienced. However as it turned out Scelles would have been well served to listen to her observant friend Podicia. Druis, first in a royal line that would one day extend to illustrious six generations, was like most of her descendants short and compact. Possessed of a fierce intelligence hidden by cold, dark eyes, she was utterly fearless. And as Podicia had noted she was lightning quick with her hands and feet and her guile as a warrior, which she was soon to prove, was unmatched by any other Amazon.
At first the two warriors cautiously circled each other inside the human ring of Amazons exhorting them on to battle. As expected it was Scelles who went on the offensive. With great sweeps of her blade which seemed to suck away the air in its wake she struck at the nimble Druis. Her dark eyes burning as she watched Scelles' every twitch, Druis deftly evaded or fended off every last one of Scelles' ever more futile thrusts and slashes. In this way the wily Druis, just as Podicia had feared, began to first frustrate and finally then to wear down her thickly-muscled opponent. All the while patiently waiting for just the precise moment to strike, Druis with each successive miss by Scelles taunted her for her clumsiness and poor swordsmanship, equating her skill to that of a farmer's wife or, even more galling, that of a Vestal Virgin!
At last, as she knew it would, her moment came. After one particularly forceful thrust Scelles let her center of gravity get just a little too far forward, causing her to stumble ever so slightly. Her opponent's momentary hesitation in regaining her defensive posture was all the opportunistic Druis needed. In an instant the younger Amazon lashed out in all her savagery. The razor sharp edge of her sword caught the exposed Scelles right across the bridge of the nose and like one of Phoenicia's great cedars she went crashing to the ground. Soon the hapless warrior began to drown in her own blood. The Amazons encircling the victorious Druis looked on in stunned silence. Not since Zeus routed the Titans had there been such an upset.
As it was Druis' victory should have put an end to matters then and there but a shocked Priscilla, Scelles' lover, immediately brought the simmering pot right back to a boil by charging that Druis must have cheated somehow. The angry backers of Druis swiftly denounced Priscilla as a traitorous rabble rouser intent on undermining the authority of the tribe's new queen. Supporting a rival was one thing but now that matters had been settled in the eyes of Artemis it was expected, no demanded, that all should cast their allegiance to the tribe's lawful new queen.
The enraged Priscilla would have none of it. Snidely she replied that, law or no, no common tribal grunt was going to command her! Having just won supreme authority, the fierce Druis was not about to yield even a finger's width of it. Solidly planting her foot on the back of the dying Scelles, Druis demanded that Priscilla swear her loyalty on the spot or else she could join her friend in the arms of Artemis.
All around the circle of warriors other angry voices erupted. Above the din Druis shouted for every Amazon who believed her ascension to be the will of Artemis to rally to her. The circle collapsed around the two antagonists and when it broke apart the great majority of warriors were standing in support of Druis. But not all. For on the other side a full score Amazons stood with Priscilla.
A tense silence fell over the opposing factions. As far as Druis was concerned the battle lines were drawn. With the smell of battle still in her nostrils and nearly a hundred warriors at her back she was fully prepared to annihilate every last one of those whom she considered to be rebels. At the last moment, however, a quiet voice broke the grim, suffocating silence.
"Highness?" This was the very first time for Druis to be addressed by this august title and she would remember it for the rest of her life. The speaker was Pusia, who as a fellow company commander had served alongside the new queen and was a good friend.
"Yes, what is it?" Druis asked, still glaring at Priscilla.
Cautiously Pusia continued. "Ma'am, if you...order us against them we will of course obey but..."
Her blood still hot, Druis impatiently spurred her friend on. "Come on, Pusia spit it out. But what?"
"Well, perhaps, ma'am, enough blood has been shed here this day. I know in my heart tis only right that we settle such grave matters as this by just and honorable combat. It has long been our custom to do so and tribal leadership is after all our most important question." Here Pusia paused again. Druis was notorious for her volcanic temper. How would she react?
"Out with it, Pusia. What are you getting at?"
"Ma'am, I am but a simple warrior. All my life I have obeyed orders, I have sworn to give my life, my very soul if need be in the defense of my people. Under your command I will kill the enemy wherever I find him but, ma'am, are you sure that these who stand before us are truly our enemy?"
"They have chosen to defy not only me but nothing less than the will of Artemis herself," Druis sharply answered. "Does that not make them my enemy? And if it does then I need not remind you, Pusia, that it makes them your enemy as well."
Pusia's reply was one of quiet acquiescence. "If you say it then it's so. If you order it I will fight as I always have. But I also know this--that for the rest of my life my heart will never be able to reconcile the fact that I once raised my hand against my sister. Highness, they are our own kind! Flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood."
"And just what would you have me do?" asked Druis bitterly. "Kiss their traitorous asses?"
Swallowing hard, Pusia softly answered, "Let them go."
"Let them go in peace. Banish them. Someone once said that once doubt creeps in upon us there can be no return to perfect faith and so is it with loyalty as well. Tis true then that, living or dead, they must be cast out from our tribe but is it not better that we show our sisters mercy? Surely in one stroke we cannot forget all our happy days, all the laughter and tears and all the blood so many of have shed together! They have made their choice so pluck them out from us by all means but in my heart, my queen, I believe we should let them live."
And to the utter surprise all, Druis did just that. No one ever knew why. Perhaps she realized that in the infancy of her own reign it was in fact better that any dissidents depart or perhaps it was because she felt that the impending fight would weaken the tribe even more without any real guarantee of loyalty by the surviving followers of Priscilla. At any rate Priscilla and her warriors were allowed to take their families and their possessions and depart in peace. Never again would they set their eyes on the vast Euxine Pontus.
Wandering to the north and east into Scythia, they in time settled on the great wind swept plains that stretched out before the mountain range that marked what was many thought was the end of the world. It seemed fitting somehow. Old worlds had indeed come to an end. Never again would life as it had been known be the same for either tribe.
In all the generations since contact between the two factions had been sporadic at best
and nonexistent at worst. In fact there had been only one real attempt at reconciliation
and that by Melosa's mother, Penthesilea. Unfortunately on her visit north she found
Thalia, her opposite number, to be jealous not only of her fame but of her striking beauty
as well. Her pettiness had allowed all the old animosities to flare up once more and so
the effort had gone for naught. In the long years hence communication had been even more
sparse than before, so much so that Ephiny's chance encounter with Diandra marked the
first face to face meeting between members of the two tribes in almost ten years.
"Now," said Melosa, continuing, "I'm thinking that for whatever reason you became dissatisfied with your place in the tribe. Perhaps you felt aggrieved in some way. Perhaps you felt someone in the command structure was treating you unfairly. It happens. I'm sure every warrior at one time or another feels they're being shit on."
In unison every last one of her subjects present thought, "You got that right!
"At any rate you left. But after a while it begins to dawn on you that life outside the tribe is not the bed of roses you thought it was, that being independent is a double-edged sword. Still, you won't go back. Perhaps you can't go back. So, what do you do? Where do you go? You're several years younger than Diandra so I'd say that in your childhood she tended to you many times. When I was a young warrior my mother visited your village and I came to know Diandra. She was very impressive so it's likely that you came to look up to her. It was only natural then that after following in her very footsteps you would seek her out for advice."
Her dark eyes searching out those of the stranger, Melosa asked "How am I doing so far?"
The stranger was forced to admit, "Very well it seems."
Pleased, Melosa slightly tilted her head back, uttering a soft, "Ahh. Very well, to make a long story short--you go to your old mentor, you ask her for advice and with the memory of Ephiny's invitation still fresh in her mind she suggests you try coming here." In a not unfriendly tone the queen went on to add, "And here you are."
"It's true, ma'am," said the stranger, evoking for the first time this familiar title of respect. "I am an Amazon. I miss being with Amazons. I...I'd like to join you...here."
"Just like that," Willa caustically interjected. "You desert your tribe and when you find out how much of a bitch life can be on the outside you come prancing in here asking for acceptance. Well let me tell you something, 'sister,'"--Willa practically spat out the word--"here we work. Here everybody who can get up out of the bed in the morning contributes. We don't have room for some sorry-ass derelict who bolts at the first sign of trouble."
Although Melosa was somewhat surprised by the usually mild-mannered Willa's outburst the points her captain had made were legitimate ones nonetheless. In their tribe with its declining numbers it was more than important it was vital that able-bodied Amazons do their part no matter what their age.
"I have never shirked my duty," the stranger insisted.
"You deserted your tribe, didn't you?" Willa shot back. "What the hell do you call that? For that matter how do we even know you really are a true Amazon?"
The stranger glanced over at Marleen who with the others on the patrol had experienced such a difficult time in subduing her. "Ask her if she thinks I'm an Amazon."
It was true. By all accounts the stranger had indeed demonstrated prowess worthy of the Amazon race. Even so, Willa was left far from satisfied. "Give me a verse from the War Song," she said. "Any of the early verses will do."
"We no longer sing the old song," said the stranger. "Ours is different from yours now."
"All right, recite Hippolyta's prayer then. And don't tell me that is different because if you say it is I know you're no Amazon."
This ancient prayer, said to have been spoken by the legendary Hippolyta on the eve of her hallowed victory over the Hittites, was so sacred to the Amazon Nation that it was strictly forbidden to utter any part of it in the presence of an outsider. To this day be it the Northern Tribe, Southern Tribe or any of the handful of small clusters that had splintered off over the years, the glory of that fabled name Hippolyta was so great that even now all young warriors-to-be were required to learn this prayer verbatim. Without a recent sharing of history their songs might have become different but no one with true Amazon blood coursing through her veins would have ever dared to alter one single syllable of the peerless Hippolyta's words.
And so, taking a deep breath, Eponin began:
Glory to Artemis! For she alone will smite our enemies. When you art with us
can we be afraid? Nay, let them come! For the mightier the foe the greater the
glory for you. Glory to Artemis!"
Giving Willa a hard look the stranger then finished:
"All right, enough of this," said Melosa calmly. "While I believe you are an true Amazon my captain here is right. They tell me that my grandmother used to say that given a choice between an unreliable Amazon and a dead one a queen would be better served if she chose the dead one."
The adage itself predated her grandmother, the illustrious Antiope, and was in fact a product of the ancient split in the Amazon Nation. It was just one indication of the bitter feelings that had resulted from that shattering event.
"Ma'am, I am not unreliable. It's just that things..."
"We're listening," said Willa.
But the stranger could not go on. Changing course, she said, "Look, I'm a highly skilled warrior. I'm also a good hunter--not the best--but good enough. I can be a valuable asset to your tribe if you'll only give me the chance. That's all I'm asking for--a chance to prove myself."
The silence in the hut was absolute because everyone knew that the next voice to be heard was to be the queen's. Point and counterpoint had been made. It was up to her now. In truth Melosa's mind was already made up. For most of her adult life she had been making decisions and as decisions went this was a comparatively minor one. They were always understrength. The tribe needed skilled warriors. "All right," said the queen finally, "you'll get your chance."
"Thank you, ma'am!"
"But," the queen quickly warned, "let's be clear here. By joining us you are willing to faithfully serve the House of Druis and Antiope? To recognize me, Melosa, daughter of Penthesilea, as your only legitimate sovereign and to in all things obey your superiors without question? Are you willing to fight for the security of the tribe? To DIE for it if necessary? Do this you swear by the great Artemis, our divine patron?"
In an effort to demonstrate her subservience the stranger dropped to one knee, crossing an arm across her chest as she bent down low. "I swear it, great queen."
Unused to this ancient, now largely forgotten gesture, Melosa felt strangely uncomfortable with it. Her rule was absolute, yes, she demanded the proper respect, yes, but respect came in many forms and for the daughter of Penthesilea it was enough that her subjects believed in her ability to lead the tribe. Any fool could be bowed to--Burebistas had proven that--but not everyone could command.
The queen placed a hand on the stranger's shoulder and quietly said, "You only have to swear your allegiance, no one expects you to grovel."
And right there the stranger realized that this Southern Tribe was something very different indeed.
"Now, we have much to do here today. So let's get at it," said Melosa. It was her way of indicating that the meeting was over. Melosa watched Celeste leave and then turned to the stranger. "Uhh, you, what's your name again?"
"Eponin, ma'am," came the reply.
"All right, Eponin, I'm assigning you to Meelah's command. I believe her unit is the most under strength. Minutia!"
"See that she reports to Meelah and then find her a place to sleep." Glancing at Eponin, the queen asked "Do you have a good horse?"
"I do," Eponin confidently assured her.
"Good." To Melosa's way of thinking that made it even better. Finishing her instructions to Minutia, she said, "And see that she gets fed."
"Right," Minutia said with a nod.
"Take the remainder of the day to get squared away and rested up. Tomorrow we'll see if we can't find something for you to do. All right then, people, we're wasting daylight so let's move. Willa, you come with me. It's your unit's turn to work on the new well."
Melosa stepped briskly toward the door and Willa obediently fell in behind her. Passing Eponin, she pointed to an eye and murmured, "I'll be watching you."
Eponin and Minutia were the last to leave the hut. Once outside Eponin watched the two elite Amazons make their way through the village toward the site of the new well. "I don't think she likes me very much," Eponin observed quietly.
"Who, Willa?" Minutia grinned, revealing perfect white teeth. "Aah she's all right. It's just that she's one of those thinkers is all. You gotta watch those thinkers." The big warrior clapped Eponin's shoulder and said, "Come on, let's go find Meelah. She's a thinker too but damn if she isn't a warrior's warrior. You'll love her."
With her hunger pangs stilled by cold pheasant and several helpings of Meelah's wonderful sweetbread Solari leaned back in her chair, stretching out her sturdy legs before her. Full of contentment, she moaned, "Mmm, now this is more like it. Sure beats spending all morning on some windy hilltop, doesn't it?"
"Well don't get too comfy," Ephiny stoically reminded her. "We've got a field exercise this evening."
In contrast to her ravenous friend it was hard to tell if Ephiny had eaten anything at all. In truth she had not eaten much. Never a big eater anyway, Ephiny when not in the field preferred to make the evening supper her main meal. Of course waiting that long into the day sometimes found her becoming quite hungry as anyone would but usually Ephiny just chose to ignore it. To her it was simply another way of maintaining the rigid self-discipline, so important to Amazon life, that all warriors were expected to practice. Plus it certainly did not do her waistline any harm.
Solari, however, was rarely as zealous in this as her friend was. Emitting a soft, satisfied burp she said, "I'll tell ya, Eph, I don't know where your mother--"
Solari was interrupted in mid-sentence by a sharp knock at the door. Ephiny arose from her seat and in bare feet crossed the room to answer it. There she saw Minutia and a young woman she had never seen before.
"Is your mother home?" asked Minutia.
"Ah no," Ephiny replied, somewhat distractedly. "No she's not." Now who is this? she wondered.
"Do you know where she is?"
"No," Ephiny answered again. "I haven't seen her since I got back." Remembering the exercise, Ephiny added, "I expect she'll be back soon though."
Standing there in the door she felt Solari move in behind her.
Damn, thought Minutia. She could be anywhere. For a moment she considered taking Eponin in tow and traipsing off to find Meelah but with Ephiny's last words still fresh in her ears she decided against it. No, better that Eponin wait here for her. "Uhh, let's seee, I'll tell you what," she said to Eponin. "You wait here for Meelah. Ephiny? This is Eponin. She's a warrior from the Northern Tribe and she's come to join up with us. Tell your mother that Melosa has assigned her to you guys, okay? If Meelah has any questions she can see the queen."
As Ephiny nodded that she understood she noticed the stranger eyeing her with curiosity.
Minutia turned stretched out a muscular arm toward a distant hut. "See that hut? The one with the two spears leaning against the front? That's mine. When Meelah is through with you go on over there. We'll have some supper and you can spend the night with me. On the south end of the village there is an abandoned hut that's still in pretty good shape. Tomorrow if you like you and I can begin fixing that up for your own use."
Eponin could not believe it. Rarely had anyone been so generous to her. Stammering out a numb reply, she said, "I-I'd like that."
Minutia flashed that brilliant smile again and said, "Good. I'll see you later then."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Why are you doing this? Why are you going out of your way to help a total stranger? I mean, what do you care?"
Perplexed, Minutia gave Eponin an odd look. In her mind this new one might as well have asked why was the moon round, why fire burned or why stones sank in water. These were not things that needed explaining, they just were. "You're an Amazon, aren't you?"
"Well, yes but--"
"Here Amazons try to help each other," Minutia replied earnestly. "Most of us anyway. It's what we do." This time the big warrior flashed not the wide grin rather a faint, tight-lipped smile as she added the reason that transcended all others. "It's how we survive." With that she turned and strode off toward her hut.
"Well," said Ephiny, extending her hand, "welcome to our village. Like Min said my name is Ephiny and this big ugly tumor growing on my back is Solari."
"Hey-ey!" Solari yelped in protest. "I was just trying to get a good look."
As discreetly as she could Eponin studied the two Amazons standing there in the doorway. They were young--perhaps four or five years younger than she. As was to be expected their muscles had not yet reached their peak in development but they were well toned nevertheless. Like all the others she had seen so far these two seemed to be well fed with clean, clear skin, full faces and bright, alert eyes.
"Are you two sisters?" she asked.
"Not by blood," said Ephiny. "But we might as well be. We practically grew up together."
Sensing her chance for retribution, Solari sniffed, "Hmph! I wouldn't claim you if you were my sister."
With a roll of her eyes Ephiny said, "Don't pay her any mind." Stepping back from the door she said, "Won't you come in?"
Eponin did just that, turning her shoulders sideways to step through the partially open door. Once inside she took a quick look around. Her new captain certainly had made a comfortable home for her family. "Nice place," she pronounced.
"Have a seat anywhere," said Ephiny. "Are you hungry? We have some leftover bread."
Actually Eponin was quite hungry but she thought it might not be the best thing to be caught eating at her new captain's table. "Ahh no," she said. "Thanks anyway." Besides, right at that moment she had other things on her mind. After listening to Diandra gush about the brave Amazon warrior she had recently met Eponin had expected to find this Ephiny to be someone older. What she now saw instead was a serious looking, surprisingly youthful Amazon.
As it was Eponin was not alone in her scrutiny. Just as she was taking note of the young pair so too was she being carefully studied--especially by Solari. She guessed the stranger to be at least three or four years older than her. While not physically imposing like the thickly muscled Min or Draganis her lean body was muscular nevertheless and seemed to convey power that was only hinted at. Her face, while very pleasing to look at exhibited, especially around the dark eyes, a certain hardness to it. Whether this was simply something natural in her expression or the unhappy result of vicissitudes long endured Solari as of yet had know way of knowing. What was clear, however, was that the woman oozed a quiet strength--even a ferocity perhaps. She moved like a panther, sleek and powerful. It was obvious the woman was not someone to be trifled with. Fair of face, proud, with long brown hair falling loosely down onto strong shoulders she was in short an Amazon's Amazon.
And there was one more thing. Despite not knowing a thing about Eponin other than what her senses were telling her Solari was surprised to find herself resenting the newcomer.
Still watching Eponin intently, Solari saw her eyes soften ever so slightly as they settled on Ephiny. "I bring you tidings from a friend."
Startled, Ephiny's brow furrowed. Momentarily puzzled, she quizzically echoed, "A friend?" Her confusion lasted but a moment. No less intelligent than Melosa, the young warrior made the association right away, just as her queen had done earlier. "You mean Diandra?"
"You're as nimble minded as your queen," Eponin said approvingly. "Yes Diandra."
"How is she?" Ephiny asked. "Is she well?"
"Yes, and she sends you all her best."
"She is an extraordinary woman. I admire her inner strength. I begged her to join us here, but she would not."
"She is remarkable that's true but she can also be very stubborn," said Eponin. "Her departure was a heavy blow to our..." Pausing, Eponin quickly corrected herself. "..the Northern Tribe."
"And so now it seems you too have left," Solari observed.
There was a certain iciness in the young Amazon's tone that Eponin could not help but notice. This in turn evoked a hard look from Eponin but as she answered her voice was slow and measured. "The Fates are not always kind."
Listening to this, Ephiny wondered what the circumstances were behind this cryptic reply. However she said nothing. Obviously Solari had touched on a sore spot.
There followed then a polite exchange of small talk but soon even this petered out into a stiff silence. By this time Solari was long gone, having excused herself at the first opportunity. When at last Meelah returned Ephiny lost no time in taking her own leave as well.
Although her role as host was at an end and she was safely away Ephiny found her mind wandering back to the intriguing newcomer. As of yet it was too early for Ephiny to decide whether or not she liked her. She seemed cordial enough and yet there was an undeniable intensity about her. Not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with that. A lot of Amazons were intense--her for one. It seemed to be part of their nature. Still, Eponin appeared to be wound a little tighter than most.
Back in the hut Ephiny had sensed Solari's antipathy toward Eponin. This surprised her because, more than most Amazons, Solari had an amiability about her and rarely was it ever disturbed. Solari got along with everybody. Clearly though there was something about Eponin that bothered her and Ephiny made a mental note to at some point ask her friend about that.
Melosa stood at the edge of the well and leaned over to get a better look down inside. Rigged over the well was a rope attached to a pulley and as she peered down into the shadows the queen put a hand on one of its supports in order to maintain her balance. There at the bottom she saw the older Valerie and Therme, two of Willa's smaller Amazons, busily toiling away with their spades. Neither of them were happy about being picked for the job. After all, they were warriors and as such it was only natural that they consider work of this kind beneath them and even a little demeaning.
Melosa was well aware of the disdain with which her warriors looked upon such tasks as this but as always her main--her only concern was the welfare of her people as a whole and if that meant a few warriors getting a little dirt in their hair well then so be it. She felt that as long as she was fair with the distribution of the work load no one really had much of a complaint anyway. Not that it mattered. If she said "Do it!" then by the gods they would do it. Besides, Amazon warriors were no different from children and the elderly of the village in that they had to have water too. So a few days of leaning on a spade were good for everyone all around.
"How deep are we?" the queen asked.
"About ten cubits," Willa answered.
Down at the bottom an exasperated Therme heard this and dared not look up as she whispered, "We? What in Tartarus is this 'we' stuff?"
Though Therme had not meant it so the remark struck Valerie as being downright funny. Therme was always such a gloomy sort anyway and somehow the thought of this, just one more indignity she had to suffer found its way right into Valerie's funny bone. It was not that Valerie liked being down there any more than Therme did. The work was hard and slow and yet in her sharing it with the ever depressed Therme--hearing her complain--she could not help but find humor in their predicament. It was just Valerie's way. So it had been ever since she could remember. Theirs was a classic case of opposites attracting because Valerie, effervescent and playful, and the melancholy Therme had been best friends all their young lives.
"Shut up!" a hissing Valerie admonished, all the while trying to suppress a giggle. "You want to get us into trouble?"
Unmoved, by her friend's plea, Therme ran her tongue across her upper lip, wiping away the dirt and perspiration which she then spat out. Setting her foot on her spade, she gave it a fierce push. "Well this isn't exactly a holiday in Athens, ya know."
Valerie just smiled and shook her head as she dumped yet another spadeful of dirt into the big wooden tub. Theme was right, this was not a holiday in Athens. But given the choice of spending a day in a dank hole or facing the wrath of the fierce Melosa...she would take the hole every time.
Judging from past experience Melosa estimated that to hit water they would need to dig down another five cubits or so. "Another day, day and a half then," she said.
"About that," Willa said in agreement. She then added the cautious qualifier, "If we don't hit slate."
"What about your shoring?"
"I have four people out in the forest right now taking care of that," said Willa.
From down below Valerie's sharp voice rang out, "Okay!"
Stationed on top were two more Amazons, Pycea and the muscular Jen, and at this signal the two of them began to pull earnestly on the rope hoist. For a few moments Melosa silently watched the tubful of dirt make its slow ascent. Satisfied the work was going well, she turned to leave. As she did she caught the eye of Jen. This broad-shouldered Amazon was often assigned to sentry duty at the queen's hut and though Melosa characteristically would never allow herself to show it she was quite fond of her. Like Therme Jen was a complete stranger to depression. In fact it was surprising that, given the intense pressures of their struggle for everyday existence, the outlook on life for most Amazons was one of staunch optimism.
Her face blank, Melosa stoically said, "It's about time you did some honest work."
The good-natured Jen broke into a wide grin and she replied, "You know me, ma'am. I'll try anything once."
Melosa, saying nothing, did not break stride in walking right on past Jen and going on her way.
Back down in the well Valerie and Therme pressed their backs up against the side of the well and watched the now empty tub being lowered back down to them. When it came to rest at the bottom the two friends just stood there for a moment, staring at it. This inactivity did not last long because in very short order there appeared outlined against the bright sky above the unmistakable form of Willa leaning out over the hole.
"I don't hear any digging," the captain casually reminded them.
Wedging her bronze spade into the hard ground, Therme muttered, "There's another one on my list."
Ever since Valerie's return from imprisonment at the hands of the Getae she had noted a change in her friend. The young woman had always been a rather unhappy sort but there was something else now--a certain assertiveness that had never been there before. It was as if the pressures of being a newly masked warrior had awakened some dormant trait in her friend. Valerie herself could understand that. Mortified at having been captured so easily and, yes, a little ashamed at having been rescued by the daring young Ephiny, Valerie was determined to never again accept things so meekly. In this she finally had something in common with her acerbic friend.
As Theme returned to work she broke into a little impromptu ditty that Willa could not help but hear:
Valerie grinned and shook her head at this but in the back of her mind there was concern for her friend. She could only hope that Therme would not push her superiors too far. Assertiveness was one thing, insubordination was something else again. To an Amazon there was nothing more unsettling than a breakdown in discipline, hence the old line spoken so long ago by Queen Myrina:
Melosa was of much the same school and Valerie could only shudder at what the queen
might do to Therme if she was ever so foolhardy as to get out of line. Straining against
her spade, Valerie vowed that she was not going to let that happen.
Now that she had checked on the well Melosa thought she might ride out into the hills and find Euset. It had been nearly a month now since her last visit with the goatherd but that did not mean the queen did not know how she was getting along. Through the regular reports she got from the younger Amazons who were almost daily tramping around up in the hills Melosa was able to keep abreast both of the older woman's general condition and her whereabouts. Euset was a woman who liked her solitude but Melosa made it a point to pay her a personal visit every so often just to see for herself how she was getting on. It was important to Melosa that she know not only because of Euset's past service to the tribe but because of the friendship the woman had once shared with her mother, Penthesilea. In her prime Euset had been a very fine warrior but the effects of old war wounds had left her with a pronounced limp. Still, her overall health was good and in her visits Melosa usually found her just as direct and opinionated as ever.
On this day, however, Melosa's excursion into the hills would be sidetracked by a far more pressing matter. In making her way to her stable she was intercepted by Calliope, yet another among their batch of junior warriors who seemed to hold so much promise.
Jogging toward her queen, the young woman called out, "Highness! Racillione has sent me to fetch you. She says it's urgent that she see you at once."
"She didn't say. She just said she needed to talk to you."
"Very well," said Melosa. Taking into account her senior healer's duties she asked, "Is she at her hut?"
"Uh, no, ma'am. She and Missini are over at Antibrote's hut. She asked that you come there."
The distance to Antibrote's home was roughly one hundred twenty paces and in crossing it Melosa thought back to the last time she had seen the solid warrior who served under Colsethme's command. Thinking on it, she realized it had been more than a day or two. Melosa was not one to leave matters in the hands of subordinates and let it go at that. She was very much a "hands on" monarch and as such she made it a point to take an interest in each and every Amazon, not just the tribal elite. When there was a death, she was there. When there was an illness, she was there. When anyone had a problem, they could always come to her. These people were not simply subjects to lord over. They were a part of her.
The last mental image the queen had of Antibrote was one of a healthy warrior in the
prime of her life. She could only assume then that if Racillione felt it necessary to send
for her to come posthaste then it must be because Antibrote had been in some sort of
accident and a serious one at that. As a rule Amazons were always getting banged up for
one reason or another. For such an active people as hers bumps and bruises were as natural
as their own breasts. Many of them looked upon these scrapes as badges of honor. To them
it was part of the keeping up the warrior persona, so much so that few of them ever
bothered with seeing a healer. Even when they did Racillione rarely saw fit to tell her
queen, the Supreme Commander, about it. It was just too trivial. No, this had to be
something bad, very bad.
Upon her arrival Melosa found Racillione standing just outside the door of Antibrote's hut, looking very grave. Still assuming an accident, Melosa's inquiry was twofold. "What happened? How badly is she hurt?"
"Not hurt," said Racillione. Her tone grew ominous in adding, "Sick."
Melosa started to step through the door when to her great surprise the healer shot out an arm to bar her way. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency. "Highness, don't go in there!".
Now healers were no different from any other member of the tribe in that they were not in the habit of going around intentionally blocking the path of their queen. Racillione had taken a drastic step, one that startled Melosa if only for the span of a single heartbeat. Melosa looked into the eyes of her senior healer and saw more than anxiety.
She saw fear.
Because of this the queen was far from offended by Racillione's actions. In that moment she understood that her subject thought she was protecting her. But from what? Melosa tried not to let apprehension creep into her voice as she asked, "What is it, Lee?" What's wrong?"
Racillione's low reply was a grim one. "We...we think Antibrote has the Red Sickness."
The words hit Melosa like a blow to the stomach. This affliction was more ruthless, more merciless than any foe this side of the gods. In her youth she once overheard her mother and the now dead Phillipia speaking in hushed tones about how this dreaded scourge had wiped out the entire town of Partum, a heretofore thriving community of five thousand people situated on the banks of the Propontis. Where it came from, how it spread was a total mystery. Was it evil spirits as some said? Did it have something to do with breathing foul air, eating bad food or was it the curse of some offended god? Who knew? What was known was that it was a killer--plain and simple. And if her healer was right it had now come to her village.
"Are you sure?" the queen asked anxiously.
"We're sure," came the unhappy reply. "Already she has the lesions."
"How do you....? Then it came to Melosa. Staring coldly into Racillione's eyes she forcefully asked, "Where's Missini?"
"In there," said Racillione, bleakly angling her head back toward the hut.
Hearing this Melosa exploded into rage. "You coward!" she seethed. "You sent your helper to do YOUR job, knowing what awaited her?! What the hell is wrong with you?!"
"No, ma'am!" cried Racillione. "It's not like that. We--we didn't know about...the lesions. Antibrote would have had body aching and very high fever for at least a couple of days but she said nothing. When was the last time an Amazon had the Red Sickness? It's something we never dreamed of. Missini came here expecting to find something minor. She didn't know, ma'am. We didn't know!"
In her anxiety Racillione ran a trembling hand through her graying hair. "Gods, what do you think I am? I would never have let her go in there had I known."
Melosa continued to intently look at Racillione, saying nothing. Racillione's eyes began to brim with tears. Softly she said, "Ma'am...I feel awful about this. It--it should be me in there instead of Missy. No one knows that better than I."
And in that moment Melosa realized her healer was right. Racillione was not a coward, she never had been. Yes, perhaps some blame could be ascribed to both Missini and to her for their lackadaisical approach but, as Racillione had reminded her, when was the last time anyone had seen an Amazon with the Red Sickness? And then there was Antibrote herself. Why had she not told someone she was sick? What was going on here?
Well, it was too late to worry about that now. Racillione's arm was still stretched across the door and this a determined Melosa now pushed against hard. "Let me in there. I want to see...Missini!"
In desperation Racillione wrapped both arms around her queen and hung on for all she was worth. "No, Melosa! Don't! Antibrote already has the pustules!" Her use of the queen's first name was an indication of just how acute her sense of urgency was. As for Melosa she was an exquisite warrior and quite capable of easily throwing aside her balking healer. Here, however, she instinctively allowed Racillione to pull her away from the door. "No, ma'am," Racillione said, much more tenderly this time. Her voice filled with compassion for her unfortunate friend she whispered, "It's too late...for both of them."
The finality of the healer's words might have taken aback a person of lesser character but not the resolute Melosa. A veteran of two great wars along with countless smaller engagements, she had looked Death in the face many times and never once blinked. Neither would she this time. To her this new menace was just one more enemy that must be beaten and it would not be accomplished by wailing and hand wringing. Back in complete control after her momentary lapse, the Supreme Warlord was once again her old decisive self.
And as for decisions there were now a lot to be made. Gently she pushed away Racillione's arm. "It's okay, Lee," she assured the healer. "I'm not going in."
Uncomfortable at having been so physical with her queen, Racillione could only make tiny little nods of the head in reply.
"All right," said Melosa. "We're going to have to act quickly on this." Off in the distance the queen espied Cordelia, Colsethme's second in command, idly talking to Selena, one of the master instructors. Just the one. Melosa stepped away from the healer and set things in motion by sticking two fingers into her mouth and emitting an ear piercing whistle that shattered the afternoon stillness. Cordelia looked toward the sound and saw Melosa looking right at the two of them. The queen snapped her other hand back toward herself in a beckoning gesture which the younger Amazon knew was meant for her. Not even queens treated master instructors so curtly.
"Gotta go!" she said to Selena and off she bolted at a dead run. While Cordelia was hurrying on her way Melosa pulled aside Celeste who at that moment happened to be passing by.
Cordelia quick stepped to a halt and a little nervously said, "Yes, ma'am."
With her dark eyes flashing intently upon her two bewildered warriors Melosa took command. "Now listen up, you two, I don't want any shitting around on this. Cordelia? Go find everybody in the High Command and tell them to assemble at my hut immediately. Terreis, Colsethme, Meelah--all of them. Everybody except Willa. I'm going to see her now."
Cordelia gave an emphatic nod of the head. "Right!" she eagerly responded.
She wheeled to go but Melosa caught her by the shoulder. "Wait! I want Selena in on this so tell her--and tell her to bring Adele too."
The queen paused and a hesitant Cordelia waited, unsure if her queen was finished. The waiting did not last long. A sharp "Go!" from Melosa sent her streaking back towards Selena. Naturally she was curious as to what this was all about and as Colsethme's second in command she expected her captain would tell her soon enough. She knew it was all part of the normal workings of the Amazon command structure. Melosa, as the supreme authority, was hardly in the habit of discussing strategy with newly appointed lieutenants like herself.
With Cordelia set in motion Melosa turned back to the warrior towering over her. "As for you I've got a very important job for you," said the queen.
Hearing this, Celeste stiffened. "I'm ready, Highness," she replied confidently.
Melosa turned her back on Celeste and in rapid succession pointed out the four huts closest to Antibrote's. "I want this hut, this hut, this one and this one evacuated right now." It was at this moment that Marleen appeared between two of the very huts Melosa had just designated. Realizing it would be better to have a person of authority along she said, "Take Marleen there with you. Perhaps another couple of warriors as well. Now look I want this done as discreetly as possible but in any event you will remove the occupants of those huts, understand?"
"You mean by force, ma'am?"
"If necessary," Melosa answered tersely. "They are to take nothing with them. No food, no water, weapons--nothing."
"But...what will I tell them?"
Melosa gave her a sharp look and said, "You tell them the queen commands it."
Celeste did not like the sound of this. Still, orders were orders. "Yes, ma'am," she obediently replied.
"Good." Sensing Celeste's discomfort, Melosa added, "Don't worry, nobody's in any trouble. It's just a precautionary measure."
Through all this Racillione had stood quietly by, still a little numb from their dreadful discovery. Damn that Antibrote! she thought angrily. Why did she hide this?
The healer's bitter thoughts were cut short by the sound of her queen's voice. "Lee, you go with Celeste. Make sure no one...well you know."
For a moment Celeste considered coming right out and asking what was up but like the higher ranking Cordelia she thought better of it in the end. The astute Melosa, however, again read in the warrior's face what she was thinking and it was with uncharacteristic softness that she said, "You'll know soon enough. Now go."
Celeste gave a slight bow and, taking Racillione in tow, was gone. Alone now, Melosa eased back to the door of Antibrote's hut. "Missini," she quietly called out. "Missy, can you hear me?"
From the shadows on the other side of the door Melosa heard the faint sound of someone stirring. "Yes, ma'am. I can hear you." The voice was not close. Obviously Missini was staying far away from the hut's entrance.
"How is Antibrote? asked the queen.
"It's not good. Her fever is very high and the lesions are all over her. She's also having a lot of trouble keeping anything down."
Behind the door Missini could not see Melosa's silent nod of acknowledgment. After a pause Melosa said, "You know that I have to get you and Antibrote away from the village right away."
"Ma'am, as one of your healers may I make a suggestion?"
What the healer said next shocked even the iron-willed Melosa. "Burn it," said Missini earnestly. "Burn down the hut with Antibrote and me in it. It's the surest way to cleanse this."
Melosa was deeply moved by Missini's courage. Such devotion to duty, such willingness to sacrifice was the perfect ideal of what an Amazon should be. And, yes, deep in the innermost recesses of her mind Melosa had already considered this terrible option. If events proved necessary, if this thing showed signs of having already spread among the villagers, then she was still fully prepared to resort to such Draconian measures.
As this flashed through her mind Melosa thought, May Artemis forgive me but if it comes to that gods on Olympus I will do it.
But not yet.
And so, very quietly she replied, "Missy, I won't do that. Besides, there's always the chance you will both survive this."
Missini did not buy a word of it. "With all due respect, ma'am, you don't believe that any more than I do. We've all heard the frightening tales of how deadly the Red Sickness can be, of how quickly it can spread."
Lowering her eyes Melosa looked away from the door. Missini was right and she knew it. Both Antibrote and Missini were as good as dead already. What was left to say then? Any further words of encouragement would only be just as meaningless.
Looking off to her left Melosa saw Celeste and Marleen emerge from one of the huts. Right behind them were Racillione and the occupant of the hut, Sylvia. Too old now to serve actively now, Sylvia maintained her usefulness to the tribe by working as a tanner.
Upon catching Marleen's eye Melosa stuck her left arm straight out to the side and made a fist. She then rapidly ran through a series of intricate hand signals, indicating that Sylvia was to be taken to the hut of Racillione which also doubled as an aid station. Since it was only temporary anyway Melosa had decided that was the best place for the evacuees to gather.
As for the hand signals Amazons were famous for their ability to communicate silently. Developed out of military necessity and refined over countless generations, this system was by now practically a language unto itself. By its very nature limited to very close range at night, in daylight it was wonderfully efficient. Properly stationed in relays of up to two hundred paces or more sharp-eyed Amazons could communicate quickly over great distances, using an exact system of arm movements. At closer ranges where the hands could be distinctly seen, such as in preparation for an ambush, the system was even more precise and young warriors-to-be spent many hours in practicing these signals. With Sylvia safely spirited away Marleen reached up and touched her left temple signifying that she understood Melosa's instructions.
Melosa again leaned close to the door and said, "Missy, I'm going to have somebody fix up a litter for Antibrote's horse."
"Where are we to go?" asked the healer.
"I want you two to go up into the hills, to the cave where Phillipia hid the children during the Mysian raid. Do you remember where it is?"
"I remember." Plaintively Missini thought, It's as good a place as any to die.
"I'll let you know when everything is ready," said Melosa. With that she departed the hut. On her way back to the well she grabbed the first two warriors she came across and ordered them to post themselves near Antibrote's hut and keep the area around it clear.
For her part Willa was surprised to see her queen return so soon. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"Damn right," Melosa muttered. Melosa walked straight over to the well where Valerie and Therme were still digging away. Impatiently snapping her fingers several times, she said to them, "You two! Out of the hole, right now."
A surprised Therme and Valerie did not have to be told twice. Up the rope they happily scrambled while Willa joined her queen at the side of the well. "What is it?" she asked. "What's happened?"
"I'll tell you later," said Melosa. "The rest of you, go home and stay there! Is that clear?"
"Yes. ma'am," Jen assured her.
Melosa took Willa by the elbow and it was on the way back to the queen's hut that she
broke the ominous news to an aghast Willa.
On the way to Melosa's hut she and Willa were joined by Terreis, Hereditary Princess of the Southern Tribe and younger sister of the queen. As sisters went they were about as different as two could be, even though they were a rarity among Amazon siblings in that they had the same father. Terreis was fair-skinned and genial, Melosa was dark and brooding. Both were extremely intelligent but it was manifest in the two of them in decidedly different ways. In the words of Minutia Terreis was one of those "thinkers" with a passion for philosophy and the arts. Melosa, on the other hand, preferred to apply her considerable mental faculties in areas less...abstract. Melosa was first and foremost a realist. As a young royal being groomed for the throne she had, like Terreis, studied the great Hellenic poets, historians and philosophers of the time but had never really taken any of it to heart the way her younger sister had and indeed the way her mother had. Melosa's overriding interest was military matters it was here that she chose to apply her fierce intellect.
While unfailingly proud of her younger sister, Melosa sometimes wondered if she was not taking this zest for culture a bit too far. She was well aware that some of the tribal elite considered Terreis to be a dreamer--not exactly the most complimentary label for the next in line for the throne. Nevertheless Melosa was confident that if and when the time came for her to lead Terreis would be ready. Had she not already proven herself in battle? For the proud older sister that was all that really mattered in her mind.
"I just spoke to Cordelia" said Terreis, falling in step with her sister. Willa, meanwhile, followed the customary step behind. "What's going on?"
Looking straight ahead Melosa grimly replied, "It looks like one of our people has the Red Sickness."
Hearing this, Terreis was as stunned as her sister had been, so much so that she stopped dead in her tracks.
Like all Amazons her age Terreis had very little idea of the deadly implications of what her sister had just said. She remembered old Phillipia having in hushed tones mentioned it once or twice in those old history lessons by the campfire but only in passing. It was as if she had not wanted to talk about it. Melosa too had never witnessed an occurrence of the disease in person but she could remember the real fear in her brave mother's eyes as she spoke of the dreaded "Red Death."
"Antibrote that we definitely know of," said Melosa. "There could be more."
"She...no wonder she hasn't been seen the last couple of days," said Terreis.
"You mean she was missed and no one bothered to check on her?" the queen asked sharply. "Why the hell not?"
In an effort to head off her queen's mounting wrath Willa tentatively offered up, "Well you know how Antibrote is, ma'am." What Willa meant was that Antibrote was probably the least liked of all the active warriors. Abrasive, brusque and tight-lipped in manner, Antibrote was a loner and liked it that way.
Not everybody can be a Meelah, though Melosa. And for that she was ignored? Aloud she curtly replied, "Yes I know how she is. As good as dead."
Reaching her hut, Melosa banged the door open with a sharp forearm and plowed right on into the middle of the room. In sweeping the place her eyes began to quickly adjust to the weaker light. Already they were all there, all the tribal elite. This was just fine with Melosa because she certainly was in no mood for waiting.
With the arrival of their queen the group fell into the shallow semi-circle formation which they knew she preferred at these councils. No one even thought of sitting down without being asked. They were not. The four captains, Melosa's company commanders, stood together on her right. There was battle-scarred Colsethme with her "face like a clenched fist." Ruthlessness and cunning were her trademarks along with something else--an almost insatiable lust for hard-bodied young warriors. Along with Adele, Selena and the irascible Euset she was all that remained of the "Old Guard," who in their youth had stood with Melosa's grandmother Antiope in the horrific Second Centaur War.
Beside her stood Meelah, tall and strikingly handsome, she looked much younger than her six and thirty summers. Second to none in personal integrity and battlefield courage, she was considered the Amazon's Amazon. At her side was Draganis, the tribe's greatest warrior--almost two hundred mina of pure muscle. Whereas Meelah had fallen easily into her new command Draganis, long accustomed to being allowed free rein on the battlefield, was still having difficulty adjusting to her new role. As she had confided to her young friend Hyacinth there were just too many "damned details" involved, too many others to worry about..
On the queen's left stood Adele and Selena. Born on the same day almost fifty summers ago, these two were so closely identified that it was hard to think of one without the other. These were the two into whose capable hands was entrusted the sacred duty of developing the warriors that defined the Amazonian way of life. Year after year, through each, ever more rigorous stage, Adele and Selena took the scrawny young girls freshly plucked from their mommas' skirts and in the span of four summers time turned them into confident, finely honed warriors, each capable of wrecking great havoc when unleashed on the tribe's foes. They had to. Always outnumbered, each Amazon warrior was expected to exchange her life for no less than five of the enemy.
As a rule Selena oversaw weapons training while Adele handled conditioning and tactical training. Their skin dark and leathery from countless long days in the sun, their hair graying noticeably, both were well past their prime as warriors proper. Nevertheless Adele and Selena were still capable of breaking the nose of practically any of their former pupils foolish enough to face-off with them in a combat circle.
As usual Melosa did not mince words. "We think Antibrote has the Red Sickness."
Unlike most of their sisters, Adele and Selena had seen the human devastation wrought by the Red Sickness. They knew firsthand what it could do. "Your Highness," said Adele, "if we don't act immediately we could lose the whole village."
"I intend to," Melosa grimly assured her.
"It was that damned fisherman!" Colsethme growled. "I knew there wasn't something right about him."
About ten days before a small boat after snapping its oars had drifted down the Thermodon into Amazon territory. Its lone occupant, a fisherman, had finally worked up enough nerve to brave the swift currents and make a swim for it. It had been a patrolling Antibrote who had found him shivering on the bank. Hauled before Colsethme, she had decided he was harmless. After pitching him down the bag of dried figs she always carried Colsethme had warned him to be off Amazon land by nightfall or else. Needless to say he was.
Glancing at Melosa, Colsethme saw the queen giving her a hard look. "I know what you're thinking," the captain said. "Don't worry, nobody else got within twenty paces of the guy."
But Colsethme could not be sure. Not completely. "As far as I know," she said.
"Well we can't take any chances," said Melosa.
"What are your orders, ma'am?" asked Meelah.
Casting a cold eye over her subordinates Melosa calmly answered, "Make preparations for immediate evacuation of the village. Everybody split up and take to the hills. Perhaps in that way we can keep this from spreading. If it already has spread..." Here Melosa paused. "...then we can keep the loss to a minimum."
"Evacuate? For how long?" asked Draganis.
"One full cycle of the moon at least," said Melosa. "Family or no family, I want no more than two Amazons together. The only exception will for those who are nursing or with very small children. They'll need help with the hunting so we'll have to assign them someone."
"Hunting parties would be better," Colsethme suggested.
"Yes, but that would defeat the whole purpose of this. No, no large groups, that's an order. Each pair will be on their own. Willa, Meelah, you two break it down and make the assignments. I want them within a turn of the hourglass. May? Have somebody rig up a litter for Antibrote's horse. After she and Missini have gone I want Antibrote's hut burned to the ground."
"What about some of the elders like Ansara and Sylvia who are too old to hunt?" asked Selena.
With a flicker of a cold smile Melosa answered, "They can divide up the food we have stored in the smoke houses," said Melosa. "That should hold for a good while. Notify the guards they can have it. After that, we'll just have to play it by ear."
As this was her day to day responsibility Terreis asked, "What about the patrols? Shall I pull them in?"
Her sister's question gave Melosa momentary reason to pause. It was Colsethme, however, who gave voice to her misgivings.
"If those filthy beasts across the Thermodon discover we're not patrolling regularly they'll know something is up." With a snarl of disgust she added, "It would be just like the bastards to start something."
"I agree," said Melosa. "The river patrol must be maintained at least." To her sister she said, "Who have you got out there now?"
Without blinking an eye Terreis rattled off the names. "Calliope, Jasara, Moirira with Pythera in command."
"Well until this is over they're stuck with it," declared Melosa.
"Just them?" asked Terreis.
"Just them," said the queen. "May is right, it's imperative that we maintain at least the appearance of order. If the four die..."
"They die," said Colsethme, grimly finishing the sentence for her queen.
"What about the patrol on the northern approaches?"
"Break them up and place them in separate observation posts, one by the forest, one on the main road, the other two out west on the plain."
"Sort of like a picket line." said Terreis.
"Exactly. Like the river patrol it won't be one hundred per cent effective because they'll have to look to themselves for food. Still, it will at least give them something to occupy their time."
"And show the flag." added Colsethme.
"And the horses?" Willa asked.
"What we don't use turn the rest out to pasture and let them fend for themselves." Like the patrols, she thought. "We'll worry about them later," said Melosa. "All right, every moment counts here. If there are no more questions..."
"How is the village to be informed?" asked Colsethme. "I assume you will not want to sound the assembly horn for something like this."
"No, the village will be canvassed house to house to avoid undue panic as well as unnecessary contact," said Melosa.
The look on her queen's face made Colsethme uneasy. As senior captain she knew the woman all too well. "By whom?" she warily asked.
Sure enough, Melosa realized her captain's worst fears. "By a volunteer and myself."
No!" Colsethme exclaimed. "Absolutely not!"
"I cannot order anyone else to assume this risk," said Melosa. "To do so would be cowardly."
Colsethme's retort was blunt. "Cowardly my ass! I hardly think anyone here considers the Supreme Warlord to be a coward."
Melosa shot her an icy glare and her senior captain, realizing her impropriety, immediately changed tack. "Ma'am," she beseeched, "we cannot afford to lose you."
"Highness, May is right," said Willa evenly.
Without waiting for the queen to answer Colsethme turned to Adele and Selena. "Which two of the trainees are having the most trouble?" Like all the captains Colsethme received periodic training reports and she knew very well that thirteen year old Methany and fourteen year old Theodora were showing the least promise. What she was looking for was verbal confirmation of this fact.
Selena did not disappoint. "That would be Methany and Theodora." she duly answered.
"Could you have those two report to me as quickly as possible?" asked Colsethme. Aside from Terreis, only Adele and Selena and, of course, the indomitable Euset, were not directly subject to a captain's authority. Therefore Colsethme could not actually order them to do so. All she could do was ask.
What she had in mind was based on cold hard logic. She would have rather employed a couple of the elderly but she knew Melosa would never have approved of that. Since speed was a factor anyway a couple of the young trainees would be perfect for this task. Simply put, as the two weakest "turds" Methany and Theodora were the most expendable. It was a hard choice to be sure but Amazon life was all about making hard choices. It was how they had survived down through the centuries. Melosa knew that better than anyone and to Colsethme's great relief the queen did not override her request.
Just before the meeting broke up Melosa repeated the instructions she had given Cordelia earlier. "Remember, I want this done quietly with an absolute minimum of fuss. In any even you will maintain order and discipline, by force if necessary. Oh! And, Terreis? Have someone ride out and tell Euset what the hell is going on. Questions?"
There were none.
"Very well then, we all have a lot to do so let's move."
With typical efficiency Willa and Meelah hammered out the assignments well before their allotted time and so by late evening the great mass migration into the hills west of the village was nearly complete. The first to leave had been Missini and Antibrote. Through the eerily quiet village the healer had led Antibrote's horse, the litter bearing the stricken warrior lashed to it. No sooner were the pair away when two somber young warriors, Hyacinth and Pomona moved in bearing torches. These they tossed into Antibrote's fine hut and soon the structure was engulfed in flames.
Per Melosa's orders the most suitable places of refuge, the sixteen habitable caves, were split up among the tribes elderly and nursing mothers. For the rest tents and impromptu lean-tos would have to suffice in protecting them from the elements. For a people long used to enduring hardship this would be only a minor inconvenience at best.
Upon learning the shocking news and Melosa's consequent plan for dealing with it Solari
had rather hoped that she and Ephiny would be paired off together. This, of course, did
not happen. In this critical hour Meelah was not about to allow her only child out of her
sight. Ephiny had a mother, Solari did not. Ephiny got the protective bosom of her
influential mother, Solari got--to her utter dismay--the newcomer, Eponin.
That night Solari grumpily threw her blanket down on the gently sloping hillside and tried to go to sleep. After an interminable amount of tossing and turning she sat up and looked off down the hill toward the narrow valley below. Dotting the dark landscape up and down in every direction were dozens of camp fires--glimmering little yellowish orange points of light silently twinkling in the blackness like so many stars in the heavens. In gazing out upon them Solari wistfully wondered which one was Ephiny's. Already she missed her no-nonsense friend.
Beside her lay Eponin, peacefully sleeping away. Long accustomed to sleeping under the stars, Eponin was as comfortable rolled up in her ragged blanket as if she was in the finest inn in Athens.
The air was still with not a sound to be heard but the sound of Solari's own breathing. In the darkness she glanced dismally toward the murky form lying a few paces away. Why did she resent this newcomer so? In reality the question was merely a reluctance on her part to face up to the truth for deep within the innermost recesses of her mind Solari knew why. There, gnawing away at her subconscious, lurked the disturbing perception that this new one somehow represented a threat, not to her directly but more precisely to her status as Ephiny's best friend.
It seemed to Solari that Ephiny and Eponin were a lot alike in that they were both taciturn, direct, no-nonsense types. Taken by itself this was hardly a guarantee of the two of them developing a solid rapport but even at their first meeting Solari felt it would have taken a complete dolt not to have noticed how well the two of them had hit it off. In her own way Solari was torn by this. A more reasonable part of her psyche told her that this kind of thinking was not only silly but downright disrespectful to her longtime friend's character as a person. Had Ephiny not disregarded normal convention time and time again to prove what a loyal friend she was?
It did not have to be thus. As a child of the Amazonian upper class Ephiny could have chosen to grow up blithely ignoring the much poorer born Solari, shunting her off without a second thought to what others of her class thought was the proper place for such a lowly born girl--the periphery of Amazon society, perhaps fit enough one day to be a "grunt" but not much else. Indeed many of the well born girls had for years treated Solari in just this manner.
But not Ephiny. Even as a child she had refused to refused to allow Amazon hierarchy to decide her friends for her and as such had sought out the diffident Solari as her friend, often inviting her into her home for what would be her only decent meal in days and a warm place to sleep. Here Solari was provided with a glimpse of the loving home she could never hope to have. On these occasions the young Meelah had never once refused Solari entry into her home, Instead of being aghast at Ephiny bringing home the unkempt, shoddily dressed Solari Meelah instead was proud of her daughter, proud of her compassion, proud that she refused to let others think for her. Tall and impressive, a warrior even then on the rise within the harsh Amazon system, Meelah cared not one iota about class or birthright but only about a person's character and how diligent they were in their service to the tribe. In rearing her only child she had done her best to instill these same beliefs but in truth there was little need to do so. The old adage about the acorn never falling very far from the tree was never more true than it was in Ephiny's case for the blood of her mother truly ran though Ephiny's veins
Sitting there, Solari felt guilty for even thinking that Ephiny could be so shallow as
to cast aside a lifelong friendship for this impressive newcomer. Still....
On another hillside fifteen hundred paces away two more figures lay opposite one of the flickering points of light at which Solari had so forlornly been staring. Both blondes, one figure was long and lean and muscular, the other less well developed but for her age no less finely honed. Like Solari, Ephiny could not sleep albeit for a different reason. Rising from her bedroll, Ephiny propped herself up on one elbow. Softly she called across the fire. "Momma? Momma, are you awake?"
It was something her daughter rarely called her anymore--never in public--and the woman's heart filled still with warmth every time she heard it. Meelah was proud of her gifted daughter, proud that she had turned out to be so conscientious, so brave and yet....
And yet given the choice Meelah would just as soon her only child had never grown into adulthood. Ephiny was fast approaching the day when she would make her own place in the tribe, when she would establish her own household...when she would take a male for the first time. As a dutiful, loving mother Meelah had meticulously prepared her daughter for that moment that would surely come, sooner or later. It was inevitable and Meelah was resigned to it, if only grudgingly. But that would come later. Right now, right at this moment, Meelah, for all her careful preparation, was by no means ready to let go of the precious child who still hung on her every word. For as long as Meelah lived Ephiny would in her heart always be that little wisp of a girl, all blonde and leggy, who had so often sat so perfectly still on those humid summer nights, listening to her mother's soft singing while she combed her hair. Even at sixteen Ephiny's face still held much of that sweet, child-like quality. And now her daughter was calling out to her in the night, as she had so often done on other still, dark nights. Out here, away from the others, there was no need to maintain any veneer of the discipline that was required even among family members. Here they were not officer and subordinate but simply a mother and her daughter.
Awash with her sentimentality, Meelah reached back to those other nights long past in softly answering, "Yes, baby, what is it?" Immediately she felt foolish but she need not have. While it was true that Ephiny yearned to be recognized as a full-fledged warrior, as an adult and not simply the "daughter of Meelah," she nevertheless found her mother's old term of endearment still very comforting.
"Do you think anyone else will get the red sickness?"
"I don't know. I wish I had an answer for you but only time will tell for certain."
In the flickering light of the campfire Ephiny furrowed her brow, deep in thought. "How is it do you suppose that the sickness leaps from one person to another like they say?"
"I don't know, child. All I do know is once the red sickness appears it can wash over an entire population like some great, black swelling tide of destruction."
As she spoke Meelah lay on her back, gazing up into the heavens where the Great Scorpion crept ever so slowly across the night sky. In an effort to reassure Ephiny she rolled over on her side and sought out her daughter's trusting eyes. "It was wise of the queen to order us to disperse," she said. "With any luck at all we just might get through this. Who knows? We might not even lose anybody."
"What about Missy and Antibrote?"
Like her queen Meelah pretty much assumed that Missini's fate was just as inevitable as Antibrote's. After such close and prolonged contact it was almost certain that the sickness would make that mysterious leap and the fact that Missini was a healer would make no difference at all. Ordinarily Meelah might have reminded Ephiny that like any Amazon Missini was doing what she had been trained to do. And, yes, there were many times when the performance of one's duty entailed certain risks. Be it warrior, healer or any of the many others whose mundane labor sustained the tribe, all were expected to do that duty to the utmost. In this Missini was no different from anyone else and despite what Racillione had told the queen Meelah rather suspected that Missini had either already known beforehand what she was facing or at least guessed it. Still, in true Amazon fashion she had gone in anyway. In the sick room as on the battlefield the attributes of courage and coolness under pressure were just as necessary for the healer as they were for the warrior.
Even so Meelah understood that this was not the time to be giving what Colsethme liked to call the "Guts and Glory" speech. Ephiny might have been only sixteen summers old but no one needed to lecture her on an Amazon's sense of duty. Ephiny already understood that better that most of the more far experienced combat veterans. What Ephiny was really looking for was a mother's assurance and because of this all she said was, "Missini did what she had to do. You know that. And who knows? People do survive this. She might come out of this all right after all."
Ephiny thought of Missini and how she had so often seen her, little basket in hand, wending her way along the old familiar paths of the forest in search of various roots and herbs and who knew what other ingredients that went into Racillione's foul smelling poultices. Some healers had traditionally been looked upon as being a bit different and so no one in the tribe thought it particularly odd that on all her countless forays Missini always went barefoot. She had in fact in all her life never were even a pair of sandals. It was just her way and the tribe respected that. At twenty-seven summers Missini was by a healer's standards just a mere baby and it would be-- or would have been Ephiny sadly thought--many more years before she would have garnered the necessary expertise required to be a senior healer. Now, despite Meelah's forced optimism, it appeared that the good natured woman would never achieve that goal she had worked so hard for. Why does life have to be so damned hard!!
Terreis awoke to a firm hand nudging her shoulder. Blinking the sleep from her bleary eyes she squinted and saw the familiar form of Melosa leaning over her. "Get up," said the form.
Terreis groaned and sat up and let out a wide gaping yawn as she stretched. "Mmmm! Good morning to you too."
By now Melosa's attention had already shifted to the leather pouch in her hands but at her sister's greeting she glanced back with a look of feigned severity. Terreis was not fooled. The furrowed brow, the eyes ever so softly hinting of cool amusement said it all for her. It was Melosa's way of showing her affection for the young woman she had practically raised. Terreis had been not quite seven summers old when "that Greek bastard" Achilles had slain their mother Penthesilea on the plains of Troy. Since then Melosa had been the one who oversaw first Terreis' education, then later, her formal training as a warrior. Looking down now at the resultant exemplary specimen of Amazonian womanhood sleepily arising Melosa could hardly be blamed for thinking she had done a rather fine job of it at that.
All the previous evening the queen had struggled with whether to keep Terreis at her side or pair her off with someone else. Melosa was well aware of the chaos that would arise should both royals die. Amazon history was full of stories of bloody ascension disputes. In the end, however, she decided against it. In facing this unseen enemy she sensed that one place was probably as good as another.
Melosa ran her hand into the bag and after digging around a moment produced first a hard square of yesterday morning's flat bread and then a piece of dried fish. "Here's breakfast," she said, tossing them to Terreis.
Her sister deftly caught an item in each hand. "Ahh field rations," she crooned. "Don't you just love them?"
"Before this is over you'll be thinking it's a Bacchanalian feast," said Melosa dryly.
Terreis gave the food a good hard look, made a face and laid it aside, turning her attention instead to her boots.
While her sister got her boots on Melosa made her way to her horse. A chronic insomniac, she had arisen well before dawn and settled the animal for no better reason than to have something to do. Now she tied her bag to one of the bronze rings she had ordered to be specially fitted on her saddle for just this purpose.
"So how much sleep did you get last night?" asked Terreis casually.
In typical fashion Melosa tersely answered, "I got enough."
Terreis knew enough to let the subject drop. However, given all that was on her older sister's mind she rather doubted if she had slept much at all.
Melosa swung herself up unto her horse, prompting Terreis to ask, "Where are you going?"
"Racillione and I are going to do some checking around. The next few days are going to be critical and I want to keep on top of this,"
This elicited a nod from Terreis. "What do you want me to do?"
Scanning the skies, Melosa sighed and said, "Well, you know how quickly the rains can blow in this time of year. Better stay here and get started on putting up a shelter."
"I'll probably be gone all morning but I'll try to get back in time to give you a hand."
"Don't worry about it," her sister assured her. "I can handle it." Melosa knew she could at that. No less than with her warrior skills, Terreis had a real knack for this sort of thing.
Now that Terreis was finally on her feet Melosa looked down at her sister who was standing in calf high grass that was still covered in heavy morning dew. "Remember now," the queen cautioned, "be sure to keep your distance from the others."
Terreis cracked an impish grin and said, "Why, you don't mean to say that Melosa, the All--Highest, the Supreme Commander, is worried about her poor little baby sister, is she?"
Melosa never batted an eye at her sister's gentle teasing. Feigning annoyance, she retorted, "Designating a successor from outside the family would be such a pain in the ass. After all, neither of us has borne a child yet."
"Yeah well I love you too," Terreis said with a chuckle. For a moment the two sisters shared a look that spoke of kinship and trust, of mutual respect and private moments shared far away from the regal burdens of fairly exercising such immense power. It was a look that spoke of love and sisterly devotion that neither of them felt was necessary to put into words.
And then it was gone.
Melosa nudged the flanks of her horse and rode out in a trot to find Racillione.
Terreis, suddenly hungry, returned to her meager breakfast. She was still munching on the
food as she pulled the old beat up Horde battle axe from her saddle bag and went off to
cut some saplings.
At the start of what was to become many such circuits in the coming days Melosa was angered by the very first thing she saw. There was the healer Racillione, standing in front of her worn tent, talking to the new one! Her blood boiling at such direct disobedience of her orders, Melosa kicked her horse into a gallop, pulling up hard just short of the pair. "What the hell is going on here?" she demanded. "I thought I made myself clear. Unnecessary contact is expressly forbidden!"
At that moment Melosa would have none of it. "Damn it, Racillione, you of all people should have known better." She then bored her dark, flashing eyes in on Eponin. "As for you! Eponin, I know you are new here but that's no excuse. You're supposed to be an Amazon so damn it act like one. You therefore leave me no choice but to mark you for punishment. You must be made to understand that disobedience will not be tolerated."
"Highness, I can--"
"Silence, healer!" Melosa barked. "I'll get to you in good time."
The look now on Melosa's face had withered many a strong warrior but Eponin calmly weathered the storm by replying, "The healer has no fault here. As you can plainly see it is I who sought her out."
"To what end?" Melosa snapped. "What purpose could you possibly have for being here? If something is wrong with you that's just too damned bad. You will just have to see it through on your own. Now get---"
Here Racillione placed an imploring hand upon the queen's thigh. "Highness, pleeease!"
"Oh sweet Artemis, Race, what is it?" If this was any indication, thought Melosa, it's going to be a looong month! Well so be it. After all, no one could be more of a hard ass than her! She would simply have to tighten her grip on things, that's all.
Racillione tilted her head toward the queen and to Eponin said, "Go on. Tell her what you told me."
Losing patience by the heartbeat, Melosa warned, "Make it quick."
And so Eponin did. "There is a cure for the red sickness, ma'am."
Melosa's reaction was understandably a skeptical one. "Who told you this?"
"No one. I have seen it with my own eyes."
"As I was said before, after leaving my tribe I roamed around a lot. During the coarse of my travels I eventually crossed over into Phrygia. When I got to the port town of Priapus I was corpses, hundreds of them, stacked along the city walls like cordwood. It was terrible. Condemned men from the prison were being forced to haul the bodies out to the coast in carts and dump them into the Propontis. It was the red sickness. Of course, when I learned this I turned straight around and got out of there as fast as I could. Unfortunately it was too late."
"You came down with the red sickness."
"I did. Within a week I was too ill to even mount my horse. By then I was covered with the tell-tale sores and my back felt like some monster was inside, gnawing away at my spine. That next morning I blacked out while trying to get to my feet. The last thing I remember was lying underneath my horse, on the cool ground, gasping for air. I remember thinking this was a horrible way for a warrior to die."
Melosa, truly interested now, did not cut the Amazon short. Instead she said, "So what happened?"
I awoke three days later in the tent of a very old man. He said his name was Param, a Sumerian I believe. He told me he had found me staggering down the road, clinging to the bridle of my horse. Strange, I don't remember that."
"Never mind that," said Melosa. "Just tell us how he cured you." If he cured you, she thought.
Boil the root of the dragon bush, let it dry, and then soak this for a day or two in satyr's blood."
"Satyr's blood?" Melosa interjected. "Surely you don't mean a real satyr?"
"Ahh no, ma'am," Racillione delicately explained. "Some people call the red juice of the aramynth plant "satyr's blood."
Melosa's only indication of acknowledgment was a slight raising of the chin. She felt no embarrassment in not knowing her plants. After all, she was a warrior, not a botanist. "Go on," she said to Eponin.
"Soak it until it's nice and soft and then drain off the liquid and eat the root."
Melosa stared at her as if she had suddenly sprouted an extra head. "That's it? You're joking!"
Even Racillione was forced to admit, "That's the damndest thing I ever heard of."
"It works, I swear," said Eponin earnestly. "I'm literally living proof of it."
Turning to her healer, Melosa asked, "Well, what do you think?"
Racillione could only shrug. "We've got nothing to lose, ma'am. I'd say it's worth a try."
To her great surprise Melosa said, "I agree. There's just one thing, this dragon bush you spoke of. I am unfamiliar with that."
"I am told it only grows in the region around the Hellespont," said Eponin.
"The Hellespont?" Melosa did the arithmetic and did not like the sum. "The Hellespont is a good four or five days' ride from here. That makes it at the absolute minimum a ten day round trip."
"Provided the bush is found quickly," Racillione cautiously added. "It is my understanding they are very rare."
"That's just great," Melosa muttered. But what could she do? She had to try. "Very well," she said. "I am assuming one of you knows what this thing looks like, right?"
"I do, ma'am," Eponin assured her.
"Good," the queen pronounced. "You go. Race, you stay."
While Racillione wanted to go along she knew her duty was here with her tribe and
besides, if Melosa said, "Stay!" she stayed. And so, with an acquiescent bow,
she merely said, "As you wish, Highness."
Due to the distances involved and the sheer difficulty in finding her various unit commands it took Melosa the better part of the morning to get the undertaking organized. This was hardly the typical cold efficiency to which she was accustomed and it rankled her to no end. To avoid these types of delays in the future she made a mental note to have the weavers make up some bright cloth of varying colors which could then be hung in trees or from long poles implanted in the ground thus making these all-important officers easier to find and also easier to identify as well.
At last, however, the necessary arrangements were made. Melosa decided that a half-dozen Amazons would suffice for the party. But who to send? The only given was of course Eponin. Melosa was never very comfortable with her old war horse Colsethme far from her side so that left her out of the mix. Of the others Willa had taken the last mission, the near disaster in Getae, and Melosa was still not entirely satisfied with Draganis' leadership.
That left Meelah. Yes, she would do nicely. After deciding Melosa was fortunate enough to catch Meelah who was on her way to so some hunting. It was from twenty-five paces away that the queen informed her captain of her assigned mission, leaving it up to her to choose the remaining four.
For a while Melosa had pondered on sending Terreis along as well. However, as much as she would have preferred sending her sister away to relative safety it was for that very reason that she in the end decided against it. Melosa was well aware that there were those in the camp who were less than enthusiastic about her younger sister and the last thing she wanted was to give them further fuel for their flames of discontent. Terreis was as brave as any Amazon--no objective person could say otherwise--but Melosa knew that just as sure as she sent Terreis way there would be dark whisperings nevertheless about the queen's perceived protection of her sister.
This simply would not do. The biggest moment in her young sister's life was near at hand and when that critical moment came she could not--must not-- be shackled by murmured accusations of cowardice. No, Terreis, whatever the outlook, would stay.
Like Terreis the task of constructing a shelter had fallen to Ephiny. She had made a good start of it and was just in the process of bracing up the frame when from some distance away she heard someone call her name.
"Eph! Eph!" It was Solari, her strong legs churning straight up the slope toward her.
"What are you doing?" Ephiny yelled, more with bewilderment than alarm.
"Eph, wait till you hear!"
"You won't believe it!"
With Solari still rushing headlong toward her Ephiny took a tentative look around. Gods, she thought, what if Melosa sees us? For her part Solari seemed totally oblivious to such concerns and kept on coming.
"Solari, what is the matter with you?" Ephiny scolded as her friend came near.
"Eph!" Solari panted. "You won't believe it! Although in peak physical condition Solari could not overcome the limitations Zeus had given her. Consequently she was only a very ordinary runner and for some reason never seemed to have as much wind as her peers.
"Yeah, you said that," said Ephiny dryly. "Melosa won't believe it either if she sees us."
There at last, Solari paused to take a couple of deep breaths. Finally she gasped, "I, I just saw your mother."
"I though she was going hunting," said Ephiny casually.
"Oh, Eph, will you stop worrying about your belly? This is big!"
"For the sake of Artemis will you calm down and tell me what's going on?"
Solari took one more deep breath, gathering herself for the big announcement. Grabbing Ephiny by both arms, she said, "The queen is sending a party to the Hellespont. Your mother is going to command it. That's not all. The best part is that you and I are going!"
This certainly got Ephiny's attention. "She told you that?"
"Yes!" her friend squealed. "I just talked to her. Isn't it exciting?"
"What's the mission?"
"Who knows? Who cares? All I know is you and I get to go! You, me, Celeste and Minutia, and..."
In reply Solari gloomily mumbled, "That new one, Eponin."
Ephiny shot her friend a quizzical look and said, "Solari, what have you got against her? She seems decent enough."
"I don't know, Eph," said Solari. "It's just that I...I don't know." Here she paused for a beat and then was her old gushing self again. "But anyway, isn't it exciting? We're going to soak our feet in the Hellespont! What do you say to that?"
Ephiny decided not to press her friend but clearly the new Amazon was a sore spot for Solari. But why? With a single shake of the head at this surprising turn of events Ephiny allowed, "Well I'd say I'd better pack up our stuff."
Within the hour Meelah had formed up her party, received her final instructions from Melosa and departed, heading south southwest toward Phrygia and the southern bank of the that narrow strait of water that separates two great continents.
For the more experienced Amazons the journey itself proved to be uneventful. For Solari, however, it was the opening of a whole new world. This was the first time she had ever been more than five leagues away from the village and with the land of the Thermodon now behind her she reveled in each new sight. With the cool, confident Meelah to guide them, supported by the old hands Minutia and Celeste, Solari was more or less merely along for the ride. Not that she cared. She was just glad to be with them. The newest Amazon, Eponin, kept pretty much to herself, saying little. As on the trip to the land of the Getae Minutia had once more taken it upon herself to watch out for Ephiny as much as she could. After the daughter of Meelah engineered her daring rescue from the Getae prison Minutia had upon their return taken quite a bit of teasing from some of her more crusty comrades. This time she hoped to do a better job, for her sake as well as Ephiny's.
Late on the fourth day the party crossed over the Macestus River onto the northern plains of Phrygia. To the southwest, slung low in the horizon were the distant mountains of Ida, from where Zeus was said to have gazed down upon the slaughter of the Trojan War. Beyond the mountains lay Troy itself, or, what was left of it, along with the graves of many a brave Amazon who had fallen there. First among these was Penthesilea, mother of Melosa and one of the greatest of Amazon queens. In her instruction Ephiny had dutifully learned all the names and their deeds and thought that one day it would be nice to make a pilgrimage to Troy, just to see for herself.
At the head of this column was Meelah. Cool and confident, in total command, she had been the late Mycinia's most trusted warrior. Pythera, Mycinia's second-in-command, had been none too happy to be passed over for command of the company but in truth the rank had been in name only. When in a tough spot the other warriors in the unit had long looked to the steadfast Meelah to pull them through. Never wanting to let either those serving under her or the impeccable Mycinia down she always had managed to do so. Now her old captain's unit was hers. She hoped she could live up to the towering legacy Mycinia had left behind.
As for Ephiny, Meelah treated her just like any other "grunt." It therefore fell to Ephiny and Solari to fetch water, gather firewood, hobble the horses, pull late night guard duty and any of the various other mundane tasks, which, dull though they might be, were necessary nevertheless. Ephiny quietly and efficiently performed each task, never complaining and Solari, long accustomed to being on the bottom, paid no mind to it at all. Ephiny was her daughter, Solari was Ephiny's friend and that made her Meelah's friend as well. Still, out in the field Meelah would not think of showing favoritism. No one understood that better than her own daughter. For both it was special. This was their first mission together, something Meelah had dreamed of ever since she felt her baby's first stirrings of life within her. Even beforehand she knew it would be a girl.
Just before the party's departure Melosa had held up an open palm to Meelah, indicating that upon her arrival in Phrygia she had five days in which to conduct her search. Melosa reasoned that anything longer would probably be too late, even if the bush was found. Unfortunately for Meelah and her warriors sunset on the fourth day found them empty-handed still.
The four days' search had brought them nothing. All the places where Eponin thought the plant might be found turned out to be one disappointment after another. Likewise queries made to the local populace had proved to be just as fruitless. Amazons had fought on the side of neighboring Troy in the great war and these people, long suffering from that city's abusive dominance, were now uneasy about this sudden reappearance in their midst of the warlike race whose very name had once struck terror in the hearts of men from the outermost reaches of Scythia to the very gates of Athens itself. Certain that the Amazons presence could be for no purpose other than evil, the people remained tight-lipped and uncooperative. Even the offer of ten pieces of gold did nothing to persuade them, much to Meelah's frustration and Eponin's ever increasing dismay. She felt she was looking more like a fool everyday for sending her new sisters on what was turning out to be a wild goose chase. The fact of the matter was the dragon bush was far more rare than the old man had led Eponin to believe. Even most of the local inhabitants had never seen one.
Late on the fourth day the party managed to get at least one break. At a nice little inn they had managed to persuade the leery proprietor to sell them some decent food. It was this that they laid out for their fare as the evening light of their eighth day away from home faded away. When they had eaten Meelah sent Ephiny and Solari to gather a supply of firewood for the night. Minutia got the plum of doing the first perimeter check. This meant that she would be in her bedroll early while the lower ranking Ephiny, Solari and Eponin were out pulling chilly night duty.
While the two youngest Amazons were away Eponin wandered off to relieve herself, leaving only Meelah and Celeste in the camp. It was here than Celeste took the opportunity to sidle in beside her. At the moment her captain was engaged in what Celeste thought was some rather odd behavior. Meelah was sitting on her blanket with one hand up under her top and seemed to be fondling her own ample breasts. Puzzled, Celeste asked, "Is something wrong?"
"Aah, it's nothing," said Meelah. "There's just some kind of...I don't know...hard place--a lump-- here in my left breast."
"Maybe you banged it or something," Celeste offered up. "Does it hurt?"
"No. It's just...hard. Strange, I never noticed it before." Meelah pulled out her hand, allowing the top to fall loosely down over her rock hard stomach. "Oh well," she shrugged, "it will probably go away in a few days."
Celeste thought back to her youth and remembered another woman, her own mother, mentioning something about a "lump" in her breast. While Celeste never knew for certain if any connection was to be made the fact remained that her mother had died within a year. Celeste hoped the Fates were not weaving the same dark thread for Meelah. She liked her too well.
After an awkward pause Celeste thought it best to change the subject. "Do you think we're going to find this dragon bush thing?"
"Who knows?" Meelah wearily replied. "We have criss-crossed this whole plain to no avail. It looks bad for us."
"We only have a day left," Celeste reminded her.
"I know, I know. I'm beginning to think we're butting our heads against a stone wall here." By now it was almost dark. Meelah pitched a stick into the fire and added, "I'm beginning to think the damn thing doesn't even exist."
From somewhere out in the gloomy periphery a voice, cold and clear, pierced the darkness. "Oh but it does!"
Instinctively Meelah shot to her feet, her hand at the ready on the hilt of her sword. Anyone clever enough to outmaneuver Minutia had the potential to be a serious threat. As she rose it occurred to Meelah that the voice seemed vaguely familiar somehow. Under her breath she said to Celeste, "Keep your eyes open. There may be others."
"You!" she barked. "Show yourself. Now!"
"Show yourself," echoed Celeste.
Just off to the right there was a stirring between two plane trees and the two Amazons saw a dark, slender form begin to approach. Although the ground was covered with dry leaves and twigs there was no sound to be heard. It was as if the person was walking on air. It was as if..."
Out of the side of her mouth Celeste anxiously whispered, "Maybe it's a god," Like most mortals she had, for all their notoriety, never personally seen one herself.
"Or an Amazon," Meelah whispered back. Who else could move that silently?
"That's it," said the captain. "Come on out into the light so we can see you."
After a few tense moments the stranger was close enough for the light of the campfire to take effect. It was then that Meelah saw it was a woman all right. The flickering light danced on her face, making her sharp features seem even more ominous and menacing.
It was a wide-eyed Celeste who recognized that face first. "By the gods!" She
gasped. "It's Velasca!"
Continued - Part 2
Return to The Bard's Corner