As far as Meelah could tell Velasca looked none the worse for wear because of her exile. Her skin was darker and she looked perhaps just a little thinner but she was as powerfully sleek as ever.
Meelah saw a hint of a sneer play across Velasca's lips. "Well well well," said Velasca. "One never knows just who they'll meet out here in this wretched country. My, aren't we a long way from Melosa's tit."
"What are you doing here?" Meelah guardedly asked.
"Well a girl has to be somewhere," Velasca casually answered. "I suppose I could ask you the same question." A sly look came over her. "But then...I already know why you're here."
Meelah's voice was cold. "What do you want?"
Velasca held up her arms, displaying her bronzed skin. "This place agrees with me, don't you think?" She sniffed and airily added, "I shall miss it when I'm gone."
"How did you get past Min?"
"Tsk tsk, all these questions," said Velasca. "If I didn't know better I'd be wondering whether you're glad to see me after all. Anyway, it's no great feat to outwit that big clod."
It was at this precise moment that Ephiny and Solari happened to return, each bearing an arm load of wood.
Her voice dripping with sarcasm, Velasca purred, "Oh look, it's the heroes, saviors of the entire Amazon Nation."
For Solari's part she was absolutely appalled to see her old tormentor again. For five years Velasca had never missed an opportunity to humiliate the lowly born Solari. She had hoped with Velasca's banishment that she would never see her again. Now she was back.
It was all Meelah could do to control her anger. Against great odds Ephiny and Solari had risked their lives to protect the tribe's children and now here was Velasca--deriding them for doing their duty when in fact she herself had deserted her post, getting brave little Tylda killed because of it. Eyes flashing, Meelah set her jaw and with a voice measured and firm said, "Velasca, one more word like that and I'll throw you out of this camp right on your ass."
"Old woman," Velasca smirked, "do you really think you can?"
Meelah angled her head ever so slightly to one side and said, "Why yes, little girl, I believe I can."
Velasca maintained her aggressive posture but down deep she believed Meelah could too.
The tension caused Ephiny to think, Well, this certainly has spiced things up.
Finally a flicker of an insincere smile came to Velasca's lips. "You must forgive me. I didn't come here to fight."
"What do you want?" Meelah asked.
"To come and warm myself by your fire."
With a nod Meelah said, "All right. Provided you promise to behave yourself."
Oh yeah, thought Solari, like that's going to mean something!
"Like I said, I'm not looking for trouble," said Velasca. Yet!
Meelah swept an open hand toward the fire. "Be our guest then."
Velasca had just helped herself to Celeste's blanket and was folding her long legs up under her when Eponin emerged from the darkness. "Who's this?" she asked.
"Her name is Eponin," said Meelah. "She's come down to us from the Northern Tribe."
"Ahh one of our less fortunate sisters from up north, come to join us." Blandly Velasca added, "How nice."
"I'm glad to meet you too," Eponin said tartly. Already she disliked this one.
"I hear they're practically starving up there," said Velasca. "I can't blame you for deserting them."
"Velascaaa," Meelah warned. "You're hardly one to talk about desertion." In the action against the Mysians Velasca had gone against orders and left her post in the hills to join the fight in the forest. That had exposed the elders and children to great danger and only the bravery of Ephiny and her young friends had saved them from disaster. This then was the cause of Melosa's anger and Velasca's subsequent demotion and banishment.
For an instant Velasca's nostrils flared in anger but then she threw up both hands in a gesture of mock innocence. "My mistake. I rather assumed it was more important to kill the enemy than to run around up in the hills. Besides, I slew more of those bastards that day that you did, Meelah."
Damn it! thought Ephiny. You just can't help being a bitch, can you?
"Velasca here is a princess," Celeste said to Eponin.
With relish Meelah pointed reminded her, "Former princess."
Velasca had had enough. "Who is in command here," she demanded. "Willa I suppose. Where is she?"
Solari could not hold back a gleeful snicker. Arrogant Velasca was in for a shock.
Meelah immediately complied. "I am. I am in command."
"She's captain now," said Celeste. "She got Mycinia's old command."
Solari was right. Velasca was genuinely surprised by this. "Oh," she said stiffly. Quickly recovering her composure, she went on to say, "My, the surprises just keep on coming, don't they? How did Pythera take being passed over for command?"
By now even the patient Meelah was beginning to tire of Velasca's relentless smugness. Before, when Velasca was a princess she had been forced to take it. But that was then. Not now. "Velasca," she said wearily, "you're a human headache, you know that?"
Ephiny, on the other hand, thought she was a pain much farther down.
"You must forgive me," said Velasca. "I'm afraid my social skills have deteriorated rather badly out here. I've not had much in the way of company these past three moons." Perking up, she said, "But now the three months are up and I am ready to come home."
"You're not serious?" said Ephiny.
In replying Velasca did not even bother to directly address the cool headed young warrior who never seemed to tire of vexing her. "Of course I am," she said curtly. "My destiny awaits me there."
That "destiny" was no secret to those who knew her. Velasca ached to be queen. Her return meant she was prepared to make her first grab at satisfying that longing. Even before leaving she had flung a challenge to Terreis in Melosa's face and by Amazon law Melosa had been compelled to accede. Practically every day since then she had been preparing for it. From sunrise to sunset, even by the fire at night, she had trained, piteously pushing herself ever harder. Now it was time to return and Velasca was looking forward to it. Once Terreis was beaten to her knees in disgrace and her own rightful place restored Melosa would in due time inexorably be next. Then would she be able to administer the iron discipline the tribe deserved. The higher ranking ones such as Willa and Meelah would be made to kneel before the power of her omnipotence and the insolent young ones such as Ephiny--especially Ephiny--would soon thereafter feel the sweet crack of her whip on their stripped backs. But first things first. Terreis stood in the way of her dreams of glory and she would have to be defeated, perhaps even slain. In fact Velasca rather hoped Terreis would make the choice to fight to the death. As much as Velasca would enjoy seeing Terreis grovel at her feet she would rather have Melosa's dreamer of a sister dead.
It was Meelah who awakened Velasca from her grandiose dream. "Let's talk about destinies nearer at hand. You implied that you know something about the dragon bush. Do you?"
"Why on earth are you so interested in those scruffy things?"
"It can cure the red sickness," said Eponin.
"Fool!" Velasca snapped. "Who told you that? Nothing can cure the red sickness."
Indignant, Eponin testily retorted, "I know damn well that it can."
"It's a myth," said Velasca.
"Not it's not!"
"You're deluded," Velasca shot back.
"Who are you to to--"
"E-nough!" Meelah barked. "Stop it!" Gritting her teeth Meelah said, "Velasca, I've just about had it with you. Now Antibrote has the sickness and we're down here in order to see if we can help her."
"A noble cause I'm sure but I tell you if she has the red sickness she's probably already dead," said Velasca matter-of-factly.
"Do you know where we can find this bush or don't you? If you do, help us. If you don't, shut the hell up!"
"Very well," said Velasca serenely. "I will help you."
"You mean you know where it can be found?" asked Solari.
"Gods! I thought I just said that."
"Where then?" Celeste asked.
"Do any of you intrepid explorers even know what a dragon bush looks like?" asked Velasca.
"I do," said Eponin.
"Do you now?" Velasca's smirk immediately put Eponin on the defensive. This woman had a way of making her feel small and she did not like that feeling one bit. "It seems there is one not more than fifty paces from where we stand."
"I don't believe it," Eponin scoffed. "Show me."
"Some scout you are," sniffed Velasca. "Anyway, I've had a long day, I'm tired, and I don't feel very inclined to baby-sit somebody stumbling around after me in the dark. Tomorrow." Raising her chin slightly, she sniffed the air and said, "Is that goat's meat I smell? Got any left?"
"A little," said Meelah. "You're welcome to it."
For Solari the sudden appearance of her old nemesis had taken away much of the thrill of her first great adventure away from home, imbuing it instead with a decidedly sour aftertaste. She had finally attained her dream of achieving the warrior's mask. Not only that, she had already proven herself in battle. Already she had gained an approving nod from the hard to impress Melosa. During the past three moons life had been grand for Solari. Now she was back, the one who had always made her feel like dirt.
Solari drew herself up and stuck out a defiant chin. Well, she thought. No more! She's not royalty anymore. She's just a grunt like me. She's a warrior, so am I! If Velasca wanted to get into the fight circle with her now, well that was okay too. It was not that she viewed Velasca any less dangerous--Solari knew better than that. Solari well knew how formidable Velasca was. However in that moment she had reached a point of no return. She would be damned if it would fall to Ephiny to take up for her as she had so often in the past. Velasca was not going to push her around anymore.
Standing at her side, it was as if Ephiny could sense all the emotions rushing through her old friend. "Are you okay?" she murmured.
Solari turned to the one person who had stood by her her whole troubled life. With an appreciative little smile she said, "Yeah, Eph. Okay."
Ephiny knew well the many hardships Solari had suffered at the hands of Velasca over the years. More than that, she was also concerned about the effect Velasca's return would have on the tribe as a whole and on Terreis in particular. As splenetic as she was, Velasca was not without her allies. If she was to defeat Terreis and become next in line it could very well fracture the tribe--just as in Druis' day. If Terreis was to win Velasca would probably limp off and lay low at least for a while, taking with her any chance for an overthrow by those who chafed under the dominance established by the Druis line so long ago.
There then was the rub. Could Terreis win? Having faced them both countless times in training Ephiny was well acquainted with their strengths and weaknesses. Terreis was stronger but Velasca was extremely agile and her hand speed was incredible. In straight hand to hand combat or with light weight weapons Ephiny did not think Terreis stood a very good chance of winning. As Ephiny saw it for Terreis the bigger the weapon, the better.
There was one other thing. Terreis was better educated, smarter and had a better grasp of conventional tactics but Velasca had a ruthless cunning about her that made her very dangerous indeed.
Velasca wolfed down the meager meal and when she was finished she wiped her greasy fingers on Celeste's blanket. "I'll be back at dawn," she said.
"You can camp here with us if you like," Meelah offered.
Velasca cast a cool eye over the other Amazons and said, "Tomorrow night maybe." And with that she melted back into the shadows from whence she came.
Fingering her blanket, Celeste muttered, "Bitch."
So it's coming to that after all, thought Ephiny. Velasca and Terreis. Who would win? Who would win? Although her loyalty naturally lay with her friend Terreis Ephiny was not overly confident she could to it. A triumph by Velasca might even result in Terreis' death. This potential double tragedy was not something Ephiny wanted to think about. That night, however, on sentry duty and later in the warmth of her bedroll, she could think of little else.
In the light of early dawn Meelah, accompanied by Celeste, Meelah and Eponin, met up with Velasca and followed her to a spot over a low rise just east of the Amazon camp. There Velasca pointed a long finger at a rather scraggly little growth with gnarly limbs and slick green leaves. "There."
"Is that it?" Meelah asked Eponin. The chagrined newcomer was forced to admit that it was.
"How did you miss that?" asked Celeste. "We came right by here." Actually her irritation lay more in the fact that it had been Velasca who found the dragon bush rather than one of them.
"It was late," said Meelah. "A thing like that would be awfully hard to see in bad light."
"Yes, I'm sure that was it," said Velasca sweetly.
Her condescension made Eponin feel even worse. She did not, however, have long to dwell on it.
"All right, dig it up," Meelah ordered.
Celeste tossed Eponin the small spade and said, "It's your baby, so, you first."
As Eponin sank the spade into the loose dirt Meelah turned to the huge warrior standing next to her. "Min? Go help Ephiny and Solari break camp." She looked up at the thick gray clouds gathering overhead and, wrinkling her nose, said, "It looks like there's a storm coming in. Keep that little tent unpacked in case we have to throw it up fast."
"Right away, captain." And Minutia was off. With Celeste gone to fetch a hatchet this left Meelah and Velasca alone to watch Eponin at her labors.
"I want to thank you for your help," Meelah said sincerely. "I'm sure the queen will be expressing her appreciation as well."
Velasca made no attempt to hide her bitterness. "Melosa can keep her platitudes. This is a fool's errand that serves no good purpose other than to under man the tribe by six warriors."
So you do think of the two young ones as warriors, thought Meelah. "Well," she said with a deep sigh, "you might be right. I don't know. I hope this has all been worthwhile but at any rate I have my orders."
"How's it coming?" she asked Eponin.
"I could use some help."
"Hang on, Celeste will be back soon." Turning her attention back to Velasca she said, "Your three moons are up. If you are determined to return you may of course accompany us, provided that you give me your word you won't cause any trouble. This red sickness thing has everyone on edge as it is and I don't want to spend the whole trip back constantly reining you in."
Velasca eyed the older woman with a sort of keen amusement. "Very well," she said after a moment. "You are an officer and I am now but a lowly warrior. I am yours to command."
Meelah was not fooled by her duplicity. No one had a bigger ego than Velasca. Raising a palm, she said, "Just behave. When you get back you can sort the other stuff out, okay?"
Velasca understood her perfectly. Once back at the village she could then become
Melosa's headache. For her part Velasca did not intend to disappoint.
With the return of Celeste the job of extracting the bush went rapidly. Once Eponin widened the hole Celeste was able to clamp her powerful hands around the base of the bush and with a nod from Meelah, rip it out of the ground.
Holding it up for inspection, Celeste sniffed and said, "Doesn't look like much."
Meelah had to agree. Still, their opinions did not matter. Their job was simply to bring it back and so in very short order the roots were severed off, chopped up and safely stored away. With mission accomplished Meelah gave the order to mount up and the party went on its way. They had not gone more than a league or so when the wind began to pick up substantially. Far off on the horizon Meelah saw faint wisps of grayish white floating before a wall of solid black.
"Ooh, looks like a bad one," noted Minutia. Her observation was dramatically confirmed in the form of a jagged streak of lightning fingering out inside the black wall. Following close behind was a prolonged roll of thunder.
Meelah had seen enough. "All right, let's find a place to secure the tent."
Velasca had no intention of being packed inside a small tent with six other people. "There is deep rock overhang not far from here that should put us alee of the storm. Perhaps we should make for that."
Meelah too was not looking forward to riding out a storm in a flimsy tent, prompting her to reply, "Lead the way."
With a sharp "Hyah!" Velasca dug her heels into the flanks of her horse and bolted off toward a distant promontory with the rest of the party in hot pursuit. As they neared Velasca veered off down a ravine that ran like an ugly scar across Gaea's earthen flesh. By the time the others arrived Velasca was already alit and was pulling her horse back up under the rocks.
The first raindrops were beginning to fall and as Meelah pulled her horse to a hard stop she saw that Velasca had indeed chosen wisely. Here was a cliff perhaps twenty paces high. At the base of it was a place which was not quite a cave and yet more than a mere depression in the face of the rock. It was rectangular in shape and up along the back wall was a series of peculiar looking ridges running perpendicular to the ground. For all the world it looked to Meelah as if perhaps Zeus himself had driven his mighty fist deep into the face of the rock. At any rate it would more than adequate protection against the rain.
>From her place under the protective overhang Solari leaned and stuck her hand out into the driving rain. The big drops stung as they pounded her hand. "Gods!" she said in exasperation. "Is it ever going to stop?"
As if in defiant reply a deafening clap of thunder exploded directed over their heads. Solari's startled horse reared up, pulling her out into the rain. By the time she calmed her mare down she was soaking wet, much to the amusement of the others. Even the dour Velasca was forced to crack a grin at Solari's misfortune. In true Amazon fashion there were several comments made as a sullen Solari backed her way back into the pocket, none of which were particularly supportive .
"Traitor," she grumbled to her horse.
For her part Ephiny too was getting rather restless. They had by now been standing there for a least one full turn of the hour glass. "I wish we'd put up the tent," she said. "At least then we could sit down."
"You're more than welcome to go out there and set it up," said her mother, grinning at her.
Ephiny took one look at the drenched Solari and wryly said, "Uhh, no thanks."
"Kids," Minutia muttered. "They got no patience."
Not more than sixty paces away, on the hill opposite the pocket, a man paused to wipe his face before creeping up to peep over the crest. With satisfaction he eased back down. "We've got 'em!" he hissed grimly.
With him were a dozen other men and for the last two days they had been shadowing the Amazons, waiting for the right opportunity to make their move. So far Amazon vigilance had thwarted them but in this storm there were no longer watchful Amazon eyes to detect their every move. Their leader, a swarthy man named Emil, knew this was as good a chance as they were going to get.
"Pulsipher, you and Enoch here work your way down to that side of the ravine and cut off their escape. Take Titus and Manion with you. I'll give you a hundred breaths to get into position and then we attack. The rest of you men get ready."
As head of the local militia Emil had learned very quickly of the Amazons' hunt for a dragon bush. Like most everyone he did not for a moment believe that to be the true reason for their presence. No, he thought they might very well be some kind of advance party, gathering intelligence as a prelude to a possible invasion. Many of the local inhabitants, frightened by this sudden appearance of Amazons in their midst, had demanded that he do something immediately. Emil, freshly appointed and eager to show his mettle, was more than willing to oblige.
Stretched out in a jagged line on either side of him were the remainder of his men. Mostly they were farmers and shopkeepers. They would never be confused with professional soldiers. And as he lay there in the rain his heart began to pound and Emil then came to know for the first time in his life what it was like to put his own life at risk. These Amazons were highly skilled, extremely dangerous people. Moreover, unlike the straw dummies his men used for archery practice they could, and would, shoot back. No matter. He had a job to do--even swore an oath--and Amazons or no Amazons he was bound and determined to see it through.
With the rain pounding down ever harder he silently signaled his men to get ready. Almost in unison the remaining twelve men fitted arrows onto their bowstrings. Well, at least they show good order, thought Emil.
Like shooting fish in a barrel! thought another. Many of his comrades, well aware of the Amazons' much deserved reputation for ferociousness, drew back their strings with varying degrees of nervousness. They knew that if their first volley was ineffective the likelihood of getting off a second could be slim indeed.
Emil raised his hand. All they had to do now was rise up and shoot. Emil patiently
counted off the last of the allotted one hundred breaths and shot to his feet, totally
unaware of the capricious hand the elements were about to play.
Down below Minutia pressed her broad back even tighter against the rock facing. "Meelah," she said, "perhaps we should--"
Her words were cut short by a deafening sound that seemed no less than the sky itself cracking open. Across the ravine she saw the hilltop explode in a flash of blinding light. In later years Amazon lore would say that it was a thunderbolt, hurled down from the heavens by Zeus himself at Artemis' imploring. Whether it was or whether it was simply the forces of nature at work on an awesome scale the end result was that Emil and his whole command were killed instantly.
All except one. Dazed, the man named Eustus staggered to his feet. Somehow he had
managed to keep his bow drawn. With his reeling mind feebly grasping at the last thing it
remembered he almost as an afterthought shot his arrow down into the ravine.
Like all the other Amazons Celeste had instinctively ducked and covered when the lightning hit. Now as she straightened up she caught just out of the corner of her eye a glimpse of something moving up on the top of the hill. Peering up, recognized it as a man--positioned in a stance that was both familiar and in this case ominous. Worst of all he was facing directly her way. "Look out!" she cried. "There's an archer up there!" Now she had only one thought....Meelah!
Ephiny looked up just in time to see a man release an arrow before stumbling to the ground. Grabbing Solari by her top, she pulled her down hard onto the ground.
Standing next to Celeste, Meelah never saw the deadly projectile coming. All she heard was Celeste's cry of alarm and the next thing she knew the big warrior had her by the shoulders and was pressing her hard against the rock, smothering her with her own body. An instant later she heard the sickening thump of an arrow striking home. As a warrior it was a sound Meelah had heard many times before, once when she herself had been wounded in the left shoulder. Someone had been hit but it was not her. Who then? For one horrible moment Meelah's blood ran cold. Gods! she thought. Not Ephiny!
A heartbeat later Meelah knew. Celeste's gasping breath blew warm and wet on the captain's cheek and she felt the grip of the warrior's hand loosen on her shoulder. Celeste's head lolled back, revealing to Meelah a look of shock and horror. It was a look she had seen so many times before on the faces of friend and foe alike on countless fields of battle.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the stricken warrior began to sink to the ground, her hand trailing down Meelah's arm as she gave way. Looking up at her captain, Celeste tried to speak but no words issued forth, only the last vestiges of pure air from her punctured lung.
"Min! Velasca!" Meelah squalled. "Get up there and flank the bastard! Cut him off!"
As if in emphasis of her command it was followed by an enormous clap of thunder booming out directly overhead. Crouching down next to Celeste, Meelah barked out, "Ephiny! Come and help me!"
In an instant her daughter was kneeling by her side. "What do you want me to do?" she asked anxiously.
"Sit on her. Pin her with your knees so she can't twist around."
Ephiny straddled Celeste and, dropping to the ground, pressed her knees hard against Celeste's ribs. A hard gust of wind blew the cold rain in on the three of them. No one cared. Beside them stood Eponin, bow at the ready, intently scanning the crest of the hill, making Meelah's "Keep an eye out!" superfluous.
"It would have been better if it had gone on through," said Meelah.
"Is it bad?" asked Ephiny, knowing full well that it was.
"It's bad," her mother grimly replied. "Solari! Find something to make a bandage." As she spoke Meelah grasped the arrow with both hands and carefully snapped it in two. When she did Celeste cried out. Reaching down, Meelah pulled out her big knife. With a hard snap of the head she tossed back her soaking wet hair and said, "We've got to get that head out."
Solari fell to her knees across from Meelah, her shaking hands clutching her blanket to her chest.
"Cut it up!" Meelah ordered.
Lying on her side, Celeste began to cough and the blood she spat up seemed to Ephiny to be more black than red. The stricken warrior was clenching her jaw so tightly that all present clearly heard the grinding of her teeth. Grimacing, she asked, "Can you push it on through?"
"No," said Meelah. "It would tear your lung to pieces."
Staring at Celeste's heaving chest, Ephiny thought, It already has.
Celeste made a kind of snorting sound and this sent the blood oozing forth from her nostrils.
"She's drowning in her own blood," said Ephiny.
Raising her knife, Meelah barked, "Hold her!"
"No!" Celeste gasped. Looking up at Meelah, she said, "Ephiny's right.
I'm as good as...." Again Celeste coughed, spitting up still more blood which drooled
down her chin onto her neck. Crying out in anguish, she stuck out her left hand. Meelah
took it in her own and gripped hard.
One hundred and fifty paces down the ravine it was Manion who was the first to face the wrath of a vengeful Velasca. Hearing the horse thundering his way, unaware of the disaster that had befallen his comrades upon the hilltop, he merely assumed that surprise had been achieved and that this was one of the panic stricken survivors seeking to escape. Tightening the grip on his javelin, he leaned forward and excitedly said, "Here comes one!"
Pulsipher caught him by the arm. "Hang on," he cautioned. "Let the bitch get a little closer."
But Manion, young and eager to prove himself, was not about to wait. Before Pulsipher could stop him Manion lunged away.
"Manion!" the older man hissed.
Manion rose up and stepped boldly out to the edge of the ravine. Raising his weapon, he confidently gauged his target's speed and angle of approach.
Crazy kid! thought Pulsipher.
All his young life Manion had yearned for the chance to show that he had what it took to be a warrior. Small for his size, he had made the javelin his weapon of choice and for years he had practiced endlessly behind the barn on his father's farm. As a child he had listened with rapt attention to his uncle's tales of service in the Persian army and ever since he had wanted no part of his father's way of life. No, he wanted to be a soldier. And after defeating this, his first foe, he would be.
"Die, Amazon!" he yelled as his hurled his javelin. Even as he released he knew his aim was true. A warm glow of satisfaction washed began to wash over him. In his mind the Amazon was as good as dead.
I've done it! he thought happily.
By now Pulsipher was by Manion's side. What they saw next stunned them both. As easily as if she was rolling out of bed Velasca grabbed the mane of her horse and simply swung down onto the side of her horse, her long leg draped over the back of the horse to anchor her. The spear harmlessly whizzed directly over her saddle, clearing by a mere two cubits. In an instant the Amazon was back upright in the saddle. With a piercing, blood curdling cry she drew her sword.
Pulsipher had seen enough. It was true, these Amazons weren't human. Grabbing Manion by the shoulders, he cried, "Run!"
It was here that the other two men, Enoch and Titus, both lost their nerve and began scurrying back up the slope of the hill. Out of the corner of his eye Pulsipher saw them make their break. With each thundering stride of the Amazon's approaching horse he became more and more inclined to join them. "Come on, kid. Let's go!"
Manion shrugged away and, planting his feet firmly, drew his sword. "I'm not afraid," he announced defiantly. His weapon was a pitiful thing. The bronze blade was badly nicked and even bent slightly. It was also much too short to match Velasca's big, gleaming razor sharp sword of iron.
Ashamed to run, afraid to stand his ground, Pulsipher was paralyzed by indecision. It was not long before Velasca, in a horrifying manner, made up his mind for him. With a fierce guttural cry Manion jumped down into the ravine and raced forward to meet Velasca. Deftly switching her sword to her left hand, Velasca rode up and coldly cut the boy down like a stalk of corn. Her powerful stroke nearly decapitated him on the spot and a exultant Velasca knew the boy would be dead before he hit the ground so she pressed on without pause after the now fleeing Pulsipher. Skillfully taking her horse right up the side of the steep ravine, she quickly ran him down.
Her sword, swathed in Manion's blood, caught Pulsipher right below the shoulder blades,
slashing a deep, hideous gash across his back. Pulsipher screamed and went tumbling to the
ground. Again Velasca did not bother to pause even though she suspected the man was still
alive. No matter. With a wound like that he would not be going very far. Already she was
turning her attention to the last two, Enoch and Titus. Once they were taken care of she
could come back and finish this one off at her leisure. In fact Velasca rather hoped he
would still be alive when she returned. Enraged as she was, her blood lust was boiling and
the simple execution of these last two worm nests was not going to appease it. No, only
someone's long and protracted suffering would serve to satisfy her now.
"Meelah?" Celeste gurgled.
"I'm here, hon," Meelah softly answered. "What is it?"
Celeste feebly crooked her finger and Meelah bent close to listen. "Please don't...tell my sister I died this way. Tell her...tell her I died in battle like a true warrior."
Choked with emotion, Meelah said, "But you have, my friend. No one can say you did not. You sacrificed your own life for another Amazon. There is no more honorable death."
Celeste tried to smile but the fire burning in her back make her gasp with pain instead. Still clasping Meelah's hand with her left, Celeste placed her right hand atop their joined hands and gripped with the last of her remaining strength. "I always knew you would make captain one day," she said. "Mycinia always said you were the tribe's best Amazon, that no other in the tribe could compare to you."
Meelah did not know what to say. She always knew Mycinia had the utmost confidence in her but to have the finest, most admired Amazon of them all to speak thusly of her was almost too much. Especially now. Forcing a little smile, she said, "Mycinia put us all to shame. You will tell her hello for me?"
This time Celeste did manage to smile back. "I will," she assured her. Suddenly Celeste's eyes grew wide and she arched her back as high as it would go.
"Celeste!" Meelah cried with alarm.
As Celeste slowly sank back she began to pray, her breathless words rasped out in rapid fire fashion. "Sweet Artemis, Great Patron of the Amazon Nation, receive this thy humble servant for into your omnipotent hands I commend my spirit. Safely guide me across the waters of the Styx and into Elysium, that I might once again ride with the sisters of my race. Here me, oh..." Celeste gave one final, shuddering sigh. Her right hand slipped away...and she was gone. To Ephiny it seemed that Celeste's now vacant eyes were staring off at some distant place that could only be seen by the eyes of the dead.
Meelah held the lifeless hand in silence for a few moments and then very carefully folded both of the dead warrior's arms across her chest. Leaning back, she gave each of the other Amazons a brief, hard look. "Take a good look at her." Meelah might have been speaking to them all but the perceptive daughter, well aware that even now her mother, could not, would not play favorites, sensed that the words were really for her.
"This is what it's all about," her mother continued. "It's not about
glory, or knots, words of praise from the queen or even getting your name in the War Song.
It's about doing your duty no matter what the cost. That Celeste and countless warriors
before her saw this clearly is the only reason the Amazon Nation has survived."
Meelah looked down at the warrior who had served under her for the better part of ten
years. "Remember this day well, young warriors. Remember what you saw here and pray
that when the time comes you'll see where your own duty lies just as clearly as did this
brave and noble warrior."
In their last moments among the living Enoch and Titus chose to meet their death in starkly different manners. For Enoch, a balding, morose man of perhaps forty summers, the leisurely training sessions were a perfect excuse to get out from under the thumb of his shrewish wife. As he saw it, a few turns of the hourglass playing soldier, followed of course by several rounds of mead at the local hostelry, made for the best day of the week. An added bonus was that it also got him out of his father-in-law's rock filled fields. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever think that he might actually have to take up his under strength bow for real.
But he had. And now that he could hear the snorting of Velasca's horse as it thundered ever closer he suddenly found himself longing to be back with his choleric wife. Her nagging was torturous to be sure but at least there he would be safe from this very different kind of woman. In his flight Enoch never once changed direction or looked back. Instead he simply continued on running up the hill, hoping against hope that if he did not look back perhaps the terrible woman would somehow miraculously cease to be a part of this awful reality.
Thrilled by the hunt, intoxicated by the blood of the two kills on her sword, Velasca had no intention of providing her prey the slightest bit of respite. No, the sweet taste of slaughter was on her lips and like a selfish child she greedily wanted more.
Even in the end Enoch offered no resistance. Instead he merely kept right on running straight ahead as if it was the only existence he had ever known. Halfway up the hill his foot slipped on the wet ground and he fell face down in a heap onto the ground. With a groan he rolled over. Towering above him, the silhouette of a big horse and its sleek rider seemed to blot out the entire sky.
Panting, he lay motionless as the rain relentlessly pelted his face, stinging it.
Overhead the thunder roared again, heralding what he knew to be his own doom. The next
thing he knew the warrior was down off the horse and standing over him. Now for the first
time he noticed her face. It was hard, pitiless--and coldly beautiful. And as Velasca
ruthlessly plunged her sword into his belly, sending him to his appointment with Charon,
it was this final remembrance of how beautiful his slayer was that Enoch took with him
into the afterlife.
Still numbly sitting astride Celeste, Ephiny looked over to the woman who had not yet let go of the dead warrior's hand. "What are your orders, ma'am?" she gently asked her mother.
"You and I are going up to see if Min and Velasca need any help."
"Solari, get Celeste's blankets and wrap her up in them. You know how it's done, right?"
"Yes, ma'am," the girl replied solemnly. "I know how it's done."
"Make certain you bind her up good and tight."
Meelah looked up at Solari, her dear Ephiny's best friend, who was still clutching her own tattered blanket. The woman's smile, though faint, was very kind and she said, "If you want you can use that blanket and keep one of Celeste's for yourself. I know she'd want you to have it."
Solari dared not show any outward reaction of happiness for fear that it would be regarded as improper or even disrespectful. Her eyes, however, gave her gratitude away as she quietly replied, "Thank you, ma'am."
When Celeste was hit every Amazon but Velasca had let go of their horse but even in the middle of this terrible weather the well trained animals were not inclined to stray far from their mistresses. Ephiny had only needed a few moments to round up both her and her mother's horse and now she was back, silently standing between the two horses as the driving rain beat down upon her.
"Shall I go with you, ma'am?" asked Eponin.
Taking the reins from her daughter, Meelah gave a little shake of the head. "No, you stay here and help Solari. Keep an eye out, though--both of you. Just in case."
Eponin nodded solemnly and then watched as mother and daughter rode down the raving in the same direction Velasca had gone. At her feet Solari prepared to carry out Meelah's orders. "What can we use for bindings?" she asked.
Her eyes still on the ever more impressive Meelah, Eponin absently replied, "I've got twenty cubits of climbing rope in my bag. We can use that."
"Ever since I was a child," Solari said, "the four people I admired most--even more than the queen--were Meelah, Draganis, Mycinia...and her. Each was in her own way not only a great warrior but a great Amazon."
In Eponin's mind these were one and the same but Solari, long accustomed to being at the bottom of the social structure, thought differently. "To me they always seemed like these great pillars, you know? Strong and tall and indestructible. Back then I thought they would all live forever. And now...now inside three moons two of them are gone."
Eponin sensed the despair in Solari's voice and was made uncomfortable by it. Stoic and reserved by nature, she had never been one much for words and even more so in personal moments such as this. Unable to offer condolences in her own words, Eponin fell back on the familiar Amazon mantra she had heard her whole life. "Facing death is part of us, of who we are as a people, just as it is with all mortals. The certain knowledge that Death will one day visit is just as much a part of a warrior as her bow and her sword. Death is not to be feared. It is only the natural order of things. We as warriors must understand that and accept it."
Solari had heard it all too and at the moment she was not buying any of it. "I can understand it," she said bitterly. "But I'll never accept friends dying. Not ever." Solari looked down at her childhood hero. She sniffed and a single tear fell on Celeste's cheek.
Struggling to maintain her composure, the young warrior went on to say, "They can say what they want but nobody this good should have to die so young."
In her failure to comfort Solari Eponin only felt even more self-conscious. So, without
another word, she left to get the rope. Reflecting on somberness of the moment, Eponin
hardly noticed the rain pelting her.
Further up the hill Titus too slipped and fell. Desperately scrambling to his feet, he turned just in time to see Velasca skewer Enoch. This was incentive enough to ignore his burning lungs. Still gasping for breath, he winced and continued on. Like Velasca's other victims he was totally unaware of the fate of Emil and the rest of the men on the hill top. If I can only make it back to up there, he thought hopefully, I'll be safe. As it was Titus did in fact manage to make it to the crest. By then his weary legs were starting to turn to jelly. Stumbling over the crest, he squalled, "Help!"
None, however, was forthcoming. To Titus' horror he saw not Emil and his men coming to the rescue but yet another of the warrior women, this one markedly bigger than the one chasing him. Minutia had easily overpowered the addled archer and at that moment was pinning the man to the ground, her knee grinding sharply into the small of his back as she roughly tied his hands behind his back.
Teeth clenched, she growled, "I ought to break your skinny neck right here, you bastard. But we'll see what Meelah has in mind for you."
Velasca would not be so forbearing. With his pursuer bearing down on him Titus at last whirled to face her. Like Manion his primary weapon was a light spear. However, instead of hurling it at Velasca he chose to stand his ground and use it try to fend her off. In facing the exquisitely trained Velasca this desperate defensive proved to be woefully inadequate. Boldly riding up to Titus, Velasca with lightning quick reflexes simply reached out and grabbed the spear just below the tip, stopping it in mid-thrust. With a strength that surprised Titus she yanked the spear cleanly from his hands. Locking the shaft of the spear under her armpit, Velasca used his own weapon to deal him a vicious blow to the side of the head. Titus reeled backward and in a heartbeat Velasca was upon him.
She could have killed him instantly but Velasca did not want that. A sweeping blow to his jaw with the back of her fist sent Titus spinning to the ground. From there Velasca began to savagely kick him over and over, in the ribs, the head and finally--after leisurely using her foot to spread his legs--the groin, twice. With the toe of her boot Velasca rolled her wheezing, coughing, gagging victim onto his stomach. Suddenly she thought of Terreis and how deliciously gratifying it was going to be to beat her into the ground much like this, to force her to grovel for her very life. More than that, she longed to see the look of utter horror on Melosa's face.
Looking down at him, she sneered and in a mocking voice said, "Stupid farmer, you should have gone for the horse." With that the Amazon drove the spear deep into his spine at a point right between the shoulder blades.
Joining her, Minutia sniffed and nodded toward the approaching Meelah. "You shouldn't have done that," she said. "Meelah might have wanted to question him."
Velasca scowled and spat on the still spasmodic Titus. "To hell with him!" she snarled. "The only proper way to deal with sons of bitches like this is to butcher them like the pigs they are."
Riding up, Meelah eyed the neat line of bodies sprawled out just below the crest of the hill. Even taking into account the unquestioned prowess of Minutia and Velasca she knew that there was no way the two Amazons could have killed them all so quickly. "What happened here?" she asked.
"I dunno," Minutia said with a shrug. "They were already dead when I got up here." She pulled hard on the leather strip binding her prisoner's hands. "All except this one."
"It was obviously lightning," the nimble-minded Velasca explained coolly.
Meelah dismounted and walked up to the man. "Who are you?" she asked.
Still very disoriented, the man did not answer.
"Why did you attack us?"
Velasca backhanded him hard across the mouth, cutting his lip. "Answer her, dog!" she said sharply.
To Ephiny's surprise Meelah did not reprimand Velasca for this.
"His brain must be scrambled," Minutia offered up.
Like yours, thought Velasca acidly.
"What do you want to do with him?" asked Minutia.
Meelah's face was strangely impassive in replying, "Kill him."
"Oooh, let me do it," said Velasca eagerly.
Meelah was acquainted enough with Velasca's penchant for cruelty to know what the younger warrior had in mind. For once she did not care. Her expression was blank as she replied, "All right. Just don't take too long. I want us back down on the plain by dark."
"You can count on me, ma'am," said Velasca, leering lasciviously.
Ephiny could not believe her ears. Had her mother really just turned over a helpless prisoner to the "tender mercies" of the sadistic Velasca? Alarmed, she asked, "Shouldn't we take him back and let Melosa decide?"
"As a captain in the field I have full authority to dispense justice as I see fit," her mother forcefully replied. "I have no intention of letting this man slow us down."
"Your mother is right," said Velasca. "Now why don't you run along and let a real warrior carry out her orders."
"Cut the snottiness and just do it," Meelah testily snapped.
Velasca bowed slightly and with a hint of condescension in her voice said, "As you wish, my captain."
Ephiny had never seen this side of her mother before and it unnerved her a little. Yes, she understood that the very essence of being a commanding officer was making hard decisions but somehow she had never thought her good natured mother would be capable of such ruthlessness. But of course, she was. Meelah was after all an Amazon first and foremost. For over twenty years she had been a first class warrior, one well schooled in the tribe's unshakable principle that an enemy faced was an enemy to be crushed. On the battlefield Amazons expected no quarter and seldom gave any.
Watching Meelah remount, it dawned on Ephiny that her mother had not been such a respected warrior for all these years--had not risen to a command position in the dog-eat-dog world that was the Amazonian hierarchy--by being soft. Of course she was tough. For as long as Ephiny could remember Meelah had tirelessly preached one aphorism to her over and over again. "Conduct yourself honorably and do your duty." Ephiny wholeheartedly believed in that. Still, in her young mind killing an unarmed prisoner did not seem either honorable or dutiful.
There was an uncomfortable air between mother and daughter as the two of them made their way back down the hill. For a time neither spoke and it was only when they reached the ravine again that Meelah said, "You think what I did was wrong, don't you?"
"It's not my place to say," Ephiny stiffly replied.
"Come on, this is not Melosa or Colsethme you're talking to. This is your mother."
Ephiny's reply was painfully laconic. "You are also my captain--as you made so abundantly clear back up there on the hill."
Ephiny's cutting remark irked Meelah. "Do you think I want to let Velasca butcher him?" she snapped. "You think I like killing prisoners? Get your head out of your butt, Ephiny. In case you haven't noticed were are in hostile territory now. We...I can't and won't allow anybody or anything to endanger this party or this mission. Now, we have accomplished that mission so let's get the hell out of here before we lose someone else. An intelligent girl like you should see that."
"I do," Ephiny said. "I know you have to do what you think is best for us..." Here Ephiny paused.
Ephiny sagged her shoulders. "I don't know. It just doesn't seem...honorable."
"You're right," Meelah admitted. "It's not. Understand, Ephiny, this is not something I'm proud of. But you said yourself I have my command to think of." Meelah left unsaid her central thought. Especially you! "You see that, don't you? There may be others out there who want to do us harm. If we let this man go he might lead them straight to us."
"Yes, ma'am." The young warrior shot her mother an anxious glance. "Momma, I trust your judgment, you know I do. That man attacked us. He deserves to die all right. I guess it...I mean..." Finally she managed to blurt it out, "It bothers me that it's you who has to order that sort of thing."
"It comes with the job, Ephiny. Being in command is never easy. I knew that when the queen named me to take Mycinia's place. It's sometimes not very palatable but I can live with it. The gods only know how Melosa does it." Meelah shot her daughter a concerned glance. "Ephiny, are you all right?"
Ephiny gave her mother a nervous look and said, "I try as hard as I can, I really do. It's just that...every now and then I have trouble reconciling Meelah my mother with Meelah my captain."
"And that bothers you?"
"Yes. Does it mean that I'm, you know...weak?"
Meelah pulled her horse to a stop. Reaching over, she laid a comforting hand on her daughter's arm. "Honey, it means you're human. Don't ever lose that."
"But what if it causes me to foul up? It will reflect badly on you. I'd die if I did something to sully your reputation or your honor."
"Oh to hell with my reputation. You think you're the first daughter who ever served under her mother? Hardly. Mycinia did too. I can still remember how much she used to agonize about it." Meelah flashed a little grin and added, "And I think you'll agree she turned out all right. Now, Ephiny, I want you to hush this foolish talk right now. You are a fine young warrior. I believe you're going to do great things one day. You could never, ever dishonor me, you hear? Ephiny, you are my only child and you're everything a mother could ever want in a daughter. You know I would do anything I can to help you right down to shedding my last drop of blood but there are some things a girl...a...young warrior, has to work out for herself. Me, Melosa, hell, even mean-ass old May had to."
Ephiny flashed a sheepish little grin. "Yes, momma. I see what you're trying to tell me. And I promise I'll do my best to make you proud of me."
"Too late," Meelah said tenderly. "I already am."
By the time Meelah and Ephiny made it back to the concavity the rain was beginning to let up. Solari and Eponin had finished with their task and had retreated farther back inside the pocket, reins in hand, waiting. Though on foot, Minutia's route down the hill was a direct one and so in very short order she joined them as well. It fell to her to ask the question that was on everyone's mind. "What do we do with Celeste?"
"We're taking her back," Meelah matter-of-factly answered.
"Well, she shouldn't get too bad in four days," Minutia off-handedly remarked.
"Doesn't matter," said Meelah. "We are not going to scatter her ashes in this hell-hole of a country. Load her up."
"Let me fetch her horse," said Minutia. And off she went to retrieve it.
To the two young warriors Solari and Eponin Meelah said, "Get mounted, you two. We're pulling out as soon as Min gets Celeste squared away."
"What about Velasca?" Solari asked.
Meelah cast a quick glance toward the hill top. She could only imagine what the cold blooded young woman was at that very moment doing up there. "She can catch up later."
With Minutia's securing of Celeste's body to the horse they were all set. Meelah took a long look at the blankets enwrapping what had only a very short time ago been not only a trusted subordinate but a longtime friend as well. Long to high command, veterans like Colsethme and Minutia had seen dozens of the warriors under them die. As a captain this was Meelah's first and she thought how different it was seeing people die now. Yes, she been leading small clusters of warriors for a long time now and, yes, some of them had inevitably been killed in battle. Still, the ultimate responsibility for them had always belonged to their captain, the gifted Mycinia. Now it was hers. Would she ever get used to it? Meelah did not know. And in a way, for the sake of her own humanity, she rather hoped that she wound not. "All right," she said finally, "let's move out."
And so, with black clouds hanging both literally and figuratively over them, Meelah's shaken command slowly started off down the muddy ravine. It was going to be a long trip home.
Velasca touched the tip of her finger to the man's lower lip, delicately pulling it down. "Little man," she purred, "I think you and I are going to have some fun, hmmm? Or at least, I will."
Her prisoner's name was Armis and by his mind had sufficiently cleared to allow him to understand what was going on. Fearing the worst, he stammered, "What--what are you going to do with me?"
"Silly boy. Not with you," said Velasca. "To you." With her sword Velasca cut the strip binding his hands. "There now," she said brightly. "Now you can't say you didn't have a chance."
The wide-eyed Armis just stood there, looking at her, prompting a mocking Velasca to say, "Not enough for you, eh?" To Armis' great surprise the Amazon tossed him her sword. Fumbling, he almost dropped it. "How's that?" she asked. "Better?"
Armis cast an anxious glance over his shoulder. "Don't even think about it," she warned as she pulled her knife. "'Cause if you try to run I'll cut you down before you get two steps. Now, even a simple minded little weasel like you can see that your only possible hope is to stand and as they say 'fight like a man.'" Rolling her eyes, Velasca said, "Gods, what idiot thought that up? But I digress. Pray to your gods for victory, little man, or at least a swift death because otherwise your lot is to suffer a long and very painful demise."
Suddenly, it was Velasca's turn to be surprised. With a quick backhanded slash Armis struck at Velasca. Despite her goading she had not expected the man to show such aggression and it was only her cat-like reflexes that prevented her from being seriously harmed. As it was she could not avoid it completely and the tip of the sword just managed to nick her left arm. Infuriated by the man's utter gall in defending himself Velasca screeched, "Piggy, I'm going to feed your own guts to you!"
A sweeping kick by the warrior sent the sword flying from Armis' hand. Nimbly pivoting, Velasca lashed out again, this with a kick that landed squarely in the chest and drove him staggering backward. Velasca would now allow him time to recover. "Damned shit spreader," she snarled at him. "Damned farmer! All men are pathetic but you, worm, are the worst of the worst."
Using the butt end of her knife handle, Velasca smashed Armis in the nose, breaking it instantly. "Pig! Your weakness disgusts me." Armis fell to knees and feebly tried to clutch at Velasca's legs. Velasca seized him by the back of his shirt and hauled him back to his feet. "Oh no, little man," she smirked. "I'm not through with you yet."
After administering a sharp knee to the groin, Velasca finally let him go. Armis, his face covered in blood, reflexively curled up into a fetal position, moaning in agony. The Amazon casually sauntered and stood triumphantly over him. Men are so pathetic, she thought. Velasca stood there coolly eyeing Armis in his suffering and for a brief moment even considered castrating him. However she decided that would be far too messy and besides, she wanted no part of touching his filthy, shriveled little worm. In truth, without the thrill of a challenge she was already simply becoming...bored.
Falling heavily on him with her knees, Velasca roughly seized Armis by the hair of his head and expertly slashed open his jugular vein. In that moment the Amazon's thoughts once more strangely turned to Terreis and her face grew dark and brooding. "If I did not have a more pressing engagement I would stay and watch you die." With a sigh she added, "Oh well, you weren't much fun after all."
On her way back down the hill Velasca paused for a moment to stoically observe the death throes of the unfortunate Pulsipher. She had originally intended to add to his final torment. Now she just sat there and watched him suffer with no more feeling than if he were an insect. Velasca's cruelty was as natural to her as breathing. She reveled in administering pain especially when it culminated in taking another life. She loved the feeling of power it gave her to inflict punishment, both physical and emotional, on others. She had a gift for it. Soon she would use that gift to bend others to her will. With all that then this day should have been a most pleasurable one for her. And yet it was not turning out that way, not at all. It was not, however, Celeste's untimely death that cast such a pall over her fun. To her Celeste was nothing more than battle fodder, a big dumb ox whose sole purpose for existence was to blindly serve those far better bred--such as herself. No, it was not Celeste that clouded Velasca's thinking but again Terreis.
It seemed her little reverie about the princess had not made her savagery more enjoyable but rather had worked to take all the fun completely out of it. From the very first Velasca had despised the fair-haired child of the Southern Tribe. Daughter of a mighty queen, sister of another, Terreis wallowed in advantages the resentful Velasca regarded as totally undeserving of her. Terreis was a thinker, a...dreamer and in Velasca's unyielding mind this made Terreis weak. For her this was the unpardonable sin. The stupid, the vacillating--even the treacherous, brute force had a way of making them malleable enough to be molded into useful assets. Not so the weak. They were only impediments to greatness--her greatness--and as such those like Terreis were to be crushed without pity. Whether this meant Terreis had to die remained to be seen. Velasca was perfectly willing to spare her if she agreed to accept a servile role. Velasca did not expect this to happen, even if Terreis herself did agree. No, the proud Melosa would probably first kill her younger sister before she would allow such humiliation to occur.
For all Velasca's self-confidence there nevertheless remained tucked away in the deepest recesses of her mind her own nagging question as to whether victory over Terreis would be as certain as she thought it would be. Having lived with Terreis, having for years closely scrutinized the princess' every strength, every weakness, waiting, waiting for the day when she could at last start on the path to her own ascendancy, Velasca felt she knew Terreis even better than did Melosa.
Velasca was no fool and while Terreis had almost always gotten the best of her in face-offs she nevertheless did not see Terreis' fighting skills as equal to her own. Still, Terreis was not like this man lying before her on the rain soaked ground; she was not some pathetic farmer to be cut down at her leisure. There was always the chance that the princess might get in a lucky blow. Velasca could not allow that to happen because even in victory a crippling injury would destroy her chances of succeeding Melosa.
Pulsipher's head lolled slightly to one side and his gaping mouth struggled for one final breath. Her face as blank as a slab of marble, Velasca stood there in the rain and watched him die. She felt no pity for the man. Whatever he might have been to others, to the Amazon he was an easy exercise in slaughter and nothing more. In Velasca's dreams clods like this and tens of thousands more just like him would break their backs laboring for the glory of her empire. Just like the dullard tradeswomen and even the warrior class of her own tribe, these human oxen would be exploited to the utmost in service to the Amazon elite. And when their usefulness was worn out, to avoid unnecessary strain on this newly created Amazon wealth, their fate would be the same as this man's. Velasca saw them not so much as human as stones, stones to be ruthlessly crushed to pave her road to greatness, her...immortality. And soon, very soon, nothing short of direct intervention by the gods themselves would stop her from taking that first, all important step on that road--the destruction of Terreis.
It was with this happy thought that Velasca mounted her horse and leisurely rode off to join the others.
Meelah was as good as her word. All the rest of that day she pushed her warriors hard, allowing them few stops and little time for rest. Even what little they ate was done so in the saddle. Despite this, none of the party saw the ride as anything but a minor inconvenience. They were, after all, Amazons, and the ability to move hard and fast was a trait that many of their astonished enemies often swore was bred into them.
Though the rain mercifully ended soon after, thick black clouds continued to blanket the sky for the rest of the day. This dark shroud fitted perfectly with the somber mood of the party. As the newcomer and lowest ranking member of the party, Eponin rightly expected that she would be the one detailed to lead the horse bearing Celeste's body. Minutia, however, would have none of it and insisted on doing it herself. This went directly against Amazon doctrine. As Meelah's best and most experienced warrior her normal place should have been at the back, anchoring the rear of the column. Minutia did not care. Celeste was her closest friend and so for this first day at least she was going to be the one to guide her home. Meelah chose not to force the issue. She knew how close "Min" and Celeste had been. For over fifteen years those two had served first with her and later under her, fighting side by side and forming the linchpins of the company that the legendary Mycinia had led to victory after victory. Now Mycinia was gone and so was Celeste. So were most of those old warriors who had good-naturedly given her such a hard time back in her youth. It gave Meelah cause to wonder about her own mortality, about how much time she had left before the odds finally caught up with her.
All that day then they pressed north by east, steadily driving for the coast. By nightfall they were little more than a league away. Velasca, scouting ahead, had seen the calm waters of the Propontis. However none of the rest of them would get the chance to take in the view. Her combat instincts on full alert, unsure of what they were up against, Meelah was not about to allow her puny force to be pinned against the coastline. Tomorrow she would turn them due east.
Pulling her horse out of the column, Meelah watched the others, including a pensive Ephiny, silently pass by. Except for Min they were all so young! For all the talk about warriors and fulfillment and maturation they were in her mind still not much more than babies. That fact that she herself had been masked at the astonishing age of thirteen had not altered her thinking one iota. Times were different then. The horrific Second War with the Centaurs had forced many a young girl to be prematurely plucked from her mother's skirt. For Meelah that seemed like a lifetime ago. Now, at thirty-six summers she suddenly felt so very old.
"Are you sure?" Sitting astride her horse, Queen Melosa was having trouble believing what she had just been told.
Standing alongside was Racillione, looking up at her queen with a kind of relieved embarrassment. "Yes, ma'am," she replied with some tentativeness. "Both Missini and I are certain of it now. Antibrote does not have the Red Sickness."
"What is it then?"
"I cannot positively say," Racillione was forced to admit. "Perhaps a mild pox of some kind, in itself serious enough all right but evidently not life threatening. Or it seems, likely to spread."
"Then this...whatever it is, poses no danger to the tribe?"
"I do not think so."
This was not good enough for Melosa. "Look, Rae, there is no room here for vacillation. Does it or doesn't it? First you say it was the Red Sickness and now you say it's not. So which is it?" Part of Melosa's irritation stemmed from the fact that this was one of those rare instances when she was largely dependent upon the judgment of others and she did not like being placed in that position.
Flustered, Racillione could only stammer out, "Ma'am...I..."
"Damn it," said Melosa sharply, "I have almost two hundred Amazons to look to and here my chief healer doesn't seem to know what the hell is going on. We have our children and elderly out here eating bad food and shivering in makeshift shelters. I want to take them home but I won't do that unless I know it's completely safe."
Racillione knew this was coming. Melosa was not one to suffer mistakes or lightly. In measured reply she said, "I gave you what was at the time by best assessment of the situation. Obviously conditions have changed. Antibrote has shown some improvement over the last day and a half and Missini is still without any symptoms at all." Only in her mind did she add, Sweet Artemis, Melosa! You should be happy at what I'm telling you, not chewing my ass out yet again over it.
Melosa was still not entirely convinced. In her warrior's mind she had come to view the situation as one more battle, a different kind of battle to be sure but a battle nonetheless. And as in any battle errors in judgment could have catastrophic consequences. Depending on the ground and numbers it was sometimes preferable to meet the enemy head on; other times it was better to play the waiting game. Clearly this was a time to wait.
Still deep in thought, Melosa asked, "And Missini agrees with you?"
Racillione felt a little offended that the queen would ask her this. After all, she was the chief healer, not Missini. "She does."
"I'm going up to have a look for myself," said Melosa. "In the meantime I want you to find Pycea. Tell her I want her to ride back to the village and retrieve the assembly horn down off the tower. Tell her to bring it here, to you."
"Are we returning to the village?"
Melosa coolly eyed her chief healer and said, "If I deem it proper, yes."
Racillione had no trouble picking up the chill in her queen's voice. She needed no Oracle of Delphi to tell her that right at this moment her mistress was none too pleased with her. For a while at least she was going to have to tread lightly because there still might be repercussions. She pretty much knew that in Melosa's eyes she had failed in her duty and for an Amazon this was the ultimate sin. In this she would accept no excuses. And it was not just her warriors, Melosa demanded the best effort from everyone and when she felt she had not gotten that effort...well, the queen was not one known for her leniency. As she had told the queen she had used her best judgment but that would be cold comfort if Melosa were to decide that she could no longer completely trust that judgment. Even more than usual Melosa was for some reason bearing down hard on her and Racillione found that very unnerving. It was moments like this that made the senior healer curse the day some three decades before when the cackling old Sestra had convinced Queen Antiope to allow her to train a certain shy teen as her eventual successor.
Melosa nudged her horse to a start and as the queen rode away Racillione gave a little
resigned shake of the head. Warriors had it so much simpler, thought the healer. They did
not have to worry about keeping people alive; all they had to do was kill. With a sigh she
picked up her staff and set off to find Pycea.
Missini saw Melosa's approach and was standing at the mouth of the cave when she rode up. She watched as the queen swung herself down from the horse and strode right up to her. As the queen neared Missini's heart quickened. Melosa always did that to her and it was not entirely because she was her queen. In Missini's eyes Melosa was the epitome of an what an Amazon should be. So commanding, so...so magnificent! And so coldly beautiful.
And so remote, so achingly remote. Ever since Womanhood first stirred in her Missini had fantasized about being the queen's consort. It did not matter that she knew not what Melosa's sexual preferences actually were. Perhaps the queen enjoyed the pleasures of bedding one or more of her loyal captains, or perhaps she preferred sampling the delectable fruits of some special young warrior. Perhaps she preferred males exclusively. Then again, perhaps not. Very discreet inquiries by the healer had turned up no indication of the queen ever sharing a bed with anyone at all--male or female. It was hard to believe she could be so single-minded in her duty as to eschew the warm caresses of some worthy lover. It was hardly necessary to depend on a male for this. Indeed this was laughable because males were rarely looked upon this way. Amazons of all classes often turned to others of their warlike race not only for basic sexual gratification but also the understanding that only someone who shared their unique way of life could provide. The time permitted to lie with males was very short, rarely meaningful, and the carnal urgings of strong, aggressive young women in the prime of life certainly did not stop with the end of so called "breeding season." But as queen was Melosa not expected to bear a successor? And yet so far she had not. It was very strange.
Missini was no different than practically any other young person in the prime of life. She had desires too. Even so, her sexual experience was very limited but one thing she was sure of was that she was not interested in taking a male. This fit perfectly with the tradition of her craft because under Amazon law one could not bear a child until she had made her first kill. And since healers, while nominally regarded as warriors, were rarely afforded an opportunity to gain this honor, they therefore were historically faced with the choice of either complete abstinence or looking toward one of their own tribe for comfort. Taking a male was simply too risky. A healer's lower middle rank among Amazon society made it highly improbable that a lover would come from the tribal elite. As a rule Amazons kept pretty much to their own class. That, however, did not prevent an adoring Missini from dreaming that one day Melosa might cast a lustful eye her way. Of course, she kept this to herself lest she open herself up for ridicule or, worse, disgrace. That was why in all her life had never breathed her secret desire to another soul.
"I've just come from Racillione," said Melosa. "She tells me you have had no ill effects from your prolonged contact with Antibrote."
"It's true, ma'am." Missini held up an arm and pulled back the sleeve on her loose fitting garment. "See? No lesions, pustules or sores of any kind. No redness...nothing on me anywhere."
"I'm pleased to hear that," said the queen. Her reply was more than perfunctory, she meant it. The sweet-natured Missini was diligent and hard working and had already earned the trust and respect of her warrior sisters--especially the younger ones. Moreover, she exhibited a personal courage that Racillione did not seem to have--despite the senior healer's desperate pleas to the contrary--and in the mind of the fierce Melosa this was what separated Missini from the more experienced healer.
In truth Melosa had never much cared for her grandmother's appointment as chief healer. The queen felt Racillione had a tendency to be inattentive in her duties that bordered on downright laziness. Only the healer's relatively unassailable position had kept Melosa from removing her years ago. To compound her displeasure Melosa's long running suspicion was that Racillione's chronic insistence on waiting for just the right Amazon to train had been nothing more than a devious way for her to keep a firm grip on her own singular position. Well, all that would soon change. Racillione was old, almost as old as Euset--too damn old to administer aid on the battlefield. Her pathetic wheezing up and down these very hills during the recent Mysian raid had proved that. In a year or two young Missini would be ready to take over. Racillione in turn would be assigned to other, more menial duties around the village such as field work, gathering, etc. Missini would then be immediately instructed to begin training her own assistant. Already the queen had someone in mind.
"She is making slow but steady progress," said Missini happily.
"I want to see her."
In blocking her queen's path Missini was not quite as forceful as Racillione had been but she managed to get her point across nonetheless. "Uh, ma'am, I would ask that you not do that."
"Why? You said yourself that she is out of danger."
"I know. But we must still be cautious," said Missini. Tactfully she added, "Especially when it involves you, ma'am."
Melosa, the All-Highest, Warlord and Supreme Commander of the Southern Tribe, was not about to be put off a second time. Gently brushing past the young healer she said, "I appreciate your concern. But I will see my warrior now."
There were only a select few such as Colsethme or Euset who would have dared to try to discuss the matter further and poor Missini was not one of them. Awed by Melosa's authoritarian presence, she could only humbly submit to the will of her queen. "Yes, ma'am," she said, and meekly fell in behind.
At the mouth of the cave Melosa paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light. Even here she was adherent to the ancient Amazon tenet of never rushing into a dark place if circumstances permitted. Her eyesight, while not quite as keen as some of her other warriors, was still quiet good and within the span of just a few heartbeats she could make out the limp form of Antibrote lying on her pallet. "Is she awake?" the queen asked.
"She was when I came out to meet you," said Missini.
"Ann?" Melosa called out in a low voice. "Ann, are you awake?"
Antibrote might have been ill but it had not affected her hearing. Her queen's voice was instantly recognizable to her. As for her own voice it was weak but unbroken as she replied, "It's good to again hear my queen speak."
Antibrote's ensuing struggle to arise brought swift admonishment from her queen. "Don't you dare," said Melosa. It was just as well. Antibrote was still in no condition to sit up. "Missy tells me you're improving."
Still exhausted by her abortive attempt, Antibrote swallowed hard and said, "Ready to kick some centaur ass, ma'am."
"She's still very weak," said Missini. "However she is keeping her food down now so if all goes well she should be up and around in good time."
"Good," Melosa nodded. "Good." Crossing over, she dropped to a crouch beside Antibrote. "Ann, I want you up off your sorry ass as soon as possible so do exactly what Missini says, understand? That's an order. Oh, and don't think a little thing like this is going to get you out of your making that trip to the salt spring."
This elicited a labored grin from Antibrote. "Yes, ma'am." This was historically her own special task and the grin was still on her face as she drifted back off to sleep.
Back outside the cave Melosa turned to Missini and said, "I am ordering an immediate return to the village."
"Yes, I see no reason to delay further."
"Just to be sure, however, I want you to keep Antibrote here for a few days. I'll leave the duration to your discretion."
While inwardly thrilled by the queen's trust in her judgment, Missini, true to her nature, could not forget her mentor. "What about Racillione?" she asked. "Should not she make that decision?"
"Let me handle Racillione," Melosa coldly replied. "Antibrote is your charge, not hers."
"Yes, my queen."
"I will assign a warrior to provide security for you." Knowing that Missini and young Pomona got along famously she casually added, "Probably Pomona."
"Do you have enough food?"
"Yes." Missini cupped her thin forearm and smiled. "I'm not much of an eater, ma'am."
"Well you be sure to tell Pomona if you need anything. Anything at all."
"I will," the healer assured her.
"Very well, since you seem to have things well in hand I'll leave you to it then." Melosa turned to go and then paused. "You've carried yourself well through this," she said. The faintest hint of a smile played across the queen's lips as she added, "In fact you and I might have been the only ones who kept our heads. More than that, you were willing to sacrifice yourself for the good of all. I won't forget that. Healer, don't let anyone ever tell you that you don't have a warrior's heart...because you do."
Missini was stunned by this. Melosa was not in the habit of doling out praise. To her an Amazon had her duty and was expected to do it. Yet here the queen had taken special care to tell her how pleased she was. Standing before this amazing woman she admired above all others, Missini could only clasp her hands and bow with the utter humility she truly felt.
Missini's hands were still clasped as Melosa got on her horse and rode off to supervise the return to the village. The young healer watched her disappear amongst the trees, still numbed by the words of the All-Highest Melosa. Her queen thought her a warrior! Sweet gods! It was almost too much.
She stood there for a long time, staring into the woods. Her wish would never come true, in her heart she knew that. Melosa was the closet thing there was to a goddess and she was nothing but a simple healer's assistant. She was dung to Melosa's ambrosia. Nevertheless Missini was thrilled by the knowledge that her queen in some small way appreciated her feeble efforts. She would never have Melosa's affections, that was true enough, but at least she could take comfort in knowing that what she did have was the queen's respect. Was it enough? Would it ever be enough? Probably not.
But at least it was something.
That night, with her watch over at last, Ephiny relished the comforting warmth of her thick blankets. After spending a good part of the day shivering in the saddle she was grateful to have a dry place to sleep. It was deep in the night that she awoke to the touch of two fingers lightly pressing against her lips. Startled, she tried to rise but was stopped by a strong hand.
"Easy," a low voice said, "It's only me."
Wide awake now, Ephiny suspiciously eyed the sleek form bending over her. "What do you want?" she warily whispered.
"We need to talk," said Velasca.
"Now. This can't wait any longer."
Ephiny's reply was measured. "All right, talk."
The camp fire was dying down but it was still bright enough for Ephiny to see Velasca's darting eyes as they scoured the camp. "Not here," she said. Letting Ephiny up, she said, "Let's take a walk."
"I don't know. If Eponin sees us--"
"She won't," Velasca quietly assured her. "Right now, she's swung to the far side of her loop. She'll never know."
For a moment Ephiny looked hard at Velasca. What does she want? she thought. Finally she said, "All right." Given the contentious history between them most Amazons would have thought it foolhardy at best and crazy at worst for the younger Amazon to go sneaking off into the woods with the spiteful Velasca. Ephiny, however, did not fear Velasca. She never had.
With well practiced stealth the Amazons eased their way out of the camp. Ephiny was close behind as Velasca edged her way into a small grove of oak trees standing perhaps fifty paces from the camp. The night was calm, almost eerily so. In the cloudless sky above the moon had already set, leaving the great starry dome to shine forth in all its brilliance. Directly overhead, stretching from the northeast to the southwest as far as the eye could see, was the fuzzy white band known to some as the "Milky Way" and to others as "The Road to Heaven." Just then the stillness was broken by the muffled rustlings of some small forest creature poking about in its nocturnal foray for food.
"This is far enough," Ephiny murmured. "Now what's this all about?"
"Before my...departure, I issued a challenge," said Velasca.
"I know. Terreis. So what has that to do with me?"
"Minutia tells me you're becoming quite the formidable little thing," said Velasca. "Two knots for bravery already. Not bad."
There was just a hint of mockery in Velasca's voice but Ephiny ignored it. She was really not in the mood for a midnight scrap with Velasca. She was tired, tomorrow was going to be hard day, she wanted to sleep. Still, it was with genuine modesty that she replied, "I only did what was expected of me."
For some reason Velasca did not seem to want to let it go. "Still, your mother must be very proud."
That did it. Ephiny was still riled about Velasca's earlier disrespectful exchange with Meelah and this mention of her mother brought those simmering feelings right back to a boil. "Look, I know you didn't bring me out here to praise my battle record. You're up to something, Velasca. I can smell it. So tell me, whose tits are you trying to wring now?"
The normally volatile Velasca remained surprisingly calm. "Such hostility in one so young," she tsked. "It's not healthy. Here I am, ready to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime and all you want to do is insult me."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about a simple proposition; what the Phoenicians call a 'deal.'"
This made Ephiny even more wary. An adversarial Velasca was more or less a known value. A Velasca that wanted her cooperation was something else again. "Just what is it that you think that I can do for you?"
"You can put me over the top," said Velasca. "Or rather, your mother can."
Now for the delicate part, thought Velasca. "Ephiny," she began, "I'm going to defeat Terreis. When I do I will be rightfully recognized by Amazon law and in the eyes of Artemis herself as the one true successor to the queen."
With quiet intensity Ephiny said, "I didn't know you spoke for goddesses now."
"Ephiny, will you stop being so combative for one breath and listen to what I have to say? Now, I am going to defeat Terreis, any objective Amazon will tell you the same thing. It's a given." Velasca paused for effect and then said, "And that is only the beginning."
In the darkness Ephiny's look of shock was barely visible. "Are you saying you mean to challenge Melosa?"
"In time," replied Velasca coolly. "In due time."
And in that moment Ephiny saw it. "I know what you're after. When the time comes you want my mother's support, don't you?"
"You're a perceptive girl," said Velasca.
"And you're crazy," Ephiny retorted. "You can't defeat Melosa. She'd cut you up like a sunfish. Besides, even if you did win the company commanders and the elders would never support you."
"I don't need them all," said Velasca. "To legitimize my position I just need one or two."
"And you want my mother to support you in this, this, plot of yours?" Ephiny let out a derisive chuckle and said, "I can tell you right now that is not going to happen!"
"It might if I offer her the post of ambassador," said Velasca. "Yes, we need another diplomatic envoy. And who better than your mother? With feigned hesitancy she carefully added, "And then...perhaps you, Ephiny, could take her place as company commander. It's been done before."
And there it was. Velasca's chips were on the table. It was true she did not care for Meelah but of all the captains Velasca felt she was the one she could really use on her side. To her Colsethme was a lecherous old hag, already past her prime, Willa was like Terreis, a dreamer and hence worthless. Draganis was a mindless goon who would probably serve a wooden post if it was proclaimed queen. No, Meelah was the one to have.
"You're serious, aren't you?" an amazed Ephiny asked. "Velasca, I doubt that you have a friend in the whole village. How do you expect to garner support?"
"I don't need friends," Velasca pointedly reminded her. "What I need are allies. I have more than you think but I can always use more. Join me, Ephiny, and together we'll take down Melosa."
"Velasca, it's one thing to make a legitimate, open challenge but it's quite another to conspire against the queen. You're a hair's breadth away from talking treason!"
Ignoring Ephiny's warning, Velasca plunged ahead. "An epochal shift is coming. Soon six generations of oppression by Melosa's line will come to an end. In my dreams I have seen this. You and your mother can either choose to be part of that shift or get crushed into dust and left behind. My destiny will be fulfilled regardless."
"Velasca, the only support you'll ever get from me is bearing your body to the funeral pyre after Melosa has hung your rebellious ass."
"Those who are not with me are against me and shall be duly punished when the time comes," Velasca warned. "When the hour of our liberation comes make sure you're on the right side, Ephiny."
Liberation, my ass! thought Ephiny angrily. Throwing up an angry hand, she hissed, "I'm not listening to any more of this!"
She whirled and as she stormed off Velasca quietly called out, "Don't be a fool, Ephiny. Think about what I said. Talk it over with your mother. Just remember, my time is coming, sooner than you think. I'm offering you and your mother a chance for greatness. Don't let it slip away."
Back at the edge of the camp Ephiny paused before entering. Everyone was still asleep. Somewhere out there in the darkness Eponin was on watch. Soon she would be returning to roust a reluctant Solari out for what would be the dawn watch. Still echoing in her ears were Velasca's ominous, troubling words. It was not unheard of in Amazon history for a queen to be overthrown, Ephiny knew that. Still, in her young life all she had ever known was the stability of Melosa's unchallenged authority and of Penthesilea, whom Ephiny barely remembered, before her. Such a thing had seemed about as likely as looking upon the face of Zeus himself.
What would her mother say? Ephiny wondered. Should she even tell her? Ephiny was not so sure she should. No, better to just let it lie. No use stirring up a hornet's nest for nothing. Velasca was too smart for that. She would just deny it all. And besides, Terreis could still kick Velasca's ass, making all her big talk so much hot air. If Velasca were to win, however, that would be a different thing altogether. Well, she thought, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Silently Ephiny crept back under her blanket, relieved to find that her mother was still asleep. Ephiny well knew Meelah shared her antipathy for Velasca and she would not have liked the idea of her own daughter stealing off into the night with the former princess. But as Ephiny snuggled back into her pallet and slowly drifted off to sleep she was unaware of the pair of eyes intently watching her the whole time from across the camp.
They were Meelah's.
For Meelah's party the day broke crisply. In the east only a few wispy, reddish tinted clouds were present to mark what was otherwise a perfectly clear morning sky. The rain was gone; yesterday's debacle behind them. It looked to be a great opportunity to cover some ground and Meelah was not about to miss out on it.
Their meager breakfast over, Meelah gathered her troops around her and issued the day's orders. "All right, we're really going to push hard today. Velasca, you've on point again. Don't range out as far as you did yesterday, though. I want you back here fast in case of trouble."
"We can only hope," Velasca said curtly. "I'm in the mood for a good fight."
Meelah could only tiredly shake her head at this and mutter, "Get out of here."
Here next order required a little more care. Minutia had gotten her day with Celeste and now the captain wanted her back in her accustomed place guarding the rear. "Min," she began, "I really need you at the back of the column. Let Solari pull the horse today." Without a word Minutia nodded her acknowledgment. She knew as well as Meelah that it was time to move on--in more ways than one.
"Let's move out, people," said Meelah. Her tone was a little stern as she
added, "Ephiny, ride with me."
The better part of the morning was gone before Meelah, with the situation seemingly calm, finally got around to what was on her mind. "So, uh, you took a little walk in the woods last night, huh? Couldn't sleep I guess."
I should have known, thought Ephiny. There was no fooling her mother. Ever. "Oh, uhh, so you know about that."
"A mother knows these things," came the cryptic reply. It was true, at least in Ephiny's case. Many was the time when she had gotten into mischief only to discover that her mother was aware of it practically as soon as it happened. One day Ephiny was going to ask her about that.
Ephiny figured she might as well tell her mother about her "conversation" with Velasca. It was obvious she was more than mildly curious. And she did want to know, otherwise she would not have brought the subject up.
Ephiny did not take the long route home. "I think Velasca has it in her mind to force Melosa out."
At this Meelah gave a little snort of contempt. "Velasca? That little turd? She doesn't have the guts or the skills."
"Oh she has the guts," replied Ephiny matter-of-factly. "I think if Velasca is successful in her challenge to Terreis she is at some point almost certain to try to seize the throne."
Here now her daughter's choice of words gave Meelah cause for concern. No one would consider the throne "seized" from Melosa if Velasca were somehow lucky enough to win a legitimate challenge. Ephiny was nobody's fool, clearly she believed Velasca had something more diabolical in mind. "Ephiny, let's be clear here. Are you saying she actually intends to overthrow the queen?"
"I do. Ohh, she said she means to challenge Melosa all right. But I don't believe a word of it. She's hatching some plot to usurp power."
"Why tell you this?" her mother wondered aloud.
Ephiny looked hard at her mother. "She wants your support."
For Meelah the whole thing just kept getting more fantastic. "You've got to be joking."
"No no. And she's not either. Support Velasca and she will name you ambassador, or so she says."
"How dare she be so presumptuous!" Meelah snapped. "Why I wouldn't serve that arrogant little snot if she gave me India!"
Nowadays Meelah was a gracious, congenial, pleasant woman but in her youth she had been notorious for her volcanic temper. Meelah had worked mightily to overcome this and for the most part she had. In fact she was so successful in this that most younger Amazons only knew her as the cordial warrior whom all her peers admired. There were times, though, when Meelah's old inner fire would once more flare up, if only momentarily. This was one of those times. And, as with the most recent eruption, this one too was sparked by Velasca. Still, it was only but the span of a breath or two before she regained control. Meelah did not like herself that way, especially in front of her daughter. Indeed she was most thankful that Ephiny had not inherited the same troubling trait. "Well, anyway, it's not going to happen," she continued.
"I can only imagine how humiliating it was for her to ask like that," said Ephiny. "You know how much she hates us."
"Desperate people do desperate things," Meelah said with a sigh.
"Will you tell Melosa?"
Meelah came to the same conclusion as her daughter had. "No, not yet." She
smiled weakly at Ephiny and said, "If I do Melosa will undoubtedly hang you on the
spit over what you know and I don't want any pressure placed on you if it can be avoided.
Once Terreis defeats Velasca--as I believe she will--this will all blow over on its own.
Without the legitimacy of being a princess Velasca's black little plan has no shot of
succeeding." Meelah shook her head and added an incredulous, "That damned
Velasca, she's even crazier than I thought."
Early that afternoon Ephiny caught sight of Velasca riding back to the party. She and her mother were still paired together and Ephiny was about to point the distant rider out to her when Meelah spotted her as well.
Squinting into the distance, Meelah said, "Ephiny, fall back and pair up with Solari."
"Yes, ma'am," Ephiny quietly replied and she obediently turned her horse away.
Watching Velasca approach, Meelah was forced to admire how fine her horsemanship was. Velasca was a supercilious harpy to be sure but there was no denying her potential for greatness, at least as far as being a warrior was concerned. For being a decent human being was something else again. Meelah had been expecting her return for she had instructed the young warrior that morning to report back when she reached the Macestus River.
"You found the river?" Meelah asked, as Velasca trotted up.
"Yes. However it's much too wide to try to swim."
After a thoughtful nod of the head Meelah said, "Very well." She and her command had crossed the river into Phrygia much farther south without any trouble. Up here, closer to the sea, the river was naturally wider and deeper. Meelah did not relish the thought of turning south and going back upriver. To do so would cost them a precious day and, more importantly, place them deeper in what had become dangerous territory. Well, she thought, an Amazon is expected to be resourceful so, I'll be resourceful.
As it was her solution was simple enough. Still, it would eat up some time. "We could move to the coast and try to hire a boat," Meelah mused. "But I don't want to do that." With a resigned little turn of the head she declared, "Looks like we will have to build a raft."
Velasca shook her head. "There might not be a need. I scouted a short distance down river and although I was careful not to get too close I saw what I think looked like a ferry station."
This surprised Meelah. From what she had seen the area did not seem densely populated enough for anyone to make a ferry profitable. What she did not yet know, because Velasca had not seen, was that just north of them lay an east-west road, a trading route, that served as the region's main artery.
By this time everyone except Minutia had joined scout and captain. All this talk about a ferry suited Solari just fine because in truth she was a little bit afraid of deep water, something she had never told anyone--not even Ephiny. She knew that apprehensions such as this were looked upon as weakness and in the harsh reality of Solari's world that was something to be avoided at all costs.
"All right then," said Meelah, "the ferry it is. Velasca, lead the way."
The party moved out and as ordered Ephiny dutifully took her place with Solari. After the subjection to her mother's intense scrutiny earlier she was glad for the chance to just ride along with her friend for awhile. Turning back to look at the bound up body of Celeste she asked, "So, how's it going?"
With a little shrug Solari answered, "Not bad. At least she hasn't started smelling yet."
Ephiny's whispered admonition was immediate. "Solari! You shouldn't say that!"
"Aww you know what I mean." Solari looked out over the sparse landscape and said, "I don't like this place. Not enough trees."
Ephiny too had found her surroundings uncomfortable but until her friend's comment she had not quite been able to grasp the cause. That was it, raised in the thick forests of her homeland the sky here was just too wide open. "I know what you mean," said Ephiny.
Off in the distance she saw Velasca, who had again forged back out ahead, drop out of site over a hill. Now that her mother knew about Velasca's scheming Ephiny wondered if she ought not go ahead and tell Solari as well. Not here, she decided. Maybe later when they got back home.
"Once we get across the river the land will soon get back to what we're used to."
Reflecting on the recent course of events Solari slowly shook her head. She then muttered a downcast, "What a mess. What an absolute mess. We get Velasca and, worse, lose Celeste. A piss poor trade-off if you ask me."
"It is at that. Celeste was a fine warrior and a good friend. I will miss her."
It was then that Solari got around to what had been on her mind ever since Velasca's return. "Eph?"
"Eph, you're my best friend, right?"
"Well of course I am." Sensing her friend's hesitation, she asked, "Solari, what is it? Is something wrong?"
Before replying Solari took a good look all around, just to make certain no one was close. "Eph, I've been thinking." Again she paused.
Once more Solari glanced around. What is wrong with her? Ephiny wondered.
Solari took a deep breath and then bared her soul to the only person who had ever really cared for her--her dear friend Ephiny. "If...if Velasca beats Terreis you know what's going to happen."
"She's not going to beat Terreis," Ephiny replied confidently. "Terreis is going to kick her ass."
"I know but I'm just saying if she does...." Summoning forth all her resolve, Solari finally managed to blurt it out. "Ephiny, if she becomes princess again she's going to make my life a living hell. You know how much she hates me."
So that was it. Poor Solari. No one had suffered more from Velasca's venomous spite. "You're a warrior now," Ephiny gently reminded her. "You've made your first kill. You're not some mouse scuttling to get out of the way and Melosa won't allow her to shit on you for no reason. Not now. You're too valuable to the tribe."
Solari closed her eyes and nodded with tired deference but Ephiny knew her words had done nothing to assuage Solari's fears. Solari's dark eyes found hers. They were misty, sad eyes. "Ephiny, if she does win, I'm....I'm leaving."
The words shocked Ephiny, hitting her like a hard slap in the face. Reflexively she countered, "No you're not!"
"Ephiny, I will not tolerate her abuse. Not anymore. I love the tribe and would gladly lay down my life for it but I can not and will not remain a part of it if she takes Terreis' place. I'll leave, Eph. By the gods I swear it."
"And do what? Join up with the Northern Tribe? Come on."
"Amazons aren't the only ones who use a sword," said Solari stiffly. "Or I--I could do something else. It's a big world out there."
"One you know absolutely nothing about!" Ephiny hissed. Immediately sorry, she slumped her shoulders and said, "Solari, don't talk like this. I know you're concerned, hell I'm concerned too. I mean, who in their right mind would want Velasca back in a position of power? And besides, she has no great love for me either, you know. But have some faith in Terreis. She's going to win!"
"And if she doesn't?"
"You, me--all of us--can cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime try not to worry about it, okay?"
Easier said than done, Solari ruefully thought. Ephiny was right about one thing,
though. Velasca had her on her shit list as well. How then, could she remain so calm in
the face of what was a very real threat? That was Ephiny for you. Nothing ever seemed to
A short time later found the party all gathered on a small escarpment overlooking the Macestus River. Velasca, who had rejoined them, pointed north where a rough little hut, barely visible in a sea of brown, stood alongside the river. "That's it," she said.
"Doesn't look like much," observed Eponin.
"As long as it gets us across," said Meelah. "Everyone form up. You too, Velasca. Stay close and keep your eyes open."
As it turned out Eponin's initial assessment was just as applicable to the ferryboat itself. In fact it could hardly be called a ferry at all. For unlike some of the sturdy, well built ferries she had seen this one was in fact not much more than a good-sized raft, lashed together with rope. With Meelah in the lead the party cantered their horses up to the hut and were met there by a short, barrel-chested man with bronzed skin and massive forearms.
It was not his muscles that piqued Ephiny's interest. The fellow was the hairiest man she had ever seen! He reminded her of one of those terrible "bear men" in the scary stories Calliope used to tell her when she was a child.
Quickly assessing the situation, Meelah concluded that Ephiny's "bear man" was probably not alone. She did not think it very practicable for one man to pull a fully loaded ferry all the way across that river alone, even with arms like his. No, he had to have cohort or two lurking around somewhere, maybe even watching them right now. Meelah lowered her head and with the back of her hand pretended to wipe the sweat away from her eye. Beside her sat Minutia and it was to her that she murmured, "Watch out, there could be others."
To the ferryman she said, "Ho there. How much to cross?"
Folding his arms the ferryman eyed the handsome Meelah up and down and said, "Three pieces of silver."
"Three? That's a bit steep don't you think?"
"That's apiece by the way. And it's my price, take it or leave it," he gruffly answered. It was then that a thought seemed to come into his head and he grinned, revealing black, rotten teeth. "Of course, if you don't have the money, sweetie, maybe you and I could uhh, you know, work something out." He glanced over the others with a newfound interest and casually added, "Maybe even a package deal, huh?"
A faint smile played across Meelah's lips as she eyed him in cold amusement.
It was, however, a sneering Velasca and not the captain who answered him. "Now I see how you got those big arms. Since no sane woman would possibly get within a league of you I'll bet you and that malignant little sprout of yours are on very familiar terms. I'm guessing with an old geezer like you the cream doesn't flow as quickly as it used too, huh?"
This brought laughter all around, even Meelah had a good chuckle over it. Somehow though the ferryman failed to see the humor in it. "The gods damn you!" he roared. "All of you! Your asses can walk across the damn water!"
He turned to stalk away only to have Eponin and her horse deftly cut off his path of retreat. "You can leave when my captain says you can and not before," the Amazon firmly informed him.
The ferryman was not so easily deterred. With a loud growl he gave Eponin's horse a hard shove in an attempt to get clear. Instead all it got him was the sharp tip of Velasca's sword pressing hard on his left shoulder.
He froze as he saw the gleaming blade, so recently bloodied, and he heard Velasca mockingly purr, "Please stay."
Alit now, Meelah walked over and slowly lifted Velasca's blade off the ferryman's shoulder. "Look," she said, "we mean you no harm. All we want is to cross the river and be on our way."
"You're them Amazons that's got everybody so worked up, aren't you?"
"Yes, we're Amazons," Meelah replied. "And we want to go home. Now I suggest you get to your post, sir, because you are taking us across--for one piece of silver."
To reinforce Meelah's words Velasca laid her blade back down on his shoulder.
Casting the blade a wary glance, the ferryman said, "I can't. Not until my helpers get back."
"Where are they?"
"How should I know?" he said with a shrug. "Damn no-goods are always sneaking off."
"He's lying," said Velasca. "He's trying to stall us."
Meelah thought she just might be right. "There are six of us," she said. "We'll help pull."
"Can't but half of you go at a time," said the ferryman. "That's all the old girl will hold."
Eponin smelled a rat and said so. "That thing looks big enough to me."
"Well it's not," the ferryman shot back.
"Are you sure?" asked Meelah. If possible she would rather not split up her little party, even temporarily.
"I'm sure," the ferryman snapped. "I reckon I know me own boat. Half o' ye can go over with yer horses. When we get to the other side you can leave 'em and help me bring the ferry back over. We'll make two trips, easy as pie."
"He seems awfully anxious to split us up, ma'am," said Eponin.
"I'm anxious to avoid a dunking, girlie. I don't swim so good."
Like Eponin Meelah did not like this at all because this would place them in a very vulnerable position. But what could she do? They had to get across. Meelah gave the man a momentary hard look and said, "All right, we'll do it your way. Min, take Celeste and board the ferry. You too, Velasca. The rest of you will wait. Ephiny, you're in charge."
"Just sit tight and stay alert. I'll send Min back to help with the ferry. Let's
move out, people."
Mounted on each side of the ferry were two large oars and it was by this means that the ferry was propelled. On one side of the ferry were several iron rings through which was threaded a long thick rope. The rope stretched across the river and was used as both a guide line and to prevent excess drift by the ferry. Once the ferry was loaded the ferryman and the Amazons took up an oar and made ready to pull. Like everyone else Meelah too grabbed an oar only to feel a gentle tap on the shoulder.
It was Minutia. "No need, ma'am," said the big Amazon. "I can pull for the both of us." Minutia did not think it proper for her commander to perform manual labor.
"Very well," said a slightly flushed Meelah, and with that she took up position up in front of the barge.
"All right, ladies, everybody pull," said the ferryman. "She's a little hard to get started but once we get 'er goin' she'll glide like a swan."
Minutia emitted a deep growl as she and the others strained on the oars and they were off. Back on the bank the three remaining Amazons watched them go and as she watched Minutia flex those big muscles of hers Ephiny for one was glad she would be coming back over to help with the ferry.
The trip across took longer than Meelah expected due to the swift current they encountered out in the middle of the channel. Even in this water the ferry proved more stable than Meelah had feared and served them in good stead as they plowed their way across. Soon enough the Amazons were disembarking on the other side. Once all the horses were off Minutia shooed Velasca off the ferry as well, saying she and the "little fella" could manage it alone. She was right. With only themselves on board Minutia and the ferryman pulled the ferry back across quite easily, even through the swift water out in the middle. As for the ferryman he had seen a "bruiser" or two in his day but even he had to marvel at Minutia's strength.
Soon enough the ferry was bumping against the bank. "Come on, girls," Minutia said with a cheerful wave.
"Who's she calling a girl?" Solari grumbled, causing Ephiny to break into a grin.
The three young Amazons carefully led their horses onto the ferry and then took up the oars as they had seen the others do. Unlike her mother, Ephiny got no such reprieve from the task at hand. She might have been the daughter of a captain now but she was still a low ranking Amazon and as such she was expected to do her share. Of course no one knew that better than the unpretentious Ephiny.
And true to her nature, Ephiny was pulling at her oar as hard as she could, when, a quarter of the way across, her sharp ears were the first to pick up the faint rumble of approaching horses. A couple of heartbeats later Eponin heard it too. In unison the two of them turned back to see perhaps thirty mounted men coming hard down the road. Unlike Emil and his motley militiamen these men were Phrygian cavalry--regular army. Their intent, however, was just as deadly for they too were in pursuit of the Amazon "invaders."
By now everyone else was staring at the approaching men too. "Who are they?" asked Solari. "Bandits?"
In answering the ferryman tried to keep his sense of frustration to himself. If only those bastards had come sooner! "Them's soldiers," he said.
Right at the river's edge the men dismounted and one of them, the commander, pointed out at the ferry and shouted something. Immediately the men began to deploy up and down the bank. It was then that those on board saw to their dismay that the men were armed with bows.
"Look!" exclaimed Solari.
"Oh shit," Minutia muttered ominously. With her experienced eye she had recognized them as trained cavalry and at first glance thought them safe enough. Having fought such units many times she knew cavalrymen usually armed themselves with light swords and or lances, weapons suitable for fighting from horseback.
"We're still within range of them," said Eponin. Even here her voice was surprisingly devoid of emotion.
At the officer's command the men raised their bows and took aim. Suddenly the ferryman was not quite so glad to see them. "Pull, damn you, pull!" he cried. "We have to get out of here!"
"It will take too long to get out of range," said Minutia.
"Then what do we do?" asked Solari. "We're sitting ducks here."
On the bank the officer dropped his hand and the men as one let their arrows fly. On the opposite shore Meelah and Velasca could only watch helplessly.
"Here they come!"
"Get down!" Minutia yelled. Almost simultaneously five bodies hit the deck of the ferry hard.
Ephiny lay there for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for the deadly missiles to reach the top of their arc and come hurtling earthward. When they did finally land they were short. With her cheek pressed against the rough deck of the ferry Ephiny did not see them hit but she heard them pepper the water not so very far away. "We can't just lay here like slugs," she said to Minutia. "We've got to do something."
Only one thing to do, Minutia thought grimly.
Lying next to Ephiny, Solari looked up just long enough to see another salvo being launched. "Here comes another one!" she said.
"Merciful Zeus protect me!" wailed the ferryman.
This time a single arrow hit the ferry, landing just an arm's length away from Eponin. "They're finding the range," she said.
"If they have any skill at all they'll be dead on in another round or two," said Ephiny.
Minutia rolled over on her back and looked up at the guide rope. With nothing to prevent the rope from giving she knew she had little chance of chopping it into with her sword. So drew her big knife. "Everybody move forward!" she yelled. "Now!" Once they had she said, "When I cut the rope grab it and hang on!"
To the ferryman's horror he saw Minutia begin sawing on the big rope. Rushing to her side he feebly tried to pull her arm away. "What are you doing?" he squalled.
"I'm cutting this rope," said Minutia, easily brushing him off. "We'll use it to let the current pull us close enough to the other side to where we can swim for it."
"But we'll never make the bend down there," the ferryman pleaded.
"That's all right, we won't be here anyway," said Minutia.
"Here they come again!" Eponin yelled.
As Ephiny had predicted this shower was the most accurate yet. Six arrows hit the ferry and two more struck Solari's horse in the flank. Terrified, the wild-eyed animal squealed and reared up high, its front legs frantically striking at the unseen enemy. In an instant Solari shot to her feet and tried to grab the horse's reins. The horse, however, could think only of escape. Back down on all fours it turned right into Solari's path and slammed straight into her. The horse leapt into the river as Solari went crashing into the makeshift railing through which the rope was threaded.
"Solari!" Ephiny cried. Rushing to her friend, Ephiny turned Solari over to find with her eyes rolled back in her head and making an odd snoring sound.
Kneeling next to them Eponin pronounced, "She's out cold."
With a determined growl Minutia made one last powerful cut and at last the rope severed. Roughly she shouldered the ferryman aside. "Out of my way!"
Back on the bank Meelah and Velasca saw the big rope go limp. "What are they doing?" Velasca wondered aloud.
With a gleam of approval in her eye Meelah answered, "Just what I would do."
Minutia dashed past the fallen Solari up to the front of the ferry, now slowly drifting down river. There she pulled the rope out through the iron rings that secured it to the ferry.
On the bank opposite Meelah the cavalry commander once more raised his hand. "Ready!..."
"Come on!" roared Minutia. "In the water!"
"You go," Eponin said to Ephiny. She nodded at Solari and said, "I'll stay with her."
"Like hell you will," said Ephiny. Taking one of her friend's arms, she said, "Help me get her into the water."
"Let me have her," said Minutia. She lifted Solari up into her arms as if she were a child. "Now tie the end of the rope around me. Hurry!"
"Shoot!" yelled the commander, and twenty-six arrows soared into their trajectory.
The arrows reached their apex and began to hurtle earthward. From her spot on the bank Meelah saw them; little black slivers of death headed straight for her child. "Get off!" she practically screamed.
No sooner had Ephiny's nimble fingers finished when Minutia, firmly gripping Solari, jumped into the river. A heartbeat later Ephiny and Eponin were right behind her. Minutia tightened a big arm around Solari and pulled her close. "Don't worry, kid," she said. "I've gotcha." To the two young Amazons she said, "Grab the rope and hang on." Ephiny and Eponin quickly obeyed and then watched as the ferry began to slide past them.
To their amazement they saw that the ferryman was still on board. The ferry was his livelihood and he just could not bring himself to leave it to the river's mercy. He was already frantically straining on an oar when the arrows hit.
A full half-dozen of the arrows overshot their mark and landed all around the Amazons. Fortunately no one was hit. The Fates were not so kind to the ferryman. A single arrow penetrated his right side, puncturing his lung in the process. Two more arrows hit Eponin's horse and three hit Ephiny's. Like Solari's before them the terrified animals bolted right out into the river.
With the current pulling them away the Amazons saw the ferryman struggle to his feet. Blood oozing from his mouth, he staggered over to the railing. Feebly he shook his fist at them. "Damn you!" he gurgled. "Damn you to Tar--" The ferryman headed over the railing and into the rushing water.
"Poor bastard," Meelah muttered under her breath.
Over on the riverbank Velasca's voice conveyed nothing at all as she replied simply, "Merely one less male fouling our world."
Meelah looked at her for a moment but only said, "Let's get them out of the water."
With the aid of her horse Meelah and Velasca soon managed to pull their comrades out of the swift current and into the relatively calm water near the shore. Halfway in a moaning Solari regained consciousness. Up ahead Ephiny and Eponin could hear the big Amazon gently assuring a groggy Solari that she was going to be all right. When they were near enough the two young Amazons, after receiving assurance from Minutia that she had matters well in hand, let go of the ferry cable and swam for the bank.
Naturally Meelah was overjoyed to see her daughter safe. Even so, the fair-minded captain would not allow herself any display of favoritism. Placing a hand on a shoulder of each she said, "I'm glad to see you both." The look exchanged between mother and daughter, however, made any need for spoken words unnecessary.
Once Minutia and Solari were safely reeled in everyone looked to Meelah for what to do next. They were not long in waiting. As soon as Meelah was satisfied that everyone was indeed all right she stood up and said, "Okay, counting Celeste's we're down to four horses."
"Well no one's doubling up with me," Velasca sniffed.
"So I guess you like point then," said Meelah curtly.
In truth Velasca hated it but she was not about to admit that to Meelah. Not now. "I've handled it so far, haven't I?" she said stiffly.
"Well good, because you've got it again. All the way back."
Sitting next to Solari, Minutia playfully said, "Little knot head here can ride with me." Solari indeed did have quite a bump right in the middle of her forehead.
Solari reached up and tenderly felt the bump and groaned, "Thanks for reminding me. Ohhhh."
"Fine. Ephiny, you and Eponin will take Celeste's horse."
As delicately as she could Ephiny asked, "What about Celeste?"
"Leave her of course," said Velasca.
Meelah glared at Velasca and said, "Not a chance. We've brought her this far, we're taking her all the way home." She turned to the two young Amazons standing with her and said, "You two, fix up a litter for Celeste. And be quick about it."
In unison the pair replied, "Yes, ma'am!" and off they went. Solari sat on the ground, leaning against Minutia for support and wistfully she watched the newcomer and her best friend dart off into the underbrush. She wanted so badly to go too, to...be useful. Unfortunately the dizziness and the pounding in her head made that impossible. It was just one more disappointment in a life filled with disappointment. Orphaned as a young child, taken in by an uncaring drunkard, mostly what Solari remembered from her childhood was the abuse and never ending work that had defined her early life. She had been one of the dregs of Amazon society, ignored by others who seemed oblivious to her suffering. In those cruel years she felt nothing but total worthlessness and in her shame attempted at all costs to avoid the others of her tribe, most especially the other children. Often, however, her chores made that impossible and it was then she that suffered ruthless torment at the hands of the children of the higher classes.
And then one day when she was seven she met a young girl, a girl with unruly blonde locks and brown, sturdy little legs. It was on the very first day that six year old Ephiny was allowed to venture out on her own unattended. Solari had seen her before in the company of her mother, a great and esteemed warrior and at the little girl's approach she tried to run away. Even back then she was not very fast and the little girl easily caught her. And for reasons that to this very day Solari did not understand the little girl had taken an instant liking to her. Timid and ashamed, Solari had tried to beg herself away but the little girl was very stubborn. Expecting yet more abuse, Solari was stunned when the little girl smiled and gave her a piece of the honey candy her mother had made. She was even more amazed when the child grabbed her by the hand and pulled her straight home. On that first of what was to become countless visits a terrified Solari could not even bring herself to look Ephiny's striking warrior mother in the face but had found her extremely kind and understanding nonetheless.
That was the day that Solari's life changed. Yes, she still suffered abuse both in and out of the home but few dared try it when Ephiny was around. Even the older children soon learned to respect the blonde's spirit and determination in defending her new friend. That she was the daughter of one of the queen's favorite warriors did not hurt either. It was Ephiny that made life bearable for her. Solari now knew that in what was often a cold, cruel world she had a friend that she could count in. So it was then...so it was now. Solari was a proven warrior now, treated with the courtesy and respect such an important position demanded. Now many of the same ones who earlier in life had laughed at her were, if not her friend, then at least on good terms with her. And for that she had Ephiny, and to a lesser extent, Meelah to thank. Her dear friends--her only true friends, Solari would have gladly died for either of them.
Perhaps then, that was why she felt the resentment toward Eponin that she did. She ought not feel that way, she knew that. She could just not help it. But damn it, if Ephiny liked her then she would learn to like her to. All the thinking was making her aching head even worse and so with a sigh of resignation Solari bowed her head and cursed the rotten luck which--once again--had befallen her.
An hour later they were ready to move out. Earlier Ephiny's quest for the proper tree limbs had taken her back near the river bank and it was from there that she saw the ferry run up on the shore down at the bend, just as the ferryman had predicted. She also saw Eponin's horse stagger up out of the water on the other side. Hers, however, was nowhere to be seen and Ephiny reckoned she had not made it. Thus Ephiny lost the sturdy little horse that had helped save them all back in Getae. She would miss her.
With the River Macestus safely behind them now Meelah and her party once again resumed their long trek home. Their return was somewhat hampered due to the fact that they were never able to secure any additional horses. Still, they managed to make fairly good time and late in the evening five days later they made contact with an Amazon patrol. From her fellow captain Draganis Meelah learned of the apparent false alarm regarding Antibrote and of the tribe's subsequent return to the village.
So that was it then. Celeste was dead; the rest of them had suffered hardship and danger at every turn...and for what? Nothing.
Worn out, hungry--dejected, the party listlessly plodded into the village just after
sunset. Before dismissing her warriors Meelah personally thanked each and every one of
them for their courage and devotion to duty--even the incredulous Velasca. And then, like
any dutiful captain, Meelah made straight off to report to her queen.
It was the weather-beaten face of Colsethme that Meelah first saw when her knock on the queen's door was answered. "La La!" the old warrior bellowed. "You're back!" "La La" had been a teenage Colsethme's name for Meelah way back in the days when she tended to her. Meelah had not heard that name in a very long time. Enthusiastically clapping Meelah on the shoulder, Colsethme said, "Come on in."
In the center of the room was a table; behind it stood Melosa, perfectly erect, her cool dark eyes impassively fixed up her two subordinates. Of the three Amazons present she was the least imposing physical specimen. Both Meelah and Colsethme were decidedly taller than their queen. Colsethme was beginning to acquire a bit of a paunch but she was still as strong as ever. Meelah, on the other hand, was the ideal model for the perfect Amazon warrior--even at age thirty-six. Tall and lean, she shared Velasca's sleekness even though she was far more muscular. Ephiny admired her mother's physique and hoped to one day look just like her although she knew she probably never would.
At the moment, however, Meelah felt neither sleek nor powerful. What she felt was fatigue. Walking up to her queen, she stiffened to attention. "Good evening, Highness," she said. "I wish to report."
"Proceed," Melosa said with a regal nod.
"The mission was a success. We were able to secure a dragon bush and bring it back."
Meelah paused here but Melosa could see that clearly something else was on her mind. "Yes?" she expectantly asked.
"We...lost one, ma'am."
Colsethme's shoulders slumped noticeably. Yet another one of the old ones gone, she thought bitterly. Damn the gods!
"How did it happen?"
"We were ambushed. We got caught in a very strong thunderstorm. The lightning was very intense so we took what shelter we could in a little recess in a rock cliff. While we were holed up in there some of the locals crept up to the top of a nearby hill and from that position one of them shot a single arrow at us." Meelah paused and lowered her head. "Somehow Celeste saw it coming. She...she smothered me and..."
"I see," Melosa said quietly.
"She took the arrow for me, ma'am."
"She took an arrow for her captain," Melosa pointedly reminded her.
"She saved my life."
This time Melosa's voice was a little more forceful as she replied, "She did her duty. And for that she died like a true Amazon."
"Yes, ma'am. I brought her body home. It's--it's in pretty bad shape but I just couldn't leave her back there."
"I understand," said the queen. Turning to her senior captain she said, "May, make the necessary arrangements immediately for a proper Amazon funeral."
"I will see to it personally," Colsethme assured her.
"I assume you know by now that our concern has turned out to be a false one."
"Yes, on the way in we met Draganis' patrol. She told me."
"And one of our best warriors died for nothing," said Colsethme.
"It wasn't for nothing," said Melosa quickly. "I will instruct the healers to preserve the bush and keep it against the day when we might really need it." The queen shot Meelah a look of approval and said, "You did well, Meelah. I would imagine you are tired. Go get some rest."
Meelah, however, had one more item to report, one she did not relish. "Ma'am there is...one other thing."
"It's Velasca. She's back."
At the precise moment that her mother was delivering her shock Ephiny was pushing open the door to their hut. Sticking her torch through, she saw everything was just as they had left it, as she knew it would be. "Be it ever so humble," she muttered.
"Yeah yeah, go on it," said an impatient Solari. "I'm starving!"
On their way there the tired pair had stopped in to ask for some food from old Ansara who they knew would have plenty. Long ago Ansara had lost her twin daughters in the same battle. So great had been her shock that even now some twenty years later the old woman could not bring herself to prepare meals only for one. As an Amazon she was not wasteful and so she always ended up giving away the extra food. In particular a young Solari had often been one to benefit from Ansara's peculiar habit and indeed she had often dreamed of being adopted by her. Consequently she and the old woman were much closer than was usually the case for a budding young warrior and an Amazon long past her prime. On this night the two young Amazons had done exceptionally well for themselves. Fish, flatbread, lentils--even some honey were stashed in Ansara's battered old basket.
Before long Ephiny had a nice little fire going in the hearth and it was by its flickering light that the two friends sat at Meelah's finely crafted table and ate what was for the both of them the best meal since leaving a fortnight ago.
"Mmmm, that's good," said Solari, finishing off a piece of the fish.
Ephiny nodded her agreement and then casually said, "You know, with all this food we should have asked Eponin to join us."
Like butter in a skillet Solari's conviviality melted away. Her mouth full of food, she mumbled, "Eponin?! What for? Let her get her own food."
There was a pause and Ephiny said, "You don't like her much do you?"
Solari put down her second piece of fish. "I never said that," she said coolly.
"Oh come on," Ephiny said gently. "This is me you're talking to. I know you."
"All right, so maybe I don't like her." Solari gave her friend a challenging look and said, "Why does that bother you so much?"
With feigned innocence Ephiny said, "Oh I don't know. I mean it doesn't really. You can like who you want."
"Thank you!" said Solari wryly.
"It's just that--"
"It's just that I think she's a stand up warrior and she's not such a bad person..." Quickly then Ephiny galloped home to the finish line, "...and I would just hate for you to shut her out before you've even gotten to know her, that's all."
"Well you seem to have cozied up to her enough for the both of us," said Solari tartly.
And in that moment Ephiny knew; Solari's old insecurities were rising up again. With an understanding smile she reached across the table to cap Solari's rough hand with her own. "Solari," she said softly, "you're my best friend. You always have been and you always will be. I swear to you nothing or no one will ever change that."
Eyebrows arched, Solari hesitantly asked, "Do you mean it?"
"Have I ever lied to you?"
Solari knew in her heart that Ephiny never had. Not really. After a moment's pause she looked askance and with a little grin replied, "Well, there was the time you took me snipe hunting."
And with that the both of them burst into giggling like children of the remembrance of Ephiny's long ago prank. When the titters died down Ephiny looked her friend in the eye and said, "I'll tell you something else."
Still smiling, Solari said, "What?"
"Back there, on the ferry, Eponin thought we were going to leave you."
For her part Solari really did not want to talk about Eponin anymore, especially after having just shared such a wonderful moment. Ephiny, however, seemed determined and as usual Solari was bound to give way to her. In her best effort not to appear acerbic anymore she said, "I guess that's how they do things in the Northern Tribe."
"Then they do things right because she was going to stay behind with you."
Solari was stunned by this. In disbelief she asked, "She was?"
"By the gods!" Solari gasped. "Why?"
"I don't know," Ephiny said with a shrug. "Maybe it was because she's a stand up warrior like I said. Then again maybe she just thought you were saving."
For a few moments Solari sat in wide-eyed silence. Finally she began to slowly shake her head. "Are my ears getting longer because I feel like such an ass."
It was the reaction Ephiny had hoped for. Solari was such a good person, too good to be so petty. Pleased with her friend's magnanimity, she just sat there in the light of the hearth, grinning.
Continued - Part 3
Return to The Bard's Corner