Note: This story is the fifth entry in the Adventures of Young Ephiny series and contains references to characters and events from the earlier stories. It is not necessary to read any of those in order to follow along with this latest effort; however the reader will find that many of these references are presented "as is" and without any further amplification.
"Treasure the past but, above all, thy present. For breath by breath does the present turn into the past until one day there comes an awakening to the hard truth that what is past is all that is left. Yea, for all mortals...there is never enough time." ~ Amazon proverb.
Deep in the night the old woman snapped awake. From her worn pallet inside the pitch black cave she raised up on one elbow, straining to glean any hint of sound from the engulfing stillness. It was, she thought, probably just a fox or some other nocturnal creature nosing around the supper scraps she had tossed out. With a weary sigh she rebuked herself for not having made the effort to carry the remnants and their inviting smell farther away.
But then, it was just as well. Rare was the night now when Hypnos blessed her with a good night's sleep. Too many thoughts, too many faces and memories, both harsh and sweet, swirling about in her restless mind--macerating little by little her lucidity by continually plucking at her consciousness like some mischievous child. For years she had struggled not to dwell on such things and through the stubborn application of iron discipline she had over the years by and large managed to succeed in suppressing the bittersweet memories of a past life, of a time indelibly marked by great events, of a fullness of youth one thought would never end, of beauty and courage and incredible comradeship and horrific slaughter on a scale such as to make the today's young gape in wide-eyed disbelief. It was, above all, a time for heroes.
And yet, these days her thoughts turned more and more back to that time. In hot-blooded youth her focus had quite naturally been attuned to eager anticipation of the future and all the great things to be accomplished. Time itself seemed little more than some vague concept, to be expounded upon by bards and philosophers. Now, however, the shadows of time were starkly upon her and lately she had become ever more immersed in the gnawing realization that she might not have much of it left. There, in the darkness, the old woman lay, vacantly staring up at the ceiling she could not see, and thought back to a past so distant as to pre-date the life she had now known for so long. That, she remembered, had been a very different life indeed. Now, strangely, like the comforting call of her long dead mother, the long ago time that was her former life beckoned to her. And so it was that sometime shortly before the return of Eos the old woman made up her mind.
She would go back.
Ephiny's only reply to Solari's whisper was a barely perceptible shake of the head. Underneath the thick foliage covering them Solari leaned closer still to her friend. "Maybe they've gone," she whispered hopefully. "Maybe that one we saw was a straggler. Or maybe, a decoy."
Eyes still locked on the broad, dark hollow stretching upward before them, Ephiny said only, "Maybe."
"It's still a good league to our objective," Solari remarked. "They could be anywhere."
"Mmm huh," Ephiny softly murmured.
Solari shot her an askance look. "But you don't think so."
"Uh uh." Raising her hand close to her face, Ephiny described a small semi-circle with her index finger. "They're up there all right. I just know it. Both inclines along that hollow. We try to advance up it, we're going to get hit."
"How can you know that?"
Ephiny rolled her eyes at the deep forest all around them. "Look around you," she replied. "Look at the lay of the land. Here we are, thinly stretched out along this creek bed, two high ridges pressing our flanks. That hollow up there is the most viable exit out of this hole. We're being funneled right into it. Now, I'm no Mycinia, but I can't think of a better place to ambush an opposing force than right there."
"So what do we do?"
"If it was up to me we'd fall back and swing up along those ridge tops---flank them, maybe even roll them up." Ephiny flashed Solari a little grin. "But, it's not up to me--thankfully."
"Well you are second-in-command," Solari reminded her. "We could end up with one hell of a bloody nose. You should tell Terreis."
"Already have," said Ephiny. "I advised against taking this route in the first place, remember? I had my say, but she's a princess and I'm just a grunt. If she says we advance through there, we advance through there."
"What's the hold up here?" a voice behind them whispered. It was Terreis.
"Awaiting your orders," said Ephiny.
With a touch of irritation Terreis quietly shot back, "You already know the line of advance."
"Terreis, I really think--"
"Ephiny!" Terreis hissed. "Get moving!"
As Terreis moved away Ephiny rose to a crouch and looked back to Moirira who was positioned some few paces behind. With a flick of the hand she signaled the veteran to start moving the column. Moirira gave a little nod of acknowledgment and began to creep forward. In turn each succeeding warrior strung out behind her paused long enough to maintain the proper spread and then did the same. Slowly the thirty-six warriors that made up Terreis' company began to wend their way along the dense forest floor. At the mouth of the hollow Ephiny signaled a halt.
In an instant Terreis was alongside her. "What is it now?"
"Let Solari and me go up there and do some nosing around," said Ephiny.
Terreis adamantly shook her head. "We cannot lose any more time. We're late enough as it is."
In measured reply Ephiny said, "I know that. But if we all end up dead it won't matter anyway, will it?"
"Why are you being so cautious?" Terreis demanded. "I say it's work the risk. So stop dragging your feet."
"I'm not and you know it," Ephiny retorted, a little heatedly. "As your second-in-command am I not supposed to voice my concerns? To point out alternatives?"
Terreis flashed her a harsh look. "Your job," she said sternly, "is to carry out my orders. Now get your ass, up that hill!" For the usually affable Terreis this amounted to an outburst. Even before Ephiny's stiff, "Yes, ma'am," the princess regretted it. In truth Amazon doctrine gave Ephiny every right to provide input. However the two of them had already discussed this previously and Terreis rather rightly felt that any such prerogative ended once a decision had been reached. Ephiny had a good head for tactics--there was no doubt about that--and Terreis had indeed taken her view into account. Still, as the princess saw it the reward was worth the risk. They would go forward.
Terreis smiled thinly and reached out to lightly swat Ephiny on the shoulder with the back of her hand. "Gods! I sound just like old Selena, don't I?"
At the mention of the unrelenting old instructor Ephiny grimaced and said, "As long as you don't try to whack me on the bottom with that damned birch rod."
Solari, relieved at the easing of tensions between this formidable young pair, emitted a soft chuckle. Every young "turd" knew well the sting of Selena's preferred method of pointing out mistakes. In this Terreis had been no different from the rest--Melosa had seen to that. More than once she had yelped from the application of that dreaded rod across her backside.
After taking a quick glance over her shoulder at the rest of her warriors, she quietly said to Ephiny, "Follow me."
The grade in the hollow was considerably less steep than the surrounding hills but half way up the company began to encounter slate and the damp, moss-lined rock made for much more tenuous footing. Ephiny was barely into it when she slipped to one knee and for a moment was fearful of sliding down until a strong hand against her butt helped her right herself. Ephiny twisted her body to look back and nod a silent thanks to the ever reliable Solari. She then paused for a moment to scan the ridge line. Only perhaps a hundred paces more to go.
It looks like Terreis was right, she thought. Maybe I was being too cau---
Like eerie wens protruding from the forest floor camouflaged warriors began to rise up all about them. Still more moved out to become visible in the tree branches overhead.
"Damn," Ephiny muttered softly. Nearby the unmistakable figure of Melosa effortlessly glided from the treetops on a rope and lit lightly on the ground.
Uh ohhh, thought Solari. For once she was glad she was just another "grunt" for she knew the queen's wrath would not be directed at her.
"Terreis!" Melosa barked. "Along with yourself you just killed three quarters of your company." One by one Melosa rattled off the names: " Ephiny, Solari, Moirira, Eponin...... Dead! Dead! Dead...DEAD! You chose ground that practically begged for an ambush. At the very least you should have done a reconnaissance. Why didn't you?"
Her body as rigid as the surrounding trees, the humiliated Terreis glumly replied, "Our approach to the objective was taking longer than expected. I was looking to make up some time."
Ephiny watched as Melosa set her jaw in a clear effort to maintain her composure. An uncomfortable silence ensued while the queen stewed. No one dared speak. This was hardly the end of it, Ephiny was sure of that. Poor Terreis would most certainly be hearing more about it. The only difference was that as a concession to her royal rank any further dressing down would be done in private.
Suddenly Melosa cast a sharp Ephiny's way. "Did you not see the potential for a trap here either?"
Without batting an eye the young Amazon said, "No, ma'am. I thought the hollow was a good shortcut." Ever so subtly the queen squinted an askance look at her but said nothing.
"Shall we, continue with the exercise?" asked Terreis.
"What's the point?" her sister snorted. "Your company's torn to pieces." Properly chastened, Terreis could only nod. Melosa peered up at a sun all but blocked by the thick canopy overhead. As she did she was joined by Willa, the senior company commander now and architect of the neatly executed "ambush."
"Send a runner back to Draganis informing her the exercise has been cut short."
"Right." With a sharp little whistle Willa immediately summoned the fleet-footed Pycea.
By now the Amazons of both sides were intermingling all up and down the hollow with the "victors" naturally engaging in a fair amount of good-natured ribbing at their comrades' misfortune. Still draped in thick foliage, little Abisinthe made her way towards Ephiny and Solari. Rare was the adult Amazon that did not stand at least a head taller, despite her having recently turned sixteen. When she drew back her bow, however, there was nothing small about her. Abisinthe was already the tribe's best archer.
In watching her approach, Solari was moved to remark, "Good gods, she looks like a big green turd."
"Hi, guys," said Abisinthe, shouldering her bow. She then wrinkled her nose and said, "Gotcha a good one, didn't we, Eph?"
"You sure did, Abby."
Solari's intended retort was cut short by a sharp, "Ephiny!"
The three friends turned as one and saw Melosa beckoning with a crooked finger. The queen was already drifting away from Willa and Terreis when Ephiny joined her. "Ma'am?"
"Let's take a walk," said Melosa.
"Sorry about that," Willa said to Terreis. Her sympathy was genuine. She liked the princess.
Perhaps reflecting on the ruthless critique Melosa was certain to administer once they were alone, Terreis pressed her lips tightly and then said, "Not as sorry as I am."
Once Melosa had safely led Ephiny some distance away she turned and fixed her dark, piercing eyes on her young warrior. "I admire your loyalty to your captain," she began. "And I appreciate your desire to spare Terreis from embarrassment. It was a noble gesture."
Melosa's upraised palm cut her off. In deliberate tones she said, "Ephiny, don't ever lie to me again. I clearly saw what happened down there at the mouth of the hollow. I saw you stop the column. You wanted to scout ahead, didn't you?"
For some reason Ephiny suddenly found her feet most interesting. "Well I..."
"Ephiny, I need not tell you how serious this business is. People die when commanders make mistakes. Now, if I am to make accurate assessments of our capabilities I need unblinking, honest reports from my leadership. That includes you, Ephiny."
"Yes, ma'am. I understand. It was a mistake. It won't happen again."
"Very well," said the queen. Ephiny stepped back to let her pass only to have Melosa lean in close. "Tactically you did well today. I'm pleased with your progress."
Ephiny well knew this was no attempt on Melosa's part to soothe hurt feelings. Amazon queens were hardly in the habit of mollification. No, she was merely stating the truth as she saw it. Melosa was a hard mistress but she was above all fair. What Amazon could ask for more?.
That evening the old woman slowly worked her way up one of the hills dotting the countryside. Once on top she took note of her labored breathing and ruefully remembered back to a time when should could practically run up these hills without breaking into a sweat. Well, no matter. This was the last time she would ever have to make the climb again.
She turned to face eastward and, off in the distance, she could see smoke from the fires of the village that had once been such a focal point of her life. She had first laid eyes on it some fifty years ago and in all that time it had not changed all that much. Gotten smaller maybe. The population of the place was not what it used to be. As it was she rarely went there now. For years now she had preferred the solitude her hills offered. There was a time when she would have missed the village. But no longer. She would, however, miss these peaceful hills.
And her goats, she would miss them too. It was, she thought, a sorry thing to value dirt and mindless animals over people. And yet, she did. For unlike people the hills never changed. What was more, they were always there--never deserting one on some misguided whim. And goats, goats were what they were. One never had to guess with a goat; no need to dance the silly dance that complicated relationships often required. A goat offered little--expected less--and unlike people were content to mind their own business.
And unlike people, a goat can never, ever, break a heart.
She stood there until the sun began to dip behind the great forest that lay beyond the village. It was a sight she had seen so very many times over these last, long, lonely years. And this time would be the last. For on the morrow she would be gone--nevermore to return to these hills that had given her so much solace. If the thought saddened her at all she did not show it. Clear-eyed and composed, even now, the old warrior, born as Kamaret but long since known as Euset, had no more tears to cry. All that was left was the hard truth life inevitably imposes upon all mortals. In this, Euset was not afraid. No, she was beyond fear now. She was an Amazon, a veteran of titanic, legendary wars. Many times had she faced death on the battlefield and sometimes, sometimes she was given cause to wonder if it would have been preferable to give way back then with a Centaur arrow in the gut rather than die a little bit at a time. As she was now.
Oh well, she thought. Such meanderings are foolish and pathetically useless anyway. The Fates will spin and cut the threads of life to suit themselves. It was up to mortals to make what use they would of their allotted time. Euset did not have much of it left, of that she was certain. And so, it was now or never. For nigh on to fifty years had the thought remained alive in her mind, the yearning strong in her breast. The strong young warrior was no more. The green shoot was now the withered stalk. There was nothing left she could offer the tribe. Her duty, at long last, was done.
It was time to go home.
Morning found the village slowly coming to life once more. Here and there a sleepy-eyed child was out performing some assigned chore; out on the training grounds young teens were gearing up for another rigorous day of instruction; over by the river the ever present patrols maintained their silent watch by taking note of even the slightest sign of movement on the other side. It had been years since the Amazons and Centaurs had clashed but old antagonisms still ran deep on both sides. Most especially, however, for the Amazons.
At the armory Reisa was already hard at work. Even in peacetime there was rarely a shortage of tasks that needed to be done. Somebody was always wanting a sword reshaped or perhaps a knife made. Mostly though, it was arrows. The tribe went through a lot of arrows. Likewise Melosa, who rarely slept well anyway, had long since risen and was already laying out in her precise mind all the things that the tribe needed to accomplish on this day.
For Ephiny too the day began much like any other day. The first order of business was naturally breakfast--stale flatbread, honey and some dried goat's cheese. Since her mother's passing she was not eating as well, or, at least as grandly. The meticulous Meelah had always been a firm believer in the benefits of a generous, well-prepared meal. As a cook Ephiny was no Meelah. But then, as with most other of the noble woman's talents--who was?
With her company stood down and for the moment rotated out of patrol duty she was pretty much free to spend the day as she saw fit. Even so, there were needs to be addressed, as there always were, however minor they might be. To that end she thought she might first mend a few things and then round up Solari to see if they might not be able to bring down a deer. Since the strange cold spell a couple of moons before deer were not as plentiful as usual as the tribe had relied heavily on them for food and skins. Now their numbers were noticeably thin. Still, Ephiny was more than ready to give it a try. She was growing tired of fish and rabbit.
Upon stepping out of her hut, the first person she saw was Terreis, walking her way.
"Good morning, Ephiny," said the princess.
"Good morning." There had been many occasions in the past when the two of them had tramped both the great forest and Euset's hills together but as they had grown older their class differences had slowly but surely separated them. Ephiny still considered her a friend but it was not the same. She did not think it likely that Terreis would be there on anything other than "official" business. "What's up? Duty change?"
"No. No, nothing like that," said Terreis. "We're still off the line."
Ephiny noticed that the well polished young princess seemed a bit nervous. Did she dare ask a personal question? Aw, why not? "So how did it go?"
Terreis flashed an embarrassed little smile. "With Melosa?" The princess good-naturedly rolled her eyes at Ephiny. "What do you think?"
Ephiny could only imagine. Melosa was a dark-eyed volcano--forever smoldering just below the surface but ready to erupt at any time. Even so she seldom did. Like Ephiny's own mother Melosa had worked hard to control her terrible temper. Those rare occasions when she did erupt could be a harrowing experience for the unfortunate objects of her wrath. Ephiny as yet had not been forced to face such a royal explosion. But from the looks of it Terreis certainly had. "Well, at least your butt is still in one piece."
With a rueful chuckle Terreis said, "Only barely." The smile then faded. "Thanks for trying to back me up yesterday. I appreciate that. But, Ephiny, if Melosa knew you'd lied, she'd have your ass too. So don't do that anymore, all right? I don't want you to get yourself in trouble by trying to cover for me. When you err, I'll certainly come down on you. But yesterday was my mistake, not yours. You were right and I didn't listen. So, just tell it as you see it, to me and to the queen. Especially to the queen, all right?"
For a moment Ephiny wondered if she should tell Terreis that her astute sister had recognized the lie from the very beginning. In the end she decided against it. Terreis' confidence might be a little shaken at the moment and there was no use in giving her something else to think about.
In giving Terreis a respectful little nod, Ephiny said, "Duly noted, ma'am."
It was typical of Ephiny that she chose not to further elaborate in any way and for Terreis' part she was only to glad to let the matter drop. The last day or so had not been much fun. "So what are you going to do today?" the princess asked. "Anything planned?"
"Not much. Run down Solari...do a little hunting maybe."
"Well, good luck."
"Thanks." Suddenly a thought came to Ephiny. "You want to go?"
"Can't. I--I have some things to do. Command stuff you might say."
"Well I'm part of command--sort of. Anything I can do to help?"
"No, no. You go on. I'll tend to it."
Raising a palm, Ephiny said, "All right, all right. Don't say I didn't ask."
Terreis forced a wan smile. In truth she would very much like to have joined in for a day's hunting. However Melosa had other plans for her. The company might be off "the line" but that did not mean its commander was. Terreis' training would go on and today that meant a long afternoon of running map exercises. The meticulous Melosa never seemed to tire of such mundane practices but for the youthful Terreis they could become absolutely mind numbing. Terreis sometimes wondered where her sister had acquired such traits. By all accounts their mother had never bothered much with details. She had simply preferred to set her forces clamping onto an enemy's neck and keep shaking until he stopped moving. No worries about flanks or rate of movement, just find the bastards and hit them as hard as you could. Now, if she were queen....
Silently Terreis savagely rebuked herself for even daring to entertain such a thought. No! You mustn't even think that!
Momentarily chagrined by her moment of weakness, Terreis absently said, "Enjoy your day off. I'll see you bright and early tomorrow."
And with an awkward nod she walked off, leaving a perplexed Ephiny behind to watch her go. She had caught the fleeting look of panic in Terreis' eyes. Clearly the princess was having problems. Perhaps Melosa was expecting too much of her too soon. Then again, perhaps she was expecting too much of herself. Well, Ephiny thought with a shrug, it's all above my head. Me? I'll learn as much as I can as quickly as I can and hope I don't end up giving some order that gets half the company killed. It was tough enough being a run-of-the mill junior officer. Ephiny could not even fathom the crushing responsibilities that went along with being queen or even a princess.
Not me, she thought. They can have it!
The sun was still well below its zenith when activity around the west side of the village suddenly became interrupted. One by one Amazons young and old stopped and stared at the strange, bent apparition passing before them. For many of them this aged Amazon was hardly more than a myth, so rarely did she come to the village. Indeed many of the children had never seen her before. For young and old alike the name Euset brought to mind certain rather ghostly images. Mothers had been known to evoke her name in order to induce unruly daughters to behave. "Old Euset will get you if you don't be good!"
Her last visit to the village had been more than a year before to gleefully denounce Velasca, whom she detested. On that night, in the pale light of Melosa's hut, Velasca's eyes, bulging with fury and panic, had been a source of immense satisfaction for the old warrior. It was too bad that dish rag Terreis had not had the guts to finish her off when she had the chance. For her part Euset was absolutely certain that others too would live to regret that as well. That none of these gawking bystanders saw fit to approach her was just fine with Euset. Most of them were nothing but unfamiliar faces to her anyway. Most of her generation was long gone.
But not Adele. She was just exiting the hut of the healer Racillione when she saw Euset pass by. "Euset, what brings you down from your refuge?" her voice hinting of insolence.
"The same thing, I suppose, that sends you to the physician's hut the first thing in the morning," Euset countered coolly.
Adele bravely scoffed at this but in truth Euset's dry surmise was correct. The recent cold weather had exacerbated Adele's already aching joints to the point where she had been forced to seek out Racillione for some relief. Still, she was not about to admit that to Euset.
The old warriors had known each other for decades and were always, if not friendly then at least civil when they met. Still, the only common thing they shared now was their advancing ages. In their prime the two of them had moved in very different circles. Adele had spent her life as a front line warrior, the kind that did all the dirty work and suffered most of the wounds while their officers got all the knots for valor. Euset on the other hand, invariably could be found at the side of Queen Penthesilia. Although forced to admit Euset was a decent enough warrior, there were those who had contemptuously whispered behind the queen's back about her "pet." If in later years Adele, who never rose above basic rank, harbored any resentment towards Euset over those bygone days she never showed it. It did not hurt that her present post was such an important one. As one of the two senior instructors, Adele was now accorded more respect than she had ever gotten back when she was on the tip of the queen's spear.
"Actually I've come to see the queen," said Euset. Not that it's any of your business! she thought.
Adele had assumed as much. What else could have pulled the solitary Euset down from those hills?
"Have you seen her?" Euset asked.
"Not yet," said Adele. "You can be sure she's out and about, though--somewhere." As an afterthought she added, "Not like her mother, huh?" Immediately she rued the remark. In light of Euset's well known relationship with the dead queen it was, she knew, a thoughtless, even cruel thing to say. And yet for all that it was the truth. Meticulous and taciturn--even dour--Melosa was nothing at all like her spirited mother. Tall and fair, so achingly beautiful that even her slayer had fallen in love with her corpse, Penthesilia's skill as a warrior had been matched only by her affinity for revelry. There had never been a feast or a celebration the woman did not like and when there were none she invented her own. Males and females alike longed to share her bed and indeed Penthesilia had never been shy about satisfying her ravenous carnal desires.
Though a highly favored one to be sure, young Euset had been only one of the all-powerful queen's "toys."
For Adele it had simply been a nod to their advanced years, an offhand reference to a time long past. For Euset the remark represented something so much more. There were times when she wished she could have been more like Phillipia, the noble Amazon that had for so long been the tribe's most trusted advisor. Even in her last years she had been a woman who preferred to look ever forward with excitement to the future rather than continually dwell so wistfully upon the past. But then, Phillipia's soul had never fallen prisoner to the many enchantments of the irresistible force of nature that had been Penthesilia.
It therefore came as no surprise to find Euset reluctant to carry Adele's comment further. "No," she said simply, "not like her mother."
There followed an uncomfortable pause and then suddenly Adele found herself saying, "Would you care to come and have breakfast with me?" Even as she said it Adele did not know why she had made the offer and in truth she hoped the gloomy Euset would decline. As always, Adele found the woman difficult to be around.
"You should be out on the training ground," said Euset.
"Even instructors have to eat," said Adele. "In spite of what some of our pupils might think. Besides, Selena is there. I swear, I don't think that woman ever sleeps."
I know the feeling, thought Euset. "Thank you for the offer but, I'm not hungry," she said.
"Some other time then," said a much relieved Adele.
"Of course," Euset muttered.
"Well I must be going. It's good to see you again, Euset."
Euset, anxious to end this disingenuous verbal dance, half-heartedly said, "You too, Adele."
In parting Adele was struck by how much Euset had aged since she had last seen her. They were contemporaries, not more than a couple of years apart in age and yet had one not known this they might well have taken Euset to be a great deal the elder. Ah well, we all have to go sometime, she thought. And on this fine, crisp morning that was as philosophical as Adele cared to get. Another day of training awaited; another day in the never ending process of turning those skinny, clumsy, wide-eyed momma's girls into something halfway useful for the tribe. Along with the standard, daily practice with the sword and bow, today they would work on the javelin and hand to hand fighting. Tomorrow it would be horsemanship and the war axe; the next day it would be instruction on infiltration and diversion and on and on.
Yet it was this very rigorous workload that Adele thought to be chiefly responsible for her continued good health. Trying to keep pace with all those energetic teenage girls was no small task but every day Adele felt revitalized by just being around those eager, enthusiastic young women. And while it was extremely hard work, Adele loved every minute of it. It had to be, she thought, infinitely better than morosely wandering around those hills, sleeping on damp beds, eating bad food with little more to do than dwell constantly on the cruelties of life.
Adele looked back for a moment or two to watch Euset as the limped off in search of Melosa. If I ever end up like that, she thought, I'm going to the nearest cliff and jump off! Only then did she realize she had been absently messaging her aching wrist. Adele, old girl, she thought ruefully, that cliff might well be nearer than you think.
"I want you to put all your people on this."
Willa flashed her queen a wry grin and said, "They're not going to like getting stuck with mending fishing nets all day."
"They'll dislike hungry bellies even more," Melosa retorted. "That cold season killed half our produce and nearly all our grain. The harvest won't nearly bear enough to support us. So, that means we are going to have to fall back on the old ways in order to survive."
'Yes, ma'am. I--"
Melosa looked back over her shoulder to see what had stopped Willa short and was as surprised as her senior captain to see Euset hobbling towards them. What on earth...? she wondered.
Distractedly she said, "Get them busy. I'll be along shortly to see how things are progressing."
Willa, dutifully taking her cue, respectfully nodded and said, "Yes, ma'am."
"Euset," the queen said as she strode out to meet the old goatherd. "This is a surprise."
"So I keep learning," the old woman grumbled. "Everyone looks at me as though I'm some sort of strange apparition."
"Well perhaps that's because in a way you are," said Melosa. "After all, how often do we see you, once, twice a year?"
"That's twice too often," Euset replied sourly.
"Now, Euset, I know you did not come all this way just scowl at the young ones. So what can I do for you?"
"I want to go home."
Melosa shot her a perplexed look. "All right," she warily replied. "I'll have someone take you home."
"No, you don't understand. I want to go home!"
"Euset, I have a long day ahead of me. I don't have time to decipher your thoughts."
In exasperation Euset pounded the end of her staff against the ground. "Damn it, girl!" she cried. "Don't be so dense!"
For anyone else the disrespectful outburst might have earned the offender swift and severe punishment. However Melosa, head askance, merely eyed the irate old woman with curiosity.
For her part Euset immediately regretted her impropriety but not because of any fear of repercussions. After all, she was a broken down old woman with one leg already lifted upon the funeral pyre. What was the queen going to do, kill her? No it was the vulgarity of her disrespect that bothered her. The queen was the very centerpiece of their lives and it was her capable shoulders that bore all the many burdens the world presented. She therefore deserved all the honor and respect that was rightfully due her. Melosa might have been a humorless mistress, but Euset knew that no one was more worthy to lead them.
Melosa's lips spread into the closest thing she had to a smile. "In light of your affliction I suppose I must not have you flogged after all," she said. "Come home with me. We'll have some tea and you can tell me what this is all about."
Near the training ground Adele passed by as Terreis met with her assembled company in preparation for the new day. In looking upon these sturdy young warriors, Adele felt a sense of pride and satisfaction in knowing that she had played no small role in making them what they were today. Their mommas might have told them they were Amazons, but she had made them Amazons!
She always found it so interesting regarding the attitude of her former pupils toward her. Some were as deferential as ever, reflexively casting their eyes to their feet when she was near. Others, determined to be looked upon as equals, looked on with a kind of wary defiance that Adele always found amusing. Only a very few had ever seen fit to thank her for their wondrous metamorphosis from awkward teen to accomplished warrior. Of this particular group only the thoughtful Terreis and Meelah's girl, Ephiny, had bothered to make the effort. But that was all right. They could think what they wanted, Adele did not care. For she knew in her heart that in her own way she was as valuable an asset to the tribe as was Melosa--perhaps more so.
Out on the training field Adele saw Selena screaming at young Valerie. The poor girl had made yet another mistake. No matter, she would get it in time. They always did. And that was the thing Adele loved most about her job: to see that spark in one of her "turds" eyes as they finally grasped what the hell she was trying to get across to them. And then to watch as they applied their newfound knowledge to become ever more skillful. Others might teach philosophy or the arts, what she and Selena did was to teach the most important lesson of all--how to survive! Walking out to join Selena, Adele felt a renewed sense of purpose, just as she did every time she was with these girls for whom she cared so much.
"All right!" she yelled, clapping her hands. "First Squad, over here! MOVE!"
A new day had begun...
From her vantage point nearby Solari looked out onto the all too familiar sight of young Amazons in training. Leaning close to Ephiny, she muttered, "I sure don't miss those days."
"It wasn't so bad," Ephiny quietly replied.
"That's easy for you to say," Solari scoffed. "You never did anything wrong!" Which was wrong of course; like everyone else, Ephiny had made her share of mistakes. The difference was that she had never made the same one twice.
At this point the group was at last joined by Pomona, for whom the company had been waiting in order to begin.
"Sorry," the tardy young Amazon sheepishly offered up as she cast a guarded glance at Terreis.
The princess, however, merely turned to the business at hand. "Today's assignments are as follows," she announced. "Pomona, you will help with the fishing effort."
"Again?" Pomona forlornly asked.
"That's what you get for being late," whispered Solari.
"Don't be such a whiner," an unsympathetic Moirira added.
"Solari, you will patrol the northern boundary. Ephiny, it's your turn to look in on Euset."
"Lucky dog," Solari whispered.
It was standard practice to send someone out every two or three days to check on Euset. This was always a coveted assignment because it usually allowed for essentially a leisurely day of lazing around on horseback. Euset was often hard to find; rarely did anyone ever return from the hills before mid-afternoon.
"There's no need," Pomona piped up. "I saw Euset talking with the queen."
"Euset?" an incredulous Terreis asked. "Here?"
Casting a devious eye at her friend, Pomona said, "So, maybe Eph can come help me with the nets."
"Shut up, Pomona," Ephiny good-naturedly shot back. She and the immensely likeable Pomona had been friends ever since they could remember.
With all the maturity of an eight year old, Pomona wrinkled her nose and stuck out her tongue.
Terreis could only sigh and move on. "Polymenia, you help Reisa today."
"Right." Unlike most of the other warriors, the broad-shouldered Polymenia enjoyed assisting the affable armorer in her duties.
"Oh, and somebody needs to help Sylvia for a little while," Terreis added. "Ephiny, you might as well do that."
"You always get the good jobs," the grumbling Pomona lamented.
"The rest of you will form up into two hunting parties. Moirira, you take one and Eponin will take the other," said Terreis.
As the gathering broke up Pomona gave Ephiny a playful little nudge and said, "You should come, Eph. Standing waist deep in cold water all day would put some color in the lily white butt of yours."
"You let me worry about my butt," Ephiny growled in mock disgust. "Now get out of here."
Approaching Terreis, Ephiny asked, "What do you want me to do after I'm finished with Sylvia? Hunt?"
"No, just stick close," said the princess. "Melosa will surely want someone to take Euset home."
Nodding, Ephiny then asked, "So what are you going to do?"
"Oh thrilling stuff, I assure you. First up, it's another morning full of map exercises with Willa. Then Melosa plans to meet with all the company commanders for the monthly assessments."
Better you than me! thought Ephiny. Aloud she offered up a sympathetic, "Ugh!"
"Don't I know it?" Terreis glumly replied.
"Well, give me a good rating," Ephiny quipped.
"Be careful what you wish for," Terreis said dryly. "Melosa has her eye on you, you know."
From her conversation with the queen the day before, Ephiny was already well aware of that. It was not a comforting thought.
At Melosa's roughly hewn table Euset sat with a steaming mug of tea before her and waited in silence for the queen to join her.
"Drink up," Melosa said as she sat down.
To Euset it sounded more like an order than an invitation. Obeying, she took a sip of the dark brew and found the taste to be rather strange, not like the tea she was used to. It was a taste she did not like.
"How do you like it?" Melosa asked.
"It's...different," came the guarded reply.
"Don't be so diplomatic," said Melosa. "You'll confuse me. But yes, you're right. It is an acquired taste."
"What's in it?"
"I have no idea," said Melosa. "I don't have time for such mundane things myself. Ansara mixes it up and sends it over to me every so often. For all I know she could be slowly poisoning me."
For her part Euset thought that to be an apt description for the bitter concoction.
Fortunately Melosa did not make it worse for Euset with any hollow attempt at engaging in small talk. As usual she got right to the point. "Now, Euset, tell me what it is you really want."
"As close as I can figure," the old woman began, "I am somewhere around fifty-five years old. The coming of the next spring equinox will mark my forty-ninth year of living among the Amazons. As you know I was not born an into the tribe. I was taken by a raiding party when I was but a small child."
For countless decades the stealing of children had been an accepted practice among all Amazons. In fact it had been the preferred method for some for a number of reasons. With abducted children the Amazons could by and large tell what they were getting--unlike the painful, very often fatal ordeal that was childbirth. It was not at all unusual for an Amazon to bear an unhealthy or otherwise defective child or, of course, a male child, a "defect" that posed its own particular set of problems. No, better to simply take a healthy looking female child that some weaker people had so thoughtfully bore the burden of raising for its elevation into that most pure of societies.
And for generations Amazons had done just that. Some still did...but not the Southern Tribe. In the years following her ascension to power Melosa, while not outright abolishing the practice, had sought in subtle ways to discourage it nonetheless. Now some in the tribe felt she was to blame for their ever dwindling population.
"Many of our greatest Amazons were born outside the tribe," Melosa reminded her.
"True enough," said Euset. "Phillipia was, as was Colsethme I believe. Also Selena, among others."
"After all this time, surely you're still not troubled by this," said an incredulous Melosa.
"My queen, practically since the dawn of my memory I have been an Amazon. My Amazonian mother raised me and took care of me and, yes, perhaps even loved me all her short life. On the battlefield I fought and slew and suffered for my adopted people. I am first, last and always an Amazon and my last conscious thought will be of the tribe that lifted me up and made me into something special instead of just one more peasant woman worked to death by the time she was thirty."
Here Euset paused before very deliberately adding, "Still, with all my many blessings, there has always been a part of me that yearned to go back to the land of my birth; to walk the fertile valley I remember even unto this day; to drink the sweet waters of the two rivers and to once more feel its warm winds on my face."
In all her life Melosa could not recall anyone ever expressing such a desire. "You are from Caria, are you not?" It had been a long time--more that forty years in fact--since the tribe had ranged that far south.
"I am," said Euset.
"I must be frank. Caria is a very long way from here. Given your age and your declining health it is quite possible you might not survive such an arduous trek. Even if you do, who knows if you'll be strong enough to make the trip back?"
"I'll make it there all right," said Euset. "The rest is immaterial because I won't be coming back."
And in that moment Melosa at last understood what the old woman really wanted. "You think you're going there to die?"
"Euset, what put such a thought into your head? You could live for a very long time yet if only you'd stop being so stubborn. Just come down out of those hills and stay here in the village where we can take care of you."
"I don't want to be 'taken care of!'" Euset cried. "Don't you understand? I'm old; I'm tired." She held up her left hand and said, "My fingers are so stiff I can can barely make a fist. I am but a shell of the woman I once was. I have given everything I have in service to the tribe; now I am all used up. I want to go home."
"Euset, this is your home," said Melosa. In truth it bothered Melosa that Euset could somehow still not regard this place as her home, even after all this time.
"When death does come, should you not meet it here, among your own people rather than alone in some strange land?" the queen asked.
"I did not come here to debate this with you," Euset said firmly. "I mean to go and I will go. All I ask is a horse."
"Then I'll walk."
For the first time a hint of irritation began to creep over the queen's dark features. She was clearly losing the argument and the proud queen did not like to lose at anything. "I could force you to stay," she warned.
"You could, but you won't," the old woman confidently replied.
"Why is this so important to you?" an exasperated Melosa asked. "I don't understand why you want to do this. Your place is here with us."
"Ma'am, unlike you I was not born of the tribe."
"What has that to do with it? An Amazon is an Amazon," said the queen.
"I can't explain it, I won't even try," the old woman said. "I just...have to go."
There was a pause as the queen mulled over Euset's words. "I'll have to think it over," she said finally.
"Don't take too long."
"Have you a place to stay?" asked the queen.
"I suppose Ansara will take me in. She's the closest thing to a friend I have left," said Euset.
With a stiff little bow of the head, Euset said, "As you wish. So, I know you are very busy and I have already taken up too much of your time." Without bothering to ask her leave the old goatherd stood up from the table.
As she looked upon this woman she had known all her life, Melosa's mind drifted back to the days of her childhood, back to a time when Euset was young and strong and not this broken, melancholy woman in the winter of her life. How many times had Euset played with her, told her stories and even sang her to sleep? She had been a different woman then, cordial and content and full of life. Melosa still remembered the long rides they used to take up in the hills that Euset loved even then. She used to sit on the older Amazon's horse, safely enwrapped in Euset's strong arm. She was too young then of course to understand the often tumultuous relationship between Euset and her mother. All young Melosa knew was that, far more than Penthesilia, it was Euset that had made time for her. However even Melosa had to admit that was not entirely her mother's fault.
To describe the incomparable Penthesilia as charismatic would have been to do her a gross injustice. As a woman and as a warrior she had no peer. All that saw her were dazzled by her beauty, her matchless physical prowess, her sharp mind and, most of all, her indomitable spirit. Men and women, peasants and royalty alike fell madly in love with her at first sight. Like some living, breathing vortex she irresistibly drew to her all that came near. Even in her death she had remained so, enchanting even her slayer, Achilles. Small wonder then that she had found such little time for her moody, reticent child.
But Euset had, right up until the moment the both of them had learned of Penthesilia's death on the plain of Troy. And in that one terrible moment both their lives had been forever altered. Melosa, still in her teens, became queen, the All Highest, the Supreme Commander of the Southern Tribe. And Euset, in the prime of her life, became just another Amazon. She had been the queen's favorite. But now that queen--her queen--was dead and try as she might, Euset could not quite reconcile herself to the cold reality that Penthesilia was gone.
Melosa, although young and unprepared, understood from the start that she was on shaky ground and quite naturally she looked to Euset for support in the challenges she knew were sure to come. And when the inevitable challenge to her rule did come...Euset was not there. Crushed by her loss, the broken hearted Euset sank into the depths of a morose lethargy in which she could not have cared less for the controversy broiling just outside the door of her hut. How could she help Melosa when her own heart had been ripped out? Consequently, when the time came for the young Melosa to defend her rightful place, it had not been Euset that stood with her in that most critical of moments but rather two brilliant young captains, the daunting Colsethme and the already legendary Mycinia. And for Melosa the choices made then would never be forgotten--or forgiven. For the rest of Colsethme's life Melosa continually chose to look the other way in regard to the woman's lecherous behavior. Colsethme's appetite for teenage girls was well known but, owing to her stature, few in the tribe dared to openly challenge her. Because of this indifference from an otherwise unyielding disciplinarian, there were those who viewed the inconsistency as a black spot on Melosa's leadership, even long after her excellence had been firmly established.
And just as Melosa had never forgotten Colsethme's steadfast support, so too had she never forgiven Euset's egregious absence. Euset had long been the one Amazon Melosa thought she could most count on and when that did not happen she felt betrayed. Overnight her feelings for the woman turned from warm affection to icy tolerance. In the very moment that her mother's legacy had been threatened, Melosa found Euset, her mother's own lover, to be pathetically weak, wallowing in self-pity. Some among the young queen's victorious allies had even called for Euset's death. However the esteemed Phillipia and the titan Mycinia both spoke on Euset's behalf. There were also Melosa's own memories of a time now gone forever. Thus it was that Euset's life was spared. Nevertheless, when a then crippled Euset expressed a desire to move up into the hills Melosa had readily agreed, despite the hardship she knew her one time friend would face.
As the years passed their relationship grew ever more distant. As with all her people, the queen kept herself informed of Euset's well being but she rarely called upon her in person, preferring instead to send some younger Amazon to perform that distasteful duty. Over the years both their positions hardened. Time and solitude made the grieving Euset ever more bitter until finally she reached the point where she simply no longer cared. On the rare occasion the two did meet she would speak to Melosa with a frankness that no one else would have dared. Melosa for her part abided it, partly because of what Euset had once meant to her but more so because she found the old woman's relentless pragmatism useful. As a consort to a queen, Euset knew the inner workings of power and tribal politics. Unfettered as she was by any personal ambitions of her own, she was in a position to offer valuable insight from a uniquely disinterested perspective.
Not once through all the years of this strained relationship had Euset ever tried to explain the reasons for her abandonment, nor did Melosa ever express even a hint of her own disappointment over it. Likewise Euset never knew just how close Colsethme's demand to have her executed had come to being reality.
In truth the experience scarred Melosa. Aside from Terreis, she would never allow herself to grow close or to completely trust anyone ever again.
"I have much to do today," said the queen. "It may be tomorrow before you and I can speak on this again."
In Euset's mind this was pointless. As she had already intimated she was going, regardless. "Very well, Highness. I will see you then."
The old woman bowed and with a curt nod took her leave. Inside the hut Melosa glanced down at Euset's barely touched up of tea and in that moment all the emotions of a chaotic time long past came rushing back to her. Where were you when I needed you?
With a violent sweep of her hand, the queen lashed out and slapped the cup off the table.
Reisa stepped to the wide door of her shop to get some fresh air. In the past her shop had been a three sided structure but the recent period of unusual cold had necessitated the enclosure of the place. Looking out, the first thing she saw was the queen approaching, her face fraught with its usual severity. Reisa's position within the tribe made her privy to all the gossip as just about everyone had need of her services at one time or another, be it to custom make a sword or repair a broken hoe. Consequently she was always up to date on what was happening in the village. As the dominant force in their lives, it was not surprising that Melosa and to a lesser extent Terreis were the subjects of a fair share of the talk.
Reisa knew that there were those who regarded Melosa as rather plain looking but she had always thought their queen to be a most handsome woman indeed. Another topic for years had revolved around speculation on the queen's failure--some said refusal--to bear a child. There were rumors of a couple of miscarriages but aside from a tight-lipped few no one knew for certain. As for Reisa, she did not know any more about it than did any of those who came to blather in her shop. What she did know was that, any way one wanted to look at it, the queen had in fact already raised a child--her younger sister Terreis. Reisa remembered Terreis still being very small at the time of Penthesilia's death and to look at her now, as a highly polished young Amazon, one could only conclude that Melosa had done an exceptional job in bringing her sister up.
Whatever the reason for the queen's visit, Reisa knew it was not social. Also, it would most assuredly entail more work. But that was all right. For the bronzed, thick-shouldered Reisa loved to work. It cleansed the soul and helped to ease the guilt of no longer being fit enough to fight. And while she might not be able to use the tools of war any more she could certainly make them and so it was in this direction that she now devoted her considerable energies.
"Good morning, ma'am," she said, as she limped out to meet her queen. "What can I do for you?"
As direct as ever, Melosa tersely replied, "I want a cart."
"Yes, one large enough to carry one or two people along with enough additional space for storing gear and provisions for a small party. I want you to construct it as sturdily as you can, Reisa. It's got to hold up over a very long trip. Oh, and put a cover over it too."
Puzzled by this rather strange request, Reisa's reply was a halting, "All right but...it's going to take some time." As she spoke her mind was already sorting through the details of this unexpected new project. The timber would have to be cut, planks and beams shaped and a yoke fashioned. The wheels, that would be the biggest problem--and the axle...
"You have three days," Melosa said briskly. "Do not hesitate to enlist all the help you need. Willa's company has rotated out. See her or even Cordelia if you need still more help."
"Yes, ma'am." What is going on? she wondered. Only one way to find out...
"Umm, ma'am? May I ask what this is for?" To ask the smoldering Melosa for an explanation was to walk a very tenuous path indeed but Reisa felt that if she was going to have to build it then she ought to at least be able to know what its purpose was.
The queen's dark eyes coolly regarded Reisa's powerful form. She had always respected her, first as a warrior and then as the highly skilled tradeswoman she now was and always for her devotion to the tribe. "Euset," she said, "is going home."
With that Melosa abruptly turned and walked away, leaving the bewildered armorer to furrow her brow over the queen's cryptic answer. With a little shrug she thought, Oh well. Walking to the door, she called out, "Polymenia! Forget the mold. We have a new job to do."
"What can't I go?
"Euset, we have been through all of this before. I need you here to provide support for Melosa."
"Your Highness, my place is with you. If you mean to fight the Greeks I want to be there by your side, as I have always been."
"Your place, is where I say it is. No one questions my orders, Euset, not even you."
"Penthesilia, you don't even like the Trojans! So why help them?"
"I like the Greeks even less."
"Then why are you not taking Colsethme and Mycinia, your best warriors?"
"For the same reason I am not taking you. Should anything befall me I doubt Melosa will be able to hold power without their support. Now, I know I can count on May and Mycinia, what about you?"
"You speak as if you know you aren't coming back."
"I have never lost a battle in my life, you know that. I don't intend to lose this one, either. Now come here and give your queen one last kiss before she rides for Troy."
"Don't leave me...I beg you...."
"Warriors aren't supposed to cry. What kind of example does that set for the others?"
"I don't care."
"I'll bring you back Agamemnon's head."
"I don't want his head; I want you..."
"Euset, you failed me! You deserted my children, you deserted me! I asked for strength and you gave me weakness. Why, Euset. WHY???"
"I'm sorry...I'm sorry..."
"I'm sorry...I'm sorry..."
"Euset. Euset, wake up!"
Ansara's had to the shoulder awoke Euset with a start. "Uhh!"
"Euset, wake up!"
It took a moment for the wide-eyed Euset to recognize her surroundings. Only then did her rapid breathing begin to slow.
"You were having a bad dream," said Ansara.
Euset ran a hand over her sweaty face and tried to calm herself with a couple of deep breaths. Inside her chest her heart was pounding like an Amazonian war drum. Swallowing hard, she said, "I'm all right."
"Are you sure?"
Euset looked into Ansara's weather beaten face and thought here was one more Amazon that had stayed too long. The light in the old woman's kind eyes did not shine as it once had; someday in the not too distant future she two would be making that lonely journey into oblivion. We should not have to go like this! Euset thought bitterly. We should not have to leave the world of the living thus broken, with shaking hands and feeble step, with dim eyes and aching joints. No, far better to die young and in the prime of life, with the face still fair and the arm still strong. Far better to die at the side of brave comrades and not alone in some darkened, melancholy place.
In her time Ansara had served bravely, Euset remembered her well. Now here they both were, two old women whose greatest victory these days was simply being able to stand again after taking a squat. Far better it would have been to die at Atrium like two hundred of her sisters or perhaps at the mouth of the Thermodon, where that fabled river had ran red with the two armies' blood and gore. Yes, an arrow to the heart or a sword to the gut and it would have been over quickly enough. All Amazons should go that way, Euset though, instead of waiting out one's final days dying one breath at a time.
"I'm fine," Euset assured her.
As she stiffly rose from her pallet Euset realized it was already daylight. It had been a very long time indeed since the sun had beaten her up. The dream was still very much fresh in her mind when she heard voices at Ansara's door. When Ansara went to investigate she found Melosa and Cordelia standing in front of her door.
"Is she up?" Melosa asked.
"Barely," Ansara replied with a grin.
"We'll talk about this later," Melosa said to Cordelia. Taking her cue, the company commander nodded and left.
"Come in," Ansara said, waving the queen in. As she stepped back to let Melosa pass, she added, "I'd offer you breakfast but I'm afraid you're a little early."
"Who has time for breakfast?" asked Melosa.
"Good morning, Your Highness," said Euset, stifling a yawn.
There was no return greeting from Melosa who instead went straight into the business at hand. "You truly want to do this?" she asked.
The queen glanced at Ansara. The old woman's arched eyebrows put forth the subtle query as to whether she should leave. Melosa's answer was to simply look away. "How soon would you like to go?" she asked.
Go? thought Ansara. Go where? As yet Euset had not said one word to her host about what she meant to do.
"Today, if possible," Euset replied.
Melosa shook her head. "Not today," she said. "Tomorrow maybe, or the day after."
With a shrug Euset asked, "What difference does it make?"
"I have instructed Reisa to build a cart for you," said Melosa. "Knowing her it will be ready in very short order. Also, you will be escorted by a small party of warriors and perhaps young Missini as well."
"I thank you for the cart," said Euset. "However it is not necessary that you tie up valuable assets just to give me someone to talk to and I certainly don't need that young healer along to hold my hand."
"Nevertheless, that's the way it will be," Melosa firmly replied. "You have made your decision; now I have made mine. So, get your affairs in order, say your good-byes--if any--and get your rest. You will be notified when all is ready."
There was no point in further protest and Euset knew it. Looking into the queen's dark eyes, the old woman's thoughts were filled with how different the daughter was from the mother. Never had a contrast been more stark! Penthesilia, fair-skinned, magnetic, boisterous, fun-loving, brash, bawdy, impulsive and her dark, brooding daughter for whom a smile was as rare as an honest Phoenician and who never made a move without first meticulously weighing all the options. As for Terreis, Euset on occasion had wondered why she had never warmed to the young child who, despite her older sister's powerful influence, was far more like her mother. The girl was pleasant and well-liked and had already demonstrated her skill in battle. And yet Euset had never really bothered to get to know her. Perhaps deep in the recesses of her subconscious she had considered the girl nothing more than a painful imitation, a pitiful attempt a copying an exquisite masterpiece of art. Oh well, she thought, too late for regrets now.
"As you wish, ma'am," she said.
With that the ever busy queen was out the door and gone. Behind her she left a puzzled Ansara that immediately set to pumping Euset for answers about just what was going on. In an uncharacteristic turn the usually testy Euset calmly took the time to explain it all. As she listened, Ansara thought it the craziest thing she had ever heard. Why would anyone want to shed relatively comfortable surroundings and go off on such an exhausting journey? If Euset was not about to die she certainly would be by the time she got there! In Ansara's mind it almost seemed as if Euset wanted to die. For her the notion was absurd, as alien as to her as Egyptian hieroglyphics. Yes she was old and, yes, she was frail and yes there were those insufferable days when all she wanted to do was just stay on her pallet. Aging was a malady for which there was no cure; Ansara had watched both her mother and her aunt get inexorably ground down by it. And yet for her each new sunrise marked the beginning of one more precious day worth living. After all, life was the greatest, the only worthwhile gift and to gloomily wish for it to end was something completely beyond her comprehension.
And if Euset really did intend to depart it would mean the loss of yet one more from Ansara's own ever dwindling generation. There were not many left now--Adele and Selena, Racillione, Sylvia and a few others. All the truly great ones of her age such as Mycinia and of course, Penthesilia, were already gone. As much as Ansara loved life and as much as she wanted to keep on living for as long as she could, there were those fleeting moments when she thought it would not be the most terrible fate if she could see her old comrades again in the afterlife.
"Ephiny? Are you sure?" It was a pointless question, Terreis knew. Her sister was always sure of her decisions.
"Ephiny is the ablest leader we can spare," said Melosa. "She's resourceful and pays attention to detail and she's already proved she can handle responsibility. She's the best choice to lead the escort. Tell Ephiny she is to take Minutia along. The two of them seem to get along very well. Other than that she's free to pick from any of the lower ranking warriors."
"I could do it," Terreis reminded her.
Her hopeful tone was not lost on Melosa. "Why, so you can get away from your overbearing sister?" she asked.
"I never said that," Terreis quickly answered. "I was merely making an observation, that's all."
"Um hum. Well, I suppose I could send you. However I want you here."
"Do you mean to say you would miss me?" Terreis teased.
Her sister's countenance never altered as she matter-of-factly replied, "Yes."
Terreis leaned back and eyed Melosa with some surprise. She knew her sister loved her but the moments were rare indeed when the queen chose to convey her affection. In truth it did not bother the princess, it was simply who her older sister was. Terreis admired her so much. Melosa was the tribe's rock, constant and unassailable, the axis on which the life of every single Amazon turned. Practically every waking moment of her day was in some way devoted to the tribe's well being. She was unselfish, shrewd, fair and absolutely fearless. However she was also very often cold and unyielding and even now there were times when Terreis did not know how to approach her. If only she was not so...hard!
Noting her sister's surprise, Melosa asked, "Did you think I wouldn't?"
Terreis' answer was a frank, "You give me cause to wonder sometimes."
For Melosa this was familiar ground. Had she not felt the same way in regard to their mother? "Terreis," she began, "above everyone else you should know that I must always put the tribe first. That means I have to be firm and fair with every member, even you--especially you. You know that. You also know that, whether it's an assistant commander chastising a young warrior fresh out of training or me correcting you, criticism should not--must not be made personal. Now, I have said this before but I'll say it again: Just because I happen to come down hard on you, it does not mean that I think any less of you. I am and always have been very proud of you."
Melosa's dark eyes almost imperceptibly softened as she added, "Of course, you know the surest way to avoid trouble is--"
"Don't make mistakes," grinned Terreis.
"Just so. And besides, it's better that some junior officer handle this. Euset is even more depressing than I am." Melosa's tone turned almost kind as she said, "So off with you now and make your preparations. I have my own work to do."
It was hardly the most tender of moments but it would have to do. The imperious, aloof Melosa would allow no one to get any closer--not even Terreis. And though Terreis occasionally found this troubling, she well knew that this was simply who her sister was and nothing was ever going to change that. The queen took her role and the accompanying responsibilities very, very seriously. Terreis knew the crushing burden her sister bore did not make for an easy life. There were even times when she had found herself wishing the two of them had been born as simple, ordinary Amazons. Perhaps Melosa might have even turned out differently. Then again, perhaps not. Who knew? And if Terreis did happen to sometimes wonder about it, she never voiced it to her Melosa. Her sister would have thought such speculation fruitless and silly. They were who they were and that was all there was to it. So why bother?
Why indeed? thought Terreis. Breaking into one of those little smiles that came so easily for her, she nodded and went off to carry out her queen's commands.
Bound together in a melancholy chain, the little girls were led before their new mistress. She was Antiope, queen of the proud Southern Tribe and, unlike their fractious sisters to the north, the true Amazons as they saw it.
Antiope, tanned and muscular with deep brown eyes and black hair that she kept clipped much shorter than most Amazons, eyed the latest "harvest" with something less than approval. "Not much to look at, are they?" she coolly observed.
At her side stood Phillipia. Although barely into her twenties, she was already one of the queen's most trusted advisors. "Their crops have been poor for several years," she explained. "Their people are in a bad way."
Antiope's only reply was a dispassionate, "Hmm."
Flanking the queen on the other side was her daughter. "Mother!" she exclaimed. "They're so dirty! And look how frightened they are. They'll never be Amazons!"
Antiope flashed the princess a knowing little smile and said, "We will make them Amazons, child."
"They'll never be anything more than slaves," her daughter stubbornly insisted.
Turning to Phillipia, the queen facetiously lamented, "What am I to do with such a headstrong child?"
"She is certainly spirited all right," the young noble tactfully replied. She was in a position to know. It always made for a very trying day whenever she was tasked with giving the willful girl instruction.
Suddenly the princess pulled away from her mother's hand and with all the confidence of one long accustomed to having her way, strode over to the dispirited young newcomers. Then, to her mother's great amusement, the girl proceeded to walk down their line, meticulously inspecting each one with a cool eye of discernment--just as she had seen her mother's stern company commanders do hundreds of times before. As she strutted past, each little girl in turn timidly averted her eyes from the challenging eyes set so perfectly in that pretty, freshly scrubbed face. All except one. Only a solitary six year old--the shortest of the lot--dared to meet Penthesilia's regal gaze.
The princess planted herself in front of her and looked down her nose at this insolent little stump of a girl. Although only three years older, the well bred princess was a world apart from the peasant waif now standing before her. "You," Penthesilia sniffed, "what is your name?"
"Kamaret? A silly name. A silly name for a silly girl. I don't like it. From now on your name will be...Euset!."
"My name is Kamaret," the girl quietly repeated.
"Your name, turd," the princess said, haughtily invoking the Amazons time honored appellation for trainees, "is what I say it is. Now say it...Euset. Say it! Euset!...
The old woman awoke with a start. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you."
Euset blinked her eyes hard a couple of times as the focused in on Terreis. "Oh no, it's quite all right, Princess. I was just dozing."
Terreis, young and energetic, not yet even in her prime, could not image herself napping in the middle of the day.
"Is there something I can do for you?" Euset prompted.
"Hmm? Oh no."
In truth Terreis had never been comfortable around the old recluse. >From some of the older Amazons she knew that Euset had once been a solid, dependable warrior but as far back as she could remember, Terreis had only known her as she was now--a crippled loner with a sour disposition. It would only be natural, especially since it had happened when the woman was still in her prime. Terreis could even see how she might turn bitter as well should such a tragedy ever befall her.
As far as Euset's past went, Terreis had never been told of Euset's intimate relationship with her mother--not by any of the older Amazons who, aside from the occasional subtle reference, had always taken great care to omit that particular little detail. For her part Melosa too had never breathed one word about it to her baby sister. Indeed Penthesilia's choice of lovers had met with the whole tribe's general disapproval--not because Euset was another female; Amazonian elite had long been known to take advantage of their station in life to satisfy their carnal desires. What many found so distasteful was that Euset was so...ordinary. She was regarded as an average rider and a good--though not great--warrior. No one thought much of her intellect. When held up to the all encompassing brilliance of the incomparable Penthesilia, Euset came off in their mind much as a plodding little donkey would when compared to the sleekest, most beautiful of war horses. What made it even worse for some was that Euset was not even "pure." She was what these Amazons sarcastically referred to as a "royal blessing." That is, an abductee forced into the care of some unwilling Amazon for the good of the tribe by the all-powerful queen. And yet from the very first Penthesilia had apparently and quite inexplicably been attracted to the stubborn little Carian. Even at the age of six, Euset/Kamaret would readily obey her new princess but she would not fawn over her like the others did.
When it became apparent that Terreis seemed in no real hurry to leave, a resigned Euset reluctantly got to her feet. Even now she would not show disrespect by sitting in the princess' presence. "Are you looking for Ansara?" she asked.
During her nap Ansara had gone out. She probably needed a break from her nettlesome guest, thought Euset. She knew she was not much in the way of company.
"Uh no, I just dropped by to tell you that the preparations are under way," said Terreis, a little nervously.
"I know," Euset patiently replied. "I spoke with the queen earlier."
Terreis answered with a self conscious nod and there followed another awkward pause. Finally the princess blurted out, "Why do you want to leave us and go to this strange land? Your home is here, with us. Why would you want to live in Caria?"
The old woman fixed her eyes on the sturdy young warrior that she herself had once been so long ago. The tone of her voice took on a surprising softness as she answered, "I'm not going there to live, child. I'm going there to die."
Euset's words struck Terreis like a slap in the face. Melosa had said nothing of the woman's grim intentions. Did she even know? Terreis wondered. Of course she does, the princess thought with annoyance. Damn her! Why does she do this to me? But in her heart Terreis knew she was not being fair. It had always been Melosa's practice to entrust her younger sister with as much responsibility as her maturation level could handle. Already she had borne the ultimate responsibility--a combat command. Still, there were times...
"Oh, uh...I-I didn't know," the flustered princess stammered. "I'm sorry."
"There is nothing to be sorry for," said Euset. "People get old; they die. Soon it will be my time. It's as natural as a sunrise." What she left unsaid was, It will happen to you some distant day--if you are lucky! On a more positive note as far as Euset was concerned was that her blunt words were serving another purpose: the princess no longer seemed in a mood to stick around.
"Well, uh, I have to go," said Terreis. "Melosa wants me to form your escort."
"Will you be leading it?" Euset asked. Not that she cared.
"No. Ephiny will be in charge."
Ephiny, Euset thought. Meelah's girl, one of the very few of these sprouts nowadays that was worth a horse's ass. Best of all, Euset knew her to be not much of a talker and that suited her just fine. Yes, she found the choice most satisfactory.
With a somewhat apologetic little smile, Terreis retreated from the hut's suddenly oppressive interior. In her young life she had of course known many more Amazons to die of old age than anything else. Others had been lost to sickness, the occasional accident along with one or two challenges that had gotten out of hand. Only recently had she seen Amazons die in actual battle. But even one death was one too many. And so it was not only the prospect of Euset's death that Terreis found so troubling but the fact that the woman almost seemed to want to die! For Terreis that notion was abhorrently incomprehensible. Why anyone would actually welcome the very end of life was totally beyond her. At any rate she did not expect to have to face such a grim reality any time soon. Terreis fully expected to live for a good long time...
It was mid-afternoon when Ephiny led her party in off their patrol. They were met by Cordelia, Colsethme's long time second-in-command who had taken over for the legendary warrior upon her death. Melosa had long held reservations about Cordelia's leadership abilities but after losing no less than four exceptional company commanders in less than two years the queen had been forced to hold her nose and give her the promotion. The bright spot was that there were among the junior ranks several promising young warriors that Melosa thought held great promise for the future. Chief among these was Pomona, who reminded Melosa so much of the steadfast Willa; tiny Abisinthe--still a baby really but there was no denying her ability. And then there was Ephiny, unlike the other two already a proven leader, one that kept her mouth shut and her eyes and ears open. In short, an Amazon after Melosa's own heart.
"Anything to report?" asked Cordelia.
"Nothing," Ephiny replied with a bored little shake of her head. "All quiet; didn't even see a rabbit."
"Wish we had," said Solari. "I'm starving."
"You're always hungry," cracked Pomona.
With a grin Solari flexed the impressive muscles in her right arm. "Muscles require nourishment," she said. Solari then looked down her nose at Pomona's somewhat less powerful frame and sniffed, "But you wouldn't know about that, would you?"
Unfazed, the quick witted Pomona retorted, "Your biggest muscle is that one in your belly." Not satisfied with this barb, she quickly added, "And that big butt!"
"Well maybe if you put a little more meat on your bones those breasts of yours wouldn't be so pathetic," Solari huffed. She knew she was on tenuous ground here. She had never been good at this sort of give and take. Indeed she always seemed to take much more than she gave.
"Who in their right mind would want two melons hanging from their chest?" Pomona chirped. Actually she did for one because she was in fact rather self-conscious of her smallish breasts, especially since so many of her sisters were so well endowed in this particular area. "They're heavy, they flop around like fish out of water when you ride. Why a babe suckling those would surely drown!"
It was an old joke. Solari was by no means fat--never had been. Yet she did have a certain sensitivity about her body, one that her peers never seemed to tire of exploiting. Mostly it was all in good-natured fun but every now and then Solari would be driven to take real offense. Accordingly, Ephiny moved to cut off the banter.
"That's enough, you two," she said.
"She started it," Solari pointed out.
The look Ephiny gave them was not as just another one of the girls but an authoritative warning from their second-in-command. The verbal jousting immediately ceased. Nevertheless, as Cordelia and Ephiny discussed a couple of routine matters, the two friends, like the teenage girls they still were, continued to poke and make subtle little faces at one another behind Ephiny's back. The veteran Cordelia watched them without saying a word. After all, she had once been that carefree too.
As they parted Cordelia suddenly said, "Oh, Ephiny, I almost forgot. Terreis wants to speak with you."
Solari, thinking out loud, muttered, "Now what?"
Ephiny rolled her eyes at her friend but said nothing. Still she too had to wonder what the princess could want now. For Ephiny it had been a long day and she very much wanted to go home.
"Did she say why?" Ephiny asked.
Cordelia in fact did know but she was not about to infringe upon the princess' prerogatives. She knew very well that Melosa did not have the greatest confidence in her as it was. "Ah no," she lied. "I think it's important, though."
Furrowing her brow, Ephiny grunted a curious, "Hmm. All right, I'll see what she wants. Thanks."
It was with some reluctance that Ephiny handed the reins of her horse to Solari. "Would you take care of her for me?" she asked.
It was not an order but a request to a friend for, unlike some of the other officers, Ephiny was averse to using her position for personal advantage. Naturally Solari was more than willing to oblige.
"I'll take care of it," a smiling Solari assured her.
Good old Solari! "Thanks," said Ephiny.
"Hey, do you want to do something later?" Solari called out after her.
"Sure, come on by," Ephiny replied over her shoulder.
Standing at Solari's side, Pomona shook her head and said, "They're going to make Ephiny old before her time." It was nothing new; both she and Solari had long felt Ephiny was destined for great things.
"Pomona," Solari sighed, "Ephiny was ten years old when she was born."
Beside her Pomona silently nodded. Solari might not have expressed the thought in the most eloquent manner but her young friend understood perfectly what she meant. Indeed Ephiny had always seemed remarkably mature for her age. Even now Meelah's green-eyed daughter seemed much more like a peer of Willa and the rest than she did her teenage contemporaries.
"Come on," Pomona said with a smile, "I'll help you with the horses."
When Ephiny found Terreis the princess was sitting on a chopping block, frowning at the boot lying in her lap.
"You wanted to see me?"
Terreis ran a hand into her boot and stuck her finger through the hole in the sole. "Look at that," she said sourly.
The boots of a princess wear out just like everyone else's, thought Ephiny. Aloud she merely said, "Sylvia can fix that for you."
"Nah, I think I want a new pair," the princess declared.
There were probably other Amazons that did too but Ephiny knew who would now be placed at the head of the waiting list, not to mention being reserved the best of Sylvia's leather. Being a royal did have its privileges.
"Anyway, I have a job for you," a grunting Terreis said as she pulled her boot back on. "A mission actually."
In silence Ephiny simply stood there, waiting for the princess to continue
Quickly rising, Terreis swept back her hair as she briskly announced, "You're going to Caria."
Caria? A puzzled Ephiny was not even sure where that was. "I am?"
"Yes. Euset has gotten it into her head that she wants to go back there..." Terreis paused before adding, "...to die."
Ephiny had spoken with Euset up in the hills only a few days before and she could not recall the old goatherd appearing to be any worse than usual. "She's not serious?" the incredulous young Amazon asked.
"You know her," said Terreis, stamping her boot in place. "Euset is always serious. So, make ready; you'll probably be leaving on short notice, just as soon as Reisa finishes the cart."
In passing Reisa's shop earlier that morning on the way out of the village Ephiny had noticed the armorer and a couple of helpers busily working on the frame of what she now knew to be a cart. At the time she had merely thought it odd; now she thought it absolutely crazy! Orders, however, were orders--no matter how strange they might appear to be. And like any proper Amazon, Ephiny was ready to do her duty.
"Who else is going?" she asked.
"You're taking Minutia," replied Terreis. "Pick four others from among the junior ranks. Let me know on whom you decide."
"I wish I was going with you," the princess quietly confided. "I wouldn't mind getting away for a while myself."
For her part Ephiny wished she was going as well. Being the leader meant that she would be the one chiefly stuck with dealing with the contentious Euset. It was not something the young woman was looking forward to.
"So where is this Caria?" she asked.
"I'm not sure, Terreis admitted. "South I think. Waayyyyyy south. Don't worry, Euset says she knows the way."
Wonderful! Ephiny thought ruefully. We're to travel who knows how far to some strange place that may or may not where it's supposed to be and we're to be guided by a foul tempered old woman who hasn't been more than two leagues away from those hills in twenty years! Just wonderful! In that moment Ephiny would have gladly traded places with Terreis since she was so amenable to going.
"Can I ask you something? Why me?"
Terreis flashed Ephiny a crooked little smile and said, "You'll have to ask Melosa that to know for sure. However my guess would be that it's because she knows you'll stand up to Euset.
"Let me know who you decide to take with you," Terreis said again. With that she walked away, leaving a perplexed Ephiny behind to scratch her head and wonder about the absurd way one's life could change, simply on the whim of one abrasive old woman.
Upon hearing the news, an astonished Solari exclaimed, "I don't believe it!"
"Neither do I," Ephiny said gloomily.
"So, I get to go, right?" Solari prodded hopefully. It had long been her hope that once Ephiny got in a position of authority--as Solari always knew she would--she would finally being to draw assignments more interesting than patrolling that muddy river.
"Why would you want to?" replied Ephiny.
As usual the buoyant Solari saw things from a different perspective. "Are you serious?" she gushed. "This is great! I mean, who knows how long we'll be gone? No work, no patrols, nobody to order us around...I mean, except for you of course."
"Uh huh," Ephiny grunted as she keenly eyed her friend. "If you think this is going to be some sort of holiday, then you'd better think again," she warned. "Who knows what we'll run into on a trip like this? It might even become dangerous."
Ephiny's cautioning did little to rein in Solari's galloping enthusiasm. "So?" she shrugged. "Getting on a horse is dangerous. At least we will get the chance to see and do something different."
Ephiny, remembering her foray into the land of the Getae, dryly retorted, "Be careful what you wish for."
But Solari was simply too excited to be deterred. Blithely ignoring her friend's warning, she asked, "So who else is going with us? Oh please, don't pick Therme. She'll drive us crazy."
With tongue in cheek a teasing Ephiny let her voice trail off, "Well I did sort of have her in mind..." Young Therme was notorious for having a disposition almost as acerbic as Euset's.
It was only upon seeing Ephiny's struggle to suppress a grin that Solari knew her friend had a firm grip on her leg. And so it was with great relief that sighed, "Whew! Don't scare me like that."
"I might yet if you don't calm down," said Ephiny.
"You know, Eph, you're really moving up. I doubt anybody else our age would have been allowed to choose who could go. Why the first thing you know you'll have your own company."
Ephiny shook her head. "Not me. All I want to command is my horse."
"Stop being so modest," Solari chided. "You'll never get anywhere with that attitude. Have you ever failed a field problem? When we held war games last spring didn't Melosa personally commend your tactics? And remember the Mysians? How you led us to victory over them there on the hill?"
Of course Ephiny remembered. With the help of a handful of fledgling warriors--friends her own age--she had wiped out a Mysian war party, thus saving the tribe's children and elderly from falling into the enemy's clutches.
"Why I would wager you can already handle a company better than Cordelia," Solari continued. Leaning close, she added in hushed tones, "Terreis too."
"Solari!" Ephiny hissed. "Don't talk like that." Ephiny had been made uncomfortable enough by Solari's praise but for her to do so at the expense of nothing less than a princess was too much. Besides being reckless and serving no good purpose, such talk could be in fact be dangerous.
"I meant no disrespect," her friend protested. "I was only telling the truth."
"That's enough now," said Ephiny.
"Eph, you always win," Solari insistently replied.
"We didn't win the other day," Ephiny pointedly reminded her.
Solari drew herself up, crossing her arms in self-satisfaction. Ephiny had just made her point for her. "And why not?" she smugly asked. "Because Terreis didn't listen to you."
"All right, that's enough. I mean it." Ephiny's discomfort had nothing to do with modesty now. In her mind her friend was venturing out of a path that ought not to be trod upon. Ephiny's sharp tone and recriminating glare told Solari that she was not to take this line of thought any further.
At any rate, Solari, having said her piece, was ready to drop the matter.
"To answer your question," said Ephiny, still eyeing her friend keenly, "I intend to take Pomona, and Pycea if Willa will let me have her."
These choices were fine with Solari. The four of them were friends and contemporaries.
"I would also like to Abby too," Ephiny added. "But I have my doubts about her ability to hold up over such a long trip." Short and thin, Abisinthe might well have been mistaken by a stranger for a mere child. Ephiny knew the girl was by no means frail. Nevertheless, there was no denying that her strength was not comparable to most of the other warriors. It was no poor reflection on her--after all, Abisinthe had already proved her skill and courage in battle. It was just who she was. And since this might prove to be a grueling affair, Ephiny wanted sturdy young bodies she could count on--like Solari and Pomona.
Solari, who liked Abisinthe very much, coaxed, "She'll be all right." In this Solari was not alone. Ever bright and cheerful, little Abisinthe was a pleasure to have around.
However Ephiny had already moved on to someone else. "Eponin," she said.
At the mention of the name Solari's heart did not exactly sink but it did not leap for joy, either. Eponin was a newcomer but she was an Amazon nonetheless, having migrated down from their wayward sisters of the Northern Tribe. A few years older with the experience to match, Eponin was cut from much the same cloth as Melosa in that she was a taciturn, relentlessly efficient woman who never complained or hesitated to shoulder her part of the load. Not surprisingly, she and Ephiny had hit it off right from the start--a fact not lost on Solari.
Solari did not want to think herself jealous but down deep she had to admit that perhaps she might indeed be--if only a little. She also had to admit that Eponin had made a very fine addition to the tribe. Besides, Ephiny was free to choose her own friends. Still, Eponin's arrival had reawakened in Solari old emotions that extended far beyond any petty jealousy she might have had. Orphaned as a very young child, raised in neglect, it had always been Solari's great fear that the well-born Ephiny would one day wake up and decide that scruffy little Solari was no longer worthy of being her friend, that she would see her for the dregs she really was. In her heart Solari knew this to be an irrational, ridiculous notion for not once had Ephiny ever shown ever acted superior. Moreover, many had been the time that an angry Ephiny had stood up for her against other upper class girls--most notably the vicious Velasca. And yet, despite all this, Solari had somehow never quite been able to put her insecurities to rest. Ephiny was the truest friend she ever had or would ever have. By the time Solari was ten she already knew that she would willingly lay down her life for her friend. The years since had only severed to reinforce this feeling within Solari's loyal heart.
For her part Ephiny was well aware of Solari's coolness toward Eponin. However she had a mission to carry out and to that end she wanted the best people she could get. She already had one, the battle tested, thick-muscled Minutia, whom Melosa seemed to like to send along to wet nurse younger warriors. As good natured as she was fierce in battle, the hulking Minutia had adored Ephiny's mother and even before Meelah's untimely death had taken it upon herself to watch out for her gifted daughter.
So while Minutia would be Ephiny's main pillar, she wanted another warrior with experience as well. Eponin would be perfect. As a warrior she was more advanced than newly masked warriors like herself and since she was still new and relatively untested Ephiny thought that Melosa would be more likely to let her come with them. It was all a matter of getting the best Melosa would allow and for Ephiny that meant Eponin.
None of this mattered to Solari. Unfettered by the worries of command, she would have readily opted for cheerful little Abisinthe every time.
Late that night Reisa put down her plane and stepped back to take a look at the newly completed cart. With hands on hips she stood there admiring her handiwork in the candlelight. The cart itself had been easy; it was the wheels that had taken up most of her time.
"Not bad," she said under her breath. Suddenly an imperfection caught her eye. A knot tied by one of the helpers to secure the awning was not to Reisa's liking.
"If you want anything done..." she sighed. Jerking the knot loose, she carefully secured the awning that served as a covering for the cart. In truth the ever industrious Reisa loved it. For she was a firm believer that idle hands were Evil's workshop. In her mind work did not merely serve the tribe, it cleansed the soul as well. And Reisa for one did not intend to have a soiled soul.
For sometime afterwards she continued to hover about the cart, testing this, adjusting that. Finally, satisfied at long last that all was ready, she gave a sharp little nod of approval before blowing out the lone little candle and heading off to the hay pile that was her bed. No, her leg precluded her from military service now and truth be told, she was probably getting too old anyway. But the stalwart armorer had come to understand that commitment was not a conditional thing. The hand that wielded the sword and the javelin was made no less honorable in taking up the hammer and tongs What mattered most was to fill one's post to the best of one's abilities, be it warrior or metal worker or Amazon queen. The wound that had ended her fighting days could just as easily have taken her life as well. Yet Reisa had not died and as long as she still drew a breath she would continue to serve the tribe and her queen in whatever capacity she could. And if someday it came to pass that her arm grew too weak and all that was left was to pick berries dry and fish, well, she would pick berries and dry fish. What was more, she would be the best damned berry picker and fish dryer the tribe ever had!
In the darkness Reisa drifted off to sleep. On her lips was a smile of satisfaction in a job well done. Come morning, she would as always be the first Amazon to greet the new day.
"So how is she doing?"
The instructor's reply to Queen Antiope was spoken with her usual frankness, "The princess is lazy," she said. "She doesn't pay attention; she's too arrogant for her own good..."
The instructor sighed as if pained to admit, "And she's also a mountain's height above the rest of them."
"Ah. Well at least you have something with which to work," said the queen.
"Penthesilia is a natural, Your Highness. She masters everything we expose her to in a remarkably short time."
Out on the training field thirteen year old Penthesilia was at the moment taunting the younger Euset. "I don't know why you even bother," she snidely told the girl.
Euset, eyes flashing, lowered her javelin and said, "At least I practice like I am supposed to."
"Who needs practice in hitting the ground?" the princess sniffed dismissively. "You certainly don't."
Incensed, Euset raised her javelin and flung it at the distant target, praying that this one time at least she would hit the mark. Unfortunately she missed yet again which earned the chagrined girl another round of snickering by the haughty princess.
"Poor, inept little child," she pouted. She then snatched up a javelin and without even bothering to heft it, leaned back and launched it at the source of Euset's frustration. As always her throw was perfect. Looking on from fifty paces away, the instructor stood beside the proud mother and slowly shook her head.
Her latest triumph complete, Penthesilia flashed Euset a little smirk before breezing off to dominate a nearby knot of young Amazons. Behind her she left a downcast Euset to wonder if she was ever going be worthwhile at anything.
As Ephiny stood looking over fruits of Reisa's labor a hulking shadow loomed over her. It was Minutia, the sturdy veteran that had for so long and so well served under the girl's mother. "Are we to take some of the dried meat?" she asked.
Ephiny, remembering the privation of the recent winter, said, "No, they need it here. We shouldn't have much trouble finding food now." After Minutia had gone Ephiny lingered for a few moments more by the cart. Turning to leave, still lost in thought, she almost collided with the approaching Melosa.
"Oh, excuse me," the flustered young warrior said. "I didn't know you were there."
Nodding to the cart, Melosa said, "Reisa outdid herself this time."
"Yes, ma'am. Knowing Reisa she probably didn't sleep until it was done."
For a moment the two of them stood there, silently looking at the cart. Finally Ephiny somewhat awkwardly asked, "Ma'am, why does she want to do this?"
Melosa breathed a little sigh and said, "It's important to her to see the land of her birth again."
"But, I don't understand. Euset has lived here most all her life. She's one of us; this is her home."
"Not in her mind apparently," said the queen. "At least, not anymore. I don't know, Ephiny. She's old, exhausted. Who knows how much pain she's really in? I think she's just tired of living."
"Doesn't it bother you that, even after all this time, she can still think of some other place as her home?"
"Some," Melosa admitted. "And to tell you the truth if it was anyone else I would not be allowing this to happen. However...she and my mother were...good friends."
The queen's mind drifted back to a time of long past innocence. Almost in a whisper she added, "I owe her that much."
Dawn the next morning found Euset's little party already assembled. Around them the village was still sleeping as they quietly made their preparations. Only three were there to see them off. Of these only Melosa had any semblance of a personal reason to be there. Terreis had come because her sister had but also out of simple respect for one of the few remaining members of her mother's generation. Ansara too was there, although truth be told she was not sure why. Euset had always been such a moody thing. Other contemporaries still living such as Adele and Selena had simply not bothered.
In the gray light Melosa and Euset spoke for the last time. They had once been close but that time was now long past.
Nearby Solari leaned close to Ephiny and quietly said, "I thought Missy was coming."
Ephiny, warily eyeing the two strong willed women, gave her head a little shake. She could almost feel the tension between them. With a discreet nod toward Melosa, she murmured, "She changed her mind."
"I would like to thank you for taking all the trouble to do this," the old woman said.
The queen's reply was a coolly terse, "I hope it makes you happy, Euset."
Euset's lips formed something that passed for a smile. "Happy?" she ruefully snorted. "I lost the capacity for that long ago."
Both of them well knew the reason why. "Good-bye, Euset," the queen said stiffly.
"Good-bye, Highness, and may the gods forever smile upon you and this tribe." The old woman turned away, making no attempt to speak to either Terreis or Ansara, both of whom were more than willing to let her go.
Ephiny respectfully waited until Euset had departed before reporting to her queen. "All set, ma'am," she declared.
"Good. I'm counting on you to get this done," Melosa said sternly.
For a moment Melosa studied the fresh young face opposite her. The girl was not as handsome as her esteemed mother, something Melosa herself could readily identify with. In every other aspect, however, she was a mirror image of Meelah. "Very well then. I expect you back before the summer solstice."
Neither Melosa nor Terreis stayed to see the little party off. Only Ansara lingered on to watch as they quietly wended their way through the sleeping village. Although Ansara had never been close to Euset she nevertheless felt sadness at this departure of yet one more figure from her own youth. Like Euset she had been adopted but as with most such girls she had in time come to regard this tribe as her home. Now she could not imagine living any other life. When her time came, she wanted to die among the people she had fought for, bled for, cared for. And while Ansara did not exactly view Euset's old yearning as traitorous, she also did not regard it as particularly honorable, either.
Well, to each her own, she thought. Hopefully Euset's strange choice would not end up getting any of those fine young warriors hurt. They were the tribe's life blood and the worst of them was worth a score of Eusets--or Ansaras.
By the time Euset's party disappeared into the forest the village street was once again deserted.
Surprised by what she saw, Euset announced her presence with a soft gasp.
Ariana softly cried out in alarm as she spied the interloper
Her fun interrupted, an irate Penthesilia scrambled to her feet. "How dare you spy on me, you little sow!" she said crossly.
"I--no...I wasn't spying..."
"What were you doing then?" the princess demanded. "Speak up!"
"I was hunting, that's all."
Arising, a miffed Ariana said, "She's lying Princess. Shall I beat her?"
"No!" an alarmed Euset pleaded. "I was hunting, Princess, I swear!"
Penthesilia coolly looked Euset up and down. It seemed the lowly little stump was not a girl anymore. Suddenly she raised a hand and with a casual wave, dismissed Ariana. "Leave us."
For the shocked Ariana there was nothing to do but obey. Sullenly flashing Euset a disdainful glare, the frustrated girl stalked off into the forest.
Penthesilia did not even bother to wait until she had gone. Sauntering over to the apprehensive Euset, she looked down at the much smaller Amazon. "You know," she said, brazenly trailing a finger over Euset's breast, "you're mildly appealing in a rather...homely sort of way."
Shocked, confused, Euset could only stammer, "I--I don't understand."
"You silly little cow," the princess smirked. "Don't you know anything?"
"But, Sarah said--"
"Oh what does she know?" Penthesilia said with a snort. "The only hand that old nag has had to her crotch in the last twenty years is her own."
With that she put her hands on Euset's shoulders and with her overpowering strength began to force Euset to the ground. In an instant the princess was upon her, pressing warm lips against Euset's and wedging a hand between her pressed thighs.
"Submit to me, Euset!" the princess huskily commanded. "Yield to your princess."
Penthesilia kissed her again, harder this time, grinding her lips against those of her writhing, helpless prey. And for the first time in her life Euset felt the exciting sensation of another tongue upon hers. And as with all her previous conquests, Euset now melted into Penthesilia's arms, surrendering totally both body and soul to the mesmerizing allure of this irresistible young Amazon.
It was mid morning when Ephiny's little party came to the River Granicus. This was the sixth day of their journey and so far each day had been marked by the same dull, monotonous routine. With the broad river now blocking their path all that changed. Here was a challenge, an imposing obstacle that would have to be overcome. It was the cart that complicated things. Without it Ephiny was confident their horses could have made the swim across. The river, however, was much too deep for the heavy combination of ox and cart.
Looking out over the river, Solari asked, "What do you want to do, Eph?"
"Take Pycea and go down river," said Ephiny. "Try to find a place to ford or, failing that, a narrow place to cross. If we have to we'll raft across. Eponin, you and Pomona go upriver and do the same."
"How far do you want us to go?" Eponin asked.
"Search until midday tomorrow. If nothing suitable is found by then, come on back and we'll decide what to do next," replied Ephiny. "I'm sure people cross this thing all the time; we just have to find out where."
Dismounting, Ephiny walked to the back of the cart. "How are you doing?" she asked, peering inside.
Despite her throbbing legs and aching back Euset said, "Don't worry about me, child."
"We've come to a river," said Ephiny.
"So I heard. That would be the Granicus," said Euset.
"We're going to have to find a place to cross. It may take some time so we'll set up camp here."
Turning to Minutia, Ephiny said, "Give her a hand." The big Amazon dutifully nodded and proceeded to gently help the old woman out of the back of the cart.
Solari was about to leave when she heard Ephiny's soft whistle beckon her. As they met Ephiny put a hand on the neck of her friend's horse and, casting a discreet glance at Pycea, quietly said, "Keep an eye on her. You know how easily she gets distracted."
For all her talent, the youthful Pycea had a curious habit of losing focus. Once as a child she had very nearly ran right off a cliff while chasing a butterfly.
"Don't worry," Solari assured her. "I'll take good care of her. See you soon."
A nodding Ephiny stepped back and watched as Solari nudged her horse into a trot. Having already departed, Pomona and Eponin were now well up river. Soon Solari and Pycea too were nothing more than specks on the landscape. Ephiny had done all she could do; now there was nothing left but to wait. In truth she would have preferred to do the job herself. However the queen had made it quite clear that Euset was her personal responsibility and as such Ephiny was not about to let the old woman out of her sight. She lingered for a moment, watching as her friends faded into nothingness. Then with a soft sigh she went off to help Minutia unharness the ox.
That night Ephiny and Euset sat at the camp fire, each absorbed in her own thoughts. In silence they sat there side by side, the proud young warrior and the weary old woman. With her back against a cart wheel, Euset sat with arms crossed and her eyes closed.
But Ephiny knew she was not asleep. The feeling she had was that Euset simply did not want to be bothered with her. Well too bad! she thought.
"Euset?" When Euset did not bother with a reply, Ephiny plowed right on ahead. "May I ask you something?" she asked.
"You will anyway," Euset muttered.
"Why do you want to do this?"
"Not you too," the old woman moaned.
"Why would you want to leave your home, the people you know--your people--and go back to a place you can barely remember?"
Without a stirring muscle, Euset replied, "That's where you're wrong, child. I remember it as if I left yesterday: every hill, every stream, every field in that valley. All these years I have made myself remember. I did not ever want to forget where I came from. And in that land from whence I came the bones of my mother and father and little brother lie buried somewhere. Is my desire to join them there beyond your capacity for understanding?"
In restrained tones Ephiny said, "What's beyond me is why you still cling to this so fiercely. None of the other old abductees I've known ever seemed to harbor any regret for having become an Amazon. In fact they all felt they had been given a far better life than they would have had otherwise."
"No doubt they did," said Euset. "And for that matter I feel the same way."
Irritated by the young Amazon's persistence, Euset impatiently cut her off. "I can't explain it, Ephiny," she said brusquely.
"You mean you won't," the young warrior brazenly replied. It was highly disrespectful to speak to an elder in such a manner but by now Ephiny was just as irritated as Euset was.
The old woman merely shrugged. "Have it your way," she said. Brash young whelp! she thought sourly.
Even so, Euset found herself wishing she had been more like the girl back in the days of her own youth. Perhaps then things would have not been so...difficult.
"No, no, no, Euset! Damn you, girl, what is the matter with you? Are you deaf, or merely stupid? How many times to I have to tell you NOT to jerk the bow when you release? HOLD THE BOW STEADY!! Are you afraid of it?"
As the other smirking trainees looked on, the exasperated instructor caught twelve year old Euset by the hair of her head and pulled her off the range. "Now, since you seem incapable of retaining instruction, I'm going to give you a little something to hone your focus. I want you to go to that hill over there and you are to run it until you either vomit or pass out--I don't care which. If you collapse you will continue to crawl it until you do one or the other. And while you do I want to think about what you're doing wrong and why you are so stupid. understand?"
With a sharp cuff on Euset's ear the instructor barked, "Now go!"
Long after archery practice was concluded Euset was still running. Finally her legs gave out halfway up the hill. Collapsing, she partially rolled back down before finally coming to rest face down in the dirt. Her burning lungs gasping for air, Euset lay helplessly as the sharp little rocks cut her sweat soaked legs. Sunset found her lying there still.
"Ephiny, Pomona and Eponin are back."
Ephiny joined the big warrior and together they gazed out at the distant figures approaching from up river. "Any luck?" Ephiny asked as they rode up.
With her usual economy of words Eponin answered, "We found a place."
"Good," said a relieved Ephiny. "We'll move out just as soon as Solari and Pycea return." With a curt nod Eponin moved off to water her horse.
"There's some fish on the fire," Minutia called out after her. In reply Eponin merely grunted.
Easing in next to Ephiny, Pomona tilted her head toward Eponin and said, "That's the first thing she's said all day."
Ephiny flashed her friend an understanding little grin. "That certainly cramped you, didn't it?" Affable and outgoing, Pomona was a gifted story teller who loved to talk. As such she was the very antithesis of the tight-lipped Eponin. Ephiny could well imagine how hard Eponin's reticence must have been on her.
"Last night I said good night to her and you know what she said? She said I talk too much!" Pomona was jesting of course but any way one looked at it Eponin was not much of a talker.
"Well you do!" laughed Minutia.
"Hmph!" Pomona snorted in mock indignation. The sunny Pomona was one of those rare individuals whom no one seemed to dislike.
By late afternoon of the next day Solari and Pycea were still nowhere to be seen. While not exactly worried the Amazons were nevertheless starting to grow uneasy.
"They should have been back by now," Minutia soberly observed.
"You don't suppose they got lost?" asked Pomona.
"How can you get lost following a river?" retorted Eponin.
"Maybe we should go look for them," Minutia offered up.
"Not yet," said Ephiny.
As the shadows lengthened the little band began to grow ever more concerned. Standing at the edge of the river, an anxious Ephiny absently tapped a toe on the sandy ground as she stared down river. Where were they?
Finally she had waited long enough. "All right, that's it. Eponin, come with me. You two stay with Euset."
"I don't need a nurse maid," Euset said grumpily. "You should all go."
"Not a chance," Ephiny curtly answered.
"Bah!" Euset muttered, and she limped off toward the cart.
To Minutia, Ephiny ordered, "Don't let her out of your sight. And don't let Pomona wonder off, either."
"Yes, ma'am." As a warrior Minutia was vastly more experienced than her young leader. She had long served under Ephiny's mother, Meelah, and had known Ephiny from the day she was born. So devoted had she been to the girl's mother that young Ephiny had long since come to regard her as the aunt she never had. But now, in this moment, none of that mattered. This was the tribe's business and orders were orders and Minutia would obey the girl as if it were Hippolyta herself giving them. Ephiny was her leader and that was all the big Amazon needed to know.
At Pomona's cry all eyes turned to look in the direction of the young warrior's outstretched arm. Far down river two tiny dots had appeared. Ephiny took one brief, hard look and said, "It's them." A few moments later she and Eponin were racing out to meet them.
As they closed the gap Ephiny began to sense something was wrong. Thundering up to meet them, she found Solari leading Pycea's horse. Hung over the back of the horse was Pycea's lifeless body.
"What happened?" Ephiny cried.
Solari, her dirty face smeared with dried blood, choked back tears as she said, "They attacked us last night in our camp."
"Bandits--I don't know. We were asleep. The must have woke Pycea because she yelled out to me. If--if she hadn't done that we'd both be dead."
The shattered Solari thought back to the horrible sight of her young friend, gored in the back by that grinning bastard's spear.
"They killed her, Eph," she sobbed. "Killed her like she was nothing but a dog."
As Solari spoke Eponin quietly dismounted to have a look at Pycea. The terrible wound in the dead girl's back told it all. She had not been a bad girl, Eponin thought, a nice kid, friendly--a little flighty perhaps but reliable when it counted. It was, she thought, a damned shame.
"I killed one of them," Solari recounted. "I hurt another one and they ran off. I guess...I guess they hadn't counted on us fighting back."
In stunned silence Ephiny sat on her horse, looking at Solari. What could she say? Finally she said, "Let's go on back to camp so Minutia can have a look at you."
"I'm all right," Solari weakly replied. "It's not my blood."
"Come on," Ephiny coaxed.
Tears welled in Solari's eyes. "It's my fault!" she dolefully burst out. "It's my fault she's dead."
"No it's not, Solari," Ephiny said gently.
"You--you told me to watch out for her."
"You're not to blame," said Ephiny. "I am for sending you out there." Ephiny eased her horse close and put a hand on her friend's back. Solari was such a good soul and it pained Ephiny to see her so distraught.
"Come on," she said again. From the other side Eponin gently pulled the reins to Pycea's horse from Solari's wavering hand.
Back at the camp the rest of the Amazons looked on numbly as Ephiny led the sad little procession back in. Only Euset had the presence of mind to speak. "What happened?"
"They were jumped by bandits," said Ephiny.
Carefully Minutia pulled Pycea off the horse and carried her over to the back of the cart. The poor child, the veteran thought sadly. How many had she seen just like her? Too many.
Beside Minutia stood Pomona, tears streaming down her young cheeks. She and Pycea were born within days of each other and all their lives they had been great friends. Indeed Pomona could not recall the two of them ever having a cross word between them. Now, just like that, she was gone.
Minutia put a hand to the girl's elbow. "Come on," she gently urged. But Pomona could not leave her friend--not yet. Minutia understood, for she had lost so many friends over the years. She left Pomona standing there, gazing through misty eyes at her dead friend.
As Minutia turned her attention to Solari, Ephiny walked down to the river's edge and stared out upon the shimmering waters of the Granicus.
Behind her a voice asked, "The girl was your friend?" Euset had followed her.
Annoyed at this intrusion, Ephiny in that moment was not particularly keen on hearing the old woman's rasping voice. For the first time in her life she had lost someone under her command. "Yes," she tersely answered.
"Well," Euset sighed, "it won't be the last one you lose so you might as well get used to it."
Shocked by the old woman's apparent insensitivity, Ephiny caustically replied, "Is that suppose to make me feel better?"
"Feelings have nothing to do with it and the sooner you realize that, the better off you'll be."
At these blunt words Ephiny grew ever more angry. "I hope I never get used to it," she said. "Pycea wasn't some nameless, faceless asset; she was a human being that I sent to her death."
"A leader mustn't blame herself for losses," Euset matter-of-factly replied.
"I do blame myself," Ephiny heatedly shot back. "And I blame you too. It's because of you that we're here in this forsaken place to begin with."
Now it was Euset's turn to get angry. "Look, girl, if can't handle the pressures of command then you might as well walk out into that river and drown yourself right now. You think that losing one single Amazon is awful? Try two hundred! Three hundred! In the last Centaur War we lost more warriors than there are now in the whole tribe. By the end we were giving bows to ten year olds! So save your angst for someone who doesn't know any better."
Sixteen year old Euset stared out at the seemingly endless line of creatures stretched out along the crest of the distant ridge. Beside her, Selena, another fledgling warrior at the time, nervously remarked, "There are so many of them!"
From behind an eerily pleasant voice said, "So much the better. With that many targets how can we miss?" It was Penthesilia. A scant month before her mother, Queen Antiope, had died. The Centaurs, sensing their chance at long last, had immediately set to work preparing for war. This would be the nineteen year old's first battle as queen.
Euset drew a sharp breath as she saw a centaur across the valley thrust his arm forward in a signal to attack. A moment later his forces were spilling down the ridge, straight for the well deployed Amazons and their deadly efficient bows. As Euset readied her bow, she heard the new queen utter in open delight, "Let's have some fun, children! Euset, stay close to me. We wouldn't want anything to happen to you."
Euset did not even bother to sight an individual target. Instead she simply aimed for the center of the dark, undulating mass thundering toward them. Penthesilia was right; how could they miss?
In the heartbeat before she released her first arrow, Euset closed her eyes and softly whispered, "Please let me live!"
The scarcity of wood on the empty plain did not allow the surviving Amazons to adhere to their time honored tradition of cremating their dead. Instead they were forced to scoop out as best they could a shallow grave on the sandy river bank and it was in this ignoble tomb that Pycea's body was laid to rest. Even as they were covering her, they knew the dirt and the few rocks they had managed to find would not be enough to prevent some persistent scavenger from digging her up. It was a heartbreaking realization but there was nothing else they could do.
When they were finished the Amazons gathered round the grave. In that moment all eyes turned expectantly to Ephiny. As their leader it was her responsibility to send Pycea off with a few words. At the funerals of great heroes such speeches could easily run into several thousands words. Ephiny, however, was not the queen and Pycea was not some long revered figure with a glorious past. She had just been a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, a friendly girl that had so loved to run.
"I don't have much to say," Ephiny began. "I don't have Phillipia's eloquence. We all knew Pie, what kind of a person she was, what kind of a friend she was. She was a good soul and a faithful Amazon who always did her duty and never did she let the tribe down. She loved life...she loved people, she loved to run..."
At this both Solari and Pomona began to weep openly.
"...and we loved her. What more could any of us ask? She had our respect, we had her devotion...and we will truly miss her."
Flanking Ephiny, Solari and Pomona softly sniffled. Minutia, who had seen it all before, did not cry but she felt like it. Even the stoic Eponin, who had barely known the girl, could not help but be moved by the loss. Only the stone-faced Euset showed no emotion. When it was over the mourners one by one faded away. Soon they were gone, plodding up river toward the ford. Behind them the cruel wind was already insidiously at work defiling Pycea's lonely grave.
That evening the sunset at last brought an end to a day that, aside from the death of her own mother, had been the worst of Ephiny's young life. And just as Euset had predicted the future would hold more terrible days to come for the gifted daughter of Meelah. By then her life would have changed several times over.
The melancholy days after Pycea's death proved to once again be so completely uneventful that Ephiny found herself almost wishing for something to happen, just so she could get her mind off the dead girl. In this she was not alone. Perhaps even more than Ephiny, Solari was having trouble coming to grips with her friend's death. Ephiny had tasked her to watch out for Pycea but in the end all she had done was helplessly watch her die. In a life filled with difficulty this was for Solari the most trying time yet.
Day by day Ephiny's party crept southward. And day by day Euset grew steadily weaker. The old woman ate little, slept even less and when she did sleep it was the kind of restless slumber that afforded little rest. To Ephiny the woman's behavior seemed intentionally self-destructive, as if she was in fact trying to hasten her own death. More than once Ephiny caught herself thinking it would have been better had she died back in one of her caves. It would certainly have been better for poor Pycea--and the tribe. Pycea was a young warrior and as such a prized asset--too precious in Ephiny's mind to throw away on such a senseless undertaking as this. For her to die such a needless death was not only tragic but obscene. Euset could ramble on all she wanted about losing hundreds of warriors but the cold hard truth was those days were ancient history. The tribe was no longer able to field such numbers. Trained warriors were a precious commodity now and could not--should not--be thrown away like so much chaff.
At Euset's cry every head snapped toward the cart. It had been ten days since Pycea's death, each one as numbingly dull as the one before. On this morning the little party had been crawling along as usual when Euset's shout snapped them out of their boredom.
Nudging her horse over to the cart, Ephiny leaned down to peer inside. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Euset did not answer. Instead she began to laboriously climb out of the cart, all the while staring with wide eyes at a place seared into her memory. Frustrated by her difficulty, she barked, "Help me out!"
"What is it?" Ephiny asked as she dismounted. "Euset, what's wrong?"
Aided by the young Amazon's arm, the old woman slid out of the cart. With her bewildered escort looking on, she took a few steps into the tall grass and then slowly turned a full circle. Finally in a soft voice she said, "I know this place. Yes, it was here..."
"Where did so go?"
"She can't be far."
Lying flat on her belly, her thin body pressed next to a rotten log, the child named Kamaret desperately tried to hide from her harsh captors. It had been six days since they had taken her from her home and ever since she had been yearning for a chance to escape. Only a few harrowing moments before she had finally gotten her chance when the horse she was riding stepped in a hole, throwing off both her and her Amazon guard. In an instant the girl had scrambled into the tall grass and was gone.
With the angry shouts of those evil people ringing in her ears, the crawling, crouching, stumbling girl tried to throw off her pursuers by circling around behind them. But for such highly trained hunters as were the Amazons it was not particularly difficult to track down one frightened little girl. Already they were homing in on their prey.
Up ahead Kamaret saw one of them loom up out of the grass, not five paces away. It was the big one she had been riding with and she looked very angry. Too frightened to even breathe, Kamaret tried to wedge her thin shoulders right into the ground. Suddenly, from behind a hand caught her by the back of her ragged dress and roughly hauled her to her feet.
"Got you!" the voice triumphantly crowed.
Kicking and flailing, Kamaret fought back for all she was worth--much to the amusement of her battle tested captor. "Ah, so you're finally showing a little fight, eh?" the Amazon asked as she jerked hard on the child's garment. "I was beginning to think you were nothing but a little mouse."
The other Amazon, however, was not so jovial. Angrily she stalked up and delivered a thunderous backhand across the girl's face. Dazed, Kamaret's legs buckled and she would have fallen had not her captor maintained her vise-like grip. As Kamaret spun down, down, down into unconsciousness the last thing she heard was, "You've got a lot to learn, you little turd."
It was the first time Kamaret had ever been heard the word "turd."
It would not be the last.
Euset's strange behavior in the field provided but a brief respite from the boredom and soon the Amazons had fallen back into their dull routine. And then came the bright, clear morning when they for the first time came upon a well defined road heading south. As the moved down it Ephiny was still calculating the time that might be saved when they found several armed horsemen blocking their path.
"Ephiny!" Pomona excitedly called out.
"Steady, girl," Ephiny calmly replied as she counted heads. There were eight of them. What was more, they appeared to be soldiers. "They have no reason to bother with us. We're just simple travelers like everybody else."
Nevertheless, she saw fit to add a cautioning, "Stay sharp."
At the front of the cart Minutia discreetly eased her sword out and stuck it in the corner of the cart. Behind her Euset reached out a hand to keep it in place.
"What's happening?" she asked.
"Soldiers," said Minutia.
"Aaah," the old woman dismissively grunted.
As the two groups met the soldiers' leader asked, "Where are your men?"
"There are no men," said Ephiny.
"Sir, they are armed," observed another soldier. It was the first time in his life the young man had ever seen a female bearing a weapon.
"And why are you armed?" the officer asked.
"Because there are no men," Ephiny drolly answered. This evoked a nervous chuckle from Pomona.
From her seat on the cart Minutia could not help adding, "Maybe if you did a better job it wouldn't be necessary for us to protect ourselves."
"What's she talking about?" the officer asked.
"We were attacked by bandits," said Ephiny. "They killed a friend of ours."
Suddenly a thought came to the officer--a very unsettling thought. "You women wouldn't happen to be Amazons, now would you?" From his youth he remembered the frightening stories his parents had told about the fierce women that used to sweep down from the north to terrorize his people.
"What's an Amazon?" the younger soldier asked.
"Shut up, boy," a veteran cohort quietly chided.
The officer almost imperceptibly flinched as Ephiny matter-of-factly replied, "Yes."
"Why are you here?" he demanded.
Behind Ephiny her friends and especially the experienced Eponin kept a keen eye on the other men.
As reassuringly as she could Ephiny said, "We're not looking for trouble if that's what you mean. We are escorting this woman to Caria, that's all."
The officer nudged his horse to the back of the cart and looked inside. On both sides the tension was mounting. "Caria, eh?"
"Yes," said Ephiny.
"What business have you in Caria?" he asked Euset.
The old woman slowly broke into an eerie little grin that the officer found downright disconcerting. "The same business you'll have one day, boy," she cackled.
"What was that?"
"Never mind her," said Ephiny. "May we pass?"
"Caria, eh?" the officer said again. "Well Caria is a long way off."
"This is Maeonia, isn't it?" Ephiny asked.
Then it's not as far as before."
In the strained atmosphere the officer shifted his gaze back and forth between the tart girl and the unsettling old woman as he tried to decide what to do.. With this crone along, he thought, how much mischief could they get into? On the other hand, they were by their own admission Amazons and where Amazons went trouble was sure to follow. And if it did...
"No!" he said abruptly. "You cannot proceed; you must turn back."
"For what reason?" Ephiny asked sharply. 'I already told you we are here peacefully."
"It is well known what liars Amazons are," the officer brusquely replied.
Ephiny was not the only one that felt her blood rising at this slur. "Oh yes," Minutia caustically shot back, "we all know what paragons of virtue males are."
"Look, all we want is to pass over into Caria," said Ephiny.
"Look at us. What threat could we possibly be?" Eponin pointedly added.
"You could be spies," said the officer. "The crone could just be a cover."
"And I could be the pharaoh of Egypt, but I'm not," said Ephiny. "Nor am I a spy, either."
The officer, however, remained adamant. "Nevertheless, you must turn back," he insisted.
"What are you so afraid of?" an exasperated Minutia asked. "There hasn't been an Amazon in Maeonia in over forty years."
"And we want to keep it that way," the officer retorted. "We still remember well how you used to savage our land, seize our grain and steal our children. You are not welcome here. So on your way, Amazon, before I lose my temper."
Nerves on both sides were taut as the two leaders glared at each other. All it would take now would be one untimely flinch to start a fight.
It was Euset that finally spoke. "Come away, Ephiny," she said calmly. "We wouldn't want this terror to get angry, now would we?"
Her green eyes still firmly locked on her counterpart, Ephiny replied, "No."
"Minutia," she ordered, "turn around."
"Now, Minutia." It was with some reluctance that the big Amazon obeyed. If these fools were looking for a fight she for one was more than willing to give it to them.
As the other Amazons closed in, Solari asked. "What are you two up to?"
"There's more than one way into Caria, girl," said Euset.
"Are we going cross country again?" Pomona asked.
"No need for that," answered Ephiny. "We'll just move by night, long enough for us to clear the area. We'll have a good moon for it so we shouldn't have any problems."
Minutia, however, was still thinking of terms of something a little more...direct. "I'd like to meet that runt of an officer again someday," she darkly remarked. "Obnoxious little pipsqueak!"
Ephiny, nonchalantly refraining from looking back, asked, "Are they still there?"
"Still there," said Euset. In that moment the old woman's chest was pierced by yet another stab of excruciating pain.
Catching her wince, Ephiny asked, "Are you all right?"
"Yes," Euset lied. "Just heartburn, that's all."
Ephiny knew better. Simple heartburn did not instill such a frightened look in one's eyes. However she merely nodded. For the first time she was struck by the stark realization that perhaps Euset really was dying. Still, it was not enough to make her change her attitude toward this endeavor, not with poor Pycea lying buried back there on the Granicus. Even more sobering was the point driven home by the encounter with the soldiers: Pycea's death might not be the last.
Three days later they crossed over into Caria.
By the pale light of the waning camp fire Ephiny and Solari lay side by side. Across from them Minutia and the softly snoring Pomona were fast asleep. Somewhere out in the darkness was Eponin, silently keeping watch. Since Pycea's death Ephiny had taken to posting a guard at night. When the Great Hunter sank below the horizon it would be Pomona's turn. In the back of the cart a fitful Euset was having another bad dream. Every day the pain in her chest was becoming progressively worse in both frequency and intensity. She knew she did not have much time left. Just give me a few more days...
"Eph?" Solari asked. "Are you awake?"
"No," Ephiny murmured.
Solari ignored her dry answer and pressed on. "Do you ever think about dying?"
"Not really," said Ephiny. That was not exactly true. In the months since her mother's death Ephiny had thought quite a bit about death.
"Does it scare you?" Solari asked.
"Nobody wants to die, Solari."
"It scares me."
"Try not to think about it," said Ephiny.
"But why do we have to die in the first place? Why can't we just live forever, like the gods?"
"Everything dies, Solari, even gods, maybe even the whole world someday."
Solari thought this a little hard to believe. How could gods die? And the world was just...there. It had always been there and would always be there. For such a smart girl Ephiny sure had some strange notions sometimes. Lying back, she gazed for a time up at the wondrous bowl of stars in the night sky. How could something like that die?
"What?" It was no use, Solari was in one of those thoughtful moods of hers.
"Do you think what they say is true; that we get to be with loved ones again after we die?" Solari was aware of how sensitive her friend might be on the subject. Never had a child loved a mother more than Ephiny had Meelah.
"I don't know," Ephiny softly answered. "I'd like to think so."
"Do you--do you think I will get to see Meelah again...after I die?"
Surprised by this, Ephiny rolled over to face her friend. "What makes you think you wouldn't?" she asked.
"I don't know. It's just that...I never really had any loved ones of my own. I hardly knew my mother." Orphaned and a very early age, Solari's childhood had been a very difficult experience. "Meelah was always so good to me."
"She liked you very much, Solari," Ephiny said gently.
Solari thought back on the countless meals she had shared with Meelah and Ephiny and the many valuable lessons Meelah had taught her and all the times an incensed Ephiny had taken up for her. With all her heart she so fervently hoped that what they said was true, because if one did have to die, there was no one she would rather dwell in the land of the dead with than the wonderful Meelah...and Ephiny.
With a poignant touch of wistfulness, Solari sighed, "I sure liked her."
"Go to sleep, Solari," a smiling Ephiny ordered. But far into the night both young warriors lay awake, thinking on life and death, of friends gone and loved ones missed and the sweet prospect of seeing them all again someday.
It was only shortly before Eponin stole in to quietly rouse Pomona that they at last fell asleep.
A week later Ephiny was awakened by a light hand to her shoulder. "Eph," said a worried voice, "you'd better come. It's Euset."
Ephiny blinked once at the dark form of Solari bending over her and then silently rose to follow. At the back of the cart she found Minutia.
Somberly the big warrior said, "She's asking for you."
Ephiny could tell as soon as she got in the cart that the old woman was not faring well. Her breathing was labored and marked by a persistent rale.
"Euset, what's wrong?"
"What do you think, girl?" the old woman gulped. "I'm dying."
Ephiny turned to the four dark figures standing at the back of the cart and ordered, "Get the water."
In the darkness Ephiny heard Euset's harsh chuckle. "Water is not going to help me."
"What can I do for you?" the young warrior asked.
"I ought to ask you to kill me," the old woman answered. "But I know you'd refuse--even though you probably want to. You are such a stubborn child."
Euset began to cough deeply and for a moment Ephiny thought the old woman might die right there. Fortunately the fit quickly passed and when Euset had sufficiently recovered, she said, "Besides, I have not yet attained my objective and you know how obsessed Amazons are with achieving their objectives."
"We'll leave at first light," Ephiny quietly assured her.
"No, no!" the old woman rasped. "By then it may be too late. We must leave now, child."
Euset's hand feebly groped for Ephiny's. "We are close, child. Very close. Perhaps less than a day away, I know it. I will do all that I can to hold on but we must leave now!"
The old woman paused to draw what air she could into her heavily congested lungs. In a weak whisper she added, "Please."
"All right, we'll go. Just hold on."
As Ephiny climbed out of the cart she was handed the water bag by Eponin. Ephiny in turn immediately passed it off to Pomona. "Stay with her," said Ephiny. "Talk to her. Keep her with us."
Pomona, a gifted and very creative storyteller, nodded gravely and said, "I'll do my best."
"Make ready," said Ephiny. "We're moving out."
"Now?" a surprised Solari asked.
With a hint of irritation Ephiny snapped, "Now!"
Solari merely shrugged.
Sometime later Ephiny guided her horse past the dark silhouette that was Euset's cart. Inside she could hear Pomona's girlish voice: "...ran right up to the edge of a cliff. Now Periander, it seems, was afraid of heights. With a gulp he looked down upon the jagged rocks below. 'What do we do now?' he asked. 'Don't worry,' his friend said with a grin. 'I have a rope!' Periander was hardly reassured. Anyway..."
Later on, when Ephiny passed by again, Pomona was still at it: "And when the other cyclops asked him, 'Who did this?' Ulysses' victim answered, 'No Man. If no man did it, then who did?' they asked. Old Ulysses was pretty clever, huh?"
And still later... "Once when Terreis and I were just girls, we decided we'd go out to the Dragon's Teeth and see if we could run across them like we had seen the big girls do. Well, it took us a good half a day to walk out there and by that time we were both worn out. Naturally, her being a princess, Terreis had to be the first to give it a try. So she climbs up on the first stone and already she's a little wobbly--"
It was here that Euset put a hand on the young Amazon's knee. "What's your name, girl?" she asked.
"Pomona, ma'am. You remember me, I used to sometimes bring you stuff from the village."
It was mid summer. And right in the middle of yet another sweltering day a sweat soaked Queen Penthesilia lay on her pallet, moaning in agony. In that moment the suffocating heat was the least of the queen's concerns. Just before dawn her water had broken. Now deep in the throes of labor, the great queen was expected to give birth at any time. Around her stood her attendants, experienced midwives all. To their practiced eye everything was going well. Penthesilia was in her prime, strong and remarkably fit; they foresaw no problems.
Shunted to the back of the crowd, a tip-toeing Euset was on the other hand helplessly beset with worry. She knew very well how perilous childbirth could be--even for the healthiest of women. Suddenly Euset flinched as Penthesilia's sharp cry rang out. The queen, supported by two sturdy warriors, grunted ferociously as she pushed down hard.
"There it is!" someone cried.
As one the attendants fell upon her and with one final scream from the new mother her first born was brought into the world. A knife was produced; Euset heard a sharp smack and then...the unmistakable squall of a baby.
Also in attendance was Phillipia and it was she who got to deliver the good news. "You have a fine healthy daughter, Your Highness," she announced with a smile.
With immense relief the spent Penthesilia fell back and deeply exhaled. "Phillipia," she breathed, "I already have a name for her---Melosa!"
Shading her eyes against the glare of the morning sun, Ephiny leaned into the back of the cart. "How is she?" she asked. The worried look on Pomona's face was answer enough.
"I'm not dead yet if that's what you think," Euset defiantly declared. "Why have we stopped?"
In quiet tones Ephiny replied, "I think we're here."
At once the old woman began to stir. "Help me," she breathlessly demanded. "Help me out!"
As she got out and stood up her legs buckled, only to be supported immediately by the strong arms of Minutia and Eponin. Shakily the old woman put a hand to shield the sun from her eyes. And as she looked out over the land she saw a long green valley. Through of the middle of it ran a river and in the hazy distance Euset's tired eyes could just make out the confluence where two other rivers flowed together to form it. Far down in the valley she could see the barley fields she remembered so well. Across the river she could see the dogwoods in the full glory of their blossoms. Somewhere down there lay the bones of her parents. Somewhere down there walked the ghosts of a life that was not to be. Yes, this was the place, exactly as she remembered it, exactly as she had described to Ephiny.
With surprising strength the old woman suddenly pulled free and she began to hurriedly hobble down the long hill.
"Euset!"' Ephiny cried as she dashed after her. But she was too late. Before she could reach Euset the old woman fell face first onto the ground.
"Get her in the cart!" Ephiny commanded. "Now!"
Her face pressed into the dirt she had missed so much, Euset with her last living act reached out and clawed a handful of the rich soil of her long lost homeland. Before she could close her hand around it Euset sighed softly, the hand relaxed, and, just as before, the soil fell away. And yet, the words she had spoken to Melosa had not rang hollow. For her last conscious thought was not of this land of her childhood but of her precious Penthesilia.
Minutia knelt beside her and gently put a finger to the old woman's neck. Eyes downcast, she somberly nodded to Ephiny.
Euset, at long last, was home.
After freeing the faithful ox to seek its own way in the world, the Amazons carefully placed Euset's body in what was left of Reisa's battered cart. Unlike poor Pycea, Euset would be afforded the proper rite of a funeral pyre. As they prepared to send Euset off all eyes again turned to Ephiny.
Their young leader, however, was in no mood for flowery praise. In her mind it had all been such a waste. Yes, Euset got her final wish, but at what cost? Had it been worth Pycea's life? Ephiny did not and would not ever think so.
"We are here to commend Euset's soul to that life which comes after life," she quietly began. "For her it is the beginning of the second Great Journey. With her goes our dear friend, Pycea. We have come a long way. We have fulfilled our mission. We have brought Euset home."
With a tinge of bitterness Ephiny said, "I hope you're content now, Euset. I hope your spirit is at peace. I hope Pycea can forgive the both of us."
Stepping back, she curtly nodded to the torch bearing Eponin who in turn stepped forward to light the kindling inside the cart. The Amazons watched in silence as the flames consumed both the cart and Euset's body. There was no more to say; there was no more to do.
Turning to her command, her friends, Ephiny wearily said, "Let's go home."
They were all there, waiting for her. There was Celeste, strong and true, and the tragic Porticia. There was Meelah, noble warrior with the spotless soul. There was grim little Morda, in whom Euset had seen so much of herself. There was Tylda and the gentle Pycea. Sisters all! There was the incomparable Mycinia and ugly old Colsethme, for thirty years the tribe's great pillars of strength. There was wise Phillipia, whom she had admired so much, as regal as any queen.
They were all there, Claudia and Coreen and the ruthless Druis. There was Antiope, proud grandmother of Melosa and Terreis, and Diandra, back where she belonged. They were all there, all the Amazons that had gone before. And above all there was the luminescent, beautiful Penthesilia, smiling at her and wrapping a welcoming arm around shoulders that would never ache again.
All too soon they would be joined by young Terreis and soon thereafter by the brooding, ever dutiful Melosa. Before long, Queen Ephiny would be there too, as noble a ruler as any of her predecessors, together with the loyal Solari, true to the last. In time they would all be there, the once proud warriors of that mighty race. And when the last Amazon was no more there was no one to shed a tear for the glory that had once been theirs. They would all be gone, nothing more than distant shadows of another age. And yet such was their imprint upon the world that their memories would remain strong for those that were to follow. Even thirty-five centuries afterward they would be remembered, as much for their unique society as for their skill and courage. They are there still, etched in the memory of mortals, those brave hearts and proud minds, fierce warriors who may have lost but were never defeated. And so shall they there remain until the sky falls away and the world itself is no more.
Return to The Bard's Corner