Disclaimers: Xena and Gabrielle are owned by someone other than me. Surely by now we all know who. Okay, Renaissance and MCA have first call on the characters and I'm not making a single dinar writing about them. (Let me dream, okay?) The characters I have created based in the Xena and Gabrielle archetypes are mine, however. If you are even thinking about pinching them from me, naughty, naughty. If I can be bright enough to create my own characters, then so can you.
Violence Warning: Not much of that this time. Yes, there is the odd bit here and there but no real blood and guts type stuff. As far as I can see, there really shouldn't be anything in this story to make someone toss their cookies. One character seems to spend an awfully long time tied up, and goes through a few indignities as a result, but it really isn't violence in the truest sense of the word.
Sex Warning: Okay, other than the odd reference, there isn't a smidgen to be seen anywhere. So yes, you can safely show this story to your mother.
Naughty Words Warning: Yep, got a few of those here. Come on, I am dealing with the modern day equivalents of Xena and Gabrielle. Could you drop a brick on your foot and not use naughty words??
Thanks: Many thanks to my long suffering and patient beta readers who endured a long series of sectional posts as this story slowly came together. They also didn't kill me when I broke it off right in the middle to go and work on something else for a while. Thanks must go to the REAL Vicki Alexander for allowing me to pinch her name in toto and then create a character around it.
Rell's Amazon boots were not damaged beyond recognition in the production of this Uber fic. A quick buff with a soft cloth and they'll be as good as new. Rell's fingernails however, are never going to be the same.
A Sequel to In The Shadow of an Eagle's Wing
The Dark Warrior
Ardeen and Rell sat together on their favorite spot high on the rim of the volcanic basin watching a small group of women and girls making their first nervous trip along the narrow path leading up to the Amazon village. Even from this distance, their pale faces could clearly be seen as each made a determined effort not to look at the jumble of boulders at the base of the mountain below them. The new Amazon Queen and old priestess watched silently as the last woman was carefully guided up the track and over the rim.
"Is that the last of them?" Ardeen asked, turning towards Rell.
"I think so, according to the note Diana sent a couple of weeks back," Rell replied.
"It's interesting that she has managed to find so many with Amazon blood running in their veins," the old woman commented.
"Mmmm, she does seem to have a knack for it, doesn't she. But as far as we have been able to check, most appear to be direct descendants from the various groups Gabrielle and Xena sent out originally," Rell explained.
"And the rest?" the priestess asked, one eyebrow rising in query.
"Will make excellent Amazons, regardless of what heritage runs in their blood."
It had been one of the first decisions Rell had made as the newly arrived Queen of the Amazon Nation. With so few warriors still young enough to patrol the vast area of jungle the women had claimed as their own, Rell had decided to see if they could find any more remnants of the groups sent into the world all those centuries before. Diana had shown an extraordinary ability in finding the descendants of those original Amazons, no matter where they had ended up. Rell had not been the least bit surprised when Ardeen had told her one of the old legends about the way Xena had always been able to sense the presence of a god or goddess nearby. It appeared that Diana, as the present carrier of Xena's soul, had simply stretched the ability to help find any potential Amazon hidden in today's society.
Looking over her shoulder, Ardeen said, "Diana has been gone for almost two moons now but the number of women she is finding seems so small, if the way you described the overflow of humanity is taken into account."
Totaling the little groups of newly arrived women together in her head, Rell figured they had about a third of the numbers that the village once held at the height of its population. "Well, everyone who has arrived so far came just from the US and Canada. She's headed for Europe next, and I think she'll find a lot more there. At least, I hope she does. Right now, though, I'm just grateful Diana is coming home for a couple of weeks before taking off again," Rell said.
"Miss her, do you?" the old woman asked, a cheeky smile adding even more wrinkles to her lined face.
Rell blushed deeply, still not used to being in a place where relationships between those of the same gender was so openly accepted. "Of course I miss her. I haven't seen her for more than a few days at a time since I got here," she finally managed to say. "Actually, I am surprised she waited a whole year for me to return at all," was Rell's sober comment.
"She waited because of the past that binds you, the present that supports you and the future you will have together. Diana was not completely unhappy among us, you know. She did use her time well and learned a great deal," the priestess offered.
Rell snorted. "I sometimes feel like she just inhaled the entire Amazon history in one deep breath. It's taking me forever to learn all the legends and stories."
"Diana was also not being distracted by the duties of a queen, either. If she wasn't out on patrol, once she finished her weapons-work for the day, she had nothing better to do with herself other than to bury her head in every scroll we could find." Ardeen began to laugh, taking some minutes to bring herself back under control again. "To tell you the truth, child. I think she knows the chronicles better than even I, and I've had many more cycles to read them."
"And how is this so funny?" a perplexed Rell asked.
"Because I just can't picture Diana as the next priestess of the Amazon Nation." Ardeen dissolved into chuckles once more, although this time Rell was laughing as well.
Once the two women had grown quiet again, Rell stood, dusting the back of her short leather skirt with one hand. "Well, Ardeen. However much I might want to stay up here all day and just admire that view, I do have to go and see our newest arrivals and make sure they are settled in as quickly as possible," she said.
"They have endured much to be with us, and all this strangeness can be a bit overwhelming to start with. Something familiar always helps ease them into Amazon life," Ardeen said.
"Someone who speaks American style English is what you mean, don't you. I know Meropa, you, and Diana worked like Trojans trying to get everyone speaking a little English, but sometimes you just can't hear the words through that ancient Greek accent you all have. At least everyone arriving has been exposed to a little Spanish, in one form or another, so that does make communicating somewhat easier. It's going to be an absolute nightmare once we start getting women coming from places where English, let alone Spanish, isn't even spoken." Rell said.
Patting the strong leg beside her, Ardeen offered, "Artemis will find a way of making sure we can all understand each other."
"God, tell her to hurry, will you," Rell said, exasperated at the thought of the Babel the village would become once the European women started arriving. "Do you want a hand down?" the younger woman asked, hoping the priestess would say yes.
"No. I'm quite content to simply watch the world go by for now, child." Ardeen answered. "I'll meet the new Amazons as they find their way to my temple, as they always do."
The priestess knew Rell was still a little nervous of standing before each new group and telling them she was to be their queen. The worst of that nervousness had worn off now simply because the old woman made it clear it was the duty of the Queen and something Rell simply had to do. It helped too, that each newly arrived group had accepted that the former journalist was not only the Amazon Queen, but she was to be their leader as well.
"I'll send Leda up later then to help you down," Rell said.
"Be off with you," Ardeen grumped. "I may be well into my crone cycles but I am not so ancient that I can't walk down a perfectly safe path."
Rell leaned forward and dropped a gentle kiss onto the top of Ardeen's thinning gray hair. "As your queen, I just want to be sure my priestess stays safe and doesnt blow her dignified image by tumbling down that path like some uncoordinated youngster."
Surprised by the unexpected affection, the old woman was left speechless for a moment and could only watch as Rell bounced down the little track with all the agility of a mountain sheep. Wiping a happy tear from her cheek, Ardeen turned back to the expansive view of the jungle, allowing the gentle caring of the younger woman to settle about her like a favorite cloak.
Stepping into the mess hall, Rell took a moment to run her eye over the newest arrivals in the village before moving to stand beside Latona. The healers were moving around among the women, applying ointment to their cuts and scrapes, or binding the few sprains or strains they found. The women, though wide-eyed with curiosity, were tucking into the meal laid out before them with some gusto. Rell spotted two young women, perhaps in their late teens, who didn't appear to have a great deal of interest in the food placed before them. Both were pale and sweating, with one clutching at her stomach as though she was about to throw up at any moment. Scattered among the arrivals were a small number of children, ranging in age from babes in arms to girls just approaching puberty. They were equally curious about everything going on around them but they were devouring their meals with as much enjoyment as the older women surrounding them. Though the Amazon version of trail rations was quite nutritious, after eating nothing else for the two weeks the journey from the clearing had taken, the meal before them must have tasted like ambrosia.
"Hola, Latona. Any trouble getting them here?" Rell asked.
"No more than usual, My Queen," the middle aged warrior replied. "Though I sometimes wonder where they learned to walk. Every day someone would trip and fall. Never have I seen such clumsy women before."
"Go easy on them, Latona. Most have spent their lives in the hard canyons of the city. Our world is bound to be terrifying until they are used to it. Give 'em a month and they will be running through the tree-tops as though they were born to it. Which, in fact, most of them were," Rell explained, with a laugh.
The warrior snorted, wondering if she would even be able to get some of these women up into the trees so they could learn to be true Amazons.
"Tell me about that pair over there," Rell said, unobtrusively pointing in the direction of the two sweating young women. "What's their story?"
"Them," Latona grunted, brown eyes snapping with suppressed anger. "They've caused more trouble by themselves than all the others put together. If I were to have my way, I would leave them to the jungle creatures and forget they ever existed."
Drawing the woman away from the nearest table so they could have a little more privacy, Rell silently asked what had happened with the lift of a single eyebrow. A little something she had learned from being around Diana.
"The man, Hunk, brought them to the clearing but they didn't want to move much, seeming to be more asleep than awake. We almost had to carry them all the way here. They kept disappearing into the forest, getting lost more often than not. Each time we found them again, they were even more unmotivated to continue. Last night, the sentry spotted them some distance from our camp, with little metal things sticking out of their arms. It is good you warned us of how sharp those are, because after searching their bags, we found many more. We also found much of that white powder you said outsiders sometimes use."
"Damn. Addicts. Oh well, I knew we would get some sooner or later, if my own drunken spree was any indication," Rell said.
It was now Latona's turn to raise a quizzical eyebrow at the younger woman.
Rell sighed. Very few in the village knew of her months spent drinking herself into oblivion every day trying to forget about the Amazons and the call of her own destiny. But the warrior by her side did deserve some kind of an explanation, if only for having put up with the youngsters for the entire trip.
"Sometimes the call in our blood is so strong that the only way to still the voice is to try to wipe our minds out of existence. I spent the first five months after I left the jungle so drunk I barely knew my own name. This pair have probably been hearing the same call their whole lives but not knowing of us, they tried to stop that calling with drugs." Rell explained, the sadness in her tone clear to the woman by her side.
"So what can we do now?" Latona asked, a little more inclined to be understanding.
"Separate them, and then hand them over to the healers until their bodies are healthy. Once they are well again, send them to Ardeen. She can help heal their minds," Rell said. Sighing deeply; she despised having to do this but it was necessary for the continued safety of the village. "Give them six months, Latona. If they settle and are willing to be with us, they can stay. If not, the healers can wipe their minds of everything they have seen here, and we'll make arrangements for them to be returned to wherever they came from."
"As you command, My Queen," the older woman said stiffly. She hated having to return anyone to the outside world, considering they were so few in the village. But she could see the sense in the young queen's orders, she was just glad she didn't have to make that decision herself. Anyone brought to the Amazon village had to be there of their own free will, and no one was forced to stay if they truly wished to return. So far, only a few had made the trip back to the outside world, and all of those had been women who could not claim a direct connection with the original Amazons.
"Anyway, tell me a little about the others," Rell asked, making a deliberate effort to shake off the feeling she might have just condemned the young women if they didn't choose to be part of the Nation.
Latona spent the next several minutes detailing what she knew of the new arrival's skills, and the possible personality traits they possessed after watching them travel through the jungle for the past two weeks. Rell was pleasantly surprised at the range of skills the women had to offer. Aside from the two drug addicted youngsters, the rest would probably settle into life as an Amazon without any trouble at all. She would make a point of meeting the women individually later, but for now, it was best to let them eat and rest after the long journey through the forest to get to the village.
After thanking Latona for her patience in dealing with the outsiders, Rell left the mess hall headed back to her own home in the center of the village. The thatched roofed building had once belonged to Meropa; the former queen but Rell had inherited it when the old woman had passed away. Settling at the desk, Rell turned her mind to the latest pile of paperwork her assistant had laid out for her attention. Trying to concentrate, she made an effort not to think about Diana's impending return, instead attempting to figure out how they would feed and clothe everyone until the women had developed the skills needed to take care of themselves.
Well after sunset, Rell wandered back into her home after her first formal meeting with the new arrivals. Even though most of the women had come from democratic societies, they were willing to accept the former photojournalist as their leader-by-right, once a brief history of the Amazon Nation had been explained to them. As always, Rell had been pleased to see the changes already apparent among the newest arrivals.
Every woman wore the short, split-to-the-waist leather skirt of the Amazons, with calf high boots to protect their feet and lower legs. From there, taste and modesty dictated their choices. Most of the older women, and those still suckling their youngsters had chosen to wear the breast band popular with the hunters of the tribe. The majority of the younger women and all of the girls wore nothing across their breasts at all. A few had painted the exposed skin in the fashion of those they saw around them, but for most, they were simply bare to the moonlight.
"Not even here one full day and already they're settling in," Rell mumbled to herself as she lit the little oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. "Never ceases to amaze me how quickly they find themselves as Amazons."
"And why should they not? It runs strongly in their blood, after all," a gentle voice said from the doorway.
"Come and sit down, Old One," the younger woman said, indicating a comfortable, overly cushioned chair at the table. "I don't doubt what they have inside them, Ardeen. I just find it a little startling to see how quickly they settle into life here."
"You settled quickly," the priestess observed, surreptitiously tossing the extra cushions onto the floor behind her while Rell's back was turned.
"Once I finally got over actually having a destiny to fulfill and got my buns down here, that is," Rell laughed in reply.
"And now you know what it is to try to deny that call. Something you use every time you speak to a new arrival. They too, have heard the call of their destiny and used whatever method worked to quiet that voice inside. It gives you an empathy with the women you might not have had if you had stayed with us from the start."
"Sometimes, old woman, I think you are just too cunning for your own good." Rell lowered herself into her own favorite chair and looked over at the priestess sitting calmly beside her.
"Not my doing, My Queen. Artemis wanted you. I am merely the conduit through which she occasionally passes," Ardeen shrugged in reply.
Rell made a mental note to continue this topic with the old priestess later, as the first of her other guests stepped into the room. A tall, slim woman entered, dressed in the smock of a healer. Anne was somewhat older than Rell, being in her late thirties. Traveling with one of the first groups to arrive at the village, she had been quite an addition to the Amazon Nation. Rell still wasn't quite sure how Diana had managed to find the woman.
Trained as a general medical practitioner, she had gone into research after less than a year in open practice. Two more years with a bio-research company and the woman had realized she wanted to study the more traditional methods of healing. This had led her on a meandering course through several disciplines before finally gaining her degree in Naturopathy.
Now she worked with the healers of the Nation, both learning their ways and teaching the things she knew. Her background in research came in handy because for the first time, many of the traditional medicines could be documented, and perhaps new uses found for them. It also helped calm many a nervous new arrival to find someone trained in Western medicine working with the healers. Anne was not the most senior of the healers, quite the opposite in fact, but her English was perfect and that was more important for this gathering.
"How goes our two latest patients?" Rell asked as the slim woman seated herself, nodding respectfully to Ardeen as she did so.
"About how you would expect all withdrawals to be. Nasty," Anne said, tossing her long brown braid over one shoulder with a flick of her head. "But they'll live and Ardeen can probably have them in ten days or so. Surprisingly, neither has been addicted that long. Maybe six months or a little more. We've got them strapped to a couple of mattresses on the floor right now until the worst of the withdrawal is over. Latona loaned us several of her biggest warriors for a day or so, and Etna has instructions on what to do with them until I get back, seeing I am the only one who has ever seen drug addiction before."
"If they had only been using for six months, what did they do before that?" Rell asked, needing to fill the gap in her knowledge in case there were more addicts headed their way in the future.
"Alcohol, pills and marijuana," the healer stated succinctly. "First on their own and then in various, and increasing combinations until it led them to the needle." Turning towards the old priestess, Anne continued. "Seems they both were trying to stop a rather insistent female voice they could hear in their heads. I'd say at a guess, that is your department, Old One."
Ardeen sat up a little straighter in her chair, focusing her attention on the healer. "You have stripped them of clothing?" she asked.
"First thing we did, and then we dunked them both in the hot springs because I doubt we are going to be able to properly bathe either of them for a few days," Anne replied, curious.
"Did you notice a mark on them? A birthmark, perhaps? Here, on the shoulder?" Ardeen questioned, touching a spot in the hollow of her right shoulder with the fingertips of her left hand.
"Well, yes. Looked like someone had burned them with an arrowhead or something that looked a lot like one. I just assumed they must have hurt themselves with a cigarette when they were stoned out of their minds," the healer answered.
Ardeen sat back with a wide, satisfied smile on her face.
"Now, how about you let your queen in on the big secret," Rell asked archly.
"Oh, it's nothing much. I think I may have just found my successors at the temple," she explained happily.
"Great, hairy, horny toads. Just what we need. Two more of you cunning types running about the village," the younger woman said, throwing her hands up in mock horror.
Latona, as the representative for the warriors and Antigone, standing for the hunters were the next to enter the common room of Rell's hut. Each woman had worked hard to get their English to a point were they could be easily understood; although both had different reasons for doing so. Latona was the first Amazon warrior the outsiders met at the clearing, and for all her grumbles, she was perfect for introducing the women to the way of the Amazons. Being able to speak clear English meant she could patiently answer their endless questions about the life of a warrior, or any other area of the Amazon lifestyle. Many a young woman had chosen her path after speaking with the middle-aged woman during the trip back to the village. She also acted as Rell's contact point between the village safety tucked away in the volcanic basin, and the rest of the outside world through the conduit of Diana's friend, Hunk.
Antigone, on the other hand, had never quite forgiven herself for striking the young queen when a hunting party had come across an injured Rell and Diana at the edge of the village. She had pestered Diana during the cycle Rell was in the outside world, hoping to learn enough English to be able to communicate with the queen should she return.
When Antigone wasn't on a hunting trip, or teaching her skills to the new Amazons, she had rounded up several other dedicated women and formed an unofficial Royal Guard for the queen. One member of this guard was with the young woman whenever she roamed the village, their duty signified by the bright blue feathers braided into their long hair. Antigone had practiced Rell's mother tongue so diligently, she now spoke it very well indeed, complete with the same faint accent Diana had. (A constant source of endless, private amusement for Rell.)
"How are the new arrivals settling in, Latona?" Rell asked as the middle-aged warrior seated herself at the table.
"With the usual round of complaints about the 'bathroom facilities', gasps of delight when they see the hot pools, a certain amount of stunned amazement that we truly exist here and some embarrassment when they discover underclothing is optional," the warrior replied ticking off each item on her fingers.
"In other words, exactly like every other group who has arrived to date," Rell stated. She opened her mouth to say something else and the sound of a crying baby filled the room instead.
For a moment, Antigone thought her Queen was doing an impersonation, until she realized the sound was coming from the anti-chamber of the hut.
On the heels of the wailing, a young, distracted woman bustled into the room. Both her hands were filled with small rolls of parchment, and strapped across her back with the source of the amazingly loud crying.
"Give her to me, Trace. You've had that sound in your ears since eve-meal," the priestess said, climbing to her feet with surprising agility for one so old. Unstrapping the child from her mother's back, the old woman sat down again in her chair. Blowing gently on the shrieking infant's face for several moments, the priestess finally caught the attention of the youngster. The sound suddenly cut off as though a knife had sliced through it. In less than a minute the child was chortling gleefully, making ineffectual grabs at the bright necklace around the old woman's neck.
"That's quite a trick, Old One. I wish you would teach it to me," Trace said, running one hand through her rapidly-growing-out blonde hair in exasperation.
"The very old and the very young just know how to speak to each others hearts. There is no trick involved," Ardeen replied quietly, propping the child against her shoulder and rubbing her little back softly. Within moments the infant was relaxing into sleep.
"Knowing you, there probably is," Rell said to the old woman as she watched the child's eyes slowly close. "Anyway, now that we can all hear each other again, I'd like to introduce Latona and Antigone to Trace. She was chosen last week to represent the women who have joined us recently."
The introductions were made rapidly, though Latona had already met Trace when the warrior had guided her group to the village. Antigone was the only one who had not met the young mother before because the hunter had been away on an extended foraging trip, trying to find enough meat to feed all the hungry new mouths that had been arriving.
Once all the introductions had been made, Rell continued. "The only one who isn't here is Leda. I wonder what's keeping her?"
As though speaking the warrior-trainee's name conjured her out of the air, the teenager suddenly appeared at the doorway. Blushing when she realized she was running late, Leda hurried to take the last chair surrounding the table.
"Sweet Artemis," she said. "I completely lost track of the time, My Queen. Some of the new ones just seemed to have a question for everything and I couldn't get away without appearing rude."
"No problem, Leda. We hadn't really started yet," Rell offered trying to put the teenage girl at ease in the company of her elders. Sweeping her eyes around the gathered group, Rell said, "Leda has been chosen as the voice of all the trainees we have at the moment, though admittedly, some are just about old enough to be her mother."
"I'll try to do my best, My Queen," Leda mumbled at the top of the table. She really didn't feel she deserved this honor, seeing there were so many trainees older than she, but when they were asked to pick a speaker for them all, there had only been one choice. The warrior-trainee had accepted only because she had become friends with Rell over the past few moons, and had found she was always approachable, regardless of the fact the stocky woman was the Queen of the Amazons.
Rell whispered to the youngster by her side, "Your spoken English is wonderful. Do you think you have learned enough to write it too? We need someone to keep a record of the meeting."
Leda nodded, pulling a quill, the ink-pot and several sheets of parchment towards herself from the center of the table. Loading the quill with ink, she waited for the meeting to begin.
"Each of you has been chosen to speak for your own section of our community," Rell started. "Once we have some crafters working, we'll organize a representative for them as well but until then, you are the core group of something I would like to think of as a governing council."
The women seated at the table nodded in understanding. Rell had spoken with all of them at one point or another, bouncing her thoughts and ideas off them. The former photojournalist wasn't trying to change the way the Nation had been ruled for thousands of years; she was merely adapting the concepts she already knew about. The ruling Queen had always had a body of advisors and this group was simply an extension of that idea. It would give everyone in the village a feeling of being more involved with the day to day governing and if they were involved, then the Nation would thrive.
"So, before we can plan ahead, we need to know what we have to work with. I guess that means the floor is yours, Trace," Rell said, settling herself comfortably in her chair.
"Before I get started on that, there is one point I would like to bring up, if that is allowed," Trace asked hesitantly, looking at Rell.
"You've got the floor, Trace. Whatever you think is important, you can talk about. If we don't agree, I'm pretty sure we'll tell you soon enough," the Amazon Queen explained, establishing some informal ground rules for future meetings.
"Well, a lot of the women, the new ones I mean, are not too happy with being referred to as new arrivals all the time. I know we are and all but when Diana found each of us, she made it clear that Amazon blood runs in our veins. Something you told us again on the first night we got here. And well, calling us the new ones all the time is kinda it's kinda " Trace trailed off, unsure of what to say.
"Condescending of Amazon dignity," Ardeen offered.
"Exactly," the young mother replied. "I know we have a lot to learn but we are learning, and fast too. Nearly everyone from the first two groups who decided they wanted to be warriors are out on patrol right this very minute. And some of the others go out on regular hunting trips to help feed us. I realize we are new, but when do we stop being new arrivals and start to be real Amazons?" Trace asked, catching the eye of everyone at the table.
"God, I hadn't thought about that one," Rell replied, clearly perplexed by the question. "I'm open to ideas."
"Perhaps I can help here," Ardeen said quietly, shifting the sleeping child from one shoulder to the other. "I think I can come up with some sort of acceptance ceremony for the women. Once they have reached a certain level of competence in their chosen area, we could hold a ceremony where they swear an oath of honor and we accept them as true Amazons. Do you think that will satisfy the women?" the priestess asked.
Trace thought about it for a moment, remembering all the things the women had said to her over the past few months. Nodding, she answered, "Yes, I think that would do it. Then we would have a way of saying we are Amazons, and not simply Johnny-come-latelys."
"Maybe we could give them something too, practical gifts of some kind, like we do when a girl reaches her womanhood," Latona said.
"That would work," Rell replied. "I'll leave it for you and Ardeen to sort something out," she said to Trace.
Smiling, Trace picked up the first of her little scrolls and began to list the skills and knowledge the women had brought with them from the outside world.
Rell sat on the side of her bed; tired after another long day, but pleased the meeting with her new 'governing council' had gone so well. Finding the right balance between newly arrived and original Amazons had been hard enough, but she was also trying to blend two totally different styles of leadership at the same time. The original Amazons had grown used to taking orders from their queen, rarely questioning them unless it was clear something was wrong. The newer Amazons had all come from governments that were democratic, where they were used to having 'voting rights' and far more say in what was done. The 'council' was Rell's way of trying to blend both styles together into a workable whole. Whether this would continue to work if Diana found more Amazons in socialist or communist countries was yet to be seen, but for now, what they had appeared to be acceptable to the women of the village.
Reaching over to the little night-stand beside the bed, she picked up a personal note Diana had included with her last message to the village. It was just a few lines, meant for Rell's eyes only but to the young woman it was better than a sonnet of epic length. Reading through the note again, as she had done every night since its arrival, she was once more filled with the gentle warmth of the other woman's love.
Replacing it on the night-stand, Rell stood and walked over to the window. Staring into the night sky, she mentally counted off the days since the note had arrived, realizing Diana would be returning to the village sometime in the next day or so. Rell had been so busy settling each new group of women and setting up her council, she'd completely lost track of the time.
Rell felt a curious sense of timelessness living at the bottom of the volcanic basin. There were no real intrusions from the outside world, other than the proliferation of new accents she heard at meal times. Even the weather conspired to help her forget the passage of time. Living in a tropical climate, there was only the wet months followed by the dry to note the change of season. The Amazons did celebrate the beginning of each spring, summer and winter, but these were arbitrary designations, usually decided on by the priestess rather than some indication of the weather changing.
Stripping off her breast band, leather skirt and boots, Rell settled herself on the bed. The Amazon day began well before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat, and her own activities usually went well past sunset as she dealt with the myriad of problems this new life presented her. Feeling herself relaxing and start to fade into sleep, she wonder if the queen and consort could possibly slip away for a few days of quietness together. After all, it had been a long time since they'd had any private time alone.
The dryness of her throat woke Diana from a sleep filled with half formed dreams and flashes of nightmare memory. The instant her consciousness realized she was truly awake, years of mercenary training immediately kicked in, keeping her still and quiet until she could make sense of what had happened to her. Her mouth was filled with a foul tasting, gritty rag held in place by a tight cloth tied over the lower part of her face. A faint twitch of her eyebrow told her she was also blindfolded as well. She could feel the rawness of the abraded flesh around her wrists, tightly secured by tough rope. Another cord lashed her elbows together painfully behind her back. Her legs had also been tied twice. Once at the ankle and again at the knee, a loop from the same rope passing through both and attached to the bindings at her wrists and elbows. Whoever had tied her definitely knew their business because there wasn't the slightest amount of slack in any of the cordage.
Mentally shaking her head to clear away the cobwebs, Diana tried to remember what had happened.
The last clear memory she had was of being in a cab, headed for the airport and the first leg of her journey back to the Amazon village in South America. It had been one of the new taxis with a plexi-glass panel going from floor to ceiling, protecting the driver from being shot in the back. It also covered the entire width of the taxi to prevent anyone from simply reaching around and attacking the driver from the side.
For a new cab however, the back seat area had smelled strongly of urine and other less appealing odors. The first hint Diana had had of there being any trouble was when she tried to open a window to flush the pungency from the confined space with a rush of fresh, cool air. For some reason, the switch on the electronic window would not responded to her touch.
Assuming the window was controlled from the front, Diana had reached forward to tap on the plexi-glass separating her from the driver. She could vaguely remember hearing a faint hiss and then darkness had swallowed her.
Damn, had to be chloroform to have knocked me out that quickly, Diana thought, now she remembered what had gone on just before losing consciousness. I probably couldn't smell it for all the other nasty odors going up my nose at the time.
Having figured out how she got there, Diana would have liked to have known exactly where 'there' was. Under her cheek she could feel the scratchy softness of carpeting laid over something hard. Concrete or metal she finally decided. The biggest clue to her location was to be found in the very air she was breathing. The smell of hot tarmac and aviation fuel filled her nostrils as Diana took a deep, surreptitious breath. The acrid tang of her own sweat was also very strong, telling the tall woman she had been there for some hours, if not longer. She could also just make out the scent of old dust but was unable to decide if it was close to her or some distance away.
Sharpening her ears, she could hear the far away sound of aircraft engines. It was not the roar of the huge jets but the buzz made by much smaller light aircraft. The faint sound reaching her closely listening ears was both muffled and echoing at the same time. Diana realized she was inside something that was probably standing in a large, nearly empty hangar. Most likely the hangar was on the far edge of some airfield, judging by the indistinct sounds coming from the planes landing and taking off. Remembering the smell of old dust, she assumed this particular hangar hadn't been used in a long time.
While still listening, she heard the sound of an ordinary wooden door being slammed closed and footsteps walking confidently across concrete. When the floor under her shifted slightly, Diana realized she was in the back of a small plane. The movement was caused by someone climbing onto the wing as they entered the aircraft. A rush of cooler air came into the plane as the unknown person opened the hatch. The scent of an expensive after-shave wafted towards Diana, letting her know the person was male. She inadvertently twitched as the sound of footsteps thudded loudly across the floor of the plane and straight into her ear as it pressed against the carpeting.
Forcing herself to lie still, she waited to see if the man had noticed her small movement. Diana started cursing silently when she heard the brush of his body across the fabric of the seats. Feeling fingers on the pulse point at her neck, she kept her breathing even, feigning sleep. There was a small popping sound she couldn't identify, immediately followed by a sharp prick on her arm. Struggling against the ropes, Diana tried to fight back. Kicking out with her legs almost dislocated both her shoulders as the cordage tightened the attached loop at her wrists and elbows. Diana wriggled about, trying to sit up, only to find her muscles had turned to jelly.
The darkness she had escaped from such a short time ago enveloped her once more. In the moment before she slipped back into her own nightmare memories, she felt the man drape a blanket over her unresisting body. From there, Diana was not to know anything more for some time to come.
Latona and Antigone stood together on the rim wall watching the small figures of various women as they learned to use the weapons of the Amazon warrior on the training ground below them. Among the women and girls was the unmistakable posture of the Queen as she practiced with her staff against one of the older trainers.
The warrior and the hunter had quietly left the village the morning before, telling no one of their intentions. Moving rapidly through the tree-tops, as only an Amazon could, they'd headed for the little clearing Diana had arranged as the meeting point between the outsiders and the Amazons. Traveling all day and far into the night, they had gotten a third of the way down the path before turning back. They had made the journey simply because they had seen the worry starting to shadow the eyes of their queen as the time of her consort's arrival had come, and was now long past.
"Aieee. It's been a full seven-day since the time Diana said she would return. I would not like to be her when the Little One finally does get her hands on her lover again," Antigone said, watching a particularly savage strike from Rell knock the staff from the trainer's hands.
"At least we can tell her for certain there has been no one on this end of the trail for the past ten days. The only trace we found were those we made ourselves when we guided the last group of women to the village," Latona stated.
"She will not like it," the hunter said, shrugging one shoulder.
"That there was no other trace, or the fact we left without informing her first?" the warrior asked, turning towards the other woman.
"Most likely both, if I know the Little One." Antigone laughed lightly, remembering the volume Rell's stocky frame was capable of producing. A volume that had increased, if such a thing was possible, as her body had gained in strength since her return to the village. Rell rarely found occasion to raise her voice, but when she did, the entire tribe, and probably half the surrounding jungle knew about it.
"We did what we had to do, Antigone. Are we not Amazons and warriors? We have nothing to fear from our own queen," Latona said.
"Who are you trying to convince, Latona? Only a fool does not fear the wrath of the Little One, and right now we have plenty of fear if we don't get ourselves down there now and explain our absence to her."
"Sweet Artemis. We've been spotted," the warrior said, seeing the way Rell was standing on the training ground, one hand shading her eyes so she could see who was on the rim.
"Remember, she is our queen. It wouldn't look good if she killed both her best warrior and her best hunter on the same day," Antigone called over one shoulder, already making her way down to the training ground to account for where she had been for the past day and why.
" Querida diosa, I just hope I have some skin left by the time she finishes flaying me," the warrior muttered, making her own way down the path behind the hunter.
With eyes deeply shadowed and red-rimmed from lack of sleep, Rell looked at the gathered members of her council. Their grim and serious expressions were eclipsed by the sheer determination on Rell's face. Locking her fingers together on the top of the table, so she wouldn't start thumping it if she lost her temper, Rell doggedly plowed back into the discussion.
"Diana said she would be back a few days after the last group of women was guided in. We waited an extra week after that, and then Latona and Antigone checked the trail at this end. They didn't find anything," Rell explained, leaving out the way she had privately dressed down the pair for disappearing so unexpectedly. "Hunk says there's been no sign of her at his end either. His friends haven't seen or heard anything at Bogota, which is where she would have arrived. And as far as Hunk has been able to find out for us, Diana never even left the United States."
"We know all this," Anne said. "Somehow she just disappeared right off the face of the earth."
"No one ever simply 'disappears', Anne. They either do it themselves, or someone helps them," Rell stated, knowing from her years as a photojournalist just how those disappearances could be arranged. "I seriously doubt Diana disappeared of her own volition."
"But as the healer said, we already know Diana didn't leave that outside place," Latona stated from the other side of the table. "The big man's messenger of Mercury checked for us, at your request."
Rell sighed silently. This wasn't the time to try explaining, again, about some of the communication devices of the outside world. She did wish however, that she had something as simple as a cell phone right now. It would certainly make tracking down the tall woman a great deal easier. As it was, her council was not going to like what she had to say next.
"Okay, we've done about as much as we can from here. Looks like I have to go back to the States and find her myself," Rell said, waiting for the uproar to begin once her statement had sunk in.
There were several heartbeats of stunned silence before Latona, Anne, Trace and Leda had all leapt to their feet, loudly exclaiming the many and varied reasons why Rell could not go. Rell saw that Ardeen had kept her seat, an inscrutable expression on her face, but she didn't think the old priestess would have opposed her anyway. She was also surprised to note the first person she had expected to try to stop her, was still seated as well. Antigone sat quietly waiting for the loudest of the voices to compose themselves a little.
As the others gradually settled back into their chairs, Antigone got to her feet. Because she spoke so rarely at the meetings of the council, her words seemed to have more impact.
"Artemis brought our queen to us, and then guided her return. The great goddess of the Amazon Nation will take care of Rell in the outside world and bring her safely home, with Diana." Sitting back down again, it was clear her few, simple words had touched on something fundamental, especially in Latona and Leda who had known of the goddess all their lives.
"Thank you, Antigone," Rell said quietly.
"You are not happy without Diana. And if you are not happy, then it affects the rest of the Nation," the hunter replied. "I have trusted Artemis to protect me in times of trouble and I know I can trust her to protect you. We have to support you and whatever decision you make."
"I swore an oath of loyalty to my queen. If this is your decision, then I must support it also," Latona said, a little subdued. "I trust Artemis to bring you home, where you belong."
Around the table, heads nodded in agreement, though Anne and Trace were a little slower to react. They had only learned of the goddess since their arrival in the village and had not grown to trust Artemis as completely as those brought up with her.
"Ardeen?" Rell questioned, as the old priestess had been the only one not to speak.
"Come by the temple before you go, child and I will ask Artemis to bless your search," the old woman offered. "I know you already have her protection or you would not have come back to us to start with."
"Thank you for understanding, Old One," Rell replied, affectionately clasping her strong fingers around Ardeen's.
Rell stood for a moment in a quiet eddy on the edge of the crowd. After several months of hearing nothing louder than the occasional shout on the training grounds or the booming roll of thunder across the jungle tree-tops, she was finding all this inhuman noise quite unnerving. The whine of youngsters as they were dragged along behind their bickering parents or the sound of harried businessmen shouting last minute instructions down their cell phones, grated on an ear more used to the natural sounds of the forest. For the first time she also realized just how sterile an airport appeared with its acres of shining tiles and polished glass. All the endlessly straight lines and sharply defined Angeles gave no relief to an eye more accustomed to the undulating flow of the forest or the soft textures found around the village.
"Oh god, Diana. How did you put up with all this?" she muttered to herself, finding her nose was also being assaulted by the overpowering odors of perfumes, after-shaves and deodorants. "Antigone would never have coped with any of this."
Rell took a moment to think of the protective hunter as she had stood outside the queen's hut the day she'd left the village. Antigone was fully intending to guard her queen while she journeyed through the outside world, regardless of the fact the hunter never been exposed to it before. Rell had allowed the hunter to escort her as far as the clearing but had ordered her back to the village once Hunk arrived to take her the next leg of the trip. Antigone had finally agreed, somewhat reluctantly, but only because Rell made it a direct order. The stocky woman had also made it clear, she didn't want anyone following her back to civilization. There were just too many ways for the original Amazons to get themselves into trouble.
Pulling her small bag a little higher on her shoulder, Rell launched herself into the rushing flow of humanity pouring along the concourse, hoping to come across an exit before she passed out from the sheer volume of the noise alone. Once outside though, she found the sounds and smells even worse than inside the building itself.
The blare of car horns honking, tires screeching on the road, cab drivers cursing loudly in every language under the sun, people calling farewells or happy greetings and the near deafening roar of overhead jets almost overwhelmed the stocky woman. Through eyes tearing from the smog and pollution from a thousand cars and buses, Rell spotted a female driver beckoning to her from the taxi stand. She gratefully headed in her direction, almost falling onto the back seat with relief.
"By the arrows of Artemis," Rell gasped. "And I thought this was civilized!"
"Civilization abandoned Los Angeles a long time ago, lovey. Ain't nothin' civilized 'round here no more," the driver stated over her shoulder as she started the engine of the cab. "Where ya wanna go?" she asked, already maneuvering her taxi expertly through the chaos of cars and buses trying to leave the airport.
Pulling a piece of paper from the pocket of her shirt, Rell gave the driver an address in the Beverly Hills area. Diana had called it a 'small' apartment she could use as a base. She had also told the former photojournalist that it was one of many homes she had spread across the world. Being part of the family estate, it was maintained year round just in case she, or some other member of her family might decide to use it. Rell smiled to herself recalling that Diana's family probably had more money that god, but you would never know it to see the tall woman around the village sometimes.
"If ya don' mind me sayin', lovey. Ya jus' don' come 'cross as the sort ta have that kinda scratch," the driver said, glancing at Rell in the rearview mirror with one eye, the other firmly fixed on the road ahead.
Rell looked down at the jungle shirt she had tucked into the pair of ordinary blue jeans. She smiled at the woman who was watching her in the mirror. "Actually, the apartment belongs to a friend. I have a key, though," she said, pulling the key from her pocket.
"Well, that's alright then. I's 'bout ta drive ya ta the station and turn ya over ta the cops."
"You wouldn't have?" Rell gasped in surprise.
"Oh, ya can betcha I's would, lovey. The Hills don' want no scuffy types justa wanderin' 'bout 'nd I'd do me license iffen I's took ya. Only there's somethin' 'bout ya that says youse is good people," the driver replied.
"Good grief, what?" the stocky photojournalist asked.
"Them boots. They's clean, unusua' lookin' and they's fit ya right. Ya can tell a lot 'bout a person by they's shoes. Yours say good people, so I's gonna take ya ta the Hills withou' no trouble," the driver smiled over her shoulder to a very astonished Rell.
Rell couldn't believe someone had made a value judgement about her just from her boots alone. Instead of buying new footwear in Bogota when she had bought her shirt and jeans, she had chosen to continue wearing her calf high Amazon boots. No one would really notice the intricate designs on the leather if she was wearing jeans, and she did feel more comfortable in them that just about anything else she could have worn. It was also a way of maintaining some contact with the Amazons and her life with them.
Chuckling a little, Rell said, "Seeing you appear to know so much about me, I had better introduce myself. My name's Rell."
"Pleased ta meetcha," the driver replied. "Folk calls me Bet."
"Short for Elizabeth?"
"Nope. I's know me gee-gees. Like ta make a bet now 'nd then. Them's horseys goodfa some 'citement when the goin's kinda slow," she explained.
Rell settled back against the leather of the seat thinking the driver probably made more than the occasional bet to have ended up with her nickname.
Bet had chatted amicably throughout the surprisingly short trip to Diana's apartment. She appeared to know every shortcut available; including one or two that caused Rell to grip the armrest in alarm. Clearly, Diana and Bet had learned their hair-raising driving techniques from the same source. The cab driver also seemed to know just about everything that was going on in her city, pointing out interesting sights and happily passing on mildly scandalous tidbits about the various home owners as they traveled through Beverly Hills. Rell felt herself warming to the woman, who couldn't have been more than thirty, yet had managed to cram a great deal into those years.
Leaving home in her mid-teens, Bet had lied about her age and enlisted in the army for a time. Once her service there had ended, she then worked her way around the globe, turning her hand to whatever she could. The woman made it clear she worked hard and played even harder, her only vice being the odd bet on the horses. She had never touched alcohol or drugs, seeing them as being the fast track to destruction. No, Bet chose to get her highs watching a winning race, and collecting her money at the end of the day.
When Bet asked where Rell had been, considering the way she was dressed, the photojournalist had been deliberately vague with the details, only admitting to having been in South America. She made no mention of the Amazons at all; figuring omission was better than long winded explanations. Rell did find herself owning up to her reason for coming back the United States though. It somehow relieved a little of her tension that another person in the vast city of Los Angeles knew Diana was missing.
Finally pulling up in front of the apartment complex where Diana stayed when in LA, Rell was almost sad to lose the cheerful company of the cab driver. Heading inside, she hoped they might run across each other again but in a city so huge, the chances would be highly unlikely.
Entering the foyer of the building after paying her fare, Rell noticed the doorman was nowhere in sight. In a way, this was a lucky break for her because it would save Rell from telling any lies to get up to Diana's apartment. Quickly crossing the polished marble surface of the lobby, she stepped into a waiting elevator and pushed the button to Diana's floor. It was only a matter of minutes before Rell found herself outside the door of the apartment, unlocking it with the key as though she had every right to be there.
The first sight of Diana's Los Angeles home left the former photojournalist gasping in stunned amazement.
"Great, hairy, horny toads. You call this 'small', Diana?" Rell whispered.
The stocky woman couldn't believe the size of the place. The entry hall alone had to be bigger than her own former apartment on the other side of town. Closing the door behind her, Rell stumbled towards the wide expanse of glass on one side of the living room, the floor to ceiling windows giving her an unrivaled view of the surrounding area. Dragging herself away from the view, she turned around and surveyed the room. 'Tasteful' was the first word that popped into her mind, immediately followed by the word 'sparse'.
There wasn't a great deal of furniture in the room, and what there was of it had to be the best quality money could possibly buy. Two beautiful, hand made mahogany cabinets stood against the wall near the entrance, one hiding an expensive entertainment unit when Rell opened the door a crack to peep inside. There were also a couple of soft leather chairs facing each other in the center of the room, taking full advantage of the amazing view from the window. Three bamboo poles were angled along one of the pale walls, artfully arranged to be pleasing to the eye. Aside from those few things, the room had been left bare, reflecting both Diana's taste and personality.
"I knew there was money in your family, Diana but this is serious money," Rell said to herself, knowing some people paid thousands just to get this same effect.
Wandering through the rest of the apartment, the sense of wealth showed in every area of the tall woman's home. The kitchen was all polished steel and white marble, the appliances hidden behind false metal doors. The office cum library on the other side of the living room was filled with several of those mahogany cabinets as well as row upon row of leather-bound books. There was more marble in the bathroom, the sight of the deep, floor-set tub delighting the hedonist in Rell. Only in the main bedroom did the other side of Diana's personality show itself. The room was actually cozy, decorated in soft tones of blue and gray, the largest bed Rell had ever seen angled towards another set of those floor to ceiling windows.
Sitting gingerly on the side of the bed, Rell mumbled in disbelief, "And you left all this to live in the middle of the jungle with me."
Wrapped in a bathrobe even thicker and more expensive looking than any she had seen in a hotel, Rell rubbed at her hair with a fluffy towel to dry it. Once she had gotten over the immediate shock of seeing Diana's apartment, the stocky woman had decided the first order of the day was a shower. The six nozzle shower system had taken her by surprise, but she did have to admit, the massage they gave took a lot of the kinks out of a body after hours of being locked up on a plane. Tossing the towel over one shoulder, she padded around the apartment looking for anything that might give her a clue about Diana's current whereabouts.
After combing through the rest of the apartment and finding nothing at all, Rell ended up in Diana's office. She searched each of the cabinets, and felt her way along the bookshelves uncovering nothing of note, except a little dust on the uppermost shelves. Settling herself at the massive oak desk, she turned on Diana's state of the art computer system.
"I doubt there is anything in here. That would just be too easy," Rell giggled to herself as the machine warmed up and ran through its internal checks.
Finally getting to the main screen, Rell opened the file system, quickly running her eye along the various directories.
"Games? That's all you have in here? Just games?" Rell muttered darkly. "Shooting games, puzzle games, logic games, word games. God, at least you're organized about them."
Rell ran several searches, looking for document files or text files that might give her a clue to what had happened to Diana, eventually giving up in disgust.
"I can't believe you, Diana. You pay a million bucks for the most expensive computer on the face of the earth and all you do is play bloody games on it," the stocky woman said aloud as she turned everything off.
A loud grumbling suddenly made itself known from Rell's midsection. Glancing at the clock on the desk, the woman realized it had been several hours since she had last eaten. Knowing she would probably think a little clearer with a full stomach, she walked back to the bedroom to get dressed.
Once she was dressed in her jungle shirt and jeans again, Rell decided to risk the doorman as she headed out of the apartment in search of the nearest restaurant.
Cautiously poking her nose around the corner of the elevator, Rell was surprised to notice the doorman still hadn't returned to his post. Assuming her timing had simply improved, catching those moments when he was busy elsewhere, Rell quickly left the building.
"God, must be my lucky day," she mumbled to herself, seeing a taxi parked right outside the door.
Approaching it, she was amazed to see the broad-shouldered figure of Bet dozing in the front seat. Rell tapped the window to get the woman's attention. One sleepy eyelid lifted, the beginnings of a frown on her face until she saw who had woken her. Bet quickly slid across the seat to open the door of her cab.
"I didn't expect you to still be here, Bet," Rell said, clearly surprised.
"Youse need a driver and I's need a fare. A match made'n heaven iffen youse ask me," Bet replied.
"But I couldn't take up that much of your time, and I don't know if I could pay a fare of that size. I might have to do a lot of running around over the next few days," the stocky woman said, wondering how she was going to pay for everything she might need to do. Just getting back to the US had almost cleaned out her bank account.
Holding up one hand, the woman shook her head. "This'uns Bet's offer. One chance. Take it or leave it. Flat fee, no matter how's long youse need me, no matter where's I's end up driving. I's like interestin' people and youse I's find real interestin'," she said calmly.
Rell laughed delightedly. She was finding Bet pretty interestin' too. "Okay, I'll take it," she replied.
Bet spat onto her palm and then held it out to seal the agreement between them. Spitting into her own palm, Rell shook hands with the other woman. Whatever happened now, at least she had a way of getting around Los Angeles.
"So? Where ya wanna go?" Bet asked as Rell slid into the front seat of the taxi.
"I need to get something to eat, and right now. I feel like my stomach has gone into partnership with my backbone and it isn't a happy marriage," the former photojournalist replied.
"I's know jus' the place, and betta yet, it's dirt cheap."
"Lead on, McDuff. I'm in your hands," Rell answered happily. Eating was always more fun when you had someone to share the conversation with.
Rell wiped a scrap of bread across her plate, mopping up the last of the gravy from her dinner. Bet looked down at the empty plate that had held her own recently completed meal, amazed at how much the woman across from her had just managed to eat. Bet's own meal couldn't have been half the size of the one Rell ordered, but the broad-shouldered woman doubted she would have room left for even a cup of coffee. Rell, on the other hand, was looking hungrily at the dessert menu, trying to decide which of the excellent confectioneries to have.
Bet couldn't resist commenting on the other woman's capacity. "Ya always eat this big?" she asked curiously.
Rell looked at her empty plate and then up at Bet. "Well, yes. I guess I do. I tend to burn it off though, so I don't get much chance to put on any weight. Life's been pretty physical for me the past several months," she replied, remembering just how physical it had been, and how much she had muscled up as a result.
"A life that had somethin' ta do with that friend ya lookin' for?" the cab driver asked, spotting the opening in the conversation. All she had really managed to get out of Rell so far was that the stocky woman was a photojournalist, traveled extensively, and had been in South America for the past several months. That was nowhere near enough to satisfy her curiosity about this 'interestin' woman.
"Uh huh," Rell said. Turning to the patient waitress, the stocky woman order a large slice of cheesecake, piled high with whipped cream and at least five kinds of berries.
"Fin' anythin' 'bout where's she might be?" Bet continued.
Rell sighed dramatically. "Ever thought about handing in your cab license and becoming a reporter? Seems once you get your teeth into something, you're like a bull dog and won't let go," she stated, not entirely unhappy with Bet's persistence.
The other woman's head tilted back and Bet roared with laughter, her perfect white teeth flashing in the neon from the cheap sign outside the window of the café. Wiping the tears from her face, Bet addressed Rell's statement. "T'ain't no one who would much like that. I's know every bad guy in town," she said enigmatically. Looking into Rell's blue-green eyes, she smiled. "But, your friend? Youse know anythin' at all 'bout where's she went?"
"Oh god. You're incorrigible," the former photojournalist laughed in reply. "Okay, I haven't got a clue right now, and I do really need to find her."
"Youse got a history?" Bet asked.
"Might say that," Rell hedged, not willing to give away the relationship between her and Diana.
"So, youse look in that fancy place of hers and don' fin's nothing. What next?"
The photojournalist's shoulders sagged as Rell shook her head. "I don't know. I guess I'll think of something, but right now, I wouldn't know where to start. Los Angeles is so huge and she could be just about anywhere."
Bet thought for a moment, and then asked, "How'd she gets 'bout in LA?"
"Cabs, usually. The traffic is pretty bad here; not that I'm telling you anything there, and she hated driving in it. Said there were too many fools on the road who didn't know enough to get out of her way," Rell answered, a sad smile on her face.
"Hmmm, I's know just 'bout every cabbie goin'. Maybe I's can ask if someone took her someplace?" Bet offered. "What she look like?"
"Well, she certainly is distinctive enough to be remembered," Rell said, going on to give a close description of Diana, pointing out those features most likely to be recalled, including her piercing ice blue eyes. Suddenly stopping to think, she asked, "But how will I contact you if there is any information?"
"Jus' steps outside your door. I's be there," Bet said.
"But how " Rell trailed off, confused.
Hanging her head a little shamefully, Bet answered, "I's sleep in me cab at night. I's kinda between places at the moment. Rents is mostly high here and a simple cabbie likes me can't really affords them."
Rell empathized with the broad-shouldered woman's embarrassment for a moment before the solution hit her. "God, you can stay with me. The apartment is huge and I am sure Diana wouldn't mind, especially if you really can help find her. I'm starting to think she's in serious trouble," she explained quickly.
Bet argued half-heartedly before giving in. Rell's hedonistic description of the enormous, floor-set bath-tub was what finally tipped the balance. Having gotten that settled, Rell's dessert chose that moment to appear, the mountain of whipped cream on top wobbling precariously. Bet tossed her eyes to the ceiling as the other woman began to devour it happily.
After parking the cab in a little side street off the main road, Rell and Bet walked back to the apartment building where Diana usually lived when she was in Los Angeles. Through the wide glass paneling at the front, the doorman could clearly be seen, seated at his desk, reading a book of some kind off his lap.
"Shit," Rell swore. "The blasted doorman is back, and I doubt I am going to get passed him dressed like this. He'll probably think I'm out to rob the place, regardless of the fact I have a key to Diana's apartment. Looks like my luck just ran out."
Looking at the man seated on one side of the foyer, Bet smiled. "That's Angelo. He ain't no trouble," she said.
"Don't tell me, you know all the doorman in town too?" Rell asked, laughing.
"I's know all the importan' people in town," the broad-shoulder woman replied haughtily, turning her nose to the air. "Come on. I's introduce ya ta him."
Walking through the door, Rell trailing along behind uncertainly, Bet strode right up to the desk. Angelo's face lit up at the sight of her, dropping a finger onto the page of his book to mark his place.
"Hi ya, Bet. What can I do for you tonight?" he asked pleasantly, eyeing off Rell suspiciously as she peeped around the big woman's body.
Bet reached behind herself, dragging a reluctant Rell into the doorman's direct line of sight. "This here is Rell. She's good people. Friends of one of your clients. That tall one, Diana. Youse let her come 'nd go, youse hear. Has a key, so youse don' have to be hasslin' her over nothin'. Rell is Bet's friend too," the woman explained.
"Hey, any friend of yours is okay with me, Bet. You know that," Angelo said, nodding a greeting at Rell.
"Youse can jus' get used to seein' me too, Angelo. I's stayin' here for a bit. Diana won' min' and Rell says it's okay with her," Bet finished.
"At least with you, I don't have to worry about counting the silverware unlike some of the so called friends of the owners here. You two need anything, just buzz me. I can get almost anything a body could possibly want," Angelo said, now smiling at both women.
"Thank you, Angelo," Rell replied. "I doubt you'll even know I'm here half the time. I'm pretty quiet."
Nodding their farewells to the doorman, Rell and Bet walked over to the elevators. In the car heading up to Diana's floor, Rell asked quietly, "Is he legal?" The strong Mexican cast of his facial features had made the photojournalist wonder. A lot of illegal immigrants took low paying jobs, such as being doormen because they couldn't legally work anywhere else.
"Yep, he's legal. Third generation. He's studyin' ta be a doc. That book on his lap is probably somethin' for school. Family helps pay for his learnin'. Guess he took this job cause he could study all day once the rich folk had gone off for the day. Anyone left here usually use the phone ta do stuff anyway," Bet explained.
Leaving the car and heading for the apartment, Bet continued, "He already knows more 'bout patching busted innards than I's think is healthy but it's good he wants ta do it. Be the first one ta get through school. Rest of the family pick fruit and stuff. Don' pay much but every spare penny goes ta him. He'll make good on it."
"They must be really proud of him," Rell said as she unlocked the door.
"They is, but more importan', he's proud of himself. That means a lot in the end," the big woman replied.
Entering the apartment, Rell heard a low whistle of appreciation coming from behind her. Turning, she looked at Bet, as the driver's eye washed over the expensive furnishings and the wide view through the windows.
"Some serious scratch here," Bet said, wandering through the living room. "Jus' how'd your friend get so sinful rich?"
"Some kind of family estate is about all I know. I've never really asked her about it. You really wouldn't know she had a penny to see her in South America," Rell replied, deliberately choosing not to mention Diana's mercenary past. The tall woman had changed and that was all Rell ever needed to know about her.
"Hmmm, I's be wondering what kinda family's got this kinda scratch ta toss 'bout," Bet commented. "Yea, this is above rich people stuff, for sure."
Rell stretched slowly in the chair, watching the sun light the valley below. Between her concern for Diana, and finally adjusting to getting up before dawn, she had woken early from a restless sleep. Deciding she didn't want to start moving around the apartment, and possibly waking Bet in the process, Rell had settled in the big chair by the window and simply enjoyed the expansive view.
Rell did wonder about the big woman, though. For someone with such an unusual accent; one Rell still couldn't identify, Bet seemed very comfortable in the luxurious surroundings of Diana's apartment. The night before, the big woman had taken one look at the enormous bath-tub and couldn't get into it fast enough. Rell had listened to her splashing about and singing lustfully, fully expecting the room to be awash by the time Bet was finished. It had been quite a surprise to find the bathroom completely spotless when she had looked in there after Bet had retired for the evening. Even the bathmat had been carefully hung over the side of the tub to dry. It left Rell wondering about Bet's background, and the assumptions the photojournalist was making about the big woman long after she had gone to bed herself.
A quiet rumble from her stomach let her know that breakfast might be a good idea. Walking quietly through the apartment, she put together a quick meal for herself, eating the cereal while leaning against one of the marble counter-tops. Leaving the kitchen to return to her own room and dress, she looked up the hallway and saw the door to Bet's borrowed bedroom was standing open. Curious, she went up and knocked on the door gently, not wanting to wake the woman if she was still sleeping. Getting no reply, she peeped around the edge of the door and was puzzled to see the bed was completely empty. Wondering where the woman might have gotten to, she started checking the other rooms.
Standing outside of Diana's office, Rell could hear the soft tapping of computer keys coming from the room. Pushing the door open with a firm hand, the former photojournalist found Bet sitting at the massive desk, concentrating on the screen in front of her. Rell coughed, catching the big woman's attention.
"Mornin', Rell," the woman said simply. "I's woke up kinda early 'nd thought I might try ta fin' a book ta read. Hey, this is a great computer but all that's on it is games 'nd stuff."
"I'm not sure Diana would be too happy to know someone was touching that without her permission," Rell said a little archly.
Bet blushed before continuing. "I's jus' thought I'd look 'nd see if there was anythin' in here that might help us fin' her," she offered. "Youse know how it is, kinda like in the spy movies. Someone disappears 'nd the hero fin's the most importan' clue in the computer, somewhere."
"It's all right, Bet. I guess I should have told you last night but I did look in the computer files. I didn't find anything other than a lot of games," Rell said, mollified. After all, Bet really was only trying to help.
The big woman smiled. "Ya know, they's sometimes hide them clues in the most obvious places."
"There's nothing in that system that is going to help us. I went through it pretty thoroughly yesterday," Rell explained, wondering if Bet had seen one too many of those spy movies.
"I's wasn't thinkin' of in the computer, more like under it," Bet explained.
Rell chuckled before speaking. "Now, that would be a bit too obvious. If there was anything at all in this apartment that could tell us where she was right now, knowing Diana, she would have hidden it in such an impossible-to-find place that she would be the only one who could possibly figure out where it was. At least, that is the Diana I've gotten to know, anyway."
"I's don' know " Bet replied, casually picking up the keyboard and flipping it over just to see if some secret message hadn't been glued to the bottom.
Rell didn't know who was more stunned. Bet, because her instinct had been correct, or herself because there actually was something attached to the underside of the keyboard. Secured by tape beneath the board was a small key, with a piece of paper next to it. The hiding place was so blatantly obvious, and so completely unlike Diana that she would have been the only one to think of actually putting it there at all.
Having peeled the key from the board, Rell turned it over in her fingers. For the life of her, she couldn't figure out what kind of lock it would possibly open. Bet, in the mean time, had unfolded the little piece of paper and was scratching her head over what was written on it.
"I's not sure what this could be," the big woman admitted after looking at the paper for several minutes.
"Let me have a look. Maybe I can figure it out," Rell said, holding her hand out for the paper.
Written on the note, in Diana's neat handwriting, were five letters, followed by six numbers.
"B, O, A, L, A. 367050. Damn, that's stumped me," the stocky woman said, after thinking for some moments.
"What 'bout that key?" Bet asked.
Rell held it out for the other woman to see, tapping the paper to her lips trying to sort out what the letters and numbers might stand for.
"Iffen I's not mistaken, that's a key ta one of them security deposit box things. I's seen one before," the big woman explained, once she had gotten a good look at the key.
"Security deposit box. Well, that would make sense. Diana obviously has enough money. Probably got valuables of some kind tucked away in it." Pausing for a moment, Rell continued, "Then again, it may very well give us the clue we need to find her. The number is most likely the serial number on the box itself," Rell mumbled almost to herself.
"Iffen those is the numbers to the box thing, then those letters might be the bank, don' ya think?"
Looking at the note again, Rell's finely trained investigative mind suddenly made the connection. "Bank of America, Los Angeles."
"But which one? There must be dozens of branches in LA," Bet asked.
"Great, hairy, horny toads. We can't be driving all over Los Angeles and going to every branch there is," Rell muttered.
"Don' have ta," Bet smiled up at Rell. "This computer is 'net capable. I's can use that ta fin' the box."
"But you don't know the password to Diana's account."
"Don' need hers. Got me own," the big woman replied. "But " she started to say, looking up innocently at the woman standing next to her. "I's could do with some coffee. Iffen I's goin' ta be dashing all over the 'net, I's need somethin' ta fortify me."
"You have your own internet account?" Rell gasped, her jaw almost unhinging itself in astonishment. "But you don't even have a regular living address."
"Don' need no regular place ta live when they's got them 'net cafés set up all over. I jus' use one of them," Bet explained, as though Rell should have known about the existence of the growing 'net café scene. "Everyone who's got any street smarts has an e-mail address. Sometimes, its the only way ta keep track of your near 'nd dear."
Rell simply stood, feeling properly told off for thinking the woman wouldn't know about computer technology because she didn't speak like some college professor. "Okay, I'll get the coffee, while you do whatever it is that gets you on-line," she finally managed to say.
By the time she returned with a tray of coffee and finger foods, Bet had logged on and was busily entering details onto some form. The big woman hit the enter key and almost crowed triumphantly when the address of the bank where the security box was held appeared on the screen.
"Hmmm, right here in the Hills," Bet said after writing the address on a notebook she had found in the drawer of the desk. "There's somethin' neither of us thought of before, Rell. S'pose the clue we's need is in the box, 'nd not jus' some rich people's papers, how do we get it open? It's not like that fancy bank is jus' goin' let us in there ta peek inside, after all. That box is signed ta Diana, and even I knows how fussy them's banks is 'bout letting plain folk do stuff."
"God, I hadn't thought of that either," Rell growled. "Knowing where the security box is held isn't going to help us one bit."
"Aw, squat. Easy ta fix a little problem like that," the big woman said, the twinkle of a conspiracy in her eye. "I's jus' come in the back door 'nd make you the owner of the box. I's think I's can set it up that we's can get to see it jus' one time. Probably get caugh' iffen we tried to look twice, though."
"But hacking is illegal," Rell gulped, knowing hacking into a bank was right up there with the seven deadly sins.
"You t'ain't never done nothin' illegal in your whole life before? Not the teeniest little thing?" Bet asked, one eyebrow raised in challenge.
"Weeeell, I might have stretched the actual letter of the law a few times," Rell admitted ruefully.
"So, stops your worryin'. I's make sure everythin' is right 'nd proper again when we gets back."
Bet picked up her coffee mug, taking a shallow sip of the dark liquid. "Damn, that's hot!" she yelped, quickly sucking cool air into her mouth. Focusing her eyes back on the screen, muttering about how to find this elusive back door to the bank, she reached to put the mug on the desktop, managing to miss it completely. Most of the coffee found its way down the front of Rell thick robe, puddling at her feet.
"Shit! That is hot!" Rell snapped in pain. Holding the robe away from her body, she gave Bet a look that would have stripped paint.
"I's real sorry 'bout that, Rell," the big woman apologized, shoulders drooping.
"It's all right, honestly. Just a little accident, but I had better get out of this and rinse it, or the coffee stains might never come out."
"While youse take care of that, I'll see 'bout findin' a back door ta the bank," Bet offered, sounding completely chastised, even though Rell had only given her a hard look.
Patting one of Bet's broad shoulders, Rell said, "I'm fine. Didn't get burnt or anything. The worst we have to deal with is a few coffee stains and if I'm quick about it, we can probably clean those up without any trouble."
Bet watched Rell leaving the room, a hang-dog look on her face for her sheer clumsiness. She waited until she heard Rell close the bathroom door before turning back to the keyboard. Lifting her head every few seconds to listen for the stocky photojournalist, Bet carefully typed in a very special address and then began the process of changing the name on the security deposit box. The moment she had completed the name change, Bet just as carefully cleared every sign of her activities from the computer's cache system on the hard-drive. Having gotten this close, it would do her no good to let a stupid mistake give her away.
Wearing one of Bet's smallest shirts, belted at the waist, over the top of her own blue jeans, Rell sat for a moment in the big women's cab going over the plan one last time. Rell could feel the butterflies slamming around in her stomach and her hands were sweating so much, she found herself constantly wiping them dry on the thighs of her pants.
"Okay, I go in and present myself to the deposit boxes clerk. Identify myself and they'll take me out the back to where they keep the boxes. I look inside the box and then scamper back out here just as fast as I can," Rell repeated for the third time.
"Yep, that's the plan. Iffen youse not out here in half an hour, I's callin' a lawyer friend of mine," Bet said.
"Oh god. That gives me a load of confidence."
"Youse gonna be jus' fine, only I's gonna kill ya myself, iffen youse don' get that pretty butt of yours movin'," Bet stated, checking how long they had already been parked. There was less than twenty minutes on the meter, and the last thing the big woman wanted was for some snooty parking cop to start poking around her cab.
Rell sucked a deep, calming breath of air into her lungs, twitched the shirt a little more tidily over the belt at her waist, and then stepped from the taxi as though she belonged among the Beverly Hills community. Catching sight of herself in the polished glass at the front entrance of the bank, she was amazed at the artful make-up and hair job Bet had done on her. Somehow, the rough-around-the-edges cab driver had easily knocked five years from her face. Matched with the stylish, though slightly scruffy look of her shirt and jeans, Rell could have been any young adult in the area. Someone with plenty of money, and not a lot of sense.
Deciding to use that image, Rell twittered her way into the bank, spotting the clerk in charge of the security boxes the moment she entered. She breathed a silent sigh of relief when she saw he was a young man and not some dour, middle management type. Wafting towards him, she noticed the way his eyes lit up at her approach.
"Hi, honey," Rell said, her voice just about oozing sensual undertones. "Name's Danielle Connor and there's some things I need from my security deposit box."
Rell pushed herself right up against the young clerk's high desk, giving him a perfect view down the open cleavage of her shirt. Watching the color rise on his face, Rell then winked at him saucily. His fingers suddenly skidded on the keys making the computer beep in complaint.
"Sorry, Ma'am," the clerk apologized, entering her name into the system again, though far more slowly than before. "Do you have some form of identification, Ms Connor?" he asked, finding difficulty dragging his eyes away from the sight of Rell's cleavage. The fact the shirt was open to an almost indecent level probably accounted for some of the clerk's difficulty.
"Will my driver's license do?"
"That'll be fine, Ma'am," the clerk replied, taking the proffered piece of plastic from Rell's fingers. Checking the license against the computer entry, he turned to Rell. "Ummm, Ma'am? There seems to be a discrepancy between your license and your current address."
Rell stood on tip-toe, getting as close to the clerk as she possibly could, looking at the address on the screen. "Oh, that little thing," she giggled. "I was living in my own place for a while, you know. Slumming it. I just had to get away from Mommy and Daddy. They can be so so stifling sometimes. They asked me to come and live back at home again because they missed me, you know. Guess I just forgot to get my license changed when I moved. There were so many things to do, you know. Things are much better now, though. They let me go out with anyone I want and don't try to stop me from having a good time," she explained. "I do so like to have fun, you know."
Rell looked the young man in the eye as she made her last statement, implying that he might be the one to give her that good time. She watched him color up again and shift uncomfortably in his chair. Having flustered him completely, Rell was certain that half the procedures she should have gone through had been conveniently forgotten by the hopeful clerk.
"If you'll just come with me, Ms Connor," he said, his voice pitched slightly higher than when Rell had first approached his desk.
Rell almost bounced along behind the clerk, through the barred door leading to the security deposit area. Taking the number of the box from her, he unracked it and brought it over to the long table running down the center of the room.
"If there's anything you need, Ma'am, anything at all, I'll be right outside," the clerk murmured, trying to sound suave. Instead, he came across like the obnoxious younger brother of an old boyfriend.
"Fat chance you have anything I need," Rell muttered to herself once the clerk was safely out of the well-lit room. "Stupid little testosterone machine. Mother Nature gave you two good hands, use them instead, cause I'm sure not putting out for you," she groused.
Quickly pulling the key from her shirt pocket, she unlocked Diana's security box and lifted the lid. A sinking disappointment filled her stomach when the box revealed itself to be empty. Rell couldn't believe she had gone through all that nervousness; not to mention the sheer illegality of hacking into the bank's computer system, and it was all for nothing. Tipping the box towards her, a single, folded sheet of paper slid along the metal bottom into the light. Glancing over at the door for a moment to make sure she was not being watched, Rell picked up the paper and flicked it open. On the paper, again in Diana's distinctive handwriting, was yet another set of numbers.
"Shit, Diana," Rell swore quietly. "What is it lately with you and bloody numbers?"
Ferreting out a pen and the little notepad from her back pocket, she carefully wrote the numbers down before replacing the original in the security box. Locking the lid, she slid it back into the center of the table and jauntily left the room. Winking at the clerk as she passed him at his desk, Rell quickly left the bank silently thanking Artemis she had somehow managed to get away with it.
"Well?" Bet drawled at the stocky woman as she slipped gratefully into the taxi again.
"Can you believe it. There was only a single sheet of paper in the damned thing and you'll never guess what was written on it?" Rell growled.
"Oh please. Let me guess," Bet said sarcastically. "More numbers."
"God, how'd you know that?" Rell asked, her eyebrow lifting in surprise.
"Cause every time we's fin' one of them bits of paper, it always has numbers on it," Bet replied, starting the engine and carefully pulling into the flow of cars.
"Well, this time I'm pretty sure it isn't another security deposit box we are looking for. I can tell you now though, I have no idea at all what these ones are for," the stocky woman grumbled, trying to ignore the way Bet was weaving in and out of the various lanes of traffic.
"Let me see," the cab driver asked.
Rell held the paper towards Bet, letting her see the numbers she had copied from the note in the box.
"I's know what them is for. Look in me glove compartment."
Curious, Rell dropped the lid. Inside was a mess of crushed city maps, a strange yellow box and one evil looking Magnum .45. The former photojournalist raised one eyebrow at the other woman.
"Told ya, I's sleeps in me cab at night. Woman's gotta take care of herself out here," Bet explained, not the least bit apologetic about the big handgun. "Pass me that yellow thing."
"What is it?" Rell asked as the driver took the yellow box in one hand, still controlling the car's steering wheel with the other.
"It's a Global Positionin' System. Those numbers is for a GPS. With them, and this, I's can tell youse exactly where's that place is." Quickly punching in the numbers with one strong thumb, hardly keeping her eyes on the road long enough to avoid a collision, Bet tapped the enter key and waited a moment. "Says here that them numbers is for a place 'bout fifteen miles west of somewhere called Williams Lake, in Canada."
"Great, hairy, horny toads, Diana, you really get around, don't you," Rell commented. "Guess I must be going to Canada next."
Diana lay uncomfortably on her side, peering through the small gap at the bottom of her blindfold. She had no idea how long she had been there, considering she was spending far too much time unconscious. During those times when she was awake, she did everything she could to figure out where she was, why she was there, and how she could possibly escape. The feeling of carpeting against her skin had long ago been replaced by flattened straw, which supported her weight well enough but the itching as it worked its way under her clothes was starting to drive her nuts.
Her wrists and elbows were still bound with the same tough rope she had woken to the first time. Not knowing how long she had been tied, she was beginning to have some real concerns about any long term damage being done. Whenever she was awake, Diana used every isometric exercise she had ever been told about, pushing one muscle against another, in an attempt to minimize the possible injury.
Her legs were also still bound at ankle and knee, which was making things a lot more humiliating than she thought truly necessary. Although the loop binding her legs and arms together had been removed, allowing her some freedom of movement, it simply wasn't enough to permit the tall woman to attend to the most basic of her needs. She had long ago closed her mind to that particular indignity. Diana just hoped she would get a chance to clean herself up before some kind of infection set in.
Someone had also kindly removed the gag, allowing her to take food and water, which was contributing to the problem of trying to deal with basic needs. The tiny gap at the bottom of her blindfold did give her a chance to catch a quick glance at whoever it was doing the actual feeding, seeing she couldn't do it for herself. Although to be honest, Diana wouldn't have been the least bit surprised if they had simply tossed her meals into a dish and expected her to eat it like a dog.
At sunrise and sunset every day, a vacant-eyed youngster appeared with a dish of food and a bottle of fresh water. Diana had tried several times to talk to the girl but whatever personality she might have had was long ago beaten out of her, or simply lost under a haze of drugs. Drugs, Diana was getting to know all too well. The teenager would slowly feed her, carefully holding the bottle so Diana could drink her fill. Once her task of seeing to the woman had been attended to, the youngster left again.
Each night, about two hours after sunset, a very well dressed man would enter the building and inject the tall woman with something that sent her back into that nightmare world of drug dreams. Just before dawn each day, she would wake again, soaked in sweat and feeling as though someone had kicked the side of her head. It was usually mid-morning before that headache wore off again. At least, she thought only the night had passed. Trying to guess how long she truly slept was impossible. For all she knew, 48 hours or more could have gone by while she was locked away with those horrific memories.
The routine had not varied in the least over the past several days, and Diana was starting to think whoever had brought her here was simply trying to break her spirit. "Fat chance," she mumbled aloud, twitching a little in the straw to find a slightly less uncomfortable position.
The first few days, Diana had laboriously felt her way around the little area where she was held, unsure of exactly what the room was used for. Aside from the covering of straw, there was absolutely nothing in the area at all. Solid wooden walls were bare of anything for as high as she was able to reach, with her hands tied behind her back. At one point she even used the back of her head to search above the level of her bound hands. Kicking at the walls experimentally had gotten no result either, other than tiring her more than she was happy with.
She helped pass the long, lonely days after that by watching any activities outside the building through a tiny crack in the boards. By tilting her head the right way, Diana could just see what was happening from beneath the gap in her blindfold. She also used her ears to her advantage, listening to any conversations in the yard beyond. Judging from the way the sound carried to her, Diana estimated she was several hundred yards from the main house itself, certainly not close enough to hear a great deal happening inside.
Diana also found herself mentally going over everything she could remember about Rell, reliving every detail of their all too short times together. The last time she had actually seen the former photojournalist, Rell had been in the clearing waving to the tall woman as she left for this trip. The ex-mercenary had been away a lot longer than she had anticipated as she criss-crossed the country searching for any with Amazon blood in their veins. The mental image of Rell, dressed in the short, split-to-the-waist leather skirt of the Amazons and intricately tooled boots, a hunter's breast band modestly covering her chest helped Diana keep her mind from screaming off into the darkness of insanity.
She minutely recalled every detail until she could bring the image to mind regardless of what was happening around her. The little spot of sunburn on the end of the stocky woman's nose and the way her red-blonde hair was growing out, plaited together now into a short braid. Diana counted every single freckle dusting the other woman's chest and memorized the odor of the skin between her breasts. She smiled remembering the way Rell trained with her staff each day; volunteers to be her partner never slow in coming. The blur of the wood in her knowledgeable hands had turned Rell into a formidable fighting force, fully capable of taking someone's life if she so chose.
And there were gentler moments together too. The sight of Rell working on her parchments; adapting to the use of a quill as easily as anyone else would have used a ball point pen, Diana sitting nearby reading a scroll. Both of them taking long walks through the jungle surrounding the Amazon village, simply enjoying each other's company, reveling in whatever time they had together. Soaks in the hot springs that always seem to turn into water fights as the stocky woman tried to win, just once against Diana, who seemed able to breathe underwater. The two women sitting together on the rim wall watching the colorful sunsets over the jungle canopy.
Diana sighed deeply. Damn, she missed Rell, not that she would have wished this particular situation on anyone, least of all the tough little photojournalist who had stolen Diana's heart.
She's probably wondering what has happened to me by now, Diana thought. Maybe, she's come back to the States to search for me. That would just be her style. These slime balls are not to be messed with, if the way they are holding me is any indication. I hope she brought someone with her though, Antigone or Latona perhaps. The Amazon warriors might not be of much use in the civilized world, but they'd be hell to stop in a fight.
The sound of footsteps echoing along the floorboards approaching the area where she was held, let Diana know she might have a fight of her own to deal with. In all the time she had been awake, no one had ever come into the building during the day. It was unusual enough to send the adrenaline rushing through her system as she prepared to defend herself as much as possible, considering her bonds. At least she wouldn't dislocate her shoulders this time now the restraining loop of rope had been removed. Tensing, she waited in her blindfolded darkness.
"Phah!" a deep masculine voice spat the moment the door was unlocked and opened. "We gotta clean this one up before we take her to the boss. How anyone can let themselves get this way is beyond me."
Like I was given a choice about it, you buzzard, Diana thought, trying to place the position of the man who had spoken.
Diana could hear at least three other people rustling around in the straw with the deep voiced man, and she readied herself to kick out. She never got the chance as unseen hands descended on her from four sides. Arching her back she tried to break their grips, she was savagely punched on the side of her head for her trouble.
"Settle down, woman. You're just going to have a bath and then a nice chat with the boss," a lighter tenor said near her now ringing head. A whiff of his after-shave identified him as the man from the plane who had covered her with a blanket just as she has slipped into unconsciousness again.
Diana was carried out of the building and into the sunlight. She could feel the warmth against her skin, a welcomed sensation after being locked up for so long. She hoped she might be left alone for a few moments once they untied her so she could bathe, her mind already planning ahead, trying to see the possibilities. Diana was sadly mistaken about what constituted a bath among these thugs.
Stopping suddenly, Diana felt herself being swung to one side and then the unbelievable shock of being dropped into the ice cold water of a large trough. Several pairs of hands grabbed her and sluiced her up and down roughly in the water the same way one might scrub a particularly dirty shirt. Diana had immediately clenched her teeth together as the shock of the freezing water threatened to force the air from her lungs. It was pretty clear whoever was 'cleaning' her up wasn't all that concerned with how much of the liquid she might swallow.
Finally, Diana's shaking body was pulled from the water, and she was carried some distance into another building. Dumped a little roughly on a stone floor, she struggled to get her shivering body into a sitting position. Teeth chattering together from the cold lancing its way down to her bones, Diana turned her head from side to side attempting to hear what was going on around her. She could hear the sound of breathing and some foot shuffling but very little else.
"My, my. Will you look at how the mighty have fallen," a cultured female voice said from in front of the dripping woman.
Diana's head snapped up at the sound. She knew that voice, and hearing it meant she was in a lot more trouble than she had first thought.
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