Warnings/Disclaimers: This story contains violence. It also depicts a loving--and sometimes not-so-loving--relationship between two women.
The Loyal Warrior
Thalia wanted to stretch her cramped muscles, but she didn't want to disturb the woman who shared her bed. She looked down at the golden hair spread across her shoulder and breast and gently brushed it aside so she could see the face it framed. Skin lightly freckled by the sun, contrasting sharply with Thalia's own. Soft heat wherever fair skin met tan. Red lips, parted slightly, resting tantalizingly close to the nipple they had teased and suckled a short time ago. So sweet in sleep, Thalia thought, Memtholope, warrior of the Amazons, consort to the queen. As if responding to her name, even in her lover's thoughts, the small woman opened her eyes, eyes green as any emerald, but gentler than that comparison could suggest. Memtholope looked into blue eyes that did sparkle with the clarity of a gem.
"I was thinking about how glad I am to have you, Mem," the queen said, using her childhood name for her companion. "And wondering how you, so small and fair, could be of our people."
"My father was Greek, my queen, a war captive. My mother chose to couple with him because, although small in stature, he had fought bravely." Memtholope sat up, and Thalia immediately missed her warmth and weight. The queen decided, however, that the view was worth that small loss. Completely naked and lacking all modesty in front of her lover, the small woman reached up to push her tumble of hair from her face. Her round breasts seemed to invite kisses as their nipples, firmed by either the coolness of the air in the tent or by Thalia's nearness, stood out from the pebbled aureoles.
"I know all that," Thalia reminded her. "I was living with your mother, who was my foster mother, at the time. Although I wasn't yet ten, I thought that Greek a poor choice for a sire. I figured, if a daughter resulted, she would be too small and weak to be a warrior."
"Could my queen have been wrong?"
"Yes, but then I wasn't the queen yet, was I? Although small, you have the fierceness in battle of your mother and a quickness owned by none other of our tribe." Thalia, unable to resist their allure, sat up and gathered both of her companion's breasts in her hands. "I fell in love with you the instant you were born and carried you on my hip for more months than your brave mother-warrior carried you in her belly. You were my little sister--until you became more." Thalia made her choice, the left, and kissed that breast tenderly before taking the nipple between her teeth. She felt more than heard the growl that began in her throat as she nipped and pulled at the tender flesh. Memtholope raised to her knees and, feeling the bites as both pain and passion, began to thrust her hips toward her lover. Without breaking her assault on the nipple, Thalia slipped her right hand between the small woman's thighs. Already so wet. She rubbed her fingers across the slippery flesh, gently at first, then roughly, as Memtholope parted her legs farther and thrust with more force.
As the small woman put her hands on the queen's shoulders to steady herself, Thalia released her nipple and pushed her backward on the bed. Thalia knelt across one strongly muscled thigh and pressed her own center, molten with passion, against that limb. Generously, Memtholope shifted, adjusting her movements to help her partner reach her climax, but Thalia would not be distracted from her original purpose. The queen pushed her fingers deep within her young lover's tight passage, thrusting and withdrawing, slowly and deeply at first; then, when Memtholope began to moan and thrash and cry out words intelligible only to the one who drew them forth, her thrusts grew fast and hard until, when the young woman could clearly take no more, she pressed her thumb against the hard button she had until that moment ignored. Memtholope went completely still and silent; but an instant passed, until every muscle in her body went rigid, and, her back arching, she screamed out, as if in agony, "Thalia! Oh, my love!" Overcome by emotions evoked by no other, the queen followed this climax with her own and, crawling over her lover's body, dried the swiftly falling tears with kisses and with her own dark hair.
The council had been called to consider the matter of a small war. All the blooded warriors were there, those who had earned a place in the great circle by taking the life of an enemy in battle. This northern tribe being one of the larger Amazon remnants, all that remained of the once-great Amazon nation, and war being their normal way of life, there were almost sixty warriors in the circle, over half of the females in the tribe. Queen Thalia, dressed for battle, except for the addition of the silver girdle, her sign of office, which was worn only in council and on ceremonial occasions, stood and motioned for quiet. It was instantly silent around the circle, and the queen looked with pride upon her warriors. She met each pair of eyes, from those of the youngest, Caereb, blooded last month in a skirmish with the river dwellers, to the oldest, Marucia, now more a healer and wise woman than a warrior, but whose youthful exploits were still recounted around the fires of the Amazons. The last eyes that she sought were those of Memtholope, loyal warrior of the queen, by her own inherited rank within the tribe entitled to sit upon Queen Thalia's right. The golden warrior smiled, and the Amazon leader began to speak.
"Hear me, oh warriors of the tribe of Craessippe, Amazons of the Northern Lands. There has come upon us a danger which we must not ignore. Into our lands these last three summers have come men from the tribes of the Greeks. They call themselves Thracians, and they say they have come in peace. What they bring, however, is not peace, but destruction. These men plow up the long grasses that pasture our herds of horses and call these areas of ruin 'fields.' They cut down the forests that shelter the game we depend on for food and use the wood to build houses that cannot be moved and call those houses a 'town.' Now they are cutting a wide path into the bosom of our mother earth, following not the trail left by the deer, but a way of their own choosing, a way that will lead many others of their kind to our land. Men such as these, men of 'peace,' have surrounded our sister Amazons of the South, leaving them poor and landless, lacking either horses or game."
She stopped speaking and waited until a soft murmuring had spread around the circle. Then she again held up her hand for silence.
"We could drive these men from our lands as we have done other trespassers in the past. However, when they felt that we had forgotten about them, they would creep back, as field mice creep into our tents when we have retired for the night. There is only one way to assure that these men, these Thracians, do not return and do not bring more like them to destroy our land. We must kill them all."
A few of the younger warriors stood and would have cheered, but, realizing that their elders sat gravely, they folded their legs beneath them and were silent, also.
Marucia stood and responded first. "Queen Thalia, I would speak on this matter." The queen nodded respectfully. "There are only a few of these men, these farmers. When would we attack them? And how long would this war likely last?"
The queen answered with the respect due the old warrior. "As you wisely have said, Mother, these men are few. What we will fight will be more of a battle than a war and best completed as soon as possible. I will lead our warriors against the Thracians as soon as the vote has been taken."
No one else rose immediately, and young Caereb, who had never before spoken in council, hesitantly stood up. "Queen Thalia, I would speak on this matter," she pronounced, her voice low.
The queen smiled. She remembered her first speech before her elders and betters. "Speak, warrior."
Caereb stood more proudly upon hearing this appellation from her queen's lips. "My queen, although I know it is presumptuous of me to speak before the council, my sisters who were initiated with me have asked me to request a boon of you."
Thalia knew that Caereb was the only one of the most recent warrior initiates, all born within the same year, who had been blooded. "You may request this 'boon,' for your sisters, and, if I can, I will grant it."
"My sisters have requested that we be allowed to join in this battle." Although her cheeks were dark, as were those of most of the Amazons, a blush could still be detected under the tanned skin, as she formed the rest of the request. "And we would like to be allowed to go into battle at the front of the warriors. And on foot."
The queen considered. By going in with the first of the warriors and on foot, rather than mounted, the youngsters would greatly increase their chances of killing an enemy. As well as their chances of being themselves cut down. Thalia answered, her tone kind, but firm, "Tell all of your sisters that they may join the battle. However, they will go in with the third wave of warriors and are each to be mounted on a battle-trained horse provided by their true mothers or foster mothers." Knowing the ways of the young, having been an unblooded warrior herself not too may years ago, she fixed Caereb with a stern look. "And they will remain mounted throughout the battle. If one of them returns without her mother's horse, all will be punished."
Caereb nodded and hastily sat down.
Thalia looked at her with some measure of surprise. The fair warrior rarely spoke at council although, when she did, her high birth and brave exploits in battle assured that her words would weigh greatly with the other Amazons. The queen remembered that Memtholope had asked the evening before to speak privately with her about the Thracians. She smiled at the better use she had made of her consort's "private" time.
"Queen Thalia, I would speak on this matter."
"It pleases me to hear your voice in council. Speak, loyal warrior."
Memtholope dropped her head for an instant, then looked around the circle. "Our queen has spoken wisely about the ways and intent of the men who have come upon our land these last three summers. They come with the word 'peace' upon their lips, but, as with all men who live freely, without restraints placed upon them by strong women, they have treachery in their hearts."
There was nodding around the circle of warriors. All knew that only as slaves could men be trusted--and then only to the length of the chain that bound them.
"As our queen has said, these men from the South, these Thracians, already till our meadows and cut down our forests. Since they have begun to build wooden houses, they stay in the winter as well as the summer and use yet more wood to heat their large dwellings. Some have already begun to bring women and children with them and to live in those houses together as 'families,' as is their, although not our, custom."
Memtholope paused, as if to let the very strangeness, the otherness, of these Southern invaders find its way into the minds of her listeners.
"Our queen suggests that we attack these Thracians and wipe them from our land in one battle. That is certainly one way to settle this problem."
One way? There was a brief spate of murmuring among the warriors, and Thalia's eyes vainly sought her consort's.
"As the wise warrior Marucia has said, there are only a few of these men, and they are farmers. Where will be the honor for the tribe of Craessippe, for the Amazons, in fighting such as these? Where the nobility in slaughtering men and women and children who know nothing of the arts of war? And, if we do kill them, will not more Thracians come, this time with many men who are not mere farmers and who know as well as we the arts of war? If we ignore honor and kill these Thracians now, so many of our young women will die in the years to come that there will be too few to hunt the land we save."
Her words hung heavy in the air, especially in the small space that separated her from her queen.
Although Memtholope had not seated herself to indicate that she was done speaking, tall Jeletha, known for her hot temper and love of battle, stood. Without asking the queen's permission, she shouted a question at the fair warrior. "Should we then leave these farmers alone and let them continue to rape our land?"
Memtholope softly answered, "Yes. Leave them alone." She raised a hand, and her quiet dignity stilled the stirrings among the circle. Finally, Jeletha sat down, and Memtholope continued. "As you know, the last four years have been unusual in their mild winters and long, warm summers. It was during this time that the first Thracians visited our land and found it good for their purposes. Wise Marucia, have you ever known a warm time such as this to last longer than four years, five at the most?" She waited until the elder had shaken her head no. "We who have lived here all our lives and who have learned the ways of this land from our mothers and they from their mothers have a hard time surviving the true winters of this land. Do you think that these men of the southern lands, with their great firepits that eat wood like a wolf eats rabbits, will survive even one such winter? Or, if they do survive, will stay for another?" No one answered aloud, but their expressions revealed their answers. "We know why our people are hunters and why we grow so little of our food. It is tradition and inclination, to be sure, but it is also because our summers will not support the growing of great fields of crops. That is why the Southern Amazons, who also love to fight and to hunt, have among them full-time farmers, but we do not. When our usual weather returns in a year or two, the Thracians will die of cold or starvation--or they will leave--and no more of their kind will come. We need only wait." As if surprised that she had said so much, Memtholope abruptly sat down.
Thalia, who had seated herself, now rose. She stared for a long moment at Memtholope, whose head was down. Then the queen asked, "Would any other warrior speak?" No one else stood. "Then we will take the vote. All who wish to attack the Thracian settlement stand." The queen looked around the circle and made a quick tally. Then she counted again. Thirty-five of the warriors were standing. This was just over half. Never before had a war proposal passed by so small a margin. Memtholope looked up finally and met the queen's eyes. The queen held her gaze for several moments, then looked around the circle of warriors, who were again seated and awaiting her battle orders.
"We will attack the invaders when the sun is behind our backs," she said. "I will lead the first charge, followed by the warrior Jeletha's group." Jeletha's head lifted at this announcement. Leading the second cohort was a great honor, one usually bestowed upon Memtholope. "The rest of you will follow the usual order of battle, except that Caereb and her sisters will accompany Marucia's group in the third wave."
The warriors, even those who had not voted in favor of the war, were clearly restless, their blood stirring to the pulse of battle, but the queen did not dismiss them to their preparations. Instead, she continued to speak. "There is one more matter I must bring before the council of warriors. This is a matter within my authority, and it is presented to inform you, not for a vote. There is a rule among our people that all blooded warriors may speak in council. However, in doing so, they must show respect for the authority of the queen and for the traditions of the Amazons. If a warrior speaks contrary to the judgement of the queen, and the queen's judgement is upheld by the counsel, then that warrior may be held to have acted without respect, without loyalty. Is that not true, Marucia?"
Marucia seemed to struggle for her voice. "Yes, Queen Thalia, that is the rule. But no one has invoked it for many years, and then only when revolt was being urged. You cannot mean to. . . ."
The queen ignored all but the elder's first words and turned to the woman she had called "loyal warrior" such a short time ago. "Memtholope, warrior of the Amazons, rise." The small woman rose and looked up at her queen, her beloved. "I find that you have spoken in this council without respect for myself or for the traditions of the Amazons. Your penalty will be this, to be taken from this circle to the punishment frame and there to be publicly flogged. You will remain bound and in public view until sunset, at which time your punishment will be over. Do you have anything you wish to say, warrior?"
"Yes, my queen."
"Say it then, but be careful you do not turn disloyalty to treason."
"Would you delay my punishment until tomorrow so that I may join my Amazon sisters in today's battle? And, since Jeletha will lead my cohort, may I ride by your side?" Memtholope raised her eyes, which had been lowered, and Thalia's, as cold and hard as the blue gems they resembled, searched her face for some sign of weakness, for some appeal for mercy. Seeing none, the queen nodded and walked from the circle.
The Amazons made no attempt to hide their approach or their warlike intentions as they galloped toward the Thracian settlement. Queen Thalia rode in the front of the battle line, her black mare snorting and prancing, neck arched, as eager for the smell of blood as her mistress. At her right was Memtholope riding a brown mare, like herself small and quick, and her favorite mount, having been a gift from the queen.
During the last few months, the farmers had put up a low stone wall around their new town, and Thalia motioned for her warriors to stop a few paces before this wall. There she waited, both for the following waves of warriors to take their battle positions and to watch the Thracians scurry about their small compound. She saw that most of the men carried "weapons" better put to use in the field and forest. There was a woods some distance beyond the wall on the opposite side of the settlement, and she noted that three men were running from the woods. Each of them carried a long bow.
Thalia turned to her left. "Sharma, I see bows. I thought that all of these men were farmers." Her manner made it clear she was not really worried about men with bows.
The warrior she had addressed studied the men, who were still far from the wall. "Our scouts mentioned that there were hunters who keep the others supplied with meat. They are not fighting men."
"Sharma, when we attack, take a couple of experienced warriors with you and go after those men. I don't want them out there shooting into the settlement. They might accidentally hit someone." Sharma rode to the end of the battle line to get two of her friends to "volunteer" for this duty.
With one glance over her shoulder to see that her other warriors were in position, Thalia gathered up her reins in one hand and swung her battle axe above her head. "Attack," she screamed. "Kill the invaders!" The warriors in the first wave kicked their horses and, yelling their war cries, swept toward the settlement. Thalia in the lead, the warriors' horses cleared the low wall with nearly a man's height to spare. Most of the defenders broke and ran and had to be chased down before a battle axe or sword could separate them from their lives. A few men stood and fought and so were even more easily killed. By the time Thalia led her group back the way they had come, signaling that the second cohort could attack, there were few of the enemy still breathing. Jeletha, finding no one to kill, ordered her warriors to light torches from a cookfire that was still burning. These torches they threw on the roofs and against the walls of the wooden houses and sheds, which quickly caught fire. A few women and children ran from the burning dwellings. It was usually the Amazon way to take noncombatants captive to serve as slaves or sacrifices. However, since Queen Thalia had made clear that no Thracian was to be left alive, the women and children were quickly run down and dispatched.
The third wave of warriors had reached the stone wall, and Thalia stood up in her stirrups to signal for them to stay where they were. There was no work for them in the settlement. As she did so, another horse suddenly jostled hers, and the queen turned to admonish the careless warrior. But the warrior was Memtholope, and, although she was managing to stay in the saddle, the long shaft of an arrow protruded just below her collarbone. There was a cry from beyond the far wall, and Thalia turned to see that one of her own warriors had ended the threat that more arrows would come from that direction. Sharma's horse leaped the wall, and that warrior, holding aloft the head she had just taken from its owner, charged toward the queen. "This is the last of the hunters," she shouted, then stopped, as she saw that she had accomplished her mission too late. "Memtholope," she said. She dropped the head into the dust stirred by her horse's hoofs. "I'm sorry, my sister."
Memtholope took a shaky breath, then straightened in her saddle. "Don't worry about it, Sharma. You got him; you just need to work on your timing."
Marucia jumped her horse over the low wall and approached the queen and her companions. She leaned toward Memtholope and then, without warning, snapped off the greater portion of the shaft. The young woman managed to stifle her gasp, but she glared at the healer, who turned from her and toward the queen. "I saw what happened," she told the Amazon leader. "You were turned away from the far wall when the man stood up and shot the arrow. He was clearly aiming at you. Memtholope must have seen him just as I did, because she forced her horse into you and pushed you out of the arrow's path."
"And took the arrow herself," Sharma added. "Well, he paid for it. I took his head just as he released his bowstring." She looked at the blood pouring down the front of Memtholope's tunic. "You want to ride back to camp with me? Maybe Marucia will be nice and go along to cut out the rest of that arrow."
Memtholope looked toward her queen, who nodded permission and added, "We'll all be returning to camp shortly. To celebrate our victory." Memtholope and Sharma rode to the wall and jumped it, the golden-haired woman ignoring the pain that was starting to throb with every movement of her horse. "Marucia, wait a minute. I need to tell you something." The queen made no attempt to conceal her words from the Amazons inside the settlement's walls. "Take good care of Memtholope's wound. Make sure she is ready to receive her punishment tomorrow."
Marucia studied the queen for a long moment before turning her horse to follow the two young warriors.
It was late afternoon before Thalia ordered Memtholope taken from the healer's tent to the punishment frame. Usually used in the training of recalcitrant slaves, the frame consisted of two upright posts set in the ground and a sturdy crosspiece over which hung two woven ropes. At one end of each rope was a wide leather cuff through which passed thongs that could be adjusted to tighten or loosen the cuffs. Accompanied by Marucia on one side and Sharma on the other, and dressed only in a short blue tunic, Memtholope walked calmly to stand beneath the frame's crosspiece. She faced a half-circle of nearly seventy Amazons, standing four or five deep, with the older council members in the front rank and going back according to battle honors until the last row, where stood Caereb and the newly initiated women.
The warriors parted briefly to let the queen and the tribal enforcer pass through. The enforcer carried a wide leather strap, chosen from a wide array of straps, whips, and chains kept for the flogging of slaves and the rare criminal. Having warned that this particular strap would cause deep and painful bruising all across the prisoner's back, the enforcer had been surprised that the queen had chosen it. The queen, however, had been interested in but one characteristic of this punishing instrument, that it would not cut and thus scar Memtholope's back, as would a whip or narrower strap.
"The unblooded women should not watch the flogging of a warrior," Marucia stated.
"Let them stay," Thalia responded. "Let them see the cost of disloyalty." Marucia patted Memtholope on her unwounded shoulder and, with Sharma, walked to stand in the first rank of the silently watching Amazons.
Thalia nodded to the enforcer, who walked past Memtholope to stand behind her. She reached for a leather cuff and for the warrior's left wrist. "Strip her first." The enforcer, who was, after all, another Amazon, stared at the queen. Strip an honored warrior, as if she were a slave or thief? "I said to strip her." Before the enforcer could move, Memtholope pulled the drawstring at the front of her light blue tunic and allowed it to fall to the ground. As her friend stepped out of the tunic, Sharma walked forward and lifted the garment from the dirt. Clutching it to her, she returned to her place. This left the golden-haired warrior standing naked before the other women, her only covering the snowy bandage on her right shoulder.
The enforcer placed a leather cuff around each of Memtholope's wrists and laced the thongs securely. "Relax," she whispered, covering her words by facing the small warrior and pretending to fuss with one of the cuffs. "It will go easier for you if you don't fight the ropes." The enforcer motioned for one of the warriors to help her, and Jeletha stepped forward. The enforcer and Jeletha each took hold of a rope and pulled slowly and smoothly, lifting Memtholope's cuffed wrists above her head until the small woman between them could barely reach the ground by standing on her toes. The enforcer said softly to Jeletha, "Slowly and stop when I do." Each woman pulled once more on her rope, and Memtholope's feet left the ground. Quickly, the enforcer tied off her rope at one of the upright posts and then did the same with Jeletha's at the other. Heeding the enforcer's words, the small woman had not struggled as her arms took the full weight of her body, but the pain, especially in her wounded shoulder, almost made her cry aloud. Later, Jeletha would deny that, as she returned to her place with the watchers, tears clouded her own fierce gaze.
Thalia, who had watched this procedure with no sign of emotion, commanded, "Twenty lashes, laid on well. Begin."
There was an audible mumbling among the warriors, who had, until then, been completely silent. Twenty lashes? The customary punishment for offenses that had cost neither life nor limb was ten lashes. Twenty lashes? For what? For words?
"Begin," the queen ordered again, and, with the landing of the first lash, the warriors were quiet.
"One," said the enforcer, and she was already administering the next blow. "Two."
Sweat broke out on Memtholope's fair forehead as the enforcer intoned, "Three."
"Four, five, and six," found the warrior still able to keep from crying out, although a gasp escaped her on "seven." She regained control by biting down on her lip and, although a thin line of blood resulted from that strategy, she was able to keep quiet through "eight," "nine" and "ten." By this time, her shoulder wound was bleeding, and a small amount of the red liquid had soaked through the layers of bandage.
One of the young initiates at the back of the group of Amazons cried out at this point and, covering her face, turned her back on the proceedings. At the crack of leather on flesh that signaled "eleven," she walked into the nearby forest and kept walking until she could hear no sounds from the encampment.
"Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen." The bandage was now completely blood-soaked, and several of the battle-hardened veterans were looking down at their feet instead of at the punishment. "Fifteen."
"Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen." At last unable to stop herself, Memtholope was now crying out softly at each blow. The queen and the warriors could not see the young woman's tender back, but the enforcer could. Reddened by the first blows, it was now an angry purple, blood pooling beneath the layers of skin and threatening to burst forth if either of the next two blows caused a cut. "Nineteen" didn't, but "twenty" did, and, although the wide leather strap had cut her only that one time, Memtholope's bright red blood splashed on the enforcer's hands and then ran down her own back and legs to wet the dust her feet could not reach. The enforcer looked at her hands and at the strap and then, dropping the strap on the ground, she walked away from the frame and swore silently that she would never again beat another person, man or woman, slave or free. But she knew in her Amazon heart that she would never disobey an order of her queen.
All Thalia said was, "She may be taken down as soon as the sun sets." Then, she, too, left, but she was the only one who did. The other Amazons, warriors and initiates, stood silent vigil as the shadows of the frame and its prisoner grew longer and longer until the sun finally disappeared, leaving only a bloody glow in the western sky. Then a dozen pairs of hands gently lifted a small, unconscious form, and a knife cut through thongs to quickly release the leather cuffs.
"Take her to my tent," ordered Marucia, and this was done, the light body laid face down on Marucia's own bed. "Leave us," the healer said, and all left except for Sharma.
At the elder's glare, Sharma explained, "We were sister initiates together and promised never to abandon the other to trouble."
"Then make yourself useful. Mix the powder in this bowl with water to make a thin paste." Marucia handed a small bowl to the warrior, who quickly followed her directions. Together, the two Amazons, old and young, worked to help one they each, for separate reasons, loved.
"How is she?" Marucia looked up to see the queen standing in the entrance to her tent and staring at Memtholope, who lay unconscious, a white cloth covering her back.
The older woman bit back a sharp retort. "She'll live. If she doesn't get a fever. And she won't, if I have anything to say about it."
"Leave us," the queen said to Sharma and, after exchanging a glance with the healer, the young woman went to stand right outside the tent entrance.
Thalia moved farther into the healer's quarters and looked at a large bowl that was filled with dark and clotting blood. "She bled that much? I told that fool not to cut her."
"She bled some from the one cut the enforcer made. I made these cuts." Marucia briefly lifted the cloth to reveal a large X that covered the bruised and swollen flesh of the small woman's back. "The blood needed to be let out so it wouldn't poison her. Don't worry, my queen, the cuts aren't deep and there will be very little scarring to mar your consort's looks."
Thalia said, "I doubt that she's my consort now." She walked closer and touched her lover's forehead. "You, of all people, know that she had as much claim to be queen as I did. She stepped aside and let me be chosen unopposed. I wonder if I would still be chosen after today."
"There are mumblings against you because of this," Marucia admitted. "She is very popular. For her courage on the battlefield. And her kindness off it."
"If she asked to challenge me, the council would grant it."
"If she killed me in my tent, they would still welcome her as queen." Marucia didn't answer this, knowing it would never happen. Thalia petted the long, golden hair. "I couldn't allow her to show me disrespect. Especially her." Squaring her shoulders, the queen walked from the healer's tent and wished for the first time that Memtholope had been the queen and she the warrior-consort.
Days and nights of pain separated Memtholope from full consciousness as her mind and body struggled to heal themselves. Slowly, the fog that both confused and protected her lifted, and she knew herself to be in Marucia's tent, and she knew that what had happened between her and the queen had not been a mere nightmare. Too soon to suit the healer or her new helper and pupil Sharma, Memtholope sat and stood and then tried to move around the tent. Her healthy, young body began to heal itself, but her mind was not at ease, and she could not rest. Sharma offered to let her move into her tent, but Memtholope shook her head. "You need a lover in your bed, not an old friend. I saw Caereb's eyes upon you the last time we were on the practice ground. Perhaps she needs a place to live."
Sharma shook her head, but she grinned. And each time Memtholope brought up the subject, she found herself a little more willing to entertain the idea until one day her grin was so wide that Memtholope, forgetting her healing injuries, jumped up and thumped her on the back, one warrior to another. After that, Caereb often accompanied Sharma to the healer's tent, but only in the evenings, to listen to Marucia's tales of the glory of the Amazonian nation in the time before the Greeks. Marucia found this the best of times since her own youth, to have three valiant young warriors hanging on her every word and swearing with their shining eyes to live up to the honor of their ancestors.
After the story-telling was done, and Sharma and Caereb had left, each smiling that secret smile of new lovers, Marucia would sit for a while with Memtholope until she pretended to believe that her patient was asleep and then sought her own bed. One evening, unable to either sleep or to lie awake upon her bed one moment longer, Memtholope arose. She didn't need to check that Marucia slept, her soft snores testifying to this fact. Fighting against the pain and weakness that still besieged her, the blonde warrior walked slowly out of the healer's tent and across the Amazon encampment. One or two guards surely saw her, but no one questioned the warrior, as she approached and then entered the queen's tent.
Queen Thalia was asleep on her back, her dusky hair fanned out around her beautiful face. But her sleep was troubled, as she moved as if to get away from some danger or perhaps from her own thoughts. Mumbled words passed her lips, although her silent watcher could not make out their meaning. >From her bosom, Memtholope pulled a small dagger, the only weapon she had carried since being whipped on the orders of the woman who lay before her. A gift from her true mother at the time of her initiation, its sharpness had long been as undisputed as her love for Thalia. She studied its point but found her senses drawn to the sight, the sounds, the sweet and salty scent of the dark-haired beauty. "Wait," she whispered, seeming to speak to the dagger she lay gently by the bed. Softly, carefully, the fair warrior lay on the bed beside her lover and moved until her cheek rested on the shoulder and chest that had cushioned her slumbers for so long. As the two bodies settled into their accustomed positions, the two minds found peace and quiet rest as well.
It was long past dawn, the sounds of the camp signaling that the day's activities were well under way, when Thalia opened her eyes. She stroked soft golden hair and hoped that this pleasant dream would last as long as the bad ones had. The warm body resting against hers stirred, and Thalia found herself looking into the brilliant green eyes of her lover. "Please don't make me leave yet," Memtholope whispered. "Let me stay with you like this for a little longer. Then I will do anything you want."
"What do you think I want?" Thalia asked. Besides having your slight weight upon me like this. Your beauty and goodness in my bed.
"When you ordered me to be flogged, I didn't understand at first," Memtholope said. "Then I remembered something that my mother taught us: 'Choose death over disloyalty.' I knew that you were remembering the same thing. That's why I asked that you let me ride into battle at your side."
"I don't understand."
"I knew that you would not be able to put me to death and that even flogging me would be very hard for you." Memtholope started to sit up, but Thalia grasped her arms and pulled her back down, not willing to separate from her. "So I rode into battle hoping that I would find a way to relieve you of your obligation."
"Relieve me of . . . ." Thalia realized what her companion meant. "You were going to let the enemy kill you."
Memtholope nodded. "But it really wasn't much of a battle, was it?"
"No, it wasn't."
"All that enemy could manage was an arrow in my shoulder."
"That arrow was meant for me," Thalia reminded her. "You saved my life."
"Maybe," the young woman hedged. "Anyway, if you'll just let me rest here with you a little longer, I'll do what you want. 'Choose death before disloyalty.' My dagger, gift from the woman who taught us both about honor, rests within my reach, and its next sheath will be my heart." She sighed in contentment as Thalia pulled her closer. Even the pain in her half-healed back was worth it, as her queen wrapped her in a fierce hug. The memory of this embrace would be her warm cloak in the next world.
Struggling to keep her voice under control, Thalia asked, "Do you remember when I told you I had been wrong--once?"
"Yes." Memtholope pulled back far enough to look into the older woman's face. "It was when you said I was too small to become a warrior."
The queen was crying and, not realizing it, she didn't try to hide her tears. "Well, Mem, I was wrong again. Twice in one lifetime isn't so bad, is it? I was wrong when I said that you had shown disrespect, that you were no longer loyal to me. You said what you did because you wanted me to lead our tribe only along honorable paths. You could never be anything but my loyal warrior." At Memtholope's smile, which broke through her concern like the sun from behind a dark cloud, the queen's tears turned to laughter. "But you were wrong, too."
"Yes, wrong about what I want from you."
The queen sat up and, balancing her young consort on her thighs, she held her close, wishing that she could truly become one with her. "I don't desire your death. What I want is you beside me, in peace and in battle, for the rest of my life. I want you to tell me when you think I'm right and when you think I'm wrong. And, from now on, I'll listen." She kissed red lips, a lover welcoming her beloved home. Then, pulling back, she looked upon Memtholope as a ruler upon her dearest subject. "There is to be no more talk of your deserving punishment or nonsense about sheathing your dagger in your heart. Is that understood?"
Memtholope nodded, but, when she opened her mouth as if to argue, her queen closed it with a kiss. "Tomorrow, I will settle this matter."
"Thalia. . . ."
Another kiss, one that ended with a deep growl from Thalia's throat. She sighed. "Ah, Mem, I wish I had the words to tell you how much I love you. If not for the wounds my anger inflicted, I would show you now." Her eyes never leaving her lover's, Mem rose to her knees on their bed. Slowly she unfastened the front of her white garment and shrugged it off. Having been for so long, by her own actions, deprived of the sight of such beauty, Thalia sat motionless, drinking it in.
Taking a deep breath, Memtholope turned and, still kneeling, asked, "Am I ugly to you now? Too ugly to touch?"
The sight of the reddened and puckered scars of the twentieth lash and of the "X" drawn by the healer's knife brought tears to the queen's eyes. Unable to speak without betraying her sorrow, Thalia answered by tenderly tracing each mark, first with gentle fingers, then with her lips. Then, reaching for the small figure before her, her heart nearly breaking at its slight weight, she pulled into her lap the person dearest to her in all the world. And rocked her as a mother would rock a child who was lost and who now is found.
When she could trust herself to speak, Thalia said, "I swear that you will never again be hurt by my hands or at my order. Can you trust me again?"
Lulled by the gentle rocking and feeling that she had indeed come home, Memtholope was fighting to stay awake, but she murmured, "As always, with my life."
"Then make me a promise, my loyal warrior, that you will follow my next order unquestioningly and, no matter what I do to make up for my crimes....yes, my crimes in the Thracian village and in my treatment of you..."
Memtholope came fully awake and tried to sit up, but Thalia continued to hold her close.
"....my treatment of you," Thalia repeated, "you will not interfere."
"And after you do whatever this is, we'll be together?"
"Yes. Queen and consort." She hesitated, unsure as never before. "If you still want that."
"Oh, yes." Mem smiled and relaxed against her lover, her queen. Thalia rocked her and stroked her fine blonde hair until she slept. Home. Home at last.
Memtholope and Thalia had slept together until long past dawn, then lain peacefully and gratefully in each other's arms until everyone else in the camp was awake and about their business. Word having spread that the queen's consort had entered her tent during the night and had not left, there seemed to be a hush about the Amazons' activities, as if the whole tribe were holding its breath. Finally, steeling herself for what she hoped was their last separation, Thalia stood and reluctantly pulled her favorite, her love, to her feet. Before Memtholope could protest, Queen Thalia said, "Please go to the healer's tent and stay there. Tell Marucia I need to speak with her."
It was late afternoon when Thalia sent Marucia to bring Memtholope to the punishment frame. Accompanied by Marucia on one side and Sharma on the other, and followed this time by Caereb, she was dressed in her full battle regalia, absent only her weapons, Memtholope walked calmly to stand beneath the frame's crosspiece. She faced a half-circle of nearly seventy Amazons, standing four or five deep, with the older council members in the front rank and going back according to battle honors until the last row, where stood the newly initiated women.
The warriors parted briefly to let the queen and the tribal enforcer pass through. The enforcer carried a wide leather strap, chosen from a wide array of straps, whips, and chains kept for the flogging of slaves and the rare criminal. Having reminded her that this particular strap would cause deep and painful bruising all across the prisoner's back, the enforcer had been surprised that the queen had chosen it. The queen, however, had insisted on the strap that had been used during the last flogging.
"The unblooded women should not watch the flogging of a warrior," Marucia stated.
"Let them stay," Thalia responded. "Let them see that all who err and so harm the honor of the tribe of Craessippe must pay a penalty." Marucia patted Memtholope on her right shoulder and, with Sharma and Caereb, walked to stand in the first rank of the silently watching Amazons.
Memtholope stood at attention, facing her queen. "What words will persuade you not to do this? What actions? I'll drop to my knees and beg, if that will change your mind."
Speaking so that only the one dearest to her could hear, Thalia answered, "Begging would make me cry, embarrassing me in front of my warriors, but it would not change my mind--or heart." She spoke louder. "Loyal warrior, you have sworn to follow my next order unquestioningly. This is my order: take your place among your sisters." More quietly she added, "I'll need your help, but later."
The small blonde warrior nodded at her queen and walked slowly to stand beside Marucia, in a place of honor among the other Amazons.
Thalia turned to face the tribe and nodded to the enforcer, who walked around to stand behind her. She reached for a leather cuff and for the queen's left wrist. "Strip me first." The enforcer, who was, after all, one of her subjects, stared at the queen. Realizing the enforcer's dilemma, Thalia pulled the drawstring at the front of her light blue tunic and allowed it to fall to the ground. As her queen stepped out of the tunic, Sharma walked forward and lifted the garment from the dirt. Returning to her place, she handed the tunic to Memtholope, who clutched it to her. The dark-haired queen stood naked before the other women.
The enforcer placed a leather cuff around each of Thalia's wrists and laced the thongs securely. "Relax, my queen," she whispered, covering her words by facing the woman and pretending to fuss with one of the cuffs. "It will go easier for you if you don't fight the ropes." The enforcer motioned for one of the warriors to help her, and Jeletha stepped forward. The enforcer and Jeletha each took hold of a rope and pulled slowly and smoothly, lifting Thalia's cuffed wrists above her head until the tall woman between them could barely reach the ground by standing on her toes. The enforcer said softly to Jeletha, "Slowly and stop when I do." Each woman pulled once more on her rope, and Thalia's feet left the ground.
Someone cried out, and Thalia's eyes searched out those of her beloved. "Loyal warrior," she mouthed, and Memtholope fell silent.
Quickly, the enforcer tied off her rope at one of the upright posts and then did the same with Jeletha's at the other. Heeding the enforcer's words, the queen had not struggled as her arms took the full weight of her body, but the thought that she had inflicted this pain on her beloved nearly made her faint. Jeletha returned to her place with the watchers, tears clouding her own fierce gaze.
Thalia, both queen and prisoner, commanded, "Twenty lashes, laid on well. Begin."
There was an audible mumbling among the warriors.
"Begin," the queen ordered again, and, with the landing of the first lash, the warriors were quiet.
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